“Well, fuck,” Donghyuck says. He rubs his palms together, blowing on them in short puffs that envelope his hands in white haze.
“Don’t say that,” Mark mumbles, pacing back and forth. His arms are crossed tightly across his front, and his newly bleached hair flickers in the light of the lamp post above, the perm made up of tiny coils of fire. “I’m trying to think.”
“Fuckfuckfuckfuck,” Donghyuck taunts, his volume increasing on every repeat of the word until Mark stops in his tracks, turns to Donghyuck with his eyebrows pinched, and snaps at him.
The effect is immediate: Donghyuck shrinks into his too-big parka, shifts his gaze to the empty street in front of them, his colourless mouth wobbling dramatically.
Mark steps forward, a hand on the nape of his neck. His shoe crunches in the snow. “Sorry, Donghyuck,” Mark says, and the effect is immediate: Donghyuck beams at him (Mark's breath hitches), a sneeze interrupts his chest puffing up, spine straightening, and he curls forward once again, rubbing the red tip of his nose (there's a pool of warmth trickling down to Mark's toes), and when Mark is close enough, Donghyuck grabs the lapels of his coat (and Mark's eyes glance down).
“Let's find a bus stop,” Donghyuck suggests, shaking Mark a little. “It'll be an adventure. We haven't caught a bus in forever.”
“Since we were trainees,” Mark affirms quietly, prying Donghyuck's fists off his coat. But then he can't let go. So they stand there on a pavement in the middle of nowhere, Mark holding Donghyuck's wrists, making eye contact three times out of ten, and it's almost almost—
Donghyuck pulls his arms away.
Mark says, “But I didn't bring my wallet. Did you?”
Donghyuck shoves his hands deep into his pockets, and the right one emerges with a single coin. “Shit,” he sighs.
Mark winces. “We'll figure something out.”
It started like this: Mark and Donghyuck snuck out to see the snow. They'd wandered and zigzagged and drifted away until they were in an unknown neighbourhood, Mark's phone buried in a pile of fresh snow, Donghyuck's phone cosied up to its charger in their dorm, and a lonely cold sinking into their bones the more they walked, the less they spoke.
It ends like this: they find a bus stop. Donghyuck sits, Mark stands, and they wait for a bus that will take them back home. The driver is hesitant to let them freeload, barely budges under the borderline aegyo Donghyuck directs at him, but Mark gives him an apologetic smile, already tugging Donghyuck back, and the driver cocks his head at the dimmed inside of the bus.
“Ohhhh, thank you, ahjussi,” Donghyuck exclaims, bounding down the strip between the seats to the very back row. The flaps of his hat slap against his cheeks. Mark bows at the driver, and then follows after Donghyuck. “Saved you the window seat,” Donghyuck whispers, patting the leather next to him. He shoves Mark down as he tries to shuffle past him.
“Thanks, dude,” Mark says, with a roll of his eyes. Outside, the clouds have burst open with snowflakes again. He watches them fall and he thinks of home.
“I think I charmed him pretty well,” Donghyuck says, his elbow leaning on Mark's shoulder and his palm curved around his face.
Mark leans his head against the window, tracing shapes into the condensation; a square, a circle, a diamond, a heart. “Well done. Your first ever victim.”
“Don't be a dick,” Donghyuck laughs, swatting the side of Mark's head.
“Don't call me that,” says Mark.
Donghyuck leans in closer, trembling in his coat as he grins. “Get that stick out of your ass first, hyung.”
“Donghyuck,” Mark says, erasing his doodles on the window with his sleeve. Donghyuck hums, biting his lip. “Give me your coin.”
The coin goes in a jar. The jar goes on the kitchen counter. The words NCT’S SWEAR JAR are scrawled across the side in English and Hangul.
“What the hell is that,” is Donghyuck’s response when he meanders into the kitchen for breakfast.
Mark, sitting next to the sink, his cheeks bloated with leftover fried rice, watches Donghyuck open the fridge and inspect its contents. Donghyuck rubs the soft flesh of his belly as he does so. His jaw recedes with the force of his yawn. Mark looks away, swallows his mouthful of rice. “You have to put in cash every time you cuss,” he explains, “In fact, you can put some in now.”
Donghyuck doesn’t reply right away. He chugs down a mug of water because all the glasses are in the sink, and vacantly looks into the white abyss of the city outside. Goosebumps flare up across his bare, scrawny chest. “Okay,” Donghyuck says, “My immediate response was going to be ‘fuck no’, but I figured that meant I should humour you and your,” he picks up the jar, squinting at the permanent marker and rattling the coin inside, “Seu-we-eo-ja?”
Within the first few weeks, the swear jar ends up with 30 000 won from Donghyuck alone: he calls Taemin sunbaenim a hot motherfucker under his breath, sings along to BBHMM in the dressing room, and uses goddamn like it’s the only adjective he’ll ever need.
A handful of the coins were taken from Mark’s wallet—when Mark incredulously asks Donghyuck why, Donghyuck whispers, “Uh, and that’s a long ass ride,” and floats out of the kitchen.
Taeil is runner up. He makes up thirty per cent of what’s in the jar, dropping a small bundle of 1000 won notes into it every night with a pat on Mark’s shoulder. “It’s good to save up, Mark,” he’ll say like a broken record, and then he’ll turn to Taeyong rolling his eyes at them from his perch on the kitchen counter, and say, “Suck a dick, pretty boy.”
At a quarter full, Donghyuck trips on his way to bed. Mark, lying flat on his mattress and trying to calm his mind enough to fall asleep, hears Donghyuck groan, “Fuck me,” in English, and his eyes fly open.
“Where did you learn that,” Mark says, slowly.
Youngho hyung, he expects Donghyuck to say.
“Jaehyun hyung,” Donghyuck mumbles into the carpet.
“Duuuuuuuuuuuuude,” Mark exhales.
“Duuuuuuuuuuuuude,” Donghyuck parrots sleepily.
At half full, Mark passes by Donghyuck playing a videogame with Yuta in the living room. “Son of a biiiiiiiiiiiiiii—gun,” he bellows at the television screen, shooting Mark a thumbs up. Mark hides the amused slant of his mouth underneath the towel he’d been using to dry his hair.
At three quarters full, Donghyuck crawls into Mark’s bed. “It’s cold,” he whines, pressing his nose up against Mark’s and wriggling one of his legs in between Mark’s two. Unfortunately, Mark doesn’t shrink away from the contact immediately, and two minutes later, when Donghyuck’s minty breath is all he can taste, it’s too late.
“What are you doing, Donghyuck?” he asks, cracking an eye open. Donghyuck is looking right at him.
“For never was there a bastard like Mark Lee,” Donghyuck mutters, in this grandiose tone that upsets whatever—whatever it was that could’ve happened. Mark rolls onto his other side, a grumbly noise spilling from his throat. Donghyuck pokes into his ribs and sing-songs, “Cute boooooy.”
At almost full, there’s a week until Mark and the younger kids come back with their new song. There’s a week until they come back, and Mark is sitting on the upper stairwell of the SM building—the one leading up to the roof—with a lump in his throat.
His balled up fists pummel against his thighs in a gentle, repetitive motion, his face is pinched and shut off, and no matter how many times his mind repeats don’tcrydon’tcrydon’tcryyoudon’tEVERcry, his eyes sting with tears. What brought Mark here is silly—Donghyuck had left his bed after a week of them clinging to each other for warmth, and he hadn’t been able to sleep at all last night. His core, everything that was holding him together, felt weakened. So, he’d screwed up today’s dance practice too many times to count, and Jisung squeezed his arm and told him it was okay, but it wasn’t—he’s tired, and the winter makes him nostalgic, and he feels so, so, too young for any of this.
“Mark, Mark, Mark hyung,” Donghyuck’s voice echoes into the stairwell from below. Mark listens to him stomp up the stairs, and tries to stay quiet, but a wayward sniffle gives him away. Donghyuck peers around the bannister, his resultant grin at finding Mark sliding off his face in such a comical manner that it makes Mark chuckle a little. “There you are,” Donghyuck says faintly.
“Hi,” Mark says, wiping his nose with his sleeve. Donghyuck climbs up the stairs, settling down next to Mark, and imitating the way his knees are folded against his body. The only difference is that where Mark’s arms are tightly wound around his legs, Donghyuck’s are draped across Mark’s shoulders, his thumb kneading the divot of a collarbone.
“You okay?” Donghyuck prompts.
“I’m okay,” Mark says, and it comes out in a short, hiccupy gasp.
“It’s alright if you’re not,” Donghyuck says. His arm slides down Mark’s spine, and he brings it around to prise Mark’s hands away from his body, slotting their fingers together. “Take a deeeeeeep breath. Listen, listen, focus, put aside all other thoughts.”
“This isn’t really helping,” Mark says. A smile twinges his mouth. Donghyuck brings their hands up and down, exaggeratingly inhaling and exhaling, and his bowl cut bounces with the motion, and—
“You know what’ll help?” Donghyuck tries. Their knees knock against each other. “Repeat after me. Life. Is. Fucked. Up.”
“Life. Issssss,” Donghyuck persists, louder now, “F-u-c-k-e-d. Up!”
“Keep it down,” Mark panics, smacking a palm over Donghyuck’s mouth.
“Say it,” Donghyuck’s muffled voice says.
“Fine,” Mark sighs, tugging his hand away before Donghyuck can lick it. “It’s a little bit fucked up.”
“Now we can go home and you can put a coin in the jar,” Donghyuck says, grinning, “And then you can meet me in your bed, ‘cause this city is fucking freezing.”
It’s snowing again, the morning after an almost almost confession that went: “I,” Donghyuck made a beep sound that reverberated into Mark’s throat, “you.”
“You beep me?” Mark sputtered, bunching his fist around the hem of Donghyuck’s pyjama shirt.
Donghyuck nodded. “I beeping beep you.”
“Beeping beep you too,” Mark had muttered with a woeful lack of conviction, but a blush on his face that told the truth. “Love isn’t a curse word, Donghyuck.”
“Who said I meant love?” Donghyuck teased, pressing his lips against the shell of Mark’s ear.
But he did:
Donghyuck potters into the kitchen, and says it again, candidly and without the censor. Mark chokes on a mouthful of fried rice. Donghyuck has a coat on but his hair’s unkempt from a good night’s sleep, a natural wave here and there, and he gazes out of the window without another word. Until, “Mark hyung, do you want to see the snow?”
“We’re going to get lost again,” says Mark.
Donghyuck shakes his head, picking up the swear jar from the counter. “The difference is this time you can treat me to a bus fare,” he says. He twists open the cap, and holds the jar out to Mark. “Will you do the honours?”