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Broken Haloes

Chapter Text

"Shit."

The curse spewed between my lips in a muffled hiss, filtering through the black mask stretched taut across the lower half of my face.

A shrill wail pierced through the night, reverberating along the alleyway where I hunched, clutching a sleek aerosol can between my fingers. The shadows extended toward the street were soon bathed in swirls of cobalt and crimson, mirroring the violent slashes of paint on the wall before me.

They were coming.

I cursed again. The slick squeal of tires was unmistakable now, mingling with the siren in an unpleasant cacophony, and I was out of time. My piece still lacked the finishing touches, but I needed to get out of there, fast.

Flinging the can into a bulging black duffel bag at my feet, I hoisted the strap over my shoulder and darted further down the alleyway, scouring the shadows for an escape route.

Behind me echoed the shrill cry of the siren, ringing out above the chorus of shouts. They had ditched their vehicles, resorting to pursuit on foot, and my fingertips now brushed against the juncture between two walls.

A dead end.

"Hey, you! Stop right there!" 

Risking a quick glance over my shoulder, I felt the blood drain from my cheeks. Swathed in the faint luminescence of the moonlight, shadowed figures in standard police garb surged into the alleyway. Each of them pointed a gun in my direction, poised to shoot, but the only thing flooding through my mind was the insistent thump of my heartbeat.

Lifting my eyes to the building opposite the one I tagged, I zeroed in on the precarious steps zigzagging along its russet brick walls, blemished with darkened windows. 

"You're under arrest for the vandalism of private property," bellowed a voice from the horde.

"Like hell I am," I muttered beneath my breath, dropping the heavy bag to the ground with a wistful smile.

Every can of spray paint in that bag was of the highest quality, a product of my blood, sweat, and tears. I wasn't exactly ready to part with them. But I had no choice.

Putting years of martial arts training to good use, I propelled my body off the ground, latching onto the ladder at the bottom of the staircase. My arms ached in protest, but I hoisted the rest of my body onto the ladder and began to clamber up the rusty rungs, ignoring the garbled shouts from below.

Once I reached the first set of stairs, I peeled off my mask and tossed it at my feet, gulping a gust of air down my burning throat. Before I could properly catch my breath, though, the cops were already in hot pursuit up the ladder.

I ran, leaping two steps at a time in my haste. The bandana currently knotted at my temple did little to keep my dark locks from flopping into my eyes.

"Stop, or we'll shoot!"

Blocking out the sounds of the siren and the shouts below me, I instead listened to the dull thud of my combat boots against the corroded metal. When I finally reached the top of the building, I spun around and peered down at my masterpiece.

If someone were to see it as I saw it now, half-bathed in the dim illumination of the moon, he would probably think it was a simple crucifix. Little would he know that it was far more than that.

The crucifix I painted was no ordinary crucifix. It was comprised of the words I learned to associate with religion: bigotry, hypocrisy, ostracism, prejudice, hatred, oppression. Poised at the heart of the crucifix, where a Christ figure normally hung, was a shattered and bleeding representation of Earth. Next to the crucifix, I painted a quote.

If religion is meant to be our cure, why has it started to taste like poison? 

With a triumphant smirk, I turned to make my escape. But it was too late. 

I was in the middle of a standoff, caught between two impenetrable walls of cops on either side of me, and there was no chance of escape.

"It's over, kid."

Resignation seeped through my bones as I lifted my hands above my head, signaling my surrender. Before I could even blink, my hands were wrenched behind my back, icy steel handcuffs clamping them together.

"You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney..." 

The drone of the words faded away as I squeezed my eyes shut. I was truly and thoroughly fucked

 

 

 

"What's your name, kid?"

I drew my lips back in a snarl, peering through the steel blue bars at the portly man perched behind a gleaming mahogany desk, situated before a small computer screen. His police badge gleamed dully beneath the artificial lights overhead, giving off an eerie glint.

"I'm not a kid. I'm eighteen."

A grizzled eyebrow arched upward, coupled with an irritatingly condescending chuckle. "Yes, you're eighteen. And you're sitting in a holding cell. Whether you're a kid or not, you might want to give me your name, now."

"Wang." My voice was laced with venom, but the cop didn't seem to notice my insolence. "Jackson Wang."

"Jackson Wang," he noted, recording the moniker into the computer. "So, Jackson, do you understand the consequences of your crime?"

I sat in the center of a dingy police station, surrounded by smooth cement walls, a caged entrance, and a fat cop who was getting on my nerves.

"I'm sure you'd love to tell me."

The cop's lips contorted into an irritated grimace as he slowly rose to his feet and crossed the small room, gripping the bars of my cell with white-knuckled hands.

"Let's try this again." The cop spoke through clenched teeth now. "Do you know what'll happen to you now that you've vandalized a place of spiritual worship?"

This time, I quirked an eyebrow, challenging the simmering cop with a haughty smirk. "God will smite me for my unforgivable sin?"

His lips curled into a wry smile. "Nice guess. Let's see if those jokes of yours are able to save you from your fate."

"And what exactly is my fate, officer?"

He leaned closer now, the tip of his bulbous nose pushing through the wide-set cell bars. "Fortunately for you, your little artwork cost less than $400 in damages. I'm willing to bet you'd only have to spend up to a year in county jail. Maybe a fine of up to $1000, on top of that."

Blood drained from my cheeks. "One grand? I don't have that kind of money!"

Wicked glee shone in the cop's dark eyes. "I'm sure your folks would be happy to fork over the cash."

I fell silent.

"That's what I thought." The cop retreated from the bars. "This time, it's a misdemeanor, but next time could be a felony. You know what that means, kid? More severe consequences."

I sealed my lips together in a grim line, lowering my glare to the cement at my feet. Eventually, when I lifted my gaze, he had already settled behind the desk again. His feet were propped up on the edge, his chin tilted skyward as his eyelids drooped dangerously low over his bloodshot irises.

"What if," I began steadily, trying to mask the underlying tremor in my voice, "I can't pay the fine?"

He peered at me beneath hooded eyelids, lifting an eyebrow. "You're oddly pessimistic for a kid who hasn't been sent to jail yet. You haven't even asked for your phone call and you're giving up already."

"Answer me." I met his stare with unflinching resolve. "What happens to me if I can't pay?"

Lowering his ankles from the desk, he leaned forward and clasped his fingers together before him. "I suppose you would have to spend more time behind bars. You said it yourself. You're not a kid, so you won't be handled like one."

I hissed out a long, drawn-out sigh, hanging my head. "You should've just shot me. I would have been better off dead."

Although the words were spoken just beneath a whisper, he must have heard them, because when I looked up, he was standing just outside the bars again. This time, he was holding a handheld phone through them.

"You have the right to one free phone call. Use it wisely," he said. "I would suggest using it to call your folks to bail you out."

I shook my head immediately, dismissing the gesture with a slight wave of my hands. "Keep your precious phone call. I don't need it."

The cop's expectant look crumpled into one of frustration. "What the hell are you talking about? I just told you—"

"I have no one to call," I cut in, fixing a steely glare upon the dumbfounded cop. "And I don't want to talk to anyone until I have a lawyer with me."

"Hopefully, a lawyer will not be necessary." Another voice drifted through the police station before the cop could answer. 

"Excuse me, sir," the cop said, straightening his posture as he turned to face the newcomer, who I couldn't see from within my cell. "May I help you?"

"Actually, sir, you can," the man spoke, his voice a deep rumble. "I am Raymond Tuan, the pastor of the Golden Bay Covenant Church, and I was called about an act of vandalism. I would like to speak to the culprit."

The man finally stepped into my sight. Raymond Tuan was a wide-set man with wire-rimmed spectacles perched precariously at the tip of his nose and salt-and-pepper hair that curled loosely past his softly defined jawline. His skin was lightly browned by the sun and his small mouth was framed by a silver mustache and beard.

He didn't look like any pastor I had ever seen. I couldn't tell if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

"Is that him?"

Raymond Tuan stood just outside my cell, his shrewd black eyes sweeping over me. I locked my jaw in place, shifting my weight as he scrutinized me. Though it was the dead of night, he was clad in a crisp button-down shirt and pressed slacks, a world of difference from my drop-crotch pants and black muscle tank emblazoned with a skull and the cheeky caption Keep Calm and Fuck You.

"What's your name, son?" he asked, finally lifting his gaze back up to mine.

"Jackson Wang," I answered. "Are you here to press charges, Raymond?"

"Reverend." The pastor's right eye twitched behind his glasses. "Do you understand the punishment you will endure if I decide to press charges, Mr. Wang?"

"Yes, he has been very clear about the consequences." I cast a glance toward the silent officer, who had returned to his position behind his desk.

To my surprise, the pastor knelt before the cell, resting his chin upon steepled fingers. "Why did you commit this crime, Mr. Wang?"

I leveled my stare with his, maintaining the eye contact for as long as I dared. "I don't consider what I did a crime, Reverend."

"Is that so?" Although his face was half-bathed in shadow from my cell, I could've sworn his eyes gleamed with amusement. "Then what do you consider it?"

I barked out a dry laugh. "I consider it a dose of the truth. You see, Reverend, the truth is a lot like medicine. No one wants to swallow it, even if it'll speed up the healing process. So, how do you get someone to take medicine? You wait until they open their mouths in protest, then you pour it down their throat. The truth works the same way."

The pastor eyed me critically for a moment, then he rose to his feet, dusting off his slacks. "Officer, will you please release Mr. Wang? I have chosen not to press charges."

Puzzlement spread across the cop's face, but he stood from the desk and unlocked my cell door without comment.

"Looks like it's your lucky day, kid," he mumbled as he removed my handcuffs. "Hopefully, we won't have to meet again."

I nodded to him in acknowledgment, but my eyes were glued to Reverend Tuan, who disappeared through the doors of the police station.

"Wait!"

I jogged after the retreating man, stepping out into the pouring rain. The pastor stood beside a sleek white vehicle, a wide black umbrella shielding him from the slippery onslaught of icy needles.

Brushing my dripping hair out of my eyes, I approached him, standing just outside of the umbrella's protection. He didn't make any move to cover me.

"Why did you do that," I asked, my chest heaving as I fought to catch my breath, "for me?"

Reverend Tuan didn't smile. He simply fixed his dark eyes on mine, considering me thoughtfully. "I didn't do it for you. I did it for my son."

"Your son?" My eyebrows furrowed together in confusion. "I don't understand..."

"My son is the one who convinced me that what you have done to my church is harmless." Reverend Tuan's voice was cold. "And though I would have much rather allowed you to rot away in a cell, my son is far more lenient, and he gave me a better idea."

Squeezing my eyes shut, I silently praised the unknown boy who had been my get-out-of-jail-free card, until the rest of his words finally sunk in.

"Wait, what idea?" I asked.

This finally brought a smile to the pastor's lips, but it was far from a pleasant one. Chills crawled up my spine, seeping through my rain-soaked skin.

"For the next few months, you will do community service for the Golden Bay Covenant Church," he explained, plowing on before I could protest, "by painting a mural over your...artwork."

"You have got to be kidding me," I fumed. "You bailed me out of jail to paint a pretty picture on your fucking walls?"

The pastor's eyes flashed dangerously. "Watch your mouth, boy. If you would rather speak and act like a delinquent, you might as well return to that jail cell of yours. Right now, God is offering you a second chance, and you either choose to take it or waste your life behind bars. It's up to you."

Fisting clumps of my wet hair in frustration, I breathed out a resigned sigh. "Fine. When do I start?"

"Excellent question. You start tomorrow." 

Chapter Text

With a powerful stabbing motion, I swung the spearlike contraption toward the ground, impaling a dented aluminum can. I stuffed the piece of scrap metal into the billowing trash bag at my feet, pausing to brush a hand across my sweat-glistening brow.

I'd been broiling beneath the sun's harsh rays for about three hours now and it was already noon, which meant that the Los Angeles sun began to beat down on me with renewed vigor. 

Sweeping my gaze from left to right, I peeled my t-shirt over my head, never one to fear baring some skin in my signature black tank top. Even so, I was pleased that the Golden Bay Covenant Church sat alongside one of Los Angeles' more peaceful streets. I didn't want some nosy bystander to report to Reverend Tuan about an "indecent" trespasser on his property. 

Peering down at the overflowing trash bag, I shifted it toward the curb with my foot, thoroughly convinced that it was time for me to take a break. Using a hand to shield my vision from the harsh glare of the sun, I gazed up at the massive building towering above me.

The Golden Bay Covenant Church was a pentagon-shaped building with a russet brick exterior, glossy stained-glass windows, and a single alabaster spire where a tall silver cross stood tall. A wide staircase, separated only by a slender black railing, angled up toward a set of heavy double doors. Two lush, vibrant trees flanked the head of the stairway, reminding me of the stoic guards of Buckingham Palace. 

Huffing out an exhausted sigh, I sat at the base of the stairs, plucking my phone from my pocket. I popped a single earbud into my ear, twirling the second around my fingertips as I thumbed through the list of illegally downloaded tunes. When I finally selected Jay Chou's "Silence," humming along to the familiar words, the doleful notes of a piano lilted through the sturdy wooden doors above me, accompanied by a voice I never expected to hear coming from a church.  

Winding my headphones around my phone, I slid it back into my pocket and climbed the staircase, tracing my fingertips along the railing. When I reached the top, I lightly pressed my cheek against the sun-warmed wood, listening for the voice that jarred me from my music-induced trance. 

When I heard the voice again, I reached for the doorknob, turning it just enough to crack the door slightly open. Though I was normally pretty bold, my heart somehow felt like lead in my chest, and I realized I was scared to be caught eavesdropping, almost as if I feared the voice would disappear.

Wetting my lips, I darted through the opening and inched the door closed with an almost inaudible click. Almost

My entire body froze, my eyes squeezed shut, and I waited with bated breath to be caught. Luckily, that moment never came.

"All right, guys. One more run-through, then I think we'll be ready for tomorrow." My eyes instantly snapped open at the sound of the familiar voice, a heady mix between softness and raspiness. "Youngjae, let's take it again from the top."

The same piano chords from before—which I now recognized as the hymn "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee"—wafted through the large atrium, and I took this opportunity to look around at my surroundings. 

I stood at the foot of a long red carpet, which paved a path between rows of empty mahogany pews. Along both side walls and the arched ceiling glittered various stained-glass depictions of ancient scripture. Elegant white pillars extended down from the upper tiers, planted firmly along the pews in an orderly column.

What truly stole my attention, though, was at the very front of the church. 

Beneath a large golden cross was a collection of risers where a small group of people stood, singing along to the hymn in perfect unison. Behind a mahogany grand piano sat a boy who looked not much younger than me, a radiant smile brightening his features as he belted out some powerful lines. He was one of only six boys among the small choir, but my eyes were affixed to one in particular. 

As the boy in question stepped forward, microphone in hand, my jaw dropped when he opened his mouth...and began to rap. The soft raspiness of his voice faded into a deep, husky growl, resonating through my body in an achingly familiar thrum. 

 

Joyful, joyful, we adore thee, h eavenly father up above.

You shower us with gifts throughout eternity,

Among those gifts compassion and love.

Shine down on all of us in our time of need.

Melt away our sorrow, burn away our sin, 

And I hope you will allow my brethren and me

Into the pearly gates of Heaven.

 

I gravitated down the wide carpet, settling into a pew in the middle of the church. Although the choir had begun to sing along with the blond's rapping, he remained my sole focus as I bobbed my head in time with his rhythm.

The boy didn't look like a rapper. On the contrary, I could only describe him as beautiful, almost girlishly so. Beneath his boxy muscle tank undulated a lean, athletic body fitting for a swimmer or an underwear model. Ruffled ash blond waves tumbled from the front of his beanie, fringing his almond-shaped brown eyes in a way that made him look as if he just stepped out of a manga. 

He definitely had a unique flow, bulldozing through his lyrics with an insane amount of charisma, and I could see why many of the girls in the choir seemed to be shooting him appreciative glances behind his back.

I didn't understand what I found so fascinating about him, other than the fact that I had never heard about a rapper in a church choir before. All I knew was that something about this boy's voice was special, and that I could sit and listen to him all—

Someone aggressively cleared his throat, jarring me from my thoughts. I quickly lifted my gaze, only to find that the entire choir's eyes were now on me, including the young rapper. Our eyes met and heat flooded through my cheeks as I turned toward a fuming Reverend Tuan.

"Must I remind you that you are here to repent for your crime, Mr. Wang, not to fool around?" he hissed. "I suggest you return to your responsibilities, or I may have to extend your service."

Grumbling an affirmative beneath my breath, I rose from the pew and ambled back toward the entrance. As I reached the door, I suddenly hesitated, peering over my shoulder at the choir. To my surprise, even though the rest of the choir members had dissolved into easy chatter, the rapper's intense gaze was still fixed upon me. 

 

 

 

 

Adjusting the lapels of my blazer for what felt like the umpteenth time, I swept my gaze across the packed atrium, wetting my lips as several pairs of curious eyes watched me. Every now and then, I would acknowledge this intense scrutiny with a slight incline of my head, attempting to mask my discomfort with politeness. 

Though part of me fought the urge to shy away from the intrusive stares, a small voice buried in the back of my subconscious reasoned that it was only because the church was small and it was clear that I didn't belong in it. Even though I'd tried my best to fit in with everyone's Sunday best, it was painfully obvious that I was an outsider in my pinstriped suit and faux leather shirt unbuttoned at the neck. I looked more "playboy CEO" than "goody-two-shoes churchgoer," but it was the best I could do to slip beneath Reverend Tuan's radar. 

Although I had been fighting the undeniable urge to bolt out of those dreaded double doors since the beginning of the service, I found myself glued to the pew for almost an hour. Fifteen minutes into the service, I rose to my feet, unable to handle the fiery intensity of Reverend Tuan's opening sermon—until the choir roused into a catchy rendition of "Amazing Grace." 

My step faltered, nearly sending me sprawling to the carpeted aisle until I caught myself on the edge of the pew and slid back into my seat, fixing my gaze upon the cobalt-robed group behind the pulpit. Much like I witnessed during their impromptu practice, the Golden Bay Covenant Church choir easily transitioned into a smooth, rhythm-and-blues-inspired croon. 

I soon found myself rocking my head to the beat, noticing with slight amusement that the six boys seemed to overpower the sweet vocals of the girls, especially when the same pianist from before—Youngjae, if I recalled his name correctly—brought the congregation to tears with a particularly heart-wrenching solo. 

As I trailed my eyes across the solemn faces of the choir, I was at once reminded with a sharp pang in my chest of the reason I so painstakingly rifled through my closet for my dad's old suit and bothered to spritz on some of his favorite cologne. The mysterious blond rapper—who previously stood with his back to the churchgoers, using his long-fingered hands with surprising fluidity to conduct the choir—whirled around on his heels, lifting a microphone to his shell-pink lips as he burst into a flurry of powerful rap lyrics.

Chills skittered down my spine, leaving goosebumps in their wake. The rapper had completely transformed overnight, pushing aside the overly baggy muscle tank from the day before in favor of a sleek, all-black suit. His pale skin shone beneath the lights with an almost translucent glimmer, mirroring the shine of the silver-blond wisps he swept up off his forehead. 

Even from where I sat, I couldn't help but notice the burning embers of passion kindling in his dark eyes as he maneuvered past the pulpit, scanning them over the congregation.

I realized then why I was so entranced by this rapper and why I was willing to sit through that entire service if it meant that I could watch him perform again. It was the same reason why I continued to tune into each choral performance even after my attempts to drown out Reverend Tuan's testimonies.

I wasn't only drawn to the pleasant huskiness of the rapper's voice or the allure of his almost eerily feminine beauty. I was in awe of his passion, his clear love for music, something I once saw in myself when my parents were still alive and supported my dreams—until they came crumbling down. 

So there I sat, half-listening to Reverend Tuan's final sermon and half-wondering how the hell I made it through an entire church service, when the choir was given the floor for one final performance. Instead of allowing my body to betray me for the millionth time that morning, I steadfastly fixed my eyes upon the clasped hands in my lap instead of stealing yet another glance at the enigmatic rapper.

That is, until a strange silence fell over the congregation, interrupted only by the lonely warbles of Youngjae's fingers ghosting across the piano keys. I realized with a jolt that the blond was supposed to be rapping...and for some reason, he wasn't. 

My head snapped up immediately and I sought out the rapper with my eyes—only to find his gaze locked on mine. His long fingers were curled around his mic, suspended just an inch below his lips, but his stare never wavered, locking me in place.

Heat instantly flooded through my cheeks, creeping toward the tips of my ears, but I couldn't tear my eyes away. I was caught. He knew I didn't belong there, and it was only a matter of time before the other members of the choir—and Reverend Tuan—caught onto my trespassing. 

A cold fear settled in the pit of my stomach. Though I knew I was doing nothing wrong, I also knew that I had no plausible reason to sneak into the church and sit through an entire service. 

Suddenly, all of my fear dissipated when his porcelain face split into a wide smile, showcasing a long row of pearly teeth that seemed to be meant for me. Lifting the mic to his lips, he launched into one of his signature raps, finally shifting his gaze away. Not before I caught sight of the endearing crinkles that webbed his mirth-filled brown eyes, though. 

When the service finally came to an end, I slipped back out to the alleyway unnoticed, weaving through the horde of churchgoers before Reverend Tuan could catch on to my presence. Shrinking back into the shadows, I removed my sketchbook from my bag and began to brainstorm ideas for the mural, sucking my bottom lip into my mouth as my pencil danced across the page. 

As I sketched, I carded a hand through my tousled locks, rapping absentmindedly in an attempt to block out the raucous pandemonium of the crowd spilling through the doors of the church. After a moment, I realized I was rapping the blond's free-styled lines and I instantly shifted into singing instead, shaking my head as if to clear my thoughts of the young rapper.

I hadn't even realized the silence pressing in on me until a voice cut through my reverie, jarring me back to the present. 

"Is there anything you can't do?"

The familiar voice sent me staggering back, dropping my sketchbook to the ground with a loud slap. I watched with wide eyes as the blond strode into the alley, kneeling before me to scoop up the sketchbook and dust off the page I had been working on. For the second time that day, blood crept up my neck. 

"What?" I spluttered, inwardly cursing the tremor underlying my tone.

His eyes flickered over the sketch as he spoke, much to my mortification. "Is there anything you can't do?"

I couldn't help it. My shoulders tensed and I clenched my jaw, narrowing my eyes as they locked upon the blond's. 

"Are you making fun of me?" I bristled, my voice coming out much sharper than I intended.

He didn't back down, meeting my clear glare of distrust with a tinkling laugh. I was surprised at how light and airy the sound was, so surprised that my tense demeanor almost immediately melted away. 

"No, I really mean it," he replied, lightly handing over the sketchbook. Our fingers brushed as I accepted it from him, but I pretended not to notice, as did he. 

"Thanks," I mumbled sheepishly, setting the sketchbook aside as I fidgeted with my jacket. It was blazing hot outside, as normal, and I was itching for my tank top by now.

The blond's eyes followed the movement. "You look different. It's a good look for you. Though I'm surprised you came."

I jutted my chin out in defiance, meeting his gaze head-on. He knew. The little bastard knew, I could tell by the mischievous twinkle in his eyes. 

"And why is that?" I asked.

He lifted his slender shoulders in a noncommittal shrug. "I don't know. Church just doesn't seem to be your thing."

I pursed my lips, carefully testing out my next words in my head before speaking them aloud. "I came for the music."

The young rapper smiled and rose to his feet, seemingly pleased with my answer as he approached the graffiti clinging to the wall—the graffiti I spent weeks creating. 

"Wait." I followed the graceful line of the boy's body as he passed me, furrowing my eyebrows in puzzlement. "How did you know?" 

He slowly traced his fingertips over the word Judgment. "Just a good guess."

I watched him for a moment until he turned to face me, an undeniable sadness pooling inside his inky irises.

Part of me ached to bypass that seemingly impassive gaze of his and catch a glimpse of what made this mysterious boy tick, but he pinned me with his stare. It was a challenge unlike any I had ever faced before, a battle of wills to see who would crack first. 

"Tuan Yien! "

The exclamation sliced through the tension, bringing the standoff to a halt as the rapper before me averted his gaze, blinking away the sadness I witnessed earlier and replacing it with a shy smile.

"I should probably get going. My dad's going to throw a fit if he catches me in here." He cast his eyes skyward in a clear display of exasperation. "It was nice to meet you."

He lifted his hand in a small wave and jogged toward the entrance of the alleyway, pausing to face me just as he was about to disappear around the corner. "Wait, I didn't catch your name."

Taken aback by the request, I dropped my eyes to the floor, examining my shoes as if they were the most interesting thing to look at in that moment. "Jackson. Jackson Wang."

"Jackson." The smile he flashed in my direction after the name rolled off of his tongue was positively radiant. "You should really consider joining the choir. I know church isn't your thing, but if music is, I think you'd be perfect."

I scoffed at this, but he continued, ignoring my clear reluctance. "I'm serious. I run the choir with a few friends and I think your voice would really change the game for us. Please just think about it?" 

Searching his pleading eyes, I knew he had me exactly where he wanted me. There was no way I could say no to his request, not if it was my help he wanted. So I nodded, and he rewarded me with yet another bright smile, erasing almost all traces of regret I felt. 

"I'm Mark, by the way. Mark Tuan," he said over his shoulder. "I'll see you around, Jackson."

As his black-clad back slipped out of view, I worried my bottom lip between my teeth, something about his final words striking the wrong chord in my chest. After a few moments, the realization came crashing down upon me, dragging me under a wave of sudden dread.

Tuan.

The boy who I found myself so drawn to these past two days was none other than the reverend's son.

Chapter Text

Day three of my enslavement brought me back to the familiar alley, equipped with a tote overflowing with spray paint. Eyeing the deep burgundy of the brick wall, I rummaged through the tote until I found the right can, juggling it between my hands as I trailed my eyes over my artwork.

A bolt of sorrow shot through me. Of all the pieces I created since my parents died, this one struck a more personal chord. Of course it would also be the one that got me caught. 

I sunk my teeth into my bottom lip, attempting to bite back the white-hot tears rimming my eyes, and lifted the can to my masterpiece. 

"Wait!"

Before I could press down on the nozzle, a lean body slammed into mine, sending me and the aerosol can to the ground. Dazed, I clutched my head with a low groan as my vision refocused, bringing an apologetic Mark swimming into view. He hovered over me, his slender chest heaving as his eyes flickered across my face.

"Are you okay?" he whispered, sucking his lower lip into his mouth as he regarded me carefully. My eyes unconsciously strayed from his, following the movement, and I instantly squeezed them shut. What the hell was that?

"What the actual fuck, Mark?" I hissed, finally opening my eyes to glare at the blond. 

To my surprise, he tentatively adjusted my bandana, securing some fallen strands with the knotted fabric. "I'm sorry. I just...I couldn't sit back and watch you erase your art."

"I don't have a choice." I caught his wrist, dragging it away from my face. "It's either this or prison. Your father made sure of that." 

He winced, averting his eyes as he slid off of me. "Look, I'm really sorry. You looked really upset, and I just thought I could offer another option."

"There is no other option," I sighed, dusting myself off as I rose to my feet.

He slipped his phone from the back pocket of his ripped black jeans to snap a picture of my work. 

I eyed him warily, stuffing my hands into my pockets. "What brings you here so early on a Monday, anyway?"

"Choir practice," he responded, crooking a thumb in the direction of the church. "We practice every day, but I figured you'd be here, so I thought I'd stop by before practice." 

"Why?" I prodded, extinguishing the warmth that settled in the pit of my stomach. "Don't waste your time on a lost cause, Mark."

His eyes remained glued to his phone screen, not once straying to my face as he spoke, his voice just below a whisper. "You're not a lost cause."

When he spoke again, his eyes glittered with intensity. "What if I told you that you don't need to erase it?"

"How many times do I have to tell you that I don't have a choice?" I scoffed derisively, bending to pick up the can of paint once more. 

"Why not?" His eyes lit up with each word he spoke, setting his irises ablaze with excitement. "Just change it up enough to use it in the mural."

"How do you know about the mural?"

"Well, uh...it was kind of my idea. I figured doing something you love is better than being stuck behind bars and I just thought—"

"I don't get it. Why would you help me?" 

His brows knitted together. "Why wouldn't I help you?" 

"Because I'm a stranger who vandalized your dad's church." My voice was low but laced with audible derision. "To your kind, I'm nothing but a gangster, right?"

Silence. 

When I lifted my eyes off of the floor, I found Mark already looking at me, his face drained of all color. 

"My kind?" His voice was punctuated with a biting edge. "You wouldn't be the first to assume who I am because of my dad and you definitely won't be the last, but I am not my dad, and I don't appreciate being judged because of who he is, either."

I stepped forward, reaching a hand out to him. "Mark, I—"

"Is it that impossible to believe I might just want to be friends?" 

The concept was foreign to me, especially after my parents died. I hadn't had anyone I could count on in years, and now the boy who captivated me with his talent and passion was asking to be my friend.

"Mark!" A deep, honey-coated voice called out from the street, breaking the tense silence between us.

Mark, who had been watching me with a wounded glint in his eyes, turned to offer a smile to the newcomer—a raven-haired boy in cropped slacks and shiny leather oxfords. I wrinkled my nose as the boy's narrowed eyes swept over my frame, shining with ill-concealed amusement as he took in my sweatpants and t-shirt combo.

An irrational hatred swept through my veins and I wanted to scream, "Go back to the country club, you insufferable prick!"

As his shrewd black eyes returned to Mark, however, his face split into a bright smile. I noted bitterly that he was pretty for a guy, whiskers creasing into the outer corners of his eyes. I didn't want to analyze why that realization irritated me to no end. 

"You're late for practice," he scolded, though his words seemed to hold no bite. "Jaebeom sent me to haul you inside."

I dug my blunt fingernails into my palm as Mark strode up to the stranger, draping an arm across his shoulders. "You know you guys could've started without me, right?"

"What?" the brunet gasped, feigning offense. "We would never. You are a vital part of the team and my best friend. The choir needs you. I need you."

My eyes were probably boring into Mark—who turned a brilliant shade of red at the boy's comment—by that point.

"Awww, Jinyoungie," he cooed, setting my teeth on edge. "Go on ahead. I'll be right there."

With one last lingering look of condescension toward me, "Jinyoungie" sashayed out of view, leaving Mark and me alone once again. Before I could speak, he was already turning away. 

"I'm sorry if I overstepped," he mumbled, shoulders drooping. "I promise I'll never speak to you again."

My mouth flopped open, but no words came out. Nothing I could say would fix this and I knew it. By the time my brain had sifted through various different options and finally settled on the perfect one to make it up to him, Mark was already gone. 

Hours later, when the female members of the choir spilled through the doors of the church, I stood in wait with a helmet propped against my hip. A leather jacket hung loosely over my shoulders despite the sweltering heat, though I didn't mind much. Clearly, neither did the giggling girls strutting past me. As they passed, tidbits of their gossip—I've never seen him around before...oh my god, he is so hot...I wonder who he's waiting for...God, whoever she is must be so lucky—wafted toward me, making me stifle a laugh.

Every now and then, a bold one flashed a flirtatious smile in my direction, to which I responded with an arched eyebrow. I had no time to flirt when I needed to reconcile with Mark. 

Finally, the one I had been waiting for emerged, trailed by the five boys I recognized from practice two days before. Or I guess I should say four of the boys; the one Mark called Jinyoungie walked with his chin held high, his arm slung over Mark's shoulders like before. 

As the pair leaned into one another, conversing and laughing among themselves, a feeling that felt uncomfortably like jealousy unfurled in my gut. Was that the type of friendship I forfeited? The thought made me sick to my stomach.

"Mark?" I called out, grabbing the attention of all six boys. I only recognized Youngjae, the bright boy with a happy-go-lucky smile and powerhouse vocals. Everyone stared at me quizzically, apart from "Jinyoungie"—who stared at me like I was scum on the bottom of his shoe—and Mark, who froze in his tracks. 

"What do you want, Jackson?" His voice was icy, but I felt a selfish twinge of satisfaction as he ducked beneath the snobby raven-haired boy's arm and climbed down the stairs, standing before me.

I knifed my fingers through my hair, lowering my eyes to avoid his piercing glare. "Let me buy you a burger."

"What?" To my relief, he sounded more amused than angry now. "Now?"

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed one of the five boys—another brunet with more ear piercings than I could count on my fingers—ushering the others away to give us some privacy. I made a mental note to seek him out and thank him later.

"Yes, right now," I said, finally meeting his eyes. "Unless you already have plans?"

He shook his head, ash blond hair flopping into his eyes. "No plans. I just don't understand why you suddenly want to hang out with a preacher's son." 

"I deserve that..." I managed a wry smile. "You're right. You are a preacher's son, but I don't care. You're the reason I'm not locked up in a cell, and if that's not a damn good reason to be friends, I don't know what is."

"No one with your talent should end up behind bars," he admitted quietly. 

The telltale heat returned with a vengeance, probably staining my cheeks with color. "Does that mean you'll let me take you out and prove I'm not always a complete asshole?"

"I'm not so sure that's a good idea, Jackson." He wrung his hands, stealing a glance over his shoulder. "My dad wants me to come straight home after practice..."

"Aren't you an adult?" My voice tapered off into an exasperated groan. "How long are you going to live under your dad's thumb? Do you always do what your daddy says?"

The tips of his ears burned crimson as he sent me an indignant glare, but he didn't answer my question, so I chose to pose another.

"When was the last time you had fun?" I asked. "Do you ever go out with friends?"

"I see my friends every day...," he grumbled, "...at practice."

I couldn't help it. I burst into peals of hyena-like laughter, doubling over as Mark stood there, fuming.

"If I have anything to say about it, that's about to change." 

With a wink, I latched onto Mark's hand and led him into the alleyway, where my beloved bike awaited. It was a sleek black beauty with all of the fixings, glimmering faintly beneath a sliver of sunlight. 

"This is a really bad idea," Mark murmured, eyes wide as I finally released his hand and straddled the seat, offering him the silver helmet I had been cradling all morning. 

"Come on, Mark," I goaded, slipping a matching black helmet over my head. "Learn to live a little."

His eyes strayed down to the helmet in his hands, which were lightly trembling. "My dad would murder me if—"

"It's up to you," I interrupted, flipping up my visor to see him clearly. "Either you live your life in fear and let it pass you by, or you let me give you a taste of what it's like to live on the wild side. It might be dangerous, but I can promise you it'll be worth it."

Lowering my visor once more, I revved up the engine. I was only partially surprised when Mark lowered his body onto the bike behind me, hesitantly twining his arms around me.

"I guess Jinyoung will have to cover for me," he said, lightly resting his chin on my shoulder. "I'm trusting you, Jackson. You better not kill me on this thing."

His voice was so low, so pleading in my ear that I almost couldn't hear him over the engine. At the mention of Jinyoung—ah, so Jinyoungie was only a nickname; how revolting—I tightened my grip on the handlebars, staining my knuckles bone-white. 

"Don't worry. I've got you." I eased up on the engine so he could catch my words. "Just hold on tight."

With that, I kickstarted the bike, jetting off into the blazing California sun. 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite the merciless warmth of the sunlight saturating the busy Los Angeles streets in golden dye, the bike's speed sent a gush of wind over the curve of my helmet. Heat seeped through the worn leather of my jacket as I leaned into Mark's embrace, echoing his surprised whoops of laughter as we weaved through traffic.

"This is...amazing!" he gasped, burying his face between my shoulder blades.

A genuine laugh bubbled out of my throat, rising above the animalistic growl of the engine. My bike—a sixteenth birthday present from my parents—had been a constant source of comfort over the past two years, providing an adrenaline rush when I craved solace in the most unconventional of ways.

But something about this ride felt different

Sure, I had never offered another person a ride on my bike. In fact, I was almost insanely protective of the damned thing since it was the last reminder I had of my parents—but a smug voice nestled in the back of my subconscious pointed out that Mark was different. 

As I maneuvered the bike into the parking lot of In-N-Out Burger, cruising recklessly over a speed bump in the process, the boy in question let out a high-pitched giggle and slipped his arms from around my waist—only to securely rest his hands on either side of my ribs. 

Surprise, not completely unpleasant, ricocheted through my veins. Though I didn't understand why, a prickling sensation bled through my thin t-shirt, specifically where Mark's fingertips slotted between the grooves of bone and muscle. I ignored the fact that the long digits seemed to fit perfectly like a jigsaw puzzle, using every ounce of concentration in my body not to wrap the bike around a pole like a piece of scrap metal.

As I cut the engine, I waited with growing impatience for Mark to disentangle himself from my body. Once the super-charged electricity coursing through my body simmered down to the normal fuzzy warmth I had grown to associate with Californian weather, I dismounted and turned to my companion. 

"I hate to admit it, but you were right," he gushed, his face still concealed behind the comically large helmet's visor. "That had to be the most fun I've had in a long time."

I chuckled and removed my helmet, shaking out my mussed hair as he continued to gush about the "insane" adrenaline rush.

"You should teach me some time." His eyes, twinkling with hope, settled upon mine as I lifted the helmet over his head. "How to ride, I mean."

As I fastened both helmets to the handlebars, I rapidly blinked away the image of Mark's unnaturally rosy lips—just a shade darker than his excitement-flushed cheeks. 

What the hell is wrong with me? 

"Sure, I'll teach you," I blurted, my arm grazing against his as we walked side-by-side into the fast food place. Mark's gaze snapped back to my face, visibly shaken by the affirmation. Hell, my response shocked even me, since I had never so much as let someone touch my bike, let alone learn how to ride it. I kept my gaze locked on the menu, refusing to acknowledge how easily Mark coaxed me into doing whatever he wanted. "But what's in it for me?" 

Mark's body visibly tensed beside me, but his tone was nonchalant as he spoke. "What do you want?"

I want to understand why I can't seem to get you out of my head even though we literally just met a few days ago...and you're a guy. 

"Actually...just forget I asked." My tongue swept across my bottom lip as a spike of anxiety pulsed through me. "It was stupid of me to expect something from you."

As we both stepped forward to make our orders, silence stretched between us. Usually, silence was the bane of my existence, forcing me to wallow in my thoughts. I often tried to fill moments of silence, aching to distract myself from the grief that gnawed at me whenever I allowed myself to think for too long. With Mark, though, silence was comfortable. It was a pleasant distraction, allowing me to focus on our fledgling friendship.

Instinctively, I counted out a small wad of bills and slid it across the counter, ignoring Mark's muted protests. It wasn't until we settled into a booth with our food that Mark finally spoke, absentmindedly swirling his straw around his vanilla milkshake. 

"What got you interested in street art?" he asked, tentatively lifting his eyes from the table to meet mine.

I let out a thoughtful hum, popping two ketchup-soaked fries into my mouth. "Ever since I was a kid, I've dreamed of becoming an artist. I always liked the idea of touching the lives of others. But my dad was a famous fencing coach back in Hong Kong, so he pushed me to pursue Olympic fencing and strive for gold, which meant I had to put my dreams on hold."

Mark's brows creased into a puzzled furrow. "You used to fence?"

"I was on Hong Kong's national team," I murmured, eyeing the cars driving past the windows wistfully. "I was even offered a scholarship to Stanford, but I couldn't see myself pursuing the sport after my dad was killed. So I chose to follow my original dream and use my passion to open society's eyes."

"What happened to your mom?" he asked, his voice dipping below a whisper.

My heart clenched, feeling like cold lead in my chest, and tears welled up in my eyes. "Both of my parents were killed in an armed house robbery."

"Oh, Jackson..." Mark's voice trailed off, strained with ill-concealed horror. 

"You want to know what hurts most? The only reason I'm still alive is because I was practicing for a fencing match, instead of being there when my parents needed me."  

My voice rose hysterically with each word, drawing the attention of several people in the restaurant. Suddenly, Mark reached out and rested his hand on my cheek, swiping his thumb across a fallen tear. 

"This is not your fault," he hissed, "and I won't let you sit here and blame yourself." 

We stared at each other for a moment before he finally dropped his hand—probably leaving a blotch of crimson in its wake—and continued eating. My gaze lingered on his bowed blond head for far longer than was necessary, but I chose not to dwell on it.

"My mom is gone, too," he whispered suddenly. "She was killed by a drunk driver after getting into a fight with my dad and going out for a drive to clear her head. My dad has never really forgiven himself, and the guilt has changed him into someone I don't recognize. It's not his fault my mom was taken from us, and it's definitely not your fault that your parents were taken from you. It's time to forgive yourself, or you'll never truly be happy."

I don't know what came over me, whether it was admiration, understanding, or gratitude. All I knew was that I couldn't seem to stop the next words from spilling out into the open, where I damn well knew I couldn't take them back.

"I'm happy when I'm with you."

His cheeks blazed scarlet, mirroring mine as we both averted our gaze. "Then it looks like we're off to a great start." 

In that moment, as odd and as unfamiliar as it started, a camaraderie began to blossom between the two of us. Despite years of us living vastly different lives, one night proved that we were not so different after all, and that maybe we were just the opposite—kindred spirits in search of our other half, one who could complete us and make us whole again.

That night, I stole a glimpse into the world of the enigma that was Mark. In just half an hour, I learned that Mark was a Taiwanese-American who could speak adequate Mandarin, one of the youngest children of four, and had a scar on his right hand from falling on an icy road three years before. In exchange, I revealed that I was born and raised in Hong Kong, fluent in four languages, and an avid acrobatic trickster—another trait we both seemed to share. In little over an hour, I managed to peel back even more layers of Mark's personality and discover who he truly was: a quiet, reserved boy with a sharp wit and a contagious laugh. 

The more I learned about Mark, echoing his squealing laugh or returning his radiant smile, the more I yearned to discover, delving deeper into the mind of this boy who made such a huge impact on my life in such a short time. We talked about anything and everything, bulldozing through random topics until it seemed like we'd known each other for years rather than days. 

"Ew." I grimaced, wrinkling my nose as Mark dipped a fry into his milkshake and tossed it into his mouth. "Why do you do that?"

He arched an eyebrow, swirling another one through the ice cream. "What, this?"

"Yes, that. Who told you that fries and milkshakes go together?"

"Everyone in America," he replied with a shrug, wiggling his eyebrows at me as he dunked another coated fry between his lips, much to my dismay. "Don't tell me you've never dipped a French fry into a milkshake. It goes perfect with a burger."

"Yeah, I'll pass," I mumbled, finishing off my burger. 

Mark jutted his bottom lip out in an insanely criminal pout, and my stomach churned wildly. "Please? It wouldn't kill you to try it. You might even like it!"

"I highly doubt that I would enjoy—"

Before I could finish my sentence, Mark stuffed a milkshake-drenched French fry into my mouth. Clamping my mouth shut, I shot a glare at him before chewing through the snack, savoring the delicate yet strange balance of ice cream and salt, topped off with the perfect hint of crunch. Once I swallowed the first, I found myself reaching for another, earning a smug smile from Mark.

"See?" He passed me the remainder of his fries, allowing me to finish off his shake as well. "I told you so."

Using a fry, I smeared a dollop of vanilla ice cream across his nose with a smirk. "You know, you look a lot better like that."

"Hey!" he gasped out in surprise. "Take that back!"

I poked my tongue out at him, gnawing on a few fries at once. "Make me."

He darted forward and smudged my own chocolate milkshake across my forehead, spurring on a war of sloppy milkshake fencing. Tangling our hands and arms together in a messy heap, we swiped at one another, dissolving into a mess of ice cream, cheesy Hollywood-worthy lines—Take that...You're going to eat those words...Revenge has never tasted so sweet!—and raucous laughter. 

By the time the impromptu battle drew to its end, In-N-Out had reached its closing hours and the two of us were ushered rather forcibly out into the sultry night breeze, cackling and teasing each other as we ambled to my lone bike.

Together, we jetted back down the freeway, high on the newfound connection we had built. The ride back to the church—ironically, Mark lived in one of the apartments next door, the same building where I clumsily leaped the stairs in an attempt to escape the police just days before—felt so much more intimate somehow, Mark's head nestled against my shoulder, his hands clasped securely across my abdomen.

"Thank you so much, Jackson," he murmured once we arrived. He slid his long legs from the bike and removed his helmet, knifing his fingers through the tousled locks before returning the headgear. "I'll remember today for the rest of my life."

He reached out his fist and I bumped his knuckles with my own. "I'm glad I could show you a good time. At first, I just wanted to make up for being a jerk...but I had an amazing time tonight. I'll definitely be dipping my fries into all my milkshakes from now on."

His soft laughter filled the silent night air as he threw his head back, blond hair gleaming like silver beneath the luminescence of the moon. "I thought it would only be fair to show you what it means to be happy, too."

"Thank you," I murmured, flashing a shy smile, "for seeing something in me when all anyone else sees is nothing."

To my surprise, Mark reached forward and rested his hand on my shoulder, squeezing lightly. "You'll always mean something, to me."

Before I could respond to this admission, a bellowing voice rang out, sending a wave of frigid fear surging through me.

"Tuan Yien! Get inside the house, now."

Mark flinched, clenching his hands into fists as he turned his back to me. Although I didn't need Mark's next words to confirm my suspicions, the meek subservience of them sent chills skittering down my spine. 

"Yes, Dad."

 

Chapter Text

- Mark's Point of View-

"Mark Yien Tuan, what the hell were you thinking?"

It was at times like this when I truly feared my dad, when the only word that could pass my lips was a strangled, "Father."

"I specifically told you to come home right after practice and you chose to disobey me. Don't you understand the consequences of your actions?"

He had always been a big man, but the build once overflowing with laughter was now heavy with anger—one that scorched away anything in its path, leaving behind the traces of relationships that now seemed unsalvageable.

"I was worried sick! When you didn't come home, I called the boys and none of them knew where you were. None, Mark!"

It wasn't uncommon to feel like a burden on my father's shoulders. I often felt like he sought to live his life through mine, conceiving a "perfect son" facade to distract himself from his own inner turmoil. It was for this reason, I soon realized, that he shackled me to him after my mom died. I was caught at a dead end, helplessly accepting the rules he carefully weaved to mold me into the perfect son he so desired.

"Do you know what a fool you made me into?"

After all, I was his only choice. Tammy and Grace were long gone, only swooping back into our lives to attend the funeral before fading back into their separate lives again. Tammy had two mouths to feed and a house realty business, and my father had made it painfully clear that Grace was no longer welcome in our lives until she learned to "cure her illness" and divorce her wife. 

"It is two in the morning, young man! What do you have to say for yourself?"

As for Joey, my father liked to pretend he never existed, expending all of his effort in instilling perfection in his "only child"—me. While my mom's death had left behind splintered relationships and tension-heavy conversations, it particularly left Joey's life in shambles. Motivated by grief, he turned to crime, burying his problems in brutal bar fights and drag racing with stolen cars. His escapades only lasted a month before he was locked away in juvie, away from the outside world and away from our father's understanding.

"Do you realize how disappointed I am in you, Mark? Falling asleep while waiting up for you, only to be jolted awake by that ... t-that god-awful death trap of a machine!"

I had always tried to be the son my father wanted, following his rules and never straying far from the path he laid out for me. I trained myself to bow my head, biting my tongue to prevent the risk of speaking out and burdening him further. While most people my age would have rebelled, I simply became the son my father wanted, because I understood. I understood, and it was because I understood that I was able to hold my tongue and keep my mouth shut.

"At first, I thought you might have been sneaking off with some girl, then I found you talking to that hoodlum—"

Until now.

"Jackson."

My father's mouth flopped open, resembling that of a fresh fish. The expression might've been funny if it weren't for the sharp glint of the dark eyes peering at me from behind the wire-rimmed frames.

"What did you say?"

"Jackson," I repeated. My voice was normally soft and raspy, meek with disuse, but it sounded stronger this time. Bolder, somehow, as if I had finally found a cause worth fighting for. Maybe I had. "That hoodlum's name is Jackson."

"Have you heard a single word I've said?" The complexion of his cheeks ripened into roses, alarmingly bright beneath the apartment's artificial bulbs. "I don't care what his name is—"

"But I do," I piped up, leveling my gaze with his. He faltered momentarily, irises flecked with incredulous horror, and I seized my chance. "Jackson is my friend."

"Why do you need someone like him as a friend?" he spat, voice dripping with venom. 

I flinched away from the poisonous tone, lowering my head into a shallow bow. "I don't expect you to understand."

"Of course I don't understand, Mark!" The bellow ricocheted along the walls, each word piercing through me, embedding into my skin. "You have Jaebeom, Kunpimook, Youngjae, Yugyeom, Jinyoung! What more do you want?"

"Who are you to pick and choose my friends?" I demanded, voice rising and falling at a feverish pace now, tracing the path of the broken relationship we were rehashing. 

"How dare you speak to me that way?" His voice filtered through clenched teeth. It was far more menacing that way, for he had adopted the tone of the reverend—buoyed by a passionate appeal that could carry throughout the atrium of even the largest church. My father no longer stood before me, his evangelical alter-ego taking his place, glare boring into mine as if I was the filthiest creature ever to crawl from the fiery pits of hell. 

Nonetheless, I stood my ground, biting back the insolence rising to the tip of my tongue. "I'm an adult now, Dad. You can't keep me locked away from the world forever."

"Is that what you think?" His eyes swelled into saucers, wild with disbelief and irritation. "Is that the lie your little delinquent friend shoved down your throat?"

A jolt of indignation surged through me, unwarranted and unexplainable. "Jackson is not a delinquent."

"The side of my church proves otherwise, Mark!" His large palms clamped down on my shoulders, rattling me back and forth. "Look at me. Nothing good can come out of befriending a faithless criminal. Nothing, do you understand me?" 

 

Shrugging out from under my father's steely grip, I lowered my gaze to my feet, turning away from him. "I think I'm perfectly capable of choosing friends for myself. Goodnight."

His fingers gripped my forearm, digging into the skin, before I could take a single step. "Do not turn your back on me, Tuan Yien. I am not finished speaking about this."

"I'm sorry, okay?" I blurted out, whirling around as I jerked out of his grasp. "I'm sorry for coming home late. I'm sorry for breaking one of your biggest rules. I'm sorry I couldn't be the perfect son you've always dreamed of. But you'll never hear me say I regret getting on that motorcycle. What more do you want from me?"

"I want you to promise me you'll never speak to that heathen again." His voice shook with underlying rage, but his tone remained firm. 

"That's not fair," I protested, jutting my chin forward. "You can't keep me from hanging out with him. Even if you tell me to stop, I won't." 

"Yes. You. Will." Each word was measured with deliberate care, wedging the tip of his harsh tongue deeper and deeper beneath the armor I had built up over the years. "You will, because I said so."

"I'm done letting you control me." Tremors of resentment rocked through my entire body. "I don't care what you think about Jackson. It's my decision whether I cut him out of my life, not yours."

"What is so special about an uneducated, immoral, good-for-nothing brute who simply destroys anyone and anything in his path?" 

I balled my hands into fists, holding them in tense bundles against my sides. "How could you say that? You don't even know him."

"Do you?" he demanded. "How do you know you won't just be his next victim, Mark? Boys like him don't know how to do anything other than destroy themselves and destroy others. It's all he's good for. I refuse to sit back and watch you go down the path of a criminal. It only takes a split second for one to fall under the devil's temptation."

"Here you go again, preaching at me," I howled in exasperation, startling him into silence. "We're not in church, Dad! This is our home, and I am your son." 

"Who are you?" Before I could respond, he snagged my chin between his thumb and index finger, searching my eyes. "Is he the reason you're not acting like my son? Did he sell you drugs?" 

My hand immediately shot up toward his wrist, dragging it away from my face. "No, Dad! Jackson's not like that! Can't you just stop and listen to me for a second?"

"I knew I shouldn't have let you talk me into giving him a second chance," he hissed. "There's only one place on Earth where boys like him belong: prison."

Rage coursed through my veins and I decided then and there that the only possible way to approach this issue logically was to sleep off the anger and revisit the situation again another day, hopefully when the two of us had considerably calmed down.

Unfortunately, my father's voice filtered over my shoulder just as I turned to make my way to my bedroom. "As long as you live underneath my roof, you will be forbidden to interact with Mr. Wang."

"Then I'll move out." A stifling silence fell upon the apartment, and a twisted sense of satisfaction settled in the pit of my stomach as I turned to face my appalled father. "That's your biggest fear, isn't it? This isn't about Jackson at all. This is about your inability to lose control. After all, I am the only one left to control, right? You lost Mom to fate, Tammy to reality, and Grace to your own nearsighted views—"

"That is enough."

"How could you be such a hypocrite?" I countered viciously, adrenaline sparking another layer of fury within me. "How is it immoral for Jackson to use his talent to fight for social justice when you use yours to cast judgment on those who are different from you? Hell, look what you've done to our family, Dad. You drove Grace out of the family just because she married the one she loved and it happened to be a woman—"

"Mark, I said that that is enough."

"As for Joey? The only one who you can blame for his fate is yourself. Rather than being a father to him in his time of need, you left him to pray to an intangible one, who may or may not even exist, to cope with the grief of losing Mom, but that clearly wasn't enough. Yet, rather than accepting your responsibility, you like to pretend that he doesn't exist, instead. Admit it, Dad. You failed him, and the guilt of knowing that is why you're so damned afraid of losing me, too—"

"Tuan Yien!" 

I didn't stop there. I couldn't. I had spent years bottling up these exact thoughts, allowing them to fester beneath contrived smiles and carefully timed bows of submission. 

"And that's exactly why you can't stand the thought of me growing close to Jackson, because he reminds you of the son you abandoned. You knew Joey and I had always been close, and it was always his dream to escape your control and run off like Tammy and Grace did. But with him out of the picture, you no longer had to worry about me planning to escape, because I was always your obedient little son. There was nothing that could possibly threaten your reign of power over me, until Jackson showed up."

His jaw sunk to the floor, opening and closing in a viselike motion before snapping shut once more. He looked positively livid

"Do you want to know why I find nothing wrong with Jackson's art?" My voice lilted back down to normal volume, but the bite remained, dipping my words in acid. "Because he's right. We live in a world where people use religion to excuse godawful things. How did something meant to inspire others become one that tears them down instead? I'm tired of standing back and watching it, watching you, allow it to happen. Maybe if your head wasn't shoved so far up your precious God's ass—"

Crack.

My head snapped to the side, tears blurring the edges of my vision. Slowly, I lifted trembling fingertips to my raw cheek, pressing them gingerly to the lingering heat as I lifted my gaze to my father's. 

"You will never speak to me that way again," he hissed, fixing me in place with a frigid glare. No emotion peered behind those shuttered irises, none to betray the intensity of our conflict's conclusion. "You are grounded for the remainder of the summer. You will attend practice as usual, but you will return straight home afterward. Until you realize what you have done wrong, you will go straight to your room each day, never to leave it except for meals. Do I make myself clear?"

Lowering my hand from my stinging face, I twisted my features into a scowl. "Crystal." 

I didn't wait for a response. Skipping three stairs at a time, I hurled my body up the staircase and slipped into my room, slamming the door closed with a harsh rumble. 

Only then did I allow myself to break down, sinking to my knees as a ragged sob escaped my throat. Curling in on myself, I felt violent convulsions surge through my body, dragging choked hiccups out of me. I wept like this for what felt like hours before I heard light taps against my windowpane.

Rising to my feet, I smeared the remnants of my tears into my shirt sleeve, cautiously crossing to the other side of the room to peer out the large window. 

I had often spent idle nights gazing wistfully at the stars through this window. After all, the only view I had was the alleyway between my apartment building and the church. The stars had always been the most worthwhile thing to see around this part of town, until the night a mysterious boy in the alleyway caught my attention. 

At first, I was simply curious. Why would this boy visit a church alleyway late at night? 

It wasn't until he pulled out the tools for his craft that my interest was piqued. I had never watched anyone create street art before, but something about his technique captivated me. Although I would never admit it to my father, I had always admired and envied street artists for their craft, their courage to break the rules and take risks to be seen and heard.

So I began to watch him every night, transfixed by the graceful arcs of color and sharp, deliberate blurring. Some days, I traced my fingertips along the splatters of paint before choir practice, out of sight of anyone who wouldn't understand my fascination with the mysterious artist and his controversial work. Some nights, I would sit up for hours and attempt to replicate his work in my sketchbook. 

Although I was excited to see the final product, a reminder of the beauty that could come from being unafraid, I also secretly dreaded the night he would finish. A selfish part of me wanted the process to stretch out much longer, buying me time to muster up the courage to speak to him. I wanted to pick his brain, figure out what motivated him and what made him tick. Something about him was special, and I would be damned if I didn't discover what it was. 

It wasn't until the night I was roused by the distant blaring of sirens filtering through the window's thick glass that my life changed forever. That night, I drifted off early, unable to watch the graffiti artist's progress. Nonetheless, I jolted to the window as soon as I awoke, almost as if to confirm my fears. Icy tendrils of horror seized my heart as I watched a swarm of police officers flood into the alleyway, shouting orders at the fleeing graffiti artist to surrender. 

I knew that I had to do something, or I would lose this mystery of a boy forever.

The rhythmic tapping against the glass broke me out of my thoughts, jarring me back to the present as I peered through the window and locked eyes with said graffiti artist. 

"You shouldn't be here," I whispered as Jackson climbed over the windowsill. His frame, though built like a tank, landed with a light thud before me. He straightened up, his figure shrouded in the silver backlight of the moon.

"I don't care. Did you seriously expect me to leave you alone before making sure you were okay?" He lifted his fingers to my face, gingerly caressing away a stray tear. "I heard shouting, and I couldn't stay away."

"How did you find my apartment?" 

His crooked smile gleamed through the darkness. "I have my ways."

A strange noise, caught between a laugh and a sob, bubbled out of my throat as I pulled Jackson into my arms. Fresh tears pooled in my eyes, staining the cool leather of his jacket, but he didn't seem to mind. He merely cradled my body against his, nestling his head above mine.

"Are you okay, Mark?" he murmured, tracing circles into my lower back with his thumbs. 

Absentmindedly, I nuzzled deeper into his chest, breathing in the scent embedded deep into the fibers of his t-shirt. I couldn't place a name to it, nothing tangible or definite. I could only describe it as smelling like Jackson, something that oddly soothed me. 

As we stood before my window, locked together in an embrace, bathed in moonlight, I felt the tension gradually seep out of my bones.

"I am now."

Chapter Text

-Jackson's Point of View-

"What happened?" 

The words were a mere breath sifting through his tousled ashy locks, but there was no mistaking the tension radiating from the fingers fisted into my beloved jacket, the acidic bitterness of the tears staining the fabric veiling my chest.

The question lilted into silence, punctuated with Mark's muffled, though strangely steady, deep breaths against my collarbone. As he lifted his head, tucking the curvature into the juncture between my jaw and sloping neck, I felt a gasp expel between my lips. Not simply because of the swan dive my heartbeat took as it plunged into overdrive at the sudden intimacy, but because of the budding splotch of color slashed along his porcelain cheekbone in the pale sliver of light filtering through the window.

"Did he do that to you?"

Mark's breaths tapered off into a whimper as he drew back, bowing his head. "Drop it, Jackson. Please."

"How do you expect me to drop it?" I caught the dip of his waist, drawing near to him before he could retreat further. Slowly, I trailed my fingertips along the raw bruise, avoiding the gaze that bore into my skin as I caressed the swollen skin. "He hurt you, Mark." 

His eyes, refracting silver, blazed with a wounded anger. "Maybe I deserved it, okay? I said, drop it." His long fingers twined around my wrists, snatching them away from the wound as he hissed the final two words.

"What if I don't?" I snarled, injured by the forceful gesture. My chin was jutted forward now, a silent challenge. "What will it take for me to prove to you that you will never deserve that?"

He flung my wrists back to my sides, where I allowed them to hang limply, balling my fingers into tight fists. His words were steely, but there was a slight edge to them, tinged with a lingering plea. "Why do you even care? Goddammit, Jackson. I can take care of myself. Stop trying so hard to be my hero."

Frustration wound its burning tendrils around my heart, squeezing the aching organ between its shackles. "So you're allowed to care about me and be my hero, but I'm not even allowed to worry that your own dad hit you across the face? God, Mark. Have you always been such a hypocrite?"

"I thought you, of all people, might understand," he murmured, crossing over to the window in long, faltering strides, "but clearly, I was wrong."

Luminescence bathed his soft jawline in an eerie glow, and I had the sudden thought that Mark Tuan's face was meant to be carved in stone, too ethereal in its beauty to be human, but far too unique to fade from this world altogether. I had never before laid eyes on someone mundane whose face could grace the covers of magazines and billboards, and Mark was no different. No, he deserved so much more than the empty praises of the masses, thirsting to touch him, to taste him, to be him. I was convinced that Mark was the personification of art itself, that he was meant to be displayed within a gallery. 

But even the most coveted art could be riddled with minuscule cracks.

"That's not fair," I said, shaking my head furiously to rid myself of the unwarranted thoughts. "You read me like an open book, but you never allow me inside your head. Why is that?"

He folded his lithe frame into a sitting position at the foot of his bed, flopping his head into his hands. "Because I don't have the strength to witness your disappointment when you realize that there's nothing there."

"Mark." The word was nothing but a whisper on my tongue as I knelt before him, gingerly sweeping his ruffled fringe behind his ear. "Believe me. There's so much more to you than you're giving yourself credit for. If only you could see what I see—"

Don't." He batted my hand away, shooting me a dirty glare dripping with thinly veiled annoyance. "Stop pretending you know me. You don't. You don't know a damn thing about me, Jackson. All you see is the facade, the mask I plaster on my face each and every day. You have no clue who the true Mark Tuan is, and odds are, you never will."

Like a dose of Novocain, his words struck a chord, sending a numbing pain surging through me. I straightened into a standing position, peering down at Mark's hunched figure. "You think I don't know that? It kills me, Mark...knowing you'll never trust me enough to let me in...but I swallow that pain, because  part of me still hopes that I've finally found a true friend after all these years of solitude. Why else do you think I'm here, Mark? I'm here because I care about you, and something about you makes me want to know so much more about who you truly are, but I guess this was all just a big mistake. Good night, Mark." 

I stood paralyzed at the windowsill, staring at the blank patch of the alley wall where my artwork had once been, when he accosted me. I willed myself not to flinch, but I couldn't help the delicious shivers creeping down my spine as he wrapped his arms around my waist, resting his forehead between my shoulder blades as he hiccuped on a sob. 

"Don't go," he whispered, in halting Mandarin. " Please.

Hesitantly, I turned to stare into those broken eyes, tears pinpricking the edges of my own. "Why are you so afraid?"

"Because I c-can't..." He buried his face against my shoulder and I lifted a hand to cradle his head, loosely weaving my fingers through the silken strands. "I can't lose you, too."

A sudden clarity dawned upon me in that moment, and I instantly understood. Without responding, I drew him closer, resting my head upon his.  In this position, our aligned bodies fit together like a puzzle, and I squeezed my eyes shut, attempting to ignore how our heartbeats drummed out a galloping rhythm, rising and falling as one. As we clung to one another, blurring the line between comfort and intimacy, I never mentioned the strange synchronization.

Neither did he.

 

 

 

 

Suspended in a hazy cloud of memories from the night before, I whistled an aimless melody, blind to the world around me. My bulging black tote bag jostled against my sweatpant-clad hip, ringing with a hollow tinniness. As the Golden Bay Covenant Church loomed above me, casting long shadows across the barren street, warmth spread throughout my body, settling at the pit of my gut like fresh sap.

As I stood before the mouth of the alleyway, I tilted my face toward the fleeting warmth of the sun, leaning into its tender blaze like one would welcome the caress of a lover. I did not see the figure detach himself from the shelter of the shadows until it was too late.

The bulk of the tote bag slammed against the leaves-strewn gravel, sending dead foliage scattering. I narrowed my eyes into tense slits, zeroing in on the intruder with bristling rage.

"What the hell are you doing here?" I snarled, failing to conceal the disgust coloring my tone.

His mouth curled into a tight, thin-lipped smile, pulling his otherwise annoyingly handsome face unattractively taut. The shadows he had slinked out of seemed to stain his glossy hair with ink. The shrewd eyes that had glittered kindly for Mark were clouded with distrust as they scanned my body, finally settling upon mine.

"I don't believe we have formally met. Jinson, isn't it?" The false name sounded like acid as it tumbled between his lips, oozing to the bottom of his expensive leather sandals. "Jinyoung Park."

"Jackson, actually." I mirrored his sickly sweet smile, fixing him in place. "The pleasure's all yours, Park."

"Yes." The boy's syrupy voice chilled considerably, smooth as ice. "And though I'm sure you can guess the reason I am here, it is probably best that I cut to the chase."

"Careful," I cautioned. "Are you sure a dumb criminal like me will understand your Harvard pedigree vocabulary?"

Jinyoung stood less than a foot away, peering down at me where our slight height difference skewed our eye level. He bared his teeth in a nasty, cruel smile, and the familiar hatred clawed its way up my throat. "I'm sure you'll manage."

"If you're here to tell me to stay away from Mark, do us both a favor and go home." I bent to retrieve my mask from the tote, fastening the fabric across my scowling mouth. "I'm not going anywhere."

Feigning nonchalance, he propped himself against the wall, eyeing me with a calculating glare. "He's quite something, isn't he? The way he looks at you like you're the only one in the world, like you're special, like you actually mean something. Even when you're clearly bad for him."

Pocketing the cans of spray paint I needed, I traced my fingertips along the area where I would begin the mural. "I take it you understand the feeling, then?"

"Oh, of course. Everyone does. Mark has that special something about him, you know. Making everyone feel worth it." I could imagine the smug smile playing upon his full lips. "But I'm Mark's best friend. Of everyone in this world, I probably mean the most to him. We're practically soulmates."

"I can't wait to taste the wedding cake." Though my voice was thick with sarcasm, an unidentifiable emotion sharpened my thoughts, poisoning them with a bitter clarity. "I'll be sure to pass it on that Mark has a faithful wife."

"It bothers you, doesn't it?" he drawled. "Knowing that you mean nothing to him. You're simply a charity case that Mark is too nice to pass up. You're not a friend. You're just a statistic. What is it you want from him, anyway? A delinquent such as yourself requires no other friends than those in the prison yard. I'm going to say this one time and one time only, so listen carefully. Stay away from Mark Tuan."

"If I didn't know any better, I might think you were jealous, Jinyoung." I finally turned away from my task, flashing a smirk in his direction. "Afraid Mark doesn't only want me, but might actually need me, in his life?"

He threw his head back, shielding his surprisingly jovial laugh with a wide palm. "You are quite pathetic. Though I am not surprised, I must say I am very disappointed. Do you actually think that Mark gives a damn about you? You're foolish to believe you're some type of cure, when you will only be his disease. Why on earth would Mark ever need you, when he already has me?"

"Because I have something that you never will. I can be more than just a disciple to his dad, a spy," I spat. "I can be a true friend to him, one who he'll never have to doubt. Could you ever do that for him?"

Jinyoung's features hardened into stone as he stepped forward, jabbing a manicured finger into my chest. "We'll see about that. Just know that when you finally give into your true nature and break him apart, it will be my arms that he will run into, and it will be your life that I will turn into a living hell. Watch your back, delinquent, or you might just end up right where you belong."

His eyes bore into mine, darkening into twin storms as he curled his lips into a pompous smile. I wanted to ensnare his wrist in my grip and slam his smaller frame into the wall, twisting his arm behind his back as an anchor. Maybe I would grind his self-satisfied face into the bricks for good measure, growling into his ear exactly where his "soulmate" had been the night before.

But I didn't.

My eyes flickered upward, immediately landing on the window I now knew was Mark's. For him, I allowed the urge to dissipate, watching helplessly as Jinyoung whisked the finger out of contact with my skin.

"It truly was a pleasure meeting you...Jackson," he purred.

Casting me a conspiratorial wink, he glided soundlessly from the alleyway, not even casting me a second glance as he disappeared around the corner.

Rage welled up in the pit of my stomach like molten lava, burning away any rational thoughts as I drove my fist into the wall. An explosion of pain seared through the clenched digits and I stumbled backward, hissing out a string of profane filth. Clutching my (fortunately unharmed) hand against my chest, I slid to the cool gravel and blinked back the tears threatening to invade my vision.

 

 

 

 

The next time my eyes fluttered open, I stood with my back to the burnished mahogany of the church's double doors, the hollow bang of their bulk jarring me from my mental sanctuary. I blinked the awareness back into my limbs, which remained frozen now that they no longer worked on autopilot. 

The church remained as austere as ever, stretching out before me like a cavern as I took the familiar tentative steps down the aisle. I noted, both relief and dread mingling together at the base of my throat, that I was alone. 

No shadowed figures sat glued to the rows upon rows of pews. No Reverend Tuan stood before the pulpit, allowing his powerful bellows to flood throughout the atrium, expanding toward the glistening stained glass overhead. No choir congregated at the head of the church, combining their individual vocal registers in a heart-wrenching harmony. No Youngjae sat behind the grand piano, fingertips dancing across the neat white keys as his voice lilted along in tune. Most importantly, though, no Mark gripped the attention of every person in the room with his low, husky voice and his intense stare.

It was early, too early for choir practice, and I was alone. 

I stood before the piano now, trailing my trembling fingertips along the polished wood as I peered over the keys, gleaming beneath the early morning sunlight like newly brushed teeth. The piano was an instrument of gorgeous caliber, not a speck of dust blemishing the immaculate surface.

A small smile tugged at the corners of my mouth. Whoever cared for the instrument did so religiously, with meticulous and nimble fingers. Though my mind was quick to drift to Mark's long and delicate hands, I wryly reassured myself that the odds were more in favor of Youngjae being the piano's caretaker. Even still, I couldn't help allowing the full smile to grace my cheeks at the thought of the blond, feeling the tension almost immediately seep from the line of my shoulders.

Folding my stocky frame into a sitting position on the bench, I flexed my fingers and hesitantly lowered them to the expanse of white before me.

Inhale.

The initial chords were shaky, unsure at best. Those that followed were clearer, sweeter in their victory.

Exhale. 

When the first few words tumbled between my lips, I could taste the familiarity of the syllables, the deep poignancy of the Mandarin as the language rolled off the tip of my tongue. Allowing my eyes to fall shut, I felt darkness close in on me as I let my fingers waltz over each key Jay Chou's somber ballad required. The absence of light was calming somehow, dragging me under until I could do little more than succumb to the music. 

All of the events of the past week—the steely ache of the shackles around my wrists, the hours of arduous work I had spent on my painting disappearing just before my very eyes, the taunting crinkles outlining Jinyoung's eyes as he confronted me in the alleyway, even the quick glimpse of Mark when he had for once seemed just as fragile as he looked in the moonlight that had bathed his hair in silver—faded away as my voice wafted plaintively through the church. 

From somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind, perhaps a distant, buried memory, a woman's voice underscored my own—light and feminine in contrast to my husky baritone. A lone tear trickled down my cheek as I transitioned into the chorus, a whispered Mommy echoing above her voice in my head. 

I could envision her even now, half-hunched above my half-asleep figure, brushing her slim fingers through my hair as she sung me into a drowsy stupor. Even then, caught on the edge of sleep all those years ago, I had attempted to follow along with the purity of those notes. Despite the almost drunken slur in my groggy, prepubescent voice, she had gripped my large hands in hers, pressing them to her cheek with a radiantly proud smile.

"Whenever you miss me and feel that I am too far away, all you have to do is sing, Gaga. I promise you that no matter where I am, I will come to you, because your voice should always have an audience." 

The final note exploded from me almost as if it had been ripped out of my throat, ricocheting across the silence in its agony. My fingers came crashing down on the keys with a discordant whine as I slumped forward, consumed by harsh sobs. The silence pressed in on my hunched figure, accentuating the shuddering breaths racking my body.

Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap.

My head snapped up at the sound of slow, steady clapping. Narrowing my eyes into slits, I zeroed in on the lone, hooded figure cautiously striding down the aisle toward me, hands shoved into his pockets. The hands resting limply upon the keys slowly balled into fists as I straightened into a guarded posture. Without speaking, I averted my eyes from the stranger and slipped out from behind the piano, smearing my sleeve across my sticky eyes in a feeble attempt to compose myself. 

"I was just leaving." The mumble came out gruffer than I had intended, but I immediately brushed off the initial guilt, assuming that none of the choir members even cared about my existence apart from Mark. And well, Jinyoung, for obvious reasons. 

"Gaga, wait!"

The nickname—and don't even get me started on the goddamn voice—sent me stumbling, catching myself on the edge of the piano. Nonetheless, I felt my face drain of color as I turned to face the hooded stranger, who reached up to reveal that he was not a stranger at all, not with the telltale blond locks and wide doe eyes. 

"Are you all right?" Mark drew closer, searching my eyes as his fingers lightly curled around my wrist. "I saw you crying, but I just—"

"That name..." I retreated, sagging back onto the piano bench. "Where did you hear that name?"

His brows knit together in acute confusion. "Gaga? I thought it'd be a cool abbreviation of your Cantonese name, Wang Ka-yee...Is it lame?" 

Absentmindedly, I grazed my index finger back and forth across the weathered wood of the piano bench, the ghost of a sad smile quirking up the corners of my mouth. "My loved ones back in Hong Kong call me Gaga, but whenever I hear it, I often think of my mother."

"Oh..." Mark's face contorted into an apologetic grimace. "Bad idea. I'm sorry."

"No, no, don't be." Sheepishly, I peered up at him from up under my eyelashes. "Actually...I really like it when you say it. It's kind of...cute."

I was not prepared for the disarming grin that overcame the guilt warring across Mark's often listless features, brightening his face in a way that I had only seen during our night together. 

"I'm glad to hear that." Suddenly, his eyes swept back and forth across the church, surveying our surroundings in an almost suspicious fashion before returning to me. "Look, about last night, I shouldn't have taken my anger at my dad out on you. I'm sure you can imagine some of the things he said about us being friends, and it was just too much, I guess. I actually came here to apologize. I'm early because I couldn't risk being discovered. I went to our place first, but you weren't there..."

As he said "our place," my heartbeat ratcheted skyward, threatening to break free from my ribcage. Immediately, I tamped it down, biting back the strange longing that lingered there. 

"When I heard you singing 'Silence,' I couldn't help it. There's just something about your voice that made me feel like I had to listen, like you're just meant to be heard," he continued, shifting his gaze to his feet. "By the time I realized that maybe I shouldn't have been eavesdropping on such an intimate moment, it was too late. I was already hooked."

My jaw gaped open at his confession, flames coloring my cheeks. "You know Jay Chou?"

"Of course." His voice dropped to just above a whisper. I found myself leaning forward, ravenous for each word he spoke. "My mom used to sing along to his music while she cooked dinner. This might not be the right time to ask, but can you...play it again?"

Our eyes locked. For once, the fathomless depths of his rich coffee irises were marred by uncertainty. Before I could respond, the normally taciturn blond was already stumbling through another monologue, bulldozing through the words like one of his signature raps. 

"I mean, you don't have to...It's just that hearing you play reminds me so much of her, and I can't help but miss her so much when I'm constantly reminded that she's gone. Listening to you sing actually made me feel like she's still here—"

"Mark," I interrupted, fighting the urge to giggle at the bumbling blond. "I would love to play for you."

So there I sat, playing piano alongside Mark Tuan, our thighs brushing lightly against each other on the cramped bench as our voices rose and fell in harmony. Every now and then, I would steal a lingering glance over at the self-conscious rapper, smothering the twitch of a looming smile or feeling the heat stain my skin whenever I found him already observing me. 

His voice, though a beast when it came to rapping, was pleasant to the ear when he ventured out of his comfort zone. I often found myself subconsciously lowering the volume of my own voice in a thinly veiled attempt to catch his insecure yet sweet notes. I also realized, with a swell of pride in my chest, that our voices were very well-matched. Where my Mandarin was smooth and soulful, his American-accented take on the language added an underlying dose of charisma. 

As we neared the end of the ballad together, I stole one final glance toward my mysterious friend. Head tilted forward, his eyes were scrunched shut as he crooned the final lyrics in sync with mine, his porcelain skin streaked with bitter tears. Without thinking, I reached out to stroke away a fallen tear, brushing my thumb along his cheekbone. His eyes fluttered open at the contact, flickering between mine. 

I sucked in a harsh breath at the unfairness of it all, lowering my hand back to my thigh. Even still, whatever had just transpired between us in the space of a single gaze remained. Mark's eyes remained fixed upon mine, almost cruelly soft despite the unfathomable emotion locked away beneath the deceptive indifference. I knew there was a chance I would never truly understand the scope of how this enigmatic preacher's boy made me feel, but something about that morning had proven one thing. 

In some shape or form, I was destined to meet Mark Tuan. Because in just one short week, he had already changed my life. In fact, he might have even saved it. And if I had wanted to avoid it, I never truly had a chance.

A long, low whistle punctuated the silence between us, breaking the spell and dragging our attention toward the double doors. There stood the group of five boys who I recognized from the first choir practice I'd witnessed. Much like then, all eyes were on me, watching the exchange between their friend and a complete stranger with piqued interest as they sauntered down the aisle. 

"You were right, Mark." One of them stepped forward, his multitude of ear piercings gleaming beneath the sunlight filtering through the atrium as he carded a hand through his tar-black fringe. "This one's good. I don't know where you dug him up, but good job."

His eyes finally settled upon mine, their inky depths cold as stone. Like Mark, he was unfairly good-looking, but in a more intimidating way. Rather than knowing he was attractive, he seemed like the type to beat the shit out of anyone who spoke it aloud. This guy was all sharp angles, topped off with a catlike, piercing stare. The stare in question swept over my body once, twice, making me squirm uncomfortably before he shrugged and held out a steady hand.

"You're in."

Mark stepped forward to protest on my behalf, but I merely smiled, meeting the brunet's gaze head-on as I clasped his hand in my own. To my surprise, his handshake was firm but reasonable, not once attempting to shatter the bones in mine. For a long moment, we stared at each other, testing the boundaries to see who would crack first. After what felt like an eternity of matching his frigid gaze, he averted his eyes and retreated, dropping my hand. 

"I like you already. We're definitely going to get along." His face broke out into a wide smile, his eyes crinkling into crescents as he nodded in approval. "I'm JB. This is Youngjae, BamBam, Yugyeom, and Jinyoung. Welcome to the choir. On behalf of all of us, it's great to meet you."

As the four of them crowded me in a flurry of introductions and information about what I had just signed myself up for, my eyes scanned through the excited bodies for Mark and his reaction to the events that had just transpired. After all, it had been his idea since the beginning. 

Instead, Jinyoung's eyes found mine over JB's broad shoulder, narrowing into half-moons as he flashed me an acidic glare. To my dismay, he approached Mark, nonchalantly draping an arm around his slender waist as they launched into a random conversation amongst themselves. A pang of irritation struck me as I watched them exchange a laugh, gritting my teeth together. Though I knew it was irrational to feel this way, I couldn't help but think it should have been me causing that laugh, not Jinyoung. Drowning out the other four boys, I slightly leaned forward, only managing to catch snippets of the pair's discussion. 

Suddenly, the pretentious brunet pushed his hair back, sending nothing more than a pompous glance in my direction. This time, I didn't need the subliminal body language cues to tell me what that look meant. 

This is war.

 

Chapter Text

Deja vu swept through me, flooding my veins like a tsunami as I tilted my chin toward the ceiling, attempting to swallow down the trepidation threatening to creep up my throat. Once again, I sat among unsuspecting churchgoers, camouflaged in the same pinstriped suit and willing myself not to vomit all over the polished wooden pews. The first time, I had been drawn to the enigmatic rapper that I could now proudly call a friend, huddling among the pews like a stowaway as I sought to quench my burning curiosity and evade the judgmental eyes surrounding me on all sides. This time, though, I was overcome with an anxiety of a completely different caliber.

As Reverend Tuan's closing sermon drew to an end, punctuated with the opening harmonies of the choir's final song of the morning, I lifted my eyes from my lap for the first time since the beginning of that day's service. It took me less than thirty seconds to seek out Mark amongst the swaying robes, his silent aura commanding my attention like a beacon. A new record, I noted, setting my cheeks aflame.

Mark's gaze, usually blank with tightly controlled indifference, swept across the audience only once, settling upon mine almost immediately. Inwardly, I cursed the reckless gallop of my traitorous heart, kickstarted by the pretty—I mean, bright—smile that spread across my friend's elegant visage as he rewarded me with an imperceptible nod. I returned the gesture, swiping my sweat-slicked palms along my pantlegs as I immediately averted my eyes.

That day marked the debut of my live performance alongside the Golden Bay Covenant Church choir, but my mind was now swimming with a completely new form of anxiety altogether: the unlabeled thrumming of emotion stirring deep inside me as my gaze fell from Mark's.

Over the past three weeks, my life had undergone a monumental transformation, one that often had me reeling from its impact on who I had become—who I had become all because I met Mark.

Along with juggling my responsibility to Reverend Tuan at every opportunity I had, slowly but surely mapping out the intricate beginnings of the mural he had wanted, I found an oddly comforting niche among the choir. Apart from the increasingly bitter Jinyoung, who utilized every practice as a chance to snag Mark's attention, I had built a sense of camaraderie with the other boys, primarily the stoic but surprisingly warm-hearted JB. At one point, it became apparent that the word about the choir's "new member" had leaked outside the heavy church doors, for one by one, girls of the choir trickled into the atrium for each practice, lobbing irrelevant questions in my direction at each chance they got—until a stern JB admonished them, much to the relief of Mark, who had mastered the art of hiding his annoyance under a pretense of silent indifference.

Over time, though, as things settled down, I became accustomed to the routine of it all. Each morning, I awoke several hours earlier to kickstart the previous day's progress on the mural, slaving away at my craft until Mark materialized out of nowhere, brightening the start of my day with a smile as we walked to practice together. During these long, drawn-out afternoons, I was normally roughhousing with JB and BamBam, relaying piano chords back and forth with Youngjae, or allowing Yugyeom to wax the floor with me during our numerous dance battles. I had even grown used to the choir girls' less-than-conspicuous stares in my direction whenever I was around the others.

Within the first week of joining the choir, I learned that the majority of what Mark referred to as "choir practice" was simply an excuse for him to escape his father and run amok with his closest friends. Much to my surprise (and Jinyoung's thinly-veiled frustration), it didn't take long for Mark to welcome me into his inner circle as well, treating me like we'd known each other for years.

Gradually, as days seeped into weeks, I found myself looking forward to practice each day rather than dreading it. For the first time in two years, I didn't feel like I was struggling to find meaning in my life; those past few weeks had proven that I already did mean something. I meant something to JB, to Youngjae, to BamBam, to Yugyeom, and above all, I meant something to Mark. Despite Jinyoung's prior accusations, I didn't feel like just a charity case or a statistic to them.

I felt like I had finally found where I belonged, like I had found the only family that truly mattered.

Thanks to the ever-petty Jinyoung, as well as the time I spent fending off the persistent advances of the girls flocking to the church in alarming numbers, Mark and I had very little time to spend together during practice. Our interactions usually consisted of nothing more than fleeting smiles and the occasional sunburst of heat painting our cheeks when one of us was caught glancing toward the other, but I more often than not caught the eye of the one I had taken to calling my arch-nemesis, instead.

Despite Jinyoung's overt acting skills, he did little to conceal the boastful twinkle in his eyes whenever he sent a pointed glare in my direction. The message was loud and clear: I win. Little did he know that he had only won a few battles. In the end, though, it was I who had won the war.

I was reminded of this each night as I sat astride my motorcycle, balancing Mark's designated helmet between the handlebars while I waited for his familiar figure to emerge from the austere darkness of the shadows overhead, instinctively molding his lean torso against the curvature of my hunched back as we raced off into the night. It had become our nightly routine, a routine I secretly cherished as something that only belonged to us, and us alone.

Though I would never admit it aloud, I felt an inexplicable surge of pride swell up in my chest whenever I thought about Mark's choosing me to whisk him away from the life Reverend Tuan had hand-picked for him, even if it was just for the night. It was during these impromptu nights spent together, no matter what I chose to do with Mark in those few precious hours—whether it was something wild like midnight swims in the nearest lake, or something mundane like curling up with a load of snacks and watching a marathon of classic old movies on my worn leather couch (the first of many times that Mark Tuan would visit my house, much to my confused heart's chagrin)—when I realized that the nature of my feelings for my closest friend were beginning to shift in a dangerous direction.

I don't remember when I first became hyperaware of everything that merely screamed Mark, trivial things such as his criminally pointy canines or the way his eyes crinkled into rainbows when his entire face broke out into his signature smile. All I knew was that I often found myself choking down the unwarranted, unnamed emotions that gradually surged to the forefront whenever I was around him, attempting not to think too much about the lingering touches that engraved themselves into my thighs and hands even long after they were gone or the way his slight body pressed into mine whenever we shared the seat of my motorcycle.

Even so, it was becoming progressively difficult to convince myself that everything I felt for Mark was strictly platonic, feelings that surfaced in the midst of every normal relationship between bros. After all, it had to be. I knew for a fact that I wasn't gay, and I wasn't about to let years of pent-up sexual frustration—because that's the only plausible reason for my wayward thoughts about my own best friend, right?—jeopardize the one true connection I had ever made in my life.

"I miss you," he confessed during the ride home just the night before the big performance, voice raspy with the undertone of an emotion I didn't dare try to name as it ghosted across the nape of my neck.

"What do you mean?" I had asked, tamping down the ruthless flip-flopping of my heart in my chest as I veered off into the familiar alleyway, our alleyway. "I'm with you every day."

"No, that's not what I meant." Mark's voice dipped just below a whisper, tinged with frustration despite the low volume. "I miss when it was just us, us against the world. No one else."

I accepted the helmet he slid into my lap, catching his wrist before he could retreat out of my reach. "I miss it, too, but that doesn't have to change. Right?"

"It already has, hasn't it?" His voice was tinged with a frigid iciness that made me flinch, jerking my gaze upward as I sought his out in the darkness. "I noticed you've grown really close to JB and BamBam lately, so I just figured..."

The corners of my mouth twitched with ill-concealed mirth. Was Mark Tuan jealous that I had made connections with his friends? A fleeting thought occurred to me at that moment, a faint whisper at the back of my subconscious that told me maybe, just maybe, he might be jealous of something else...but I immediately stifled that thought just as it arrived.

"Do you see me hanging out with JB and BamBam every night? Do I walk to practice with them every morning?" I pointed out, wrinkling my nose in disdain as I braced myself for the next question. "What about you and Jinyoung? You two are awfully close. If anything, I hang out with JB and BamBam because you're always so busy showering him with attention these days."

Mark's grim frown suddenly dissolved into a high-pitched giggle, one that sent my stomach free-falling into a fuzzy warmth. "Jackson Wang, are you jealous of my friendship with Jinyoung?"

"Are you jealous of my friendship with the others?" I retorted. Although my blazing cheekbones were already well-hidden beneath the cover of nightfall, I ducked my head out of sight anyway, ashamed by my blatant interest in his friendship with the spawn of Satan.

"Okay, fine. You got me." Mark let out a raspy chuckle, lowering himself back onto the bike beside me. "Jinyoung's a great friend. I've known him for years, and he's never let me down, not even once...but he's not you."

I finally lifted my head, turning to face him. My breath caught in my throat when I realized he was already looking in my direction, our faces just a few breaths apart. I didn't dare speak, cursing myself inwardly as my eyes darted down to the faint outline of his mouth before returning to his eyes. Chalking it up to mere anticipation for whatever he was about to say next, I filed away the discomfort chiseling away at my heart and waited expectantly.

"I used to think that Jinyoung was the greatest friend I could ever have," he said after a long pause. "I was wrong. It's you, Jackson."

I couldn't help it. A dry laugh tumbled between my lips, bitter in its lack of warmth. "I don't understand why it would be me. Everything people have said about me up to this point has been right all along, Mark. I'm nothing but a ticking time bomb, ready to destroy everything and everyone in my path at the slightest provocation. Do you know why you choose to be in my company, Mark? Because you're an angel. You sense the best side of everyone, and you attempt to coax it out in any way that you can, but some of us are too broken for your halo to fix."

"You have no idea how special you are to me, do you?" he murmured, lightly resting a long-fingered hand above my knee. Warmth radiated through the fabric, filtering through my nerves like a live wire. "I'm not trying to fix you, Jackson. There's nothing to fix. I know you have a past, but hell, so do I. That doesn't change the fact that I've never felt more alive than when I'm with you. Before I met you, I wasn't living; I was existing. I didn't have a life; I had a script to live by. You freed me, and I'm afraid. I'm afraid that if you get closer to people who are less 'broken,' like JB and BamBam, you will finally realize there's no reason to stay by my side and I will have no choice but to go back to living the hollow shell of a life I knew before I knew you."

"That will never happen." I blinked away the tears threatening to spill down my cheeks. "Jesus, Mark, you're the reason I'm even here. If it weren't for you, I would be in prison. I wouldn't be doing what I love surrounded by friends who I can proudly call my family. I wouldn't have the motivation to climb out of bed each day and I definitely wouldn't have discovered things about myself that I would've never known if I hadn't met you. There's nothing special about me. What makes me special is the fact that I have you believing in me every step of the way. I could never leave you. I refuse to even entertain the thought."

Mark's hand lifted from my knee, curling into a fist apart from a lone pinky, crooked in my direction. "Promise?"

A disbelieving laugh bubbled out of my throat as I lightly twined my smallest finger around his. "I promise."

"Good." I could've sworn I spotted a twinkle in his eye, despite the shadows extended across his countenance. "Now, I need you to do me a favor."

"Anything." I almost winced at my complete, unabashed honesty, but he simply smiled, his wolfish teeth gleaming through the blackness.

"Tomorrow, I need you to take the entire church by storm," he murmured earnestly. "You once told me that this was your dream, to perform and to be heard. It's time for you to seize this chance and shine. If not for yourself, do it for me."

And so I would. Not just for myself, but also for him, for the boy who believed in me when no one else did.

Jarred back to the present just as Youngjae's piano solo reached its telltale lull, prompting Mark's rap, I waited for my cue with a fierce renewal of confidence. Straightening my back against the rigid wooden pew, I fixed my eyes upon the captivating blond at the head of the church, whose eyes had fallen shut with the force of his charisma. 

Suddenly, those same fiery irises popped open, locking upon mine just as the verse I'd been waiting for escaped between his lips. 

 

They say most rappers are sinners,

Our lyrics contaminated with dirt,

But now and then, there's a few winners,

Like Jackson Wang, who's gonna take us to church!

 

Inhaling a shuddering breath, I steadily rose to my feet, stepping into the aisle as I dusted the imaginary lint from my blazer. My eyes swept over the choir as I launched into what I hoped sounded like a loud and powerful rap, landing upon each of my friends—all of whom offered me a sincere smile in return—if for no other reason than to avoid the dozens of eyes falling upon what must have looked like an unexpected (and most likely for most, an unwanted ) newcomer. 

My journey up the aisle seemed to take a small slice of eternity, and I found myself pitying the soon-to-be brides who would undertake the same trip during what was supposed to be one of the most monumental days of their lives. Eventually, my eyes found Mark's, and I immediately admonished myself for my untimely thoughts. 

As I stepped up beside said choir conductor, whose rap had begun again in tandem with my own, I felt Reverend Tuan's glare boring into my skin from where he stood along the sidelines, but I couldn't bring myself to care. 

Together, Mark and I barreled through an unorthodox rap battle of sorts, each of our lyrics reverberating off of the other's with knifelike precision as the rest of the choir resumed crooning along in the background. Fixing my eyes upon his, I continued to combat his rhythm with my own, allowing the other voices to fade away as I focused upon the two that mattered most. Just like that, the entire atrium of the church seemed to fade away as well, leaving only Mark and me to our duet, which left me drunk on the adrenaline buzzing through my veins. 

Despite the intensity crackling between us like electricity, my gruff voice didn't clash with Mark's subtle huskiness, whatsoever. In fact, I was almost caught off-guard by how fluidly our individual styles meshed, interweaving together in a unique way that seemed to complement us both, without giving precedence to one over the other. As our duet drew to its inevitable cusp, trailed by the ebbing harmony of the choir, the entire church erupted into a raucous round of applause, one unlike any I had ever heard within those four walls. 

Unbidden tears welled up along the perimeter of my vision, half-blinding me as Mark corralled me into a long line among the choir, taking my hand as we all sunk into a bow. Sweltering heat ascended along my cheekbones as his soft, uncalloused palm slid easily into the gap between our hands, closing the distance. On the other side of me stood JB, who also didn't seem particularly fazed to take my hand, gently squeezing my fingers in a subtle display of congratulations. Flashing him a brief smile of gratitude, I turned to face the audience once again, lowering into another deep bow. 

Suddenly, Mark drew closer, the corners of his rosy mouth drawing up into a small smile as he curled a long arm across my shoulders and steered me toward the audience. I cast him a sidelong glance, tensing beneath the casual grip due to the warning signs blaring in my head. 

"What are you doing?" I spluttered beneath my breath, all of my previous confidence seeping out of my bones as I finally turned to face the rows upon rows of people staring right at me. 

"Something I've wanted to do since I first met you in that alley," he murmured, gently squeezing my shoulder in reassurance. "Please, just trust me."

I peered up at him from beneath my eyelashes, worrying my lower lip beneath my teeth, but I nodded once, demonstrating my unwavering trust in the boy I had known just little over three weeks. Nonetheless, I doubted I could ever lose that trust in him even if I wanted to, not that Mark needed to know that. 

"Ladies and gentlemen," he began, his voice carrying throughout the entire atrium even without the aid of a microphone. "It is my greatest pleasure to introduce the newest member of the Golden Bay Covenant Church choir...Jackson Wang! Didn't he do absolutely amazing this morning? Give him a round of applause!"

Once again, the entire church exploded into pandemonium, hearty claps and enthusiastic cheers shared among both the churchgoers and members of the choir alike. An unusually proud JB immediately clapped a hand against my back with a grin, while Youngjae, BamBam, and Yugyeom yanked me into a group hug, smothering me between layers of sapphire fabric. 

Mark was right; I was born to perform. Standing there before all of those people, doing what I loved alongside the one who meant the most to me, I couldn't conjure up any other memory in my life that had been more meaningful. This was where I belonged, and this was where I hoped to stay for as long as I possibly could. 

"You did absolutely amazing, honey." If I were to guess, I would say the woman standing before me—clad in a ridiculously pink paisley pantsuit that matched her lipstick and a floppy sunhat that cast shadows across the upper half of her leathery visage—was about a decade or two older than my mother. "I would've never imagined that I could sit and listen to that kind of hymn, but both you and the reverend's boy over there have proven that the devil's music doesn't always have to give into the devil's temptation. Thank you for being a wonderful messenger of God, in a modern and tasteful way. And may God bless you!" 

Stifling a snicker beneath the pretense of a light cough, I plastered a polite smile across my face, nodding toward the woman. "Thank you very much, ma'am. Enjoy the rest of your day." 

Once she disappeared through the heavy wooden doors with a quiet thud, not before trailing a feather-light touch down my chest with a smile that made my skin crawl, the boys (except for the uptight Jinyoung, of course) and I dissolved into a fit of laughter.

"Oooooooh, looks like Jackson's got himself a girlfriend!" BamBam piped up, puckering up his abnormally plush lips as he and Yugyeom began to imitate repulsive smooching sounds. 

"Careful there, tiger," JB remarked, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively. "I heard that cougar's a wild one." 

Narrowing my eyes into unimpressed slits, I slugged the cat-eyed male square on the shoulder. "You guys are the absolute worst! Come on, Mark. Back me up here."

As I turned to the blond rapper in a last-ditch appeal for backup, I found him staring over my shoulder, face devoid of color. Whirling around, I found myself face-to-face with Reverend Tuan, whose dark eyes were brewing with fury as they flickered between my face and Mark's. 

When he finally spoke, his voice was sharp enough to cut deep into my skin, leaving scars in its wake. "Someone better explain to me what is going on here, or so help me, every single one of you is about to find yourselves in a heap of trouble."

Chapter Text

"No. Absolutely not."

Reverend Tuan's decision was dripping with finality, inflected with steel-edged contempt as his slitted eyes swept along the course of my frame.

"Are you serious?" Mark shifted position, subtly maneuvering himself so that his body shielded my own from view.

"Tuan Yien," the reverend hissed. "I've been lenient allowing you to perform the kind of music you wanted for the congregation every week, but it's time to put my foot down. I have been very kind to you up to this point, but I will not allow you to poison this choir under his influence."

"His name is Jackson, Dad. You can say it. It's not a sin," Mark snapped. "And last I checked, the congregation loved  the performance today. It was fun, it was fresh, and it was unique. How is that wrong?"

Reverend Tuan pinched the bridge of his nose between his index finger and thumb, screwing his eyes shut behind the reflective surfaces of his glasses. "This church is not for those searching for fun, Mark. It is for those searching for a gateway between their faith and God. See? That's the root of your problem. You have lost sight of your mission here on Earth."

"It's not up to you what my purpose in life is, Dad. It's up to me." Mark reached backward, lightly curling his fingers around my wrist. Jinyoung's shrewd gaze caught the movement, narrowing into a calculating glare as it rose to meet mine. Ignoring the slight flush in my cheeks, I stole a glance down at the gentle contact, silently praying that Mark's seemingly instinctual touch was not enough to sense the insistent staccato of my heartbeat. 

Rather than turning to either confirm or deny my suspicions, the blond in question set his shoulders in a rigid plateau, facing his father with what I assumed probably looked like a gnarly glare. "And my purpose is to stop you from driving everyone out of our lives just because you don't deem them worthy."

Seething, the reverend directed a glare toward the cluster of boys flanking Mark. "And what do you have to say for yourselves? Do you all agree with my son?" 

"With all due respect, sir," spoke JB, clearing his throat as he stepped forward, "I understand that Jackson made a mistake, but over the past few weeks, the boys and I have grown to love and respect him like a brother. If you would only give him a chance, maybe you'd see that you're wrong about him."

Hiding my smile behind a faux sneeze, I watched with silent glee as Reverend Tuan's face became ruddy with irritation.

"What about the rest of you?"

Youngjae dipped his head, pressing close to JB's side as he spoke. "I agree with JB, sir. Jackson is an excellent friend, and an even greater person. Truthfully, I don't care what he's done in the past. I only care about who he is now."

"And I'm closer to Jackson than my own brothers. He really is like family to me," BamBam piped up, nudging Yugyeom in the ribs until he nodded in agreement. 

"When will you just give up, Dad?" Mark was squeezing my wrist now, applying gentle pressure to the sensitive skin where his fingertips were embedded, almost as if he needed my touch as an anchor. "This vendetta of yours is getting ridiculous, and it's clear that everyone here agrees with me, except you."

Reverend Tuan's eyes scanned across each of our faces before settling upon someone over my shoulder, sparkling with rekindled vigor before returning to his stoic son.

"But, can you prove that everyone here is okay with Mr. Wang?" he inquired, pretending to lose himself in reverie as he stroked the tuft of silver donning the peak of his jaw. "How about this? We put it to a vote. If all of you reach a unanimous decision, I will allow Mr. Wang to join the choir. If not, you must accept my decision without any complaints. Is that fair to you, Mark?"

"Fine, we'll play it your way." Mark's fingertips slid away from my wrist as he turned to face us, elevating the warmth of my gut from a simmer to a boil with a triumphant smile. "I have no doubt in my mind that everyone in this choir is understanding and tolerant enough to give Jackson a chance, even if that excludes you. All in favor of welcoming Jackson as a member of the choir, raise your hand!"

Immediately, he captured my fingers between his, lifting our conjoined hands into the air like a pump of victory. Searing heat rushed to the foreground of my countenance, no doubt donning my cheekbones in a veil of roses, as I beheld four other hands rise in unison.

Suddenly, the air within the atrium seemed to grow heavy with a frigid chill, sucking the oxygen from my lungs. My eyes trailed over to the reverend, gauging his reaction, before I came to the sickening realization why. Rather than looking defeated, Reverend Tuan was holding back a smile, and it merely took a moment to discover the reason.

A lone hand had not risen alongside the others.

"As I thought," the reverend mused. "It seems as though Mr. Wang's performance today was not appreciated by everyone."

Mark's hand fell limply to his side, his jaw agape. "Jinyoung?"

The raven-haired male smoothed his palms over his pressed slacks, exhaling a deep sigh. "Actually, Mark, I agree with the reverend. We barely know Jackson, or his...intentions. I don't think allowing him such easy access to the church is a good idea. Next thing we know, we might be missing vital church funds."

"Why won't you even give him a chance?" Mark demanded, voice rising in pitch. "He made one mistake and you assume he's the scum of the earth. How is that fair?"

"What's not fair, Mark?" Jinyoung cocked an eyebrow, eyeing his friend speculatively. "You seem to trust Jackson more than you trust God. Or your own best friend, for that matter. Is it fair to choose the side of a criminal you don't truly know?"

"Jinyoung, that's enough—"

"Shut up, Jaebeom." Jinyoung interrupted the brooding male with a condescending glare. "I want to hear Mark's answer to the question."

JB ground his teeth together with an audibility that sent shivers racing down my spine, but the eeriest part of that singular moment was how everyone seemed to be suspended in time, caught in the crosshairs of the feuding childhood pals.

"Unlike you and my father, I am willing to try to get to know him," Mark hissed. "But it seems like the one I truly don't know is you."

"How so?" Jinyoung's lips curled into a nasty smirk, sharp enough to warn anyone that his next words were going to spark the point of no return. "Because I'm the only one who dares not to trust your broken toy?"

Before anyone saw it coming, Mark lunged toward Jinyoung, curling his fingers into the starched collar of his friend's dress shirt and shoving him backwards.

"Mark!"

I lurched forward, corralling the blond into my arms as JB wedged himself between the sparring pair, attempting to subdue the wild-eyed Jinyoung.

"Are you insane?" I mumbled into his hair, caging him in a viselike grip as he continued to fight against my strength, wriggling his lean frame back and forth. "This isn't worth it. Do you hear me? This. Is. Not. Worth. It."

"Let me go, Jackson. I swear to God, if you don't let me go, I'm going to scream," Mark spat, each word tinged with uncontrolled fury. "You were supposed to be my friend, Jinyoung! You promised me you would never become his puppet, you filthy liar. Now, look at you, jealous that you might have to compete even harder to be the center of attention, you narcissistic son of a—"

"Stop right there, young man," the reverend's voice effectively sliced through Mark's hysterics. "I will not tolerate such derogatory language within my church, especially after you agreed with the terms I set earlier."

Mark's entire body went rigid within my embrace, seemingly spent with the energy he had expended in his fight to break free. "I can accept your decision, but I don't have to accept being part of the legacy you forced me into, the one that judges and rejects people for simply being who they are. I quit."

A chorus of gasps permeated the silence, but the most priceless reaction was scrawled across Reverend Tuan's face, which had blanched into a pale hue reminiscent of ash. In my shock, I released Mark, who slumped to his knees in defeat. 

"Mark, no—"

"You can't do this—"

"Are you serious?"

"Why?"

Mark silenced the protests of his remaining friends with a bittersweet smile. "I'm sorry, guys. I just can't do this anymore. Not when my heart's no longer in it."

"Are you seriously going to stop doing what you love for him?" Jinyoung sneered, crossing his arms over his chest.

"No," Mark responded, the rigidity bleeding from his shoulders as he rose to his feet. "I'm going to find a way to continue doing what I love alongside someone who loves it even more."

Offering me a tender smile, he turned and began to stride down the aisle toward the double doors, leaving me dumbstruck with a dull ache pulsating behind my ribs.

"Don't forget that you're still on punishment, Tuan Yien!" the reverend bellowed after his son's retreating back, jarring me out of my daze. "If you think I'll allow you to walk away from this church, you are sorely mistaken!"

Mark didn't turn as he spoke, but his words were loud and clear. "That's why I'm not leaving that decision up to you anymore. I'm moving out."

Jinyoung's full-bodied laugh drifted through the atrium, thick with haughtiness. "You wouldn't last a night out on the streets, Mark. Who could you possibly live with?"

"Me."

The voice sounded foreign to me, muffled by the roar of blood rushing in my ears. It wasn't until all eyes, including Mark's, landed on me that I realized who had spoken the monosyllable. 

Finally, I gathered the courage to repeat myself, lifting my gaze to settle upon Mark's.  

"Mark will live with me."

 

 

 

 

"Let me take you somewhere."

My chopsticks clattered noisily against the tabletop, resting in a haphazard heap between two alabaster stains etched into the wood from water rings of years past.

"W-What?" I spluttered, spewing the remnants of the dimsum I had been chewing as I gaped at my giggling companion.

"Let me take you somewhere," he repeated, eyes dissolving into half-moons.

Burying my mouth in a wadded napkin, I ducked my head and mentally prayed for the less-than-subtle blush blotting my cheeks to fade.

"Tonight?" My voice came out like a squeak, cracking in the middle as I analyzed the motives behind his words. "I figured you would want to settle in first..."

"What, no plans?" Mark quirked an unfairly nice eyebrow, twirling his chopsticks between his fingers. "I guess I just thought that we would continue hanging out like we always do. Isn't that what makes us...well, I don't know, us?"

Dismissing my embarrassment with a quiet laugh, I scooped up my chopsticks and resumed eating, fixating my eyes on the food even as the atmosphere in the room shifted into a more comfortable silence. 

"Did you have anything specific in mind?" Once I had finished chewing, I lifted my eyes to find Mark already watching me, eyes glazed over in thought. "Mark?"

Jolting his head side to side, the blond dragged himself away from the thoughts consuming him, a shy smile adorning his lips.

"I want to show you something," he said, picking through his words with extreme care rather than speaking in the straightforward manner he often did. "I've considered taking you to this place for a while, but I wasn't sure...until you stood up to my father and Jinyoung today."

Suddenly, he lowered his gaze to my mouth, and the air in the room seemed to thicken with a stifling heat. My throat constricted, collapsing in on my windpipe as I watched him lean forward, eyes flickering up to mine briefly, uncertainly. As if on command, my eyes fluttered shut, blocking out the boy I had yet to figure out as I braced myself for what I feared—and if I was being completely honest with myself, equally anticipated—was about to take place. 

Instead of the sensation I expected, however, a slightly coarse digit grazed along my lower lip, smoothing along the tender flesh with an uncanny gingerness. Slowly, I opened my eyes, but not before he was already drawing back with a sheepish smile.

"I swear, Jackson." His gaze, though averted, sparkled with amusement. "You eat like a two-year-old."

An offended gasp expelled from my lips, coloring my voice in a whiny timbre that only seemed to rear its head whenever I was around the rapper. "I do not!"

"Whatever you say," he remarked, rolling his eyes as he rose to his feet and held out his hand. "But, seriously, what do you say? You spend so much time showing me your world. Let me show you a part of mine. Are you coming or what?"

And just like that, I ended up straddling the leather saddle of my motorcycle, Mark perched comfortably between my legs like he was always meant to be there. Much to my slight displeasure, the newly independent blond had pleaded to forgo his helmet, showcasing the silver sheen the moonlight cast upon his windswept locks as I started the vehicle. 

"Lead the way," I murmured, biting back a smile when the breath ghosting along the shell of his ear elicited a visible shiver. 

Mark hesitated for a moment, seeming to survey the mechanisms before him before cautiously settling his hands upon the handlebars. "Like this?"

"After all of the nights you've tagged along on the back of my bike, you haven't learned how to ride it?" I stretched my arms around Mark's torso, anchoring him in place as I lightly rested my hands over his own, a disbelieving laugh already bubbling out of my throat as I maneuvered his fingers around the clutch. "I guess this will have to do."

With the help of Mark's careful instructions, we eventually veered off onto a winding dirt path, the urban stretch of California's golden city fading into the wind as we jetted through a beautiful desert landscape. The entire ride was cloaked in silence at that point, solely interrupted by the animalistic growl of the engine beneath us. 

"What are you thinking about?" I blurted out once the atmosphere began to feel uncomfortable, dripping with the almost unbearable silence. 

"What you're about to see, my mom was the one who showed it to me. I haven't been there in years." His voice dipped below a whisper, raspy with a wistful longing. "It used to be our place. I always told myself that the first person I ever showed it to would be my soulmate." 

The final word stirred an emotion deep inside of me, resonating with an unfathomable yearning that only Mark seemed to unearth. Involuntarily, my fingers flexed above his as I mulled over the underlying meaning of his admission, our hands otherwise still upon the steering apparatus as my knuckles shone white. 

"We're here."

Shaken from my wayward thoughts, I guiltily dismounted from the bike, disentangling my body from the warmth radiating off of Mark. The blond didn't seem to notice my rapid retreat, transfixed on the strange niche we had stumbled upon. 

Surveying the area, I felt my jaw sink to the sand beneath my boots. While the last few miles of our journey had been flanked with sprawling desert, Mark and I were now standing before a structure unlike any I would have ever imagined. An impromptu wall of some kind expanded along the desert terrain, compiled of sloppily-placed bricks, edges overgrown with the sparse vegetation the landscape had to offer. 

"What is this place?" I murmured, trailing my fingertips along the rugged edges of eroded rock. 

Bracing his palms against the surface of the wall, Mark hoisted his body onto the precarious ledge with an agility that rivaled my own even as a former athlete, offering an outstretched hand. 

"Home," he responded once I was sitting beside him, our shoulders brushing with every individual breath that was taken. 

While the blond lifted his eyes to the sky, I stole the opportunity to peer at the blurred edge of his profile, bathed in the diamond sheen of the moon. 

"Why did you take me here?"

A soft chuckle rumbled from Mark's chest, a stark contrast to the giddy giggle I had grown fond of. "My mom told me this legend when I was a kid. There was this very wealthy man who once took everything he had for granted—his riches, his string of women, his fame, all of it. If there was one thing that he appreciated, it was the beauty of the stars. Every night, he traveled around the world in his private jet to find the best possible venue for his favorite pastime. 

"One day, he returned to his estate and raved about being abducted by aliens while he was stargazing in the middle of a desert in Los Angeles. He claimed that he was only released because the aliens wanted him to completely turn his life around, ditch the riches for a more fulfilling and moral life. Of course, no one believed him, and he became the laughing stock of his entire social circle. Driven to self-exile because of his constant delusions, the man returned to the scene of the abduction, determined to find proof that he was not crazy. He decided to create something that could lure the aliens back to Earth, dedicating the rest of his life to the wall we are currently sitting on. 

"These are the remains of the dwindling mind of a man who allowed his inflated sense of self-worth to overcome the truly important things in his life."

As the story drew to an end, he finally turned to face me, a sheepish smile gleaming at me through the blanket of nightfall. "Whenever I come here, it reminds me to cherish the things in my life that mean the most to me." 

Sucking my lower lip between my teeth, I desperately sought to smother the unwarranted thrumming of my heart in my chest.

"I used to come here to stargaze with my mom," he continued, shifting his position so that he was sprawled out flat, his head falling into place on my thigh. "Before she died, she used to tell me to count the stars before I go to sleep. If I do that, I'll always remember that I'm part of an infinite world, one with a beauty that I can never even aspire to truly understand. I love stargazing because I could even do it when I was trapped in my room back home, and that meant that I could always have a piece of my mom with me. It meant that she would never truly be gone."

Mark fell silent, watching the sea of pearls glitter above us as beads of saltwater glittered along the corners of his eyes. Trailing my eyes over my friend's face rather than the stars he'd brought me to see, I carded a gentle hand through his hair, relishing the way he instinctively leaned into the touch. 

"I'll never understand why you chose me, of all people, to show this to." My voice was a subtle caress, accompanying the light strokes I was still brushing through the fringe hanging over his porcelain skin. "But I promise I will do everything I possibly can to deserve it."

His eyes had fluttered shut at this point, a gentle curve visible along the corners of his mouth. "You once told me that you were drawn to my music, that the love I have for what I do is the reason our lives collided. But what if I told you that our lives have been intertwined for much longer?"

I froze in place, fingers stilling mid-air. "What do you mean?"

"I've been drawn to your gift since the very first night you walked into that alleyway," he whispered. "I watched you paint from my window for weeks, enchanted by the sheer skill and determination you poured into your work each night. Jackson, you inspired me to speak up, when all anyone else has done has spoken over me. I don't understand how you don't possibly realize how much you've saved me."

"Because I'm no hero, Mark," I spluttered, mind reeling from his prior confession. "What you do is a gift. It resonates with people. It makes them listen. Isn't that what true art does? All my 'gift' gets me is a spot behind bars. I'm not an artist, and I'm damn sure not a hero. I'm a criminal."

"Just because some people don't understand or appreciate your work doesn't make it wrong." Mark's chest began to rise and fall peacefully, his normally irregular breathing shifting into a steady pace. "And I definitely don't think it makes your art any less beautiful..."

As the rapper faded into slumber, his words trailed into oblivion, swirling back and forth through my mind as I swallowed the response that immediately rose to the tip of my tongue—a response that couldn't be taken back or explained away once it escaped, especially since I didn't understand the extent of the feelings prompting the thought myself. 

Not as beautiful as you.

Chapter Text

"You are dead, Mark Tuan!"

A high-pitched giggle erupted from the accused, reverberating around my skull as I attempted to lock his limbs between my wrists and thighs. Unfortunately, although slight, Mark's body housed an appalling strength, and he managed to wrench free of my grip each time I was able to pin him in place. 

While a mere two weeks had passed since my newfound roommate became a more permanent fixture in my life, we had already established a routine. Mornings were reserved for the responsibilities that left a pungent taste lingering upon our tongues, for I was still required to complete the church mural in order to avoid the state penitentiary and Mark had embarked on the hunt for potential summer jobs, while evenings were designed for Mark and me to continue our late-night adventures side-by-side.

Over the course of the time we spent together within the walls of my childhood home, I found myself drawn to how down-to-earth Mark actually was as I earned a glimpse into the ordinary life of the seemingly angelic blond. More often than not, I caught myself struck dumb when I peered into the guest room to bid goodnight and stumbled upon a snoring Mark, cornsilk strands hanging past his eyes as he drowned in one of my shirts. It was moments like that, moments when he sleepily nuzzled his head into my shoulder during a movie or when he surprised me after a long day with Chinese take-out from my favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant in town, when my thoughts about my closest friend strayed from appreciation to a heart-wrenching longing. 

Though it was easy to disguise many of my actions as brotherly affection, such as the nights when I lingered by Mark's bedside longer than normal, brushing rogue strands away from his delicate face, it grew difficult to ignore what I felt for him when my thoughts became tainted with a dark desire that I couldn't understand. 

It was easy to remember the day I finally admitted I wanted something more than friendship with Mark Tuan. 

Just a few days before our current predicament, I had wandered into the bathroom the second I returned home, only to be confronted by a half-naked Mark who had just stepped out of the shower. Fortunately, a towel was wrapped securely around his waist, albeit hanging dangerously low on his hips. Choking on a spluttered apology, I managed to tear my gaze from the rapper's torso, but not before the image of Mark's lean physique was burned into my retinas. Before the other could respond, I immediately retreated from the steam-stifled room, blinking away the images swirling around my mind as if they had never happened. 

Even so, my dreams that night were plagued with Mark's porcelain torso, the sheen of water glistening along his collarbones and the subtle yet defined ridges of his stomach as I drank him in. However, it didn't take long to realize that the dream was not reality, for hidden desires always seem to find a way to emerge into the light in the realm of sleep. I was only partially surprised when Dream-Mark allowed the towel to crumple at his feet, pressing the length of my body into the door as our lips sealed together. That night, I jolted from slumber in a cloak of cold sweat, achingly hard and gasping for air. Moments later, I stood with my forehead pressed against the condensation-stained glass shower wall, allowing myself to wilt beneath the icy onslaught of water overhead as an intense wave of guilt washed over me. 

Nonetheless, the next few days were uneventful, and Mark continued to ease many of the burden out of my prior solitary life with his silent observations and quiet intuition about what I needed at any given moment, proving himself to be the ideal roommate.

Until now.

"Give me the goddamn phone, Mark."

While I was caught up in my thoughts, the blond stole the opportunity to exploit a weakness I hadn't realized I had, curling a long leg around my waist. Before I could even blink, he used a lightning burst of strength to wrestle me onto my back, perching himself on top of my stomach with a triumphant snicker.

"Come on, Gaga. You're going to love it," he crowed, typing into the cursed device. Beneath his lean thighs, I attempted to break myself free from my makeshift bonds, determined to overcome my opponent in this faux wrestling match. Mark merely giggled, immersed in the message he was typing as he hovered above me, waving the screen tauntingly within inches from my face. "Live a little! Isn't that what you always tell me?"

Eventually, I resigned to my fate, half-heartedly pleading my case as my mouth pursed into a petulant pout. "Mark, please don't do this to me. I thought you were supposed to be my friend."

"Too late. Already sent," he chirped, dropping the phone on the sheets with a soft thud that sounded suspiciously like a coffin lid sealing shut, trapping me in the cruel situation my best friend had just dragged me into. 

"You're the fucking worst." I meant the words to escape in a hiss, but my voice rose into a breathy groan, instead. 

Mark's eyes lit up, undeterred by my words. Sitting back on his haunches, he traced mindless shapes into my t-shirt-clad chest with a gentle finger. "What do you have against going on a double date?"

"I'm just...not interested." My face contorted into a grimace of revulsion. "Life is complicated enough without adding a girl into the mix. If you were really my friend, you wouldn't force me to waste some poor girl's time."

"I'm doing this because I'm your friend." His rich coffee irises lifted to the ceiling, dark with exasperation. "You've done so much for me, Jackson. I just wanted to do something that would make you happy."

I peered up at the rapper as if he had sprouted a second head. "I've been over this already, Mark. I'm happy when—"

"When you're with me, I know!" he snapped, suddenly raising his voice. To my surprise, fire blazed in his eyes, a mirror to the one kindling in his high cheekbones. "But that's not the same kind of happiness that a girl can give you."

Indignation crept up my throat, burning like bile. "Why can't it be?"

"Because it's just not!"

"You're right. You make me happier than any girl ever could!" 

His mouth flopped open, but no response slipped between his lips. Finally, his jaw snapped closed with an audible click, and a tense silence fell upon the entire room like a layer of frost.

"Mark?" I murmured, searching the blond's face for any hint of the thoughts he always kept locked away. "Please say something." 

Instead of fulfilling my request, he released a drawn-out sigh, shifting his knees to free my wrists. Before he could escape, fleeing from the strange tension that had befallen us, I reached up to flicker my fingertips along his sides, attempting to lighten the mood. 

While my plan to tickle him into submission worked, it didn't do so in the way I expected it to. Caught off-guard by the sneak-attack, Mark wriggled in my grasp until he lost balance, his chest toppling into mine. By pure instinct, I immediately latched onto his upper arms, stilling him before our foreheads could collide. 

However, this left us in a rather compromising position—Mark's thighs trapping my body between them, his torso aligned with the length of mine, our faces mere inches apart. Searching his eyes, I found myself lost in the conflicted emotions brewing in their depths, a tug-of-war that reminded me of my very own. 

For just a moment, I allowed myself to believe that I lived in a world where the boy above me could be mine, pondering the consequences of capturing those silent lips with my own. Just as I had resolved to take the plunge, determined to steal just a taste as well as satiate my curiosity about his own feelings, Mark was already shifting into a lounging position beside me. 

"What are you so afraid of?" he asked, propping his head up on his arms as his eyelids fell shut.

"I've never been on a date before," I admitted. "I guess I've just always wanted my first date to be with someone special."

I stole a glance in Mark's direction, admiring the elegant slope of his nose as it dipped toward the bow of his mouth. 

"Well, you won't regret your first date with Serena. She's a great girl. Top of the class, student body president, scholarships to all of the top pre-med programs in the country. On top of that, she's down-to-earth and super cute, too," Mark drawled casually, listing off the girl's accolades like he was her human resume. 

I couldn't stop the bitterness from staining my response. "Sounds like you would rather date her."

The corners of his mouth tugged upwards. "No, thanks. I've known her since we were both waddling around in diapers. That would just be weird. Plus, she's been trying to get me to put in a good word for her since the first day you walked into the church. I promised her I could score her a date with you, and she suggested a double date to make the situation less awkward."

"Less awkward?" I spluttered incredulously.

"Look, I promise I'll make your night worthwhile. Now that I know what this means to you, I'm determined to make it special," he said, lightly nudging his head against my shoulder. "What can go wrong, anyway? I'll be there with you all night."

"Exactly. That's what I'm worried about."

 

 

 

If I thought I wasn't prepared for the inevitable date night before, I especially wasn't prepared when Mark slid into the space next to me as I scrubbed away at my teeth, effectively revealing the ensemble he had chosen for the evening.

Stunned, I accidentally shoved the toothbrush against the back of my throat, gagging on the minty sting that followed.

"Jackson!" Mark pounded a solid palm between my shoulder blades. "Are you okay?"

Ducking my head into the sink, I splashed cool water against my skin until I was no longer fighting for air. I leveled Mark with an accusatory glare once I emerged from the spray, awe gradually transforming into a bitterness that I couldn't name.

"Well, don't you look nice." While I meant it as a genuine compliment, my voice fell flat, almost robotic.

Mark winced, flashing a sheepish smile toward his feet. "I look ridiculous, don't I? I thought I would try something new, but maybe I should change..."

Sinking my teeth into my lower lip, I allowed my eyes to caress over Mark's body, not unlike the way my fingertips itched to. He was right. He did look different, but he looked far from ridiculous. 

He wore a distressed gray t-shirt that dipped just low enough to reveal the sharp collarbones I had often kissed in the course of my infamous dream, the washed-out fabric offsetting his usually pale skin with an olive-tinted glow. The shirt, adorned with a large cross comprised of greyscale roses, was tucked into a pair of black jeans that accentuated his long legs, immaculate rips climbing the denim along his thighs. To tie the entire outfit together, he wore a pair of faded boots and a studded leather belt.

"Don't change," I blurted out, plastering a smile upon my face. "You look great. She's going to love it."

Mark peered up at me beneath his eyelashes, a radiant smile brightening his features. "Says the one who looks like he stepped off the cover of a motorcycle magazine. Hope it doesn't bother you that we're matching."

It didn't take long to discover that he was right. Much like Mark, I had settled on a monochromatic color scheme, layering my favorite leather jacket over a charcoal-gray button-down and black jeans that hugged the curve of my thighs. Even our shoe choices were similar, seeming as I didn't feel right without my trusty combat boots. The only difference between the two of us was the tousled mop falling into my eyes, providing a stark contrast to the way Mark swept his honey cropped locks back into a sea of tumbled waves.

The bitterness gnawing away at the core of my chest dissipated, followed by a calming warmth. I realized, with a temporary pang of selfish guilt, that I appreciated Mark's outfit even more now that I knew I  was the one dressed like his significant other.

"Actually, I don't mind at all," I admitted, biting back a sly smile. "In fact, I know the perfect finishing touch."

Slipping out of my jacket, I gently slid the supple leather across the length of his shoulders, embracing the scent of sandalwood and flannel wafting from his creamy skin. Fighting the urge to lean forward and press a gentle kiss to the flesh, I peered at Mark in the mirror, our eyes locking.

"Perfect," I murmured, allowing my fingers to linger upon his shoulders for just a moment longer. "I think you're all set."

The ride to the date venue was unnaturally quiet, even though we sat in what was now my favorite riding position, Mark seated comfortably between my thighs. This time, though, the blond assured me that he understood the mechanics of the bike, leaving my hands free to snake around his abdomen. Relishing the warmth oozing through the familiar leather, I pressed myself as close to Mark as possible, allowing myself to pretend that the upcoming date would be our own. 

 

 

 

 

"Ice skating?" I felt the blood drain from my face as I loitered near the bike once we arrived, reluctant to enter the building looming before us.

"Serena suggested it." Mark glanced back at me, amusement dancing in his eyes. "Why? Is the Jackson Wang scared of some ice?"

Puffing out my chest, I knifed a (shaking) hand through my hair and strode through the doors, determined to prove to Mark that I wasn't afraid to take up any challenge...even if I was completely terrified.

Instead, I ended up barreling into another body, instinctively reaching out to steady whoever it was I had nearly knocked over in my faux bravado. Opening my mouth to spout a string of profuse apologies, I met the oceanic gaze of the girl caught in my embrace, a girl I recognized from the church choir.

"Nice to see you guys have reacquainted yourselves," Mark stated dryly, walking up behind me. "Jackson, this is Serena. You might recognize her from the choir. Serena, you already know Jackson."

With unbelievable fluidity, Serena gracefully slid free from my arms, dusting off the black collared dress she wore as she flashed a megawatt smile. "Of course. It's a pleasure to officially meet you, Jackson."

I could see how Mark thought he was doing me a favor; Serena was beautiful. Glossy onyx tresses cascaded over her shoulders, framing a heart-shaped face carved of the smoothest marble. Her body was lithe and elegant, exuding an air of confidence that I would normally find sexy, especially since Serena clearly knew how to work her mile-long legs. What struck me most about her, though, were the piercing irises boring into my skin, an indiscernible blend of crystal blue and mossy green. It was this triangulation of features—the obsidian curtain of hair, the milky white skin, and the ultramarine eyes—from which her beauty was woven, a kind that I had never witnessed on any other girl before.

There was only one issue. She wasn't Mark.

"The pleasure is all mine," I responded, reciprocating her polite handshake with a cordial smile. 

"And this is Haley, Serena's cousin," Mark continued, gesturing to the girl draped over his arm. "You might also recognize her from the choir. She'll be my date for tonight."

Shifting my attention to the newcomer, I felt a tidal wave of resentment rush through my veins. Haley looked like the epitome of Mark's type. In essence, she was the direct opposite of me. 

Choppy ash blonde waves grazed along the curve of her shoulders, windblown and effortless just like Mark's always was. Like her cousin, she possessed a pair of large cerulean eyes reminiscent of a doe's and a demure smile made of pearls. I also noted, my heart constricting beneath the icy tendrils of jealousy encasing it, how well her slim body molded against Mark's as she clung to him.

She was exactly the type of girl I imagined Mark falling for, but witnessing my prediction play out before my very eyes still felt like a sucker-punch to the face.

"Hello," I choked out, swallowing the bile that threatened to surge to the surface. Sparing Mark a queasy glance, I took Serena's hand and fixed my mouth into what I hoped looked like a winning smile. "Shall we, then?"

Accepting my date's gentle smile as encouragement, I led her away from the model couple, determined to survive the night, have some fun, and if I was lucky, forget the emotional turmoil that plagued my thoughts every time I laid eyes upon Mark. 

 

 

 

 

If I believed I could forget my feelings so easily, I was sorely mistaken. 

Half an hour into the date, I hadn't budged from the bench positioned alongside the rink, nursing a serious bout of insecurity as I watched Mark and Haley glide effortlessly across the ice. At first, Mark had maneuvered along the sprawling expanse like a klutz, bringing a smile to my lips as I mentally compared him to Bambi. It had seemed unfairly cute, until Haley instantly flew to his rescue, becoming his makeshift teacher and lacing her fingers through his to steady him until he had gotten the hang of it. 

Suddenly, the pair collapsed onto the ice together, erupting into a fit of giggles as they untangled their limbs. By that point, my jaw had already grown sore from the intensity of my clenching, and I was so busy stewing in my cesspool of emotions that I forgot I was basically neglecting my date. 

Warmth seeped into the juncture between my jaw and neck, drawing my attention to the date in question, pressing a drink against my skin.

"I thought you might appreciate some hot chocolate." She perched herself on the bench beside me, leaving a reasonable amount of space between her bare thighs and my denim-clad ones. "Are you okay? You seem...preoccupied."

Curling my numb fingertips around the cup, I offered an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry. I'm just feeling under the weather tonight. You should enjoy the ice, though. Don't worry about me."

"I wouldn't feel right having fun while you're feeling miserable," she said, lifting her own cup to her lips. "Plus, I would feel pretty embarrassed trying to live up to those two on my own."

"Tell me about it," I mumbled, allowing my eyes to follow the dazzling hues the strobe lights overhead cast upon Mark's face as he threw his head back, laughing out loud at something Haley must have said.

"They suit each other really well, don't you think?" Serena murmured, watching the couple dance beneath the lights together.

"Yep, they're absolutely perfect together." Knocking back the rest of the hot chocolate like a shot, I rose to my feet, ignoring the scalding heat scorching its way down my throat. "But who says we can't look like that?"

She peered up at me, eyes wide. "Really?"

"Would you like to skate with me, Serena?" I asked, offering a hand toward her. 

"I would love to," she whispered, sliding her hand into mine as her rosy cheeks flared with heat.

My knees wobbled erratically as soon as I stepped foot on the ice, gripping Serena's hand with a steely grip as the determination from before gradually faded away.

"Have you ever ice skated before, Jackson?" 

"Never." The word was exhaled into a breathy laugh. "Is it that obvious?"

Her shoulders shook as she giggled, a sound that somewhat calmed the tension radiating from my shoulders, despite my immediate mental comparison to Mark's tinkling laugh. "Don't worry about it. I can teach you. I've been ice skating since I could walk. Just hold onto my hand."

Clutching the small but steady hand wrapped in mine, I eagerly absorbed the next fifteen to twenty minutes of instruction she gave me, triumphant when we began to glide further and further from the railing I had considered using as a crutch. It wasn't until a flash of blond appeared in my peripheral vision that I realized I had been too engrossed in learning to ice skate to feel sorry about myself regarding my situation with Mark. 

This time, I couldn't help it. My attention immediately strayed to the couple, who had situated themselves upon the same bench Serena and I had occupied not even half an hour before. Flames licked at the edges of my vision as I watched Mark lift a hand to Haley's face, wiping away a stain that might have settled upon her lips. Swirls of color invaded my line of sight, dizzying me as I clutched Serena's hand.

"Jackson?" Her voice floated through my subconscious as my surroundings faded into pixels. "Jackson, can you hear me?"

"I need some air." My voice was a raspy croak, scraping away at my throat like sandpaper. "I'm sorry, but I need to get out of here."

Ignoring her protests, I released her hand and latched onto the railing, letting the cool iron sink into my skin as it guided me off of the rink. Blinking away the onslaught of tears, I kicked off my skates and fumbled around for my shoes, managing to jam my feet into the openings.

"Are you insane?" Serena materialized by my side, linking her arm through mine. "Don't run off like that, okay? You had me worried about you."

Without waiting for my response, she coaxed me out into the balmy California night, shutting out the pandemonium that had just ensued. Propping myself against the wall, I slowly counted to one hundred in my head, attempting to calm my harsh breaths.

Once the tears subsided, and the blistering pain had numbed into a dull ache, I heaved a deep sigh. 

"I'm so sorry, Serena." I pinched the bridge of my nose, squeezing my eyes shut. "You deserve a much better date than this. I don't know how I'll make it up to you, but I swear I will."

"How long?"

I cocked my head, attempting to decipher the couplet of words. "How long?"

"How long have you been in love with Mark?"

I gaped at the brunette, gears churning in my head as I sifted through its recesses for an answer to her inquiry. "In love with...? Serena, I'm not gay."

She swayed in place, eyeing me speculatively. "That's not what I asked. I asked how long you've been in love with Mark."

"I heard you," I replied, casting her an incredulous stare.

"Well? How long?"

"I'm not in love with Mark!"

"Right. Because everyone looks at his best friend like he painted the stars in the sky." Her voice, although tinged with sarcasm, wasn't judgmental in any way. "Please don't insult my intelligence, Jackson."

Fisting a hand in my hair, I muttered a chain of profanity. "Please tell me I'm not as transparent as you make me seem."

"Only to someone who is highly observant." She sent me a conspiratorial wink. "Fortunately for you, Mark is oblivious."

"I don't think I'm in love with him." Sinking to the ground, I held my head in my hands. "I don't know how to describe what I feel for him. Like I said, I'm not gay. There's just something about Mark that's...different. Everything is so complicated."

"Why does it have to be complicated?" She knelt beside me, resting a gentle hand on my knee. "Have you told Mark how you feel?"

"Of course not! And risk losing him forever? I would rather watch him be happy with someone else." My mind drifted to him and Haley, huddling together as they slid around the rink. "I would never deserve him, anyway. There's no way I can make him as happy as he deserves to be."

"Shouldn't Mark make that decision?" Serena questioned. "Maybe he feels the same way."

"Impossible. You saw how he acts with your cousin. They're practically made for each other."

"Why? Because they're both blond, beautiful, and of the opposite sex?" she retorted. My mouth snapped shut.

"It's getting late. Haley and I should probably get going." She stood, holding out her hands to help me stand as well. "Think about what I said. If you ever need anyone to talk to about Mark, you know I'll always listen."

"Thank you." I squeezed her hands, attempting to display at least a portion of my gratitude. "I'm really sorry about tonight. You're stunning, Serena, and if I wasn't caught up in this confusion with Mark, I would definitely feel like the luckiest guy in the world to have you on my arm."

Pressing a gentle kiss to my cheek, she smiled against my skin before pulling away. "Thank you for an eventful date, Jackson. I'll never forget it."

With a shy wave, she disappeared through the doors just as Mark jogged through them, looking around wildly.

"Jackson!" His eyes lit up with relief once he saw me. "I was looking for you everywhere."

I swept my gaze over him as he drew closer, fighting the urge to pull him into my arms and breathe in the sticky sweetness of his hair gel. All of the bitterness from the evening dissipated, replaced with unadulterated happiness.

"I just needed some fresh air. I'm sorry to worry you." I could feel the heat prickling along the tips of my ears. "How was your date?"

Mark scuffed the toes of his boots against the gravel, worrying his lip between his teeth. "Haley is a great girl and I had a lot of fun, but I couldn't help thinking how much more fun I would have had if I was with you."

My heart soared, thudding violently against my ribcage as Mark lifted his eyes to mine. "I feel the same way. Serena is awesome, but I would've preferred if it was just us tonight, like always."

"Well, the night is still young. Do you want to test out that theory?" Mark flashed a toothy smile, warming my insides with his goofiness. 

I slung an arm around his shoulders, allowing my mind to drift freely through the images of Mark and Haley, replacing the blonde with myself. 

"Lead the way."

If Mark and I happened to fall into each other's arms throughout the night, who was I to say no?

Chapter Text

-Mark's Point of View-

Despite the noticeable descent of the rink's temperature in comparison to its exterior, I couldn't deny the warmth that spiked through my chest when Jackson pressed a gentle hand along the small of my back, obliterating the frigid chill with the sunshine that pervaded his very being. 

Tugging the borrowed jacket tighter around my shoulders, I caught the faint scent of paint radiating from the leather, inhaling the tint of sharpness as a smile curved onto my lips. While most people despised the smell of paint, I had grown fond of the memories intertwined with the somewhat peculiar fragrance, which clung to the boy with whom I had discovered a new side of life.

I peered over at said boy, draping a hand across my laughing mouth when I found him wobbling clumsily across the ice, knitting his eyebrows together to focus on the seemingly impossible task. Skating with smooth strides alongside him, I marveled at the uncertainty of the often dauntless male, admiring the kaleidoscope of colors splashing along his sun-kissed skin.

It always struck the wrong chord when Jackson acted like he was less than the person I knew he was, the person I had grown to need. Whenever he spiraled into the familiar slew of insults and negativity directed toward himself, I had to fight the urge to slap some sense into him, terrified of the day I might lose him because of my acidic temper or his endless insecurities. 

At night, I laid awake, jotting down list after list of who Jackson was to me and who I wished he could see if he simply looked into the mirror. The list had grown to an appalling length over the past few weeks, displaying columns and columns of the personality traits that made the brunet irreplaceable, an inexhaustible list that I vowed to give to the boy I cared about so much once I gained the courage.

To be honest, I was never exactly good with words. While I mulled over everything I spoke beforehand, explaining only my utmost important thoughts in the briefest way possible, I only did so to avoid the inevitable stumbling and confusion of words marred by emotion or impulse.

With Jackson, though, I yearned to be a poet. I longed for the ability to weave a web of words that expressed the inexplicable importance of who he had become in my life, in the only way that could do him justice. Jackson was an entity I had only just begun to decipher, but not through the logic or cold-bodied analysis I had used on every other person I had met. No, with this wild card of a brunet, I was peeling back each layer of who he was with the emotions that I had long attempted to renounce, in fear that any form of vulnerability would make me seem weak. Little did I know that in discovering who Jackson was, I was also allowing him to dissolve the walls I had built up throughout the course of my life. 

Never before had I felt so free.

For this reason, it irritated me to no end that Jackson was able to find the positivity in what little I had done for him since the first day we met, yet he constantly downgraded the tremendous efforts he had made in changing my life. Just once, I wanted to find the words to express how much I needed him, and I wanted—no, needed—him to believe me.

"You're doing great," I declared once the brunet seemed to find a steady rhythm, maintaining his footing despite the frustration mapped out across his features.

His eyes darted over, scanning along my relaxed pace before narrowing into a glare. "Are you making fun of me?" 

"No, I really mean it." I couldn't help it, allowing my lips to pull back as I bared a toothy grin, relishing the brief second of deja vu. "You're clearly talented." 

Catching the irony of the moment, Jackson's glare immediately softened into a sunshiny smile, though he couldn't resist rolling his eyes anyway. "Whatever, show-off. I suck at this. Remind me never to go ice skating with you again." 

"Don't be so negative. You were doing awesome with Serena." Maneuvering myself backwards, I swerved into his path, reaching out for him with both hands. "Maybe you just need a teacher to encourage you to keep trying."

Jackson's gaze flickered down to my outstretched hands as the color faded from his cheekbones. Eventually, he dragged his eyes back to mine, an emotion I recognized all too well plaguing his doe-like irises. "Are you sure?"

"Why wouldn't I be?" I searched his eyes, attempting to unearth the source of insecurity peering back at me. 

"Aren't you worried...?" His gaze swiveled around the rink as he sucked his bottom lip between his teeth. "Aren't you worried what people might think?"

His final words sent my stomach plummeting, bile eating away at the lining as I lowered my own eyes to my hovering palms. Oh. 

"I've never really thought about it." My voice sounded strained, but I couldn't pinpoint the acidic emotion devouring my gut. "Why? Are you worried about what others might think?"

"I don't give a damn what they think of me, Mark." He slipped a callused hand into my own, following the movement with his eyes rather than meeting my own. "I just don't want them to get the wrong idea about you."

"How many times do I have to tell you I'm not as fragile as you think I am? I don't care if people get the 'wrong idea.' That's their problem, not mine." As if to prove my point, I sent a glare toward a snickering trio of guys gliding past us before leveling a wicked smile toward Jackson. "So, are you going to take my hands now or what?"

Jackson's entire body rumbled with the force of his laugh as he tossed his head back, exposing the unblemished arc of his neck. "Who am I to say no to that?"

As he drew closer, resting his free hand inside my own, his sunny smile dipped into a grimace as we began to move across the ice. Focusing on the fringe of lashes framing the eyes I often admired for their everlasting brightness and energy (yet another trait that I had included in my nightly lists), I soon lost myself in thought, consumed by the realization that I only had months to spend with someone I found myself thinking about day in and day out. 

We had talked about it in the past, making offhanded remarks about our plans for the future when Jackson launched into excited chatter about the new life he wanted to build when he went off to UCLA for the upcoming semester. His smile had practically shone like a beacon, illuminating the room as he described the lucrative scholarship he had earned for his athleticism. Although he was currently enrolled as an undeclared major for his first year, his temporary stint in the choir had convinced him to study music composition. 

I could do little but watch on, pride swelling in my chest, as the brunet rambled about the music he planned to make to change the world. It wasn't until he had trained those bright caramel eyes in my direction, a silent prompt to discuss my own college plans, that the pang of misery jolted through me. I had yet to reveal the plans my father had set in motion for me, plans that had governed my life since I lost my mom. I didn't know if I could handle the pain that would undoubtedly cloud Jackson's eyes when he eventually discovered the truth. 

"None of your business," I had teased, ruffling a hand through his bandana-mussed hair. 

Although it was an attempt to lighten the mood, it was clearly a weak one, because Jackson was slinging an arm around my shoulder, holding me close. 

"No matter where you go, whether it's minutes or hours away, I'll always be here." He flashed a mischievous smile. "You'll always be my partner in crime, even if you're three states away." 

Little did Jackson know I wouldn't be a mere three states away. Come December, I wouldn't even be in the same country. While he was painting a new life in Los Angeles, one without me in it, I was bound for a mission in Taiwan. 

Last year, when my father advised that I defer my college admissions and my scholarships in favor of spreading words of faith around the developing areas of my parents' native country, I hadn't found any reason to protest. After all, I had thought the mission would give me some time away from Los Angeles, some space that I still desperately needed to soul-search and escape the trap I had fallen into. When Jinyoung offered to become a missionary with me, I had found no plausible reason to stay.

Until I met Jackson Wang.

He was unlike anyone I had ever encountered, a friend with the power to change the lives of anyone he touched with his boundless energy and overflowing love. If I had to choose one facet that shone above the rest, I was most enchanted by his complexity. It was easy to take Jackson at face value. He was loud, boisterous, and gripped attention with every word that spilled between his lips, deceiving people into believing he was little more than a muscle-head who liked to hear himself speak. 

I knew better. During the nights Jackson dragged me along on yet another escapade or the ones when I woke up with my nose sticking to my keyboard, a blanket that only Jackson could have brought framing my shoulders, I quickly learned that there were an infinite number of layers that made up my closest friend. And with every layer I peeled back, I knew I only wanted to learn more.

While he seemed like my direct opposite, there were many aspects of his personality that meshed well with my own. Despite his sometimes overwhelming nature, he was often attuned to the most minute changes in my mood, always willing to lend an ear or a shoulder without even the slightest hint from me. We complemented each other so well that we sometimes took on one another's roles, Jackson every now and then lapsing into comfortable silences while I found myself speaking up more whenever the conversations we had called for it. 

Now that I had found my reason to stay, the thought of going to Taiwan when I had finally begun to truly live ripped a gaping hole in my chest, one that only the one I was losing could fill with his presence. 

"Mark?" His voice filtered through my thoughts, raspy with concern. "Mark!"

Breaking free from my inner musings, I found Jackson's face just inches from my own, his gaze boring into mine. The small of my back was digging into the railing that sectioned off the rink, the brunet's firm arms twined around me. 

"Are you okay?"

Tearing my eyes away from his, I settled them upon the palms cradled against his broad chest. As heat surged to the forefront of my face, I snatched my hands away, filing away the shivers dancing down my spine when Jackson's arms fell away from my waist.

"What happened?" I asked, biting back the tremor in my voice. 

"You were helping me skate when you just...spaced out. Next thing I know, you're about to flip backwards over the railing." 

"Sorry, I didn't mean to zone out. Thank you for saving me from being a klutz in front of everyone. What would I do without you?" Forcing out a hollow laugh, I scrubbed a hand through my hair, wincing inwardly at the truth in my final words.

"Are you sure you're okay?" He lifted a hand to my face, cradling my jawbone as his thumb swept across my cheek. "You're crying." 

I ducked away from the gesture, suddenly hyperaware of the rampancy of my heartbeat, as well as the curious eyes peering over at us. "I guess I'm just feeling a little tired. It's been an eventful night."

He studied my face for a moment, his hand lingering in the air until it fell limply to his side. "Okay. Do you want to grab some food? My treat."

Encouraged by my silent nod, Jackson led me out into the night, his fingers wrapped securely around my wrist. As I lifted my face to the dusky, bejeweled sky overhead, I noticed that it had split into a clouded schism, spilling with a torrent of ice water.

A smile spread along my face as fat droplets began to drill into my skin, even when Jackson dissolved into a fit of curses. I had loved the rain ever since I was a child, allowing the rhythmic thrumming against my bedroom window to conjure up swirls of inspiration as I sketched away or to lull me back to sleep after a nightmare. Even still, my parents had always warned me against playing in the rain, spouting the same old wives' tales of the unfortunate souls who fell ill after an hour in the inclement weather. Now that it was just me and Jackson, I was determined to seize this moment of freedom to do what I had always dreamed of doing, to let myself go wild after years of being conditioned not to. 

"Maybe we should go back inside," he reasoned. "We can wait until it passes...Mark!"

By the time my name pierced the air, I had already flung myself into the street, plunging feet-first into a large puddle. Pasting my hair to my forehead, the rain seeped into my clothing, cascading in a slippery sheen along my bare skin as the outfit I wore clung to my body. 

Suddenly, I was yanked forward, my chest colliding with Jackson's as he pulled me back onto the curb. 

"What the hell are you doing, throwing yourself into the street like that?" he hissed, clutching my forearms as his eyes searched my own. "Are you insane?"

Before I could help it, a fit of laughter seized my body, uncontrollable giggles spewing out of my throat as I grasped Jackson's hands. "No, that's just it. I'm not insane. I'm alive." 

Jackson gaped at me, his mouth hanging open, and I felt my heart melt as I peered back at my best friend. Caught in the rain, soaking locks pushed away from his forehead, revealing his large doe eyes, I could find no other word to describe him than cute

"Dance with me," I murmured, guiding him toward the puddle. 

He cocked his head, his expression reminiscent of a confused puppy's. "What?"

"Dance with me," I repeated, a smile quirking up the corners of my mouth. "Do you know how out-of-season this storm is? When else will we get the chance?"

He exhaled a flustered titter, shaking his head furiously. "There's no music."

"The only music you need," I began, pulling him close as I pressed an open palm against his chest, "is right here."

Before he could protest, I hopped backwards, dragging him into the puddle and drenching our legs in a flood of rising rain. His blood-curdling shriek shattered the atmosphere, rivaling the booming crack of thunder that followed.

"You're fucking insane!" he gritted out through chattering teeth. "It's freezing out here!"

"Who cares?" I retorted gleefully, twirling the grumpy brunet while he was off-guard. "Just dance!" 

He huffed out an exasperated laugh, muttering beneath his breath. "You seriously owe me after this."

Together, we floated among the puddles, gripping each other's hands as we swirled in sync beneath the weeping sky. As we danced, clinging to one another like children, our laughs rose to a crescendo, mingling together into a single sound as we whirled in and out of the light provided by the ice skating rink. The frigid chill of the rain slicked along my skin was long forgotten, thawing into a comfortable warmth whenever Jackson's hands slid along my arms. 

At some point in the night, I ended up draped over Jackson's back, my chest pressed into his shoulder blades as he gripped my thighs for balance. 

"Hold on tight!" he crowed, rotating in place until I was gasping for air, overcome with laughter.

I squeezed my eyes shut, allowing the night to fade into blackness as I latched my arms tighter around Jackson's neck, burying my nose into the tangled sea adorning his head. Inhaling the freshness of the rain, underscored by a faint tinge of spice from his shampoo, I felt the painful memories from before dissipate. 

It didn't matter that we only had months left before our perfect little world was shattered by reality. No amount of separation could erase that moment, nor could it erase the happiness I would feel in the moments that were sure to come. In that moment, all that mattered was the present, the unbreakable connection between me and Jackson. 

 

 

 

 

Later that night, once I had finished my shower, I padded noiselessly down the hall to Jackson's room and gently pushed the door open. Ruffling a towel through my dripping hair, I poked my head inside to find said brunet sprawled lazily along his bed, bare chest on full display. 

Shaking an affectionate head, I drew near to his bedside, slinging my towel over my shoulder as I settled into a sitting position beside his reclining form. Raking my eyes along his peaceful, unlined face and slack, snoring mouth, I reached down to slide the comforter up over his chest. 

"Sweet dreams, Jackson," I murmured, brushing my knuckles lightly along his cheek. 

The brunet shifted position with a quiet sigh, leaning into the touch, and I allowed my knuckles to linger for a brief moment, rising to my feet with a soft smile. As I turned to leave, an insistent vibrating erupted in the back pocket of my joggers. 

"Hello?" I greeted, lifting the offending device to my ear.

"Mark."

Goosebumps arose along my bare arms, my blood running cold at the sound of the familiar voice on the other end. 

"Please don't hang up," the voice continued. "We need to talk."

"What is there to talk about, Reverend?" I snapped, clutching the phone so hard that my knuckles shone white.

"This little tantrum of yours is becoming ridiculous, son." His voice was patronizing, identical to Jinyoung's the last time we had spoken. "No matter how angry you might be with me, I will always be your father." 

I scoffed, trailing my eyes over to Jackson's snoozing figure. "You forfeited that title when you chose to be the reverend, instead."

"Mark, you can't throw your entire life away for this criminal," he continued, ignoring me as if I hadn't spoken. "How long do you believe you can keep up this charade?"

"You still haven't learned how to listen to anyone other than yourself," I spat through gritted teeth. "And I've been surviving just fine for the past month. What is it that you want from me?"

A sigh filtered through the line. "Just tell me where you are. We can work something out." 

"You know exactly where I am, and I don't plan on leaving anytime soon," I responded, lightly perching beside Jackson on the bed once more. "I'm happy here. I've never felt more free than I do when I'm here. If you still consider me your son at all, please just let me go." 

"You know why I can't do that," he said, voice thick with an emotion I couldn't pinpoint. "Please, son...come back home."

"I'm sorry, Dad." Lightly, I brushed my fingertips through Jackson's hair, tears gathering in my eyes as I spoke the words I had been mulling over in my head since the very first day I found my thoughts consumed with Jackson Wang. "But you know very well that I'm already home."

Chapter Text

- Jackson's Point of View -

My mind was swimming with the plush mouth I had stolen in the previous night's dream, the ghost of a delicious pain from pin-sharp canines devouring my lower lip while stygian pools of emotion bore into my eyes. Feather-soft fingertips had twisted into my hair, leaving an ache in my scalp that I chased away with more bruising kisses. 

As images of Mark's writhing body beneath my own chased themselves in dizzying swirls across my subconscious, I adjusted the elastic fabric of my mask over my simmering cheeks, inwardly grateful for my affinity for baggy pants. Preoccupied by the sudden stiffness building between my thighs, it was no wonder that I didn't notice the figure peeling itself from the shadows. 

"Long time, no see, Jensen." 

The brunet's voice was dry as he emerged into the golden glow of the sun overhead, trailing his eyes over my frame lazily.

"To what do I owe this displeasure, Jinyoung?" Allowing my duffle bag to slip from my shoulder, I ignored the blatant disregard for my name and fixed an indifferent glare upon the douche's bare ankles, the deja vu of the situation leaving a bitter taste in my mouth. What kind of weirdo refused to wear socks, anyway?

"Your work is actually quite interesting." I could feel his eyes following me as I knelt before the bag, digging through the pile of aluminum for the day's supplies. "I might be impressed if it wasn't created so distastefully." 

A scoff seeped through my mask as I tilted a paint can toward the fragmented mural. "Ever considered that I might not give a damn about impressing you?"

"Oh, of course not." His voice dipped into a purr, disarming me with a surge of surprise. "You're too busy trying to impress Mark."

Tension deluged through my body, molding my frame ramrod-straight as my hand froze midair. "You have no idea what you're talking about."

"Do you consider me a fool?" His speech became harsh, clipped in its hissed delivery. "I may not consider myself even an acquaintance of yours, but it's clear how you feel about him and your denial is merely pathetic." 

"Cut the shit, Jinyoung," I snarled, snapping my eyes shut. "You didn't come here to talk about my feelings for Mark, so why the hell are you here?"

Long fingers suddenly settled over mine, locking the spray can in place from behind. While an onlooker might have viewed the gesture as romantic, I immediately saw it for what it truly was: a warning. 

"Let go of me." 

Jinyoung's lips brushed against the shell of my ear, eliciting unpleasant shivers as he spoke. "No, you're going to stand here and listen."

Flames began to lick through my veins, goading themselves on as they rose to a fiery inferno deep within my chest. Suddenly, a growl of fury ripped from my throat and I was yanking Jinyoung forward, slamming his lithe frame against the wall with a violent whirl. One of my forearms pinned him in place, suspended against his trembling Adam's apple, while the other poised the spray paint just inches from his charcoal irises. 

"I said, let go. If you dare to touch me one more time, I swear I will fucking blind you."

Jinyoung's mouth contorted into a nasty smirk, mirroring the triumphant glint in the onyx embers staring back at me. "Do it, Jason. Show Mark who you really are. Show him why he'd be better off without you. All it takes is a little bit of pressure, and you'll be back behind bars." 

With a swing of my arm, the can of paint went flying, crashing into the unblemished bricks with the piercing ring of metal. The boy before me flinched, his eyes darting to follow the movement before settling upon mine once more, the haughty arrogance of before replaced by a flicker of panic. 

"This is your last chance," I murmured, allowing my arm to tumble from his throat just as my voice dipped below a whisper. "Tell me whatever the fuck you want, or get out of my sight."

Dusting his hands over the billowing silk of his shirt, he leveled a pompous glare in my direction. "I may not be able to keep you away from Mark, seeming as he has made the foolish decision to move in with you, but just know that you are sorely mistaken if you believe that you have won Mark's heart. It is only a matter of time before he sees through your facade and chooses to return to the one who has always been right for him." 

Stooping to retrieve the wayward aerosol can, my body shook with the vibrations of a scornful chuckle. "I knew this was about more than your distrust and stupid superiority complex. This isn't even about the feelings you assume I have for Mark. This is about the fact that you're in love with him." 

"I have loved him for years." A firm palm clapped over my shoulder, spinning me to face a fuming, ruddy-faced Jinyoung. "And if you think that you can just swoop in and take him away from me, I will make sure that you rot in that cell for the rest of your life. That is a promise."

"You're pathetic," I retorted, slapping his hand away from my skin, which prickled uncomfortably at the contact. "Believe it or not, I don't have any of the ulterior motives you seem to think I do. I'm only trying to be a good friend to him and make him happy, because he deserves it more than anyone in the world. You seem hell-bent on the idea that I would never deserve Mark, but look at you, terrorizing anyone who might stand in your way. What makes you think you deserve him?" 

"I'm the only one who deserves him," he drawled, stabbing a manicured finger into my sternum. "I have stood by his side and waited for him to notice me since we were children. I am the only one who truly knows him. I know what makes him cry, and I know what makes him smile. I know what makes him tick, more than anyone. If he can't be happy with me, I refuse to stand back and watch him find happiness with a stranger." 

Locking his wrists between my hands, I shoved him backwards until he stumbled, landing right on the seat of his creased slacks. "And you dare to call that love? You clearly have no idea what it means to love someone. To claim you love Mark is an insult to those who actually do." 

"Are you claiming that you do?" he scoffed, propping his torso against the wall. "What does a filthy criminal know about love?" 

"To love someone is to think of them the instant you wake and in the transition between consciousness and sleep, to wonder at every point in the day whether or not they're smiling or thinking about you, too. Love is when warmth oozes through your veins like molasses—not burning like jealousy or anger—simply because of the way they look at you." My flame-tinged thoughts began to dissolve away, overcome by the image of sun-washed amber irises glimmering with mirth. "Love is when you find the strength to let them go, because the one they're meant to find happiness with can never be you." 

Jinyoung regarded me with shrewd, calculating eyes for a moment. "Let me ask you this, Jake. Would you be able to sit back and watch Mark be with me, if it meant seeing him happy?"

"Yes." Turning my back to him, I traced my hand over the renovated crucifix, allowing my fingertips to graze along the curve of the "o" in love. "Of course I would." 

"Why?" His voice, no longer dripping with savage rage, was incredulous. 

I squeezed my eyes shut, attempting to block out reality as I finally voiced the words that had haunted my dreams since the night at the skating rink. 

"Because I love him." 

 

 

 

 

A low, appreciative whistle floated along the heat-muddled breeze, startling me from my hunched composure, tongue trapped between my teeth where I had schooled myself into complete focus.  

"Looks like it's starting to come together." 

Scrubbing my knuckles along the sheen of sweat blanketed across my brow, I slung my discarded shirt over my shoulder and turned to face the newcomer, mentally willing away the roses that rapidly framed my mask. 

"What are you doing here?" I spluttered, fighting the urge to squint as the familiar figure sauntered through the alleyway, sunbeams bathing his rice-paper skin in an ocher halo. The moisture in my mouth evaporated into an arid dryness, leaving behind a desert of awe as I beheld the angel that stood just feet before me. 

Face splitting into a sheepish smile, he lifted a bulging grocery bag, looped into a sloppy bow at the top. "I wanted to surprise you. I figured you've been working your ass off for the past few hours, so I thought you might like to have some lunch."

Without thinking, I swept Mark's wiry frame into a tender embrace, nudging my nose into the silken gossamer strands garnishing his head. As I cradled his body against my skimpily-clad chest—after all, I was only wearing my black wifebeater—I felt the unrelenting chant of my heartbeat rising to meet that of the blond's. Concealed beneath the recognizable simplicity of his body wash, one that was meant to replicate the ocean breeze Mark missed so much from his childhood, I caught just a faint whiff of a familiar spiciness before he was squirming out of my arms, squealing in laughter.

"Ugh, gross!" he crowed, warding off my advances with outstretched palms. "You're all sweaty!"

Chiming in on his contagious glee, I skimmed a fond hand through his lightly-disheveled hair. "You're such an angel. Seriously, thank you for this." 

"Don't mention it." His eyes reflected back at me with a starry gleam that I'd never seen anywhere else. "So, you think you could use a break or should I let this food go to waste?"

A moment later, I had my legs folded pretzel-style before me, several pieces of dim sum pocketed between my cheeks as Mark nibbled at the flesh of a dumpling beside me. 

"I swear," I mumbled, careful not to spew remnants of the cuisine. "You make it so hard not to be annoyed with you and your constant perfection."

Pursing his lips, the blond jabbed a playful elbow into my ribs, lifting his eyes to the skeleton of my work plastered above us. "What about you, huh? Look at what you can do!"

As he tilted his jaw to regard the swirls of paint, I promptly stole the opportunity to feast my eyes upon his profile, drinking in the graceful slope of his nose and the sideways heart of the lips I had obsessed over for weeks. It wasn't until the object of my thoughts noticed and zeroed in on my staring that I managed to avert said action, muffling my mouth with an abrupt clearing of my throat. 

"But seriously, who taught you how to cook like this?" I inquired, sinking my teeth into a dumpling in order to avoid the tension that rose in a palpable cloud between us. 

Busying himself with packing away the empty containers, Mark rose to his feet, seemingly contemplating his answer.

"I used to enjoy hanging around in the kitchen while my mom cooked. It was one of her favorite pastimes and it allowed me to grow closer to her," he responded, a wistful smile painted along his lips. "I didn't realize I had picked up tricks from her until there was no one left to cook for me anymore, leaving me no choice but to fend for myself." 

Swallowing the final chunk of food I had inhaled, I noticed with a pang of sympathy that it did little to eradicate the lump that had already settled at the pit of my throat. However, Mark extended an unblemished palm before I could voice my thoughts, clasping my own as he drew me toward him. 

"To be honest, I didn't only stop by to bring you lunch," he admitted, dragging a sheepish hand along the nape of his neck. "I've been meaning to ask if you wanted some help completing the mural, and I was wondering if...maybe you could teach me?"

A goofy grin began to tug at the corners of my mouth as I watched the usually self-assured boy hang his head, flares of heat tinging the tips of his ears scarlet.

"You want me to teach you how to create street art? Isn't that a little too rebellious for you?"

Mark snatched his hand from my casual grip, fixing me with a half-venomous glare. "Rebellious, my ass. Did you forget I just moved out of my childhood home after years of being held captive by my father and into the house of someone I've only known for a few months? On top of that, I quit the church choir I've led for years and gave up doing what I love to do what I felt was right, which was to live with the person my father and my former best friend seem to hate the most in the world, yet you're busting my balls for wanting to learn how to do what you do? Forget I asked, since you don't consider me rebellious enough."

Capturing his hand again, I fetched it back to my chest, chasing his eyes as they sought to escape my playful ones. Not unlike many incidences prior to this, I had to rip my gaze away from the blond's luscious mouth, determined not to fuel the pressure building within my pants. Even so, it was by far one of the hardest attempts to date, since Mark Tuan had resorted to pouting to display his displeasure. 

"Relax," I giggled—fucking giggled—as I brushed my fingertips along his cheekbone without thinking about the consequences of the action. "I was just teasing. You know I would love to teach you."

"You're the worst," he muttered, swatting an indignant hand against my chest. Despite the annoyance coloring his tone, he bared his alabaster canines in a fond smile, sending my stomach swirling into a pit of complicated emotions.

Filing my thoughts away for that night, when I would be blissfully alone in the security of my pitch-black room, I released Mark's hand and ambled toward the area of the mural I had been working on: a two-dimensional representation of the creation story, of the rolling hills and crystalline pools in which a personified version of the cross was being baptized.

"First things first," I began, kneeling to fish for a spare mask in my duffel, "you cannot ever forget to cover your nose and mouth while you work. Spray paint is full of toxic chemicals, and I don't want you to risk permanent brain damage just because street art is beautiful as hell."

Lifting my hands to Mark's face, I gingerly fastened the thick, ventilated fabric over the lower half of his divine features, searching his eyes when my hands cradled his jaw for a lingering moment. Hesitantly drawing back, I fetched a new can of paint from the pile and deposited it between Mark's fingers.

"Before you paint, you need to shake the can as hard as you can for about a minute," I continued, demonstrating the technique. "Spray paint tends to separate from its solvent if it is left dormant for too long, so the particles settle at the bottom and clog the caps once they're sucked up by the pipe. If you hold it upside down, the paint particles can mix back into the liquid quicker, and this prevents clogs."

"You know a lot about this stuff," Mark remarked, dipping the nozzle of the can toward the ground as he began to mimic the technique I had taught him.

"Yeah, I guess I do..." 

My voice trailed off, fading into my throat as my eyes followed the fluid movement of Mark's jittering hand. It took every last ounce of my composure not to lunge forward, sealing my mouth over the faint outline of a smile beneath his mask. 

"So, what now?" he finally asked, interrupting my impure thought process. 

"Right, uh..." Blushing uncontrollably, I steered Mark closer to the wall with a chaste hand at the base of his spine. "I'm going to start you off with something simple, so I want you to paint the words 'In God We Trust' in block letters woven throughout the painting." 

Stationing myself behind the blond, I reached around to drape my fingertips over his, rearranging his grip on the can to make sure it fit securely. "So, it's a basic rule to hold the can in a vertical position, but the most important tip I can give you is to hold it in any way that feels most comfortable to you."

"When you paint, make your lines as thin as possible. The closer you hold the can to the wall, the thinner the lines will be, but you'll have to tilt the can if you want it to get really close to the wall," I continued once I gained his nod of affirmation, slowly maneuvering his hand in long, straight lines as we began to paint the outline of the I. "If you want really sharp lines, hold the can in the direction of the line you are painting. If the line is vertical, hold the can vertically, and if it's horizontal, hold the can horizontally." 

Throughout the lesson, Mark was especially quiet, obediently allowing me to guide his painting as he pressed his back closer to my chest. Catching the hint of Mark's natural scent beneath the sharp pungency of the paint, I sucked in a harsh breath behind my mask, attempting to focus on the task at hand rather than the way Mark's spine molded into my chest like a jigsaw puzzle. 

"You might have noticed that each of those lines were drawn very quickly," I murmured near his ear as we finished outlining the first letter. "That's because holding the paint in the same spot for too long will lead to dripping, and we want a very clean finish." 

"Wow," he breathed, seemingly awestruck. "There's so much to remember."

Shaking my head affectionately—god, he's so cute—I pressed a reassuring hand into his side. "It's nothing once you get the hang of it. Ready for the filling?"

Bobbing his head enthusiastically like a kid, Mark flashed me a thumbs-up over his shoulder, prompting a laugh from me.

"All right. Well, luckily for you, filling is probably one of the easiest parts of street art, since you're only coloring in the outline you already created." Gesturing to the defined shape of the "I," I lifted his hand back to the silhouette and began to shade in the figure. "The best way to fill is to do so with thin lines, because thick layers will leave a patchy and flawed coverage. It also takes much longer for thick layers of paint to dry, which leaves the work vulnerable to elements like the weather. Now, you try." 

Dropping Mark's hand, I watched over his shoulder as he steadily filled in the gaps, blanketing each exposed brick with a clean layer of paint. 

"Like this?" he questioned, swiveling his head to face me over his shoulder. 

His voice stopped short when he realized how close we were to one another, our foreheads nearly brushing as he searched my eyes, the only thing hindering our mouths from brushing the masks stretched taut over our lips. Instead of jolting apart, we merely stared at each other, frozen in place.

"Perfect," I whispered, lightly pressing my forehead against his as my heart took a swan-dive. 

The rapper's eyes flickered with an emotion I couldn't place—sadness, apprehension, hope, fear?—before he was retreating, stepping out of reach. 

"Mark." My voice dripped with a dark longing, an unfulfilled need that I knew had to be audible to the boy before me. Reaching for him, I settled my hands upon his hips, guiding him back to my chest. 

With trembling fingers, Mark suddenly dropped the spray can he was holding with a hollow clink, but not before accidentally slashing a thick bar of color along my collarbones and arms. 

"Oh, shit, sorry!" he gasped, gently pressing his fingertips to the "damage" as his eyes widened to an almost comical size. "I can't believe I just did that."

Unable to help it, I burst into insuppressible laughter, kneeling to pick up the discarded can before fishing around in my bag once more. "God, you should see your face. You're acting as if you just shot me or something."

"You said it yourself this shit is toxic!" he protested.

"Yeah, to breathe in," I acquiesced, unraveling a hose from the bottom of the pile of paint. "Look at your hands, Mark. This stuff is perfectly fine on skin, hence why I can wear practically nothing and still be fine while I work. I bring this bad boy with me every time I go on a job for this very reason. Street art can be messy. It's best to be prepared."

Before he could respond, I plugged in the hose and rotated the nozzle, waiting for the steady stream of water to spill out onto the gravel beneath my feet. I stripped my wifebeater from my sweat-drenched torso, tossing the article of clothing aside along with my mask, making every effort I could to ignore Mark watching me from the sidelines. 

"I wish martial arts training made me look like that," he piped up. Rather than sounding bitter, his voice was laced with admiration, which immediately had me fighting the urge to stifle a schoolgirlish giggle. 

Lifting the spray of the hose to my collarbones, I scrubbed my hand against the stained skin, allowing the cool water to cascade over my chest. "I think your body is perfect as it is."

"I'm not saying it's bad or anything," he sighed, toeing the ground with his boot. "I just...Looking at you makes me wish I made more of an effort to stay in shape." 

Twisting my mouth into a grimace, I shifted my focus back to rinsing the paint from my skin. "Stop selling yourself short, or I just might have to make you regret it."

"Oh, really?" His voice was thick with a silent challenge. "What are you going to do about it?"

Sending a devious smirk in his direction, I suddenly wielded the hose like a weapon, drenching the blond from head to toe in the icy stream. 

"Jackson!" he screeched, peeling away his mask to project the full force of his voice. 

"What?" I cackled, shoving my paint-riddled hand under the hose again. "I was just trying to clean you up."

Narrowing his eyes into slits, he stripped his own shirt over his head, balling his hands into fists as he stalked toward me. "You're asking for it. Give me that hose."

Despite the grim line of his mouth, amusement danced behind the bronze-flecked eyes peering back at me as we wrestled over possession of the hose, thoroughly drenching one another in the process. For the next several minutes, as the unforgiving sun beat down on us with rays that singed into our exposed skin, time seemed to stop as we roughhoused, splashing each other like children. 

"Are you clean enough yet?" I teased, knifing a hand through my sopping hair as we playfully glared at one another over the hose caught in a tug-of-war between our hands.

"No, but you're about to be!" he quipped, wrenching the hose free from my grasp with a hard yank. 

Unfortunately, this disrupted our balance, sending us tumbling to the damp gravel like dominoes, one on top of the other. The hose forgotten, Mark's bare chest crashed into mine, his body landing between my sprawled legs as he brought his hands down on either side of my head to catch himself. 

"I think the universe likes to play jokes on us," I murmured, instinctively encircling my arms around his bare waist. "That, or it just really likes you on top."

Mark's eyes swelled into saucers, and it was only then that I realized what I said, suddenly wishing for a hole to appear below me and swallow my entire body up, big mouth included.

A heavy silence seemed to settle upon us after my comment, but neither of us made any effort to move. Above me, I could feel the lightly defined ridges of Mark's torso gently heaving against my own, his heartbeat rapid but steady. 

"See? I told you." I finally broke the silence, my voice dangerously low as I pondered my next words and their consequences. "Your body is...beautiful."

"B-Beautiful?" His face was definitely redder than before. "You think my body is beautiful?"

Trailing my gaze greedily over my friend's face, I noted that the sun was casting an even brighter glow over him now, setting his golden locks ablaze where he was gazing down at me, his face impassive as stone yet inexplicably soft. 

"Definitely," I whispered. "...I think you're beautiful."

His lips twitched, finally breaking out into the boyish smile I loved. "No one's ever really called me beautiful before, but from you, I'll take it as a compliment." 

Gradually, so as not to scare him away, I slid a gentle hand from around his waist, framing his jaw for a moment before trailing my thumb along his lower lip. His eyes immediately met mine, unwavering in their silent questions. 

"I don't know how you managed to do this," I explained, returning the hand to his waist. "But somehow, you had some paint on your lip."

Rolling his eyes, he released a resigned groan, flopping his head forward onto my chest. "Leave it to me to do something so clumsy."

"Don't sweat it." Absentmindedly, I began to stroke his hair back, which sifted malleably through my fingers. "Are you ready to go home?"

He hummed noncommittally, raising a hand to trace mindless shapes into my skin with a fingertip. "Is it okay if we stay like this for a little longer?"

A feverish warmth swarmed through me, eventually settling into something comfortable and familiar as I peered indulgently down at my best friend. 

"Of course it's okay."

Chapter Text

Achoo!

A violent sneeze ratcheted through Mark's half-bare frame, the subtle ridges of his torso tensing as the mere force of the explosion forced him to fold himself in half.

"God, I feel like absolute death," he grumbled, offering a grateful smile as I pressed a cool washcloth along the plane of his forehead.

Pushing away a curtain of sweat-dampened strands, I resisted the urge to brush my fingertips along the slope of his jaw. "I told you that dancing in the rain wasn't a good idea. Playing with the hose probably didn't help."

"I don't regret a thing." Propping his head against the elaborate curlicues of metal that comprised my headboard, he peered up at me from beneath his eyelashes. "I like being taken care of by you." 

Schooling my treacherously flustered expression into one of unimpressed blankness, I lifted my hand once again, tweaking the tip of his Grecian nose. "Is that so? Well, you better enjoy it while you can, because this might be your only chance to take advantage of it."

"You're such a jerk," he whined, tucking his forehead into the stretch of skin between my neck and shoulder, topping off the act with an exaggerated sniffle. "You'll regret making fun of me once I'm strong enough to kick your ass."

"When have you ever been strong enough to kick my ass?" I countered with a half-mocking tilt of my eyebrow.

Grinding gentle knuckles into his scalp until he was scrabbling out of reach, I collapsed against the sheets in a fit of unrestrained laughter as his gaze drove daggers into my skin. 

"Leave me alone," he huffed, squeezing past me to burrow beneath the heaps of blankets. Only his red-rimmed, glassy irises were visible, peering up at me balefully. 

As his head dipped back below the fortress of cotton, leaving only tufts of cornsilk sprouting beyond the swathes of black fabric, I allowed my eyes to trail reverently along the tented fabric where Mark so clearly lay. 

While I had become accustomed to, and somewhat enamored with, various sides to the one I cherished most in the world, I quickly realized that a sick Mark was one of my favorite sides to the blond. To most, sickness was something that tainted our loved ones, a condemning facet of life that needed to be overcome or endured in order to love them at their best. 

In my eyes, though, illness did little to steer Mark away from his "best." It was merely another mechanism of exposing more aspects of who Mark was, bringing to light many sides to him that were too devastatingly endearing for my weakening heart to handle. 

A sick Mark was arguably the most vulnerable side the blond allowed me to see, unabashedly so both in the words he chose to speak and the actions he chose to carry out, no matter how quiet or hesitant said gestures seemed to be. Throughout that morning alone, he had caught me off-guard on many occasions, molding his body alongside my own as he curled up like a kitten (after which he claimed to be chasing the warmth radiating off my skin) or slotting his velvety-soft fingertips through the gaps between mine (to this, he merely cited his fear of being left alone in his weakening state). 

"Don't leave me," he had pleaded at a point when I believed he had drifted back off into sleep, draping the comforter over his shoulders as I rose to leave him in peace. 

"You know I'd never leave you alone for long," I had cooed, perching at the foot of his bed while I watched him wrestle with the covers, brow furrowed in concentration as he reached for me insistently.

"Stay with me." 

The Mandarin was pitched low, undeniably arousing with its husky timbre and unintentional innuendo. It was downright impossible to resist the rapper's request, especially with the disheveled halo of champagne fluff tumbling over his forehead—looking sinfully like someone had been braiding their fingertips through it during the night—and the milky skin of his chest, dappled here and there with the spare mole, exposed by the traitorous coverlet as it slipped from his torso. It didn't help that an ill Mark especially liked to purse his lips whenever he feared I wasn't going to follow through with his plea, crossing his arms in a petulant display of childish disappointment.

That's how I found myself carrying Mark—who, if I remembered correctly, was supposed to be the eldest between us—to my bed, his arms locked around my neck from behind as I propped his thighs up on either side of my hips. 

Now I was staring at a lump of blankets, beneath which the boy I had fallen head-over-heels for was no doubt pouting about the fact that I apparently cared so little about his inevitable death at the hands of the big bad fever, smiling like an idiot because I had it so goddamn bad for him. 

"Yien," I purred, sifting my fingertips through the hair peeking forth from the blanket, caressing his scalp until his head poked out. 

"What do you want?" he pretended to grumble, though I could see the affection dancing beneath the depths of his eyes.

"To see you smile." Pressing my index fingers to either side of his mouth, I gingerly dragged the corners into the semblance of my favorite expression of Mark's. "There. Much better."

Swatting my hands away, Mark squealed indignantly at the gesture, the sound immediately tapering off into a giggle. Resisting the impulse to lean forward and plant a kiss on the crown of the blond's nose, I settled for grazing my hand along the length of his arm, hesitantly curling our fingers together. 

"How about I make you some food? I know you haven't eaten all day, and you need to get your strength back." Without looking up to catch his reaction, I swirled a thumb in absentminded circles along his skin. "In the meantime, you can take a shower." 

His plush mouth screwed inward, twisting into a pout as he slung an arm across the upper half of his face. "A shower sounds heavenly right now...but the effort to take one sounds like torture. Please don't make me get up." 

"Do you hear yourself right now? You sound like a child." Clucking my tongue in an almost maternal sign of disapproval, I reluctantly slid from the clutches of the unnaturally clingy blond and rose to my feet. "Just take a quick one. Believe it or not, the steam will probably do you some good, and lunch will probably be waiting for you by the time you're finished."

"But, Gaga..." His voice sunk into a whimper, lingering on the second syllable in a manner that sent my heartbeat into overdrive. "My entire body is killing me. Can't you just do it for me? Just this once?"

My hand froze mid-air, hovering uncertainly where I had been reaching for the doorknob. "Y-You want me to bathe you?"

When I finally mustered the courage to face Mark, I found him propped up against the headrest once again, bottom lip wedged between his teeth as he peered up at me. "I know I need a shower, but I'm feeling too weak right now to drag myself out of bed and I trust you, so I just thought...I thought maybe you wouldn't mind lending me a hand?" 

"Y-Yeah," I mumbled, clearing my throat aggressively as blood rushed to my cheeks, coloring them with the telltale anxiety jumbling my thoughts. "Of course. That makes sense."

Sensing my discomfort in that uncanny way he often did, Mark scrunched up his nose, straightening his posture. "Are you sure? I don't want to make things weird or anything..."

"I wouldn't let something so trivial ruin our friendship." To my inward relief, the laugh that followed was genuine. "I'll be right back."

I returned moments later with a precariously high pile of terrycloth towels, a fresh sheet, a clean washcloth, and two washbasins, one teeming with steaming water and the other swirling with suds. Resting some of the supplies at the foot of the bed, I finally lifted my eyes to Mark and nearly lost my grip on one of the washbasins, sending small waves of water sloshing over the edge and painting my wood-paneled floor with a glistening sheen. 

"S-Sorry," I spluttered, tearing my wide-eyed gaze from the boxers framing Mark's lower half. During my absence, he had freed himself from the bundle of blankets, sprawling out lazily along the length of my bed in his near-naked glory.

"I didn't want you to risk soaking your blanket because of me," Mark murmured, watching me sink to my knees with a towel. "I'm sorry if I startled you."

Get a fucking grip, Wang. He's ill, you sick fuck, I berated myself, swabbing at the water in vicious circular motions. Stop thirsting after your best friend and maybe you can make it out of this situation without a ridiculously obvious hard-on

Once I finally finished mopping up the remnants of my momentary lapse of decorum from the floor, I drew near to the bed and quietly instructed Mark to lay back on the towel I pressed along the bed. Eyes roaming openly along my face, he obediently reclined his frame until his back was flat against the bed. Before my own eyes could stray past the protruding bridges of his collarbones, I lifted the sheet up over his slight torso, allowing my fingertips to linger for just a moment against the creamy skin just beneath them. 

Finally dragging my gaze back up to Mark's, I lightly ran my fingers through the sweat-lined strands atop his forehead, pushing them away to reveal the glossy sepia irises staring so trustingly up at me. Intimidated by the naked emotion radiating from the gentle gaze, emotion that I still couldn't decipher even after all this time, I turned away to dip a washcloth into the soapy basin. 

Lowering the cloth to his forehead, I began to scrub along the curves of his eyebrows, desperately channeling my thoughts into the task of making Mark as comfortable as possible (without fantasizing about some of the other ways I might be able to do so). By the time the washcloth reached the angular tilt of his cheekbones, the blond's eyes had slid shut, a soft sigh of contentment blowing past his lips. Tracing the washcloth along the remainder of his face, I couldn't help but secretly admire the features Mark had been blessed with, counting each eyelash that fanned out above his cheekbones and following the curvature of his beautiful, rosy mouth. 

"What are you thinking about?" he asked quietly, infringing upon the wayward course of my thoughts. "You're unusually quiet."

"Nothing important." The response was simple, but in that moment, I could've sworn I had never told a greater lie in my life. "Why? What are you thinking about?"

Without expecting a serious answer, I grabbed a second washcloth and dipped it into the unused basin, rinsing the soap from Mark's skin. It was only then that I noticed the soft smile he was sporting, although his eyes remained peacefully shut.

"Whenever I'm with you, I don't necessarily have to be thinking about anything," he admitted. "I don't know why. You just set my mind at ease, I guess. When I'm with you, all I can seem to do is live in the moment, without any regret for the past or fear for the future. You just have that effect on people."

"Do I? I haven't really noticed," I whispered, ignoring the intense fluttering sensation in my stomach as I tenderly lifted Mark into an upright position, massaging the circumference of his neck with the soapy washcloth. 

Flopping his head forward, Mark allowed the tension in his muscles to melt away beneath my touch, a breathy moan of satisfaction escaping his lips. "That feels...really good." 

At that rate, I wouldn't have been surprised if my cheeks were flushed a permanent shade of crimson. 

Unfortunately, the most difficult aspect of the entire endeavor had yet to arrive. Despite the seemingly endless rounds of mental preparation I had assaulted my mind with beforehand, it was unnecessary in the long run, since my thoughts were abnormally acting on their best behavior when I folded the sheet away from Mark's unclothed torso. 

Nonetheless, I couldn't help but appreciate the toned contours of his lower abdomen, tracing my eyes along the subtle hills and valleys while the washcloth did the same. Sneaking a glance toward Mark's face at multiple points during the process, I found myself grateful that he was still blissfully unaware of my less-than-innocent desire to map out the moles freckling across his skin with my fingertips, especially when the rose petals on either side of his chest hardened into quartz stones beneath my ministrations. 

"Wow, you really are beautiful," I breathed, suddenly aware that I had spoken one of my innermost thoughts aloud when Mark's skin flooded with a red-hot blush. 

"Shut up," he countered, socking my bicep with a playful fist. "Just get this over and done with already."

"As you wish, your Highness," I mocked, though I was secretly grateful that the unusual tension in the air had vanished. 

When I returned to the task of tending to his torso, both of us fell silent, allowing the atmosphere to fizzle into comfortable companionship. Unlike before, I riveted my focus on cleansing Mark's skin and other innocent thoughts, especially now that the blond had chosen to prop himself up into a sitting position, watching me work as he stewed in thoughtful peace. As my hand shifted lower, hovering dangerously above the flat expanse of skin separating the washcloth and the sheet diverting my gaze away from the waistband of his boxers, I thought that I could hear Mark's breathing quicken into an irregular, stilted rhythm. 

Dismissing the thought as a figment of my over-active imagination, I inhaled deeply and reached for the sheet, beginning to peel back the extra layer that was shielding the most intimate part of Mark's body from view. Suddenly, his hand darted forward, latching around my wrist and locking it in place. 

"What's wrong?" I asked, searching his eyes for any sign that I had suddenly crossed a line. 

I was not prepared for the pained confusion I saw plaguing his gaze. Apart from that, the saccharine chocolate irises I loved had darkened into a stormy onyx that I didn't recognize. And yeah, his breathing had definitely sped up. 

"I-I think that's enough." His voice, like his breathing, was rough and raw. "On second thought, I really am starving. Maybe you were right. Some food would definitely help me get some of my strength back."

"You think so? I'll be right back." Immediately averting my gaze, I began to gather the supplies, transporting them from the room as I attempted to wrap my head around all that had just happened.

 

 

 

 

 

"And ze meal is served!" Gliding into the room with a flourish, I twirled the ends of an imaginary mustache between my fingers as I set a gaudy silver platter on the bed before Mark, who was doubled over in laughter at my faux French accent. "Bon appétit! "

"You're such a dork," he complained, swatting at the frilly apron stretched taut around my torso even as he leaned forward to gain an eager whiff of the meal I had so painstakingly prepared.

"That's Mr. Dork to you. Now, it's time for the grand reveal..." I could practically see Mark's salivary glands kicking into high-gear as I lifted the domed cover on the platter, my lips curling into a self-satisfied smirk. 

However, immediately after the cover was discarded, revealing an ordinary bowl swirling with instant ramen noodles (garnished with sophisticated touches like chopped green onion and cheese, of course), Mark was immediately slugging my arm.

"Ouch! " I hissed, cupping my palm over the sore area. "You're pretty damn strong for someone who's supposed to be fighting for his life."

Mark looked less than amused, squinting at me accusingly. "Did you seriously just make a big deal out of making ramen?" 

"What? It's a perfectly nutritious college staple!" I argued, twining the long slippery strands of wheat around a fork and lifting it to his lips. "At least try it before you complain. I make a mean ramen. You'll never be able to enjoy it the same way again."

In such a Mark fashion, he rolled his eyes, but I could see the smile threatening to overcome his exasperated demeanor. "Fine, I'll give this world-class ramen of yours a chance, but only because I'm basically starving."

"Sure, that's the only reason." Before he could protest, I tipped the noodles between his lips, making sure to incorporate the broth along with the other small details I had slaved over within the few minutes it took to complete the meal. 

Mark chewed thoughtfully, searching my eyes as he swallowed the first bite. In a flash of pink, his tongue slid from its cavern, slowly sweeping along the flesh of his own bottom lip to catch the remnants of broth. Letting my eyes follow the movement, I clenched my quivering fingers around the fork, nearly dropping it back into the soup.

"Amazing, right?" I piped up, attempting to gloss over the incident with a happy-go-lucky grin. "Do I deserve to be dubbed the Ramen King or what?"

"It's actually really good," he agreed, accepting the second forkful with ease. "I don't know if it's because I'm really hungry, or if it's just because you're the one who made it for me, but it's some of the best I've had in a while."

Tilting my face away from Mark's, I dipped another fork into the bowl, silently praying that the blush rapidly creeping up my neck would fade away. 

I was grateful to find that the stiff tension that had clouded the room before was nowhere to be found, making way for the casual intimacy that curling up alongside Mark, feeding him forkfuls of instant ramen, entailed. Like this, I was able to watch Mark discreetly, relishing the quiet hums of contentment that resonated from the back of his throat as he allowed me to feed him as I pleased or the way his hand had begun to curl loosely around my own, steadying my movements as I pressed the fork to his lips. 

Within the course of half an hour, the bowl had become little more than a hollow casing, the last of the broth spilling down Mark's throat. The blond in question seemed to be on the verge of nodding off again, the set of his thin shoulders relaxed, the heaving of his chest slow and steady. Like this, head tucked against my chest, fingers curled into the fabric of my shirt, he looked exactly like the Mark I could only find in my dreams (and no, not the wet ones).  

He looked like the Mark that I could finally call my own, brushing my fingertips through his hair as he slumbered peacefully above my chest and littering his creamy skin with kisses once he chose to wake again. He looked like the Mark that would reserve his special smile, sharp canines on full display, for me alone; the Mark that would allow his thoughts to wander to me whether the timing was opportune or not; the Mark that wouldn't be able to bear tearing his hands away from my skin, tracing mindless shapes anywhere he could reach, whether we would be cooking together or watching a movie. He looked like the Mark that I longed for, the one who could love me back even though it seemed impossible. 

I didn't realize I was crying until Mark craned his head up to look at me, his skin only seeming to gleam beneath the fallen beads of salt water that had accumulated along the slope of his forehead.

"Hey, hey," he murmured, lightly cradling my jaw between his palms. "Talk to me. What's wrong?"

"Nothing." The word was saturated with artificial indifference, flimsy in its endeavor to patch up the cracks that had begun to riddle my heart. "I'm just thinking about things I shouldn't. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you."

His thumb slowly grazed up and down the arch of my cheekbone, his eyes scrutinizing. "Jackson. You know you can tell me anything, right?"

The hand that rose to meet his was trembling, with what I didn't know, pressing his closer as another tear leaked down my cheek. "I know. Please...just go back to sleep. I promise it's nothing."

"Okay," he whispered, trailing his hand back down to my chest, where it rested above my thundering heart. "But only if you do something for me."

"Anything." I spoke without hesitation, though I was still immersed in the ghost of his hand against my face.

"Will you sing to me?" 

That immediately snapped me out of my angst-driven stupor as I jackknifed into a straighter position, my back going rigid. "Sing?"

"Please?" He began to trace gentle shapes into the cotton of my shirt. "My mom used to sing me a lullaby whenever I was sick. It was the only way I could fall asleep."

"Mark, I—"

"Before you come up with some bullshit about how you can't sing, I've heard you. I know you have a beautiful voice, Gaga." 

My jaw snapped shut with an audible click, lost for words, but I couldn't bring myself to deny the beautiful blond. Mechanically, I leaned over to slide the drawer to my nightstand open, digging out a black leather-bound notebook. 

Once I had flipped through the dog-eared pages to the page I was searching for, a page overrun with sloppy scrawls of cursive and scratched-out lines, I inhaled a shaky breath and leveled my gaze at Mark. "I've been working on this song for a while, but it's not finished yet. Please promise me you won't laugh. I'm shit at composing."

"I promise." His fingers didn't still, continuing to make swirling patterns in my shirt that were oddly comforting. "I know it's going to be awesome."

Chewing fretfully at my lower lip, I sucked in another deep breath and allowed the world around me to fade into background noise, my sole focus upon the squiggles of text dancing along the page before me. Gathering strength from the warmth of Mark's fingertips above my heart, I stumbled forward into the dark abyss of vulnerability that would likely ensue, succumbing to the need to cling to the warmth of the body beside me to remain grounded. 

 

You know it has to be real when you write into a song

the feelings you've been bundling inside all along.

I know this might seem like another cheesy rhyme,

but it's hard to abandon cliches in a tale as old as time.

You light me up inside with a rekindled fire,

stringing me up with electricity like a live wire.

 

It's hard as hell to find the words to say

when you flip my entire world upside down every day.

Your smile is the source of the stars, your touch what hung up the moon,

so I can only hope I'll find the right words soon,

to tell you just how much I love you

and pray each night you might love me, too.

 

My little star gazer, 

you may wander among the constellations.

You may even dance with the stars,

but you must always remember  never to travel too far.

 

Because, my little star gazer,

while your home seems to remain out of reach,

you must always remember

a home with you  is the only one I seek.

 

Throughout the entirety of the song, my voice had dipped in volume, saturating the lyrics in a forlorn longing that was only painted by my desire for Mark. With every line, I felt the telltale sting of tears attempting to penetrate my vision, infringing on the corners as I attempted to maintain my composure and ignore the bittersweet tang of the lyrics on my tongue. Despite the tidal wave of emotions threatening to crash over me at any moment, my voice remained surprisingly steady, gravelly and raw in a way that mirrored the feelings from which the song was born. 

When I finally opened my eyes, acquiescing to the reality seeping back into my bones, I found Mark watching me in awe, his rose-colored mouth agape.

"You wrote that?" he asked, eyes alight with something akin to wonder. 

Setting the journal aside, I began to wring my hands together in my lap, watching the motion absently as anxiety ricocheted through my mind. "L-Like I said, it's not complete yet, so I know it's not exactly the best, but—"

"Stop." Mark's index finger settled vertically across my lips, effectively silencing my rambling. "It's beautiful. Don't you see that what you have is a gift?"

Even before he had finished speaking, my head had begun to shake in dissent. "It's not a gift. I just took my feelings and wrote them all down. Anyone can do that."

"I would love more than anything to prove you wrong right now, but that's not what I meant," he replied, gently taking my hand. "Jackson, you have the power to touch people. Your gift is the ability to share your voice—in any way you know how, whether it's rapping, singing, or simply speaking—and captivate. Just by hearing your song, I could feel every ounce of emotion you poured into the lyrics, and believe it or not, not just anyone can do that." 

I didn't respond, merely watching the way his slender fingers curled into mine as I weighed the nuances of each word he had spoken.

"If you don't mind me asking," he hesitated, seeming to mull over the following words, "who did you write that for?" 

Ice-cold tendrils wrapped around my heart, seizing the organ in a vice-like grip as my blood ran cold. I could feel Mark's eyes boring into my skin, but I couldn't bear to meet his eyes.

"Someone very special to me," I admitted at last, remaining truthful enough to answer the question but still vague enough to evade the underlying question. "But it doesn't really matter, because this person and I are never meant to be together, and I've long come to terms with that."

His thumb began to swirl gentle circles into the palm of my hand, most likely in an attempt to soothe over the tension that I had just unleashed into the ambience. "You must really love her, the girl you wrote that for. I can see it in your eyes."

I couldn't help it; I laughed. The chuckle was dry, devoid of all humor, and I felt an almost childish satisfaction when Mark seemed to flinch back at the inflection of it. 

"Wouldn't you like to know?" Sighing, I leaned my head back against the headboard, curling my fingers into my hair and tugging just a bit too harshly. The pain thrummed dully through my veins, intoxicating me where it briefly overshadowed the deeper emotional pain that had embedded itself within my heart. 

"I look forward to the day when another comes along and proves what I've been saying all along. I hope with all of my heart that she'll erase the pain you're going through right now, because you deserve nothing but happiness. I hope you realize how lucky she'll be, because she'll have you." With these final words, Mark lowered his head back to my chest, his eyes fluttering shut as his breathing gradually settled into an even, serene pattern. 

Convinced that he had finally drifted back to sleep, I slowly untangled our fingers, choosing to weave my own through his hair. 

"You say you can't wait for the day when I stop being in pain, but you never considered that I might be in pain because I can't have you," I murmured, my voice cracking on the final syllable. "Why can't you see that the one I love is you? It's always been you. It will only ever be you." 

My eyes strayed over to the notebook, spine arched in the air where I had half-heartedly attempted to conceal the contents from Mark. Gingerly, I scooped it up, skimming through the lyrics with a half-strangled sob catching in my throat. With savage determination, I slashed the page from the notebook, shredding the ink-stained paper into pieces reminiscent of what remained of my heart. 

While I was stewing in my toxic thought process,  Mark mumbled incoherently beneath his breath, pressing closer to my body as he clutched the material of my shirt. Although he was clearly caught in the throes of sleep, he continued to mumble every so often, seemingly repeating the same phrase over and over again. 

Tenderly caressing away the fringe that had spilled into his eyes, I lowered my face as close as I dared to his own sleeping one, straining to catch the meaning of the nonsense spilling from his lips every now and then. When I finally deciphered what he was saying, I jerked backward, the back of my head all but slamming into the headboard. 

Mark had been murmuring my name. 

Tears streaking my cheeks, I sunk my head into my hands, surrendering to the merciless onslaught of grief that rocked through my body. 

That was when I saw it.

While every other piece of the ripped journal page had floated to the ground like dejected confetti, I caught sight of one shred that remained intact, settling in my lap like a sign. There were two words scrawled upon it, sneering up at me: for Mark

Chapter Text

Went out to run some small errands.  Don't worry. 

I'll be back before you even have the chance to miss me.

P.S. Don't even think about working on the mural today.

You've worked hard enough, and you deserve a break. 

When I get back, let's spend the day together instead.

See you soon! ^^

                                                                                                                                    - Mark 

Dipping my head to spit out a mouthful of mint-tinted foam, I lifted my face from the sink, flashing a stupid grin toward the sticky note posted brazenly in the center of the mirror's glass surface. 

Peeling the note from its post, I allowed my gaze to glaze over the words once more before tucking the sheet of paper into the pocket of my shorts, tilting my face back toward the mirror. 

"First things first," I muttered, baring my teeth in a grimace as I brushed my fingertips over the stubble framing my upper lip, "maybe I should freshen up a bit." 

Get it together, Wang. This is not a date. 

Slathering shaving cream along the prickly skin, I tamped down the pessimistic voice tormenting my thoughts, pretending that its strength was fading away with each gentle swipe of my razor—disappearing as quickly as the hair that had begun to grow in along my jawline. 

Mark might not think of it as a date, but that doesn't mean I can't treat it like one. 

The next hour dissolved into a blur of activity, consisting primarily of my standing beneath a steaming hot shower head, scrubbing my face until my skin tingled with a ghostlike prickliness bordering on the verge of pain, and mussing through my hair with a dime-sized puddle of product until it fell into the casual mop I preferred. By the time I stood where I had been just moments before, peering into my own reflection as I nimbly slotted each button of the blood-red shirt hugging my torso into its rightful place, I could proudly agree that I looked like I had stepped off the pages of a high-fashion magazine. 

Spritzing a spice-infused cologne along the dip of my throat, I finally allowed myself to push aside the horde of products I had just used throughout the course of the afternoon, brushing a trembling hand through my hair and attempting a charming smile for the face staring at me from behind the glass. 

"Tonight's the night, Wang," I said, propping my hands against the sink as my gaze bore into that of my reflection's. 

Fragments of the memories I'd locked away for further inspection began to emerge from my subconscious, swirling around my cranium in dazed corkscrews, jumbling together until I had to forcibly focus upon each one to decipher them—the day Mark shielded my body with his as he stood up to his father and Jinyoung; the day we doused one another with hoses in the church alley, his body framing my own as we fell to the ground; the day he fell asleep in my arms, murmuring my name after I had sung my self-composed lullaby for him; the night he took me to the special place he once shared with his mother; the night I carried him on my back as we danced together beneath the rain, his high-pitched giggles ringing in my ears; the plethora of times when our heartbeats thrummed together in perfect harmony.

Setting my shoulders into a rigid line, I began to move throughout the house with a newfound vigor, determined to make the day as special as possible now that I had finally made the decision to confess to Mark. 

Rummaging through the bottom drawer of my nightstand, I plucked out the package that I had meant to surprise Mark with on his birthday, silently praying that the blond was too busy fulfilling his errands to walk in on me fastening the somewhat childish (but insanely cute, if you were to ask me) glow-in-the-dark stars along his ceiling. Once I had transformed Mark's room into a makeshift planetarium, admiring my handiwork with a pleased smile, I shifted my attention to what was probably one of the most important aspects of the night—dinner. 

Scouring the refrigerator for any ingredients I might be able to use to make Mark a gourmet home-cooked meal (or, at least, as gourmet as I could manage), I resorted to ransacking the kitchen cabinets, sifting through piles of ramen until I couldn't even read the labels plastered over each package anymore. Eventually, I emerged empty-handed, punctuating my frustration with a chain of profanity. 

"Looks like I'll have to go on a few errands of my own," I muttered, snatching up a notepad from the counter. 

Pulling up a recipe on my phone, I began jotting down the ingredients I would need in neat little rows, scanning over the list a second time to make sure I didn't miss a single one. Satisfied, I crumpled the list into my fist and shoved the flimsy piece of paper into the depths of my pocket, snatching the keys to my bike from the ceramic dish on the kitchen table. 

It was a gorgeous day. So gorgeous that I didn't mind abandoning my bike outside the grocery store in favor of taking a short mid-afternoon stroll along the sidewalk, aimlessly swinging a grocery bag as I basked in the warm rays caressing my face. Caught up in the serenity of the moment, tilting my face toward the stretch of cloudless cobalt overhead as a gentle summer breeze tousled my hair, I hadn't even realized I was approaching the church until a familiar voice came floating from the alleyway up ahead. 

"So, does this mean we have a deal?"

Knitting my eyebrows together, I strode noiselessly toward the gaping mouth of the alley, peering into the dark depths of the brick cavern. Hot, putrid bile climbed along the duct of my throat, threatening to choke me as I beheld the sight before me. 

Leaning casually against my artwork, hands stuffed lazily into the pockets of his cream-colored slacks, was Jinyoung—presumably the one Mark was apparently making this deal with. Within the next moment, my suspicions were proven correct, for Jinyoung swiftly rose to the full extent of his height and swept the blond into a hug that immediately seemed too intimate to my aching heart. 

"You know I would do anything for you." Jinyoung's lips curled into a smirk as he trailed a hand along the column of Mark's spine, tracing the vertebrae with his fingertips. "Just as I knew you would eventually come to your senses." 

"Jinyoung..." Mark's voice could be described as nothing less than a warning, laced with danger as he lifted his eyes to the brunet's. "You know what I want." 

"And you know I'm the only one who can give it to you," Jinyoung responded, allowing his gaze to linger as it slid lazily along the course of Mark's body, "but you also know that I need you to make it worth my while."

My fingers itched to mangle the long digits lifting to stroke through Mark's hair, tracing down the curve of his neck and shoulder before journeying down the length of his arm, but I was frozen. Jealousy surged through my veins in a glacial stream, tinging every inch of my being with a pain akin to frostbite. While I knew that the pain would eventually give way to a relieving numbness, I could do little but curse the paralysis keeping me in place, silently pleading that the situation wasn't what it seemed to be.

While Mark didn't seem to be encouraging Jinyoung's blatant advances, he didn't seem to be rejecting them, either. He simply followed the movement of the taller boy's hand with his eyes, his cheeks igniting in color when Jinyoung's hand curled around his own. 

"You have no idea how much I've missed you, Mark," he spoke, his voice dripping with earnest sincerity. "I'm so happy you chose to come back. I know the reverend will be happy to have you back, too." 

His final sentence almost sent the grocery bag in my hand slumping to the ground, but I held fast, clenching the plastic strap within my alabaster-knuckled fist as I struggled to understand the gravity of what Jinyoung was implying.

"I'm not doing this for my father," Mark answered, ducking away from Jinyoung's roaming hands. "You know that more than anyone."

If Jinyoung was offended by Mark's less-than-subtle rebuff, he didn't show it, eyeing the blond with a teasing smile. "Oh? And who are  you doing this for?"

"You know exactly who I'm doing this for." Despite the distance separating me from Mark, I could almost swear I saw a slash of crimson rising along his flawless cheekbones. 

Before I could catch Jinyoung's reaction to these words, he was stepping forward to catch Mark by the waist, dipping his head past the blond's jawline to whisper in his ear. Averting my eyes from the intimacy of the moment, intimacy that chiseled away at my resolve to remain hidden instead of barging between the one I loved and my arch-nemesis, I heard the high-pitched giggle of the former. 

"Stop playing around," Mark laughed, pulling back to fish a folded sheet of paper from the backpack slung over his shoulder. "Here. I brought what you asked for." 

"This better be worth all the trouble you've put me through, Mark Tuan." Accepting the piece of paper from Mark, Jinyoung began to scan over the words he must have written there, humming quietly to himself.

"It definitely is, I promise." For some reason, the blond looked nervous, wringing his hands together where they were clasped at the small of his back. "Didn't you say yourself that you wanted to take us in a completely different direction, that you wanted to do something to help us stand out?"

Throughout the majority of the conversation, I could hear very little over the blood rushing through my ears, drowning out any reason that my muddled mind could conjure at the moment.  By that point, I had already ducked out of view, my back plastered along the cool bricks as I attempted to calm the painful throbbing beside my sternum. Warped beyond repair, the conversation was almost undecipherable, like I was submerged in several feet of water, but it was evident from what I could understand that Mark was not the person I thought he was.

That simple truth, as heart-wrenchingly painful as it was, was immediately corroborated when Jinyoung began to sing. And through a both tragic and ironic turn of events, the words flowing between my greatest enemy's lips were the only ones that my mind decided to fully register, almost as if the intricate mechanisms of my body had chosen to rebel and destroy me once and for all.

Because he was singing my song. 

The song that I had spent hours into the night perfecting, hunched over my desk like a half-crazed artist until each word carried the weight of the feelings I felt for its muse. The song that I had used to lull the object of my affections to sleep once I had finally gained the courage, allowing each bittersweet lyric to drip from my tongue and lure him out of his waking nightmare. The song that I had ripped from its physical home in savage shreds, although I knew that the lyrics would long be engraved in the crevices of my memory, swathed in the solemnity of its melody. 

The song that had once existed as the single tangible memento of my convoluted feelings for Mark was now the one he had pawned off on my biggest rival without even batting an eyelash, without a clue as to what it even meant.

After a long moment of silence, Jinyoung's singing voice faded back into his normal tone, albeit colored with begrudging surprise. "I've got to say, Mark. You were right. Color me impressed."

"Jinyoung, if we're going to do this," Mark warned, the mere sound of his voice driving a wedge deeper into the crux of my heart, splitting the organ in two, "I need you to do me one favor."

Jinyoung's response was immediate. "Anything." 

"Please don't tell Jackson about this." As he spoke, my eyes began to brim with scalding tears of fury, my vision blurring into little more than a shadowy film. "I have to be the one to tell him, and I don't know how he's going to react quite yet. Please...this needs to be kept a secret from him for now."

"Don't worry." Jinyoung's voice was slick with sleazy satisfaction. "It'll be our little secret."

I couldn't take it anymore. A sudden white-hot rage washed over me, overcoming me in a violent brushfire as I stormed into the alleyway, clutching the grocery bag tightly in my fist like a weapon. 

While I realized in hindsight that the entire confrontation happened rather quickly, the moment Mark caught sight of me seemed to last over the span of several minutes instead of seconds. I was able to witness the exact moment his eyes clouded over with unabashed shock, underscored with stone-cold guilt once he realized all that I had heard. 

"No." Before the blond could even utter the basis of his first lie, I hurled the shopping bag at his feet, watching with an immature sense of triumph as the contents exploded from the thin plastic, spilling out onto the sun-baked gravel. "It won't."

Lifting my eyes up to Mark's, I met his beseeching gaze with an acidic glare, clenching my jaw. When I spoke again, I couldn't even recognize the voice as my own. It escaped my throat in a strangled hiss, surprisingly steady despite the brokenness it harbored.

"I never want to see your lying face again." 

Whirling around on my heel, my vision partially obscured by the tears that had consumed me once more, I ran.

I ran before I could catch the way Mark's mouth flopped open in wounded disbelief. 

I ran before I could catch a glimpse of the smug smirk no doubt dancing upon Jinyoung's lips.

I ran before Mark could notice the saltwater streaking down my cheeks, staining my skin with the betrayal I had been blindsided with.

I ran before Mark could catch my hand in his own, force-feeding me lies and deceit disguised as explanations and honesty.

I ran before I could succumb to the erratic pulse of my abused heart, allowing myself to collapse into the arms of the one who had been committing the abuse.

 

 

 

 

I could pinpoint the exact moment Mark returned home, my name reverberating around the house like a twisted chant, a mantra of the betrayal my closest friend had just committed. His footsteps echoed in frantic thumps, thudding against the hardwood floor in a way reminiscent of clashing cymbals, followed by the telltale creaks of one door after another being slung open. 

Squeezing my eyes shut, I attempted to suppress the whirlwind of emotions threatening to surge through me, my hands trembling where they were imprisoned between my thighs. 

"Jackson?" 

It took every ounce of strength in my body to lift my head, schooling my expression into one of steely indifference as I met the gaze of the one I loved. He stood in the doorway, his eyes scanning the perimeter of the room until they landed on the suitcase propped up beside the bed where I sat, darting back up to mine with an expression akin to fear.

"What's going on?" His voice dipped below a whisper, but it might as well have been a shout within the tense silence of the room. "Why is there a suitcase in my room?" 

Lowering my own gaze back to the floor, I rose robotically to my feet, curling my (still trembling) hand around the handle of the suitcase. When I spoke, I applauded myself for the unwavering stoicism that colored my tone. 

"It's yours. I thought it might make everything a little easier." Finally, I lifted my gaze back to Mark's, tucking the handle into his hand. When his fingertips accidentally brushed mine, sending electricity jolting through my skin, I immediately jerked away. "I want you out of this house by tonight."

The blond's jaw dropped, his mouth gaping in sheer disbelief. "What? Jackson, you can't be serious."

"Oh, I'm serious," I countered, balling my hands into fists as I fought to calm myself down, digging the blunt edges of my nails into my skin. "I want you out of my sight."

A spark of anger lit up the embers in Mark's irises, and suddenly, he was shoving the suitcase away with a violent crash. "If you think I'm going anywhere without at least explaining the truth, you don't know me at all."

"Exactly. I don't know you at all, Mark. I never did," I snapped, splintering my indifferent persona into a plethora of pieces, permitting the dormant anger to lick at my veins like rising flames. "Isn't this exactly what you wanted?" 

"Where the hell did you get that idea?" he demanded, his eyes flitting between my own as if he could find the answer written there. "When did I ever give off the impression that I wanted to leave you?" 

"Oh, I don't know," I drawled, my tone biting with sarcasm. "Maybe when I found out that your little secret 'errand' with Jinyoung entailed going back to your father? Isn't that what he said, that the reverend would be glad to have you back?"

Mark's eyes swelled into twin moons, honest surprise dancing across their craters. "You've got it all wrong..." 

"Do I?" I retorted, raising my voice as my temper gradually dragged me deeper and deeper into the flames. "Then why did you have to lie to me? Huh? Why did you have to pretend you were on some errand when you were really just making some kind of 'deal' with Jinyoung, who, in case you haven't noticed, hates my guts?"

He hung his head, wringing his hands together as he spoke. "He doesn't hate you...He was just being protective—"

"You're so blind, Mark," I scoffed, silently fuming over the blond's apparent naïveté, which had landed him in this situation with Jinyoung to begin with. "So fucking blind." 

Before he could answer, I turned my back to him, blinking back a fresh round of tears. 

A gentle hand draped itself over my shoulder, dragging me free from the thoughts that had me trapped within their ice-cold shackles. "I was going to tell you, I swear. I was just waiting for the right time—"

"When is the right time?" I hissed, whirling around fast enough to knock his hand from my shoulder. "After you'd already packed your bags? Or worse, after you'd already moved out and disappeared from my life? When, Mark?"

"Listen to me," Mark insisted, clamping both hands down over my shoulders now. "I. Am. Not. Moving. Back. In. With. My. Father. After all this time, you of all people should understand why I would never choose to go back to my old life."

"That's not what it sounded like when I heard you and Jinyoung."

"If you would just let me explain—"

"And listen to whatever other lies you manage to come up with?" I exploded, firmly shoving the blond a few steps back. "I'm sick of all of the lies, Mark! First, you pretend you're running an errand, then I find you and...m-my fucking rival...striking some sort of deal that you apparently couldn't even tell me about. What other secrets have you been keeping from me?" 

"I never lied to you, Jackson. I was just—"

"Is that the true reason you asked me not to work on the mural today?" I asked, pinching the bridge of my nose between my index and forefinger as my thoughts trailed back to the note he had left behind. "You didn't actually want to spend the day with me at all. You just wanted to avoid getting caught...God, I'm such an idiot."

"Stop," he whispered, hesitantly reaching out for my hand. "Of course I wanted to spend the day with you—"

"Don't." Once again, my heart felt like it was splintering into small fragments—fragments that must have wedged themselves into my lungs, for it was becoming increasingly difficult to breathe. "Stop lying to me. I'm so tired of being lied to."

"Jackson..." 

"Please, just get out," I murmured, feeling the emotional fatigue settle into my veins as I strode past him to leave. 

"I was trying to get back into the choir, okay?" 

I don't know what made me stop dead in my tracks. Maybe it was the desperation dripping from Mark's usually steadfast speech, or the hand that had reached out to grasp at my wrist. Or maybe it was the minuscule glimmer of hope that remained in my mangled heart, the hope that the truth was not as painful as it seemed.

Eventually, after a long stretch of silence, I stole a tentative glance at Mark. "What did you say?" 

"That's what the deal was about." The blond peered up at me, his eyes pleading me to listen. 

Slowly, I twined my fingers around his, gently prying them from my wrist. "Why would you need to keep something like that from me?"

"I wanted to surprise you." Mark's hand swung limply back to his side. "I wanted to thank you for everything you've done for me."

Before I could stifle it down, a dark chuckle slipped free from my lips, harshly slicing through the tension. "And let me guess. You needed Jinyoung to grant you permission to bring a delinquent back into the choir?" 

"It's not like that. You know it's not," he quipped. "But knowing my father, he'll ask for a vote again, and Jinyoung is the only reason you're not in the choir in the first place. It doesn't hurt to try and reason with him. After all, he was once my best friend. Maybe I can convince him to look at this from our perspective." 

"Right," I muttered, waving a dismissive hand as I propped a shoulder against the doorframe. "I wouldn't hold my breath, though." 

"Why are you acting like this?" With each word, Mark's volume seemed to rise, climbing exponentially until it reached a level I had never heard from the blond before. "I thought this would make you happy!" 

"Happy? " Before I could control it, an aggressive snarl was ripped from my throat and I lunged forward, gripping Mark's collar between my fists as I caged him up against the wall. "You should be the last fucking person who decides what makes me happy, Mark. Do you think being in that place makes me happy? Trapped between the walls of a place that acts like a sanctuary, but only serves as a prison for me? Constantly fighting to prove myself even when every stare that glosses over me is simply one of judgment, knowing that'll never change? Knowing I'll never amount to anything in the eyes of those people because I don't share the same beliefs as them? Do you truly think that makes me happy?"

"You don't have to pretend to be so strong all the time. I know you've been fending for yourself for so long now that you've almost forgotten what it feels like to allow others to be there for you, but sometimes you just need to let the people who care about you in," he whispered, lifting a delicate hand to wrap around my wrist as his eyes flickered between my own. "And while many of those things you've said might be true, I also saw how truly happy you were when you were with the guys. I saw the way you would laugh with your entire being, the way your smile would light up the entire church. More importantly, I saw how you would come alive  when you performed for an audience."

"Stop pretending you know me," I growled, clutching his collar tighter. "You don't know a damned thing about me."

"I know you more than anyone else." As he peered up at me, I attempted to decipher the unfathomable emotion I found swimming in his gaze, but to no avail. "You think I don't know how much you miss the boys, how much you miss performing? I know you miss being in the choir, because you were born to perform and to keep you from your gift because of fear and misunderstanding isn't fair."

I wanted to believe him. Every voice pervading my subconscious cried out for him, begging me to sweep him into my arms and forget the entire ordeal had even happened, returning to my blissfully ignorant life with the person I loved more than anything in the world. But there remained one single voice buried in the back of my subconscious that reminded me of Jinyoung's treacherous lips caressing the lyrics of my song, the one I had written for Mark, and Mark alone. This voice alone was enough to set every single nerve ending in my body aflame, reminding me that I could not allow myself to forgive Mark, not if I ever expected my heart to fully heal. 

Allowing my fingers to uncurl from the collar of Mark's shirt, I retreated a step, averting my gaze. "Life isn't fair, especially for people like me. When will you get that through your head?"

"Jackson, you have to believe me when I say I never meant to hurt you." He closed the distance between us with a single step, taking my hand. "Everything I've done was for you—"

"Wrong. You did it all for yourself, " I spat, snatching my hand from his grip. "Why do you want to go back to the choir so bad? I know it's not for me, so why? Do you miss your precious little Jinyoungie that much?" 

"What the hell is your problem?" Through my anger-clouded haze, I could see that Mark was hurt, his eyes glazed over with unshed tears. "Jinyoung has nothing to do with this. I understand you're upset with me for lying to you, but don't drag him into this."

"How dare you defend him? " My voice transformed into a low bellow, startling Mark enough to make him flinch. "You made sure he had everything to do with this the second you pawned my song off on him like it was trash." 

Immediately after I had dropped this bomb on him, silence descended upon us both, and I watched with growing irritation as Mark's mouth flopped open and closed several times in quick succession. 

"I'm so sorry, Jackson," he managed to say, chewing on his lower lip. Despite the blaze of anger ravaging through my veins, I couldn't help but watch the mouth that haunted my dreams. "I didn't think—"

"No, you never think, do you? You never think about anyone other than yourself," I blurted out, ignoring the single voice in my mind that scolded me for the blatant lie in favor of allowing the others that screamed just how right I was to egg me on. "Did you ever think of what that song might mean to me? I spent days, Mark, days working on that song for someone special, and you didn't even think to ask me before you put it in the hands of the one person who could abuse the vulnerability behind it."

"I was just trying to help...Jinyoung has been talking about trying to compose the songs we perform for years, and I just..." While Mark hadn't shed a single tear up to that point, I could tell he was damn close, his mouth seemingly in a permanent downturn as he scrunched his nose up in concentration. "I just wanted to prove to him how talented you are and show him that you would be an irreplaceable asset to the choir. I wanted him to see the person I see whenever I look at you, because I knew that when he did, he wouldn't hesitate to help me."

"That wasn't your call to make," I hissed, pressing my hands against the wall on either side of Mark's head, trapping him between my arms. Our faces were so close that our foreheads nearly brushed together with every breath I took, and I could hear my traitorous heart thumping irregularly, attempting to reconcile this face that I had once associated with an angel with the person I had witnessed today in the alleyway. "I poured my entire heart and soul into that song. I practically ripped myself open, cutting myself to the bone to feel the vulnerability I needed for that song. If being recruited back into the choir meant putting my heart on display for Jinyoung, I would've never chosen the choir, because it's not worth sharing something so deeply personal to me. If you really knew me as well as you thought you did, you would've known that. You would've never betrayed me like this."

"Jackson, I—"

"And that's exactly why I never want to see you set foot inside this house ever again," I whispered, drawing away from the blond as tendrils of sorrow clenched around my heart like an iron fist. "Goodbye, Mark."

"Don't do this," he implored. "After everything we've been through, are you seriously letting something this stupid come between us?"

"Just answer one last question for me, Mark. How much was it worth?" 

"How much was what worth?"

"Stabbing your best friend in the back."

"I don't know what you're talking about—"

"Oh, I think you do," I said, the bitter voice echoing back up to my ears sounding nothing like my own. "What did Jinyoung offer you in return for plunging a knife through my chest? Tell me. If you're going to lose me for good, I might as well know if the deal you made with the devil was worth it."

"Jackson, please—" 

"Tell me. He must have sunk his claws into you somehow," I mused, my mouth curling into a scowl as the image of Jinyoung trailing his fingertips down the length of Mark's body in the alley resurfaced in the forefront of my mind. Before Mark could respond, I tilted forward to whisper into his ear, my lips contorting into a ruthless, hollow imitation of a smirk—though absolutely nothing about the situation was funny. "Oh, of course. How didn't I see it before? It all makes sense now. He must have offered you a spot in his bed." 

I leaned back just enough to take in Mark's clenched jaw and glossy eyes, silently reveling in the triumph that I had finally hurt him just a fraction of how much he'd hurt me. Nonetheless,  while the only rational voice that seemed to remain in my head was screaming at me to stop before I took things too far, the mutilated organ in my chest was working in overdrive, each palpitation representing the ghost of a memory involving the brunet who had stolen the one I loved.

"What does a filthy criminal know about love?" 

"You are sorely mistaken if you believe that you have won Mark's heart. It is only a matter of time until he sees through your facade and chooses to return to the one who has always been right for him."

"I'm the only one who deserves him."

"I am the only one who truly knows him. I know what makes him cry, and I know what makes him smile. I know what makes him tick, more than anyone in this world."

"I have loved him for years. And if you think that you can just swoop in and take him away from me, I will make sure that you rot in that cell for the rest of your life. That is a promise."

"Would you be able to sit back and watch Mark be with me, if it meant seeing him happy?"

As I sifted through each and every single memory, allowing the pain to consume me until I could feel little more than numbness, I focused on the final memory, one that had plagued my thoughts since the day it was spoken. 

"What a shame that that's all it took," I sneered. "I thought our friendship might be worth more than getting your dick wet, but it looks like I was wrong."

While part of me knew that I was wrong, that I was now accusing Mark of things I had no right to be upset about, the other part of me continued to dredge up the recollection of Jinyoung touching him and Mark doing nothing to stop it. Perhaps it was easier this way, accusing him of something he might not have done until he left. Easier to let go, easier to forget the pain of loving him and knowing I would never have him, easier to remember that I would never deserve him. 

With this thought in mind, I poured as much venom into my next words as I possibly could. "Who would've thought that an innocent little preacher's kid would put everything on the line just to get fucked?"

Searing pain bloomed along the side of my face, singeing through the fog of fury clouding my mind as I pressed a hand to the heated skin. As my blank gaze rose to meet Mark's, only finding pain and confusion swirling there, the realization dawned upon me in a sudden spurt of clarity. 

Mark had just struck me.

Crowding his lithe body up against the wall, I leveled his gaze with a vicious glare, resting the hand that had previously been cradling my cheek against the wall above his head, my entire demeanor a challenge. "Hit me again. I fucking dare you." 

"What the hell has gotten into you?" he demanded, his lips quivering as his wide, horror-struck eyes searched mine. "This isn't the Jackson I know."

"That Jackson is dead. You must have killed him when you ripped his heart out with your bare hands." My voice could be described as nothing other than animalistic, a contemptible snarl warping each of my words into something barbaric. "Get the fuck out of my house. Go move in with your beloved Jinyoungie. He's the one you truly want to be with, right? If you need some protection, I'll even pack some into your suitcase for you as a courtesy."

This time, when Mark swung, I saw it coming. As his outstretched hand closed in for another slap, I caught his wrist in a vise-like grip, pinning it above his head with a boastful tilt of my eyebrow. 

The look he sent my way was comprised of pure hatred, carving deeper into my bleeding heart with a blade too blunt for the job. "Fuck you." 

"No, fuck you. Oh, wait. I'm pretty sure the scum of the earth has already got that covered," I replied, a taunting smile dancing upon my lips as I released him. "Now, run along. We don't want to keep his Highness waiting."

"There's nothing between me and Jinyoung." He glared at me, his beautiful eyes narrowing into slits. "Even if there was, it would be none of your business. Why does that bother you so much?"

For a moment, I felt my faux confidence falter, slipping away nearly as quickly as it came. "Why should it bother me? You mean nothing to me anymore. If you wanted to spend the rest of your life in bed with him, I couldn't care less."

"If that's true," he whispered, lightly resting his hand over my heart, which immediately sputtered to life beneath the familiar fingertips, "why are you pushing me away?" 

"Don't." I lifted my hand to his, attempting to rekindle the anger that had colored my tone throughout the argument, but my voice merely came out like a plea. As my trembling fingers curled around his, initially to wrench them away only to surrender to the gentle touch, I could feel every last one of my defenses melting away.

"If I really mean nothing to you," he continued, gazing at me from beneath his eyelashes, "why does my friendship with Jinyoung make you so angry? Why do you hate him so much?"

"After all this time, how can you still be so oblivious to the way you make me feel?" I whimpered pitifully, screwing my eyes shut to block out the pain that threatened to overcome me once more, dragging me under until I felt like I was drowning.

I could feel Mark's intense gaze boring into my skin, but I refused to open my eyes, not until I had finally gotten the chance to say what needed to be said.

"He gets under my skin because I see the way he looks at you, and I know he will stop at nothing until he has you to himself. When he touches you, like he did in the alley today, I can barely fucking breathe...because the pain of watching you accept it, like you belong to him, is so goddamn unbearable that I sometimes think I'd rather die than witness you with someone else." Trembles surged through me, and I could feel the tears building beneath my sealed eyelids. "You know, he once asked me...if I could sit back and watch him make you happy. At the time, I-I said I could, because I knew that I would never be able to make you happy in the way that you deserved...but after today, I realized I c-can't, because I can't stand even the thought of you belonging to someone else, let alone the reality. Whenever I think of someone else looking at you, touching you, kissing you, it just doesn't feel right, not when the person who should be doing those things...is me."

Halfway through my speech, Mark's hand had gone rigid, sinking away from my chest like he'd been burned. Even so, I knew that I needed to confess now, or I might never get the chance to.

"I don't know when it happened. I just know that somewhere along the way, I began to cherish your smile. I began to memorize your laugh and lock it away in the deepest parts of my mind, so that I would never forget it. I began to feel my cheeks burn whenever your hands happened to graze over any part of my body. I began to overthink every word I spoke, every action I took, because I didn't want to risk losing you because of the way I felt. Somewhere along the way, I-I fell in love with you, and I was powerless to stop it." 

Eventually, the dam broke through, and tears were cascading freely along my face, painting every inch of my cheekbones in the agony that I had kept locked away for so long. "But with these newfound feelings came the greatest pain I'd ever felt, greater than the one I felt after I lost my parents. You once told me that you couldn't wait for the day when I escaped the pain I was imprisoned by, but not once did you realize that I was in pain because I had to lock away the way I felt about you or risk everything we'd done together being nothing more than a bad memory in your eyes. I had to sit back and pretend that every touch, every stare, every moment meant nothing to me. I had to pretend that I didn't love you, and that alone hurt. It hurt so bad, Mark."

When I opened my eyes, my vision little more than a wavering mist, I found Mark staring back at me with equally watery eyes, his hands clenched into fists at his sides. His eyebrows were scrunched together in concentration, his jaw clenched tight like it was about to shatter.

"Funny enough, the pain was at its worst on the days when you gave me hope. Sometimes, like the night we danced in the rain or the way you looked at me when we were playing with the water hoses in the alley, I truly believed you might feel the same way. Sometimes, that was enough to make the pain disappear for just a little while, long enough for me to trick myself into thinking I truly had a chance." My lips attempted to bend into a wistful smile, but the one they finally managed to make felt weak and bent out of shape. "But on days like the one when I finally gathered the courage to pour my heart out to you through the song I'd written for you and you dismissed it as something meant for some girl in my past, or even the double date you'd set up for us because you thought it would make me 'happy,' the pain would always return with a vengeance, because I would be reminded that there's no way you could ever love someone like me."

"All I want to know is...w-why? Why does love have to be so goddamn painful? Why does it have to taunt me with the idea that I could ever find happiness, then rip it away from me as if I never deserved it?" My voice was scraped raw from all of the emotional turmoil that had been clawed from me, the uncontrollable tears leaking in a torrent of pain. "Why did you have to waltz into my life and turn everything upside down, breaking down my walls when I've been on my own for so long? Why did you have to pretend I meant something to you, when I mean nothing to anyone else? W-Why did you have to give me hope? Why couldn't you just look me in the eyes and tell me that there's no way in hell that you would ever feel the same way, putting me out of my mis—"

In a move so swift that I could barely register what was happening, Mark's fingers were weaving through the hair at the nape of my neck, tugging me forward as his mouth descended upon mine. The kiss was gentle and chaste, but nonetheless laced with a jumbled mess of emotion, tasting of salt and the faintest hint of a sweetness that could only be fitting to describe as Mark

When the blond finally drew back, his cheeks dusted with the faintest hint of scarlet, he brushed a thumb along my cheekbone, catching a stagnant tear as he searched my eyes, his voice soft as a feather.

"Maybe because I don't want to lie to myself anymore." 

Chapter Text

"Maybe because I don't want to lie to myself anymore."

I staggered backward, my head reeling from the taste that lingered upon my lips, reaching out blindly for something to steady myself. I waded through empty space for several minutes, searching desperately for an anchor that didn't exist, until a set of delicate fingers gracefully laced through my own. Despite the steady stream of warmth trickling through my body at the singular touch, gradually thawing the glacial misery that had begun to seize at my heart, I couldn't bring myself to look up at the fair-haired boy before me. Perhaps, I knew that this was all too good to be true. 

"Jackson." His low, raspy voice oozed through my ears like honey, dipped in an anguish that could only accompany regret.  "Look at me."

Suspended in a cluttered chaos of emotions ranging from confusion and fear to relief and a sliver of something recollective to desire, I retreated from Mark's touch, attempting to reconcile how I had felt just moments before this new revelation with the feelings that were now leaving my heart gasping for air.

"Please, Gaga," he pleaded, cradling my jaw between his palms. "Just look at me."

As I broke free from my reverie, whiskey-flecked irises swimming into my vision, my heart descended into a sharp swan dive. The gentle swell of his mouth, the sharp curves of his cheekbones, the elegant slope of his nose, I greedily devoured it all with my eyes, almost as if I was afraid he would disappear from my life the moment I closed my eyes again.

"I-I'm sorry, okay?" Wordlessly, he pressed his forehead against my own, his eyes slipping shut as a single tear finally broke free, leaving a stain along the arc of his cheek like a scar. "I'm so, so sorry." 

With each word, his voice had begun to quiver, woven with an inexplicable grief until he was choking on a sob. The sound was harsh, echoing through the silence of the room in a way that sent a pang of agony through my lungs. 

Before I could witness the one I loved succumb to a pain I did not understand, I was tugging his body into my chest, twining one arm around the small of his back and braiding the fingers of the other hand through his hair while he nuzzled into my shoulder. 

"No, I'm sorry," I whispered fiercely, pressing my lips against the top of his head as his tears soaked into the fabric of my shirt. "I'm so sorry I hurt you. I'll never allow anyone to make you cry ever again, especially me." 

As he clung to my torso, his fingers sunk into my shirt like claws as shivers invaded the length of his body, I was reminded of that night all those months ago—the night I held a weeping Mark within my arms for the very first time, just after his father had struck him across the face, leaving an impermanent mark but an indelible schism between himself and his son. 

"Don't go," he had whispered, in halting Mandarin. " Please.

Hesitantly, I had turned to stare into those broken eyes, tears pinpricking the edges of my own. "Why are you so afraid?" 

"Because I c-can't..." He had buried his face against my shoulder and I had lifted a hand to cradle his head, loosely weaving my fingers through the silken strands. "I can't lose you, too."

In that moment, a sudden clarity dawned on me, and I had instantly understood. Without responding, I had drawn him closer, resting my head upon his. In that position, our aligned bodies had fit together like a puzzle, and I had squeezed my eyes shut, attempting to ignore how our heartbeats had drummed out a galloping rhythm, rising and falling as one. As we clung to one another, blurring the line between comfort and intimacy, I never mentioned the strange synchronization.

Neither did he. 

"I almost lost you." His voice was muffled where his lips were pressed against the swath of texture draped over my chest. "I don't ever want to lose you, Jackson."

Framing the dip of his neck between my fingertips, I swept my thumb across his jawline, gently lifting his face until his eyes met my own. "How many times do I have to say this? You will never lose me."

"B-But..." Dragging his lower lip into his mouth, he began to worry the flesh between his teeth. "Tonight, you said—"

"Tonight," I sighed, brushing away the lingering tears that glittered upon his skin, "I was just jealous, and I wasn't thinking straight. Instead of believing in you and trusting that you would tell me nothing other than the truth, I was too focused on hurting you and showing you how your actions made me feel. I almost lost you, and for that, I don't think I'll ever forgive myself. I was wrong." 

"I don't think I could leave you even if I wanted to," he admitted, peering at me from beneath his eyelashes. "And if I'm being completely honest, I don't think I'd ever want to." 

"Oh, really?" I asked, my tone dipping into a teasingly low timbre as I gently knocked my forehead forward into his. "Am I that irresistible?" 

A playful smile tugged at the corners of his lips as his eyes flitted along my face, often lingering on my mouth before darting to their next destination, eventually tracing a path over the (now tear-stained) dress shirt, distressed black denim, and boots adorning my figure. 

"You look beyond irresistible tonight," he confessed, his cheeks stained a shade that almost appallingly matched the shade of my shirt. "Come to think of it...I've never seen you dressed like this, not even on our double date. What's the occasion?" 

Scrubbing a hand along the back of my neck, I stared hard at the toes of my boots, the gears in my mind churning as I attempted to conjure up a valid excuse without sounding lame. 

"Jackson?" he pressed, his index finger tilting my chin upward. "What aren't you telling me?"

"When I saw your note, I wanted to make today special. Even though I was afraid you might not feel the same about me, I wanted to treat it like our first date," I mumbled, the tips of my ears prickling with warmth. "I wanted to confess my feelings."

Mark searched my eyes, his brows knitting together as he sifted through my words, piecing together the day's events.

"So, the reason you happened to be walking past the alley..."

"I wanted to make you dinner tonight, but there was nothing in the house except instant ramen, so I had to pick up some ingredients." 

"And the groceries you threw at me in the alleyway..."

"My grandma has this amazing wonton soup recipe, and I remembered that you once told me how much you loved soup, so I wanted to surprise you."

"You planned all of that...for me?"

"Of course I did. After all this time, do you still not realize how much you mean to me?"

He released a stifled groan, clapping a hand against his forehead.

"God, I'm such an idiot !" he lamented, squeezing his eyes shut. "I've been thinking about this day for so long, and I just had to go and ruin everything with that stupid deal."

"Listen to me. You didn't ruin anything," I insisted, gently taking his hand. "If anything, you gave me the push I needed to finally be honest about how I feel. I've wanted to tell you so many times, but I was always so afraid it would ruin our friendship and I would lose you forever. Now that you know the truth, I feel like a massive weight has been lifted off my shoulders." 

"Still, I can't help but feel terrible." Lowering his gaze to our hands, he folded his fingers through my own, maneuvering our previous palm-touching clasp into a more intimate position. "You spent who knows how long planning out the entire night for us, and I screwed it all u—"

Before he could continue, I pressed my index finger to his lips, effectively silencing him. "It's true that I won't be able to cook a mediocre dinner for you to choke down tonight. It's true that tonight won't be the fairytale perfect night I had been envisioning in a haze of excitement this morning. It's also true that I confessed my feelings because of a misunderstanding that nearly tore us apart...but there's still one thing I have hidden up my sleeve, and I think it might just salvage the night." 

Slowly drawing my finger away from his mouth, I reached over his shoulder, unintentionally bringing my face a mere few inches away from his. My fingertips stilled above the light switch, poised to flip it off, while my eyes flickered between his. We stood at an impasse for what felt like several moments, the irregularity of our mingling breaths occasionally ghosting through the ensuing silence. Eventually, I allowed myself to steal a glance toward the blond's lips, trailing my tongue along my own to taste the lingering sweetness as desire pooled in my abdomen. 

I'd always imagined that as long as I could taste your lips once...just once...I could die happy. But now that I have, all I can think about is whether they'd taste better the second time around, or the third, or even the fourth...Now that I've gotten a taste of you once, I yearn for you. I long for you. I crave—

Mark's fingers suddenly hooked inside my belt loops, pulling me into him as he slotted his mouth over my own for the second time that night, swallowing the gasp that expelled between my lips. Caught off-guard by the action, I stumbled forward, accidentally pressing Mark's body into the wall as the light switch finally switched off, plunging the room (and us) into momentary darkness. 

Now that we had begun muddling through this newfound abyss of clumsy, forbidden emotions together, I felt courage swell to a nearly painful crescendo within me as I dragged a fiery-edged palm along the concave of his tapered waist, clawing desperately at the spun silver silk of his hair where it was flared out against the wall like a sunburst. Unlike our first kiss, this one lingered beneath the guise of a series of tender caresses, his mouth dissolving into a mere breath as it grazed along the length of my own achingly slow. Swiping my thumb across the pulse throbbing erratically within the core of his throat, I tilted his head back further, finally molding my mouth over his as those plush lips parted to accommodate my own. With a tentative curl of the tongue, I licked into the saccharine warmth that rose to greet me, swirling my tongue around Mark's in an exhilarating dance that echoed the intoxicated disarray of my thoughts. Nuzzling his nose deeper against my own, the blond surrendered to my ministrations with a quiet gasp, rucking up the back of my shirt just enough to press his fingertips into the small of my back in a way that would surely leave behind indelible imprints of possession later. 

God, why didn't I confess how I felt so much sooner? My thoughts chased themselves in dazed helixes, entangled in a battle for dominance mimicking the bold, albeit clumsy, hands that mapped out each of our bodies in an attempt to elicit as much pleasure for the other as possible. All this time, I could've held Mark in my arms like this...I could've explored the breadth of his mouth with my tongue...I could've roamed the angles of his body beneath my palms...All this time, I could've fallen asleep alongside the one I loved each night, breathing soft promises of our future into the shell of his ear. 

"Wait." The word was little more than a hoarse plea as Mark's mouth finally disconnected from my own with a muffled pop, his eyes fluttering shut as his body slumped back against the wall.

Like this, a light sheen of sweat leaving a glowing luster upon his milky skin, his clothes rumpled from the exploits of my eager hands, his cheeks blooming a bright, unabashed garnet while ragged breaths vibrated through his chest, the blond—seemingly overwhelmed with the brief bout of passion that had just ensnared us both—was utterly, agonizingly beautiful. 

"You have," I whispered, trailing airy, openmouthed kisses along his cheekbone, "no idea," ascending the sharp curve of his jawline, "how long," planting a feather-light kiss over the lobe of his ear, "I've wanted this." 

A twinge of satisfaction tugged at my heartstrings, the birth of a secret smirk dancing upon my lips, as shivers streaked down the blond's lithe frame. Nonetheless, no amount of said satisfaction could trump the rapidly ballooning emotion that rose within my chest when Mark's eyelids finally lifted to unshade his vision, after which he was immediately transfixed upon an entity that existed over my shoulder. Or, more accurately, above our heads.

"J-Jackson..." Untangling himself from my arms, he glided forward, his steps so hesitant that they became evocative of an elegant waltz. "What is all of this?"

"Your own personal galaxy. I figured, if I can't take you to the stars you love so much, maybe I can bring them to you."

Just as I had hoped, in the midst of our ardent mouths and the amorous tango of our writhing tongues, the room had undergone a celestial metamorphosis. Where there was once a heat-stifled darkness that stretched between the minuscule space separating my body from Mark's, there now glittered a bejeweled kaleidoscope of light overhead, refracting a glaze of sterling silver upon us both. Beneath the argent gleam, bathed in a glow that could only be described as ethereal as it kissed Mark's porcelain skin, I felt my heart kick into overdrive.

Mark had never looked more like an angel than in that moment, twirling slowly beneath a sea of faux stars, enveloped in a radiance reminiscent of a halo.  

"Why would you go to all of this trouble for me?" Despite his tone being schooled into one of scolding, I caught his lips twitching into a hint of a smile as I drew closer, twining my arms around his waist from behind until his hands draped over my own, intertwined fingers resting above his navel.  "There has to be over 300 of those stars up there."

"More like 600, actually," I corrected, tracing my nose in rhythmic swirls along his jawline. "I did this as a testament to what I feel for you. I might only be one person, but for you, I can be anything to make you happy. I can be a star. I can be a constellation. For you, I can even be a universe. As long as you'll let me." 

"Why would I want you to be any of that when you're already so much more?" Swiveling his head just enough to nuzzle the tip of his nose against my own, his lips parted in a blissful sigh as he finally twisted around, his chest pressing flush against my own. "Thank you. This is the most amazing thing anyone has ever done for me." 

Littering gentle kisses against the bow of his smile, I inhaled the bashful giggle that bubbled from his throat, balancing his slender body within my embrace as I lifted him off the floor, our laughter echoing throughout the star-speckled room as we danced in dizzying pirouettes. Around our swirling bodies, time lagged toward a standstill, the atmosphere melting into the nostalgia of a memory that felt like it was miles away. The wood beneath my feet dissolved into the glacial puddles of a rain from weeks past, the star-flecked ceiling above us into the storm-darkened murk that had hung overhead like a bad omen, the hands draped loosely around my neck glossy with the icy torrent pelting the world around us. Just as I remembered, an angel was floating above me, his hands steadily rising to jut out like wings on either side of him as he hung his head back, his throat exposed in that goddamn unsuspecting way that tempted me to press a kiss to his pulse. 

Except, unlike the way I remembered, the angel lowered his hands to rest them on either side of my face, leaning forward to graze his lips over my own. 

Just like that, the memory-induced illusion was shattered into a million pieces and I was tumbling forward onto the bed, accidentally pinning Mark beneath me. As he peered up at me, his liquid bourbon irises clouded with an emotion I couldn't read, I felt an undeniable arousal churning within the depths of my gut. A bead of sweat trickled from his hairline, tracing over his flushed cheeks and past his kiss-swollen mouth, settling in the hollow at the dip of his throat, and I felt my tongue flick out to moisten my arid lips. To my surprise, his eyes chased the gesture, his Adam's apple bobbing erratically as he succumbed to a swallow. When they eventually found mine again, his pupils had been devoured by an inky blackness and his bottom lip had become trapped between his teeth. The flickering embers of arousal had now been stoked into a raging brushfire, desire pooling between my thighs until my need for the blond had become almost painful. 

Averting my eyes from the offending expression, I hoisted myself up off the bed. "Stop looking at me like that." 

"Looking at you like what?" Mark asked, his voice dipped in honey as he rose to a sitting position, his eyelids hooded sultrily. 

"Like that," I spluttered, heat flooding through my cheeks. "You have no idea what you do to me, do you?"

"Tell me." Twisting his fingertips through mine, he pulled me close, his lips quirking into a mischievous smile. Somewhere buried deep beneath my lust-muddled thoughts, I realized that I was standing between his legs, which framed my thighs in a way that kicked my heartbeat into high-gear. "Tell me what I do to you."

"Y-You...You make me go crazy. You haunt my thoughts at the most inconvenient of times. You make me long for things I shouldn't, things that would probably scare you away if you really knew what I wanted to do to you." As I spoke, I trailed my thumb along the outline of his bottom lip, my breath hitching in my throat when his lips separated to suckle at the tip of it. "Y-You make it hard to control myself." 

"Then don't," he murmured, planting a kiss against the pad of each of my fingertips. "Did you ever think that maybe, I've been waiting for this moment, too? Stop fighting what you want, what we both want."

"I can't." Tucking a silver-blond strand behind the arch of his ear, I allowed my fingers to linger along the ridge of his cheekbone, swallowing down the roar of protest from my lust-addled brain. "I don't want to hurt you."

"How many times do I have to remind you I'm so much tougher than I look?" he asked, steering my wrist away from his face until it was resting on his upper thigh. "Stop treating me like glass. I won't shatter if you touch me."

"You think I don't know that?" I countered, tracing mindless shapes into the denim to distract my mind from the close proximity between my hand and the apex of the blond's thighs. "But this is new territory, for both of us, and maybe I don't want to rush into it. I want to take it slow. I want to take care of you and make you feel as special as possible. I-I want to make love to you, when you're sure this is what you actually want." 

"I know this is something neither of us has ever done before. And I know it can be embarrassing or awkward or even painful...but I'm willing to explore this new territory, as long as it's with you." Snaking an arm over my shoulder, he curled his fingers into the hair at the nape of my neck, massaging there as his gaze locked with my own. "Please, just kiss me." 

This time, when our mouths meshed together, the sheer weight of each of our warring desires collided in a heady tug-of-war, searing into my memory with a white-hot branding iron in the semblance of the splayed palm that skated agilely from the nape of my neck to my chest. 

"See what you do to me?" I pressed his hand deeper, allowing him to feel every nuance of the thunderous roar within my chest, my voice morphed into a low growl. "This is what happens, whenever you look at me, whenever you touch me, whenever you kiss me. My heart cries out for more. It cries out for you. Only you."

"I'm yours." A dark undercurrent of longing colored his own deep voice, distorting it into a raspy rumble as he chased my lips with his own, spearing the tender flesh between his teeth. "So, take me." 

Without waiting for a response, he soothed over the fresh wound with his tongue, stealing the opportunity to reseal the kiss as the soft muscle laved deeper into my mouth. 

"You always tell me how beautiful I am," he breathed, nimble fingers dismantling each of the buttons of my shirt until it hung open, revealing the length of my torso. "But have you seen yourself?"

"I-I don't understand what you mean." A delicious shiver sluiced through me, leaving a tingling desire in its wake as the blond dusted light kisses along the contours of my abdomen, his eyelashes fluttering against the sensitive skin like butterfly wings. "Beautiful is the last word anyone would ever use to describe me."

"Look at you, though," he protested, gazing up at me from beneath his eyelashes as he dragged the scarlet fabric from my shoulders until it crumpled into a heap on the floor. "Look at yourself, really look at yourself, and tell me you're not beautiful."

"There isn't much to look at," I insisted quietly, watching him through half-hooded eyes as he traced his fingertips over my skin. "Are you sure you're not looking into a mirror?" 

"Are you kidding me? You're gorgeous, Jackson." Almost as if to prove his point, he laid a chaste kiss over my heart, rising just slightly from the bed to do so. "Those eyes, those lips, those cheekbones...that body. You could've been carved from marble and you still couldn't be any more perfect." 

Hot tears brimmed along the edges of my vision, threatening to spill over as I cradled Mark's jaw in my palm, craning forward to capture his lips with my own. Reciprocating the kiss with equal fervor, the blond rested his hands on either side of my waist, tugging me close until our bodies aligned like puzzle pieces, leaving my head spiraling with hazy thoughts.

What did I ever do to deserve someone so perfect? Someone who I can now hold in my arms, and kiss to my heart's content. He's more than I've ever wanted, and everything I've ever needed. He's my ally, my protector, my support system, my confidant, my best friend, my brother, my lover, my angel...

A gentle pressure just below my waist knocked me free from my trance, drawing my attention to the agile fingers unlatching my belt buckle. 

"Wait," I rasped, looping my fingers around Mark's wrist to stall his actions. 

When his eyes met mine, confusion was swimming in their depths, albeit coupled with an underlying tenderness that was no doubt a result of what had become a heartfelt evening. "You don't want this anymore?" 

"Of course I do. I just want to make you more comfortable," I whispered, pushing some rogue strands out of his eyes.  "Lay back for me, baby." 

A slow smile, reminiscent of that of the Cheshire cat's, curved along the blond's lips as he bowed forward. 

"Okay," he purred, his breath gliding along the shell of my ear, "baby." 

Snagging the silver hoop dangling from my ear between his teeth, he trailed his tongue over the cool metal before rewarding me with a gentle tug, releasing the jewelry only to crawl backward until his head was propped up against the headboard. His gaze, swirling with a dark heat, bore into mine as he crooked an index finger, beckoning me closer. 

"God, you're going to be the death of me," I mumbled as I clambered forward on all fours, sinking into the vacancy between Mark's thighs with a clumsiness that could only attest to how eager I was. "I thought I knew you better than anyone, but you seem to be full of surprises tonight. Where did you learn to tease like that, hm?"

"I might look fragile, but I'm damn sure not some delicate little flower. Sorry to disappoint if you expected me to bow down and be your little submissive, but that's just not...me." Resting his forehead against my own, he allowed his eyelids to slip closed, shielding whatever emotions may have been brewing beneath the surface. "That doesn't mean I won't give myself to you, or that I don't want to. It just means I want us both to have control, even if I'm beneath you. Is that a deal breaker for you?"

"To be honest," I murmured, watching as his eyes popped open, averting from my own as they brimmed with dread, "I wouldn't have it any other way." 

His gaze flickered back to mine, searching my eyes cautiously. "Really?"

"Really," I confirmed, breathing a light kiss over his plush mouth before I sunk further down his torso, skimming my nose along the skin right below his navel as I peeled the hem of his shirt over his head. "I like this little tug-of-war we have going on. It's like...each of us is attempting to get the other to surrender, but neither of us is quite succeeding. It's really...hot." 

Mark's face collapsed into a bright smile, tinkling laughter slipping through his lips as he gripped the ends of my belt buckle, dragging me into yet another feathery kiss. 

"If you want me to surrender," he began, his lips grazing against my own as he spoke, "you're going to have to work for it." 

"And if I want you to say my name?" I teased, fighting the moan that threatened to scrape free from my throat as Mark ripped the belt from my waist, his palm accidentally brushing over the straining fabric between my legs as it clattered to the ground. 

He yanked his hand back as if it had been burned, and I caught only a faint glimpse of the coral glow in his cheeks before he had schooled his expression into one of coquettishness. "If you want me to say your name, all you need to do is ask." 

An intense, insatiable hunger suddenly seared through my veins, deluging straight to my swelling groin until I couldn't think straight. 

"Say it," I ordered, my voice raw with desire as I trailed feverish kisses down the curve of his neck, marking the sensitive skin with a cocktail of tongue and teeth. "Say my name, Mark."

"J-Jackson," he whispered, craning his neck further as I nibbled along his pulse. 

"Louder." My voice lowered into a dark hiss as I sunk my teeth into his collarbones, wrapping my lips around the protruding skin. "I want to hear you say it."

"Jackson." The name tumbled between his lips in a low whimper, his eyes screwed shut as I swirled my tongue around one of the buds of flesh on his chest, watching in awe as his taut abdomen rippled with pleasure. 

"Come on." Tracing my mouth along the valleys of his stomach, I dipped the tip of my tongue into his navel, feasting my eyes on the hypnotic way his abs contracted along with the movement. "I know you can do much better than that."

"Jackson. " His fingers twisted into my hair, tugging just hard enough to make my scalp ache. "Fuck, Jackson, please." 

"Please what, baby?" I taunted, slowly shucking his jeans from his legs until he lay almost bare beneath me, his exposed skin littered with the remnants of my passionate mouth. "Tell me what you want."

"Stop teasing," he grumbled, his voice strung thin with lust. "Please."

"I like teasing you," I admitted as I slipped out of my jeans, silently reveling in the longing that saturated the gaze traveling down my torso. "God, I wish you could see yourself. You look so beautiful like this, baby. So desperate to be touched, even though we've barely started. You have no idea how many nights I've spent imagining what it would be like to have you in my bed...but I never imagined you'd look like this. Even now, you're breathtaking. You're the most beautiful thing I've ever seen." 

Heat painted Mark's cheekbones a deep burgundy, but rather than distracting me from the ambience of the night, my endearment to the gesture merely made me fall harder for the blond, tumbling head-over-heels until I had sunken too deep into my feelings to claw my way out. 

"I wish you saw how beautiful I think you are," he sighed, desire fading from his dusky irises, only to be replaced with a genuine warmth. "Come here."

With every inch of snowy down that I crossed, rapidly closing the distance between myself and the one I loved, I could feel the libido-fueled confidence that had once been strung through my body like a live wire sizzle out. 

"I hate that you don't love yourself. I absolutely hate it," he murmured, knitting his eyebrows together as he spread his palm over my chest. "You have so much love in your heart, more than enough to go around, yet you never seem to have enough for yourself. Why?" 

"I don't know," I confessed, collapsing over Mark until my head was tucked beneath his jaw, his pulse a dull throbbing against my temple. "I guess I just don't see what's so special about me, not when someone like you could have anyone they could possibly want. I don't deserve you, Mark. I never did. I've come to terms with that a long time ago."

"Yet here we are," he interrupted, gripping my chin between his index finger and thumb as he peered down into my eyes. "Beauty is so much deeper than what you see on the surface. That's what makes me so crazy about you, Jackson. Your beauty cuts down to the bone." 

Propping myself up on my elbows, I hovered above the blond, sifting my fingers through the silver threads floating above the pillowcase as he traced his fingertips down the slope of my throat. Silence enveloped us in a cloud of comfortable warmth, permeating the atmosphere with the unsaid words suspended between our locked gazes.

"Can I touch you?" His palm skidded down the center of my chest in a slow caress, leaving a trail of goosebumps in its wake as the dormant desire in my groin flickered with a rekindled interest.

"Please." My breath escaped in a harsh gasp, my hips knocking forward as Mark scraped a nail along the path of hair leading into the black boxer briefs hugging my thighs, chewing on his bottom lip as his fingertips lightly kneaded over the bulge in the fabric. "Oh my god, please, Mark."

"Does that feel good?" Fanning out his fingers, he pressed a flat palm between my legs, applying an obscene amount of pressure against my aching erection. "Tell me it feels good." 

"S-So fucking good. Fuck, I want you so bad, baby..." My voice trailed off into a high-pitched keen, my fingers curling into the sheets as I fought against the overwhelming urge to buck my hips into his palm, twisting my eyes shut until stars were exploding throughout my vision.

"Look at me. Don't you dare look away." His free hand lifted to fist into my hair, locking my jaw in place as my eyes popped open, his eyes boring into my own as his fingertips dipped past my waistband. "I want to watch you unravel above me. I want to see what I do to you."

"A-Are you sure?" Breaking free from the shackles of my desire, I gripped Mark's wrist, searching his eyes for any sign of revulsion. "I don't want you to think you have to take this any further than you're comfortable with. You've done more than enough already. Y-You don't have anything to prove to me. You know that, right?"

"Shhh. I know, babe." The eyes peering up at me glittered with liquid fondness, swirling with the reflection of the bejeweled ceiling above until I could almost swear I was staring into twin galaxies. "But I want to. You're so focused on my pleasure that you're neglecting your own. I want to make you feel good. Let me make you feel good."

This time, when his hand slipped beneath my waistband, his eyes blazed with a newfound determination as he curled his fingertips around my arousal, no hesitation whatsoever leaking through the firm grip. A jolt of electricity rocketed through my veins, a broken moan ripping from my throat as his fist ricocheted along my stiffened length, pumping the broiling skin until my knees were on the verge of being swept out from under me.

"You said you liked to imagine me in your bed." Rather than framing the words as a question, he was merely stating a fact, his raspy voice dripping with hunger as his hand continued to wreak havoc beneath my briefs. "Whenever you thought about me, did you ever touch yourself like this?"

"A-Always..." I hiccuped on a quiet whimper. "Shit, right there."

"And, when you thought about me...Did you ever come?"

"E-Every single time." 

"Is that what you want? Do you want to come?" His pupils were swallowed by the same stormy darkness from before as he swept his tongue along his lower lip, clumsily flicking his wrist. "Show me. I want to watch you come for me."

Somewhere buried deep beneath the waves of lust rolling through my veins, my muddled brain managed to register the meaning behind these words, clicking the final piece into place just as the heat unfurling in my abdomen threatened to overcome me.

"Stop." Wrenching his hand away from my throbbing length, I pinned it above his head, trapping his body beneath my thighs. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"I think I'm proving a point." Quirking a rebellious eyebrow, he tilted his head forward, brushing his lips over my own while he spoke. "I'm showing you that just because I'm beneath you doesn't mean I don't have control."

"If you think for a second that I would let myself come before I've even properly touched you, you better think again," I murmured, nestling my nose against the juncture between his neck and shoulder. "If I'm going to come, I want us to come together."

"Who would've thought?" The words were a low rumble, and I could feel his Adam's apple bobbing rhythmically with the movement as he stroked his fingertips over my scalp. "Jackson Wang, such a romantic lover." 

"Shut up." Dragging the pad of my thumb along the swollen surface of his mouth, I allowed a teasing smirk to snag at the corners of my own, arousal fanning the flame of confidence that had begun to lick along the walls of my belly. "I can think of a much better way for you to use that pretty pink mouth of yours." 

Threading his long fingers through my hair, Mark lifted his head to trap my full bottom lip between his teeth, massaging the surface before allowing it to snap back. Wetting the soreness with my tongue, I was greeted with a harsh metallic tang before he was leaning forward again, peppering my mouth with soothing kisses. Each peck stretched on longer than the last, gradually dissolving into one long, passionate lip lock as his fingertips curled around my jaw, the tips of our noses bumping with each movement. 

Lost in the moist heat of the mouth ravishing my own, I had almost forgotten that my thighs were still framing Mark's slender waist until a light cant of my hips had the blond's lips sliding apart in a quiet moan, his back bowing forward as my erection dragged along a hardness akin to my own. Intoxicated by the reaction, I traced my tongue along the curve of his mouth, tasting the seam as I bore down harder against the rising swell of the blond. Sinking deeper into his lap, I began to roll my hips against him, watching hungrily as he snapped his head back against the pillow. 

"A-Ah, fuck, Jackson." Choking out a broken warble, Mark's eyes rolled back, his body arching off the bed as his fingertips bit into my skin, his nails clawing down my back in savage slashes as he babbled in Mandarin. "J-Just like that." 

Savoring the sting blazing along my skin, I rocked my hips more forcefully against his, and I could practically feel the heat rolling off of him—every scalding, pulsing inch of him—in waves. 

"Is this what you want, baby?" My breath came in sharp, quick pants as the familiar flames of desire roared through me, engulfing my entire body in white-hot bliss. "Tell me what you want."

"D-Don't stop." He allowed me to pin his other hand above his head, weaving my fingers through his as I embedded them deeper into the sheets, his Mandarin gruff as it dripped off the edge of his tongue. "Oh, God, p-please don't stop."

Lowering my head to engage him in a deep kiss, I dipped my tongue back between his lips, tasting the inebriating sweetness that dulled my senses like an aphrodisiac as he spread his thighs further apart, allowing me to settle between them. Spurred on by the long limbs that lifted to curl around my waist, I swung my hips in a fluid circle, the straining fabric of our boxer briefs shifting just enough to envelop our lengths in delicious friction. 

Mark looked absolutely wrecked : the arc of his neck (painted in varying shades of scarlet love bites) craned back against the pillowcase, his usually translucent skin vibrant with the bloom of blood that had risen just beneath the surface; his pearly silver fringe tumbling sloppily over his tensed eyelids; the heart-shaped curve of his mouth contorting into a slackened "o," from which tumbled a series of delicate, ragged sounds. 

"You're so fucking beautiful." The sentiment slipped between my lips without warning, my voice dipping below a whisper as I continued to sway our hips together. "Like this, you look exactly like an angel."

Blinking up at me, his irises foggy with euphoria, he managed to rasp out a quiet giggle. "Leave it to you to compare me to an angel while you basically dry-fuck me into the mattress."

"Right." Resting my forehead against his, I pressed a gentle kiss to the tip of his nose, slowing the rhythm of my hips. "I doubt your God would be very pleased to hear that analogy when we're basically breaking every rule in the book."

"Well, he is pretty famous for forgiveness." Beneath the incandescent glow from the ceiling, his sheepish smile glittered like pearls.

"The fact that I have an angel like you in my arms right now," I murmured, searching his eyes, "makes me want to believe in a god."

Grazing his lips along the length of my own, his next words were merely a breath ghosting through the heated silence. "Take me to heaven, then."

Before I could respond, his thighs were clenching hard around my body, forcibly flipping me onto my back. Breathless, I watched as the blond slotted his thighs on either side of my waist, pressing his palms against my chest to steady himself as he clumsily writhed against me. Backlit by the twinkling stars overhead, his head illuminated in a faint sterling silver halo, Mark looked even more angelic on top, despite the devilish motion of his inexperienced hips. I could do little but watch in awe, curling my fingers around his hips as my length twitched beneath his ministrations, flaring with waves of pleasure. 

"I-I'm close," he mewled, his hips stuttering slightly as he attempted to keep up the rhythm. "I'm s-so fucking close."

Cradling his jaw in my palm, I swept my thumb over his velvet-soft skin, brushing my lips over his pulse. "Come for me, angel." 

Together, we rocked, our bodies undulating against one another as the pace of our hips began to build. With each thrust, the tendrils of heat that had wound themselves throughout my veins began to unravel, crest after crest of pleasure crashing through me until I was twisting my fists into the sheets. Above me, Mark looked to be on the verge of collapse, his thighs trembling as his  lips parted in a silent scream, sweat glazed along every inch of his skin.

"Gaga !" he cried out, voice ragged as his body slumped forward, crumpling into my arms like a rag doll just as I felt the pleasure swell to a dangerous crescendo within me.

" Yien !" I echoed, clutching his body close as liquid heat seared through my veins, shivers rocking down my spine as the aftershocks of my climax consumed me in fiery ecstasy. 

Silence descended upon us, serving as the only witness of the way I skimmed my palm back and forth along the column of Mark's bare spine, burying my nose into the slightly damp hair tucked against my cheek. We now lay side by side, our spent bodies tucked together from head to toe where Mark was facing me, our legs tangled together beneath the comforter. 

"I can't believe that just happened," I murmured, tracing mindless shapes into his rice paper  skin as he nuzzled his cheek deeper against my chest. 

"Me, neither," he whispered, his voice rough with drowsiness. "It doesn't even feel real."

"There's nothing more real than the way I feel about you, angel." Dusting a light kiss over his mouth, I reciprocated the tired smile that spread against my lips, brushing my thumb over his jawline. "Get some rest. We can shower in the morning."

Mumbling incoherently against my skin—though I assumed it was probably some kind of assent to my words—Mark's eyelids drifted closed, a gentle sigh filtering between his lips as the irregularity of his breathing evened out into a steady rhythm. 

Sinking back against my own pillow, I dropped my gaze to where our hands were intertwined between us, lifting my thumb to caress over his knuckles as my eyes flickered over his features. Even in sleep, his beauty was unrivaled, and I could feel appreciation swell within me as I thought back to the very first time I had allowed myself to acknowledge how beautiful he was.

Luminescence bathed his soft jawline in an eerie glow, and I had the sudden thought that Mark Tuan's face was meant to be carved in stone, too ethereal in its beauty to be human, but far too unique to fade from this world altogether. I had never before laid eyes on someone whose face belonged on the covers of magazines and billboards, and Mark was no different. No, he deserved so much more than the empty praise of the masses, thirsting to touch him, to taste him, to be him. An almost bitter jealousy pooled in my gut, welling up in my chest in insistent waves. I was convinced that Mark was the personification of art itself, that he was meant to be displayed in a gallery.

Little had I known that those thoughts stemmed from a desire buried deep beneath all that I had ever known, a desire to hold Mark exactly like this, for him to be the very last thing I saw before I drifted asleep.

"How did I get so lucky?" I mumbled, fighting against the sleep encroaching on my vision, if only to gaze upon a sleeping Mark for just a little longer. Craning my neck forward, I captured his unresponsive mouth into one final kiss, the edges of my vision blurring just as sleep began to wash over me. "I love you."

When I awoke, the first thing I noticed was the sudden chill that had wrapped itself around my body like a second skin, a chill that I was unable to chase away by curling up to the body occupying the space beside me, seeming as the blond had disappeared. The second thing I noticed was the dove-gray light filtering through the blinds and into the room, battling weakly against the luminescence of the still-glowing faux stars.

"Mark?" I called out, jolting into a sitting position as my sleep-encrusted eyes squinted to read the cobalt blue numbers flashing insistently along the surface of the clock sitting on the bedside table: 5:30

Untangling my legs from the comforter, which had twisted itself around my limbs like a web at some point during the night, I rose from the bed, my bare feet soundless against the hardwood floor as I padded down the hall to the restroom—only to find the door gaping open, darkness spilling forth.

"Mark?" I called out again. No answer. "Where are you, baby?"

When I poked my head into the doorway of the kitchen, I could feel disappointment settling at the pit of my stomach when Mark was nowhere to be found. The kitchen looked exactly as I had left it (or rather, how Mark had left it), the counters gleaming with disinfectant, the floors painstakingly swept within an inch of their lives, not even the scent of food lingering in the air. 

"Mark?" Third time's a charm, right? "Are you here?"

Swiping up my phone from the arm of the couch where I'd left it lying the night before, I punched in the digits I knew like the back of my hand and waited for the line to connect, making the trek back to Mark's room so I could collect my clothes from the floor. Just as the fourth ring droned into silence, replaced by the sound of an automated voice informing me that I would need to leave a voicemail, I reached the doorway of my destination, only to discover something that made bile rise up in my throat. 

The suitcase was missing.

Attempting to suppress the ice-cold panic gripping my heart, I crossed the room in just a few strides, flinging the doors to the closet wide open only to be greeted with a neat row of empty hangers. Stumbling backward, I felt the scalding tears brimming along the edges of my vision, blinding me as I tumbled back onto the bed, burying my head in my hands as the truth swirled through my mind. 

Mark was gone

Chapter Text

"Your call has been forwarded to an automated voice messaging system. Please leave your message for (626)-825-6401." 

A shrill beep permeated through the vacant phone line, piercing through the cracks of my shuddering heart, now stained black-and-blue with the constant pressure of grief wrapped tight around its edges like a vise.

"Hey...It's me again. I've just been thinking about you a-and..." Tears welled up along the edges of my aching eyes—days upon days of tossing and turning, eyes lifted to the ceiling in the hours I was meant to be sleeping, most likely being the culprit—unbidden, seizing the composure in my voice until it faded into a quiet plea. "Mark, where are you? It's been a week since that night. Please...P-Please just call me back when you get this. I just want to make sure you're okay. I-I need to know that everything you said—"

Beep. 

The remainder of my message dissolved into the unoccupied static surging through the disconnected line, leaving me with the silent tears searing tracks over my skin. 

I need to know that everything you said that night is still true. I need to know that you still want me. 

Thumbing through the sprawling column of calls Mark had failed to intercept or return, I felt the all-too-familiar pain seeping through my veins, bleeding between my ribs until it had once again seized the misshapen organ caged within. Allowing my white-tinged grip to go slack, I watched with disembodied indifference as the phone tumbled between my unclenched fingertips, hurtling toward the gravel beneath my feet. Slumping back against the incomplete mural, I clutched uneven clumps of my hair, bracing myself against the onslaught of memories from the night that had begun as a dream before spiraling into a nightmare.

"I wish you saw how beautiful I think you are," he sighed, desire fading from his dusky irises, only to be replaced with a genuine warmth. "Come here."

With every inch of snowy down that I crossed, rapidly closing the distance between myself and the one I loved, I could feel the libido-fueled confidence that had once been strung through my body like a live wire sizzle out.

"I hate that you don't love yourself. I absolutely hate it," he murmured, knitting his eyebrows together as he spread his palm over my chest. "You have so much love in your heart, more than enough to go around, yet you never seem to have enough for yourself. Why is that?"

"I don't know," I confessed, collapsing over Mark until my head was tucked beneath his jaw, his pulse a dull throbbing against my temple. "I guess I just don't see what's so special about me, not when someone like you could have anyone they could possibly want. I don't deserve you, Mark. I never did. I've come to terms with that a long time ago."

"Yet here we are," he interrupted, gripping my chin between his index finger and thumb as he peered down into my eyes. "Beauty is so much deeper than what you see on the surface. That's what makes me so crazy about you, Jackson. Your beauty cuts down to the bone." 

"Did you mean anything that you said?" The words filtered between clenched teeth, a harsh hiss accompanied by nothing other than the thoughts churning through my mind in addled whorls. "Or was it all a lie?"

Sinking to my knees, I traced a fingertip over the shattered screen of my phone, glass dissected into a spiderweb of intertwined cracks. Leering up at me from beneath the blooming fractures, the illuminated screen remained on the register of missed calls, mocking me with the visual display of how little my feelings clearly meant to Mark.

"I guess I've already gotten my answer." 

Unable to bite back the bitterness that bled from my tone, I lifted my gaze to the artwork that spanned the wall above my head, trailing my eyes over the physical memoir of two months teeming with whirlwind romance as well as all-consuming agony. It was the latter that flickered along the walls of my torso, rising to a steady blaze until the mere act of breathing was stifled with an excruciating burn. 

Choking out a broken warble, his eyes rolled back, his body arching off the bed as his fingertips bit into my skin, his nails clawing down my back in savage slashes as he babbled in Mandarin.

"Stop." Suffocating on the taste of his pleasure-roughened Chinese lingering upon my tongue, I dragged the edges of my blunt fingernails across the remodeled crucifix, carving invisible slashes into the word love until my skin was edged with numbness. "Stop worming your way into my head."

Before I could respond, his thighs were clenching hard around my body, forcibly flipping me onto my back. Breathless, I watched as the blond slotted his thighs on either side of my waist, pressing his palms against my chest to steady himself as he clumsily writhed against me. Backlit by the twinkling stars overhead, his head illuminated in a faint sterling silver halo, Mark looked even more angelic on top, despite the devilish motion of his inexperienced hips.

"I said, get out of my head." I slammed the toe of my combat boot into the unsuspecting duffel bag hunched at the foot of the mural, relishing the harsh screech of protest as the thick fabric scraped along the gravel, smacking into the wall that enclosed the alley with a metallic clang.

Together, we rocked, our bodies undulating against one another as the pace of our hips began to build. With each thrust, the tendrils of heat that had wound themselves throughout my veins began to unravel, crest after crest of pleasure crashing through me until I was twisting my fists into the sheets. Above me, Mark looked to be on the verge of collapse, his thighs trembling as his lips parted in a silent scream, sweat glazed along every inch of his skin.

"Get out of my fucking head!" A jolt of pain surged through my leg, dousing my foot in white-hot agony where it had connected with the weather-callused bricks, yet I could barely feel where it had woven itself through the limb. 

I couldn't remember walking out from between the brick walls that encased me in a cage of my own anguish, let alone taking the initial step. If I had, I didn't remember tracing each step I took—right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot, just a little further, Wang—until the path was seared into my mind, a habit to which I had succumbed the moment a certain blond faded from my life. Perhaps I was afraid to let my mind wander too much, etching mindless thoughts into its recesses until no room remained for the assault of recollections that I had undergone inside the alley, for fear that the intense grief hailed by my remembrance might bring me to the verge of collapse. 

Somehow, I found myself on auto-pilot, allowing my legs to carry me wherever my bruised heart dared to guide them, fragments of that night blurring together in my head like the memories excavated from old photographs. If it wasn't the initial shockwaves of sound pulsing through my ears that finally dragged me free from my flashback-induced sleepwalking, it was most certainly the pinpricks of pain exploding throughout my palm, scorching through all semblances of thought until I was left staring at said palm beating against the door to an apartment I could've found my way to in my sleep. 

"Mark! Let me in." With each word, my voice—which had previously grown hoarse from days of disuse, marled with the thickness of tears that never seemed to evaporate—bubbled forth in a wild scream, dripping with the sour desperation that had begun to pool inside my mouth like bile. "I know you're in there. We need to talk. Now. Let me in!

My palm swung forward to rap against the sunbaked wood once again, but it was already swaying open like a pendulum, a body slotting itself into the empty space as convulsions rocked through my trembling heart.  

"Have you lost your mind?

The anticipation that had wrapped itself around my throat, steeling me for the moment when I would finally come face-to-face with the one I loved after a week's worth of mourning his absence, gradually dissipated, leaving me unable to breathe for another reason. It was not the blond who stood before me now, greeting me with an acidic glare twisting his handsome features into something cruel and unfamiliar—which, in hindsight, should've been a relief, if it weren't for the disappointment curdling in the pit of my abdomen—but the reverend. 

 "What makes you think you have the right to come banging on my door, screaming at the top of your lungs like you own the place?" he barked, disgust saturating his amber eyes, which looked far too familiar for comfort. "I don't know who you think you are, Mr. Wang, but I believe you have a job to do. A job you're neglecting in order to come disturb my home."

"Where's Mark?" Blood rushed through my ears, drowning out the words spewing from the reverend's downturned mouth as I nudged my shoulder against his, wedging myself through the tight gap between the man's barrel-chested frame and the door. 

"Excuse me? " he spluttered from behind me, voice quivering with ill-concealed rage. "What do you think you're doing walking into my house?"

"Mark? Mark, are you here?" Cupping my hands around my mouth like a megaphone, I swept my gaze back and forth as I strode through the living space, so engrossed in my search for any flash of silver that I barely felt the shudder that rumbled through the apartment as a result of the door slamming shut. "Mark, I know you're here. Please, come out and talk to me." 

I had only managed to clamber halfway up the staircase before a gravelly palm was clamping down hard over my shoulder, whirling me around until I was in danger of tumbling to the smooth wooden floorboards below. Hatred had cast a murky shadow over Reverend Tuan's irises, dimming them into twin eclipses where he was glaring up at me.

"Mr. Wang, I'm going to say this once and once only, so you better listen up." The reverend's face was floating a mere inch or so away from my own, his sweltering breath fanning out over my face until my head was swirling with the pungency of it. "Get the hell out of my house, before I call the police and watch them drag you back to your miserable little cell."

"Go ahead. Call them. I don't care about rotting away in a cell anymore." With a harsh jerk, I was ripping free from his grasp, leveling my stare with his as I spoke. "I'm sorry for just walking into your home like this, but I really need to talk to your son." 

Without waiting for a response, I swiveled on my heel, mounting the rest of the stairs until I stood within a short corridor of closed doors. At the far end of the hallway to the left stood a door plastered with glow-in-the-dark stars spelling out the Chinese characters Tuan Yien. Silence was all that emanated through the time-weathered wood, not a single sound to betray what (or more accurately, who) awaited me inside, yet trepidation continued to course through my legs, ravaging them with violent trembles as I drew closer.

"You're about to feel sorely disappointed if that's what you're here for." The reverend's voice wafted over my shoulder, undeniably smug. "My son isn't here." 

"I don't believe you." I traced my fingertips over the faux constellation before curling my hand around the doorknob, forcing myself to swallow around the heart-sized lump that had begun to accumulate within my throat. "He's here. H-He has to be."

With every inch that the door swung away from its frame, gradually unveiling the contents of the sanctuary within, a deafening creak spilled forth to permeate the silent atmosphere, echoing through the hollow confines of my thundering heart as my legs collapsed from beneath me at the threshold. 

Although the only glimpse I had ever managed to steal of this particular room was under the anonymity of nightfall, argent moonlight flooding through the window spanning along the far wall serving as the only source of illumination, a single glance was enough to verify that this was indeed the room of the boy I loved. 

To an outside observer, there was nothing innately special about the room, simply a refuge for a young boy who sought to become one with the constellations one day.

I knew better.

Suspended above the full-sized bed—one of the few pieces of furniture in the relatively small space, comforter smeared with an almost humorously large depiction of the solar system, with three planet-shaped throw pillows (Saturn, Jupiter, and Uranus, if I wasn't mistaken) to match—was a large blackboard upon which many of the most famous constellations were hand-sketched in alabaster chalk, their respective names labeled in cobalt blue. At the foot of the bed was a large, circular rug designed to look like the moon, a carbon copy of the enormous wall decal glued atop the long mahogany desk—the only other piece of removable furniture apart from a small dresser wedged in the corner next to the closet and a sleek silver telescope nestled beside the window. The entire room had been remodeled into a virtual solar system, equipped with everything necessary for any aspiring astronomer except for one thing.

The aspiring astronomer in question was missing. 

"Where is he?" I spluttered, lurching to my feet. 

My eyes darted back and forth across the room, scanning every corner as if the blond would suddenly fade into view upon the rumpled bedsheets, only to land on the curve of a suitcase peering out from the crevice left vacant by the closet's sliding door—a suitcase that had now been reduced to a figment of my most recent nightmares, ingraining itself into my sleep-deprived eyelids until I had memorized every stitch of the vehicle that had catalyzed the transformation of one of the best nights of my life into the worst that I could ever fathom. 

"Where. Is. He? " I repeated, my voice strung thin with the effort to hold it steady. "Tell me. I know you know where he is. How long has he been gone? When will he be back?"

"You're wasting your time if you believe I'm going to tell you anything." The reverend's irises were swimming with contempt, never straying from my own even as he ambled through the doorway himself, shifting his weight until the room was partially obstructed from view. "And let's get something straight once and for all. The only reason I allowed you to walk into this house without calling the police is because I knew that my son wasn't here to listen to whatever lies you were about to put in his head. If this happens again, I won't be so lenient. Are we clear?"

"Crystal," I hissed, crumpling the hands that dangled at my side into fists, the curves of my nails biting into the soft flesh of my palm. "Once again, I'm sorry for barging in like this. I just really needed to talk to him. I'll make sure this never happens again, but can you please just do this one thing for me? I want to leave him a message. I promised him I'd always be there, and I just need him to know I'll never stop trying to find him."

"No, how about I leave you with a little message?" Twisting his fingers into my collar, the reverend dragged me close enough to feel the tip of his nose graze against mine, his eyes flashing with a sudden ferocity. "Do you think I'm not aware you're exactly the person I warned him you were? Mark was a mess when he showed up on my doorstep, Mr. Wang. I've never seen him cry like that, even after we lost his mother. If it weren't for him practically begging me not to, I would've immediately hunted you down and sent you straight to hell, exactly where you belong. Do you truly think he wants to listen to you beg for forgiveness, when he essentially pleaded for me to let him move back in? I guarantee he doesn't want to see you ever again, Mr. Wang. And can you truly blame him?"

Once again, I felt like I was drowning, thrashing furiously against the waves of despair crashing over me with each word the reverend spoke, choking on the crests of grief that surged down my throat until I had surrendered to their swallowing me up entirely. 

Jinyoung was right. You were a fool to believe you could ever forget your past, forget your very nature, and be with Mark. Allowing him to enter your life, tricking yourself into believing you could ever be a true friend to him, even falling in love with him when you knew he deserved so much more...it was all because of your selfish desires. Your selfish desire to be loved, to be wanted, to be needed. Way to go, Wang.

The rough hands twined through the fabric at the base of my neck began to wrench me back and forth, (literally) jostling me free from my reverie until my tear-glazed vision had settled back upon the reverend's murderous gaze.

"This is my final warning," he snarled, ejecting me from the doorway with a single harsh shove. "If you dare to come near my son again, I promise you that I will personally make your life a living hell. Jail will feel like paradise after I'm finished with you." 

"You're right." My voice, laced with resignation, had dipped just below a whisper. "About me, about everything. I'm sorry...I'm so, so sorry."

Before he could answer, I had already fled, descending the staircase almost soundlessly in my haste. As I ran, I felt time fading backward to the day I found Mark striking a deal with Jinyoung in our alleyway, fleeing not from a physical entity but an intangible one, that entity being what I had assumed to be truth. Oh, how wrong I had been.

Little did I know that a mere week later, I would grapple with actual truth—truth that couldn't be debunked by Mark's assurances and tender mouth, truth that would continue to haunt me for days to come.

Look what you've done. You plucked an angel from heaven, and you watched him fall. You watched his halo shatter against the cold, hard earth, and you kicked away the broken remains until he forgot who he was meant to be. How pathetic could you be, forcing someone of greater value to settle for less? 

 

 

 

 

"Jackson?" 

A voice seeped through the fog of music floating throughout the atrium, swaddling me in reminiscence as the melody of Jay Chou's "Silence" once more drifted through the cavernous space, reverberating off of the vivid stained-glass flanking me on all sides. Dragging my fingertips from the thin white panels aligned above my knees, I waited for the music to melt away before tilting my face toward whomever had spoken.

Through the blur of saltwater that had cast a wavering sheen over my vision, I could only distinguish the twin inkblots gazing at me, shrewd as a cat's in their intensity. 

"JB." 

As he lowered his weight onto the bench beside me, curling a consoling arm over my shoulders, I slumped forward into the silent brunet's arms, effectively smearing the remnants of my tears into the shoulder of his shirt (which had a ridiculously large picture of Snoop Dogg plastered along the front, not like I was of the right mind to judge). 

"Where have you been, man? I thought we might never see you again," he cooed, ruffling a hand through my hair before cupping his palm over the nape of my neck, tucking my face deeper beneath his jaw. "What's going on?"

"N-Nothing. It's just been a bad day, that's all," I mumbled, though I wasn't sure if he could actually hear me with my mouth smushed uncomfortably against one of his broad-as-fuck shoulders. 

"Don't lie to me," he scolded, clucking his tongue with disapproval. "Frankly, you look like shit, man. Who do I have to fuck up to make this right?"

"JB!" The name expelled between my lips as a gasp, half-smothered by a snicker I desperately attempted to stifle as I gaped up at him. "We're still sitting in a church, you know."

His irises were black as coal, so dark that they melded seamlessly with the pupil, but I still managed to catch the glimmer of mirth that danced within the darkness as his lips curled into a smirk. "I don't think that letting a few choice words slip while I'm in a church should be my priority when you're literally bawling your eyes out."

"I'm okay. Really, JB," I insisted, breaking free from his embrace, inwardly cursing myself for noticing that his touch had failed to reignite the warmth in my belly that had lain dormant since he left. "You don't need to worry about me."

Sooner than he could reply, the heavy wooden doors of the church were swinging open, scraping along the lush carpet with a gentle whisper as a wide strip of sunlight flooded along the  column of red rising up to the pulpit, illuminating the backs of three familiar figures as they drifted through the gap. The trio seemed to be engaged in a battle to see which one of them could speak the loudest among themselves; excited chatter floated after them like a cloud, billowing toward the ceiling. 

"Jackson! " BamBam's prior sentence suddenly waned into a shrill screech, coupled with the muted thumps of rapid footfall.

Immediately, I was tugged from the piano bench as BamBam, Yugyeom, and Youngjae corralled me into a constricting—albeit heartwarming, I must admit—group hug. Nestling my head somewhere between Youngjae's tousled mop of hair and Yugyeom's shoulder, while Bambam unabashedly draped the length of his body over my back, I gratefully surrendered to the doting touches that glazed over my back. Much to my surprise, I could feel warmth finally beginning to simmer through my veins, a welcome distraction from the chilling numbness of the past week. 

Behind us, JB cleared his throat, the wordless but gruff admonishment loud in the silence. "Yugyeom, BamBam. You're late. Again. As for you, Youngjae, I expect better from you."

"I'm sorry, Jaebeom," Youngjae murmured sheepishly, removing himself from the hug to approach JB instead, hanging his head in repentance. "I won't let it happen again." 

"I know you won't. Come here." Stern glare crumpling into a fond smile, JB lifted a hand to curve around Youngjae's neck, tugging him forward into a hug. "Unlike those two, you actually care about rules."

"You always choose us to pick on," Yugyeom whined, punctuating the sentiment by crossing his arms over his chest. "That's not fair!"

"What's not fair, Gyeom?" JB quirked an eyebrow, a challenge blazing in his charcoal eyes. "Rules are rules."

"You never call out Jinyoung when he breaks the rules," BamBam pointed out, quick to defend his partner-in-crime. "Double standard much?" 

Shrouding his smile behind a well-placed hand, Youngjae ducked out of JB's arms and settled himself before the piano, promptly pretending to busy himself with tuning the instrument. JB, on the other hand, seemed to be at a loss for words, a slash of color creeping over both of his cheekbones.

"That's because Jinyoung is rarely ever late, which I can hardly say for you," he mumbled, pinning the lanky Thai boy in place with a sharp glare before turning away, joining Youngjae at the piano. The initial chords of an unfamiliar melody lilted through the air, soon supplemented with the fluid harmony of both Youngjae's powerhouse voice and JB's sultry, soulful one.

"Whatever you say." Rolling his eyes, BamBam sent a conspiratorial wink toward Yugyeom. "At least we know Jackson would never choose Jinyoung over us. Isn't that right?"

"Right," I affirmed, slinging an arm over his shoulder as I ground my knuckles into his scalp, rubbing vigorously while he yelped about his "precious hair."

"Don't make me regret missing you," he grumbled once he had managed to squirm out of my grip, frantically smoothing down the cowlicks I'd created. "I'm really glad you're back, though."

"Me, too!" Yugyeom piped up, rocking back and forth on his heels. "You're not leaving again, right?"

"Of course he's not!" BamBam chided, lightly swatting at Yugyeom's chest. "Mark promised that he was going to get them back into the choir, and he always keeps his promises. Why else would Jackson come back?"

"Is it true, Jackson?" Yugyeom's eyes swelled into saucers. "Are you and Mark back in the choir?"

The name sent my heartbeat skyrocketing into my throat, the sluggish revival of warmth through my veins crystallizing into ice. 

"Y-You spoke to Mark?" The name tasted foreign on my tongue, like it was the name of a stranger. "Do you happen to know where I could find him?"

"You're looking for Mark?" JB's head snapped up from where he was watching Youngjae's fingers waltz over the piano keys, his eyes narrowed into calculating slits. "I thought you guys were thick as thieves. He opened up to you faster than he did with Jinyoung, and that's quite a feat. Is everything okay between you two?"

"Y-Yeah, yeah, of course. We're fine." I spoke way too fast, and already, I found myself stumbling over the dishonesty underscoring the seemingly benign words. "It's just been a while since I've seen him. I was hoping to maybe catch up a little."

Despite the obvious questions lurking in the depths of JB's murky optics, he seemed appeased by my answer, shifting his gaze back to the piano as Youngjae continued to croon. "Sorry, man. Neither of us has seen or spoken to him since he moved back in with his old man. I think the only one who can give you the answers you're looking for is Jinyoung." 

"He should be outside," BamBam offered, evidently vying for the lost attention. "He was with us when we showed up for practice, but he said he needed a moment to himself. I think he's in the alleyway next to the church."

"Thanks, guys!" I flung the words over my shoulder, already halfway down the aisle before a palm was firmly locking around my shoulder, twisting me around.

"This time," JB began, plucking my phone from my pocket without so much as a blink, "stay in touch. If we go another two months without seeing you, I might just have to hunt you down and kick your ass. Got it?"

As I watched him input a series of phone numbers into my contact list—presumably his and those of the other three in the room—I felt a genuine smile spread along the lower half of my face. "I wouldn't have it any other way." 

Sure enough, my raven-haired arch-nemesis was standing in the middle of the alleyway that had once been a sanctuary for my transient romance, his exposed ankles and immaculate side-swept bangs appearing out of place among the skillful yet unlawful brushstrokes adorning the bricks. What appeared more out of place, however, was the hand reaching toward my work, trailing almost reverently over the swirls of paint.

"Jinyoung." 

He snatched his fingertips from the wall so fast I was half-afraid he would scrape the delicate skin off, a wry smile twisting his features into something less refined and more guilty. 

"You've caught me. Your art might be a little...rough around the edges, but nonetheless, I must admit it is some of the most beautiful I've seen." Despite his refusal to look in my direction, I managed to spot the wrinkles that webbed out from the corners of his eyes, transforming his face from the condescending mask to which I had grown accustomed into something much more pleasing to the eye—not that I'd ever admit aloud that my rival wasn't the most unattractive person I'd ever seen. "Let me guess. You discovered my whereabouts from BamBam and Yugyeom, and you figured it was the perfect opportunity to mock me for my hypocrisy. Go ahead. I'm sure you're simply dying to document this moment into your diary as another one of your victories against me."

"This might be mind-blowingly difficult for you to understand, but I actually didn't come out here to catch you or insult you for admiring my work. My art is for the masses, and believe it or not, that includes you." With hesitant strides, I drew closer until I stood just opposite him, reclining my shoulders back against the bricks. "Thank you, though. I'm sure that your pride must be sinking to an all-time low if you're willing to admit that."

"What is it you came out here for, then? I know it wasn't for my dazzling company," he scoffed, steeling his expression back into one of familiar indifference. "So, what is it that you want, Wang?"

"I'm looking for Mark." As soon as the name slipped between my lips, a flicker of emotion passed over the brunet's otherwise stony countenance, a chink in his armor that my eyes instantly recorded for later inspection. "The boys seem to be under the impression that you might be able to tell me where he is."

"Is that so?" Pretending to inspect his (no doubt professionally buffed) nails, he averted his eyes from my own. "And what if I don't know where he is?"

"Stop wasting my time, Jinyoung. I'm tired of your fucking games," I seethed, anger creeping up my neck as heat blossomed through my cheeks. "Do you know where he is or not?" 

"Listen, Jackson. If there's only once in this lifetime that I ask you to trust me, this is it." His eyes rose to meet mine, streaked with an emotion startlingly similar to pity. "You don't want to know where he is. If I tell you and you go looking for him, I promise you will only regret it. Just this once, heed my advice, and let it go. He'll come find you when he's ready." 

"I-I don't care if I regret it. I'm willing to take the risk. Whatever it takes to see him again, no matter the consequences, I'll do it. I just need to see him." I surged forward, rapidly closing the distance between us. "Where is he? Tell me."

"I told you." Eyes flitting between mine, he retreated from the unfamiliar proximity, the curve of his back molding against the wall. "You don't want to know." 

"Since when did you give a damn about my feelings? Just tell me where he is, goddammit." The phrase exploded from me in a feral howl, rage climbing along the knobs of my spinal column as I drove my fist forward into the wall, my taut muscles rippling with the action. The pain that encased my knuckles was immediate, but the scalding sensation welling up in my eyes as I sunk to my knees was because of another issue, entirely. "Please, Jinyoung. Please, please, please..."

It became clear that something had changed between us when he dipped down before me, the fabric of his impeccably tailored slacks straining over his thighs as his knees settled upon the gravel, a handkerchief balanced between the fingers he held out to me. 

"Okay," he murmured, lightly resting a hand on my shoulder as I swiped the piece of cloth over my leaking eyes. "I'll tell you where he is."

 

 

 

 

The ice rink appeared exactly as I remembered, a gargantuan marriage of glass panels and monochromatic concrete, hovering hundreds of feet above the parking lot upon which it cast a block of dusky shadow. Unlike the first time I'd laid eyes on said building, there were no fingertips slotted between my ribs while I maneuvered the sleek body of my bike into a parking space, no breathless laughter pressed between my shoulder blades while I dismounted from the saddle. 

Apprehension pulsed through my veins, miscellaneous voices—primarily the warnings of both Jinyoung and the reverend, urging me to turn back—looming above my head like an omen, weighing down each step carrying me through the half-vacant parking lot. Locking these thoughts away, I curled my fingertips around the handle of one of the glass doors separating me from the reunion that had tainted my dreams, courage fueled by the flashes of that night hovering along the seam of my subconscious.

This is Mark we're talking about herethe one who lights up my day with a single smile; the one who sets my soul ablaze with a single touch; the one who pressed sweet promises to my mouth, promises that he accepts me for who I am, that I'm enough despite my flaws. He would never hurt me, just as I would never stop fighting for him.

A draft of arctic air washed over me the moment I crossed the threshold, skimming over the gooseflesh rising along my exposed skin. Stepping inside the ice rink was comparable to immersing myself in a world that diverged from my own, a world permeated with ice crystals where the outside one was infused with ultraviolet rays. 

My eyes scanned over the expanse of the space, grazing past the clump of bodies carving pirouettes into the ice, sweeping over the curlicues of neon spiraling overhead...and froze. 

Settled upon one of the benches lining the rink, long legs tucked beneath him, was Mark. While it had only been a week since my lips had traced the contours of his velvet skin, a week since my fingertips had left indentations in the hollows of his hips, emotion seared through me as I took in the prism of color splashed through the haze of silver adorning his head. His beauty seemed all the more potent now that a week had cast a schism between us, and the fierce desire to haul him into my arms and kiss him senseless washed over me—except he wasn't alone.

In a flurry of mile-long legs and swaying fabric, Serena's cousin—what was her name again? Holly? Harley? Harmony? Hattie?—was gliding from the rink...and straight into Mark's arms. The apprehension that had seeped from my bones the moment I caught sight of the blond looped itself around my heart once more, smothering the bleeding organ as I watched the one I loved press his forehead against his companion's, his plush coral mouth molding around a short series of words before expanding into a smile I had once thought was only reserved for me. 

Oh, how wrong I had been.

Twisting his fingers into her hair, Mark drew her into a firm kiss, his lips sealing over hers as her fingers splayed across his bicep. The kiss was less than chaste, a flash of pink peering between them as Mark licked into her mouth, his hand hooked loosely around her bare lower thigh where it was perched just outside his lap. Despite the startlingly lewd nature of the kiss, it was also surprisingly brief, the couple drifting apart just seconds after they had begun. Nonetheless, Mark's kiss-swollen mouth flared an angry red even beneath the kaleidoscope of neon flashing throughout the rink, and part of me wondered if the cherry-ripe sweetness of his kiss I remembered so well lingered upon her lips, too.

Watching him with her was reminiscent of injecting myself with Novocain, the initial pang of sorrow akin to the sting of a syringe, unbearable to the point of suffocation until numbness finally began to wash over me, encroaching on the misery that oozed through my veins until I felt like little more than a hollow shell of who I once was—or at least, who I was around the one who continued to plague my thoughts with the fondness that flecked his eyes, the mirth that colored his laugh, and the tenderness that painted his touch.  

It is common to hear that when a heart breaks, it shatters, each of its pieces jagged like glass, too misshapen to fasten back together in its original shape. This was not the case for me. If I had been given a choice, I would've chosen the option to shatter, for at least a shattered heart can be glued back together. Instead, witnessing the one I loved find happiness with another felt more like a blunt-edged axe had been taken to the throbbing organ, hacking away until strings of shredded matter were all that remained beneath my ribs. 

Perhaps the ragged sob that had begun to swell within my throat had finally managed to break free, because the liquid whiskey irises I knew so well were suddenly rising to meet mine, a plethora of emotions flitting across his fair features as his mouth curled around inaudible syllables. Jackson?

I had only managed to escape as far as the fringe of the parking lot when his fingers wrapped around my wrist, my foot still hovering over the curb as his voice seeped through the roar of blood rushing in my ears.

"Jackson, wait." 

"No, I'm done waiting!" Pivoting to face him, I jerked backward in a desperate attempt to break free, but his steely, uncompromising grip was anchoring me in place. "Do you know how long I've waited for you, Mark? I waited months to confess the way I feel about you. I waited months to finally kiss you, to touch you the way I've been longing to. I waited another week for you to return my calls. I waited a week for an explanation, one I'll clearly never get since you're apparently too busy shoving your tongue down some bitch's throat."

"Don't talk about Haley that way."—ah, so that's what her name was—"I know you're upset, but calling my girlfriend a bitch won't solve anything."

"Your girlfriend?" I hissed, pressing my free palm against his chest in a firm shove. "Let me go. You better fucking let go, Mark."

"No." Catching my other wrist, he tugged me closer, his eyes never straying from mine. "Not until you let me explain." 

"Do you love her?" I blurted out, the words rolling off the tip of my tongue before I could choke them back down.

Mark's grip suddenly went slack, his irises briefly flickering with shock before fading away completely, replaced with a frigid sharpness that I'd never seen before. "That's none of your business."

"Answer the damn question," I snarled, utilizing the opportunity to rip my hands free, balling them into fists at my sides. "Do you love her?"

Dragging his bottom lip between his teeth, he worried at the soft flesh with the sharp edges, his gaze straying toward the concrete at our feet. "I will learn to love her." 

"You can't learn to love someone, Mark." Poising his chin between my index finger and thumb, I tilted his face forward until he was peering back into my eyes. "There's a reason it's called falling in love. We don't get to choose who we love. Our heart wants what it wants, regardless of the circumstances, and you're powerless to stop it." 

"Stop," he whispered, a light tremor underscoring the syllable as his eyelids slid shut. "You know nothing about the way I feel."

"Then tell me. Tell me how you feel about me." Trailing my hand away from his chin, I traced my fingertips down the dip of his neck, skimming over his collarbones before settling my palm over his heart. "Do you love me?"

His eyes remained squeezed tightly shut, his eyelashes suddenly fringed with moisture. "I-I can't."

"You can't  love me, or you don't?" Swiping my thumb over the bead of saltwater trickling over the apple of his cheek,  I reached for the hand hanging limply beside him, lacing my fingers through his. "If you can tell me that you feel nothing at all for me, I'll let you return to her. If you can look me in the eyes and tell me right now that you don't love me, I'll let you go. But if that's not the case, then it means something else is holding you back, and it's not your feelings."

"I can't because I'm not gay !" he erupted, snatching his hand from my grasp as his other hand swatted me away. "Don't you get that? Do you need me to spell it out for you? I like women. Only women. I'm not gay, and I'll never be gay for as long as I live, no matter how much you try to convince yourself otherwise."  

"Why do you have to be gay to have feelings for me? Newsflash, Mark. I'm not gay, either! I fell in love with you because you're the one I'm meant to be with, regardless of your gender." Adrenaline pulsed through my bloodstream, fueling each word I spoke until I was practically vibrating with energy. "Sexuality isn't a choice chiseled in black and white stone. It's inked into our DNA as just another facet of who we are. Love is valid, no matter what form it comes in, and that is why sexuality is sometimes fluid and often misunderstood. Society fears it because we can't always label it. I'm a straight guy who fell in love with another guy. That doesn't have to make me gay. Maybe, it just makes me fucking human."

"If that makes me human," he said, his voice coated in ice, "then maybe I'd rather be something else." 

"How could you say something like that?" I demanded, my voice skipping an octave. "Why are you so goddamn afraid to feel something for me?"

"Because it's wrong, Jackson." His eyes darted between my own, overcast with an emotion I couldn't read, though I wasn't completely sure I truly wanted to. I didn't recognize the boy standing before me now, the cruel twist of his mouth recollective of the reverend's. "Can't you see that?"

"What about that night?" I could no longer disguise the desperation edging into my tone. "Did it feel wrong when you kissed me? What about when you touched me, truly touched me, for the first time? Or the way you looked at me after I made you come, when you fell asleep with your head resting against my chest? Did all of that feel wrong?" 

"Keep your voice down," he hissed, swiveling his head back and forth to confirm the privacy of our conversation. "Don't ever bring up that night again, do you understand me? It was just a mistake, nothing more." 

"A mistake?" The words tasted bittersweet on my tongue, acidic like poison. "So, everything you said that night...you meant none of it? All of it was just a mistake to you?" 

"I know you might not believe me, but I never meant to hurt you." His voice sunk into a murmur, the words dipped in a regret so sincere that they left a hollow pang in my chest. "You mean so much more to me than you'll ever know, and if I could turn back time, I would do anything to take away the pain I've caused you." 

"The only thing you could've done differently was return my feelings." A dry, humorless laugh scraped free from my throat, harsh and grating in the silence. "Would you really be willing to do anything?"

Tears seemed to be pooling along the corners of those breathtaking eyes, but it might've simply been an illusion caused by my own tear-blurred vision. "I'm sorry, Jackson." 

"Don't be." Without so much as a goodbye, I stepped down backward from the curb, peering up at the one who had ripped my heart free from my chest. "I'm sorry I fell in love with a coward."

Childish triumph blazed through me, white-hot, when his mouth collapsed into a slight wince. "Can't we still be friends? Just like before?" 

"Friends? Are you kidding me?" Tears were gushing freely down my face now, cascading along the slopes of my cheeks until I could taste nothing but the biting tang of salt. "After everything that happened between us, don't you understand I can't just be friends with you? Have you even once considered my feelings? Do they matter at all to you?" 

"Of course they matter to me. You matter to me." He stepped forward, stretching out a hand as if to caress the torrent of tears away, but I shrunk away from the touch, leaving it hovering midair.  "I just...I can't lose you, too."

I leaned toward him, dipping my head past his jawline to whisper in his ear, the words filtering through clenched teeth. "The moment you decided to turn me into an experiment, you had already lost me."

Jinyoung had been right. As I slung my leg over the seat of my bike, allowing the dull rumble of the engine to drown out the uneven thumps of my mangled heart, it was not adrenaline that threaded through my veins but the glacial chill of cold, hard regret. 

 

Chapter Text

-Mark's Point of View-

A rhythmic staccato pulsed beneath my temple, tugging me free from the lingering clutches of sleep that had enveloped my body in a haze of warmth. As my eyelids fluttered apart, an expanse of sun-kissed skin layered over taut muscle blurred into focus beneath me, cast in a milky glow beneath the first slivers of dawn filtering through the window.

Swallowing back the breathless laugh that rose along my throat, the tapered ends of my canines digging into the sensitive flesh of my overstimulated lips in my attempt to remain quiet, I tucked my head beneath the hinge of Jackson's jaw and splayed my fingertips above the steady tempo throbbing beneath his chest.

Maybe sleep isn't the reason for this warmth oozing through my veins, after all. I brushed an airy kiss over the dozing brunet's dull pulse, tasting the subtle tang of salt where the sheen of sweat from the night before had left a film over his olive skin. So, this is how it feels to wake up exactly where I belong mostin Jackson's arms.

"I can't believe I wasted so much time trying to suppress my feelings for you, all because I thought it was wrong to feel this way," I murmured against his skin, allowing the throaty rasp of my voice to waft through the silence cocooned around our entangled bodies. "All those guilt-ridden nights I spent imagining you above me, kissing me, touching me... I could've made it all a reality if I had only been honest about my feelings from the moment I realized how much you mean to me, but I was always too afraid. Thank you, Jackson Wang. Once again, you have saved me from myself."

I allowed my hand to stray past his steady heartbeat, my eyes flitting up to his slackened features as my greedy fingertips grazed across his dusty rose nipples, mapping out the love bites blooming along his torso—the love bites reminding me that Jackson had finally stripped away the walls he had built up over the course of his life, allowing himself to be vulnerable in choosing to become mine just as I had already succumbed to my fate of being his.

"How could I ever have thought this was wrong," I whispered, tracing the tip of my nose along the slope of his jaw, "when being with you has never felt anything but right?"

Curling my hand beneath his jaw, I swept the pad of my thumb over the slightly slick surface of his plush bottom lip, following the movement with my gaze as a fresh wave of unfathomable emotion surged through me.

It was a feeling not quite like desire, too muted in its spark to rekindle the blazing passion that had licked along the walls of my abdomen just hours before, rapidly spiraling into the insatiable hunger that had swept both Jackson and me into a whirlwind of fierce intimacy. It was also not a feeling akin to the ill-concealed affection I'd always felt toward the brunet even before I'd grown aware of my feelings, tendrils of the foreign emotion curling around my heart with a violent tenacity far too intense to be attributed to my naive, immature fondness of the months past.

No, it was impossible for this feeling to be mere lust or affection, especially with the way it seized my very breath, infiltrating my ears with no other sound than the thunderous echo of my stolen heart, swelling at the seams with devotion for the one who could be described as none other than its new owner.

I peered up at him now, tracing my fingertips over the curve of one of his cheekbones.

Awake, Jackson was breathtaking—a firecracker bursting with intoxicatingly contagious energy. The depths of his bourbon irises were constantly alight with an impish mischief reminiscent of a young child's, his lopsided smile warm like the smooth slide of whiskey down one's throat. It was captivating—admittedly slightly frustrating, primarily when I had been in denial about the jealousy coursing through me whenever one of his constant jokes made one of the choir girls laugh—to watch how Jackson's natural charisma seeped into his speech, his demeanor, and even his art, capturing the attention of anyone he met.

Asleep, Jackson could only be described as beautiful. While he was often the one to initiate seemingly less-than-platonic forms of affection in his wakeful hours, he seemed more prone to physical intimacy when he was caught in the realm of unconsciousness, one of his powerful arms curled around my waist as he molded his body against the curve of my own, his nose tucked into my hair before I had roused awake. With his face now half-buried in the swathes of black draped over the pillow, thick fringe of ebony lashes splayed out over his cheekbones where they were half-bathed in shadow, he seemed less like the street-hardened boy he was and more like the innocent child he must have been before the murder of his parents had abandoned him to his cruel fate. Vulnerable like this—sweat-dampened chestnut waves cascading past his forehead, rosy mouth curled around the steady cadence of his snore-marled breaths—it was a struggle not to ruffle my fingers through his hair as if he was a child or even to seal my mouth over his own.

While I had grown increasingly fond of every aspect of the brunet, it was during moments like this, when I was given the privilege to witness a side to him that no one else ever could—even the hordes of girls and guys alike who he always managed to charm with one of his signature smiles—that I became completely smitten with this boy who had flipped my world upside down and stolen my heart in the process.

"Ni zhenmei," I murmured, brushing the rogue tresses away from his forehead with a feather-light touch, the Mandarin tumbling off the tip of my tongue before I could even register the meaning of the words.

You are so beautiful.

As if in response to the words, the slumbering brunet tucked me tighter against his chest, a single Yien spilling between his lips in the guise of a hushed moan as he burrowed his face into my neck.

Heat painted my cheeks a violent scarlet, pleasure thrumming through my veins as I savored the unabashed need with which he had moaned my name even in sleep, etching said moan into my memory as I sifted through its echoes from the previous night.

"Can I touch you?" I had asked, my palm skidding down the center of his chest in a slow caress, leaving a trail of goosebumps in its wake.

"Please." His breath escaped in a harsh gasp, his hips knocking forward as I scraped a nail along the path of hair leading into his boxer briefs, watching him chew on his bottom lip in awe as my fingertips lightly kneaded over the bulge in the fabric. "Oh my god, please, Mark."

"Does that feel good?" Fanning out my fingers, I had pressed a flat palm between his legs, applying an obscene amount of pressure against the brunet's throbbing erection. "Tell me it feels good."

"S-So fucking good." His voice trailed off into a high-pitched keen, his fingers curling into the sheets as he feebly rocked against my palm, his eyes twisted shut. "Fuck, I want you so bad, baby..."

"Look at me. Don't you dare look away." My free hand had lifted to fist into his hair, locking his jaw in place as his eyes popped open, my eyes boring into his own as my fingertips dipped past his waistband. "I want to watch you unravel above me. I want to see what I do to you."

"A-Are you sure this is okay?" He had gripped my wrist then, searching my eyes as if he was looking for any sign of hesitation. "I don't want you to think you have to take this any further than you're comfortable with. You've done more than enough already. Y-You don't have anything to prove to me. You know that, right?"

"Shhh. I know, babe." I peered up at him, my eyes no doubt glittering with the liquid fondness pooling in my stomach. "But I want to. You're so focused on my pleasure that you're neglecting your own. I want to make you feel good. Let me make you feel good."

This time, when my hand had slipped beneath his waistband, my eyes blazed with a newfound determination as I curled my fingertips around his arousal in a firm grip. A broken moan ripped from his throat as my fist ricocheted along his stiffened length, pumping the broiling skin until his knees seemed to be on the verge of collapse.

"You said you liked to imagine me in your bed." Rather than framing the words as a question, I was merely stating a fact, my voice dripping with hunger as my hand continued to wreak havoc inside his briefs. "Whenever you thought about me, did you ever touch yourself like this?"

"A-Always..." He hiccuped on a quiet whimper. "Shit, right there."

"And, when you thought about me...Did you ever come?"

"E-Every time."

"Is that what you want? Do you want to come?" My pupils were probably swallowed by the stormy darkness of desire as I swept my tongue along my lower lip, clumsily flicking my wrist. "Show me. I want to watch you come for me."

A myriad of lewd images like this one, mirroring the filthy longing that had both painted the brunet's face in varying shades of blush and simmered lazily through my veins, flickered beneath my fluttering eyelids in the semblance of a slow-motion film—each tender touch and wet kiss fading into one another with every memory that engraved itself within the walls of my subconscious.

"Jesus, Jackson." The words were meant to be pitched low in a groan, but the unfamiliar emotion from before still managed to bleed into the syllables, coupled with an undeniable yearning I had long since grown to recognize. "What have you done to me?"

Dragging my fingertips down the length of his torso, I traced over each of the sculpted hollows of his abdomen, suckling my lower lip beneath my upper one as a delicious shiver rocked through a still-sleeping Jackson. Allowing my eyes to roam over the naked vulnerability of the brunet's delicate countenance—brazen in their adoration for the younger boy—a sudden, intense hunger surged through me.

Flaring my fingers out over the flat strip of skin above the boxer briefs that had once acted as a barrier between our writhing hips, I swept my tongue over my bottom lip, inwardly debating whether to succumb to the longing that had strung itself through my nerves like a live wire, urging me to dip down and taste him—really taste him—for the first time. While my sleep-addled body remained sated from the remnants of pleasure that had threaded through my veins just hours before, it was not sexual desire that fueled this obscene urge but rather a giddiness that accompanied my newfound ability to call this boy mine.

Yes, I longed for the light trembles that would convulse through him beneath my ministrations, skin glistening with sweat while his hands fisted into my hair, ragged gasps tumbling between his sinful lips. Yes, I longed to be the one who reduced Jackson to a quivering, mewling mess of pleasure using only my hands and mouth, the only one who could render him speechless with desire despite my inexperience.

Nonetheless, what I truly longed for was the spark that never failed to light up Jackson's eyes once they met my own, even after being roused from a deep slumber; the tender caress of his broad palm as it trailed over my bare skin, its lingering warmth enveloping my body from the inside out; the achingly slow way his mouth would sigh open against my own, worshipping the sensitive surface with a graceful curl of his tongue.

Suddenly, an acute sense of awareness began to tickle at the forefront of my subconscious, interrupting my erotic remembrances to steer my attention toward the stickiness that had webbed itself between the apex of my thighs during the course of the night.

Maybe a cold shower is exactly what I need right now, I reasoned with a scathing glance toward the livid red flush that had crept over my bare chest, almost camouflaging the patches of color that Jackson's mouth had left mottling the planes of my skin in its wake.

Pressing a delicate kiss to his upper lip with a whispered I'll be back soon, baby, I disentangled myself from the arms swaddled around my torso, rising to my feet just as the brunet curled up into the fetal position, a pitiful whine keening from his throat.

"No, don't goooooo," he groused, twisting his fingers into the wrinkled cotton of the sheets where my body had left a deep indentation, his mouth curving into a petulant pout I wanted to kiss away. "Come back, angel."

Angel.

The ridiculously cheesy pet name sent my heart plummeting into an abrupt swan dive, even more so when his raspy Come for me, angel from the night before seeped into my thoughts, stoking the blazing flames of yearning that had already begun to unfurl deep within my gut.

Crawling back into the dozing brunet's waiting embrace, I carded an affectionate hand through his sex-roughened locks, nudging the tip of my nose against his own as a blissful sigh bubbled forth from my throat. "I'm not going anywhere."

Shifting just enough to slot my back against his chest, I intertwined my fingers through the hand that had drifted down to rest over my navel, relishing in the comfort of being his little spoon for a moment before reaching for my phone. A sharp blue glow spilled forth from the screen, piercing through the darkness of the room as I thumbed through the extensive list of notifications, blinking rapidly to eradicate the splotches of color staining my vision until the final notification caught my attention.

"Why do I have a missed call and voicemail from Grace?" I asked aloud, fishing through the darkness for my headphones before pressing the playback button.

"Mark? It's Grace."

The familiar voice sent a bolt of sorrow straight to my heart, the familiar sting of hot tears prickling at the edges of my eyes, kept at bay only by the steady thrum of Jackson's heartbeat against my skin.

"I hope you still have the same number. If you don't, well, whoever I am sending this message to can ignore it. And if you do have the same number, who knows? You might choose to ignore it anyway. I'm so sorry, Mark. You might never want to speak to me again after what happened between me and Dad, but you need to know I never once stopped thinking about you after I left. I know I should've made more of an effort to fight for you and to stay in your life, but I thought it was best for Dad's sake and your own that I stay as far away as possible.

"I tried, Mark. I tried so hard to let you live your life without me, but after what happened with Tammy, Joey, and Mom...I don't want you to feel like you have to hold the whole world on your shoulders anymore. I called to tell you that Patricia and I are renewing our wedding vows in two months, and I would love it if you could come, since you weren't able to attend our wedding. I understand that you might not accept my decision to be with the woman I love, but I reached out to you because something tells me you'd be the most understanding from anyone in our family. Please don't prove me wrong.

"I want you to consider this invitation an apology for leaving you alone to shoulder Dad's expectations alone. I know it'll never make up for it, but hopefully, it's a start. Give me a call whenever you need someone to talk to. You know I'm always here for you. I love you, Mark."

It wasn't until a single bead of moisture collided with the illuminated screen and dispersed into multiple droplets that I realized I was crying.

"You have nothing to apologize for." The whisper was saturated in the guilt I had kept locked away for so long, ringing out in the silence like a plaintive cry. "I'm the one who should've fought for you to stay. I'm the one who should've defended you from Dad's intolerance. I'm the one who should be sorry. I'm so sorry, Grace...I'm so sorry I've always been nothing but a coward."

Clutching the phone—which had long grown dim like a burnt-out star—with a white-knuckled grasp, I surrendered to the onslaught of memories that washed over me, submerging myself in the ebb and flow of the familiar voice that had lain dormant within the innermost recesses of my mind since that fateful night.

"As not only my child but also as a child of God, you have an obligation to repent for your sins and turn away from those that lead you down the path of wicked temptation."

"No child of mine would commit such a sin.  No child of mine would ever surrender to the devil's temptations."

"If you wish to remain a member of this household, and a member of this family, you must submit yourself to the judgment of God and beg for his forgiveness." 

"Only once you have been purged of all unholy desires can I consider you my child once more."

Clawing its way to the surface until I was choking on the acrid bitterness of it, a ragged sob burst forth from my tear-stricken throat, shredding through the silence that had settled over our two bodies interlaced beneath a cloak of faux stars.

The same acute sense of awareness from before, albeit far less lewd in nature, surged through my veins as I became increasingly cognizant of everything Jackson—the gentle purr of his heartbeat imprinted against my bare shoulder blades, the feather-light gust of his tranquil breath as it ghosted over my naked skin, the goosebumps that had risen at the juncture where the tip of his nose had begun to nestle at the base of my neck, the heat that radiated from each of the fingertips splayed across my lower abdomen.

Whereas this heightened perception might have formerly shrouded any of my lingering doubts with the familiar haze of warmth that only Jackson could provide, it now served to douse any of my lingering desires for the brunet in frigid waves of regret. As each crest of emotion washed over me, dragging me under their billowing peaks until my lungs were waterlogged with tears, the once-pleasant warmth of the brunet's lazy embrace became unbearable, searing my skin as if to remind me of the fate I had chosen to sentence myself to in the heat of passion.

Surrendering to the assault of voices invading my subconscious—all taking on the warped cadence of my father—I jolted upright, plunging myself into the early dawn chill that had descended upon the room, no longer to be chased away by the sanctuary of Jackson's arms. Just as I could no longer escape from the numbness seeping into my bones, I could no longer escape from those voices that continued to flood my mind, submerging my trembling body in a tide of guilt as my treacherous heart convulsed with agony.

"If you think I'm going to allow you to throw away your life in the name of this abominable sin, you are sorely mistaken."

"This little affair of yours is nothing but a fool's errand, a fantasy."

"The kind of love you're seeking is impossible, because it is driven by diseased and corrupted minds, ones that have succumbed to the devil's temptation."

"Don't you dare slander my son's name with your repulsive lifestyle!"

"I refuse to have a gay son."

The final phrase swirled through my mind in dazed circles, carving itself into the walls of my subconscious with each prospective echo. Behind me, I could hear the rise and fall of Jackson's muffled snores, but his presence did little to ease the potency of the pain that threatened to consume me.

"What have I done?" The words, albeit muddled with the broken sobs that had yet to cease ravaging my throat, still managed to pierce through the silence like a scream.

Caught in the throes of the tumultuous tug-of-war between my head and my heart, I could feel the numbness of resignation finally coursing through my limbs. Before I could stop it, darkness was encroaching on the edges of my vision, sweeping me under the tide of broken memories and razor-sharp voices.

"I. Will. Not. Lose. My. Son. He's all I have."

"No child of mine will ever be contaminated with such a filthy illness."

"I would rather die than witness him become a faithless heathen." 

"He understands his responsibility. If, for any reason, he succumbs to any temptations that threaten said responsibility, I will take it upon myself to destroy that temptation."

"I would rather kill his lover with my own bare hands and face the consequences of the Lord than watch him suffer the fate of a homosexual, a fate you've so foolishly chosen."

The blood surging through my veins crystallized into ice, fear rancid as bile creeping up my throat as the implication of these last words finally sunk in.

Even if I were to choose Jackson, it wouldn't matter.

My father would do everything in his power to keep us from being together. I had no doubt that he'd meant it when he said he would hurt Jackson, and he would do so without hesitation if it meant preserving the future he'd paved for me.

I had no other choice. As painful as it was, if I wanted to protect Jackson from the wrath of my father, I had to disappear. If I wanted the boy I cared about more than anyone in the world to have a bright and happy future, I had to leave without so much as a goodbye, because this future would never be possible with me in it.

All this time, Jackson had hailed our friendship as the cure to a lifetime of solitude and unhappiness. Little had he known that the climax of our relationship would become the root of the disease.

It took me mere minutes to change back into my discarded clothing and to tuck the rest of my belongings into the suitcase sitting idle at the foot of the bed, a quickness I attributed to my mind slipping into auto-pilot.

Despite promising myself not to say goodbye, I lingered at his bedside anyway, peering through tear-blurred eyes down at the one who had changed my life.

"I'm so sorry. I hope one day you'll learn to forgive me. If I had any other choice, it would've been you. In my heart, it'll always be you," I murmured, dipping down to slot my mouth just lightly over his own. "Just know that you are so much more than a simple star or a constellation. You will always be my universe. Goodbye, Gaga."

 

 

 

 

It was not until I lay sprawled above the twisted sheets of my childhood bed—peering up at the eerie shadows cast along the ceiling in the absence of the stars I'd left behind along with half of my heart—that I realized the final words I had truly wanted to say to Jackson.

If I'm an angel, I must be one of the fallen, for my halo has long been broken and my wings have long lost their freedom to fly.

Chapter Text

-Jackson's Point of View-

Call me biased, but UCLA had to be the most beautiful campus I'd ever seen, an opinion that remained unopposed even after my first three weeks as a Bruin. 

Slinging the tattered strap of my duffel bag over my shoulder, I slipped into the horde of students milling down the stairs of the red brick colossus of Powell Library, skillfully weaving through the foot traffic as I peered up at the regal jade canopies of the trees framing the pathway snaking toward the heart of campus. 

Before me loomed twin columns flanking the core of said heart, separating the rest of the building from what appeared to be a pentagonal centerpiece comprised of six brick-laden arches. It was easy to be blown away by the mere magnificence of Royce Hall, especially at the peak of mid-afternoon when it was draped in the unblemished serenity of periwinkle sky. 

Nonetheless, I was not only awed by Royce's majestic Romanesque architecture but also by the auditorium's physical embodiment of UCLA's artistic muse, teeming with breathtaking depictions of music, dance, and theatre arts. Often touted as the heart of campus, Royce served as a breeding-ground for the aspirations of the most unique group of Bruins, misfits the world often liked to refer to as "starving artists." Since I was one of those misfits myself, Royce had quickly become my favorite refuge on campus. 

Skimming an appreciative eye over the glittering sapphire mushroom of the fountain that bisected the path between both buildings, I peeled the damp fabric of my tank from my sweat-slick torso, ruffling a hand through my bandana-tamed fringe. Reminiscent of Hong Kong, L.A. did not seem keen on embracing the implications of an impending autumn, instead electing to swathe the city in pleasant warmth and sticky moisture contrary to the weather forecast often warranted on the cusp of August and September. 

Smearing the back of my palm over the sweat speckling my sun-baked skin, I lifted my eyes to the culprit, engaging in a one-sided game of peek-a-boo with the burst of light reminiscent of an over-easy egg yolk. Rekindled by the mere thought of food, the contented dormancy that had settled low in my belly dissolved into a guttural rumble, echoing through the empty cavern accompanied by the hollow ache of hunger pangs.

As if in competition with the ravenous growl seeping through the thin layer of cotton clinging to my skin, a sporadic sequence of vibrations buzzed insistently against my outer thigh, dragging my attention away from the salt-driven cravings that had begun to paint my tongue. Dipping my hand into the drooping pocket of my shorts, I fished out the offender, glancing only briefly at the name scrawled across the screen before jabbing my thumb over the "Accept" button. 

"Yo, man!" 

If I hadn't already spent the entire summer growing accustomed to the notion that the youngest in the choir were like the baby brothers I never had, I might have noticed the subtle weight of pride tugging at my heartstrings when the interface of my phone showcased the matching impish grins of BamBam and Yugyeom. 

"Long time no see, you two," was my simple reply, an unbidden smile tugging at the corner of my lips. "How much trouble have you caused since the last time I saw you?"

"Is that really what you think about us? I'm offended," gasped the eldest of the two, collapsing his ever-swollen mouth into a disgruntled pout.

Figuring there was no other time than the present to debut my JB impersonation, I arched a meticulously judgmental eyebrow, narrowing my eyes into a terse glare that had BamBam squirming visibly in the relatively tiny frame.

"We literally saw you just a couple of days ago," he blurted out, knifing a slender hand through the ash blond fluff that flopped past his forehead. "How much trouble could we really get up to in a couple of days?"

"I think we both know the real answer to that." The retort was audibly empty, dripping with a fondness too potent to hold any bite. "Shouldn't you be in school? It's barely 1:00."

"Bam and I decided to drive off-campus for our lunch break," Yugyeom responded, nudging the Thai native with an elbow. "He always complains that the cafeteria food doesn't live up to his 'standards of cooking,' so I thought I'd treat him, and my patience, out to lunch."

"That's our Bammie," I cooed, punctuating the syllables with a laugh. "Anyways, what's up? I know you guys didn't FaceTime me to ask about college."

"How do you know? Maybe we want to ask some questions about the next four years of our lives," BamBam cut in, practically shoving the oversized brunet out of the frame to press his face closer to the camera. "Yugyeom and I have been dying to know if the dance program is as prestigious as they claim, but I've also been eyeing the design and media arts program and Youngjae wants to study music performance."

"Where is Youngjae anyway?" With the mention of his name, the absence of the bright-eyed brunet and his even brighter smile had become palpable. "He doesn't eat lunch with you guys?"

To my surprise, BamBam huffed out an annoyed sigh, prompting a quiet giggle from Yugyeom as he reappeared on the screen.

"As you know, he likes to build the suspense," he remarked, shooting a playful wink toward the sulking blond, "but Youngjae is part of the reason we, or I should say Bam, wanted to FaceTime you." 

"What's going on? Is something wrong? Did something happen?" I knew I was rambling but I couldn't stop, each question blurring into the next until I was unable to decipher the meaning of my own words.

"And I thought I was a drama queen," BamBam grumbled, though his eyes were twinkling with laughter. "Relax, bro. Nothing happened. Since you're one of us now, I just wanted to invite you to join us in our annual family tradition."

"I don't know what this 'annual family tradition' is, but I already feel like I'm going to regret answering this FaceTime call," I muttered under my breath. Despite my feigned reluctance, I knew it was damn near impossible to quench my curiosity once it had been piqued, and the suspense around this supposed tradition was no exception.  

"Hear me out. I promise it will be totally fun!" the blond gushed. "Right, Yugyeom?"

"Of course," the brunet affirmed, a teasing smile dancing over his lips. "If by totally fun you mean totally insane and over the top."

"Don't hate." BamBam snapped, tilting his nose toward the sky while he haughtily dusted off the shoulder of his studded denim vest. "You're just jealous you didn't come up with it."

"Neither did you," Yugyeom cackled, the sound marred by a loud, unattractive snort as he attempted to dodge the fist his partner-in-crime swung toward his shoulder. "Last I checked, it was Jaebeom's idea."

"Guys!" The word exploded from me on a wave of exasperation, effectively slicing through the duo's bickering. "What was Jaebeom's idea?" 

A matching set of sheepish expressions swiveled to face me, matching stripes of crimson climbing both pairs of cheekbones as they spoke in unison. "It's almost September."

After racking my brain for what felt like a short eternity to find some significance in the three seemingly mundane words, I furrowed my eyebrows. "...So?" 

"Three of us have birthdays in September," Yugyeom began, belatedly realizing the flaw in their presentation of information, or lack thereof in this case.

"So the rest of us come together to throw a joint surprise party," BamBam finished, his eyes crinkling into half-moons. "Are you in?"

"I'm in." Considering the pile of homework that had accumulated over the course of the past few days, I secretly welcomed the distraction. "Who are our birthday boys?"

"Youngjae, Jinyoung, and Mark," the blond gushed, pupils blown wide with childish excitement. "I've already divided up the roles. I, of course, am in charge of the party's concept. Yugyeom's in charge of the music. JB's in charge of the refreshments. That leaves you in charge of the location. This party is going to be awesome!"

Mark.

As BamBam's zeal-tinged tenor evaporated into silence, the floodgates I had built over the past few weeks to dam up the severed remnants of my battered heart collapsed at the mere mention of the dangerous monosyllable, hurling the barely-beating organ into the once-familiar cesspool of self-loathing.  

"I'm not gay! Don't you get that? Do you need me to spell it out for you? I like women. Only women."

Swirling through my mind like ashen plumes of smoke was the voice I wanted so badly to forget, albeit a mere ghost of its husky cadence.

"I'm not gay, and I'll never be gay for as long as I live, no matter how much you try to convince yourself otherwise."

Etched into the trembling flesh of my shuttered eyelids was the cruel curl of a heart-shaped mouth I had once adorned with kisses, the icy glint of the irises that once glowed warm like fresh coffee when they bore into my own.

"I don't ever want you to bring up that night again, do you understand me? It was just a mistake, nothing more."

Once again, I found myself floundering under the weight of the tumultuous waves of agony washing through me, choking beneath the excruciating pain of my own heartbreak. Propping my shoulder up against the curve of one of Royce's arches, I slid down the frame, perching on the edge of the top step as I attempted to catch my breath.

"Jackson?" 

"Jackson!" 

"Yo, Jackson!"

Latching onto the blissful reprieve from my reinvigorated torment, I allowed the frantic echoes of my friends to drag me back into the present, blinking rapidly until the treacherous memories dissipated from my vision. 

"Are you okay, man?" BamBam asked, cocking his head as his shrewd gaze scanned over my expression. "You totally zoned out on us."

"Yeah, and you looked like you were about to cry," agreed Yugyeom, chewing fretfully on his lower lip in a way that reminded me all too well of a certain blond rapper.

"I thought you were the ones telling me to stop being a drama queen. Now look who's talking." I attempted to keep my tone light, throwing in a short bout of false laughter for good measure. 

Nonetheless, BamBam and Yugyeom were much more observant than they were given credit for, and neither of them looked convinced by the facade.

"Well...," the elder of the two trailed off, a furrow creasing into the space between his eyebrows. "Were you at least listening when I gave the party details? Do you think you'll be able to snag us a kickass venue before the middle of the month?"

"About that," I mumbled, scrubbing my free hand over my neck, "I won't be able to make it. I'm going to be swamped in homework for the next month. Maybe it would be best if I sit out on this one..." 

"W-What?" The light that had once flickered within the depths of BamBam's dark irises seemed to be extinguished now, the audible crack in his voice digging deep into the lacerations of my wounded heart. "Are you serious?" 

"I'm sorry, BamBam. Truly, I am, but—"

"Couldn't you just take a break?"

"You don't understand—"

"Our friends should be more important than your homework!"

"BamBam—"

"What the hell is up with you lately, bro?" 

Before I could respond, an arm was slung across my shoulders as a body sunk into the space beside me, the broad-shouldered frame of a certain brunet with a film camera dangling around his neck.

"Hey, hey, hey. What's going on?" JB demanded, fixating a stern glare on the Thai boy before quirking an eyebrow in my direction.

"Jinyoung isn't with you, right?" Yugyeom piped up, visibly avoiding my eyes as he spoke.

"For your information, Jinyoung and I are not always conjoined at the hip." JB rolled his eyes, his voice practically dripping in sarcasm. "In fact, I'm pretty sure he's in the library helping Kyungsoo run lines for his first theatre arts exam. But none of you have answered my question. Seriously, what's going on?"

"Why don't you ask Jackson?" BamBam quipped, forever petty. 

"Someone better tell me what the hell is going on, or God help me...," JB threatened, his voice dipping just below a whisper as he pinched the bridge of his nose between his forefinger and thumb.

"Bammie's upset because he invited Jackson to help with the surprise party, but Jackson said he's too busy," admitted Yugyeom, visibly shrinking in on himself under the Thai boy's pointed glare. 

"Interesting." 

I could feel the heat of JB's gaze boring into my skin, but I didn't dare spare a glance in his direction, clenching my jaw as I blinked away the sting of tears brimming along the edges of my vision.

"Let me talk to him." The icy chill of annoyance had seeped out of JB's tone, leaving in its wake a gentle, honeyed warmth. "I'm sure Jackson would love to show his support for Jinyoung, Youngjae, and Mark. I bet this is all just a misunderstanding, and you're only making it worse by holding it against him without listening to his side of the story."

"JB's right," Yugyeom mumbled, wrapping an arm around BamBam's wiry frame as if to comfort the sulking boy. "Our lunch break is almost over. We should head back to campus anyway. See you guys later!"

Without so much as a goodbye from BamBam, the FaceTime screen faded back into the home screen of my phone, an old photograph of my parents that dulled the razor-sharp ache that ate at my heart. Save for the common hustle and bustle of students making the arduous hike from one building to the next, as well as the quiet gurgle of the fountain, JB and I were cast in a silence heavy with unsaid secrets. 

"Is this...because of your strange rivalry with Jinyoung?" If it wasn't already clear that JB deserved to be dubbed the informal leader of our little group, the way he treaded over subjects like this with skillful tact was proof enough. "Or is this because of the weird fight you're currently having with Mark?"

"Mark and I are not having a fight," I retorted, slumping forward until my head was nestled in my lap. "We're fine."

"You are not 'fine.' Of all people not to lie to, Jackson, I am probably right behind Mark." Despite the disapproval coloring his tone, his hand drifted to the nape of my neck, casually massaging the knot of tension beneath the flesh. "You're miserable. The younger ones might not have noticed, but it's clear to both me and Jinyoung that you haven't truly smiled in over a month, and I doubt it just happens to be a coincidence that you and Mark haven't really been talking like you used to, either." 

"Let it go, JB." While I had meant for my voice to come out firm and assertive, it merely lilted into a soft plea. "Like I said, Mark and I aren't in a fight, so there's nothing for you to worry about."

"You might be able to pull that bullshit with BamBam and Yugyeom and get away with it, but don't think for a second you can pull that bullshit with me." JB clucked his tongue, his expression an uncanny mimicry of a disappointed parent. "I don't care if it's a fight or not. What I do care about is the fact that all of the people I care about most are hurting because of the miscommunication of a couple of idiots."

"And what do you expect me to do about it? Why do I have to be the one to fix everything?" I groused, fisting my hands into my hair. "You have no idea how complicated this entire situation is. No matter what I do, this can't just be 'fixed' overnight." 

"I'm not asking you to fix anything. I'm only asking you to think about the choices you're making, and the real reason why you're making those choices." 

Gingerly lifting my head from my lap, he tilted my face toward him, brushing his thumbs over the tears that had begun to cascade past my cheekbones.  For the first time, I realized how gentle JB's eyes truly were, warm like melted charcoal as his lips curled into a close-lipped smile. 

"Are you making those choices to fix the problem or to run away from it?"

"I-I don't know." 

"Maybe I should rephrase the question." I was once again reminded why JB's eyes reminded me of a cat's, their inky depths dancing with sly mischief. "Are you trying to close the distance between you and Mark by avoiding the party, or are you attempting to avoid the fact that it exists?" 

"Oh, shut up," I grumbled, slugging his shoulder with a half-hearted punch. "No need to be so right about everything."

"I have to put you kids in your place somehow, right?" Dropping an eyelid into a teasing wink, he rose to his feet, cradling his beloved film camera between his palms. "Seriously, though, you should really reconsider helping out with the party. You might not believe me, but I know that Mark would especially want you to be a part of his big day."

For the first time in weeks, the vise wrapped tight around my heart loosened just a little. "Thanks, JB. I hope you're right."

In his signature "chic and sexy" fashion, he stopped dead in his tracks, lifting a perfectly sculpted eyebrow before allowing the expression to melt into a fond smile. "Oh, trust me. I know I am."

 

 

 

 

 

Bracing the back of my head up against the coarse ridges marring the brick wall, I tucked my legs beneath me, suspending my calves high enough upon my boots to keep my bare skin from touching the gravel spanning along the alleyway. The tip of my tongue was wedged between my teeth as I hunched over my sketchbook, doodling finishing touches along the margins of my penciled rendition of the mural. Immersed in the aimless lines of lead crisscrossing to form intricate designs, I was unaware of the unexpected visitor until his quiet voice seeped through the haze of numbness.

"I thought I'd find you here."

Snap. The lead tip of the pencil poised between my fingertips bore deeper into the paper, leaving a ragged silver smear in its wake. Without sparing a glance toward the newcomer, I half-shoved the sketchbook into my duffel bag, unceremoniously dumping in the broken pencil along with it.

"What are you doing here?" 

"Am I not allowed to apologize?" 

"No need to apologize to me." 

"You and I both know that's false." As if to punctuate the sentiment, he tossed a paper bag emblazoned with the In-N-Out logo into my lap, finally snagging my—as well as my snarling stomach's—attention.

"Seriously, what are you doing here?" Almost begrudgingly, though much more pliant now that I was cradling the tangible warmth of fast food in my lap, I slid over to make room for the body settling in beside me.

"Is it a crime to worry about you?" He tucked a small pile of novels in the space between our thighs, embossed block letters peering up at me from the glossy cover on top: Of Mice and Men. "I was not aware I would stoop to your level of delinquency with a mere peace gesture." 

"Funny," I retorted, rewarding him with a half-hearted grimace. "Never thought I'd see Jinyoung Park stuffing his face with fast food and wearing skinny jeans." 

"The latter might be attributed to losing a bet with our beloved BamBam." Peeling back the paper encasing his burger with nimble fingertips, Jinyoung rolled his eyes, albeit fondly. "As for the former, you seem to be mistaken about my background. Regardless of your preconceived notions about who I am, I am not wealthy, nor am I completely out of touch with small pleasures like a cheeseburger and fries."

"Yeah, right," I mumbled, eyeing his clean-cut nails and shiny leather loafers before sinking my teeth into my burger. "If you don't consider yourself filthy rich, what do you consider me? Dirt poor? You aren't fooling anyone, Mr. Hotshot English Major."

Despite the oversized sweater Jinyoung was sporting, I caught the jolt of rigidity climbing the brunet's spine, his knuckles tinged white around the burger clenched between his fingers. If it weren't for the tell-tale glow of scarlet draped over his sizable ears, I might not have noticed the same flush creeping above the collar peeking out from beneath his sweater. 

When he spoke, his voice fell just below a whisper, dipped in ice that seemed unfamiliar coupled with the often fiery nature of his temper.

"This might come as a surprise to you, Wang, but I have to shoulder more burden than you can ever imagine in order to continue my education. I have lived on my own here in Los Angeles since I was old enough to sustain a decent lifestyle for myself. As essentially a child, I left behind the only family I ever knew in South Korea, making the effort to assimilate into a culture so very unlike my own in order to achieve my dreams as a writer and as an actor. In order to succeed and accomplish those dreams, I had to grapple with learning a language foreign to my native tongue and mastering that language. 

"From the first moment I stepped foot on American soil, there has not been a day in my life when I didn't have to work my fingers to the bone to survive, even now. None of the boys know about this, even Jaebeom, but I work over 20 hours in the library each week—and that does not include weekends, on which I work approximately the same amount of hours as a barista. These two jobs alone are barely keeping me afloat, for I mainly use them to pay off fees apart from tuition, which my scholarship doesn't cover, and rent for my apartment. 

"Based on the assumption that you consider me wealthy simply because of the way I dress, I can assure you that I work very hard to look 'put together' each day, not because I wish to outshine anyone but because I will never allow anyone to pity me for the life I chose." Stuffing the leftovers of his uneaten food into the bag on his lap, he rose to his feet, pinning me in place with a glare that blazed with an emotion I couldn't decipher. "You're so quick to claim that others reduce you to a false stereotype or a first impression tainted by prejudice, but you have yet to consider exactly how you do the same to others. You're nothing more than a hypocrite, Jackson Wang."

Steeped in a deja vu unlike any other I'd felt before, Jinyoung's final words rattled around my mind like the toll of a funeral bell, dislodging memories I had long buried as I was once again haunted by the phantom pain of the same familiar voice from before entwining around my heart.

"Why would you help me?" 

"Why wouldn't I help you?" 

"Because I'm a stranger, and a delinquent, at that. To your kind, I'm nothing but a gangster, right?"

"My kind? Last I checked, we're both human, Jackson. Or am I missing something?" Although his voice was low, it was punctuated with a biting edge. "You wouldn't be the first person to assume who I am because of my father and you definitely won't be the last, but there's a reason I haven't introduced myself as the preacher's son and I never will. I am not my father, and I don't appreciate being persecuted because of who my father is, either."

"Mark, I—"

"Look, I'm sorry that you're used to being let down and hurt, and I don't know how many times someone has made you feel that way. But is it that impossible to believe that I might just want to get to know you and be friends?" 

"Jinyoung, wait." 

In the midst of my reverie, I had reached out and caught his wrist, his pulse beating steady and strong beneath my fingertips as he whirled on his heel to face me.

"What do you want, Jackson?"

I want to apologize for being such a shitty excuse for a human being. 

Regardless of my mind's good intentions, my mouth was notorious for fucking me over, and this moment was no exception. "You should think about wearing jeans more often. They really suit you, not like I'm looking or anything—but you might want to leave out the sweater and collar combo next time. It's hot as hell out here." 

Great job, Wang. You're rambling.

As if these thoughts were inked across my forehead, Jinyoung scrunched up his nose in distaste, lifting an eyebrow at the fingers wrapped around his wrist in a manner startlingly reminiscent of JB. "Is that your idea of an apology?"

"No, of course not." Shrinking back against the wall, I scrunched my eyes shut, attempting to blink away the stone-cold glimmer of Mark's wounded glare until it dissipated altogether from my retinas. "You're right. I shouldn't have been so quick to judge you like that. I'm sorry for being such an asshole. It's been rough the past few weeks, and I guess I took it out on you, even though you don't deserve it."

"Leave it to you to exploit my biggest weakness. All one has to do to bring me to my knees is shed a single tear, yet here you are, whittling away at my black heart." Unlike the velveteen silk of Mark's creamy skin, Jinyoung's hands—which molded around the curve of my cheeks, his thumbs sweeping outward to catch the silent tears that had begun to spill over—were riddled with calluses. "I don't expect you to offer me your entire backstory simply because I offered mine. If anything, you already had me at 'You're right.'"

"You're right, my ass." 

Although the scoff was dripping in faux derision, the brunet seemed to pay no heed, rocking back on his denim-clad knees as he smothered one of his rare smiles behind a splayed palm, eyes ringed with whiskers. 

"So, let me get this straight." I peered over at my newfound companion, who was now seated along the opposite wall, roving an appreciative gaze over the mural as he nibbled at the crispy flesh of a French fry. "You lost a bet with BamBam, who had the opportunity to give you any punishment he could possibly think of...and he opted to make you wear skinny jeans? What kind of punishment is that?"

"If you haven't already noticed in your flattering appreciation of each painstaking detail I take whenever I get dressed in the morning," he drawled, aiming a cheeky wink in my direction, "I prefer not to go overboard when it comes to fashion. I like to keep it simple and classic, showing no skin and displaying no flashy accessories."

"Still pretty tame if you think about it," I pointed out, gesturing to the navy denim with the tapered tip of a fry. "Aren't BamBam's punishments supposed to be legendary?"

"Believe me, if it was up to BamBam, I would be suffering. He also tried to talk me into clipping fake piercings along both of my ears, Jaebeom-style, and slipping my feet into these god-awful furry contraptions he referred to as shoes." With an exaggerated shudder, the brunet caressed the lobes of his ears between his fingertips, resembling a petulant child in a way that melted the ice encased around my heart. "You can probably guess how that request turned out for him."

"It must have been a bet he was really sure you'd lose, if he was willing to put his life on the line."

"You don't even know the half of it."

"What was the bet, anyway?"

"It's stupid, quite juvenile if you ask me."

"Still, I'm curious to know what took down the big, bad Jinyoung." 

"You would definitely laugh in my face if you knew." 

"Try me."

"Since the beginning, BamBam and Yugyeom have been fixated on this idea, or I guess you could say absolutely convinced...that I would somehow...warm up to you." Half-bathed in shadows, it was impossible to decode the emotion etched into the Korean male's countenance as he fiddled with the bookmark wedged between the pages of the novel in his lap, though I assumed his cheekbones were probably flaming with embarrassment. "They deemed it impossible that anyone could hold a chip on their shoulder when it came to you...and I guess they proved themselves correct."

"Is that why you paid me a visit—I'm assuming after your shift—with In-N-Out as a peace offering?" Dumping the rest of my trash in the bag, I brandished the repurposed recycle bin like a bouquet of flowers, holding it out toward Jinyoung with a genuine smile. "You wanted to let me know that you don't hate my guts anymore?"

"Oh, shut up," he mumbled crossly, hurling a fry across the alleyway until the greasy potato finger hit a square bullseye in the middle of my sternum. "I just wanted to make sure you were okay." 

Wiggling my eyebrows at the sulking brunet, I plucked the fry from my chest, dipping it past my lips. "Why wouldn't I be?"

"I'm sure the boys have already roped you into the joint birthday party scheme they host every year, and I wanted you to know you aren't obligated to participate, regardless of any hard feelings that might result from your decision." The eyes that sought mine through the leaden gloom of the shadowed alleyway were razor-sharp, stormy with a wisdom beyond Jinyoung's years. "Unrequited love is one of the most excruciating pains we face in our lifetime, and while the others might not realize what's going on between you and Mark, I understand why you would want to refrain from cutting open old wounds."

"It sounds like you're speaking from personal experience." Squirming uncomfortably beneath the weight of the raven-haired male's gaze, I dug a can of spray paint from the duffel bag and stood to survey the incomplete mural. "Let me guess. I'm not the only one whose heart has been shattered by Mark Tuan."

"Quite the contrary. How could I have my heart shattered by someone who never owned it in the first place?" My fingertips, which had begun to trace a trembling path along the repainted crucifix encompassing the core of my most notorious art piece, froze mid-air.  "If there is one thing I have learned over the past month, it is that I do not love Mark Tuan. Or, at least, I do not love him as you do. I fell in love with the idea of him, rather than who he truly is." 

"Why are you telling me this?" I asked, digging the ragged edges of my nails into the crucifix that had started it all.

"Because I want you to fully understand how this petty 'rivalry' spawned between us, because it damn sure wasn't due to our shared feelings for Mark." Jinyoung's voice, underscored with an emotion I couldn't name, quivered as it drifted across the alleyway. "If I want to apologize for the awful way I treated you, and if I want to do it correctly, I have to make sure you understand the truth and nothing but the truth."

"Stop." Propping my forehead against the paint-soaked bricks, I inhaled a shuddering breath, relishing in the refreshing chill that seeped into my skin. "I don't want to hear it. I don't want to hear any of it."

"Maybe I want you to hear it. You need to understand that he was my first, as well as my only, true friend when I arrived in America. When I opted to fall mute around the other students who had taken a liking to poking fun at my accent, he didn't allow my silence to intimidate him and he patiently took me under his wing, helping me grow accustomed to American food, teaching me the structure of the English language, and offering me shelter until I managed to find a place of my own to call home. Unlike the other students, he valued silence just as deeply as he valued a good conversation, and it wasn't long before he learned to read my mind without my ever having to speak a word. He excelled in math and science while I excelled in English and history, and we would always complete our homework much faster when we combined our two minds rather than using our individual minds alone. Rather than wasting each other's time indulging in shallow gossip or drooling over the developing bodies of our female classmates, we sharpened each other's mind with philosophical discussions and existential debates.

"When I told you Mark was my soulmate, I wasn't lying. I have met very few individuals in my lifetime who complement who I am so seamlessly, but I was naive and foolish to mistake the unparalleled companionship Mark provided me as the budding of a once-in-a-lifetime romance, when that companionship has since been occupied in some shape or form by the likes of Jaebeom, Yugyeom, BamBam, and Youngjae. For years, I deluded myself into believing I was in love with Mark, when the truth is that I have yet to discover what love actually means. 

"It wasn't until I found myself drawn to someone else that I began to learn a few things about love. Unlike Mark, the one I want is volatile, his passion bright enough to attract me to him like a moth until it's too late for me to escape getting burned by the flames of his temper. Unlike Mark, he is unapologetically himself, challenging me to defy the conformity I've been a slave to all my life, even if it means alienating the only life I've ever known to walk the path of individuality on my own. Unlike Mark, he has a reckless disregard for the status quo, one that could turn my entire life upside down if only I let it. He keeps me on my toes when no one else ever could, puts me in my place when no one else would even dare. He is everything that Mark is not. If my relationship with Mark is comforting, my relationship with him is explosive, and I find myself craving the danger that is him. 

"Wanting him taught me that true love is never easy, and it was far too easy when I thought I loved Mark. He was the boy next door who any mother would be proud to call her own. He was cliché. He was safe. Even without those qualities, there remained the biggest red flag of them all—he was absolutely perfect. No one can actually be perfect, only the idea of someone, and it wasn't until I grew fond of someone else's imperfections that I realized the things that made it easy to fall in love with Mark were the same things that made it equally as impossible." 

With a savage sob, I flung the spray can caged in my clenched fist to the ground with a sharp squeal, banging said fist against the bricks looming before me as a fresh wave of pain surged through my veins. 

"Jackson. Look at me." With graceful agility, he wedged his slim physique into the gap between my body and the wall, cradling my tear-scorched cheeks between his palms. "None of this is easy for me to admit, and I've never been good at apologies, but I truly am sorry...for everything."

"Is that what you call an apology, rubbing it in my face that I was pathetic enough to fall for someone I never had a fucking chance with? What are you trying to prove, huh? You understand why I don't want to cut open old wounds, so you take the liberty to throw salt on them yourself? Go fuck yourself, Jinyoung." Twisting my fingers around his wrists, I attempted to wrench his hands free, but the merciless onslaught of emotion had sapped what little remained of my strength. "I told you I didn't want to hear it. It doesn't matter to me anymore whether you truly loved him or not. None of it fucking matters to me! Don't you see that? With you as a rival, at least I could tell myself he didn't choose me because he didn't want to hurt you. Now that I know that was never the case, it only becomes clearer that the reason Mark didn't want me is the same reason why no one else ever will—because I'll never be good enough."

"Not only are you a damn fool if you honestly believe you'll never be good enough to be loved," the brunet murmured through clenched teeth, eyes glazed over with exasperation, "but you are also incredibly blind if you can't see that you are already wanted."

"What makes you so sure about that?" I hissed, searching his misty irises for an answer I was too distraught to find. "Unless you can tell me what makes you so goddamn certain, I don't even want to hear it." 

"You wouldn't believe me even if I did tell you," he grumbled, dusting his thumb along my jaw as his eyes flickered between mine, "so I'd rather show you."

Sinking into the blissful comfort of darkness offered by my fluttering eyelids, I surrendered to the gentle caress of the mouth brushing across my own, a sluggish warmth crawling down my spine as I reciprocated the tender press of lips. 

In spite of the hand anchored along the curve of my waist, pulling the length of my torso against Jinyoung's, the kiss remained as chaste as the first shared between myself and the blond who had brought us together—so recollective, in fact, that the lips dancing over mine and the hands that cradled my body, holding together the pieces that had long forgotten how to fit together, dissolved into ones I recognized. Pathetically clinging to the mirage I had conjured before me, I allowed his patient mouth to chase away the pain carved into the cracks of my stone heart, tangling my hands into the onyx locks my mind had deliriously painted silver.

Beneath the palm I had lifted to cup his jaw, I felt a quiet laugh rumbling deep in his throat, a wholly unfamiliar laugh that ripped me free from the intricate fantasy I had been clinging to like a lifeline until the traitorous memories once stifled beneath the ginger dance of our lips swarmed to the forefront of my mind once more.

Look what you've done. Are you satisfied now? Less than a month after he ripped your heart from your chest and left behind nothing more than the empty promises he made that night, you turn around and try to break someone else's. No wonder you meant nothing to him.

Breaking free from the kiss, I staggered backward, brushing my fingertips across the tender flesh of my lips, which tingled as if burned by the mere proximity of Jinyoung's skin. "W-What are we doing?" 

"I'm showing you exactly why it pisses me off that you think no one wants you," he whispered, eyes blown wide as he gazed down at me, "and if I didn't know any better, I would swear that you seemed to be enjoying it."

"I-I don't underst—"

"The one who taught me the true meaning of love, the one I want to be with, is you—if you hadn't already surmised from the less-than-subtle hints I was dropping earlier." 

"Jinyoung, I—"

"I understand that my confession feels like it emerged from out of the blue, but I feel like you deserve to know the way I truly feel about you, Jackson. Regardless of whether Mark returns your feelings or not, just know that you can never truly be unwanted when you have me and the boys by your side." Tugging me into a warm embrace, he lifted a hand to cradle the back of my head, tucking his face into my hair as he held me against his chest. "I'm willing to wait if you need time to mend your heart before you give me your answer. Just don't keep me waiting too long, or I might just have to kill you."  

"Please don't ask me to do this. I-I don't know what you want me to say, but we...can't do this to him, even when he's made it clear that he couldn't care less. No matter how good it feels to forget about him for just a second, it'll never feel right, because I don't think I'll ever love anyone the way I love him." Resting my forehead against his, I curled our fingertips together, attempting to strangle the tremor laced through my bittersweet confession into submission. "I'm sorry, Jinyoung."

"Why are you telling me you're sorry when you have absolutely nothing to apologize for? I actually feel rather relieved, since I have long learned that I am not fit to be a rival for anyone, and I know myself well enough to know I would've always lived in fear that I was nothing more than a second choice." Setting my heart at ease with a smile startlingly similar to my mother's, he dipped forward to press a feather-light kiss against my forehead, ruffling my hair in the process. "Thank you, Jackson, for being kind enough to give me the truth rather than the answer you thought I wanted to hear. Mark is one lucky guy, and I hope more than anything that he'll realize that sooner rather than later."

"If hoping was all it took to make true love work, it would be too easy, wouldn't it?"

"Touché, but perhaps love shouldn't be this hard, either."

Trust me, I've been considering that possibility, too. 

Like clockwork, I allowed my gaze to scale the apartment building opposite the church as it did every afternoon, lingering upon the window that concealed the sanctuary of the boy I loved. To my surprise, the curtains that were often drawn tight to shroud the room's contents were only partially drawn that afternoon, the swathes of dark fabric haphazard as if flung together in a hurry—or as if someone had been spying on us just a few moments before.