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They meet on the first day of 11th grade.

 

Well, meet is a strong word. Jaebum’s homeroom teacher introduces one Mark Tuan as a new transfer student and, with some not-so-gentle prodding, gets him to mumble, “Hi, my name is Mark Tuan. I just moved from Los Angeles. It’s nice to meet you all. Please look after of me." Jaebum—noise-cancelling headphones on, pen in hand, working on a new composition—doesn’t even look up.

 

 

 

They actually meet later that week.

 

Jaebum has just barely walked into the dance studio and put his bag down before Jinyoung appears beside him, rambling about new choreography ideas.

 

Jaebum has known Jinyoung for about a year now and (mostly) doesn’t regret a single second of becoming friends. Though usually cold and aloof upon first impression, Jaebum didn’t intimidate Jinyoung when they first saw each other in one of the dance studio’s master classes. Instead, Jinyoung bounded up to him, eye wrinkles in place, and asked if Jaebum wanted to be his partner for the class. It wasn’t until a few weeks later, when they were talking to each other with sweaty backs pressed against the cool wall of mirrors in Room 7, that they discovered they go to the same school (although Jaebum is a year ahead of Jinyoung) and then combined forces to win the 2009 talent show. They bonded over a mutual love of music, dance, and performing, conversations made all the more interesting by their vastly different tastes.

 

Jaebum listens attentively, fond smile forming on his face, as Jinyoung continues to talk about styles he’s trying to combine in his latest pet project. Jinyoung’s monologue, however, is interrupted by a loud, shrill cry of “HYUNGS!” and a small, barely-teenager’s thundering footsteps approaching them.

 

Kunpimook “Just Call Me Bambam” Bhuwakul is a thirteen-year-old Thai boy who joined their dance studio earlier this year and has since managed to worm his way into everyone’s hearts. When he skids to a halt in front of them, this fact is proven immediately upon Jinyoung cooing, “Bambam! Give me a kiss!” instead of glaring at him for breaking Jinyoung’s train of thought.

 

Bambam rolls his eyes, but complies, quickly pressing his lips against Jinyoung’s cheek before continuing, “There’s a new dancer at the studio! He’s the one the director was talking about yesterday!”

“The ‘handsome foreigner’ he wants to ‘pin all his martial arts tricking dreams’ on?” Jinyoung asks while air quoting the director’s excited declarations.

“Yeah, apparently he’s never learned before, but he can already do backflips and stuff! C’mon, I wanna say hi! Another foreigner!” Bambam all but yells as he takes Jaebum’s arm in one hand and Jinyoung’s in another, trying to drag them towards the practice rooms.

 

Jaebum stands up and frees himself from Bambam’s grasp—it’s honestly not that hard; Bambam is a tiny stick—with a “Bambam, what have I told you about manhandling people” and a “Lead the way” before Bambam becomes upset and starts pouting.

 

Bambam leads them to Room 7, where a slender boy is in mid-flip. When aforementioned boy looks up towards the door after he lands, Jaebum can’t help but stare because why does he look so familiar and wow, he has really sparkly eyes.

 

There’s a rather awkward pause, wherein Mark locks gazes with Jaebum, and then: “You’re the new kid in my homeroom!” Jaebum exclaims when the realization dawns, foregoing any sort of formal introduction.

 

“What an unpleasant experience for him,” Jinyoung quips before stepping forward and offering his hand, “I’m Jinyoung. Park Jinyoung. I go to the same school as you and Jaebum-hyung, but I’m a year lower.”

“Mark. Mark Tuan,” is the soft reply, his eyes darting nervously to Jinyoung from Jaebum, whose eyes had yet to leave Mark’s face.

 

Bambam, ever blind to any tension, grabs Mark’s hands and says, “Jinyoung-hyung and Jaebum-hyung are two of the best dancers in the studio! I’ve only been here for a few months, but I already know that they’re amazing and that all of the instructors love them.”

 

It’s Bambam’s compliment that breaks Jaebum’s intense scrutiny as he lightly (he swears) slaps the back of Bambam’s head and chides, “Yah, don’t talk nonsense. Jinyoung and I still have a lot to improve on.” If Jaebum notices a tiny smile grace Mark’s face at his display of modesty, he pretends not to.

 

They spend the rest of the afternoon in Room 7 talking and dancing. Mark tells them that he was goofing off with his family in the park, doing backflips and cartwheels to amuse everyone, when the director saw him, gave him a business card, and asked Mark to “Please come to the studio!” Jaebum and Jinyoung show off the routine that won them the talent show the previous year. Bambam reveals that he’s been learning English and asks Mark if could “Help me!! Pretty pleeaasseee!!” This brings Jinyoung to ask how it is that Mark is already pretty decent at Korean, to which Mark reveals that his parents hired a Korean tutor for him and his siblings and they’ve been cramming all summer.

 

They spend the rest of the afternoon in Room 7 integrating Mark into their circle of friends and Jaebum can’t say that he minds at all.

 

 

~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~

 

 

A few months later, Bambam drags in Kim Yugyeom: classmate, best friend, and exceptionally talented (and tall) baby. He follows his hyungs around like a small puppy and, Jaebum notices, Mark finds his new favorite dongsaeng. He watches as Mark ruffles Yugyeom’s hair, treats Yugyeom to ice cream, and goes along with Yugyeom’s antics—like that one time they pranked Jaebum together—and if he’s a little jealous that Mark’s not with him as much when they’re at the studio, Jaebum certainly doesn’t acknowledge it.

 

(“He reminds me of Joey,” Mark admits when Jaebum’s curiosity finally gets the better of him and he asks why Mark dotes on Yugyeom so much. Jaebum relaxes at the admission and a warm, satisfied feeling fills his chest; Jaebum knows how much Mark’s family means to him, and, hey, maybe Jaebum and the rest of the boys are becoming a part of Mark’s family too.)

 

 

 

The start of their senior year brings Jackson Wang, an outgoing, bright fencer from Hong Kong, about whom Jinyoung cannot stop complaining, which basically just means Jinyoung thinks he’s entertaining. Mark, Jaebum, Bambam, and Yugyeom are all eager to meet the overzealous puppy to Jinyoung’s tranquil cat, so Jinyoung brings Jackson to the studio one day. That day also happens to be the day Jaebum stays after school ends to meet with his history teacher about an upcoming essay and tells Mark to head to the studio without him.

 

Jinyoung introduces Jackson to Bambam and Yugyeom, whom they run into in the lobby, then brings him over to Room 7 to meet Mark. Mark and Jackson discover that they can both speak Mandarin and English, and rejoice when they realize this means that they can talk to each other without getting frustrated over Korean phrases they don’t know, feelings they can’t express, and words they can’t quite pronounce yet.

 

When Jaebum finally gets to the studio, he sees Mark, who is usually reserved and distant upon meeting people for the first time, laughing loudly and speaking animatedly with Jackson. Something in Jaebum’s chest twists then, and he barely nods in greeting when Jackson looks up, sees him, and shouts, “Yo! B-boy king!”

 

Jaebum promptly walks out the door. It’s not really fair, how cold he’s being towards this boy that he doesn’t know, but Jaebum’s always had a bit of a temper, even if he’s not quite sure why he’s so peeved at Jackson. Well, he knows it’s because that boy has somehow achieved what Jaebum had spent months working at (the achievement is making Mark explode in his signature high-pitched, uninhibited laugh). But Jaebum, perhaps scared of what he’ll discover, doesn’t want to examine the bitterness he feels at seeing Mark and Jackson become so close so quickly.

 

Jaebum’s heart only settles when he feels Mark’s thin fingers wrap around his bicep, tugging Jaebum’s arm to get him to stop walking. He chose me over Jackson, Jaebum thinks. Mark’s concern is etched in the slight frown of his lips, the furrow of his brows, and the tone of his voice as he asks, “Hey, is everything okay? Did the talk with your teacher not go well?”

 

Jaebum flushes a little in embarrassment and mumbles, “No, I’m just not feeling that well.”

 

Mark quirks his eyebrows and Jaebum knows that Mark doesn’t believe him, but Mark merely squeezes his arm a little tighter and replies, “You know you can talk to me, right? I know you don’t like talking to the other guys about your worries and stuff because you’re older than all of them, but, even if we’re technically the same age here, I’m still four months older than you. You can tell me anything.”

 

Mark doesn’t insist on more information and this, this is one of the things that Jaebum admires about Mark. Whereas Jaebum has a penchant for issues being resolved quicker, quickly, now, Mark is patient: he never pushes, waits for people to come to their own, and is always there to listen, to comfort, to lean on. Even though they’ve known each other for less time, Mark can already handle Jaebum’s temper more adeptly than Jinyoung can. It is Mark’s soothing voice and gentle touch that bring Jaebum back from seeing red. (“Jaebum, listen to me. Deep breaths, Jaebum. It’s better to walk away from the situation when you’re this upset. No, Jaebum, listen to me, you might do something you regret. Let’s calm down a little first, yeah?” as he holds Jaebum by the shoulders, thumbs drawing relaxing circles on his biceps.)

 

They stay like that in the hallway for a few moments, in a bubble of calm and silence. Jaebum has to look away from the intensity of Mark’s gaze, the promise in them of always being there doing weird things to his heart. Jaebum calls it friendship—best-friend-ship, even—and finally smiles.

 

Mark grins back and holds out the hand that used to be clutching Jaebum’s arm in invitation. Jaebum takes it and they head back into Room 7, where Jaebum is properly introduced to Jackson and, begrudgingly, finds that he and Jackson get along well, bickering like old friends.

 

 

~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~

 

 

The six of them end up hanging out together all the time, despite the fact that there’s a four year age difference between the oldest and the youngest. They meet up for dinner every other weekend (Bambam conveniently “forgets” his wallet every time), go to movie opening nights, and hurl snacks at each other while they’re yelling and playing video games.

 

Mark and Jaebum puzzle over math questions side by side at Mark’s kitchen island (okay, Jaebum puzzles and Mark smirks before he explains the problem step by step) and guzzle energy drinks while blinking their bleary eyes at the unfinished essays on their laptop screens on the floor of Jaebum’s room, the clock tick, tick, ticking the seconds away.

 

 

 

The more time Jaebum spends with Mark—whether it is in school picking each other for group projects, eating lunch, and wasting free periods, or in the studio dancing and laughing their hearts out—Jaebum begins to learn that Mark is not the quiet, shy boy he first appeared to be.

 

Jaebum learns that Mark is incredibly affectionate: he uses and lets everyone use him as a pillow; he doles out kisses (mostly to Jinyoung, not that it bothers Jaebum or anything) like Tylenol during flu season; he sneaks his hands around his friends’ waists, pulling them into backhugs, and nuzzles his nose against their necks.

 

Jaebum learns that Mark has an evil streak: his eyes light up and he positively beams when someone gets punished for messing up choreo; he constantly initiates diss sessions within their group of friends, yet emerges unscathed and undetected; he has exacted revenge plot upon revenge plot without fail, his doe eyes and quietude perfect covers until his plan comes to fruition and he bursts out laughing.

 

Jaebum learns that, despite Mark’s insistence that he doesn’t think of anything when he’s quiet, Mark is incredibly observant: he unfailingly manages to detect mood changes, even if he doesn’t always know how to fix them; he picks up little details around them, like the number of lights in the studio room they’re always in; there was also that time he remembered that Jaebum wanted to learn art (even though Jaebum had only mentioned it once in passing) and proceeded to get a sketchbook along with a music composition notebook for Jaebum’s birthday.

 

For all Mark notices, Jaebum notices, too.

 

Mark has these horrible habits of biting his lips when he’s nervous and not telling Jaebum when he’s worried about something, preferring to fight his battles alone. There’s a difference in the air between the different types of “Mark quiet,” as Jaebum likes to call it. When Mark is pleased-quiet, a small smile rests on his face and he acts as though he doesn’t have a care in the world; when Mark is tired-quiet, he curls in on himself even more; bored-quiet is when his eyes glaze over as he fights the urge to reach for his phone; pensive-quiet is when he seems to focus on something in the distance, his mind millions of miles away.

 

Jaebum’s least favorite is when Mark is upset-quiet. Mark’s forehead gets slightly creased as he thinks and he shuts his eyes tightly like doing so will also help him shut the lid on his emotions. When it gets really bad, Mark vanishes. It’s only ever for a few hours until Mark shows himself again, more subdued than usual, or until Jaebum reaches out and finds him (although sometimes Jackson or Jinyoung find Mark before Jaebum does, and Jaebum hates it when they get there first). When he finds Mark like that, Jaebum just sits with him, not quite knowing what to say, but hoping his presence is solace enough.

 

Even for all that he learns, for all that he notices, Jaebum thinks that Mark is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. He knows it’s a cliché thing to think, but he can’t help it because he doesn’t really get why he finds Mark speaking softly to Jinyoung about one of his concerns or becoming ten times more animated in Jackson’s presence or showering gifts (usually food) upon Bambam or sharing an earbud with Yugyeom, even though Jaebum is right there.

 

(“What do you guys talk about?” Jaebum had asked Jinyoung after finding Mark’s head in Jinyoung’s lap, Jinyoung’s fingers carding through his hair, the pair discussing something quietly together. Jaebum left immediately, but not before Jinyoung caught his eyes through the window in the door. Jinyoung looked at Jaebum briefly in surprise, the expression quickly turning into one of recognition when he registered the question.

“You know, hyung, even though we all say you’re quick-witted and perceptive, you’re really clueless about a lot of things,” Jinyoung chuckled before heading back into Room 7, leaving Jaebum standing in the hallway, confused.)

 

Jaebum and Mark are best friends, for crying out loud. Isn’t Jaebum enough?

 

 

~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~

 

 

They’re best friends, so of course, they aim to go to the same university. They’re best friends and they have the world’s greatest support system in the form of Jackson, Jinyoung, Bambam, Yugyeom, their parents, and each other, so they stop at nothing in their quest to get into university together. They’re best friends who both end up crying as they clutch acceptance letters in their hands and hug each other amidst their friends’ and families’ ear-splitting shrieks of congratulations.

 

After a (rowdy) celebratory dinner, their friends leave. Mark and Jaebum are alone in the quiet of Mark’s room, letting their acceptances truly sink in. Jaebum is lying on the floor with a smile slowly blooming across his face as he thinks, I can’t believe we really did it. He looks up at the bed to see if the expression on Mark’s face matches his own, but Jaebum can tell that Mark is thinking, worrying.

 

Jaebum lifts himself off the floor and settles his head in the curve where Mark’s neck meets his shoulder like he has so many times before.

 

“Talk to me,” Jaebum murmurs as he drapes an arm over Mark’s stomach.

 

Mark moves a little to adjust his arm so that it wraps around Jaebum’s shoulders, drawing them closer together. Mark smells nice, Jaebum thinks to himself in Mark’s silence. It’s a testament to how much of Mark’s patience Jaebum has learned from that he isn’t prodding at Mark’s side right now, coaxing Mark to respond.

 

They stay like that, drinking the comfort of each other’s presence, and Mark breathes, “I’m so grateful and happy and excited that we got in but… I just… People are going to be so competitive and what if I can’t understand some of the lectures or what if I don’t get the material and can’t do any of the problems? What if I can’t handle it?”

 

Jaebum takes a minute to mull over a response because “Talk to me” is not a request that Mark often grants, usually preferring to smile and say, “Don’t worry about it.” Jaebum wants to do this right. He reflects on how Mark is one of the most hardworking, dedicated people he’s ever met, how stubborn Mark is to prove himself, how Mark makes himself the best at what he does, whether it’s his favorite subject at school (math) or martial arts tricking at the studio. Jaebum recalls all of the times Mark has been an unwavering pillar of support and strength when others have needed it and hopes he can be Mark’s, at least in this moment.

 

“University is going to be hard,” Jaebum starts, “and there are gonna be some days that seem infinitely harder than others. But I know you and I know you’ll be able to push yourself through it. We don’t call you danho-Mark for nothing, you know. And if you ever feel overwhelmed, I’ll be right there. I believe in you.”

 

Mark’s quiet, but he pulls Jaebum closer and, from where the top of his head meets Mark’s cheek, Jaebum can tell Mark’s lips have lifted a little. Jaebum closes his eyes, snuggling deeper into the crook of Mark’s neck, and lets the steady rise and fall of Mark’s chest under his hand relax him.

 

“Thank you, Jaebum,” Mark says after a while. “I’m glad I have you.”

 

Jaebum smiles. He’s never felt more content.

 

 

~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~

 

 

The summer passes in a blur of dancing, packing, and lazing around one last time before their vacations are expected to be full of fellowships, internships, and jobs to buff up their resumes.

 

Jaebum is sitting in the passenger’s seat of his family’s car. The trunk and backseat (minus the small space his mother has lodged herself into) are filled with the spoils of a summer’s worth of dorm shopping and his father is driving him away from the comforts of home, towards college. Jaebum’s leg has not stopped shaking and he hasn’t gotten a restful sleep in a few days, instead tossing and turning or laying awake in bed, a million and one thoughts running through his mind.

 

When Jaebum looks out of the side window, he can see Mark’s family’s car trailing behind them. Mark has the windows rolled down and earbuds in. Jaebum can faintly make out a stuffed Pikachu wrapped securely in Mark’s arms (Mark’s favorite plushie) and can see that Mark is asleep (typical). Mark looks like the picture of serenity as he rests, the worries and anxieties that have been clouding his gaze nowhere in sight, and Jaebum feels more at ease. He thinks to the conversation he had with Mark a few months back and his leg settles. He’ll be fine.

 

He’ll be with Mark, after all.

 

 

 

Freshman year starts off better than Jaebum expected it to. Yes, it’s challenging to be suddenly handed more freedom, more responsibilities, and a shit ton more work, but he has always worked hard and been able to adjust to the various hurdles life has thrown at him. He and Mark meet up regularly for meals, hangouts, and study sessions (during which Mark has to help him with math, again…. Mark is going to be the best Applied Math major ever, Jaebum swears).

 

They live in the same building and are over at each other’s rooms so much their roommates aren’t even surprised to see the other person. Mark’s roommate, Peniel Shin, is also from America (Chicago, if Jaebum remembers correctly), so he helps Mark with translating Korean to English when Jaebum can’t quite explain. As does Jaebum’s roommate, Brian Kang or Kang Younghyun, a Canadian-Korean who shares Jaebum’s love for composing music.

 

 

 

Midterms are hard, finals are a fucking nightmare, but neither compare to the worry Jaebum feels two weeks after winter break is over.

 

Jaebum has just stepped out of the shower when he hears his phone ring. He shifts the towel to his right hand, continuing to dry his hair, and checks who’s calling with his left. Oddly enough, it’s Peniel. Peniel and Jaebum are rarely together alone and even if Peniel wants to talk to Jaebum, he usually just texts. Curious, Jaebum picks up the call.

 

“Hello?”

“Jaebum, hey. It’s Peniel.”

“Yeah, what’s up?”

“Are you busy right now?”

“No… why?” Jaebum’s confusion mounts.

“Can you come to our room right now? I’m in the hallway, but Mark is…” A pause.

“Is something wrong? Is he okay?” Jaebum asks, fear creeping into his voice.

“I… I don’t know,” Peniel sighs, concerned, “but he got off the phone with his parents around an hour ago I think? And ever since he hung up, he’s just been, like, lying on his bed and staring up at the ceiling. He won’t talk to me; you’ve gotta do something.”

 

Jaebum is shocked. Whenever Mark finishes speaking to his family, he’s always happier, calmer, less stressed. What the hell is going on?

 

“Yeah, I’ll be right there. Thanks for calling me, Peniel. I’ll see if I can talk to him.”

“I’m gonna go out for a bit, give you two some space. The door will be open.” Peniel replies before hanging up.

 

 

Jaebum throws on some clothes (they’re most likely clean, right?), grabs his keys, and sprints up the three flights of stairs that separate his room from Mark’s.

 

When he reaches Mark’s room, he can see that Peniel has left the door slightly ajar. He knocks. No response.

 

“Mark?” Jaebum calls, “It’s me. Peniel left the door open on his way out. Can I come in?” Jaebum still doesn’t get a response, so he carefully pushes the door open and makes his way inside.

 

Mark is, as Peniel said, lying on his bed and staring up at the ceiling. Jaebum slowly makes his way over, and even when he reaches the side of the bed, Mark still doesn’t look at him, doesn’t even acknowledge that Jaebum has entered the room.

 

The Jaebum-before-Mark would’ve been mad. That Jaebum would’ve rudely asked why Mark hadn’t greeted him and given Mark a piece of his mind, but now-Jaebum doesn’t. He hates this quiet, knows it’s upset-quiet, and can see the tell-tale signs of Mark trying not to cry: watery eyes, canines worrying away at his bottom lip, deep breaths through his nose.

 

The sight of Mark struggling to keep his composure breaks Jaebum’s heart. He knows Mark won’t talk to him tonight, probably not tomorrow either, and the only thing he can do right now is to let Mark know he’s there for him and always will be.

 

So Jaebum climbs on Mark’s bed and adjusts them so that they’re comfortable. He turns Mark sideways, tucks Mark’s head under his chin, and wraps his arm around Mark’s waist. He feels Mark’s arm moving to hold him back, gripping his hip. Mark’s shoulders are tense and his shaky breaths hit Jaebum’s chest through the thin tank top he threw on. Jaebum can only hope that his best friend feels better soon.

 

 

 

Mark doesn’t tell Jaebum what’s wrong the next morning. When Jaebum wakes up, Mark is already out of bed (Jaebum may very well be the world’s heaviest sleeper, whereas once Mark’s up, he’s up for good). The shower’s running water registers in Jaebum’s groggy mind as he stretches awake. He’s rubbing his eyes when he hears the sound of the water shutting off and he turns towards the sound of a door opening, to be greeted by Mark, shirtless, drying his hair, with another towel hung low around his hips. Jaebum can feel a blush rising up and coughs awkwardly before greeting, “Good morning.”

 

“Morning to you too,” comes the reply. There’s a soft smile on Mark’s lips, a smile filled with words he doesn’t say, but Jaebum understands: Thank you for last night. I’m okay now. I’ll tell you soon.

 

Because it’s a Saturday, neither of them have anywhere they need to be. Peniel has yet to make a reappearance in his own room, for which Jaebum is grateful. They grab breakfast at a café on campus (after Jaebum has gone back to his room to shower and change) and bring some of their work with them. It’s nice like this, silently working together in the light filled space, each nursing warm drinks to ward off the winter cold, but Jaebum keeps thinking about what news Mark has to share.

 

The wariness stays with Jaebum throughout the day. There’s a nagging feeling in the back of his mind when they meet up with Brian, Junhyeok, Sungjin, and Jaehyung for their usual jam session after lunch. (Jaebum is in a music composition class with all of them and even though Mark doesn’t sing well, he gels easily with the rest of the boys and bonds with Jaehyung over the fact that they both lived in South America for a period as children before forming roots in SoCal.) Mark is a bit more subdued than usual, and when Jae brings up visiting his family in Long Beach, Mark starts chewing his lip nervously.

 

By the time they bid goodbye to their friends, the sky is dark and Jaebum’s curiosity is wearing his patience thin. He knows Mark will tell him eventually, but he wants to know now. Dinner (takeout back in Mark’s room because they didn’t want what was in the dining hall) is tense and Jaebum can’t take not knowing anymore, so as soon as Mark finishes throwing away the trash, he blurts, “What was last night about? Peniel was so worried he called me, y’know….”

 

Mark sighs. He sits down and runs his hands through his hair as Jaebum watches him pull a face that says, “I really wish I didn’t have to say this. Now, or ever.” Jaebum moves to sit down next to Mark, placing what he hopes is a reassuring hand on Mark’s knee. Mark tilts his head back and exhales deeply again, not looking at Jaebum when he answers, “My family’s moving back to California.”

 

“Wh... what?” Jaebum manages to choke out. He feels like the floor just disappeared from under him and there’s nothing grounding him. He hates it.

“My dad said that his company is relocating him to LA and we’re moving back home,” Mark explains.

 

Home. The word is like a bucket of ice water dumped over Jaebum’s head. Because despite having lived in Seoul for nearly three years, despite the fact that Jaebum and the rest of his friends are here, Mark still doesn’t consider it home.

 

“Are... are you leaving too? Transferring?” Jaebum forces himself to ask, to voice his greatest concern.

 

Mark’s head whips around at the question, eyes wide.

 

“No! God, no. The college application system in the US is terrifying and competitive; I don’t even want to think about the transfer process. Besides,” Mark says earnestly, “I would never leave you.”

 

Jaebum wants to feel relieved at those words, but he can only think about how Mark won’t be there this summer. He won’t be there to hang out with everyone from the studio; he won’t be there to help control the kids when they get out of hand by pulling the age card; he won’t be there to be a haven of quiet when Jaebum needs to get away from it all. He won’t be with Jaebum.

 

He thinks he’s said all of that out loud when Mark wraps one arm around Jaebum’s shoulders, clutching him tightly, and intertwines the fingers of his other hand with Jaebum’s.

 

“It’s going to be so weird without you guys, without you. But we’ll message each other every day and you’ll tell me about how the kids are driving you insane like you aren’t completely endeared and love them anyways and I’ll sympathize with you and complain about how hot it is in California.”

 

When Jaebum looks at Mark, he can see the promise in his eyes: one summer won’t change what we are. Jaebum finds himself nodding along to what Mark is saying because everything is true and it’s not like it’s Jaebum’s life that’s being uprooted again.

 

“I’m only a Skype call away, yeah?” Mark finishes.

“Yeah,” Jaebum agrees, “but I’m still gonna miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too, dork,” Mark grins as he pushes Jaebum’s shoulder, lightening the mood. “We still have, what? Half a year before summer vacation? Let’s not get too depressed about being separated for a few months. And you do realize that you’re stuck with me for another three years, right?”

“Ugh,” Jaebum pretends to groan, “I forgot. How tragic.” Mark punches him, exploding in mock offense and laughter and Jaebum can’t help but laugh as well.

 

Mark’s right. They have so much time together, all the time in the world.

 

 

~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~

 

 

Before they realize it, the first year of college is over. Jaebum and Mark will enter sophomore year as roommates, but first, Mark has to store all of his stuff at Jaebum’s house over the summer so he doesn’t have to ship his shit back to Los Angeles. Mark looks sorry and keeps apologizing for all the room his belongings take up in Jaebum’s house, but Jaebum doesn’t mind. It’s reassuring, almost, that Mark’s things are with him because it means that Mark has to come back for them, to come back to Jaebum.

 

They have a farewell dinner of sorts for Mark and Jackson (who’s going back to Hong Kong the summer before his first year in college to visit family and catch up with his old fencing friends). Bambam and Yugyeom lament the fact that all of their hyungs are leaving them, while Mark and Jaebum lament the fact that Jackson and Jinyoung will ruin the sanctity of their beloved campus. The dinner is all sorts of loud and unruly (how could it not be with Jackson, Bambam, and Yugyeom there), but Jaebum doesn’t mind this time. He sees Mark watching everyone with a fond smile, and something warm blooms in Jaebum’s chest.

 

Mark’s and Jackson’s flights are on the same day, so the other four accompany them to Incheon Airport as a send-off committee. As Mark and Jackson pass through the gates, they look back to see Bambam and Yugyeom fake sobbing as Jaebum and Jinyoung wave them off. Saying goodbye isn’t so hard, Jaebum thinks, when you know they’re coming back.

 

Jaebum is reading a book in his room when he hears his phone go off around six hours after bidding Mark and Jackson farewell. He chuckles as he reads a text that is so very Jackon: Safely landed!! Don’t miss me too much!! Make sure to stay healthy and catch up on sleep!! followed by over a dozen emojis. Jaebum figures he won’t get a message like this from Mark for at least another ten hours and it is upon the recognition of this fact that it really hits Jaebum, how far Mark has been from his childhood home. Jaebum shoots Jackson a quick reply—with a few emojis, or else Jackson will complain—before taking off his glasses and crawling into bed, able to sleep a little more soundly knowing his friend has made it to Hong Kong.

 

Eleven hours of much-needed shut-eye later, Jaebum groans as the sun’s rays beam through his windows and past his eyelids. The first thing he does after rubbing the gunk out of his eyes is check his phone, expecting to see a text from Mark telling him that he’s landed. However, the only notification that shows up is a message from Jinyoung, in true mother hen fashion, a few minutes ago: Hey have you heard from Mark-hyung yet? This isn’t good. Jaebum texts back No, nothing and runs his hands through his hair, hoping Mark is okay.

 

He worries through lunch, checking his phone so often that his father snatches it away from his hands with a stern look as his mother chastises, “Jaebum. How often can we eat together as a family? I’m sure everything is fine.” Jaebum huffs, but it’s not like he can take his phone back at this point, so he resigns himself to having as nice a meal with his parents as he can while wondering about Mark’s well-being.

 

His phone goes off as he’s doing the dishes (quite a while after lunch, to be honest, because he’s lazy and his parents went out so they can’t nag him about doing it sooner). Jaebum nearly breaks the plate he’s washing with how quickly he drops it to wipe the suds off of his hands and check the notification.

 

It’s Mark. Flight delayed for like an hour, horrible traffic getting back home, & phone died on the drive back, but arrived in one piece! Jaebum is flooded with relief and can tell how exhausted Mark is by how he’s tried to cram everything together in one text. Jaebum’s grateful that Mark has texted him when all Mark probably wants to do right now is sleep, so he quickly responds. Thanks for texting. Glad you made it. Get some rest, you must be dead on your feet. Jaebum locks his phone, assuming that Mark passed out as soon as he pressed ‘send’, but ten minutes later (about the time Mark takes to shower), Jaebum’s phone goes off again.

 

 

Lol you got it, boss

Miss you already

 

If you ask Jaebum how many times he has read that last message, he’d say only once (but he’d be lying).

 

 

 

The summer is busy for Jaebum, as he’s agreed to teaching some beginner classes at the studio over the weekend on top of working on a movie set (he took a film class last semester became enamored with the production process) during the week.

 

When he gets back home from a long day, Jaebum always checks social media to catch up with friends he can’t see regularly (read: Mark and Jackson). So that means Jaebum sees all of Mark’s updates with his old friends, from his old life before he moved to South Korea, before he met Jaebum. That means he sees how much fun Mark is having, spending time with his old SoCal friends. It’s stupid, Jaebum knows, how he can’t help the pang of jealousy that strikes when he sees those pictures and videos. It’s not like he and Mark haven’t been speaking or anything (they message each other constantly and have Skyped a few times, too). All Jaebum feels is happiness when Jackson’s updates appear, so he can’t, for the life of him, figure out why he gets so sour when he sees Mark’s.

 

With weariness seeping into his bones, Jaebum thinks the new school year can’t come quickly enough.

 

 

~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~

 

 

And come it does. Jaebum goes to pick up Mark from the airport a week before their move-in date. A wide grin breaks across Jaebum’s face, eye smile and all, when he spots Mark coming out of the arrivals gate, tanner than he seemed through Jaebum’s computer screen and trying to shove his passport into his backpack.

 

Mark finally looks up after successfully stowing his travel documents away and his eyes meet Jaebum’s. Mark beams and the noise of the busy airport that had been annoying Jaebum to no end when he was waiting fades away. Jaebum pulls Mark into a bone-crushing hug and whispers, “Welcome back.”

 

 

 

They go last-minute dorm room shopping, pack their belongings, and share Jaebum’s bed the entirety of that week, the mattress Jaebum’s parents placed on his bedroom floor completely ignored.

 

This time, on the drive to school, it is Jinyoung’s car Jaebum sees trailing behind his family’s. This time, Jaebum looks out of the rearview mirror to see Jinyoung in the passenger seat, turning around to say something to Jackson who’s sitting in the back. This time, Jaebum’s wearing the tiger-print bucket hat Mark bought when he was in LA because, “I thought of you as soon as I saw it! I thought ‘this is so Jaebum’s style; I have to get it for him.’” This time, Mark and Jaebum are sitting next to each other, Mark’s head resting on Jaebum’s shoulder as he sleeps. This time, Jaebum doesn’t feel nervous for the upcoming year at all.

 

 

 

Sophomore year starts off with the headache that comes with course registration (not just theirs this time, but Jackson’s and Jinyoung’s as well) and a happy birthday dinner for Mark’s 20th. It’s no surprise that Jackson and Jinyoung, respectively the most sociable and diplomatic of their group of friends back home, get along with Mark’s and Jaebum’s college friends. By the end of the night, Amber Liu—an LA-native and Taiwanese-American like Mark is, and one of his closest friends—has adopted Jackson as her baby brother and Jinyoung has managed to charm everyone.

 

Mark and Jaebum easily fall into a routine. Their schedules are quite different during the day—what with Jaebum’s arts courses as he plans to double major in Film Studies and Music and Mark’s plethora of math courses—but they make sure to have dinner together as often as they can. Jaebum loves those dinners. He’ll tell Mark about a film his class has watched or he’ll play a song he’s working on or they’ll gossip about the people in their classes or they’ll sit there in comfortable silence after a draining day.

 

Jaebum’s current favorite topic of conversation is Choi Youngjae, a high school junior who has somehow managed to join the vocal training class that Jaebum’s in. Jaebum doesn’t really get it at first. After two weeks of class, Jaebum still hasn’t heard Youngjae sing, and the kid looks absolutely petrified every time any of the college students even glance in his direction.

 

“Just talk to him,” Mark says, exasperated. “If he’s really as scared as you say he is, then you can be his knight in shining armor or some shit. Jesus.”

“I don’t want to be his knight in shining armor! I’m just curious! It’s not like it’s easy to take a college class as a high school student, especially if you aren’t in your last year of high school!”

“Please,” Mark practically whines, taking Jaebum’s hands in his own in a pleading gesture, “talk to him or figure out his story or whatever so you can stop saying the same things you’ve been saying for the past two weeks. For my sake, please.”

 

Jaebum scoffs, but agrees nonetheless. He rolls his eyes at Mark and they lock gazes. Jaebum hasn’t removed his hands from Mark’s, nor has Mark withdrew his, and Is Mark blushing right now? Mark quickly retracts his hands to reach for their bowls. He coughs, “Finished?” and Jaebum nods, somewhat confused as Mark swiftly goes to clear their plates.

 

 

 

He does take Mark’s advice, though, and invites Youngjae to coffee the next class they have. Jaebum thinks it’s hilarious when Youngjae blinks owlishly at him, then stutters “M-me?” before he meekly nods his head, accepting Jaebum’s invitation. As they’re walking to Jaebum’s favorite coffee shop (the one with the nice staff who give him discounts because he’s there so often, buying coffees for late night cram sessions with Mark), Jaebum manages to make Youngjae sing a few lines for him and he finally understands how Youngjae was able to take this class.

 

Once Youngjae’s nerves have lessened a bit, they have a nice conversation about music, wherein Jaebum discovers that, despite what Youngjae’s vocal color and personality may be, his interest lies in hip hop music. Jaebum also discovers that Youngjae has one of the loudest laughs he’s ever heard in his life—including Yugyeom, who they all affectionately call “the reaction king”—and is the embodiment of sunshine. In the middle of coffee, Jaebum gets a video call from Bambam and Yugyeom from the dance studio, so he introduces Youngjae. The three of them get along with each other like cats and naps (wow, Jaebum really misses Nora, his beautiful siamese kitten) and exchange contact information before the call is over. If Mark has Yugyeom and Jackson has Bambam, then Jaebum has just acquired Youngjae as his adorable little brother to dote on and coo at.

 

Over dinner, Jaebum relays all of this to Mark, who just snorts in his face with a look that says I told you so. Mark also suggests that Jaebum introduce Youngjae to him, Jackson, and Jinyoung, because if Bambam and Yugyeom like Youngjae, they’ll most likely be seeing him during meet ups with the other two.

 

So, a week later, Jaebum invites Youngjae to coffee again, only this time, Mark, Jackson, and Jinyoung are waiting at the café when they arrive. Jaebum watches in amusement as Youngjae immediately starts bowing when his friends stand up from their seats in greeting and to introduce themselves. Jackson is as boisterous as ever, Jinyoung immediately warms up to Youngjae (Jaebum can already see Jinyoung sending Youngjae anxiety-ridden texts about making sure to take care of himself), and Mark, well. Mark’s never been the best around new people, but Jaebum sees Mark attempting to join the conversation and cracking a few smiles, so he’ll take what he can get.

 

Jaebum doesn’t notice Mark’s fingers curling into fists when he slings an arm around Youngjae’s neck and affectionately ruffles Youngjae’s hair, but Jinyoung does and a small sigh escapes his lips. The sigh Jaebum does notice and raises an eyebrow in place of asking, “Is everything okay?” Jinyoung just waves him off and gives Mark’s knee a consoling squeeze under the table when Jaebum’s head is turned. Jaebum also doesn’t notice the pained expression on Mark’s face and the way Mark’s shoulders deflate when Jaebum says, “You guys can see why he’s already my favorite, right?” with his back turned to them, waving to Youngjae through the clear door. The only things Jaebum notices are that Jinyoung has shifted closer to Mark and is looking at him like someone has asked him to solve 1 + 1, but he can’t.

 

 

~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~

 

 

Youngjae doesn’t return next semester, considering it was hard enough taking the class during the fall without the hellscape of high school junior spring. He keeps in contact with everyone, though, becoming so close with Bambam and Yugyeom that they add him into their group chat—with everyone’s permission, of course. Their roles in the group chat are this: Jackson and Bambam are the most active, texting (read: complaining) about every mundane thing that happens; Yugyeom and Youngjae humor them, while Jinyoung alternates between sending maternal texts and sassing the hell out of whoever he’s chosen to torment that day; Jaebum and Mark use the group chat the least, being the busiest and most inclined to keep to themselves in real life. Jaebum texts the group chat when things get a little too ridiculous and resolves he needs to reign everyone in. Mark is most active, perhaps surprisingly, when they need to organize group outings, collecting everyone’s available times and planning get togethers that work with everyone’s schedules.

 

For example, this one-week road trip they have decided to embark on. Coordinating it is a mess because both Mark and Jaebum have internships this summer, Jackson has fencing training, Jinyoung will be attending an acting intensive, Youngjae’s passed the auditions for a prestigious music camp, Bambam has signed up for a fashion class, and Yugyeom is taking and assisting with classes at the dance studio.

 

Mark determines that the best time for this road trip to take place is around ten days before the start of the new school year. They have an itinerary, a budget, two cars (Jaebum and Jinyoung are the only two who have Korean driver’s licenses), and, the night before they’re supposed to leave, a seating arrangement. Through a very scintillating game of “pick either Jaebum’s name or Jinyoung’s name from a hat,” it is settled that Mark and Youngjae will be in Jaebum’s car while Jackson, Bambam, and Yugyeom will be in Jinyoung’s car. Jaebum breathes a sigh of relief, whereas Jinyoung groans at his misfortune—his impending headache was guaranteed when Jackson drew first, but Jaebum can only imagine the migraine Jinyoung will get with Bambam and Yugyeom added to the mix as well. Thank goodness he has Mark and Youngjae.

 

 

 

When all of their shit is packed into the cars, they head off. On the local roads before they get on the highway and the winds get too intense, Jaebum and Jinyoung have their windows rolled down as they drive side by side. Jackson and Bambam are shouting so loudly that Jaebum has no problem hearing their conversation from his car. Jinyoung has joined the shouting match now and they’re arguing about how Jackson has treated Bambam to meat a bunch of times, whereas he’s only gone out to eat noodles with Jinyoung, again. Jaebum chuckles to himself and glances in his rearview mirror to see Youngjae heartily laughing.

 

They reach a red light, so Jaebum turns to Mark, who’s riding shotgun and who’s already passed out. Jaebum wonders how Mark can possibly sleep through this ruckus (Youngjae’s now belting out a song and Yugyeom’s blasting Chris Brown, much to Jinyoung’s dismay) and suspects that maybe Mark’s hedge fund internship was more draining than he let on. Mark looks soft and vulnerable in his sleep in a way he never looks when he’s awake. They might be best friends, but Mark really is quite guarded. Jaebum thinks that maybe it’s a middle-child thing, keeping to yourself and fading into the background so you don’t burden others around you who already have so much to worry about and don’t take attention away from others who need it more than you do.

 

He’s broken from his train of thought when he hears a honk from Jinyoung and Jackson screaming, “C’mon Jaebum-hyung, the light’s green! What are you waiting for?” He snaps back into reality and accelerates, eager to get onto the open road, spend time with his friends, and just drive, soaking in the control and freedom that come with cruising down the highway.

 

 

 

The next six days are probably the most fun Jaebum’s had in his twenty years of life. In every town they visit, they take care of the tourist locations first, which is great and all, but the fun really starts when they go exploring for themselves. They get lost in large, shuffling crowds and winding, narrow streets; they swim far out into the ocean and hike deep into a forest; they discover quaint cafés and partake in the bustling night life; they arrive at their hotel worn out every night, and it’s the first time that Jaebum welcomes exhaustion with open arms.

 

On the seventh day, when they’re only few hours from home, things turn to shit. Or, rather, things become awkward as hell between Mark and Youngjae.

 

Now, Mark and Youngjae weren’t close per se, because Youngjae’s the newest addition to their group and Mark doesn’t open up easily, especially to someone with whom he has no discernible link. But Jaebum has no qualms about leaving them alone in the car together as he steps out to fill the tank with gas. When Jaebum heads inside the gas station mart to load up on snacks, he can see Mark and Youngjae conversing quietly with each other through the car windows.

 

Jaebum is just about to pay for a mountain of junk food when a loud bang causes the cashier to flinch and Jaebum to drop the card he was holding onto the counter. He completely disregards the fact that he was about to pay and the fact that he doesn’t have his card in favor of rushing outside to see what caused the noise and to make sure his friends are okay. Jaebum is met with the sight of his car door opening and Mark slamming it shut as he exits the car, looking positively livid. Jinyoung, Jackson, Bambam, and Yugyeom have all stepped out of Jinyoung’s car at the sound of the slam and look as confused as Jaebum feels.

 

“Mark!” Jaebum calls, “What the hell happened? Are you okay?” Mark’s stare is steely, defensive almost, like he’s hiding something important from Jaebum. Jaebum doesn’t like that look.

“I just... lost my temper. I may have broken one of the AC vents in your car, but I’ll pay you back for however much it costs to fix it.” Mark’s response does absolutely nothing to mitigate Jaebum’s bewilderment, and maybe he should be angry that Mark broke his car, or astonished that Mark was even able to break it in the first place (although he’s always been much stronger than he looks), but Jaebum feels nothing but concern.

“It’s fine. But what got you so upset in the first place? What were you and Youngjae talking about? Did he make you angry?” Jaebum grips Mark’s shoulders and begs, “Talk to me.” Mark clenches his jaw when Jaebum says Youngjae’s name, and Jaebum wonders what on earth Youngjae—smiley, polite, cheerful Youngjae—could’ve possibly done to drain Mark’s seemingly endless reservoir of patience.

“Don’t worry about it,” Mark responds, dismissing all of Jaebum’s questions and smiling a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “I need to cool off though, just... leave me alone for like five minutes. Please.”

 

With that, Mark pulls himself free from Jaebum’s grasp, walks off towards the side wall of the mart, and leans his head back against the red brick. At this point, Jinyoung has walked over. Jaebum feels Jinyoung’s hand on his forearm and hears the question, “Hyung, weren’t you buying snacks?” Jaebum nods absentmindedly, still staring at where Mark is trying to calm himself down and regain the equanimity he’s known for.

 

“Hyung, the cashier still has all of your food. Go get your stuff, I’ll try to talk to Mark-hyung,” Jinyoung says, his tone patient, but giving Jaebum an impatient, though light, shove towards the mart’s door. The shove is enough to propel Jaebum forward, and he keeps walking until Mark disappears from his sight and then continues into the mart. Once inside, Jaebum sheepishly apologizes for taking off before the cashier was able to properly ring him up. He waits for his purchases to be stuffed into bags and for the cashier to hand him a receipt, which he stuffs messily into his wallet, still trying to figure out what made Mark so irate. Jaebum takes his card back, collects the food he’s bought, and steps outside, where he can hear soft voices.

 

He knows it’s Jinyoung talking to Mark, knows he shouldn't eavesdrop, but he does it anyways, edging closer with his back pressed against the front wall, hiding himself from their view.

 

“– and I know it sucks, but it’s not like Youngjae was really wrong,” Jaebum hears Jinyoung say. There’s a beat in which Jaebum can visualize Mark closing his eyes and taking a deep breath before Mark answers, “I know. I guess I got so mad because I knew what he was saying is true and he kept pushing it and I didn’t want to hear it. But fuck, Jinyoung, am I really this obvious?”

“Yeah, a little,” Jinyoung laughs, “like, Jackson caught on too. I’m shocked Bambam and Yugyeom haven’t, but you’re not around them at all during the school year, so it could go over their heads.” Jaebum hears Mark groan and softly curse, “Why is this my life. This is hopeless.”

“Jaebum-hyung’s dense about stuff like this. Don’t give up on him,” Jinyoung sighs. There’s a pause, during which Jaebum just knows that Mark is leveling Jinyoung with a look, but Jaebum can’t see if it’s good or bad and What the fuck does he mean? What am I dense about and why would Mark give up hope on me? What the hell is going on?

“You know you’ll have to apologize to Youngjae eventually, right?” Jinyoung’s nagging again, but his voice is gentle. “Would you feel better now, though, if we got Bambam and Yugyeom to ride with Jaebum and Youngjae so you can talk to me and Jackson? Or not talk, but…” Jinyoung trails off.

“Yeah,” Mark breathes, “yeah. Thanks.”

 

Jaebum can hear them brushing off their clothes, preparing to walk back to the cars, so he beelines back towards the entrance of the mart and pretends like he’s just exiting. When their paths meet, Jinyoung pulls Jaebum to a stop as Mark keeps walking and asks, “Is it okay if Bambam and Yugyeom ride with you? I feel like Mark and Youngjae shouldn’t be in such a small space together after what just happened and if Youngjae’s feeling bad, you know the kids will cheer him up."

 

Jaebum stiffly nods because it’s sound logic and if he doesn’t agree, something will seem off, even though he wants to lock Mark in his car with him and demand answers to questions he doesn’t even know. He wants to know what it is about Mark that Jinyoung and Jackson—and Youngjae, apparently—know that also involves him and why Mark hasn’t confided in Jaebum, Mark’s supposed best friend.

 

Bambam and Yugyeom are delighted with the change in seating plans because “IT’S MAKNAE-LINE BONDING TIME!!” The few hours it takes to get back, they’re immune to the frustration-induced anger that is coming off of Jaebum in waves (or, they’re trying really hard to distract their hyung and make him smile, but it’s not working at all). Jaebum can’t even ask Youngjae what he said to make Mark lose his cool because he doesn’t want to get Bambam and Yugyeom involved in this drama that they, according to Jinyoung, have no business in for once.

 

The long car ride dissipates Jaebum’s anger until it’s replaced by this unpleasant lost feeling because if Mark can’t trust Jaebum, are they even best friends at all?

 

 

~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~

 

 

Mark does end up apologizing to Youngjae, pretty much as soon as they arrive back home and have finished unloading their bags from the cars. Jaebum sees Mark pull Youngjae aside as everyone’s preoccupied with identifying their suitcases and souvenirs. They reconcile with a hug and Jaebum goes over to Mark when Youngjae walks off.

 

“Are you gonna tell me what your fight was about?” Jaebum asks, but once again, Mark just smiles a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes and answers, “Don’t worry about it. I was just being stupid.” Jaebum’s frustration mounts again, but he knows if he keeps questioning Mark, Mark will just shut him out. So he clamps down the words he wants to say and his eyes turn hard.

 

 

 

By some magic that he possesses, Mark manages to carefully avoid Jaebum for the next week. It’s really a feat considering their friends are helping them move into the apartment near campus they’re sharing together for junior year. What’s even more impressive, Jaebum bitterly acknowledges, is how artfully Mark makes it seem like he’s not actually avoiding Jaebum. He manages to always seem occupied with someone or something else. He doesn’t flee when Jaebum’s near, but maneuvers someone to come between them. But he doesn’t really look at Jaebum and at night, when their friends leave, Mark holes himself up in his room, instead of spending it with Jaebum in the living room like they did all of last year.

 

Honestly, Jaebum is really fucking annoyed, would be even if he didn’t overhear the conversation between Mark and Jinyoung. But September 4, 2014 is coming up—Mark’s 21st birthday, which Jaebum knows is a big deal in America. He plans a small surprise party for Mark, and orders the most perfect gift. The party is nice, the atmosphere an easy, lively-comfortable it can only be among close friends. Jaebum waits until everyone leaves their apartment before giving Mark his gift.

 

They’ve pretty much cleaned up all the discarded cups, empty bottles, and torn wrapping paper pieces, the buzz from the alcohol and company slowly fading. After Jaebum puts the last plate away, he sees Mark sitting on the couch nursing a can of Sprite, pensive-quiet. Jaebum sits down next to him, watches as Mark tenses for a moment before Jaebum says, “You still haven’t opened my present yet.”

 

Mark turns to look at him. Mark’s face is impassive, but his voice is lined with puzzlement when he counters, “Was this night not your present? It was more than enough, perfect, even.” Jaebum’s heart swells at the compliment because Mark never speaks highly of something unless he truly means it. Jaebum tells Mark to wait a minute and goes to his bedroom where he has kept his gift safe and concealed in his underwear drawer, in the folds of the expensive pair of Simpons-printed boxers he bought (but has never worn) because Bart was on it. The wrapping paper around the box is truly a disaster, even though he really did try his best, disguising the value of the gift inside.

 

Mark’s eyebrows quirk up when Jaebum gets back to the living room, arm outstretched and gift in hand. Mark places his Sprite on the coffee table and takes the package from Jaebum, who goes to sit back down next to Mark on the couch. Jaebum waits as Mark unwraps his present, waits as Mark opens the box, waits as Mark’s eyes widen in recognition, waits as Mark reads the engraving that reads for Mark, my best friend.

 

“Jaebum…” Mark whispers, “this is beautiful. This is...” he trails off, speechless. Jaebum lets out a breath he didn’t even know he was holding when Mark voices his approval.

“I saw you looking at it when we passed the Cartier boutique on the road trip. You didn’t buy it then, but I could tell that you really wanted it so….”

“These bracelets are like thousands of US dollars…. I know you got paid for your internship, but… did you really spend most of your money on me?” Mark’s voice is soft, but the appreciation and awe are obvious and it makes Jaebum relax, makes all of the stress and tension from the previous few days melt away.

“I mean, my parents buy me whatever I want or need anyways, and it’s not like it’s all the money I’ve ever earned…. Plus, it’s your 21st birthday. I wanted to do this. For you.”

 

Mark’s been staring at the Cartier Love bracelet this whole time, slowly twirling it in his hands, almost reverently, but at Jaebum’s words, he looks up. His eyes are watery with unshed tears and he breathes, “I don’t think I’m worth it, but thank you. This is the most thoughtful birthday present I’ve ever gotten."

 

Jaebum completely disagrees. In his opinion, Mark is worth much more. Jaebum knows that Mark isn’t perfect—nobody is, really—but in the little over four years that Jaebum’s been friends with Mark, it’s like a missing puzzle piece has been found. Mark’s equanimity balances Jaebum’s fiery temper; his unwavering diligence pushes Jaebum to work harder; his loyalty and faith in his friends has made Jaebum feel safe in situations where his future was not in his own control. But Jaebum doesn’t voice these feelings that arise from a sudden wave of tender affection for his best friend. Instead he takes the bracelet from Mark’s hands and slips it onto Mark’s wrist, where it looks like it was meant to be, and lets that gesture carry the weight of his thoughts.

 

Mark pulls him into a tight hug—their first since the last day of the road trip—and Jaebum finally feels at peace.

 

 

 

(Four months later, it’s Jaebum’s 21st birthday. Mark makes a dinner reservation at Jaebum’s favorite restaurant, gets the other 5 boys’ and their college friends’ schedules aligned, orders all of Jaebum’s favorite dishes, and doesn’t let him see the check. When they bid their friends goodbye, Jaebum’s arms are piled high with gifts and Mark is leading them back home.

 

It’s like deja vu, but their places are switched. Mark pulls out a wrapped box when they’re sitting together on the couch, Jaebum nursing a Sprite. Jaebum opens it and it’s the same bracelet he got Mark with the engraving changed to for Jaebum, my best friend. Jaebum looks back up at Mark, smiling so widely that his canines are showing, who says, “Now we match!”)

 

 

~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~

 

 

So, Jaebum doesn’t really know what happened inside Mark’s head, but ever since the latter’s birthday, their relationship has reverted back to the easy companionship and innate understanding it was before. Mark’s stopped either miraculously finding something infinitely more interesting the minute Jaebum enters or ignoring Jaebum’s presence in favor of starting up a conversation with someone else. They do homework together on the kitchen table (Mark furiously punches numbers into a calculator, while Jaebum furiously pounds away at his laptop keys), their bracelets glinting in the overhead lighting.

 

Junior year in college is probably the hardest Jaebum’s worked in his entire life, he thinks. They’ve specialized, so the classes are harder, the professors expect more, and everyone has become acutely aware of the fact that they’ll be entering the job market soon. It doesn’t help that Jaebum has decided to start producing a short film as an independent study. The recruiters on campus are now analyzing them, wondering if they’ll fit in with the rest of the company and if they’ll be able to work at the level required to succeed in the professional world. Everywhere Jaebum turns, there’s someone he needs to impress, someone he needs to be polite to, someone he needs to curry favor with. It’s like one long, never-ending, elaborate piece of performance art and he hates it because Jaebum wants to be the one directing, not acting.

 

The only time Jaebum really feels like he can let his guard down is back at the apartment with Mark. There, he doesn’t have to pretend to have his shit together like he does in front of his competitive classmates. There, he doesn’t have to fake a smile when all he wants to do is cry or slam his fist into the wall (Mark stops him from doing the latter, multiple times). They’re so high strung that sometimes they snap at each other and fight, but their arguments never really last long because they’re so tired and they need one another to make it through this year.

 

 

 

Finally, finally, they’ve finished the semester. They’re done with all their finals, they’ve gone to all the interviews they scheduled, they’ve sent out their resumes to a few more places, and Jaebum feels like he can breathe again. He’s looking forward to winter break and spending time with his family over the holidays. Mark goes back to LA for the first week of winter break, but comes back to Seoul for the second because “I want to settle back in before classes…. I don’t want to be stressed out about unpacking or to have to adjust my sleep schedule like two days before classes start again” and Jackson does the same.

 

Whenever they have breaks, Jaebum remembers how hard it is for his friends whose families are thousands of kilometers away. He’s seen Mark and Jackson together more than a few times, when Jackson and Jinyoung both come over, with their heads low and speaking softly to each other, sometimes offering consoling pats and hugs. He hadn’t known what they talked about the first few times and he remembers asking Jinyoung about it one day.

 

That particular day, Mark and Jackson had holed up in Mark’s room, while Jaebum and Jinyoung were in the living room, discussing plans for Jaebum’s short film. He’s decided to make the film about his previous bboying experience: how he came to start dancing, how he danced on the streets for practice, how he began taking classes at the studio, how he had to stop pursuing it so seriously, how he still misses it terribly. Jaebum loves talking to Jinyoung about these things; Jinyoung’s an actor (a great one, to be honest), so while Jaebum is better at finding good angles to film breathtaking shots, Jinyoung’s better at knowing what emotions those shots evoke or what they should evoke. They were deep in discussion when Jackson crossed in front of them, his eyes a little red, to grab a bottle of water from the refrigerator.

 

“What are they talking about in there? Jesus Christ!” Jaebum exclaimed when Jackson disappeared into Mark’s room again.

“Probably about their homesickness,” Jinyoung shrugged, “at least, that’s what Jackson said they talk about a lot. Making their families proud, trying not to worry them too much, et cetera.”

 

Jinyoung brought them back to the previous subject, but Jaebum was still caught up on what Jinyoung said. He wished Mark talked to him about stuff like that, but then again, Jaebum wouldn’t really understand. His family is a subway ride away, whereas Mark and his family are separated by a long plane ride. He doesn’t have to worry about international calling fees when he calls his parents or about transportation expenses when he goes back to visit.

 

Jaebum was also a little bit surprised that Jackson told Jinyoung what he and Mark talk about, but Jaebum’s also not really that surprised. Jackson has always thought that others can read him like a book, so there’s no use in trying to hide why he’s feeling a little out of sorts most of the time. Jackson thinks it’s better to have everything out in the open; he thinks everyone worries less that way. Mark, on the other hand, is probably Jackson’s polar opposite. Mark thinks that his worries should be his own, that he should be strong enough to deal with them by himself. Mark doesn’t voice what’s bothering him not because he thinks those around him won’t care, but that they’ll care too much. Mark doesn’t want to place the burden of his woes on other people, so he shuts them out instead.

 

Jaebum was so lost in this train of thoughts, that he hadn’t heard what Jinyoung was saying. He only snapped back into reality when Jinyoung clapped in front of his face and said, “Hello? Earth to Jaebum-hyung?” Jaebum grinned sheepishly, to which Jinyoung fondly sighed, “I know what you’re thinking, hyung. But Jackson said it was mostly him doing the talking anyways. Plus, if it was really something serious, do you think Mark-hyung wouldn’t tell you, of all people?” Jaebum proceeded to swat Jinyoung’s head and start talking about his short film again, but, as he so often does, Jinyoung had provided comfort to Jaebum, then, when Jaebum wasn’t even aware he’d needed it.

 

 

~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~

 

 

The first week of winter break flies by in a whirlwind of visiting relatives, home decorating, and food. So much food. Jaebum’s mother has him making four different dishes simultaneously at one point and he loves his family, he really does, but if one more of his relatives asks why he hasn’t found a nice girlfriend and settled down with her yet, he’s going to go insane.

 

Relief comes in the form of Mark’s and Jackson’s arrivals back to South Korea. It takes about three days and a lot of gas for the whole gang to help Mark move his luggage into his and Jaebum’s apartment as well as help Jackson settle back into his dorm room. (They get distracted quite a bit, teasing each other and affectionately trading undoubtedly exaggerated stories about their crazy families. Jaebum’s not kidding, though, when he tells them about the four dishes.)

 

 

 

Jackson hasn’t even been back on campus for a full day when he excitedly messages their group chat (the one without their friends who aren’t attending college yet) with There’s gonna be a party near campus in two days!! Let’s gooooo!!!!! Jaebum has never really liked going to parties; he enjoys the company of his friends, but hates the loud noise that grates on his ears and gives him migraines. Mark and Jinyoung are also hesitant to go: they all know that Mark prefers to unwind by relaxing quietly in his room, catching up with his old friends and watching YouTube videos, and Jinyoung would pick curling up and reading a good book over going to a party any day. But what Jackson Wang wants, Jackson Wang gets. He spends the entirety of the next day begging them to come. He does everything: whines, pouts, pleads, nags, has monologues about how it would be good for them to relax and maybe meet some new people (read: maybe get laid), and, worst of all, unleashes his puppy eyes. Jackson is so relentless that they end up all agreeing (albeit reluctantly) to go to the party with him, even though they know he’ll just ditch them in five minutes.

 

So that’s how Jaebum finds himself in the kitchen of an off campus apartment, leaning against the counter because his head is spinning. People have offered him shot after shot because “We haven’t seen you at a party in ages! Live a little!” It doesn’t mean he has to accept, but he does because it’s true—Jaebum’s been actively declining invitations to hang out for months and he feels bad that he hasn’t seen everyone. Mark seems to be much better at declining drinks, though. Even through his tipsiness, Jaebum can see that Mark’s been holding the same beer bottle since the beginning of the party. (He knows because he hasn’t seen Mark set it down this entire time, instead using it as an excuse to turn down new drinks.)

 

Jaebum is no where near as drunk as Suzy is, though. Suzy, an aspiring actress who Jaebum met in one of his classes and who is also good friends with Jinyoung, would surely fall over on her face if not for Jaebum holding her up in support. Jaebum doesn’t even know why she’s with him when it’s Jinyoung she’s got the crush on (not that Jinyoung knows or anything). He looks around to find his friend, so maybe he can deposit Suzy with her crush and stop having to carry her places, but Jaebum doesn’t spot Jinyoung when he sweeps his eyes across the apartment. Jaebum grumbles a bit, then decides to escort Suzy back to her dorm room before he goes back to his and Mark’s apartment to chug maybe five gallons of water and pray he doesn’t have a killer hangover the next morning. He spots Jackson for what seems like the first time all night and tells the other, “I’m gonna take Suzy back.” Jaebum grimaces as soon as the words leave his mouth. In retrospect, that was probably, definitely, not the best way to start off his explanation of why he’s leaving because a look passes across Jackson’s face—it’s a weird look though, not really one of his bright, happy looks—and he shouts “GET IT!”, taking off before Jaebum can even elaborate further. Jaebum sighs to himself, tugging Suzy out of the door while trying to get her to tell him what room she’s in, and thinks that all his good deeds will pay off someday.

 

(What Jaebum doesn’t see is Mark staring after them from where he’s seated on the couch, figure concealed by a plant, but able to see everything. Jaebum doesn’t see Mark slump in his seat as Jaebum’s back disappears from the doorway or Jinyoung shoot Mark with a look of sorrow or Jackson come up to the couch, face drawn, and say, “Maybe this party wasn’t such a good idea after all.” Mark glances up then, steely resolve in his eyes as he grits out, “Can you get me a shot? Or like, multiple?” Jackson looks concerned, but agrees warily, shooting Jinyoung a look that reads You better look after him. Jinyoung nods his head Of course I will, idiot and Jackson bounds off to get some shot glasses and a bottle of vodka.)

 

 

 

The first thought Jaebum has when he wakes up is Ow, my head really fucking hurts followed immediately by This is some horrible morning breath I’ve got going on. He was sober enough to take shower before going to bed last night, so, thankfully, his skin doesn’t feel too grimy. Jaebum winces when he gets up to walk to the bathroom and look for some aspirin. He passes by Mark’s room, the door wide open and Mark nowhere in sight. Jaebum doesn’t worry for now, assuming he’ll see Mark in the living room or kitchen when he finishes brushing his teeth. But when he reaches the kitchen to get the aspirin from their medicine cabinet, Mark isn’t there either. Jaebum quickly swallows down the directed number of pills, goes back to his room, and checks his phone expecting to see a text from Mark about his whereabouts. But nothing. A little alarmed now, Jaebum presses the call button next to Mark’s name and waits for him to pick up.

 

“Hello?” answers a familiar voice that is very much not Mark’s.

“Jinyoung? Why do you have Mark’s phone? Is he with you? He wasn’t in the apartment when I woke up.”

“Ah,” Jinyoung replies, “yeah, he’s still sleeping. He had a little too much to drink last night, so we brought him to our room; thought it’d be easier that way.”

“Oh, really? But I only saw him holding that one beer the whole entire time,” Jaebum notes.

“Well, he had a bit more than that,” Jinyoung says wryly, “after he saw you leave with Suzy.” There’s a tinge of disappointment in Jinyoung’s voice that doesn’t sit well with Jaebum.

“Oh, that, yeah. She was really drunk so I dropped her off in her room before going back to my apartment. Her roommate’s already back on campus, so she took care of Suzy after that,” Jaebum explains, feeling oddly defensive. “But what does my making sure she gets back okay have anything to do with why Mark drank so much last night?”

“You’re kidding me right?” Jaebum hears Jinyoung inhale deeply (can imagine Jinyoung pinching the bridge of his nose as he does so), then exhale a long-suffering sigh before continuing, “You don’t find it odd that Mark-hyung hasn’t hooked up with or dated anyone in the time that we’ve known him? He must’ve gotten plenty of confessions, from guys and girls alike, with his face and personality. You can’t think of a reason why he hasn’t accepted any of them?”

“Jinyoung, I have no idea what you’re trying to imply here! Like, what the fuck’s that supposed to mean, dude?” is Jaebum’s immediate response. Although, it’s oddly true. Jaebum’s had his share of random make-out sessions and even had that girlfriend for a little bit in sophomore year when his parents were being annoying about it (he broke that off after a few months because he was too busy and honestly didn’t like her like that too much, anyways), but Mark never has.

“Forget it, hyung,” Jinyoung scoffs. “You’re hungover as fuck and you can’t even figure it out when you’re sober. I’ll tell Mark to text you or something when he wakes up.”

 

The line goes dead and Jaebum’s confused. He realizes that a lot of his conversations with Jinyoung pertaining to Mark leave him with more questions than answers, but his head still hurts and the sleep-inducing part of the aspirin he’s ingested is starting to take effect, so Jaebum rests his head back on his pillow and drifts off.

 

 

~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~

 

 

Second semester starts, and soon enough, they’re buried in stacks of books so high they can’t even see over them when they’re sitting.

 

It’s especially bad for Mark, whose classes and problem sets have gotten exponentially more difficult. With increasing frequency, Mark is still up working after Jaebum bids him goodnight and is already out of the apartment by the time Jaebum wakes up. The one thing that remains unchanged, though, is them getting dinner together every night. Jaebum’s grateful for this because it’s what clues him into the fact that Mark might’ve come down with a cold or something. He hasn't been eating as much as he usually does (it’s not the stress because Jaebum knows well that there is very little that comes between Mark and food) and he looks paler every night. Jaebum doesn’t say anything at first because Mark will just brush it off. He catalogues the little changes, though: eating less, under-eye bags more noticeable from exhaustion, paler skin, quieter than usual (not the good types of Mark-quiet either, but all the bad ones). The breaking point is the sheen of cold sweat Jaebum sees under their kitchen lights one night.

 

“Mark, you’re killing yourself working this hard!” Jaebum exclaims as he reaches over to wipe away the sweat with his hand. Mark doesn’t jerk back quickly enough, so when Jaebum’s hand brushes against Mark’s forehead, he can feel how warm it is.

 

“Are you kidding me? You’re burning up! That’s why your cheeks were so pink!” Mark’s face flushes even darker and he mumbles, “I’m fine, Jaebum, don’t worry too much.” Jaebum levels Mark with the deadliest glare he can muster as Mark moves to get up from his chair, but Mark tilts precariously when he tries to stand. Jaebum quickly grabs Mark’s arm, guides them to Mark’s room, and gently tucks Mark under his blankets.

 

“You’re forbidden from getting out of that bed to try to work, do you understand me?” Jaebum calls over his shoulder as he leaves to get some medicine and a damp cloth for Mark’s head. Jaebum hears Mark’s unhappy noise of assent followed immediately by three successive sneezes and two coughs that sound like he’s coughed up each lung.

 

When Jaebum gets back, Mark is almost asleep. His eyelids are drooping and he’s making little tired noises and Jaebum’s heart clenches at the sight of his friend. As he feeds Mark the medicine, Jaebum wishes he had spoken up sooner, blames himself for letting Mark work so hard that he now has a fever. Mark sleeps curled up on his side. Even under the mountain of blankets, Jaebum can tell that Mark’s clutching his stomach and wonders if it’s bothering him and why he hasn’t said anything when Jaebum’s already taking care of him. Jaebum stays by Mark’s side the entire night, monitoring him, adjusting his blankets, changing the damp towel, and taking his temperature every hour or so. At one point, when Jaebum’s about to doze off, Mark wakes. His eyes are clearer than they have been all night, the haze of sickness seemingly gone. Mark turns to look at Jaebum, who’s sitting on the floor with his head against the mattress, smiles weakly, says, “Thank you. I love you,” and promptly falls back against the pillows, asleep. Jaebum’s a little bit stunned. Of course they love each other—they’re best friends and Jaebum wouldn’t be so invested in watching over someone he doesn’t love. But they never really say it out loud, preferring to communicate through soft looks and warm gestures instead. A fondness sweeps over Jaebum as he combs his fingers through Mark’s bangs and whispers, “I love you, too.” His body won’t thank him in the morning for neglecting sleep like this, but as long as Mark feels better, it’s okay.

 

 

 

Under Jaebum’s watchful eye, Mark’s fever breaks in two days. He’s back on his feet pretty quickly after that, so of course, one of the first things he does is organize a “family dinner” so Youngjae, Bambam, and Yugyeom can see him and stop sending anxious texts. They set the date for next week and Jaebum would be lying if he said he wasn’t looking forward to the reprieve from his work the dinner will be.

 

Mark’s been taking it a little easier. He’s still buried in material for his courses and works harder than should be humanly possible, but Jaebum sees him relaxing more around the apartment now, when Jaebum isn’t out filming scenes for his short film and Mark isn’t in the library. This is how Jaebum realizes that, although his fever has disappeared, Mark’s stomach is still bothering him. When he thinks nobody’s looking, Mark will bring a hand to his stomach with a pained expression on his face, which is saying something about how much it hurts. If it wasn’t that bad, Mark wouldn’t let his discomfort show at all. Jaebum’s concern grows because Mark doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it, seems to be letting the pain fester instead.

 

The day of their family dinner arrives and Mark still isn’t looking any better, so Jaebum convinces him to go to the hospital to get it checked out. (“It’s not going to magically disappear if it’s been bothering you this long, you know. Besides, if it’s just a stomach bug like you say you think it is, the hospital visit shouldn’t be too long, right? And then the kids won’t worry when they see you.”) So Mark lets Jaebum make the appointment—it makes Jaebum feel better; if he can’t take away the pain, at least he’s doing something that’ll alleviate it—for two hours before their dinner.

 

Jaebum preoccupies himself with editing scenes of his film before they’re supposed to meet each other at the restaurant. He’s so engrossed in what he’s doing that he doesn’t see Mark’s text until he’s out the door. This is taking longer than expected…. Idk if I’ll be able to go…. Tell the kids I say hi, though, and that I’m fine. Jaebum worries at his lip on his way to the restaurant, hoping that Mark is really okay and that there are just incredibly long lines today at the hospital.

 

They pretend everything’s fine at dinner, but there’s an almost oppressive uneasy feeling among them because Mark isn’t there. Jackson tries his best to lighten the mood, and everyone tries to go along with it, but the hole of Mark’s absence can’t be filled with jokes (it sounds different, not the same without Mark’s high-pitched peals of laughter) and the room seems empty, even though there are six of them there.

 

When Jaebum gets back to their apartment, Mark still isn’t back yet. Concern is clawing at Jaebum’s gut, like a trapped beast trying to escape its confines. He paces around the living room for a while, then settles on the couch. He turns on the TV, hoping that whatever’s playing will drown out his distress, but it doesn’t. He waits so long that he’s fighting off sleep, even with how his thoughts are running rampant with horrible conclusions as to why Mark is taking so long. Eventually, he falls asleep on the couch, TV still playing.

 

“Jaebummie,” a voice calls out softly, “Jaebummie, wake up. Let’s get you to bed, yeah?” Jaebum slowly opens his eyes when he feels someone gently shaking his shoulders. It’s Mark, finally, and relief floods his veins.

“Mark! What took you so long? Are you okay? I was so worried….” Jaebum’s words are slurring a little bit, the aftermath of just being woken from a nap and the fogginess that follows. Mark chuckles at Jaebum, tugging at his arm to try and get him off the couch.

“Don’t worry, Jaebum-ah. I’m fine. But you need some rest. Bed, now.” So Jaebum lets himself be tugged to his bedroom, because when Mark wants something, Mark gets it, and Jaebum’s mind is too cloudy to argue with Mark right now. It doesn’t mean that Jaebum’s concern has lessened, but he’s learned to pick his battles over the years.

 

Jaebum could do with a little more learning, though. No matter how many times he asks, no matter how many variations he puts on his words, if he questions, demands, or begs, Mark is unmovable. Jaebum is so frustrated because since when did Mark have so many things he can’t—no, won’t—tell Jaebum? Since when did Jaebum lose part of Mark’s trust in him, in their friendship?

 

 

 

It feels off again when Mark leaves campus for a few days. He tells Jaebum it’s for family stuff, but doesn’t elaborate when Jaebum asks what the problem is. It’s even weirder that Mark isn’t going back to LA, but rather, his family is coming back to Seoul. Mark doesn’t explain why, no matter how many times Jaebum asks, and when he speaks to Mark’s parents when they come to campus to pick up Mark, they don’t tell Jaebum anything either. Not even Papa Tuan, who’s always been a bit more open about the goings-on of their family and who treats Jaebum like he’s another son.

 

When he gets back to campus, Mark looks thinner and more fatigued than when he left. Jaebum knows how much Mark loves his family, knows that anything that could’ve possibly pulled him from campus is really bad, but he wasn’t expecting Mark to look so haggard. And yet, Mark manages a small smile (a genuine one, one that says he’s tired, but glad to see Jaebum again) before pulling Jaebum into a hug.

 

Not for the first time, Jaebum quietly marvels at his best friend’s strength, a strength that can’t be measured, but is present nonetheless, impressive and resilient and always there.

 

 

~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~

 

 

Sometimes, Jaebum thinks, Mark is going to be the death of him. Mark hasn’t even regained the color in his face yet and he’s already throwing himself back into his coursework and extracurricular activities. Not only that, but Mark also still manages to remember the most minute details about his friends’ lives. Mark will ask Jaebum how that particular scene is going in his short film, or if he’s figured out the progression of chords he wants to use in one of the songs he’s writing. He’ll ask Jackson if he’s finally been able to use that move he’s been practicing in a fencing bout; Jinyoung if he’s still having trouble memorizing that particular soliloquy; Youngjae if he’s worked out the kinks in the vocal run he’d been struggling with; Bambam if he managed to find a pair of those shoes in that brand he likes; Yugyeom if that guy in the studio is picking on him again.

 

To everyone else, Mark seems to have gotten better, but they aren’t Jaebum. They don’t see that Mark is still paler than he should be or that he hasn’t regained his appetite. They can’t tell that Mark has been drifting off more than usual, and that when he does, it’s often pensive-quiet or worried-quiet. Mark hides his worries well, as he always has, and in the nearly five years Jaebum’s known him, Mark has never been more of a mystery than he is right now.

 

 

 

Weeks pass like this, operating under the guise of normalcy, even though there is an underlying tension simmering underneath it all. The sinking feeling in Jaebum’s chest makes an appearance every time he’s made painfully aware of the fact that there’s something Mark isn’t telling him and, yeah, everyone’s allowed to have their secrets, he guesses, but if it’s something so big it seems to be eating away at you from the inside out, wouldn’t you want to share that with your best friend? So they can just worry about you getting better instead of also worrying about why you’re upset?

 

Until, of course, Jaebum snaps.

 

To be fair, Mark’s silence wasn’t the reason why he got angry in the first place.

 

It’s the day before everyone leaves for spring break. It’s also the day of Jaebum’s film screening. Mark had wished him good luck that morning before hastily leaving the apartment, and Jaebum’s hands have not stopped sweating since he woke up. The day passes in a haze. His acquaintances tell him they’re looking forward to watching his film, his friends clap him on the back and tell him how proud they are that he’s making his film producing debut, and his best friend… well, he hasn’t heard from his best friend all day, actually (except his greeting in the morning).

 

Actually, nobody seems to know where Mark is. Brian said that he saw Mark go off campus in the morning, but hasn’t seen him since. All Jaebum knows is that Mark isn’t there when the theater doors open, isn’t there when Jaebum makes his introductory speech, isn’t there next to him when Jaebum makes his way towards his seat and his film starts playing. Jaebum can’t even focus on watching what he’s poured months of effort and caffeine-fueled nights into because he’s too busy trying to hear if the door has opened and hoping he’ll see Mark slip in next to him.

 

Mark doesn’t, though, and Jaebum feels sad at first, then betrayed, then angry, then all three at once. He feels all three as he fake-smiles his way through his closing speech and thanks everyone for coming, as his friends take him out to a celebratory dinner and Mark still isn’t there, as he walks himself home, the chilliness of the spring night reminding him of the coldness he feels in his heart.

 

When he gets back to the apartment, all but slamming his key inside the lock and swinging the door off its hinges, he sees Mark whip his head around to face him and his vision goes red.

 

“Jaebum, listen, I –”

“Save it, Mark. I don’t want to fucking hear it.”

“Jaebum, please, hear me out, I know I missed your screening, and I’m a horrible best friend for it –”

Best friend? Are we even friends?” Jaebum spits, venom dripping from every word, “You know how important this was to me! I’ve been working on it for months! You fucking wished me luck on your way out and you don’t have the decency to fucking show up?” Jaebum doesn’t even really mean the first part, but he’s so so angry and disappointed and sad and he wants to make Mark feel as awful as he feels right now, so he attacks Mark where it will hurt the most because if there’s one thing Mark is proud of, it’s his loyalty to his friends. So Jaebum shouts, “What the fuck kind of best friend is that? This was probably the most important moment of my life so far and you weren’t fucking there!”

“Jaebum, please, let me explain, I’ll tell you everything in time, I swear, just –”

“You’ll tell me everything? Really?” At this point, Jaebum can tell that Mark’s trying his hardest not to cry. So he presses on, “You act like you haven’t been hiding some big secret from me for months! First you don’t tell me whatever the fuck Youngjae said to get you angry, then what took you so long at the hospital or why you actually left campus or why your parents came back to Seoul! You think I believe you anymore?” Jaebum’s voice has gotten louder and louder, until he’s full on shouting.

“Jaebum, please,” Mark begs, voice soft, eyes wide. Jaebum is a vicious sort of proud that Mark is begging him to listen because Mark never begs for anything, but that part of him is soon drowned out by the bitterly angry part, the part that feels like Mark has run a knife through his gut and is twisting it, twisting it just to see how much agony it’ll cause.

Fuck this,” Jaebum snarls, “I don’t care if I wasn’t supposed to leave until tomorrow. I’m going back home tonight. Fuck. This.

 

He storms his way into his room, harshly knocking his shoulder against Mark’s in the process, grabs his already packed suitcase, and gets the fuck out of the apartment before he does something he really regrets, like sock Mark in his stupid, perfect face.

 

When he slams his door on the way out, Jaebum half wishes that Mark will chase after him. But he and Mark both know that he wouldn’t listen to anything Mark has to say, not now, anyways, when the only thing he sees is red and the only thing he feels is pain.

 

 

~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~

 

 

His parents are shocked, to say the least, when he arrives past midnight. By the time he gets home, Jaebum has schooled his face into one of neutrality, so nobody asks him why he’s upset. Maybe I picked it up from Mark, Jaebum thinks bitterly, this whole façade thing. He goes upstairs to his room (where he and Mark have spent countless nights together, working quietly and talking about nothing and everything all at once), crawls into bed, and shuts his eyes, hoping he’ll wake up the next morning from a horrible, horrible nightmare.

 

 

 

He doesn’t.

 

He wakes up, but nothing was a dream. He checks his phone, sees it flooded with Hyung, are you okay?? texts from the kids, but nothing from Mark, and almost chucks it against the wall.

 

Jaebum stays home for the majority of spring break. His parents are a little bit surprised because usually whenever he comes home, Jaebum is always out, either visiting the dance studio or catching up with Bambam and Yugyeom (and Youngjae, when he can). They don’t say anything though, glad to spend more time with him and a little wary of the mood he’s in. He doesn’t feel like seeing anyone, doesn’t think he can fake being happy for that long. That is, of course, until Jinyoung shows up at his door after Jaebum stubbornly refused to answer Jinyoung’s multitude of texts, drags him out of the house, and forces him to summarize exactly what happened.

 

But Jaebum doesn’t speak to Mark for the entirety of spring break. He can’t bring himself to call or text and Mark doesn’t reach out first. For the first time, Jaebum is dreading going back to school and seeing Mark. He doesn’t think he can bear the awkwardness or the repressed feelings that will undoubtedly arise when he’s standing in front of the other, face to face. In fact, the entire ride back to campus, Jaebum tries to steel his heart, tries to imagine what he’ll say, what Mark will say, and desperately hopes they can salvage their friendship from the ashes of Jaebum’s burning fury on that ill-fated night.

 

 

 

All of Jaebum’s worrying is for naught because when Jaebum pushes the door open and steps inside, Mark isn’t there. Cautiously, Jaebum makes his way down the hall, where the bedrooms are located and nudges the ajar door of Mark’s room with his foot.

 

All of Mark’s stuff is gone. The bed has been stripped down, the pictures removed from their frames, drawers and closet empty of clothes, and the half of the bathroom where Mark’s stuff was is bare. It’s like Mark never even lived there at all.

 

Jaebum scrambles as he searches the apartment for any trace of Mark. He nearly breaks the coffee table as he pulls the couch cushions out, looking for what, he doesn’t know. Out of the corner of his eye, he spots a bright yellow post-it note on their (his?) refrigerator. Jaebum nearly sprains his ankle when he trips over the leg of table in his haste to read the note, to figure out if this is really happening.

 

 

I’m sorry I wasn’t a better friend.

I’m okay, so don’t worry. Please don’t look for me.

 

A hysterical laugh bubbles up in Jaebum’s throat. This can’t be real. Mark can’t have just left. This is just another elaborate prank that Mark is pulling because he wants their best-friend-ship back and he knows that making it seem like he’s gone will force Jaebum to realize how much they need each other and they’ll stop fighting and everything will be fine again. Jaebum takes out his phone to call Mark, to tell him that he can stop hiding and move back in and Jaebum will listen to whatever Mark has to say. He waits for the ringback tone that’ll let him know that his call has gone through, but none comes. Instead, what he hears is, We're sorry; you have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service. If you feel you have reached this recording in error, please check the number and try your call again.

 

Jaebum stares in disbelief at his phone because literally what the fuck?? He tries calling the number again, and then a third time, but the automated message replays every time and Jaebum realizes that he isn’t hallucinating.

 

His knees give out, and Jaebum would be collapsed on the floor if he hadn’t grabbed the edge of the counter first. Jaebum hasn’t spoken to Mark all of spring break, has no idea where he could possibly be, so he calls Jinyoung, who Jaebum knows had spoken to Mark a few times.

 

“Hello?”

“Jinyoung! Have you spoken to Mark recently? Like last day or two?” Jaebum hurries, barely giving Jinyoung enough time to finish his greeting.

“No, not that recently…. Why? Hyung, what’s wrong? Why do you sound so frazzled?”

“He’s gone, Jinyoung! He’s gone and I have no idea what to do or how to get him back!” Jaebum all but sobs into the phone.

“Hyung, what do you mean he’s gone? Doesn’t Mark-hyung always like to move in a few days before classes start to re-acclimate himself?”

“None of his clothes are here, all his sheets are missing, none of his bathroom stuff is here, Jinyoung, he’s gone! All he left was a fucking, goddamn post-it note!” (Jaebum is screaming himself hoarse at this point and he doesn’t even care that the neighbors can probably hear him. He just wants to know where the hell his best friend is.)

“Hyung, I’m going to come over, okay? Don’t do anything stupid, alright? I’ll get there as fast as I can.”

 

Jinyoung hangs up the phone and Jaebum stares at the post-it note, rereading it, flipping it over, angling it in the light, hoping there’s some hidden message in there that Mark wants Jaebum to find to explain where the hell he went. But there isn’t anything there and when Jinyoung opens the unlocked door to the apartment, Jaebum is still looking, still hoping.

 

 

 

Mark doesn’t show up the next day, or the day after that, or two days later. Jaebum knows for sure now that this isn’t just another one of Mark’s vanishing acts, knows that this is something beyond the scope of what he knows how to cope with. Jinyoung hasn’t had any luck contacting Mark and Jackson is also clueless as to where Mark could be. They decide not to tell Youngjae, Bambam, and Yugyeom; they don’t want to worry the kids, especially when they can’t give them any answers like why Mark left or where he could be or what made him leave in the first place.

 

Jaebum misses Mark like a phantom limb. He misses the way Mark would make them both breakfast before leaving the apartment. He misses the way Mark would poke his tongue out subconsciously when deep in concentration. He misses the way Mark would always ask how his day was and listen attentively, no matter how much coursework was perched on the table. He misses Mark’s mistimed aegyo, patience, and unwavering faith in his abilities when he doubts himself.

 

And yes, Jaebum misses all the things one would miss from the support of one’s best friend. But Jaebum also misses the little things about Mark, like how he messes up his bangs when he’s nervous, and the smell of his cologne mixing with Jaebum’s, and how Jaebum’s sweaters are too big for his smaller build and his fingers poke out from the sleeves.

 

Jaebum didn’t dare delve into his feelings before, didn’t want to investigate the blurry line he knew was there between best-friend-ship and maybe something more. But now, with Mark gone and a framed picture of them on his bedside table, Jaebum knows that he misses the way his heart flips when Mark aims a soft smile at him, just for him, because of him. Jaebum misses the warm, fuzzy feeling in his chest that arises when he sees Mark content in sleep, while eating, when they’re watching TV together on the couch with their legs entwined under a plush blanket.

 

And this, Mark’s sudden disappearance, is how Im Jaebum finally realizes he’s in love with his best friend.

 

 

 

(Jinyoung sees Jaebum a few hours later when he lets himself into the apartment with the spare key to deliver an update about Mark. He sees Jaebum staring at a picture, with silent tears rolling down his cheeks. It’s a picture of Jaebum and Mark, a year after they met and Jinyoung’s heart aches for his friends. He makes a little noise with his throat, to let Jaebum know he’s there.

 

When Jaebum turns around, he speaks, his voice scratchy from trying not to cry out.

 

“I love him, Jinyoung. I’m in love with him and now he’s gone.”

 

Something inside Jinyoung shatters at how broken his friend sounds, hopeless and mournful and absolutely lost. Jinyoung wraps Jaebum in his arms and murmurs, “I know, hyung. Before you did. You’ve always been in love with him,” as Jaebum buries his face in Jinyoung’s neck and sobs.

 

 

 

To use the word “better” to describe Jaebum after his revelation would be a generous description. Now that he’s finally come to terms with how he feels, a weight has been lifted, only to be replaced by another filled with regret, longing, and lost opportunities.)

 

 

 

~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~

 

 

After his final class of the day, an impromptu composing session with Brian, dance rehearsals, and a film production meeting, the sky is dark and Jaebum is ready to collapse.

 

The rain has started again (April showers, am I right?) and Jaebum can’t be bothered to open his umbrella as he walks from the bus stop to his apartment building. He lets the rain make him look as tired as he feels, water soaking his T-shirt and dripping from his hair, his appearance and the façade of normality be damned.

 

Jaebum finally unlocks the door to his apartment and is sifting through his mail when what he sees there—tucked in between bills, magazine subscriptions, and grocery store coupons—causes his heart to beat faster and his footsteps to falter.

 

It’s a letter from Mark. Mark, who Jaebum hasn’t seen or heard from in a week and a half (almost a month if you count spring break); Mark, who used to be no farther than a phone call away; Mark, who Jaebum is head over heels in love with. With shaking hands, Jaebum puts the rest of his mail down on the counter that he and Mark used to share. He sinks into the loveseat a few feet away and chokes on air as his eyes flit from Mark’s name to the address from which he sent the letter.

 

Asan Medical Center, the largest hospital in Seoul, in all of South Korea, is written in Mark’s precise handwriting and Jaebum feels bile rise in this throat as he flips the envelope around to rip it open.

 

Carefully, reverently, fearfully, Jaebum unfolds the creased lined paper and begins to read.

 

 

 

My Jaebummie,

 

I’m so so so sorry. You don’t deserve any of this. You didn’t deserve my silence when you first realized something was wrong and that I was hurting, didn’t deserve the frustration you felt when I wouldn’t tell you anything no matter how hard you pushed, didn’t deserve the anger I caused when I missed your film screening, didn’t deserve the shock of coming back to all my stuff gone after spring break, didn’t deserve not knowing.

I didn’t tell you sooner because I thought I didn’t need to. I thought the problem would go away. When I realized I should tell you, I didn’t know how to and I didn’t want to see the look on your face when I did.

The reason why I’m writing this letter is because I don’t have a lot of time left, Jaebum-ah, and you deserve the truth. You deserve the whole fucking world and more and I don’t know what possessed you to be the best friend to shitty old me for such a long time, but I digress.

 

I have cancer, Jaebum.

 

The day I missed our family dinner? We both thought it would just be a normal hospital check-up visit. My stomach had been hurting for a while and I didn’t know what was wrong. You were the one who convinced me I shouldn’t just wait for the pain to pass, but to get it checked out. But then they had me go in for an MRI. They found a tumor in my pancreas. When I came home that night, you were asleep on the couch, dark circles under your eyes from studying and practicing and worrying about me and those five other kids. I wanted so badly to wake you up then, to spill this secret to you so you could hug me, tell me everything would be alright, and fix it, just like you have with so many of my problems. I didn’t, though, because it was a burden I could never place on you. So I just woke you up to bring you to bed and didn’t answer any of your questions when you asked me what was wrong. The tumor was benign at that point, anyways, and I thought that if I had it removed and took it easy with physical activity for a bit, everything would go back to normal. I wanted to be fine.

I got the tumor removed those days I was off-campus. I told you it was for a family thing and I know you didn’t believe me and I know you didn’t know why I left because I told my parents not to tell you anything. Once the tumor was gone, I could tell you everything and we could laugh about it because the threat would’ve been expelled from my body.

But fate is such a cruel, cruel thing.

It’s funny now, looking back, how naïve I was to hope, stupidly, that everything would be perfect when I went in for a follow-up PET scan right before spring break. That was the day I missed your film screening. I should’ve scheduled it for another day, really, but it was the earliest time they could schedule me in for and, selfishly, I just wanted this whole nightmare to be over with as soon as possible. It went over time and I ended up missing your screening. I didn’t know it would take that long, but I thought I could make it up to you afterwards; I could handle the guilt and your disappointment because, once they confirmed that the tumor was gone for good, I would be able to beg for your forgiveness and treat you to food every time you wanted it for the rest of our long, healthy lives.

Needless to say, the cancer spread. The cancer spread and the first person I wanted to tell was you. Again. It took me so much not to tell you, Jaebum, but because I know you, I knew you would’ve blamed yourself for not noticing sooner. You’re probably thinking that right now, as you’re reading this letter, even though pancreatic cancer is notorious for being difficult to catch early-on. DO NOT BLAME YOURSELF, for even a fraction of a second. If I couldn’t detect the cancer that was eating away at my own body, how could you?

I was almost glad you were so angry at me, before we both left for spring break, because you would’ve been relieved that I was gone, instead of broken.

Jaebum-ah, you may not show it often, but you have the biggest heart of anyone I know. I guess one of the reasons I’m telling you now, when I don’t have much life left, is because I wanted you to worry for the least amount of time possible. I didn’t tell you because I don’t think I could’ve been able to bear you taking care of me like I know you would have. I couldn’t have watched you kill yourself over me, make me all my favorite dishes, stay up watching my favorite movies with me, sing me to sleep, take me to hospital appointments, and worry yourself sick over me. I couldn’t bear to watch you lose your life because I was losing mine. And another reason….

I have one more secret.

I didn’t tell you because I knew that everything you did to help me in this hopeless fight against this stupid terminal illness would only make me fall more in love with you.

 

My Jaebummie, I am so hopelessly, desperately in love with you.

 

I’m in love with your dumb beaver impression and grandpa voice. I’m in love with how you sneak in late night snacks because you love them. I’m in love with your obsession with Bart and the rest of the Simpsons. I’m in love with your soft spot for Nora and the way you call her your little girl. I’m in love with how you insist you’re not cute, even though you’re the most adorable person on the planet. I’m in love with the way your eyes disappear when you smile. I’m in love with the way you purposefully over exaggerate your reactions because you know it’ll lighten the mood and make everyone laugh. I’m in love with the way you learned to control your temper so that the people around you could feel more at ease. I’m in love with how you match Jackson’s energy when you know he needs to let loose, while making sure he’s getting enough food and sleep in his packed schedule. I’m in love with the way you support Jinyoung and have helped him overcome the slumps that happen every time he doubts himself by matching his self-criticisms with words of comfort, support, and pride. I’m in love with how you dote on Youngjae to make him feel more comfortable as the most recent addition to our group of friends. I’m in love with how you mercilessly tease Bambam because you know he hates it when people treat him like a baby instead. I’m in love with how you defend Yugyeom when people doubt his abilities because you know that, for all his confidence, he’s just a soft-hearted kid. I’m in love with the way you make sure to take care of everybody else around you and know exactly what they need, even if that means you don’t always take care of yourself.

I am so unbelievably in love with you, Im Jaebum, that the fact that I know you’ll hurt because I’ll die pains me more than the fact that I’ll be dying in the first place.

I wish I could’ve said this all to you in person, held your face in the palms of my hands, brushed my thumbs across your cheekbones as I spoke, but I was too much of a coward to tell you sooner.

I love you more than I know what to do with myself, and I’m sorry for all the pain that I’ve caused you.

I can only hope that you’ll forgive me someday.

 

- Mark

 

 

~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~

 

 

By the time he reaches the end of the letter, Jaebum is sobbing. He thought he ran out of tears, but they pour from his eyes in endless streams. He doesn’t know how long he sits there in the loveseat, hands tightly clutching the pages of the letter, lest they flutter away or disintegrate into nothingness. Jaebum feels trapped in a horrible nightmare, one devastating circumstance crashing into his life after another, a cycle he is powerless to stop.

 

His best friend, arguably the love of his life, has cancer. And because this is real life, and not some romanticized Disney tale or Nicholas Sparks novel, Jaebum knows no miracles will happen, no matter how much he wants one to occur. How could he not have figured it out sooner? How could he not have known? He thinks of (conjures up, really) all the little indicators that he’s missed and curses himself for not doing something before it was too late. He wants to turn back time, wants to have realized all that he feels sooner, wants to save Mark and himself from this terrible destiny. The previous emptiness is nothing compared to what Jaebum feels after reading the letter. Now, he feels hollowed out, like someone took a blunt spoon and carved out his insides leaving nothing but a bloody, mangled shell.

 

Vaguely, Jaebum registers the fact that someone is pounding on the door, but he can’t bring himself to move, can barely bring himself to breathe properly. The pounding stops after a brief moment, there’s a click of a lock and the turn of a doorknob, and then Jinyoung is standing in front of him, drenched in rain and tears, gripping a letter in his hands. He holds out the letter for Jaebum to take and read, which Jaebum thinks is weird because he’s not letting anyone touch his letter; he wants to keep Mark’s words all to himself. He skims the letter, wondering what Jinyoung wanted him to see, until he spots his name and begins reading in earnest.

 

Thank you, Jinyoungie, for everything that you’ve done for me, and especially for helping me deal with my feelings for Jaebum. I know these past five years haven’t been easy for you; I know you’ve wanted to tell him so many times because of things I said or how I behaved, but you never did. I told him how I feel, though, in a different letter, so you don’t have to worry about that anymore. You were, are, the best support system I could have asked for when I fell in love with my best friend. You made sure I never did anything stupid and you helped me maintain my friendship with Jaebum when I thought I couldn’t go on for another minute. I don’t know what I would’ve done without you by my side, offering words of advice and a shoulder to lean on. You don’t know how grateful I am to have had you. Thank you.

 

Five years. Five years Mark has liked him (been in love with him?) and Jaebum never even guessed, never even entertained the possibility. Jaebum wishes he had caught on, wishes he truly knew Mark as well as he thought he always had, wishes he was brave enough to analyze his own feelings that had been simmering under the surface for so long, wishes he didn’t feel like throwing up or like someone is twisting a knife in his heart. But there is no genie to grant his wishes. There is only the realization that he’s too late and the ache of Mark’s absence.

 

Jinyoung’s phone ringing drags Jaebum back to the present. Jinyoung tells him that it’s Youngjae calling, that Bambam and Yugyeom are with him, and that all three of them have letters of their own. Jinyoung tells them to come over because he doesn’t think any of them should be alone right now, save Jackson who’s currently abroad for a fencing competition and is blissfully unaware of what’s going on, but Jaebum wants nothing more to hole up by himself and wallow in everything that he’s feeling. Actually, what he really wants to do is rush over to the hospital to see Mark, to hold Mark’s face in his hands, and have Mark tell him this is all a bad dream, but hospital visiting hours are over and no matter how many times Jaebum pinches himself, he doesn’t wake up.

 

When Youngjae, Bambam, and Yugyeom get to his apartment, they decide to sleep over so they can all go visit Mark bright and early the next day. Jaebum supposes he should be grateful to be surrounded by his friends during such a trying time, but he really only wants to see Mark. He’s doing a horrible job at making sure everyone’s comfortable, Jinyoung picking up his slack instead, and he’s so immersed in his own thoughts that he barely speaks to the rest of the boys. He can’t sleep that night either. His stomach is in knots at the thought of seeing Mark again, his mind is whirling with all the things he wants to say but doesn’t know how to, and his eyes throb from trying not to cry, but ultimately crying anyways.

 

Jaebum falls into a restless sleep, dreams plagued by his regrets and Mark’s face.

 

 

~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~

 

 

What feels like seconds later, Jaebum is being shaken awake by Jinyoung. Jaebum wishes his massive headache and bloodshot eyes were the consequences of a wild, drunken night out, but the events of last night hit him again when Jinyoung whispers, “Hyung, you have to get up quickly if we want to go to the hospital soon to see Mark.”

 

Although Jaebum is usually slow to wake, the promise of seeing Mark soon is all the incentive he needs to climb out of bed and make himself as presentable as he can. Jaebum’s a nervous wreck the entire ride there and Jinyoung threatens to have Bambam sit on his lap to get him to stop bouncing his legs. When they get there, Jaebum nearly sprints to the front desk to ask them where Mark’s room is, the rest of the boys close behind him.

 

Their footsteps slow as they reach room G7. Jaebum takes a deep breath that he hopes the other kids don’t notice as he steels himself to enter the room. He doesn’t know what version of Mark will be waiting for him, but he’ll be in love with Mark just the same. When he turns the door open, he is greeted by the sight of Mark reading. Mark looks peaceful, almost, if not for the multitude of thin tubes extending from his arms and from under his hospital attire and the steady beeping of machines. There’s a second of tranquility in which Jaebum stares at Mark, lets the warmth of seeing him run with the cold of seeing the state he’s in, before Yugyeom barrels past Jaebum and throws himself at Mark with Bambam yelling after him.

 

Mark looks up when he hears the commotion and smiles when he sees his friends. But when his eyes meet Jaebum’s, Jaebum can tell that his smile is laced with sadness and pain and unspoken apologies for his illness. Jaebum doesn’t want those apologies now; he wants Mark to be happy. So he ignores his hammering heart, plasters a grin on his face, and tries his best to pretend like questions, questions he can’t ask around the others, aren’t bubbling their way up his throat.

 

 

 

They have about as good a time as a group of boys can have when one of them is suffering from a terminal illness and the others are torn apart by that. Which is to say, for a couple of hours, Jaebum almost forgets where he is and why. Jaebum is too relieved to finally be with Mark again, knows Mark is enjoying how playful the maknaes are being in their attempts to cheer him up, that he shoves everything he wants to ask aside, basking in this semblance of normalcy.

 

Then, Jinyoung drags the youngest three out to go buy food. Jinyoung loudly declares that Jaebum is the best equipped to taking care of Mark should something happen, and Jaebum’s about to protest that it’s really Jinyoung who’s most suited for that position, but Jinyoung winks at him. Jaebum can guess why Jinyoung has orchestrated the situation so that he’s alone with Mark and Jaebum doesn’t know whether to thank Jinyoung or punch him.

 

 

 

The room quickly goes silent and Mark and Jaebum are left in each other’s company. Mark’s turned to look at Jaebum, who has opened and closed his mouth a few times, wanting to speak, but not knowing quite what to say or even where to begin.

 

“Whatever you want to ask me, you can.” Mark mumbles, breaking the silence, “I told you pretty much everything anyways.” Jaebum thinks he must look like a constipated fish for Mark, who usually waits, to invite him to speak. Jaebum runs his hands through his hair in uncertainty; there are so many things he wants to know, especially about Mark’s feelings for him, but he thinks he shouldn’t start off with that, so instead, he questions, “Why didn’t tell me you were going to leave? Or that you deactivated your phone? Do you know how scared I was?”

 

Jaebum doesn’t mean to sound accusatory, but when Mark’s head drops, he knows he does. He can’t help it though; he was petrified when Mark’s things weren’t there and absolutely mystified when he heard the automated message play instead of Hi, this is Mark! I can’t get to the phone right now, so please leave a message and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can! Mark’s eyebrows are furrowed and his lips are turned into a slight frown—his thinking face, his “I need to find the right words before I speak” face.

 

It’s quiet for another minute or two. Then, “I guess I just thought it’d be better that way. I mean, you were so mad at me before break, rightfully so, but we didn’t talk to each other at all and I thought you didn’t want to speak to me ever again. And I get why; I wouldn’t want to speak to me, either.” There’s another pause, but Jaebum can tell by the look on Mark’s face that there’s something else, something that’s harder to admit. Mark shuffles a little bit under his covers. He scrunches his face up again and lets out a soft exhale before murmuring, “Plus, I thought I would break if I told you. It’d be too much to tell you I was leaving and not why. I didn’t want you to see me like that, so I just… yeah… I’m sorry.”

 

Jaebum nods slowly, processing what Mark just said. It makes sense, sure, but he still thinks Mark should’ve told him. Except when he looks at Mark, he can’t bring himself to stay mad. It’s not even because Mark is sick, really. Jaebum knows he’s never been able to be annoyed at Mark for long, not like how he can hold a grudge for ages against Yugyeom over the least significant things, for example.

 

Of course, that isn’t the most pressing thing on Jaebum’s mind. Mark is looking at him expectantly; he knows what Jaebum wants to ask, has probably known since they first piled into his room. Jaebum thinks maybe he should ease into it a little more, maybe they should fall into their easy pattern of conversation, maybe his nerves should settle, but he’s never been the most patient (that’s Mark’s forte), so he swallows down his heart and opens his mouth.

 

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner? That you’re in love with me?” Jaebum manages to ask.

“Why would I have told you? To burden you? When you don’t feel the same way?” Mark retorts back. He laughs after that, not the high-pitched, puppy laughter that Jaebum loves, but a mirthless, bitter laugh that makes Jaebum’s blood run cold.

“Why... why do you think that?”

“Jaebum,” Mark sighs, “Basically everyone knows. Jinyoung figured it out pretty soon after I realized myself, Jackson followed shortly, and it’s why I fought with Youngjae on the road trip. You’ve always known me best and you’ve never… you’ve never treated me like more than a best friend. And I loved that I was your best friend and I didn’t want anything to ruin that. I could live with you not returning my feelings as long as I could be with you every day. I do love you, though, more than almost anything in my entire life. Besides,” Mark chuckles, “I may be the stubborn one, but you’ve always been braver.”

 

When Mark looks up from his fidgeting hands, there’s a soft smile on his face, the one Jaebum realizes is reserved just for him. But Mark’s eyes…. His eyes tell a story of a five-year-long heartbreak and dwindling hope and perseverance and loyalty and love so strong Jaebum is taken aback. He doesn’t know what he did to deserve someone like Mark, but the surge of love Jaebum feels seeing Mark’s feelings written so clearly on his face, when he is a master of hiding them, propels him forward, forward, forward, until he is standing right next to Mark’s bed and has Mark’s face in his hands.

 

“What if,” Jaebum declares, staring into Mark’s eyes so Mark can see the truth of his words, “what if I told you that you were wrong.”

 

Mark’s eyes widen in disbelief. He brings a trembling hand to cover one of Jaebum’s as he breathes, “J-Jaebum, what….”

“You’re wrong, you know. I’m sorry it took me so long to get here, but you’re wrong.”

“Jaebum, please, you can’t… I have cancer and you feel sorry for me and I won’t be here for much longer and you can’t… Jaebum you can’t play with me like this and you can’t hurt yourself, either.”

 

Something flares inside Jaebum then, hearing Mark be so selfless, hearing Mark deprive himself to protect Jaebum again, just like he always has. Jaebum knows his eyes are blazing when he insists, “Mark, I don’t give a shit. We’ve wasted so much of our time already—no, I’ve wasted it—and I know how I feel. When you left it broke me. I didn’t think I could miss anyone that much. I didn’t think anyone could hold such a big piece of me, but you do, and I know you want to save me, but I want us to be selfish. If our time is limited, I don’t want to spend another second of it pretending I don’t love you too.”

 

Mark is crying now, and Jaebum only realizes he is too when Mark lifts his hand to brush tears from Jaebum’s cheeks. Jaebum thinks Mark looks like an angel, even like this. Jaebum wishes that he wasn’t so oblivious and that he knew his heart better before this moment, so they could’ve had years together instead of a mere fraction of that. Jaebum wishes so many things, but the one thing he wishes the most is to make Mark smile again.

 

“Mark… can I kiss you now?” Mark grins through his tears and nods his head. Jaebum can feel his heart beat faster in anticipation. Jaebum leans down and Mark reaches up to meet him and when their lips touch, it sort of feels like coming home.

 

It feels like coming home and leaving all at once. The comfort, safety, warmth, and love Jaebum associates with home are there, but so are the butterflies of exhilaration and nervousness he felt when he left home for college, with Mark. Wherever he has gone, he’s been with Mark, Jaebum realizes, and the fact that Mark won’t be with him anymore causes Jaebum to push harder, to grasp for more, because if he doesn’t do it now, he’ll never get to.

 

Jaebum presses closer and Mark makes a small noise in the back of his throat that sounds like the cross between a whimper and a moan and Jaebum thinks it’s one of the most beautiful sounds he’s ever heard. Jaebum wants more, but a peal of laughter that sounds distinctly like Youngjae pulls them apart. Mark’s pupils are dilated, his cheeks are flushed, and his lips are a little bit swollen and red and Jaebum wishes he could take a picture, so he can have this moment forever. At the sound of footsteps coming closer, Jaebum reluctantly edges away from Mark’s side. He stops though, when he feels Mark’s slim fingers reach out and curl around his wrist, tugging him back.

 

Jaebum is surprised, but very pleased when Mark intertwines their fingers together as the door swings open. There’s a moment of silence as the rest of the boys take in the scene in front of them. Jaebum can feel a blush rise to his cheeks when his eyes meet Jinyoung’s smirk and he goes positively red when Mark raises their entwined hands and kisses the back of Jaebum’s hand.

 

At that, everyone (besides Jinyoung because, really, this was all practically his doing in the first place) loses their shit. The room is a cacophony of “OH MY GOD!”s and “I KNEW IT”s and “ABOUT TIME”s until Jinyoung saves Jaebum from further embarrassment by reminding the boys of the bags of food they’re flailing around.

 

So they settle around Mark again, this time with Jaebum right by his side instead of at the foot of his bed. What’s different now is the constant pressure of Mark’s body by Jaebum’s side—they let go of each other’s hands eventually, but Mark tucks his head into the curve of Jaebum’s neck and Jaebum leans his cheek against the top of Mark’s head. The boys don’t say anything about it; while they normally wouldn’t let an opportunity to tease their two oldest go by, they restrain themselves this time. (That is, of course, until Jaebum presses a soft kiss to Mark’s head and Bambam can’t help but yell “EWW!” which causes Mark to flush. The pink that stains Mark’s cheeks is adorable and Jaebum lets Bambam off just this once because Mark looks enchanting when he’s embarrassed.)

 

They stay until visiting hours are over and several nurses come into Mark’s room to shoo them out. Jaebum doesn’t miss the soft “Thank you” Mark whispers to Jinyoung as they hug goodbye and knows that he needs to thank Jinyoung as well. Jaebum feels his heart breaking all over again saying goodbye to Mark. He doesn’t want to leave Mark here; Jaebum wants Mark to come home, to go back with him where Mark should be, but instead, Mark presses a chaste kiss to his lips and bids him farewell.

 

 

 

(Jackson comes back two days later. When he reads his letter, Jaebum and Jinyoung are with him and it makes Jaebum feel sick again, witnessing someone else’s revelation. Jackson’s knees give out when he reaches the end of the letter. Jaebum and Jinyoung rush to catch him, but Jackson sinks to the floor, his body shaking with the intensity of his sobs. Jaebum and Jinyoung do all they can to comfort him. Nobody can have the same bond Mark had with Jackson, nobody can replace Mark in any of their lives, really, but Jackson will lose his connection to home in Korea, to China and to his English-speaking international school days.

 

They go and visit Mark, this time with Jackson there. A weird dichotomy exists within Jaebum this visit. It feels right, because all of them, all seven of them, are finally together again in one space and enjoying each other’s company. But it also feels so so wrong because why can’t they be in the apartment Mark and Jaebum share, settled comfortably around the tv, instead of in a loose circle around Mark’s hospital bed.)

 

 

~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~        ☆        ~

 

 

They have three weeks together, according to Mark’s doctors.

 

Jaebum still goes to class, but he goes to the hospital every day after his lectures finish and does his homework on the bus and by Mark’s bedside. Jackson and Jinyoung tag along often, and Youngjae, Bambam, and Yugyeom come as much as their parents will let them, what with the longer commute time and all. They only ever leave when the nurses come and kick them out, and even then Jaebum will try to sneak in a few extra minutes of cuddles and kisses. It’s exhausting, of course it is, but Jaebum would give anything for more time so he does what he can to give that to them. Sometimes he’ll take Mark out for a walk (or wheel, if Mark feels really poorly) around the hospital so Mark can have a change of scenery. Other times Jaebum will climb into bed with Mark and nap, both of them fatigued from their days and finding solace in each other’s warmth.

 

Those are the good days, though. More and more frequently, Mark coughs so hard that he starts coughing up blood. Sometimes, Mark feels like he can’t really breathe and Jaebum has to send for the nurses and doctors to come help. Sometimes, the pain is so bad that Mark curls in on himself and weeps—not Mark’s usual silent tears that he doesn’t let anyone hear, but loud, agonizing sobs that make Jaebum’s hands shake with worry and twist all of his insides into painful knots. Those are the times that Jaebum hates the most because he knows that Mark is shrouded, drowning, in pain and there’s absolutely nothing he can do to help. Jaebum isn’t very religious, in any sense of the word, but he finds himself praying for Mark to either miraculously get better or for Mark to pass away peacefully in his sleep. Jaebum despises thinking about the latter, he really does, but he can’t help himself when its imminence looms greater with each passing day and it seems like Mark is disappearing from Jaebum’s arms.

 

 

 

Jaebum gets one of his wishes, at least.

 

It happens on a Friday night. Mark has just finished some examinations, so he’s knocked out in his bed, body trying to recover from the blood loss and physical exertion. He looks so peaceful when he sleeps. It’s almost like they’re having another one of their late nights, one of those rare times when Mark will fall asleep before Jaebum is finished working, so Jaebum has the chance to admire Mark enjoying the same tranquility he bestows upon others. Mark’s parents are speaking to one of the doctors outside. Jaebum’s working on an essay at the table within Mark’s room and has Mark in his direct line of vision. Jaebum’s having trouble with this one phrase; he knows what he has right now is too colloquial to be in an analytical paper, but he can’t think of a more formal way to express what he wants to say and is this close to punching something. Jaebum has taken his headphones off and is taking breaths to refocus himself and calm down (he can hear Mark’s gentle voice in his head saying, “Deep breaths, Jaebum. It’ll help you feel better, I swear. In and out, okay?”).

 

His headphones are off, so there’s nothing that dulls the sound of Mark’s heart monitor suddenly going flat.

 

Jaebum’s eyes fling open and he kicks his chair away to run to Mark’s bed. Mark’s parents and doctor scramble inside as Jaebum cups Mark’s face in his hands, chanting, “Mark, please wake up, please wake up, please wake up, Mark! Mark!”

 

The doctor is on the other side of Mark’s bed, pressing his stethoscope against Mark’s chest and his fingers against Mark’s pulse points.

 

Jaebum can feel hot tears creating tracks down his face as he’s shoved aside by another team of doctors and nurses who come in with an AED and form a circle around Mark’s bed.

 

Jaebum can vaguely hear the sounds of the doctors shouting instructions and scrambling for equipment, but the noise is drowned out by the blood rushing through his ears and his constant stream of thoughts (Mark was supposed to be doing better, why is this happening, this can’t be real, Mark can’t leave me, Mark is fine, Mark will be fine).

 

What snaps Jaebum back is a loud, curt, “NO!” from Mark’s mother. Mark’s main doctor is saying that Mark’s body is too weak to handle any more shocks, and his heart monitor is still beeping in that disgusting, monotone, constant pitch.

 

It feels like some sick drama when Jaebum hears the four most cliché words leave the doctor’s mouth, “I’m sorry. He’s gone.”

 

Mark’s mother starts weeping in earnest against her husband’s chest. Mark’s dad wraps his arms around his wife, trying to console her, but his shoulders are shaking with the force of his crying.

 

And Jaebum? Jaebum has nobody there with him. He wants to start shouting, wants to release the rage in his chest at the unfairness of it all, wants to start throwing punches at the doctors and nurses who failed to keep Mark with him. But Mark’s voice is still clear in his head, telling him to breathe, admonishing him about how pointless physical violence would be because it’s not like Jaebum can change anything now.

 

The doctors and nurses clear out of the room. Mark’s parents are still clinging tightly to each other and they move as one to stand beside Mark and to take one of Mark’s hands in theirs.

 

Jaebum moves closer, too. It feels like his body is separated from the rest of him. He can barely believe that this is real.

 

Mark still looks so peaceful, so ethereal. It still looks like Mark is sleeping. There’s a ghost of a smile on his lips, like he was dreaming about something pleasant, that brings a fresh well of tears to Jaebum’s eyes.

 

Jaebum’s heart hurts, but, as he looks over at Mark’s parents, he knows he can’t break down right now, won’t be able to break down for a long time. He has to be strong for Mark’s parents, who have just lost so much more than he can understand. He has to be strong for his friends, who look to him for guidance and, now that Mark is gone, reassurance and stability. He has to be strong for himself, too, because if he lets himself shut down, he doesn’t think he’ll be able to start back up again. Most importantly, he has to be strong for Mark. For Mark who had always had faith in Jaebum to be more than Jaebum ever thought he could and who had loved Jaebum for years.

 

Jaebum’s heart hurts, but, with a swell of affection and love for Mark, his best friend and first (probably last) true love, he leans forward to place a kiss on Mark’s temple.

 

 

 

Good bye, my love, Jaebum thinks as he brushes his thumbs across Mark’s lips. I’ll see you soon.