It all starts one March afternoon, with Lucas flopped across Mark’s bed flipping through his battered copy of The Great Gatsby. He had recently gotten his license, and Mark took full advantage of his best friend privileges to skip 6th period and head back to his house. Mark’s parent’s both worked at a hospital in the heart of Gangnam and oftentimes weren’t home till late, so that meant days like this weren't uncommon. Not that Lucas minded — senior year was mostly a breeze since college apps were all done and now it was just a waiting game till graduation. That didn't discourage Mark from dragging Lucas on little adventures too, before the eventuality of adulthood sucked them into responsibility and other such things.
But on this day it was strangely silent. Mark usually sang while playing his guitar or filled the silence with his usual musings about something or the other. Mark was predictable in that sense. Silences were not his thing, awkward or not. So Lucas continued to pretend that he couldn’t see the figurative cogs turning in Mark’s head as he leaned back in his chair, playing the same three notes again and again.
“Hmm?” He replied. The music had stopped, and he didn’t bother looking up at Mark, who was most likely now chewing his fingernails. Lucas kept his hands on the book and waited.
“I think my dad is cheating on my mom.”
The silence stretched taut and thin as Lucas turned to look at Mark. His face was pale and his fingernails slightly bleeding from how he had been abusing them over the course of the day. The anxiety was seeping off him in waves was a far cry from the relaxed demeanor he usually presented.
It was hard to imagine Mr. Lee, who had basically raised Mark on his own during his wife’s residency and acted more like a father to him than Lucas’s ever had, having an affair. The same Mr. Lee who had baked him a birthday cake for his 16th birthday, while his parents were going through a nasty divorce and hadn’t had the time to pay attention to him. But if Mark suspected something, then there must have been a reason for it.
“He said he was going to Jeju for a conference.” Mark’s lips wobbled and he began studying his nails like they were the most interesting thing in the world. “I found reservations for a couples getaway, but Mom’s working this weekend.”
He leaned over and pulled a crumpled flyer out of his guitar case, presenting it like it was someone’s puked filled shoe. The startling pink flyer in his hand advertised a Love Filled Weekend in garish red print, accompanied by small lettering underneath that stated keep the fire burning. It’s so ridiculously ugly that it takes the last of Lucas’s composure, sending him into a laughing fit. The whole situation was ridiculous. But Mark glared at him, lips starting to wobble in a way that signaled that this wasn’t the time for Lucas to be acting out. So he swallowed down the giggles and schooled his face into neutrality.
“Mark, I don’t think Mr. Lee would ever go all the way to Jeju to keep the fire burning with someone who isn't your mom.” Mark showed no signal that he had heard his words, and continued staring at the flyer as though it had personally wrecked his happy family. Lucas grabs Mark’s hand to distract him from tormenting his nail beds, rubbing soothing circles on his wrist. He’d never seen his best friend this worked up over anything before.
"It might not even be like that, you said he's at a conference right? He might just be scouting out a place for their next anniversary."
"Mark." he called again softly. Mark's face crumpled as he tore his gaze away from the flyer. His grip tightened so much that it was almost painful as he pleaded, "Drive me to the airport. I just need to see it for myself." He smiled at Lucas, but it was sharp around the edges, like a marionette whose strings had been pulled a little too tight.
The drive to the airport was silent. Mark stared out the window and didn't hum or even move to turn on the radio like on any other day. It was jarring to see Mark like this, the same Mark who loved to sing and carried a notebook just to scribble song lyrics on almost everywhere. As the reality of the situation slowly sunk in, Lucas really hoped that he wouldn't come to regret taking him to Jeju.
The lady at the help desk stared at them with a bored look in her eyes. She didn't look twice at the school uniform Lucas was still wearing in his haste to get Mark on the next flight to Jeju. She just asked them for their IDs and the method of payment. Lucas paid, keeping it together enough to remember that Mark's dad got the credit card bill statement each month. Mark was too out of it to consider the problems that would cause. He was still holding Lucas's hand, which set off alarm bells in the back of his head -- not that he minded though
Mark really wasn't one to be physically affectionate, especially in public. Lucas was usually the one initiating any contact, with Mark shrugging it off or cracking a joke about it. It was just another one of those Mark things that his brain filed away for later use. The attendant handed their tickets over after finding them the 4 p.m. flight out -- the earliest they could leave on such short notice.
Mark continued to hold his hand all through the flight and even the taxi ride to the seaside resort. Only when they reached the reception desk did he let go, quietly conversing with the receptionist for Mr. Lee’s room number. Mark quickly created a fake story: he was here to help his father surprise his mother for their 20th wedding anniversary, but his father had forgotten to tell him the room number. He couldn't call him because he didn't want to ruin the surprise. Couldn't the receptionist help him out just this once? "Aww. You must be such a good son to help your father plan something like this." The receptionist cooed at the two of them as she clacked away on her keyboard, red nails glinting under the harsh lighting of the lobby.
"I see one reservation here under Peter Lee, does that sound right dear?" She looked up at them. Mark's face became even paler than it had been on the flight. He nodded once, a jerky movement that could barely even be called one at all.
"They'll be in Room 2103 on the 4th floor, last door on the right. Good luck with your surprise." She smiled at them.
Mark sprint walked to the elevator and jabbed at the button for the fourth floor. His mouth was pursed and he stared at his shoes as the elevator stopped at each floor. The elevator doors finally opened at their stop, and he didn't even wait for Lucas to catch up as he ran down the hall to room 2103.
When Lucas caught up, Mark was standing deathly still, hands curled into the fabric of his jeans and knuckles white. The sound of a woman’s laughter was coming from the other side of the door. Mark's hand shook as he raised it to knock on the door.
Lucas grabbed it before he could. There was nothing that would come out of confronting Mr. Lee like this, even more so now. Lucas was sure, certain even, that whatever lay behind the door would destroy Mark's perception of his father beyond repair. He tugged on Mark's hand and dragged him to the elevator, ignoring Mark's feeble protests. There was nothing he could say that would convince Lucas to let go at this point anyway.
It's not until they're sitting in the taxi on the way back to the airport that Mark starts to cry. It's gut wrenching, the way the sobs seem to spill out of him, and Lucas can do nothing but hug him as his body shakes.
"It's going to be okay." But it sounds false coming out of his mouth, coating his tongue with a sort of heaviness that doesn't come easy. Lucas prides himself in being good with his words, but even that seems to have left him now, alone with Mark in the backseat of the taxi. He sticks to providing physical comfort in any way that he can, especially since Mark is this vulnerable.
They get on the returning flight to Seoul and Lucas lets Mark take the aisle seat, just in case he feels sick and needs to go to the bathroom. He also asks the flight attendant for a blanket, and the man takes one look at Mark's swollen eyes and returns with a cup of ice and a fuzzy blanket that says AIR JEJU in bright orange letters.
Mark's grip on his hand loosens as he tucks the blanket around himself, hiding his face from the rest of the passengers. He looked embarrassed for showing this much emotion in public, although Lucas had tried his best to shield him with his body.
"I don't know what to say to my mom."
“Please don’t,” he said in a rush. Mark burrowed into the scratchy blanket like it could protect him from everything. Like it could protect him from the words they both knew Lucas had been swallowing down since he first met Mark Lee in the first grade, since he was first hit by the shining sun that was his presence. His face was blank and he tightened his grip on Lucas’s hand as he ripped his heart apart. The icy feeling in his stomach spread through his body, so much so that Mark’s light hold on his hand began to burn. "I can't lose you too."
The words sat heavy in the pit of his stomach, a reminder of what would never be. Even before, when there had been a delicate balance between them. Lucas had hoped -- no, that wasn't the correct word -- he had prayed with every fiber of his being that Mark shared even a fraction of what he felt towards him. And now, in the cramped seat of an $18 flight to Jeju where he had almost laid himself bare, he felt his world come crashing down around him. And oh, that voice in his head was now whispering what a terrible friend he was. How could he be throwing a pity party when Mark’s life was crumbling around him? How could he be so selfish ?
Lucas shifted his gaze away from Mark's still trembling figure and tried to focus on the passing clouds outside the window. He had been so sure of his place in Mark's life that even if his feelings weren't returned, he could still be in Mark Lee's orbit as a friend. He hadn't factored in other chances, possibilities that could erupt if precarious lines drawn between them were crossed.
He found himself dropping Mark off and going home in a haze. He didn’t even bother taking off his uniform, although the events of the day still clung to him like a second skin. Lucas tried to welcome sleep, but it evaded his grasp as his mind began churning out different scenarios of what could have happened if he had just kept his mouth shut. It eventually came like all things anyway.
The next morning, he checked his phone for his usual good morning text from Mark but found it unusually empty. Lucas tried not to let his anxiety get the best of him and chalked it up to the stressful events of the previous night. It would be very understandable if Mark didn't want to talk to anyone at this time. Even more so for Mark to not want to come to school today. It wouldn't be very helpful for Lucas to assume that he would continue to act normal. It would be best for him to give Mark a little space.
So he got ready and drove past Mark's house on the way to school. Both of the Lee’s cars were gone, signaling that Mark's dad had probably driven him to school today. Lucas let out a sigh of relief at that. Maybe they had seen wrong at the hotel. Or maybe the events of the previous day were all just some messed up dream. Student parking was at the end of the street just past the school gate, giving him a perfect angle to see Mark holding hands with the junior captain of the basketball team, Jeno Lee.