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January 2, 2021

“Hey, so, I was thinking.”

“That’s never a good sign.”

The look Mark shoots him from where he’s hanging upside down over the side of Johnny’s bed is unimpressed. Johnny offers him a salacious grin in response.

“Anyway,” Mark continues. He’s tugging nervously at the hem of his shirt, like he’s worried it will ride up while he hangs. It’s nothing Johnny hasn’t seen before, but Mark gets weirdly self-conscious about his body sometimes. It’s one of the only things Johnny considers off-limits when he’s teasing. “Anyway, I was thinking, like. Maybe I should open an Instagram account?”

This surprises Johnny, and he can feel it reflected on his face with the way his eyebrows raise. “Really?” he asks, trying not to sound too incredulous. “You? An Instagram account?”

Mark pouts. It looks even more ridiculous upside down than it normally does. “What, do you think it’s a bad idea?” he asks.

Johnny remembers when he opened his account, remembers the way Mark had watched wide-eyed over his shoulder as he’d painstakingly chosen a photo and keyed in the caption. Mark had always said he was worried he wouldn’t have anything interesting to post, that the fans would be disappointed, which Johnny always thought was ridiculous. Mark’s one of their more popular members; he’d probably break Instagram if he opened an account.

“I don’t think it’s a bad idea,” Johnny says diplomatically, “but you used to be really worried about it. I guess I was just surprised you changed your mind.”

Mark’s face is turning an unsightly shade of red, though Johnny’s not entirely sure if it’s from gravity or embarrassment. He nudges Mark with his foot, which makes Mark yelp and roll over onto his front, before clambering back onto the bed properly.

“Dude, gross,” he mutters, rubbing at the back of his head where Johnny had nudged him. Johnny rolls his eyes.

Mark settles back against the pillows, big eyes staring back at him in the dim lighting from the single lamp on Donghyuck’s side of the room that Johnny had turned on when they’d arrived. When Johnny had first met Mark, those eyes used to look at him with wide-eyed curiosity and a healthy dose of hero-worship. Now, Mark looks at him with admiration and—longing. Johnny’s not blind to the way Mark’s feelings have changed over the years, but he’s held his own at arm’s length for some time now.

Mark is NCT’s ace, SM’s Golden Boy. Johnny refuses to damage those reputations on something he’s not certain will be a long-term thing. So he waits. He waits and he watches and he lets Mark come to him at his own pace.

“I don’t know,” Mark says, ignorant of Johnny’s spinning thoughts. “I just thought it would be a nice way to stay in touch with fans. Not everyone can use Bubble and I feel bad that our fans don’t see us very much because of the pandemic. I don’t know, but if you think it’s a bad idea, I won’t do it.”

Johnny sighs and rolls his chair closer to the bed. Mark spends a lot of time thinking of their fans. “I told you, I don’t think it’s a bad idea,” he says, resting his forearms on his knees. “I just don’t want you to be stressed about it, that’s all. You don’t have to give to the fans all the time. You’re allowed to keep things for yourself, Mark Lee.”

Mark hums. He flexes and points his toes, black socks stark against the white duvet on Johnny’s bed. Finally, he asks, “You’ll help me, right? Like, with pictures and stuff?”

Johnny shouldn’t. He knows his own heart: knows that the photographs he takes are just a reflection of his soul—the world through his eyes—and when he looks at Mark, he knows everything is rose-tinted. Johnny’s told himself for a long time that he won’t impose his feelings on Mark before Mark is ready, but—

—but he also knows that he can’t resist the draw.

“Of course, Markie,” he says, offering Mark a genuine grin that’s reflected back to him on Mark’s own face. “It’d be my pleasure.”

 

 

January 20, 2021

Mark comes bursting into Johnny’s room at 10 in the morning while Johnny’s still in bed and Donghyuck’s nowhere to be found. Johnny gets a cursory warning of Mark yelling, “Hyung!” before he’s being tackled as Mark launches himself onto the bed.

“Mark, get off,” Johnny grumbles into his pillow.

“Hyung,” Mark repeats excitedly, bouncing lightly from his perch on top of Johnny’s chest. “Guess what?”

Johnny tries to ignore how difficult it is to breathe, though he’s unsure if it’s because of Mark’s weight, or the fact that it’s Mark. “What?” he grumbles.

“Management said I could open an Instagram account! So, today, you have to help me like you promised.”

Johnny had had grand plans of lying in bed and maybe playing some computer games later in the day. If it were up to him, he wouldn’t be leaving the dorm, but Mark seems eager to get out and be productive.

“Okay, well, did you decide on a username?”

Mark looks stricken. “A username?” he repeats dumbly.

“Yeah, dude,” Johnny says. He can’t help but laugh at Mark’s expression, so he gently rolls Mark onto the bed and smothers him with the duvet. “Lie down for a bit,” he says. “We’ll go out and take pictures when you’ve figured out what you’re going to name it.”

It’s a moment of weakness, Johnny knows, but he’s sleepy and warm and knows that this is a good way to tamper some of Mark’s excess energy, bring him down a level so that they match. Mark huffs and wriggles around, but only so that he can work the duvet back over the both of them and tuck himself more comfortably into Johnny.

“Can’t I just call it, like, marklee or something?”

“No, be more creative. There’s probably a thousand accounts with some variation of marklee in their name, half of which are probably just fans.”

“Hyung,” Mark whines, the sound buried somewhere into Johnny’s chest. “Help me out, here.”

Johnny can feel sleep tugging at his conscience again. He hums, pats Mark’s bum affectionately and says, “Do a pun or something. C’mon, Mark, you’re a smart kid.”

Mark’s quiet for a long time. Johnny can feel the way his breath is starting to even out. “You going to fall asleep on me?” he asks, like he’s not halfway to dreamland himself. Like having Mark in his arms—in his bed—is not a dream in and of itself.

“Maybe,” Mark mumbles. The energy that he’d entered the room with seems to have disappeared quickly, much to Johnny’s relief. “I was up early. I had a dance practice and then the meeting with management.”

“Go to sleep, then,” Johnny says.

Mark yawns, breath hot against Johnny’s chest. “Okay,” he says. I’ll race you.”

Johnny can’t help but laugh, fond and a little exasperated. He shouldn’t let himself have a moment like this, but it can’t be helped. When they wake up later, the softness of the moment will be gone and they’ll go back to the teasing, silly relationship they’ve built up the last few years. The safe haven, bordered by the line that Johnny keeps toeing.

“You’re gonna lose,” he tells Mark.

“Whatever you say, hyung. On your mark, get set, go.”

 

 

January 27, 2021

“Jesus,” Johnny mutters, mashing the Follow button on Mark’s instagram account page. The button turns momentarily blue, but when Johnny refreshes the page he’s back at square one again. “Your fans are rabid.”

Mark chews nervously on the straw of his iced coffee. “Is that—okay?” he asks.

Johnny rolls his eyes. Mark had been jittery all day, trailing after Johnny in ways that he hasn’t done since their rookie days, like Johnny is a safety net that he keeps coming back to. Johnny’s not entirely sure how to feel about that.

“I mean, in the grand scheme of things, no,” Johnny says, because rabid fans usually leads to lack of privacy and boundaries, “but in this case, yeah. You opening your account has basically made the app malfunction.”

He feels Mark’s chin dig into his shoulder and suppresses the urge to turn to face him. Their faces would be so close. Johnny could kiss his temple or something equally as sappy. Mark’s not paying attention, though, eyes trained on Johnny’s phone. He reaches out and pushes the following button.

“Look, see, it’s fine,” he says, so Johnny pulls down on the page to refresh it, showing Mark when the button reverts. “Oh. Huh.”

“Huh is right,” Johnny says dramatically, flopping backwards so that he crushes Mark underneath him. Mark squawks. “I just want to follow my baby on Instagram, is that too much to ask?”

Mark laughs, though it sounds a little strained, so Johnny shifts so that he can flop down on the bed next to Mark. He keeps refreshing the page until he notices something’s changed on it.

“How the fuck did Doyoung manage to follow you and I’m still waiting?”

He expects Mark to start laughing again, but instead he’s staring at his own phone, refreshing his Instagram page just like Johnny. He looks worried though, his eyes tracking the follower count that keeps ticking up by the thousands each time he refreshes the page.

Johnny bites his lip. He was afraid this would happen, but watching it unfold in real time is harder than imagining it. Carefully, he sets his phone aside and sits up so he can bump shoulders with Mark.

“Hey,” he says carefully. When Mark doesn’t say anything, he reaches over and gently takes Mark’s phone from his hands and locks it. It’s a new iPhone, one that Donghyuck had needled Mark to get for ages until Mark had finally caved. He still comes to Johnny asking questions about how to use it occasionally, which Johnny finds endearing.

Johnny doesn’t think he’ll ever get over being Mark’s go-to shoulder to lean on.

“Dude,” Mark says quietly, hands twisting together now that Johnny’s taken his phone away. “There’s, like, a million people following me. I opened the account, like, three hours ago.”

Johnny remembers watching the follower count on his own Instagram skyrocket when he’d first opened it. “Told you people would be interested,” he says instead of any of the more gentle things he could offer.

“Oh my god, what if I disappoint them?” Mark asks, covering his eyes with his hands.

Johnny hates that Mark seems to constantly feel like this, like he has to make other people happy before himself. In moderation, it’s a great quality: selflessness, but in excess it’s detrimental. Johnny’s seen Mark work himself up enough times over little things to know how Mark’s brain works in situations like this.

“Then it doesn’t matter,” Johnny says, slinging an arm across Mark’s shoulders. Mark glances up at him, skeptical. “No really, I mean it.”

“But what if they don’t like what I post?”

Johnny laughs. “Dude, Jaemin hasn’t posted anything since Make A Wish promotions ended, practically. If you post anything at all, people will be happy.”

Mark chews on his lip, contemplative, so Johnny continues. “Look, this isn’t like Bubble. The fans aren’t paying to access these pictures. You’re not obligated to post, and you’re not obligated to post content that you think will be more interesting for the fans. You opened this account for yourself, and people can follow or not and it won’t cost them a thing. So, post whatever you like.”

It takes a long moment, but finally, the tension bleeds out of Mark and he slumps against Johnny. “Okay,” he says. He sniffs a little, then turns so he can hug Johnny awkwardly. “Thanks, hyung.”

This time, Johnny gives into his impulses and presses a kiss to Mark’s head. “Yeah, any time,” he says. He picks up his phone and hits the follow button again, then refreshes it.

“Any luck?” Mark asks, muffled in Johnny’s shoulder.

“None at all,” Johnny replies with a sigh. He drags his laptop over from where it’s been perched precariously on the side table. “Want to watch something?”

“Sure,” Mark replies, though he makes no move to shift from where he’s curled into Johnny’s side. “You pick.”

Johnny can’t help the fondness that blooms in his chest. He’s happy to give Mark a safe place to hide, but he’s glad that he can pull him out of his weird thoughts, too. Johnny’s pretty sure Mark’s never disappointed a single person in his entire life; he’s not going to let him start now.

“Okay. Let’s just watch an old episode of Friends or something, then,” Johnny says. He pulls up a random episode and sets it playing on the laptop, though he can’t be bothered to pay much attention.

Mark’s shifted a little so he can at least peek at the screen, but mostly he stays with his head tucked against Johnny’s chest. It feels—domestic and intimate, two feelings Johnny tries his best not to associate with Mark, lest he let his brain fall down a rabbit hole. Still, he lets himself cave for a moment, brings his hand up to the soft hair at the nape of Mark’s neck and rub gently. Mark melts even further into him.

“That feels good. Thanks, hyung,” Mark says, but Johnny can tell he’s saying thank-you for more than just the neck massage.

“Any time,” he replies quietly. His lips tingle, as if urging him to kiss Mark again, but he refrains. “Seriously, any time.”

 

January 29, 2021

Johnny tries his best to tamp down on his feelings, but it’s hard when Mark clings to him like a limpet. His feelings bloom inside him, like flowers bursting through the frost-covered ground, and Johnny keeps finding himself staring at Mark’s mouth more often than not. Luckily, Mark doesn’t seem to notice.

They go through ups and downs, times when all they want is to be close to each other, and then they’ll go a couple of weeks where it’s almost grating to spend any time together. Johnny guesses they’re on the upswing of this, considering Mark has once again found his way into Johnny’s bed before noon.

“What?” Johnny mumbles. He realizes, suddenly, when Mark slides a hand across his rib cage, that he’s not wearing a shirt today. It had been too hot when he’d gone to bed.

“Can’t a dude just want to cuddle another dude?” Mark asks, but the joke falls flat, mostly for how—timid Mark sounds. Johnny takes a deep breath and braces himself for whatever bout of insecurity Mark’s going through now.

“It’s only been two days. Relax,” he says, rolling over to squash Mark underneath himself. Normally, Mark would protest. Instead, he sinks into the mattress.

“But how often should I be posting?” Mark asks, muffled. Johnny can feel his breath fan against the tattoo on his shoulder, the light brush of Mark’s lips as he talks. He represses the shudder that threatens to run through him and tries to sink back into sleep.

“I told you, Jaemin hasn’t posted since Make a Wish. If you don’t drop another photo for, like, three months, it’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, but I should still post more often than that, right? I know Jaehyun’s trying to do something aesthetic with his account but I don’t think I want that? So I can just. Post whenever, right?”

“If you’ve got it all figured out, how come you’re here crashing my beauty sleep?”

Mark stutters, and Johnny knows if he weren’t lying on top of Mark right now, he’d try and bolt. Johnny knows that, next to disappointing someone, Mark’s worst fear is to inconvenience them, too.

“What are you going to post next?” he asks, petting sleepily at Mark’s hair. Mark sighs quietly.

“Uh, I don’t know. That’s also sort of why I came.”

Johnny hums. He’d helped Mark with the first photos, too; just a couple silly pictures that helped play off of Mark’s username.

“So, what? Am I your personal Instagram photographer now? I’m not getting on the ground for the perfect angle like TY does.”

Mark giggles, breathless and high-pitched. “Hyung likes me better, I guess.”

Not true, Johnny thinks. Or, maybe it is. Johnny’s pretty sure that crushing on his groupmate is not exactly high on the list of Good Behaviour. Taeyong likes Mark the normal, expected amount. Johnny’s just taken it to the extreme.

“Go bother him, then,” Johnny says, rolling off of Mark. “He’s still in bed, too, I’m pretty sure.”

Mark hums, but makes no move to get out of Johnny’s bed. He fiddles with the strings on his hoodie, tucks his hands under the blankets and comes back with his phone a moment later.

“How about a selfie?” he asks, though he’s staring at the ceiling as he does so.

“That sounds good,” Johnny replies. “Fans love selfies.”

Mark turns his phone over in his hands. “Where should I take it?” he asks.

Selfishly, Johnny’s sleepy brain says, “Uh, how about right here?”

Mark turns his head to look at him warily. “Here?” he asks. “Like. In bed?”

Johnny shrugs. He feels the blanket slip off his shoulder and watches as Mark’s eyes track the movement. “Sure,” he says. “Why not? No one will know the difference.” The except me goes unsaid between them.

“I—oh, okay,” Mark stutters. He goes through the motions of unlocking his phone and opening the camera app, trying to find the best angle for it. Johnny watches him snap the photo, then leans in to see it. Fairly average, nothing spectacular.

“Okay, hold on,” he says, sitting up, the blanket pooling around his waist now. Mark swallows audibly. Johnny reaches over and tussles a hand through Mark’s hair. When he’s done, he can’t help but notice how—debauched Mark looks. It’s a thought he doesn’t like to linger on.

“Dude,” Mark complains, but it’s not heated.

“Okay, now drape an arm over your head—no, wait, I changed my mind. Just your hand. Like this.” Johnny rearranges Mark’s hand so that it’s artfully draped across his forehead. Then he presses Mark’s phone back into his hand from where it had seemed to have fallen during the staging.

“I look ridiculous,” Mark complains as he stares at himself in the screen of his phone.

“No, you look sexy,” Johnny says, propping himself up on an elbow to watch as Mark tilts the phone for a better angle. “Your followers are going to spontaneously combust when they see.”

Mark frowns. “I don’t want them to spontaneously combust,” he says. “That sounds—messy.”

Johnny laughs. Mark takes another couple of photos before handing the phone to Johnny. Without much thought, Johnny angles the phone and snaps a picture of the two of them.

“Hyung!” Mark exclaims, looking a little scandalized. “I wanted you to look at the pictures I took! I can’t post that.”

Johnny snickers. Besides the fact that he’s shirtless in the picture, Mark’s face is fixed in an unattractive, contemplative look. Not his best showing.

“Fine, fine,” he says, scrolling through the photos Mark took. After careful contemplation he says, “Post these two,” and shows the ones he’s selected to Mark.

“They look the same,” Mark complains, but he’s already opening the Instagram app and selecting the two pictures.

“Yeah, that’s the point,” Johnny says. “It’ll be fine.”

Mark’s thumbs hover over the screen as he contemplates the caption. Johnny half expects him to ask for his help again, but in the end, all Mark asks is, “Will you comment on it? When I post it?”

Johnny blinks. “Sure,” he says, reaching for his phone on the headboard. “What do you want me to say?”

Mark shrugs. “Whatever you want, I guess,” he replies. “I just want—I don’t know. It’s hard when it’s just posted and there’s no, like, genuine interest in it, you know? It’s just people all hitting like because it’s a new picture.”

Johnny’s surprised by Mark’s introspection, but he shouldn’t be. Mark being in his bed right now is proof of how much he’s been thinking about his Instagram account since he opened it.

“Sure,” he says, softer, less teasing than he would’ve been half a minute ago. “I’ll be the first comment, Markie.”

Mark exhales slowly, thumb hovering over his screen while Johnny opens his own app and navigates to Mark’s page. “Okay, ready,” he says, and Mark hits post.

Johnny refreshes the page and immediately, the picture loads. He feels his throat go dry for a moment, finds himself caught up in staring at the grainy quality of Mark’s selfies and how—content he looks. Knowing that it was taken in Johnny’s bed, right next to him, sends a curl of possessiveness to settle in his belly.

“Hyung,” Mark prompts, biting his lip.

“Sorry, sorry,” Johnny mumbles. He brings up the comment page. He’s not the first, like he promised. There’s already a flood of comments from Mark’s fans filling up the page. For a moment, Johnny balks, unsure of what to say, but Mark’s looking at him with such earnest, hopeful eyes. It doesn’t take much more contemplation to decide what to write.

Beautiful, he writes, then tacks on the raised hands emoji to make it feel less—personal. Less like it’s the truth that’s trying to claw its way directly out of Johnny’s chest.

Mark’s refreshing the page on his own phone, and frowns when he reads Johnny’s comment. “Seriously?” he asks, but there’s no heat to it. Johnny puts his phone under the pillow and hunkers down again. He’s felt enough emotions for the day, and it’s barely 10 in the morning.

“Yeah. Read it and weep, baby,” he mumbles. He expects Mark to leave after that, but after a moment, he feels Mark settling back into bed with him. Johnny wonders if this is going to be a regular occurrence, or if this is just part of their clinginess rotation.

“Thanks, hyung,” Mark mumbles. He’s kept a lot of space between them, so Johnny tugs him closer, tucking Mark under his arm. Mark seems to settle under the weight.

“I’d like to say any time, but can we please stop doing this before noon,” he mumbles. “I think it’s bad for my health.”

Mark just laughs. “Sure,” he says. “Whatever you say, hyung.”

 

 

February 1, 2021

And just like that, Mark’s gone.

He’s not gone, gone. It’s hard to be, in a global pandemic, but Johnny sees less of him after that last morning in his bed. They’re gearing up for a multitude of projects in February, along with birthdays galore, and Johnny also has it on good authority that Mark’s working on more than one project for an upcoming release.

It’s probably better this way; it gives Johnny more time to get his head screwed on correctly.

Crushing on a guy isn’t new for Johnny, and crushing on a guy in his own group also isn’t new, but Johnny is well aware of the difference between having some sloppy makeouts with Ten when they’re rookies, and falling in love with Mark, who’s five years younger and extremely inexperienced in all things relationships.

Johnny also knows that if he asked Mark to jump, Mark would simply ask how high? and Johnny doesn’t like having that power imbalance between them.

“You know,” Doyoung says around the coffee Johnny had bought him that morning for his birthday, “if you actually just talked about it, you probably wouldn’t have any issues. The fact that you’re aware of your position over him says enough about your character, I think.”

Johnny tucks his head into his arms where they’re folded on their kitchen table. He’s not sure why he thought revealing all of his feelings to Doyoung was going to be a good idea, but he’s starting to regret it now.

“Sure, okay, and then what? We date? We can’t even be like normal idol couples, let alone normal people.”

Doyoung rolls his eyes. “Don’t be so dramatic,” he says. “You’re in the same group. You live in the same building. You wouldn’t even have to sneak around. I’ve heard Mark barging into our dorm in the morning, like, four times this past week alone. It wouldn’t be weird, Johnny.”

Johnny sighs. “I mostly wanted you to tell me it would be a bad idea, not convince me otherwise,” he mutters.

“Then you should’ve gone to see Taeyong,” Doyoung says, “but even then I think he’d be mostly okay with it.”

“Oh my god,” Johnny mutters.

“Seriously. It’s dumb, seeing you mope so much over this. What brought it on? You’ve been pining after Mark for almost a year and now you’re having a crisis about it? On the day of my birth?”

Johnny knows what it was. He can pinpoint the moment when his heart started to crack open, when the pining overflowed and became too much. That first day, taking a photo of Mark up against the side of a building down the street from their dorms, silly little pictures that had left Mark giggling between takes. He had been happy, carefree, relaxed, unworried about impressing his followers.

Mark unfiltered. Mark with no reservations. A glimpse of a life they didn’t have, one they’d given up for fame and fortune and music.

“Guess I’m just getting sentimental in my old age,” Johnny says. “You can look forward to it next year.”

Doyoung makes a face and sips delicately on his drink. “It’s a good thing you have abs because you’re not funny,” he says.

“One person thinks I’m funny, and he’s the one that matters, right?”

Doyoung’s face sours even more. “Go be lovey-dovey somewhere else,” he complains, but he nudges Johnny’s leg under the table gently with his own.

“I think I’ll stay here, if you don’t mind,” Johnny says. “Keep the birthday boy company.”

Doyoung preens and they move on to safer topics, like what Doyoung’s doing for dinner with his family and how his Vlive preparations have gone and what the others have bought him for his birthday. Easy, normal topics that don’t involve Johnny’s tangled mess of feelings.

When Johnny crawls into bed that evening, he gets a post notification from Mark’s Instagram. He’s surprised, because he hadn’t helped Mark take any photos recently, but he’s more surprised to see words splashed across an eclectic and ugly looking background. Johnny skims the words once, then reads it again more thoroughly. A second post notification pops up, so he goes to read that too.

Johnny sinks back into his pillow, staring up at the ceiling. The room is quiet; Donghyuck’s off with the Dreamies playing games or something and either won’t be back until late or won’t be back at all. It leaves Johnny with a lot of space to contemplate.

He knows Mark feels the same way, is the thing, knows that if he laid his heart bare, Mark wouldn’t hesitate to scoop it up in careful hands and hold it tightly. Maybe before, Johnny was unsure of what he’s afraid of, but he thinks he knows now.

There’s a fear pressing on his chest of breaking something that is whole, of ruining a perfect thing. Johnny is afraid of the fallout before the beginning has even started.

He shuts his eyes and turns off the bedside lamp. It’s barely 11 at night, but he suddenly feels exhausted. As he falls asleep, he wonders if he’ll wake up to Mark in his bed in the morning.

 

 

February 9, 2021

Johnny’s birthday rolls around faster than he’d like.

There’s no particular dread about it—he already went through his quarter life crisis the year before—but the fact that nothing is happening bothers him. In another life, maybe he’d spend the day hanging out with his family and then getting ready to go to a bar or the club or something with his friends. As it is, he has to go to work and do a Vlive with a million viewers and a birthday cake.

He rolls out of bed, goes through his morning routine, and saunters into the kitchen just to find Mark sitting at the table with the rest of his roommates. They all look up when he comes in, and Johnny gets approximately half a second of peace and quiet before everyone starts shouting.

“Surprise!”

“Happy birthday!”

“Congratulations!”

“I thought we decided on happy birthday? And who the heck yelled surprise? We’re not surprising him.”

Johnny can’t help but smile. For as lacklustre as his own feelings about his birthday had been, he’s still happy that the members are excited. They probably haven’t hit birthday burnout yet.

“Hey.” Mark bumps his elbow against Johnny’s forearm, smiling softly. He looks a little sleep ruffled still, but his eyes are wide and bright and Johnny’s suddenly glad he’s already sitting down or else he thinks his knees might go a little weak.

“Hey,” he replies, voice raspy.

“Happy birthday,” Mark continues, like nothing’s amiss. “I left your gift in the living room but, uh, I was also wondering if you wanted to hang out a bit today? I mean, like, if you have other plans that’s totally chill, too. I was just. You know. Wondering. Ha ha.”

They haven’t hung out in a while, and it’s not like Johnny craves Mark’s company when they’re off doing their own things, but he does think it would be a nice way to spend his birthday.

“Yeah, man, that would be awesome,” he says. “I can bring my camera. We can take some pictures for your Instagram.”

Mark’s face turns red. “We don’t have to do that,” he says hurriedly. “I mean, I know that a lot of the past few times we’ve hung out I’ve asked you for help, but, like, I don’t want you to think that that’s all I want from you.”

It feels like a loaded statement, hidden inside Mark’s usual frazzled speech pattern, like a tension that’s building between them, getting ready to snap. Johnny feels unprepared, but also like no matter how long they draw this out, he’ll never be ready for it. Maybe it’s best if he just dives in, head first.

“Hey, it’s my birthday,” he says. The others are pulling Doyoung’s half eaten birthday cake out of the fridge for breakfast. “We can do whatever I want, right? And I want to take some pictures of you. It’s been awhile.”

If possible, Mark’s face flushes even deeper. “Okay, if you say so,” he says uncertainly. Taeyong slides a slice of cake in front of him.

“I do say so,” Johnny says. He glances at Mark and then frowns, “but we have to go back to your dorm after and find you some better clothes.”

“What’s wrong with my clothes?”

“You’re wearing khaki cargo pants. I’m not letting you post pictures of yourself on your Instagram in khaki cargo pants.”

“I like these pants,” Mark mutters around his piece of cake, but he doesn’t object when Johnny raids his closet an hour later and tosses a pair of black skinny jeans at him. Johnny doesn’t watch as Mark shimmies into them, but he can’t help but stare when he turns back around to find Mark fussing with the hem of his shirt.

“You look fine,” Johnny reassures. He tosses Mark’s jacket at him and a beanie and ushers him towards the door. “Come on, let’s go.”

Despite how impatient Johnny feels, he lets Mark lead the way through the streets near their dorm. Shops are just opening for the day, and Mark pauses outside a couple to stare in the windows. It takes Johnny a moment to realize that he’s stalling.

“Hey,” he says, nudging Mark’s shoulder. He’s never really liked the faux-hair North Face jacket that Mark’s taken to wearing this year, but he does enjoy how it engulfs Mark and makes him look cozy. “What’s up?”

Mark shrugs, slow and lazy. “Nothing, I guess,” he says. He’s biting his lip, and Johnny finds his eyes drawn to the action. “Just … thinking.”

“That’s never a good sign,” Johnny says. He’s suddenly flung back to a month ago, Mark coming to him to ask him if an Instagram account would be a good idea. He’d said the exact same thing then.

Instead of brushing it off this time, though, Mark says, “Have you ever liked someone so much that it just sort of hurts?”

Johnny blinks. It’s not exactly the conversation he thought they’d be having outside a boutique 10 minutes from their dorm.

“Um,” he starts, but Mark waves him off.

“I just. Uh. I’ve liked this—person. For a really long time now. And I think that the liking is sort of, I don’t know, detrimental now? Like, it’s more like pining, and I think, probably, that that’s not very healthy. To be pining after someone for so long.”

Johnny blinks. He knows Mark is talking about him, has known that it’s always been about him for almost as long as he’s known Mark. He didn’t realize that he was giving Mark so much grief, though.

He steers Mark away from the window and further down the sidewalk until they find a relatively empty side street. Wordlessly he leads Mark about halfway down before he finds the perfect lighting next to a barber shop. Mark blinks at him as Johnny unzips the ugly North Face and pushes it off Mark’s shoulders.

“Take off your hat,” Johnny says, tying Mark’s jacket around his waist and uncapping his camera. He takes a few steps back and squints through the viewfinder, adjusting the settings. Mark just stands there, shivering a little in the light breeze. It’s still cold in Seoul, but they’re all used to shrugging jackets on and off for photoshoots. Mark shoves his beanie into the pocket in his jeans. “I think—I kind of get it. Like, you’ve just waited so long for something to happen and nothing has, and you wonder if it’s worth it still?”

“Yeah,” Mark says around chattering teeth. Johnny finally gets the settings on his camera just right and he signals for Mark to pose.

Mark used to be more self-conscious about things like this, but now he goes through the motions with ease, even with an audience of barber shop customers staring out the big bay windows at them. Johnny snaps photos easily, watching through the viewfinder as Mark rotates on the spot, glancing coyly over his shoulder at him.

“What if the other person was waiting, too?” Johnny asks, lowering the camera from his face. He unties Mark’s jacket from around his waist and drapes it over Mark’s shoulders. Mark snuggles into it immediately. “What if they were pining, too?”

Mark blinks up at him, eyes wide and bright, but also—suspicious. Johnny can’t help but grin.

“Are we, uh, talking about the same person, here?” Mark asks cautiously.

Johnny thinks about the years he’s spent watching Mark grow up and grow into himself. Almost a decade. He can hardly remember what his life was like without Mark in it, and even then, those memories are tainted by a night in Chicago: a trip to Target and his elementary school. Johnny’s been patient, has waited while Mark blossomed into the full-fledged star that Johnny has always known he would be, and now it’s his birthday. He thinks he’s waited long enough.

“You’re talking about me, right?” he asks. He doesn’t step closer, aware of the patrons in the shops that can see them, but he offers Mark a small smile. “The person you’ve been waiting for is me, right?”

Mark’s face cycles through a multitude of emotions. Johnny wishes he had thought to capture them all on camera.

“I—I—” Mark stutters, tugging his beanie back on over his head, like it’ll act as a protective helmet. “Johnny.”

“I’ve been waiting, too,” Johnny says, pointedly ignoring the way Mark stops trying to string together a coherent sentence and stares at him, gaping. “Not so much for your feelings, but for the right timing. “Nothing ever felt right; you were always off chasing bigger and brighter things.”

This time, Johnny does allow himself to look at Mark, dwarfed in his oversize fuzzy jacket, looking uncertain and small. Johnny smiles.

“Our careers have always come first,” Johnny says, shoving his hands into his pockets and letting the camera hang from around his neck, “but I think we’ve worked long enough now that we can let ourselves indulge a little.”

Johnny has always longed for the stage, has always craved the lights and the crowds and the music, but now that he’s debuted and has performed all around the world, he knows that’s not all his career will be. That life will always belong to Mark, though, and while Johnny used to be envious, now all he feels is a fiercely protective warmth that glows in the pit of his belly.

Mark still looks mostly speechless. There’s a faint flush to his cheeks, and his lips are chapped and starting to peel. There are faint under-eye circles blooming under the quick wash of concealer Mark had applied before they’d left the dorms. Johnny untucks his hands to bring the camera up to his eye again and snap a photo.

Mark blinks at him. “Hyung,” he says.

“I hope I’m not too late,” he says, scrolling through the photos.

Mark huffs. He steps forward and snags Johnny by the arm, dragging him further down the alley until they can huddle behind a passenger van further down the street, away from the barber shop windows. Then he smacks Johnny in the arm.

“Yah, what was that for! And on my birthday, too,” Johnny pouts.

“You’re always thinking of others,” Mark complains. “You’re so nice. Even though you try to act all aloof or whatever, you’re just. So nice. I just wish you’d been a bit more selfish earlier.”

Johnny grins and takes another picture of Mark’s pout. He ponders Mark’s words and says, seriously, “I wanted to make sure that what we felt was—sincere. I’m in this for the long haul with you, Mark Lee. Guess I just wanted to make sure my investment paid off.”

Mark rolls his eyes. He tugs Johnny’s camera out of his hands and tucks it over Johnny’s shoulder, out of the way. Then, he leans in for a hug.

It’s about as much PDA as they can get away with, in public in broad daylight, but Johnny will take it. For as much cuddling as they do, Mark doesn’t hug very often. Not like this: all encompassing, squeezing tightly.

“You’re an idiot. I’ve been pining after you since, like, debut. If you don’t think I’ve tossed all my eggs in one basket, too, you’re sorely misinformed.”

Johnny laughs. He feels giddy, lighter. They’ll have to talk about this a lot more, but for now, Johnny is content to stand in an alley behind a car with a boy in his arms.

Eventually, Mark pulls back. He puts some space between them and tugs on his beanie nervously. “Uh,” he says. Johnny waits him out. He knows how to be patient when it comes to Mark. “Should we take some more pictures?”

Johnny tugs the camera back around and scrolls through the pictures, going back to the ones from before their confessions. “Nah, I think these are fine,” he says. “Just some editing for the lighting, but you look good.”

Mark scowls and leans forward, squinting at the screen even after Johnny’s turned the camera for him to see easier. There’s a long pause, then he says, “You think they look good?”

Johnny shrugs and turns off the camera. He nudges Mark out from behind the car and towards the street again. There’s a coffee shop nearby that has good Americanos. “I mean, yeah,” he says. “I wouldn’t lie to you about that. Besides, it’s how I see you so—”

He cuts himself off, aware of how cheesy that sounds. Mark glances up at him, wide grin stretching across his face.

“It’s how you see me?” he echoes, clearly enjoying Johnny’s discomfort.

“I mean, sure,” Johnny says, running a hand through his hair. “Eyes are the window to the soul, and all that jazz.”

It had been something he’d been worried about, initially, when taking photos of Mark: that everyone would see everything he did. That all of their fans would pick up on the little quirks and charms that made Mark the object of his affections. Maybe they have, but clearly, Mark hasn’t.

“Maybe I should take a photo of you,” Mark says, quietly. “So you can see how I see you.”

Johnny pauses outside the cafe. When Mark turns to look at him, it’s with wide, curious eyes.

“That’s maybe the most romantic thing you’ve ever said to me,” Johnny says. He uses a joking tone, but he means it sincerely. He didn’t think Mark had it in him.

Mark’s face turns an even brighter red. He grabs at the door handle of the cafe and mutters, “Come on. I’ll buy you a coffee because it’s your birthday.”

Johnny smiles. He snaps a picture of Mark walking through the door and follows him in.