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i.

 

it’s a saturday night in february when donghyuck swings open the door to the restaurant. ten is at the reception desk, his face twisted in concentration as he writes something down. he looks up and scowls when the tiny bell on the door rings; donghyuck’s not sure why ten hates him so much, but it’s fun to mess with him anyway.  

when donghyuck grins cheekily, ten threatens to throw something at him, but donghyuck just winks and passes him to go to the seating area, where jaemin and jeno and renjun are already waiting for him. ten calls the four of them together the troublesome foursome. taeyong, donghyuck’s older brother who works at the ice cream shop on somerset street, just calls them brats.

mark is setting a table when he hears donghyuck’s laugh—a sound he knows all too well—bounce its way around the restaurant. ever since mark got his job here, donghyuck and jaemin and jeno and renjun have made it a habit to swing by every saturday night. the four of them are enthusiastic in a way that has mark’s head spinning and leaves neighbors filing noise complaints whenever they hang out together.

mark’s job is tiring at best, but it’s good pay and good discounts on good food, so he doesn’t complain. yukhei, who’s been working at the restaurant for two years now, helped mark get hired a few months back. it’s a favor that mark hasn’t paid back yet.

yukhei is the type of boy that your eyes would find in a crowded room, tall and handsome and charismatic. mark and yukhei have been friends for years, since yukhei moved to their tiny seaside town in the seventh grade. yukhei was twelve and awkward and mark was twelve and awkward and they shared every class together that year. perfect fit.

the thing about yukhei is that he gives and gives and gives and doesn’t ask for anything in return. a lot of good people pass through their tiny seaside town every year, but yukhei’s the only one that’s stayed.

and now, yukhei finds mark straightening out his collar using the back of a spoon as a mirror and taps his arm to get his attention. “i’ll take donghyuck’s table today if you want,” yukhei offers.

the thing about yukhei is that mark likes him. probably more than he should.

“no, it’s okay,” mark replies. yukhei’s bright eyes dim a little bit and his mouth twists into a pout, but he steps aside to let mark go past him and across the restaurant to where the troublesome foursome are seated.

“hey, mark,” renjun greets amicably when mark stops in front of their table. renjun’s arm is wrapped around jaemin’s neck in a seemingly painful chokehold and mark feels vaguely satisfied until jaemin wriggles free and looks up, giving mark his trademark smirk.

“hey, mark,” jaemin parrots and renjun shoves him hard into the wall of the booth, while jeno and donghyuck collapse into laughter from the other side of the table.

mark already feels a headache forming in the back of his skull. “you gonna order?” he asks, as if he doesn’t already know what they’re going to get, but jaemin rattles off their order in one go anyway.

“so, mark,” donghyuck starts and it’s in such a way that mark knows it means that donghyuck’s about to be even more frustrating than usual. this is the part where he would usually tell donghyuck to fuck himself and then go back to work, but tonight, he’s feeling generous.

“go on,” mark says. “it’s not like you don’t joke about this every single time you’re in here when we’re working together.” donghyuck just shrugs.

“we’re just looking out for you, mark,” renjun tells him. “remember when we got smashed at jaehyun’s house two weeks ago, and you cried in my lap for a half an hour about how you couldn’t die of alcohol poisoning before getting to go on a date with yukhei wong?”

“i was drunk ,” mark hisses. out of the corner of his eye, he sees one of his coworkers eyeing him a bit worriedly, but mark can’t let the troublesome foursome win today. (he wonders when ten’s nickname had caught on. it hasn’t, donghyuck would tell him. it’s just you.)

“you want me to list of the hundreds of times you’ve whined about your crush on him when you were one hundred percent sober?” jeno says and mark flinches.

“stop distracting me,” he complains. “unlike you jobless losers, i actually have something to do.”

“you mean someone to do,” donghyuck comments and mark makes an indignant noise when renjun snorts and jaemin dissolves into giggles. as mark walks away, he gets the distinct feeling that he’s lost.

the thing about yukhei is that he isn’t exactly what you’d call subtle. mark knows yukhei likes him more than friends, but it’s not as easy as donghyuck thinks it is. yukhei might be looking for a relationship, but mark really isn’t. he doesn’t have enough time for eight hours of sleep a night, much less a boyfriend.

“you’re a fucking wimp,” donghyuck tells him when it’s ten thirty pm and it’s just the two of them sitting on the curb outside donghyuck’s house, eating ice cream that taeyong had brought them from the shop.

“i know,” mark replies. he’s kind of miserable right now, but donghyuck, as annoying he might be, somehow always manages to make him feel better.

“the thing is,” donghyuck continues, “i don’t get how you can surf a massive wave without breaking a sweat but you can’t tell a loser nineteen year old that you like him.”

“he’s not a loser,” mark replies instantly.

donghyuck grins and takes a bite of pineapple and mango ice cream before replying. “yeah, he is.” donghyuck always talks like everything he says is true, even though most of it is absolute bullshit. “but it’s okay, you are too.”

this time, though, he’s kind of right.

mark looks down at the asphalt. he should be going home soon—he has homework to do in the morning—but he’ll probably end up spending the night at donghyuck’s house. he’s okay with that.

donghyuck sighs a sigh that makes him seem thirty seven instead of seventeen. “don’t worry too much about it, man. no use crying over spilt milk,” he replies, and then the scoop of pineapple-mango ice cream on donghyuck’s tiny plastic spoon finally melts off and falls on the ground.

“or spilled ice cream,” he revises, and mark finds himself snickering until donghyuck shoves him and he tumbles onto the pavement. they wrestle on the sidewalk like children until taeyong comes outside to yell at them and drags them inside to clean up their scrapes and bruises.

if you asked him, mark would tell you that he hates donghyuck lee. but if you watch the waves crashing against the shoreline and listen to the laughter echoing down the street, it’s easy to think otherwise.

 

ii.



a cliché, maybe, but you can’t live in a town like theirs without knowing almost everyone. mark can recognize the bus driver who takes him to university by name, birthday, and favorite food and the grandma who owns the convenience store that he goes to every friday evening doesn’t let him leave the store unless he buys at least three bananas along with his one dollar cup ramen.

the coffee shop barista knows his order by heart—latte, caramel flavoring, extra shot of espresso—and still owes him fifteen dollars for a bet on whether or not his high school biology teacher and jeno lee’s aunt who works at the hair salon would start dating (they did).

so yeah, sometimes it’s nice, being in a tiny place like this, but it also means that there’s not that many options for dating. there’s a high chance that your boyfriend is your friend’s cousin and also that he knows your parents on a first name basis before you guys even get to first base.

mark’s mom is yukhei’s doctor when he breaks his leg in freshman year and has to go to the emergency room. she makes mark deliver freshly baked cookies to yukhei’s house when he’s discharged and yukhei’s mom invites him inside for dinner. later that night, yukhei, confined to the couch for an indefinite amount of time, finds a trashy teen movie playing on the television and they sit shoulder to shoulder making fun of it while eating mark’s mother’s cookies straight out of the container.

mark comes home that night with a tingling left arm and a sexuality crisis. when mark calls an emergency meeting at their elementary school playground, donghyuck laughs so hard that mark kicks him off of the swings and donghyuck chases him all the way back home.

so, to put it simply, freshman year mark lee is a loser. half of his friends are younger than him and the other half have already graduated, so mark only has about one real friend, and that’s jaehyun jung.

there isn’t much to say about jaehyun besides the fact that he’s the token heterosexual of their friend group (or so he says) and that he’s usually the one providing the alcohol. a harbinger of bad decisions, according to a one doyoung kim.

mark likes doyoung, but he’s a bit out of mark’s league, older and smarter and more mature. he’s senior year class president and tutors mark in algebra every wednesday afternoon and everyone knows that he’s off to bigger and brighter places, so mark hesitates to call them friends.

but doyoung is friends with jaehyun, albeit grudgingly, so there’s nothing stopping the former from sitting down at their lunch table one day. jaehyun’s face immediately splits into a smile and then he leans over to steal a piece of fruit off of mark’s lunch tray while he’s distracted.

“so, mark,” doyoung starts, all calm and casual, and before mark can even properly register that doyoung is speaking to him, the bomb drops. “i heard that you rap.”

mark promptly chokes on his cheese pizza. “ what?” he asks and jaehyun snorts audibly.

it’s not like mark had tried to keep his tiny passion a secret, but hearing it out loud makes him cringe. “uh, yeah,” mark says lamely, avoiding doyoung’s eye contact by looking down at the table. “i kind of rap.”

“actually, i’ve heard some of the stuff on your soundcloud,” doyoung continues, somehow unaware to mark withering away in front of him, and jaehyun looks way too amused for any of this to feel comfortable. “you’re pretty good,” doyoung compliments. “anyway, the reason i’m asking is because i want the song i’m writing for my composition class to have rap parts, but i can’t write rap lyrics for shit.”

that makes mark look up. “i’m sure you could,” mark replies and doyoung gives him a wry smile.

“believe me, i’ve tried.” he says. “i’d appreciate your help, if you’re willing.”

this is kind of the weirdest thing to happen to him all year but it’s not like he has something better to do, and who is mark to deny doyoung kim? “okay,” mark accepts and doyoung grins brightly. it’s kind of satisfying to see.

“thanks a lot, man.” doyoung says, and then his eyes widen like he’s remembered something. “oh, and i asked yukhei to help me out too so you two could work together on it, right?”

so, it takes mark a few extra seconds to process that information.

everyone knows that yukhei wong raps; he’s the farthest thing from lowkey that you could be, but mark still feels his stomach somersault at the thought of him. “right,” he replies and makes the mistake of looking down the table, where yukhei is talking to kun and jungwoo in their secret language that no one else seems to understand. mark catches yukhei’s eyes and yukhei smiles beatifically at him. a countdown starts in mark’s head: 3, 2, 1—

“hey, yukhei!” jaehyun calls. “come down here for a second!”

and mark panics. “i-i have to go,” he stutters quickly, and before doyoung can question him and jaehyun can give him one of his knowing looks, he grabs his backpack and his lunch tray and flees the cafeteria.

donghyuck always makes fun of mark for running from his problems, something that mark always denies, but he’s starting to realize that donghyuck is right a lot more than mark thinks he is.

during last period that day, doyoung texts mark to tell him to go to the music room after school. when mark gets there, yukhei is already in the room, so he hesitates for a few minutes before working up the courage to swing open the door.

“hi, mark!” yukhei greets in his usual over excited tone. mark wonders how high school has yet to suck the soul out of yukhei.

and, to be quite honest, it never does. even junior year, the source of mark’s darkest days, doesn’t manage to drag yukhei down. he’s kind of like sunshine, but mark would rather die than be caught saying all that aloud.

“hey,” mark replies stupidly.

over the course of that afternoon, mark learns that he and yukhei work surprisingly well together; mark knows the words that yukhei doesn’t and the rap comes together in bits and pieces. doyoung leaves after a half an hour for a student council meeting but yukhei’s smile makes mark lose track of time and they stay until they’ve finished.

“it’s kind of late,” yukhei points out, after mark comes back from being scolded by his mom over phone call and has managed to convince her he’d be home within an hour. “do you wanna go get food at the burger place down the road?” yukhei offers, and mark says yes , of course he does.

they order a burger and fries apiece before realizing that they’re short on cash, so they get a medium sized soda and grab two straws to share it. yukhei chats up the cashier and snags them a student discount, but mark still ends up broke.

it's worth it, though. when yukhei grins and throws him a wink once they split up to walk their separate ways home, it’s worth it.

doyoung calls him later that night to check up on what they’ve done. mark tries to be as vague as possible; jaemin’s told him before that when he talks about yukhei, his voice sounds different, softer, but mark would rather die than acknowledge it. doyoung is far from stupid, though, so he figures it out eventually.

it takes him a while for mark to admit to himself that he’s had a crush on yukhei wong since the seventh grade, but when he does, the first person he tells is doyoung. doyoung’s response is a laugh and a “took you long enough” so mark shuts up from then on.

that night, after mark’s finished his work and his mom is fast asleep across the hall, he pulls out a notebook to write a song. it’s going to be a love song, he decides, despite the fact that he’s never been in love.

but instead of poetry, instead of melody, all that ends up on the page is yukhei’s name in scrawling script, filling up the spaces between every line.

at midnight, he tears the page out, crumples it up, and throws it in the trash, so that when he wakes up, he barely remembers it at all. he’s always been good at running away from his problems.

 

iii.



the summer after sophomore year, mark and donghyuck get into a fight. it’s the first actual fight they’ve ever had, and like all things do with hot headed teenagers, it gets out of control fast. that summer, their friend group splits down the middle—jaemin and renjun and jeno spend more time with donghyuck, chenle and jisung don’t spend much time with either of them, and mark gets the very distinct feeling that this entire thing is his own fault.

“it’s not,” yukhei tells him when they’re at the skatepark in early july, two weeks after said fight began. mark doesn’t know how to skateboard very well but yukhei does, and mark is fairly content watching him ride down the half-pipe and do tricks that mark could probably only do in his dreams. also, mark knows that donghyuck prefers street skating and there’s little chance he’d ever be down here.

for most of that summer, mark feels like yukhei might think that mark’s using him as a replacement for donghyuck. he’s too scared to tell yukhei that he’s not because he doesn’t know if that’s true.

(it’s not. the thing is, yukhei makes him feel an entirely different way than donghyuck makes him feel. not better or worse, just different.)

the last time mark had gone more than a week without talking to donghyuck was when mark was four and a half years old and had come down with a nasty fever that landed him in the hospital. even then, donghyuck had banged on the door of his room with his tiny little fists until he’d been allowed to visit mark early. mark felt so touched that he cried.

now, it’s been thirteen days and three hours since he’s talked to donghyuck, and mark feels like crying again.

“hey, mark, i’m serious,” yukhei says insistently. he’s stopped skating and he leans his board against the bench before sitting down next to mark. “it’s not your fault. donghyuck’s a stubborn kid and, well, you kinda are too.”

“we’re best friends,” mark replies miserably.

“no friendship is sunshine and rainbows, dude, stop beating yourself up,” yukhei rolls his eyes, which makes mark feel a bit stupid, but he doesn’t say anything. “what even happened between you two?”

“honestly, i don’t even really know,” mark says. “neither of us were having great days...i said something i shouldn’t have and then just...i don’t know. things just happened.”

(it’s a blistering hot sunday afternoon when tempers bubble like lava and donghyuck is complaining about something that mark frankly couldn’t give a shit about. he has a five page final essay due tomorrow that he hasn’t had time to start yet and his mom’s been so busy that she hasn’t been home in a day and a half and mark is too tired to watch donghyuck put his dirty sneakers on mark’s bedsheets and talk his head off.

“shut the fuck up, hyuck, you’re so annoying,” mark spits out and he’s said the same words hundreds of times in between hundreds of jokes but, this time, they both know he’s being serious. he pretends he doesn’t care when donghyuck visibly flinches and pulls back.

but donghyuck’s never been one to back down from a challenge, so he doesn’t hesitate in his reply. “well, you’re a self obsessed workaholic, but you don’t see me saying it to your face.”

mark scoffs. “at least that’s better than being a—” he starts, but cuts himself off.

“what?” donghyuck taunts. “say it. i’ll punch your lights out regardless, so go ahead.”

“get out of my fucking house, donghyuck,” mark says, trying to keep his voice calm, even though it’s trembling.

“gladly,” donghyuck replies, and makes sure to rub the dirt off of his shoes and onto mark’s bed before swinging his backpack over his shoulder and storming out.)

“need a distraction?” yukhei asks and mark shrugs. before he can reply though, yukhei grabs his hand and pulls him to his feet. “come on, i’m gonna teach you how to skate.”

mark splutters. “are you serious?”

yukhei grins. “yeah, man, if my clumsy ass can do it, you can too.”

and so, he guides mark through the basics. he makes stupid jokes and does stupid things to get mark to laugh, he cheers mark on when he manages to skate on his own. when mark scrapes up his hands on a particularly rough fall, yukhei pours out his water bottle onto the injury and pulls out band-aids from his back pocket.

“came prepared,” he says, and it’s not that funny, but mark laughs anyway.  

they decide to call it quits then, and mark realizes that yukhei really is a good distraction. he’s witty and entertaining and he draws attention like a magnet. maybe that’s why mark likes him so much.

“do you wanna go get something to eat?” mark asks. “i can pay.”

“sure!” yukhei agrees. “but you really don’t have to.”

“it’s a thank you,” mark says and yukhei snorts.

“for what?” he asks. “i didn’t do anything.”

but you did, mark thinks, but explaining it to yukhei would reveal too much of something he didn’t really want to talk about, so he keeps his mouth shut. mark ends up buying them ice cream from the shop on somerset street. yukhei gets mint chocolate chip and mark, on a whim, chooses pineapple-mango. they sit outside under one of the tables with red and white striped umbrellas over them, which don’t do much to block out the sun anyway.

“donghyuck likes this flavor,” mark says, frowning a little and scooping up a chunk of ice cream. he thinks he hears yukhei sigh a little bit.

“you don’t have to torture yourself, you know. he misses you too,” yukhei states.

“i shouldn’t have said that to him,” mark says, a bit mournfully. “we’re best friends.”

“exactly,” yukhei replies. it doesn’t make sense but at the same time, yeah, it does.

mark sighs, and like he does so well, changes the topic. “who’s your best friend, yukhei?”

yukhei shrugs. “i don’t have one, i think. it would be nice, but i kinda have the same level of friendship with basically everyone, you get me?”

mark doesn’t. donghyuck has always, unequivocally, been the most important person in his life. but he thinks he could still make room for more.

“i’ll be your best friend,” mark says quickly and yukhei looks up, cracks one of his bright and beautiful smiles. mark’s heart does a thing in his chest.

“maybe that’s not such a good idea, i don't think donghyuck likes me much,” yukhei points out but he’s still grinning, and mark smiles back.

“since when have you been one for good ideas?” mark asks jokingly and yukhei laughs in the way that makes mark feel like he’s in love.

and, hell, maybe he is.  

by the time him and yukhei part ways, it’s closer to sunset and mark’s feet drag him to the end of donghyuck’s street not of his own will. the words he’s planning to say are running through his head, but he’s interrupted by donghyuck’s house’s door bursting open and donghyuck flying out a thousand miles an hour, screeching something incomprehensible at taeyong. mark hears taeyong yell back at an equal volume and donghyuck growls in frustration and slams the door.

donghyuck is turning onto the sidewalk when mark catches up to him, reaching out for his hand. donghyuck flinches away from the touch, but turns around to face mark anyway. his face is flaming the way it does when he’s upset and mark feels that ever-familiar pang of guilt stab into him.

“mark,” donghyuck greets exasperatedly. “what the fuck are you doing here?”

and for someone who took thirteen days and eight hours to summon up the courage to confront his best friend, the apology comes desperately easy.

“i’m sorry,” mark says. “i’m sorry that i called you annoying, you’re not—well, you are but in a good way. in a friend way. i was having a shitty day and it was totally out of line and i’m sorry that it took me so long to say sorry.” at this point, donghyuck’s looking at him weird but mark just sucks in a breath and keeps going. “you don’t even have to forgive me, like, i’d understand if you just, i don’t know, did i mention i was sorry? because i really am—”

“mark, oh my god, shut the fuck up,” donghyuck says, and pulls him into a bone crushing hug.

all of the air in mark’s lungs is knocked out of him. “you’re the dumbest person ever,” donghyuck tells him fiercely and mark closes his arms around donghyuck’s torso and squeezes just as hard back.

“do you forgive me?” mark asks when he’s recovered his breath.

“i mean, you’re right,” donghyuck says. “i am kind of annoying.”

mark pulls back and smacks donghyuck on the shoulder. “shut up, you’re not,” he scolds. “i crossed a line by saying that and i’m sorry.”

“it’s okay,” donghyuck replies. “seriously. i shouldn’t have said what i said either. you’re probably the most selfless person i know.”

mark smiles to himself. “you were pretty right about the workaholic part, though,” he acknowledges.

“yeah, well, no one’s perfect,” donghyuck replies. when he looks down, he catches a glimpse of mark’s bandaged hand and brings it up to look at it closer. “what happened?” he asks.

mark shrugs. “i was learning how to skateboard.”

donghyuck’s jaw drops. “you? skating? i never thought i’d see the day. who were you with?”

the way mark flushes is telling enough. “uh…” he starts and trails off, avoiding donghyuck’s eyes.

donghyuck grins like the cheshire cat. “yukhei goes down to the skatepark sometimes, doesn’t he?” mark groans. “mark, you’re useless. just ask him out already.”

“we’re just friends, hyuck,” mark sighs.

“right.” donghyuck rolls his eyes. “just friends. he’s so in love with you, he’d probably kiss every single one of those band-aids if you asked him to.”

“stop,” mark whines, trying to hide his embarrassment. “you’re so gross . plus, that’s not true at all.”

donghyuck snorts. “alright, but when you guys start dating, don’t get mad if i say i told you so.”

if we start dating,” mark corrects, and donghyuck gives him a long suffering look in return.

“yeah, sure,” donghyuck replies. “if.”



iv.



mark’s mother disappears exactly a month before mark is set to enter his junior year. he’s considered many ifs in his life, but this was never one of them.

they don’t find her, not really. the cops track her car down to the halfway point of the interstate, parked on the side of the road with no gas in the tank and no sign of a body. (they never do find her. mark relives their last conversation a hundred times in his head, looking for a sign, or some kind of reason for why she might have left him, but he comes up blank every time.)

and, well, there’s nothing much more to say about that.

mark moves in with his cousin, johnny, on the other side of town. he’s closer to yukhei now, and across the road from jisung, so it’s not as bad as it could have been. plus, johnny’s always been pretty cool.

donghyuck complains often about how far he has to bike to hang out with mark but mark knows for a fact that donghyuck has half a puppy crush on johnny so, it’s not as bad as it could have been.

sometimes he wakes up to the false suffocating scent of hospital disinfectant, like his mother had gotten back from work and had come in to check on him—he’d used to pretend he was sleeping and sometimes she’d lean down and kiss him on the forehead, and maybe he barely got to spend time with her but that was all he really needed.

sometimes he wakes up to the taste of her homemade cookies on his tongue. but he doesn’t cry. not ever.

in the month before school starts that year, mark gets hired for the drugstore night shift. it’s an okay job—the customers are half asleep and mark does his summer homework behind the counter. every once in a while, one of his friends stops by at some unholy hour in the morning; jeno and renjun bring him midnight snacks and donghyuck and yukhei talk his head off for hours until donghyuck falls asleep mid-sentence and yukhei has to bodily drag him back home.

deep down, mark knows they’re worried. he’s sure this is their way of trying to cheer him up, that they think he’s overworking himself again. it’s true that it helps him get his mind off of everything, though, so he lets them stick around. there’s one night when donghyuck climbs over the counter and wraps him into a hug, burying his face into mark’s shoulder, and mark hugs back three times tighter and deludes himself into thinking that he’s comforting donghyuck instead.

mark comes home at three am, but johnny is waiting for him in the living room. “you want hot chocolate?” he asks, even though it’s the middle of the summer. mark shakes his head.

“just wanna go to bed,” he replies, but he’s not even sure if he could. he feels like all the energy has been suctioned out of him to the point that he wouldn’t be able to manage to rest.

“okay,” johnny says, in his warm ever patient tone. “sit with me for a minute.”

mark drops his backpack at the stairs before making his way back to the couch. “what is it?” he asks, before sitting down, but johnny just pats the seat next to him.

they don’t talk for the first few moments, but mark lets himself relax against johnny’s shoulder.

“you know,” johnny starts, “don’t be afraid of asking for help if you need it. your friends and i want to be here for you. understand?"

mark doesn’t understand, not really, but he nods. he’s never needed help before—he can’t see why this could be any different.

if donghyuck were here, he would just scoff, and say that mark’s being dense. (donghyuck’s right. no matter how much mark tries to deny it, donghyuck is right a lot more than mark thinks he is.)

mark ends up falling asleep right there on the couch. when he wakes up, there’s a blanket draped over him and johnny’s making breakfast. the warmth of coffee and muffins drifts in the air, and mark feels the sudden urge to cry.

but he won’t. not ever.

and so, his junior year of high school starts with all the force of a thunderstorm. he feels like he’s trying to stay afloat in a tumultuous ocean, because nothing is as easy as it used to be. his only solace becomes his tutoring sessions with his friend across the street. jisung is an intelligent and quick thinking student, eager to please, and mark actually enjoys teaching him. plus, mrs. park makes the best dinners he’s ever had in his life—mark wholeheartedly believes that the meals are more than enough compensation for the tutoring, but mr. park tells him that’s nonsense and sends him home with twenty dollars in his pocket.

vaguely, he tries to remember what the last meal his mother cooked for him was, but the thought disappears when donghyuck comes biking down the sidewalk full speed, somehow managing to reach mark’s door before mark does. but johnny’s still at work so donghyuck has to wait for mark to unlock it with his key, and mark stands on the sidewalk and laughs and laughs and laughs.

and then there’s yukhei.

mark doesn’t need anything, or so he claims, but yukhei gives everything to him anyway. he sits with mark at lunch and tells him stupid jokes and anecdotes and makes sure he eats and lets him take naps when he should be catching up on homework. he helps mark plan his time and comes over to johnny’s house for study sessions and drags mark out to the bowling alley or to a fast food joint when he pushes himself too hard.

and that little spark in mark’s heart that’s always burned for yukhei grows, until it’s flames lapping at his lungs, making him want to beg for more.

the thing is, mark’s desperate. he’s always considered himself sane, calm and composed compared to his friends. but now there’s an uncontrollable tingle in his fingers and an emptiness in his heart that has him wanting. and he knows what he wants—to surf, to drown, to kiss yukhei, anything to make him feel whole again. so he sends the message ( come down to north shore tonight, would you? ) even though there's a hurricane brewing. mark’s sure nothing good can come out of this meeting, and he’s never been impulsive before, but there’s a first time for anything, isn’t there?

the reply comes in seconds. are you sure, it says. it’s horrible outside. not exactly ideal beach weather.

but mark wants to drown. please, he urges. and it gives mark a tiny thrill of satisfaction in his spine when yukhei agrees, because yukhei’s always been bad at saying no, especially to mark. the energy races back into mark’s fingertips.

he slides his homework off his lap and hops off the couch to make his way to the garage. his surfboard is leaning against the hood of the car that he can’t even drive, the one the cop had found on the shoulder of the interstate months ago. he shuts his eyes tightly, tries not to look too long as he grabs his board and drags it into the backyard, leaning it on the wall under his bedroom window. he’s never snuck out before; he would ask for tips from donghyuck but he isn’t sure if he wants donghyuck to know about this. his best friend would either invite himself or start worrying and mark doesn’t want either. he just wants the crashing ocean waves and the salt water chill and, above all, he wants yukhei.

mark climbs out of his window at eleven pm; the scarred brick wall provides enough purchase for skinny fingers and the grass is soft and damp from the drizzle that’s been going steady for the past few hours. the streets are inevitably deserted and mark feels a rush of adrenaline, even though the logical part of his brain is screaming danger, danger, danger, danger

he’s gotten good at not listening.

the dim street lights guide him to north shore. it’s a tiny alcove, open and unguarded and many a scene of teenage illegal behavior. the sand is cold and wet between mark’s toes and the waves dash against the beach harshly. it’s no night for a swim.

mark’s phone chimes with a message and he rests the surfboard against a rock to pull his phone out of his pocket. inevitably, it’s from yukhei. don’t do anything stupid without me, it reads, and mark smiles despite himself.

he feels a bit out of his own skin, like he’s watching himself be someone that he isn’t. he knows that he’s supposed to be the logical one. he isn’t jaemin, who goes to parties in the city on weekends to hook up with people, or renjun, who graffitis the sides of buildings with his group of artist friends, or donghyuck, who sneaks out of the house when taeyong’s asleep to go skating, or surfing.

mark isn’t stupid, so he climbs onto the rock to wait for yukhei. the rain is falling harder now and the ebb and flow of the ocean gets more violent, salt spray bursting up into the foggy air. and oddly enough, the ocean in a thunderstorm is something mark can relate to. he knows what it feels like to be thrown into a hurricane.

mark isn’t stupid, so he leaves his phone on the slippery rock surface when he makes his way closer to the ocean. the surfboard drags a line in the sand behind him. his head is fuzzy, but there’s something exhilarating about paddling into the freezing cold sea. he’s not even worried because why would he be? it’s hard to comprehend something that’s worse than the situation he’s already in—he’s familiar with struggling to float, struggling to breathe.

when a wave curls over him and he’s knocked from his board, he doesn’t even bother fighting it.

and yet, he awakens with a cough. saltwater burns his throat and glues his eyelashes together and he opens his blurry eyes to yukhei leaning over him. he watches yukhei’s expression shift from fear to relief. he can’t bring himself to talk, but he reaches his arms out, and yukhei responds immediately, pulling mark to a seated position.

“oh my god,” yukhei says. “oh my god, i thought you were—oh my god.”

yeah, mark thinks. me too. his lungs are burning and his heart is pounding fast and loud under his ribs and, for the first time in a long time, he feels the sudden urge to cry. yukhei is still holding his hands tight enough to hurt.

“mark, dude, what happened?” yukhei asks, voice soft and aching, and mark bursts into tears. the choked noises coming from his own chest sound like they’re a million miles away, but he’s calmed in a way, by his own sobs. he feels more alive than he’s felt in months.

“you just—i just found you washed up on the beach when i got here and i didn’t—i didn’t know what to do, mark, oh my god—” yukhei’s rambling now while mark curls into himself and cries his eyes out. when yukhei’s indecipherable words finally break into a shuddering breath, he looks down at their conjoined hands and tugs mark closer, into his lap so he can curl his arms around mark’s shoulders. mark’s skin is on fire but he welcomes the feeling and the comfort of yukhei’s touch.

if mark’s mouth didn’t taste like blood and saltwater, he probably would have kissed yukhei then.

mark doesn’t know how much time he spends in yukhei’s arms, with yukhei whispering nonsensical words of comfort, but soon the tears cease and the ground stops doing somersaults under him. “thank you,” is the first thing he can say, barely audible, but from the rumble in yukhei’s chest, mark knows that he heard him.

“it’s no problem,” yukhei replies. the rain is pouring harder now, and they’re both soaked to the bone, but it’s dry and warm in their bubble, in mark’s place in yukhei’s arms. “do you want to go home?” he asks.

mark shakes his head. home means johnny, who has some kind of sixth sense for when something’s wrong, which means an explanation for why he wasn’t home and why he’s drenched and why his surfboard is gone—

“where’s my surfboard?” mark asks, and his voice is raspy as if he hasn’t spoken in days.

“somewhere in the ocean, i guess,” yukhei says. “sorry about that.” mark makes a noncommittal noise in his throat. it’s probably for the best. “you can come home with me,” yukhei continues, and if it could be taken another way, neither of them acknowledge it. “my parents aren’t home tonight and—and i don’t know if you should be alone right now.”

“yeah. yeah, that makes sense,” mark agrees. his knees are wobbly when he gets to his feet, but yukhei has a loose grip around his arm and helps him find his sneakers in the dark. there’s three missed calls and twenty text messages on mark’s phone, but its battery is on its last legs so he switches it off deliberately.

on the walk home, yukhei carries his skateboard in one hand and holds mark’s wrist with the other. yukhei’s always been a naturally touchy person, but this is different. right now, he’s holding mark like he’s about to lose him.

i’m not going anywhere, mark wishes he could say.

when they reach yukhei’s house, yukhei fishes his keys out of his pocket and opens the door, pulling mark in behind him. the first floor is pitch black dark; they toe off their shoes at the door and mark just lets himself follow yukhei’s lead, dripping water onto the carpet. he’s been in yukhei’s house many times before, but never this late at night.

“shower,” yukhei says. “use all the hot water you want, so you don’t get sick. i have some old clothes you can borrow, probably.” then he lets go of mark’s hand, and endless emptiness floods back in.

yukhei’s room is only dimly lit, so when mark flicks on the lights to the adjoined bathroom, light floods the rooms. in the mirror, mark looks pale and his face has scratches on it that he can’t even feel.

“hey,” yukhei says. he’s behind mark now, flawless even with wet hair and dark circles. “don’t worry about it, dude. it could be worse, you know.”

the you could be dead goes unspoken.

so mark just nods and lets yukhei shut the bathroom door behind him. he turns the shower on and twists the knob until the water is scalding and steam clouds the mirrors. he hangs his wet clothing on the empty towel rack and steps in. the heat of the shower is almost painful but he doesn’t mind it; soap and shampoo wash most of the salt and sand from his body and hair.

he’s lost track of time when there’s a knock on the door. mark reaches over to turn off the shower and the second of pulsing silence is almost too much to bear.

“can i leave your stuff on the counter?” yukhei asks. mark can’t find the energy to reply, but yukhei seems to get it. he cracks open the door an inch and places a small heap of clothes near the sink, before shutting the door again quietly.

the towel scratches at mark’s dry skin and the arms of the t-shirt come down to mark’s elbows and he folds the hem of the basketball shorts two, three times to fit his skinny hips. his reflection in the mirror is foggy but he still turns his eyes away from it before opening the door back to yukhei’s room.

yukhei isn’t there when mark comes out—mark can hear faintly hear water running in another part of the house—but the covers on his bed are folded back from where they were tucked in earlier. on any other day, mark wouldn’t be caught dead crawling into yukhei wong’s bed, but tonight is different. yukhei’s sheets are warm and are infused with his fresh linen and honey scent.

when mark closes his eyes, he remembers what it feels like to drown. the rain pounds incessantly on the window and a lightning strike lights up the thin white curtains. mark holds back the tiniest of whimpers, and turns away from the window.

in yukhei’s bed, in yukhei’s room, curled up and motionless under the covers, mark loses track of time. it could be three or four in the morning when yukhei comes back into the room and sits on the edge of the bed.

“you okay, man?” yukhei asks, turning his head to face mark. then he shakes his head. “sorry, stupid question.” mark’s responding laugh sounds a hell of a lot more like a sob.

“i shouldn’t have done that,” mark says. “it was stupid of me.” mark feels exceptionally small next to yukhei—everything seems insignificant in the other boy’s presence.

“it was a little stupid,” yukhei replies, “but you’re safe now.”

“thanks to you,” mark points out, but yukhei stays silent. mark can only see the outlines of his form in the darkness.

mark takes a deep breath in. “i really miss my mom,” he says. “she used to make these really great cookies. her own recipe and everything.”

“you mean the ones you brought when i broke my leg?” yukhei asks. mark nods and the pillow cover rustles under his cheek. “those were amazing. do you still have the recipe?”

mark huffs under his breath. “of course i do.” he’s had it memorized for years, but he’s never been good in the kitchen, so he’s never attempted them on his own.

“i’ll make them for you sometime,” yukhei offers, voice casual. “i mean, if you want me to.”

mark’s throat goes dry for a second, and when he speaks, his voice comes out as a squeak. “sure,” he says. “that would be nice.”

yukhei hums in affirmation. the silence is thick, but comfortable. mark feels the sudden need to apologize, but he holds his tongue. out of fear? out of courtesy? he doesn’t know. 

he doesn’t know when he dozed off, but when mark wakes up, the sun is shining a pale morning yellow and the storm has passed. he lifts his head to look over the side of the bed, where yukhei is wrapped in blankets on the floor, still snoring gently, and mark finds it in him to feel a little guilty for taking his bed. he leaves a sticky note on the bedside table (thank you , it reads, for everything) and changes back into his clothes from the night before, which are still damp against his skin. his shoes are wet too, and they squelch uncomfortably as he makes the walk home. if the universe is on his side for once, johnny will still be asleep.

but it isn’t. johnny is pacing around his room when mark tumbles through the window.

“um,” mark says. “hi?”

johnny freezes midstep, and then lets out a sigh, closing his eyes and rubbing his temples. “mark lee. where in god’s name have you been?” he asks. mark offers him a tiny smile as he gets to his feet.

“oh, you know,” mark bluffs. “out.”

“the surfboard is gone, mark,” johnny states, and the tone of his voice is deathly serious, “and it’s not in your hand right now so i really don’t know what to believe.”

a beat of silence passes, and then: “johnny,” mark says. “i did something really really dumb.” there’s tears falling again—mark’s cried more times in the last twenty four hours than he has in the past five years but johnny’s stepping closer and opening his arms and mark accepts the hug gratefully.  

“it’s okay, mark,” johnny replies. “i’m just glad you’re alright.” the warmth of his embrace makes the overwhelming feelings in mark’s chest bubble over.

“this sucks, johnny,” mark says. “i don’t think i’m ever going to get better.” he buries his face into johnny’s shoulder and grips his hands tighter into johnny’s shirt, as if his cousin could be an escape to the harshness of reality, the life that mark’s living.

“mark,” johnny starts, softly. “this isn’t something that’s easy to get over. you’re trying your best, and that’s enough.”

“i know but. i’m so tired, johnny,” mark says. “i have so many people around me but i still feel so alone.”

it’s only now that mark realizes that johnny’s hands are shaking. “everyone wants to help you, mark. you just have to let us. please let us.”

mark takes a shaking breath in. he knows that johnny can feel his thundering heartbeat but for once, he doesn’t think that he needs to hide.

“thank you,” mark says. “i…i don’t know if i can but i’ll try.”

at this, johnny laughs, low and disbelieving. “you’re capable of so much more than you think you are, mark.” and even though johnny can’t see it, mark bites back his smile anyway.

“oh, also,” johnny adds, “jeno’s waiting in the living room. he said you guys had a project to work on? i just told him you weren’t home yet and he fell asleep on the couch.”

“oh, fuck,” mark swears, letting go of johnny and stepping back. “i forgot all about that.” he smooths out his clothes and rubs his eyes to try to look presentable.

johnny snorts. “go wake him up. i’ll make you guys some breakfast.”

“thanks, johnny,” mark says, and it’s for more than just the breakfast.

“no problem,” johnny replies, patting mark on the shoulder before mark turns to leave the room. “we’re family, after all.”

when mark tries to shake jeno awake, the other boy groans and curls into himself. “leave me alone,” he whines and mark can’t help but laugh.

“we have to work on our psych project, dumbass,” mark says. “and johnny’s making food.”

jeno’s face twists into a pout as he sits up. “where even were you?”

mark shrugs. “it’s kind of a long story, honestly,” he answers.

“tell me later, then,” jeno says and, well, maybe mark will.

 


v.



yukhei asks mark to senior prom on the second thursday of april. lately, they’d taken to doing their homework at mark’s house until donghyuck got out of choir practice and dragged them all back to his place. often, dinner would be on taeyong, with seven or eight of them crowding around the small dining table to relish taeyong’s excellent cooking.

on the second thursday of april, though, donghyuck and taeyong are out of town for donghyuck’s all-state singing competition, so mark and yukhei decide to abandon homework for a day and meet up at the ice cream shop at somerset street. one thing that the two of them can agree on is that ice-cream is good at any time, in any weather.

and over his chocolate-drizzled banana split, yukhei says it: “do you want to go to prom with me?” mark thanks any spirit looking out for him that he doesn't choke on his dessert.

“what?” mark asks, stupidly, because yukhei has this half-sincere half-nervous look on his face that’s rendering mark’s tongue useless.

yukhei swallows visibly. “prom? third week of may? all our other friends have dates so i just thought it would make sense for us—i mean if you already had someone in mind, i’m so sorry—”

“no,” mark blurts out. the truth is that he’d totally forgotten about it, even though donghyuck has been raving about the good looking senior who’d asked him for weeks now.

“oh,” yukhei says. “so—”

“but i really can’t say yes,” mark states, words coming out in a rush. “it’s just that i have a really important interview for an internship that night because i wasn’t really planning to go in the first place and it really really has nothing to do with you. i would love to go with you, really, it just can’t—”

mark’s aware that he’s rambling, but he can’t  until yukhei jerks his hand forward and lays it on top of mark’s on the table. “it’s okay,” yukhei says, even though the indecipherable look in his eyes doesn’t convey the same sentiment. “i get it. don’t worry about it, dude.”

“i—” mark starts. the thing is, he wants to say, i like you. i want to go to prom with you, i want to do everything with you, but i’m too freaked out about having my heart broken. i’m too scared of feeling inferior to you, i don’t want you to have to be responsible for my problems. and if i go to prom with you, there’s nothing stopping me from making stupid lovesick decisions and then you’re gonna have to save me again. like you’ve been doing for our entire friendship.

instead, he says, “i’m sorry, but i really have to go,” and leaves ten bucks on the table before making a run for it.

he’s made it halfway home when he calls doyoung. there’s little chance that the older is free but—

“mark lee,” doyoung’s voice crackles through the speaker. “i have ten minutes until my next meeting so can you make this quick?”

mark breathes out a sigh of relief. doyoung, working in los angeles as a manager slash vocal trainer, is usually too busy to pick up the phone when mark calls, although he’s always apologetic about it.

“doyoung,” mark greets. “yukhei asked me to prom.”

“ah,” doyoung replies. mark wishes he wasn’t so all knowing sometimes. “you said no?”

“i wish i didn’t,” mark groans.

doyoung scoffs a little. “then go back. tell him you want to go with him, it’s not that big of a deal.”

“doyoung,” mark whines, “you know it’s not that easy.”

and the confession makes doyoung’s voice soften a little, only because through that solid exterior and sharp attitude, doyoung knows what it feels like to be in love.

“i know,” he says, “but you’re still making it harder than it needs to be. what are you so afraid of?”

mark swallows. “i don’t know, really. maybe that i’m not good enough for him. or that i’m too fucked up in the head to be in a relationship? i don’t know, it’s been years and i feel like i’ve burdened him too much already. even as just friends.”  

doyoung sighs. “mark, you’ve been through so much. why don’t you just let yourself be happy?”

and that’s what mark’s thinking about on the bus ride home from his internship interview. it hadn’t gone as well as mark would’ve hoped, and here he is, alone with his footsteps at an empty bus stop, when he could’ve been with yukhei at prom. why can’t he just let himself be happy?

an unread text from jaehyun blinks on his phone as he pulls it out to listen to some music. prom after party is at my house, it reads. in case you change your mind or something.

mark feels an ever familiar twist of guilt. all he really wants to do is go home and call it a night, but he owes yukhei an apology, or at least a sign that he cares.

so instead of turning right at the end of the road, he turns left, and starts the journey to jaehyun’s house.

the door is unlocked when he gets there, just as he expected, and a familiar figure is on him the second that he shuts the door behind him.

“i knew you’d show up!” the figure shouts, voice slurred in the characteristic way of drunk donghyuck.

“hey, hyuck,” mark says. “how are you feeling?”

“pretty good!” donghyuck chirps and it makes mark crack a smile despite himself. “do you want a beer?”

mark shakes his head. “i’m good. not really here to get trashed,” he explains.

donghyuck nods sagely, and it’s comical with his messy hair and makeup. “yukhei’s been sulking all night, you know,” donghyuck says. “maybe you should go say hi.”

mark sighs. “yeah. yeah, i know,” he says and donghyuck gives him a sharp smile before pushing him in the direction of the kitchen.

“go get your man!” he shouts after mark and mark tries not to regret his decision to come. but when he sees yukhei, it’s hard not to. he’s leaning against the kitchen counter, drinking out of a red solo cup, still in his tuxedo sans jacket with his tie loosened, lips curved into a laugh. he looks like everything mark’s ever wanted and all mark can think is how did i say no to him?

mark can’t help himself—he slides next to yukhei so there’s barely centimeters between them and raises on his tiptoes to whisper in the taller boy’s ear.

“hey, yukhei,” he says, and grins when yukhei startles.

“holy fuck, mark, you scared the shit out of me,” yukhei curses and he really must be drunk because when his hands lose purchase on the counter, they fly to mark’s shoulders to steady himself.

yukhei’s always been a naturally touchy person, and mark’s done his best to reject his physical advances (translation: not a very good job whatsoever), but now, he steps a tiny bit closer and pauses to mourn for a second when yukhei drops his hands.

“glad you decided to join us,” yukhei says, flashing a charming grin. “how’d the interview go?”

mark shrugs. “pretty terrible. how was prom?”

yukhei laughs. “pretty fucking terrible. mr. choi got tipsy off the spiked fruit punch and we all got in trouble for it even though it was his fault for drinking the stupid thing in the first place.”

“wow. sounds like shit,” mark says.

“yeah. better now that you’re here, though,” yukhei replies with an exaggerated wink and even though it’s cheesy and false flirtatious, mark can’t help but blush a little bit. there’s really no excuse—he hasn’t even had a drink yet.

“hey, mark!” someone calls. it’s jaehyun, passing out beers to yells of enthusiasm. “you made it!”

“sure did,” mark shouts back. “thought i’d take pity on you brainless losers for once in my life.”

“oh please ,” jaehyun scoffs. “i’ve seen drunk mark lee enough times to know just how brainless you are too,” he says and, well, he has a point. it’s emphasized by yukhei’s giggles, which are interrupted by his own hiccup.

“i’m cutting you off,” jaehyun says, a tiny smile on his face as he tugs back when yukhei tries to grab another drink. “don’t think i didn’t see you do those shots with dejun earlier.”

yukhei pouts. “it’s prom night, jaehyun, live a little,” he complains and jaehyun pretends to debate it before relenting, tossing yukhei a can. in retrospect, mark should’ve realized then that the night wasn’t going to end well. jaehyun was always a harbinger of bad decisions.

it’s then that donghyuck materializes out of nowhere to drag mark into a spontaneous game of tennis ball soccer against jaemin and jeno. it’s easy for mark to be caught up in the fun even without alcohol running through his system. team jaeno (“it’s nomin, you fuckin’ idiots!”) end up beating team markhyuck by a point which devolves into donghyuck shotgunning two beers in a row as punishment. needless to say, it doesn’t end well, for both donghyuck and jaehyun’s carpet.

halfway through choking laughter, mark comes to a few realizations. he realizes that he’s graduating high school in a month but still has no fucking idea what he’s going to do in the future—johnny’s tried to bring it up a few times but mark’s avoided the conversation like a speeding bullet. his entire existence is rooted in this tiny beach town; he thinks about going far away to college, moving away from all he’s ever known. he thinks about leaving the almost family that they’ve built out of nothing. he thinks about leaving yukhei, yukhei, yukhei—

he thinks about staying, going through the motions like he has his whole life. he thinks of finding a job like most of the kids here do after high school. he thinks about settling down, eventually. he thinks of donghyuck, full of talent and ambition. he thinks of renjun, who’s already planning on going to art school across the country. he thinks of yukhei, who’s always been there for him, and realizes that he doesn’t know much about yukhei’s plans at all.

then donghyuck’s picking himself up off the floor and the thoughts disappear like a flash of lightning.  

“you’re such a loser,” mark says, and the grin on donghyuck’s face is positively blinding.

mark takes a seat on jaehyun’s lumpy couch when woojin from his econ class calls for a drinking game. he’s feeling a bit better than he was when he walked in, until yukhei saunters over in all his drunken glory and throws his body down on the couch, dropping his bare feet unceremoniously into mark’s lap.

it’s infuriating how mark isn’t upset at all. “you okay?” mark asks, glancing at yukhei and realizing too late that he’s unable to pull his gaze away.

“better than ever,” yukhei drawls, licking his lips to emphasize. his lips are shiny and swollen, as if he’d been kissing someone. mark tries not to think about it.

mark hums in affirmation. he goes back to staring at his lap, now occupied. it’s a bit too much, a little more leeway than mark wants to give, but he taps the rhythm of the song that’s playing onto the skin of yukhei’s ankle. really, he can’t help it, because he’s been pining and pining after yukhei regardless of what he knows (thinks) is good for him. but god, he can’t help it.

“hey,” yukhei says, tugs on mark’s sleeve. “hey, mark, come here.”

“i am here,” mark says, and tilts his head to look at yukhei. he’s not sure if he imagines the way yukhei’s eyes sparkle in the dim light.

yukhei huffs. his cheeks are rouge red, probably from the alcohol. “i mean, closer,” he says and tugs mark harder. then mark has a stupid idea—it’s a drunk mark idea, even though he’s entirely sober. but it’s also yukhei, and mark never feels like he’s in his right mind when he’s around the other boy. being in love with yukhei is like being halfway underwater, chained down, drowning.

mark ignores the warm feeling running through his veins when he locks eyes with yukhei. “closer?” he asks, and then pushes yukhei’s feet off of his lap. before he can convince himself to stop moving, mark’s crawling over yukhei so he has the taller boy pinned to the couch and his legs are on either side of yukhei’s waist. he knows that looks like a shitty teenage romcom scene, but with the way his heart is racing a thousand miles an hour, it sure doesn’t feel like it.

“is this close enough for you?” he says, in barely a whisper. their noses are inches apart, but yukhei isn’t complaining. in fact, he looks interested, enthralled, and mark suddenly feels like he’s done something very very stupid. one of yukhei’s hands is resting on his hip, thumb moving in small circles, and oh god, mark can’t take his eyes off yukhei’s lips.

“yeah,” yukhei breathes out. “it's good. you’re good.” and it’s so genuine that mark can’t help the way his stomach jumps to his throat and nausea curls in his stomach. he is so stupid—yukhei’s drunk and mark is stone cold sober and he’s in love. he’s in love with the boy who’s under him and he’s this close to kissing him.

he wants to, so badly that it hurts, so mark leans down (yukhei’s hands tighten around his waist) and presses their lips together. it’s close lipped and chapped and it makes mark’s pulse thunder so hard in his ears that he doesn’t dare go further. when he pulls away, yukhei arches up to fuse them from hip to shoulder and he reciprocates the kiss, gentle.

mark’s face feels warm, and yukhei’s hand is cold on his cheek. “mark lee,” he says, and he’s always been a bit of a sentimental drunk. “i like you so much, you know that?”

oh. yeah, mark knows, but it’s the first time he’s really heard yukhei say it. he wants to say it back, but the words get stuck in the back of his throat like peanut butter.

“i—” he stammers and pulls back, sliding off of yukhei. “i have to go,” he says, and gets to his feet awkwardly. if there’s one thing about mark that’s stayed the same over all these years, it’s that he’s always been good at running away. he barely gets time to watch yukhei’s face drop before he drags himself away.

jaehyun’s living room has turned into an impromptu dance floor. normally, that wouldn’t be mark’s scene, but right now, he’s desperate for a distraction, and if that comes in the form of yerim kim’s hand latching onto his wrist under a makeshift disco ball, then so be it.

“mark lee!” she says, clearly intoxicated. “it’s been so long since i’ve seen you!” it’s funny to hear it because 1) he saw her in school the day before and 2) yerim never seemed to appreciate mark’s presence, especially in the (rare) moments that he scored higher than her on a test. but mark goes along with it anyway.

“yeah, it’s been a while,” he replies. they’re kind of just standing there in the middle of teenage bodies, but nothing seems awkward to him anymore. “how are things going?”

“good!” she chirps. unlike most of the boys in their grade, mark’s never had a crush on yerim, but she’s still undeniably cute. “well, not so good right now, chae left me out here alone to go to talk to someone,” she continues, pouting a little. in addition to being cute, yerim’s also a massive lesbian, dating the one and only chaeyoung son.

“i see,” mark says. he’s smiling a little—you can’t not while getting to see smart and poised yerim half drunk and silly. “you want me to help you find her?”

“nah,” yerim says, brightening again. “do you wanna dance?” and mark just shrugs, lets yerim swing his hands around to the tempo of the music. to be honest, nothing’s helping very much with the sickening vortex in the bottom of his stomach, but he pretends to not feel it anyway.

mark doesn’t know how long it’s been until he gets hip checked out of the way by someone, who pulls yerim closer to her. “hey, mark lee,” chaeyoung says, narrowing her eyes at him, although it’s easy to tell that she’s not really mad. “get your hands off my girl.”

mark snorts. “she’s all yours, chaeyoung,” he replies. stepping back to leave the lovebirds alone, he knocks into someone—it’s mina kang, dancing with that tall pretty girl named tzuyu who’s never looked long enough in mark’s direction for him to get to know her at all.

“oh, hey, mark,” mina leans over and says. “didn’t see you at prom tonight.” she’s chewing gum for some reason, blows a bubble and pops it before mark opens his mouth to speak.

“yeah, i was busy with something,” mark explains vaguely. mina just shrugs.

“good for you. it was pretty shit, anyway,” she replies. tzuyu laughs under her breath, which is the most mark has ever heard her speak in his life.

“i heard,” mark says. it’s not like this has been much better, though, he thinks, thinks of yukhei‘s warm lips on his, and the nausea rises again, made worse by the crowd of people around him.

he mumbles a excuse to mina before shoving his way out of the dance floor. the bathroom ends up being locked, so he mutters a quiet apology to jaehyun before slipping past the barrier that he had put up to prevent anyone from going to the top floor. up there, it’s quiet and empty and no one hears mark retch into the sink. it’s been hours now since he ate anything, though, so there’s nothing but saliva and the sinking sensation that he really, really messed up.

before hanging up on the afternoon that mark had talked to him, doyoung had said in his ever soothing voice, call me if you need me, okay?, but mark doesn’t call. he doesn’t even breathe, just sits there cross-legged on the tiled floor. all he wants to do is run back to yukhei’s side, get on his knees and apologize for everything. mark’s used him, and yukhei’s given and given and hasn’t asked for anything in return. all mark wants to do is run, so he never has to confront the way he’s crumbling.

he wonders if this is how she felt, the night before she left forever. he was only fifteen, almost sixteen, and everything felt like he was never going to heal again.

mark’s phone blinks with a text message—it’s yukhei. mark, where the fuck are you, we’ve been looking for you everywhere, it reads.

what’s wrong, mark replies, even though he knows. everything, everything is wrong and even the thought of looking yukhei in the eyes again makes him want to hurl.

blink. listen. donghyuck’s really really drunk and you’re the only person here sober enough to drive him home. yukhei’s message says .

mark takes a deep breath. donghyuck needs him. his fingers aren’t shaking as badly as they were before. this, mark can do. he can focus, get something done when he needs to. that’s how he’d managed to get through high school, piecing his broken psyche together to finish assignment after assignment.

blink. i swear to god, even if you hate me for what happened, i need you to do this for me.

mark’s hand twitches. he doesn’t, he wishes he could hate yukhei, but he doesn’t. and donghyuck is mark’s best friend, not yukhei’s, but yukhei said he needs it, to do it for him. mark is sick to his stomach, but yukhei needs him. i’ll be there in a second, he replies.

yukhei needs him and mark is fifteen again, waking up to an empty house, an empty chest. there’s so much that he can’t give yukhei but he can give him this: safety, assurance, friendship. mark is nothing if not lacking, but he’s not his mother. every muscle in his body might want to run, but his heart is steadfast with the promise that he’s never leaving anyone behind. ever.

mark takes the stairs down two at a time, and it doesn’t take him long to find yukhei and jeno with donghyuck slumped up against a chair next to them. donghyuck has his ever present dopey smile on his face, but yukhei looks like he’s seen better days. mark takes a second to think that’s my fault before swallowing down his guilt.

getting donghyuck to come with him is surprisingly easy. “i’m taking you home,” mark says, and before donghyuck can make a crude joke, he follows up with, “no, not like that.” donghyuck pouts, and mark strains to hear yukhei’s laugh under his breath.

“you mind if i come with?” yukhei asks, and it’s so very casual that mark has to say no.

“have fun, jeno,” mark says, pretending not to see the bright flash of worry in jeno’s eyes. “take care.”

jeno shrugs. “yeah, yeah, you too,” he replies, and disappears into the crowd. mark takes donghyuck’s hand and tugs him to his feet.

“yukhei wants to come with you,” donghyuck whispers in mark’s ear, voice slurred beyond comprehension.

mark sighs. “and that’s not even the most interesting part of the night,” he grumbles. yukhei is following behind them, hands tucked into his pockets.

“what’s that supposed to mean?” donghyuck whines but mark ignores him to drag him across the room to jaehyun.

“jae, i need to borrow your car keys,” mark says, interrupting a rather intense game of beer pong. he’s lucky he’s known jaehyun long enough for jaehyun not to ask questions; he just grabs them out of his pocket and tosses them at mark, before making a clean shot with a ping pong ball into the opposing team’s cups. mark catches them easily, barely pausing for a second before pulling donghyuck along behind him.

jaehyun’s car is parked in the driveway. “i call shotgun,” yukhei says, and donghyuck is too out of it to care. mark wrestles donghyuck into the back seat. “you should be grateful that i care about you,” he grumbles under his breath, but donghyuck hears it anyway.

“i am ,” he replies indignantly, even though mark hadn’t really meant it. mark turns away to hide the redness on his cheeks.

he slides into the driver’s seat and starts the car. “you’re gonna have a killer hangover tomorrow,” mark mumbles. jaehyun’s car is a piece of junk, and it rattles when mark pulls out.

“take care of me?” donghyuck simpers, and mark doesn’t even have to turn to know that donghyuck has a stupid grin on his face.

“fuck you,” mark replies. donghyuck doesn’t reply for a solid thirty seconds, making mark think he’s passed out in the back, but then there’s a pause, and donghyuck rolls down his window and throws up right out of it.

mark slams his foot on the brake, winces, and hopes none of it got on the side of jaehyun’s car. he parks on the side of the road and inspects the side while yukhei stays in the car and donghyuck sits on the curb with his head in his hands. for once, he’s lucky. the car looks just as beat up as always, no more, no less.

“okay, okay, i think i’m good now,” donghyuck says. “a little more sober.”

“fantastic,” mark replies. “makes my night just a little bit less like i’m living a fever dream.”

“did you and yukhei kiss?” donghyuck asks suddenly and mark spins on him, eyes wide.

“what? how did you know?” he presses and donghyuck smirks.

“i didn’t, but i know now, don’t i?” mark hates donghyuck so fucking much. “i mean, he has been staring at your lips for the past five minutes, but he does that all the time anyway."

mark frowns. “i forgot you were an observant piece of shit even when you’re smashed.”

“my only talent,” donghyuck drawls, and mark thinks that’s kind of unfair, especially when donghyuck is pretty and smart and talented and charming through and through and mark is—well, mark is nothing.

if sober donghyuck were here, he would help shake mark out of all his stupid selfish doubts. drunk donghyuck can provide none of the same comforts, yet mark loves him just the same.

mark hears the telltale sound of a car door opening, and yukhei walks over to them with a water bottle in his hand. “found this in the back,” he says and tosses the bottle to mark, who catches it and twists the cap open, handing it to donghyuck. donghyuck takes a gulp gratefully, swishes the water around in his mouth, and then spits out on the side of the road.

“gross,” mark complains, and donghyuck sticks his tongue out at him petulantly. when he looks at mark, mark can see that his eyes are drooping shut, and it’s true—the energy levels of drunk donghyuck are like a parabola. he’s most infuriating when he’s four or five drinks in, but any more than that, and his exhaustion is palpable.

“let’s get you home, kid,” mark says.

not a kid, mark lee,” donghyuck protests. mark just smiles a little and pulls donghyuck up to his feet. “i’ll have you know,” donghyuck says, “i am sixteen whole years old.”

“you’re a baby,” mark replies, if only to annoy donghyuck. although donghyuck flings out a hand to hit him on the shoulder, he sees yukhei crack a smile and decides that it was worth it.

donghyuck is nearly asleep in the back of the car when they pull up to his house. “taeyong’s gonna beat my ass,” donghyuck whines as mark drags him to his doorstep.

“good,” mark says. donghyuck flips him the bird before closing the door behind him.

and then it’s just the two of them. “you wanna go back to jaehyun’s place? or back home?” mark asks, when he slides back into the driver’s seat.

“home?” yukhei asks. he’s staring off into nothingness; it’s weird. “i don’t know what that is,” he says.

mark tilts his head to look in yukhei’s eyes, see if he’s joking, but his face is clear of any mirth. we’re all a bit sick in the head tonight, mark thinks.

still, though, yukhei’s not entirely wrong. mark doesn’t know much about yukhei’s family life, besides the fact that his parents are rarely ever home, but he knows that yukhei’s more often found crashing on one of their friends’ couch than at his own house. mark knows that yukhei doesn’t like being alone, not one bit.

“to jaehyun’s house, it is,” mark murmurs and shifts the gear to drive.

somewhere along the way back, yukhei finds a pen amidst jaehyun’s trash and starts doodling over his hands in boredom. the streets are empty so mark isn’t all that concerned when he glances away from the road to watch the way that yukhei bites his bottom lip in concentration. it’s frustrating how much mark wants to kiss him again, even when he knows he shouldn’t.

mark takes the next right onto jaehyun’s street. “look,” yukhei says, and holds out his hand for mark to see. written on his palm is mark’s korean name written in neat hangul. mark didn’t even know yukhei knew how to write hangul, much less remembered the time that mark had drunk ranted to him about how he’d hated the name, until his mom disappeared and there was no one around to call him it anymore.

mark’s chest hurts so bad he thinks he’s having a heart attack. he turns into jaehyun’s driveway fast enough that the tires screech and, in one movement, he turns off the engine and leans over the console to press his lips against yukhei’s. it’s by no means a proper kiss, but he can feel yukhei’s grin against his mouth, and it feels fucking amazing. mark has pretty good self control, but it’s not that good.

when they finally remember to breathe, yukhei brings his hand up to mark’s collar and tugs on his shirt. mark doesn’t hesitate before clambering over the console until he’s practically in yukhei’s lap. it’s a tight fit, but mark doesn’t really care, not when yukhei’s kissing him like he needs mark to survive.

mark thinks that’s fucking stupid, when he’s the one who’d be dead without yukhei around. but he kisses yukhei back anyway, hard enough to bruise. he tastes mostly like alcohol, a little like marijuana (oh , mark thinks, that makes sense), and a little like strawberries. mark doesn’t know where that last part came from.

he doesn’t know how long they stay there, silent besides the sounds of lips smacking and mark’s tiny whines of please, yukhei, please but then mark’s phone goes off in his pocket and he jerks away. yukhei’s lips are swollen and his cheeks and ears are flushed red and mark takes a second to admire him before checking his phone.

the first message is from taeyong (thanks for getting him home safe.) and the second is from jeno (are you guys okay? don’t do anything stupid.) which mark thinks is rich, coming from jeno of all people.

it takes him a few more blurry seconds to realize that jeno was right. mark should’ve never showed up to the after party in the first place; he should’ve known that too much time with yukhei always means stupid, stupid lovesick decisions.

“sorry,” mark says, and yukhei’s hands immediately leave mark’s thighs. mark hadn’t even realized that they were there. “i have to take care of this,” he says, even though there’s really nothing to take care of and both of them know it. mark climbs back over the console anyway, sinking into the driver’s seat and attempting to look busy on his phone.

instead: he texts doyoung. i’m STUPID, he writes. i just did something stupid and irrational and i wish i could explode into a million pieces.

doyoung doesn’t reply and mark doesn’t expect him to, but it feels a little better to get the feeling off his chest.

mark watches from the corner of his eye, yukhei rubbing his lips with the back of his hand and sliding his hands through his hair. he looks like he’s about to say something, but he’s not opening his mouth, so mark decides that he’s done enough dumb shit today that he takes the plunge.

“that was…uh…” he starts, and then physically cringes, staring hard into the middle of the steering wheel to avoid yukhei’s gaze.

“dumb,” yukhei says, “i know,” and mark almost sighs in relief at the response. “i’m mostly dumb when i’m crossfaded.”

“sorry,” mark replies. “honestly, i shouldn’t have done anything. i’m the sober one here and i should’ve been smarter, i’m really sorry, yukhei.”

surprisingly, yukhei laughs. “nah, man. i mean, i’m not the one who didn’t want it,” he says and mark knows what he means by that.

“that’s not—” he starts, “it’s not like that, yukhei. i mean…i just can’t. i’m sorry,” mark finishes. it’s the worst explanation ever, but yukhei somehow seems to understand, by the way the corner of his mouth turns up in a wistful smile.

“yeah, i know, mark. it’s alright. let’s just forget about it,” yukhei says. mark turns to look, but yukhei’s eyes are closed and he’s leaning his head against the window. mark gets the distinct feeling that he’s lost.

“okay,” mark replies. “forget about it.”

it’s quiet for a long time after that. mark watches as people drunkenly stumble out of jaehyun’s door, none of them even glancing at his and yukhei’s direction. when he gets bored, he switches to playing a mindless game on his phone, and he’s only about ten points away from beating his high score when a text notification breaks his rhythm. it’s doyoung’s reply, and mark really can’t find it in him to be upset about it.

is this about yukhei? , the message reads. then it’s followed up with:have you ever considered just telling him the truth? about why you don’t want to date him? yukhei’s a really nice guy. he’s not going to take it badly, you know.

mark knows. he knows a lot of things, really, but he often doesn’t act on them. doyoung’s right, though. mark’s less worried about yukhei taking it badly, and more worried about how yukhei might manage to talk him out of his conviction anyway.

mark had pretty good self control, but not when it comes to yukhei. never then. so he takes a deep breath in and opens his mouth to speak.

“yukhei, you have no clue how much i like you,” mark says. “i’ve liked you for years, and all i want is to be able to kiss you until we both die. but i can’t. i can’t being in a relationship, even if it’s with you. especially if it’s with you,” mark confesses. “i need to stop relying on you. i need to learn how to stand on my own. and i can’t do that if i’m with you.”

then it’s quiet, except for the sickening thump of mark’s heartbeat. the clock on the dashboard clicks by one minute when mark finally glances at yukhei. and the other boy is sound asleep, his chest rising and falling in even breaths.

mark sighs; he’s had a long day. he turns off his phone and tucks it into his pocket, before cranking the driver’s seat back until it’s nearly flat. he’s had a long day, and he’s tired, so it doesn’t take him long to doze off beside yukhei. in sleep, at least he doesn’t have to think about how much of a mess his life is.

the sun doesn’t wake them up in the morning. instead, it’s jaehyun banging on the glass until mark jerks awake.

“you guys are such wrecks,” jaehyun says when mark blearily rolls down the window. “coulda come inside at least, crashed on my floor or my couch, but nope, you fell asleep in my fucking car. god, i really don’t miss being in high school.”

“you’re so fucking annoying, jaehyun,” yukhei groans from the other side of the car.

“good morning to you too,” jaehyun replies. “anyway, i’m making breakfast so if y’all want some, you can come inside. basically everyone else left already so there’s enough for the three of us,” he says, and then turns around and walks back to the front door of his house.

mark looks at yukhei, whose eyes are puffy and bedhead in full force. “breakfast?” mark asks, and remembers their conversation from last night. let’s just forget about it.

yukhei shrugs. “why the fuck not?” he replies.

 


vi.



when jeno turns eighteen, he throws a party. the sting of early april isn’t exactly beach weather, but they light a campfire on north shore and bribe yuta from the liquor store to sell them a metric ton of alcohol. jaemin brings marshmallows, donghyuck brings chocolate, and renjun brings the graham crackers—mark doesn’t know what’s so appealing of making s’mores on the beach while wasted out of your mind, but he’s not about to judge jeno, especially on his birthday.

when mark turned eighteen last august, he just treated johnny and his friends to dinner. it was a good night, mark’s kind of fun. still, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like parties, not if he gets to see donghyuck do stupid shit all night long and then regret it in the morning.

there’s at least thirty people there, from jeno’s younger friends to mark’s old classmates to ten, who’s supplying food from his mom’s thai restaurant. yukhei and mark, who just get off a shift before the party starts, help ten bring the food down to the beach.

“you can stay as long as you don’t rat us out to the police or something,” jeno tells ten, and yukhei laughs, because jeno obviously doesn't know what kinds of things ten got up to in high school.

mark doesn’t get too close to the shoreline that night. he sits around the fire and talks to yerim and chaeyoung until they decide to go swimming. around nine, they all gather around to eat and cut jeno’s birthday cake—jaemin smushes an entire slice into jeno’s face, jeno headbutts him, and then mark steps in to make sure no noses get broken.

afterwards, mark watches yukhei flit around to different friends with a beaming smile fixed onto his face. in the years that mark has known yukhei, he’s only become more beautiful, more handsome, more charismatic. if yukhei is an angel, mark is the one that’s fallen from grace.

“just go talk to him,” jeno’s voice says from behind him. “we’re all getting tired of watching you pine, you know.”

mark turns on jeno with a frown. “stop talking about me, it’s your birthday party.”

jeno snorts. there’s still icing above his eyebrow. “so? i’m your friend, dumbass. and seriously, we’ve known for years that the both of you like each other. why all the hesitation?"

and for once, mark agrees. what is he waiting for?

“honestly,” jeno says, “the best birthday present you can give me is knowing that you’re getting the dicking of your life from yukhei wong.”

mark splutters. “i hate you so fucking much, jeno. i’m not talking to him just because you said that,” mark replies spitefully and jeno’s laugh trails off into the distance.

but really, mark can’t stay away for long. he waits until he makes direct eye contact with yukhei, and then deliberately walks over to a soft patch of sand and sits down with a thump. the thing about knowing yukhei for so long is that mark can nearly always predict what he’s going to do—and he knows that yukhei will follow him.

“you didn’t drink,” mark says when yukhei sits down next to him. it’s a statement, more than a question.

yukhei shrugs. “wasn’t feeling it, that’s all. i mean, you didn’t either.”

“i haven’t gotten really drunk in a while,” mark says. “since i realized i kind of need brain cells for this whole college thing.”

“yeah,” yukhei replies. “that whole college thing.”

(mark and yukhei don’t talk about school much, not since yukhei decided that he’s not going to college, at least this year. mark remembers the weekend over the summer when he and yukhei drove renjun and his parents to the airport for his flight to see the art school that he’d applied to. on the drive back home, mark had been looking through some coursework to get a head start on his classes for the first semester and yukhei had just stared straight ahead into the darkness, humming along to the music on the radio.

“i can’t believe your car doesn’t have an aux cord,” mark had said. “i think i'd kill myself if i had to listen to radio station music every time i drove.”

“well, i don’t have any cds to put in, and we can’t all be as privileged as you,” yukhei had replied, his voice surprisingly calm for the acerbic statement. it took a while for mark to understand what he had really meant by that.  

mark and yukhei don’t really talk about school, so mark knows how to change the subject.)

“you know jaemin’s applying for a job at the restaurant? and ten told me he actually might hire him,” mark says.

“no way,” yukhei replies. “really?”

“i know, right?” mark says. “i mean, i love the kid, but i think i’d kill myself if i had to hear him gushing over his latest crush that week more than i already do.”

yukhei snorts. “he is a pretty sincere guy, though. he’d be a good coworker.”

mark shrugs. “yeah. yeah, i guess he would be.”

he throws a glance over to the bonfire, where jaemin is parading jeno around on his back around the fire. donghyuck is tossing marshmallows into jeno’s mouth and renjun’s trying to sabotage him by snatching them out of midair. chenle and jisung are a bit farther away, engaged in a vicious sandcastle building contest with yerim as the judge.

“we have pretty cool friends,” mark says suddenly. “they’re weird as fuck but, pretty cool.” mark thinks about junior year, how they’d drag him out of his slumps no matter how many times he fell back into them. he thinks about how donghyuck cried at his graduation and how he and jeno had crushed him into a hug afterward. yeah, mark thinks, they’re pretty cool.

yukhei nods, but it’s clear his head is in another place. “pretty grateful for them,” he says. “pretty fucking grateful for you too, you know. i love our friends but you...you’re something special to me, mark lee.”

mark blinks, soundless. he’s known for a long time that yukhei likes him, but it’s something else when he just says it. “i know,” mark replies.

yukhei’s hand comes to clasp his, as if he’s afraid that mark’s going to run away and well, mark doesn’t blame him. yukhei’s touch has always been warm and comforting, and mark lets himself squeeze back, just this once.

“then why won’t you…?” yukhei trails off, his voice quieter than before. “i’m okay with just being friends, you know that, but i’m pretty sure you like me too, mark. so why won’t you let this happen?”

mark chokes out a little laugh. “because i’m scared, yukhei,” he says. “i’m scared of losing you once i’ve got you, so i’m too scared to try. i'm terrified that you’ll fall out of love with me or you’ll realize you don’t like me as much as you think you do.” yukhei’s still holding onto his hand, but when mark tugs away, yukhei doesn’t budge. he waits until mark is forced to look at him, his eyes burning with a feeling that mark can’t name.  

“mark lee, who are you to tell me how much i like you?” yukhei asks. “i've been friends with you since you were fucking twelve. i’ve seen you at your best and your worst, i saw you, i saw you almost dead in my arms and i still like you, more than anything. i’ve been in love with you since middle school, so what the fuck makes you think i’m going to stop now?” and yes, wong yukhei is sweet and funny and easy going, but right now, he’s nothing short of intense.

“that’s the point, though,” mark replied, his voice edging on desperation. “you do so much for me. you saved my fucking life for god’s sake, and i could never ever repay you for that.” he shakes his head and looks down at their connected hands. “you even helped me get my job. you’ve done me too many favors, yukhei. i like you, but i’m not good enough for you, and i never will be.”

there’s a few seconds of silence—mark feels his heart beating in his throat. yukhei lets go of mark’s hand and rubs the clamminess off onto his jeans. “you know you could, right?” he says.

“what?” mark asks.

yukhei shrugs. “you could pay me back.”

“how?” mark says, if only to humor him, but yukhei tilts his head and there’s a smirk on his face and mark’s pulse doubles.

“go on a date with me,” he announces, and mark can't help but laugh.

“you’re joking,” mark replies.

“nope,” yukhei says. “one hundred percent serious and i swear it on my life. come with me to the city for a date. and if it’s not the best date of your goddamn life, i promise i’ll leave you alone.”

and the craziest part is: mark finds himself considering it. he’s spent years trying to convince himself that being with yukhei isn’t what’s best for the both of them but now, he thinks he really really wants to try it.

“fine,” mark replies, if only to see the way yukhei’s face lights up in a grin. “but i'm picking the music.”

then yukhei says, “anything for you.” maybe it’s meant to be teasing, but mark hears it sincere, he hears it like i love you. and, oh, mark does.



vii.



on the morning of their date, mark wakes up at 4 am. the sun isn’t up yet, so he turns on a lamp and works on an english composition assignment for an hour, and then burns the playlist that he made for yukhei onto a cd. he’d spent a whole day slaving over it, making sure that there was just the right kind of undertone in the songs that he’d chosen. in a moment of weakness, he’d showed it to johnny with no context on who it was for, asking for his opinion. johnny had just replied with “i think yukhei will like it,” which made mark blush a bright red and escape to his room.

when mark crawls back into bed, it’s six thirty in the morning. by the way the sun’s rays are curling through his window, it looks like the day is going to be bright and warm. when he falls back asleep, he dreams of hands and honey and heartbreak.

he expects to be nervous, because this is it. this is do or die, the thing that’ll either start his real relationship with yukhei or grind it to a halt. and yet, he doesn’t feel the sense of urgency. yukhei has always been around, and there’s never been a reason for mark to doubt him.

mark thinks they’ve sort of always been together, and it’s a bit terrifying. but it’s a bit sweet too.

maybe that’s why mark has been hesitant to pursue a relationship with yukhei. he’s so pleasantly content with what they already have and he’s so afraid to mess it up and—

but if there’s something undeniable, it’s that he trusts yukhei absolutely. he trusts yukhei in the light and in the darkness, at dawn and at dusk, on the waves of sunshine bright sea and in the depths of moon dark ocean.

yukhei shows up at mark’s house around lunch time—mark finishes cramming the sandwich he’d made into his mouth and shoves his phone and wallet into his back pocket. the cd stays tucked in a clear case between his fingers.

mark’s running his hands through his hair, trying to calm it down, when he opens the door. yukhei’s wearing a loose shirt tucked into skinny jeans completed with a pair of sneakers—it’s simple, but mark thinks he’s absolutely stunning nonetheless, especially when his face breaks out into a grin.

“hey,” yukhei says and god, his happiness is infectious.

“hey,” mark replies, and smiles back. “i have something for you,” he says, and holds out the cd. mark watches the gears turn in yukhei’s head. that morning, mark had spent a solid five minutes debating whether or not to scribble a heart next to yukhei’s name on the cd, ultimately deciding to do it. seeing yukhei’s cheeks go pink, he doesn’t regret it.

“you made me a mixtape?” yukhei asks.

“i promised, right?” mark says. that’s not necessarily true—it had turned out significantly more romantic than mark had intended but, well, he’s not complaining.

yukhei smiles so wide that his face is consumed by it. “you did,” he agrees. he brings his arms from behind his back, revealing the unsubtly hidden rose in his right hand, and takes the cd from mark with his left. the rose is a pale pink, and the stem is long and thornless. if mark cared a little more about floriography, he might have stopped to consider what the flower itself meant, but nothing much matters when wong yukhei’s looking at you like you hung the sky and the stars in it.

(if mark paid a little more attention, he might’ve seen that yukhei had been looking at him like that for all his life.)

“thanks,” mark says, and takes the flower. he tucks it into the pocket of his jeans so that the petals stick out and, when he looks up, yukhei’s smile is dizzying. mark fights off the urge to run far, far away. it’s the way that yukhei paints his happiness so brightly on his face that makes mark want to hide rather than risk the chance of fucking up, but mark isn’t in high school anymore. you’re a grown person with grown feelings now, he reminds himself. there’s no need to run.

in the car, yukhei slides the cd into the disc slot. through the speakers, piano starts and chris martin croons, “the lights go out and i can't be saved…tides that i tried to swim against, have brought me down upon my knees.

the song is kind of a cliché, but yukhei hums along to it anyway as he starts driving, so mark takes it as a win.

“so what’s your plan?” mark asks, and yukhei just flashes him a smile as he turns onto the road leading them out of town.

“it’s a surprise,” yukhei says, and mark scoffs. “i’m serious,” he continues, earnestly. “it’s gonna be the best date of your life.”

“considering i’ve been on, like, two,” mark says, “that’s not very hard to beat.”

“bullshit,” yukhei replies. “i’ve known a solid fifteen people who’ve had a crush on you, there’s no way you’ve only been on two dates.”

mark rolls his eyes. “well, it’s true. the first one was jihoon park before he realized he was into woojin, and the second was jaemin this one time he was craving affection and his usual suspects weren’t around. they were both boring and almost 100% platonic, so, congrats, yukhei. you’re taking me on basically my first real date ever.”

and, if yukhei’s nervous, it doesn’t show. “this is gonna be the best first date of your life,” he says, and mark is so endeared by yukhei’s sincerity that his heart threatens to explode.

the conversation dies a bit then, but mark’s never been very uncomfortable when they’re quiet together. sometimes, when they were still in high school, yukhei would come over to mark’s house and just lie on his bed, watching while mark worked at his desk. now, they work in smooth unison, washing dishes in the back of the restaurant after closing. yukhei and mark aren’t necessarily on the same wavelength, but they seem to understand the silence between them, and that’s enough for the both of them.

mark leans his head on the window and watches the town fly by. this place is everything he’s known. there’s the park where he’d learned how to bike, and the shore where he’d learned how to surf, and the record shop where he’d learned to love music. there’s the house where he’d lived with his mother, the bus stop, the convenience store. there’s donghyuck’s shadow on the brick wall of the karaoke bar where they’d celebrated jaehyun’s 21st. there’s jeno’s laugh in the cracks of the korean restaurant that he loves so much, jaemin’s eyes in the mirrors of the nail salon, renjun’s fingers on the soft strokes of the mural across from the elementary school. there’s taeyong’s whisper at the ice cream shop on somerset street, and johnny’s grin on the sidewalks where he and mark would go skating.

and then there’s yukhei, absolutely everywhere. to mark, this tiny seaside town breathes yukhei wong. yukhei is in the sunlight that glints off glass windows, in the cool night breeze, in the waves that crash against the sand, in the chocolatey warmth of the bakeries lining the main road. to mark, yukhei is everything he’s ever known, everything he’s ever wanted, everything he’s ever called home. this town was home before yukhei even arrived, but now, mark couldn’t imagine it without him.

i think i’m in love with you, mark wants to say, but it’s a little bit too much for the first date.

he still wants to say something though, so he opens his mouth, but then the song switches to something a little more lighthearted and yukhei starts singing along. his voice isn’t necessarily beautiful, but it’s low and soothing, everything mark has ever wanted. it’s too gentle of a moment for him to interrupt.

he leans back against the window and closes his eyes, listening to yukhei’s voice rise and fall. without really meaning to, mark drifts off into sleep. he dreams a little, flashes of yukhei’s smile and his hands on mark’s face, and it’s all very pleasant. he’s not even disoriented when yukhei shakes him awake. mark barely remembered what it feels like to feel this wonderful, and to recall it is, well, wonderful.

“you’re kind of my guardian angel,” mark says when he opens his eyes, and yukhei blushes a shade of pink that makes mark want to kiss him. maybe it’s that he’d never let himself feel this good before. it’s still odd, to not put pressure on himself to do anything, to follow someone else’s lead, but it’s good too.

when mark looks out the window, they’re in the city, parked on the side of the road. it’s a part that mark recognizes, relatively close to his college’s campus. yukhei gets out of the car to pay a parking fee at the meter while mark stretches his arms and legs out and fixes his hair in the side view mirror.

“will you tell me what we’re doing now?” mark asks when he joins yukhei on the sidewalk. he’s feeling a little bold, so he wraps his arms around yukhei’s waist and stands on his tiptoes to hook his chin around yukhei’s shoulder as he feeds a twenty dollar bill into the meter. mark feels yukhei shudder against him, and he smiles to himself triumphantly.

“sure,” yukhei replies, voice a little shaky. “have you ever been ice skating before?”

mark blinks, steps back, removes his arms from around yukhei. “ice skating? really? i can barely skateboard and you wanna take me ice skating?”

yukhei turns around to face mark, a bright smile on his face. “yeah, there’s a rink like two blocks away,” he says. “lemme teach you. it’ll be fun, i promise.”

mark pouts. “i’m gonna be cold, yukhei, i didn’t dress for ice skating. i didn’t even bring a jacket,” mark complains, but yukhei just shrugs.

“just borrow mine,” he says, and unties a hoodie from around his waist that wasn’t there before, tossing it to mark. it’s warm, and too big, and mark’s heart races a little at the implication.

“you just want to see me in your clothes,” mark accuses, and yukhei’s answering grin is sharp and mischievous.

“yeah, sort of,” yukhei answers. “but it works out, right?”

mark scoffs, tugging the hoodie over his head. “fine,” he says, once he has it on. the sleeves fall over his palms like paws. “lead the way, i guess.”

he isn’t expecting yukhei to grab his hand and pull him along, but it works out.

on the way, mark learns that, when yukhei had lived in the city, he’d taken ice skating lessons for three years, and it’s clear in the way he comfortably slips on the skates when they make it to the rink. he kneels down in front of mark to help him out with his own skates, and takes his arm for support when he tries to wobble over to the entrance to the rink. on the ice, yukhei is smooth and graceful; mark feels like the penguin from happy feet. he’s never really liked feeling out of control, but it’s okay right now. he’s squeezing yukhei’s hand like a lifeline, and yukhei doesn’t let go.

yukhei doesn’t really have to do much to make mark smile, though. he’s grinning like a madman at yukhei’s antics as long as they’re on the ice. even though they’re attracting attention to themselves, mark doesn’t feel the slightest bit self conscious. it’s a good feeling.

mark’s standing alone in the middle of the rink, finally starting to get a hang of it by himself. yukhei finishes making a swooping round and slows down in front of mark, the toes of their skates bumping together. it throws mark off balance, but yukhei grabs his forearms before he can fall over.

“hey,” he greets. he’s close enough that mark can feel warmth radiating off of him.

“you’re a human furnace,” mark says, and then yukhei puts his hands on mark’s cheeks and leans in to kiss him, quick and chaste.

“and you’re cute,” yukhei replies, and skates away.

i can’t believe you kissed me on the first date, mark thinks once the fog in his brain clears up, but then again, is that really true? he remembers freshman year, when they’d shared a soda at the burger place after school. or when they’d gone out for ice cream after yukhei taught him how to skate. or when yukhei had held his hand and asked him to prom.

it hits mark, way too late, that maybe they’d been dating this whole time. he was so scared of being in a relationship, but being with yukhei, friendship or not, is was so damn easy.

mark takes a deep breath in and follows yukhei. once he gets close enough, he reaches out to grab yukhei’s wrist. yukhei turns around to face him, an indecipherable look on his face, and mark tilts to kiss him, hands on yukhei’s shoulders as purchase. it’s longer than the last kiss, and yukhei’s hands hover over mark’s waist, like he’s a bit too preoccupied with the kiss to tug him close.

“sorry i kept you waiting so long,” mark says, when he pulls away. yukhei’s grin is blinding, as always.

“it’s alright,” yukhei replies. “we’re here now, right?”

after they’ve finished at the rink, yukhei takes mark to a sandwich place down the street. since yukhei had paid for the ice skates, mark insists on covering the bill.

“just get me what looks good,” yukhei says, and drifts off to find them a table. mark huffs and goes up to the counter, ordering their food and taking the table marker back to where yukhei’s sitting. it’s the most secluded corner in the whole restaurant, although it’s not like many people are around anyway.

“i hope you like pesto,” mark says, sliding into the booth across from yukhei.

“you know me,” yukhei replies, and if by that, he means that mark knows that yukhei is the farthest from picky about food, then yeah, mark knows him.

mark knows yukhei well, so he’d had the sneaking suspicion that yukhei hadn’t chosen the little corner in the wall to sit down on a whim. he’s still disappointed when yukhei reaches over the table to grab his wrist as if mark would run at the smallest hint of confrontation. maybe a year or two ago, he would have, but mark’s a little different than he used to be.

“mark,” yukhei starts, “i have to know.” and mark already can tell what this is about. they’d never talked about the kiss before. “i have to know why . it’s been almost a year, but after telling me no over and over and then you just—”

“i’m stupid and i wanted you, yukhei. i wanted you more than i have ever wanted anything in my life and i was stupid and selfish and i took it,” mark breathes out.

“you’re not stupid,” yukhei says immediately. mark laughs.

“i am,” he replies. “but we both are, a little bit. you never gave up and i never gave in. well, until that night.”

“and until now, right?” yukhei presses.

“yeah,” mark says. “until now.” yukhei’s hand slips down to interlace their fingers together and god, mark regrets so much but maybe, just maybe, he won’t regret this.

the sigh mark lets out when yukhei has to let go of his hand to take the tray from the waitress is a little embarrassing. yukhei doesn’t comment on it. mark knows he’s a hard person to love, a mess of anxiety and contradictions, but yukhei has never once complained. mark think he’s grateful, more so than he could ever explain.

“hey, yukhei,” mark says, in between a bite of his sandwich. “i really really really like you.”

yukhei wipes leftover pesto off of his lips with the back of his hand and grins. “what? too nervous to say love?”

the corner of mark’s mouth tilts downwards. “a little,” he admits. mark feels that tiny spark of anxiety again, but the way yukhei’s expression goes soft and serious dampens the feeling.

“sorry,” yukhei apologizes. “i didn’t mean to rush you.”

mark laughs almost derisively. “rush me? you’ve waited for, like, three years already.”

“and i’m willing to wait three more,” yukhei says, “because i am absolutely sure that i love you. you don’t have to say it back, but i love you.”

mark’s imagined yukhei confessing to him a hundred times but never like this—their fingers covered in oil and salt in a sandwich restaurant in the middle of the city, mark feeling his face heat up.

“you’re so good to me, yukhei,” is all mark can think to say in return.

“what else can i be?” yukhei replies. “i’m in love with you.”

mark flushes even darker. “stop saying that.”

yukhei grins, part charming and part wicked. “what? i love you? not until i know that it sticks in that big head of yours.”

“hey,” mark says, offended, “don’t talk about my head like that. it’s sensitive.” and yukhei snorts out an ugly laugh and yes, maybe, mark is in love with him too. mark tastes pesto when yukhei leans over the table to kiss him on the corner of his mouth, but he doesn’t really mind.

after they finish lunch, they spend the next half an hour wandering around the city, yukhei pointing out fragments of his childhood on every street. mark is bursting with questions, but yukhei’s smile is so bright that mark doesn’t want to stop for a moment. they only finally slow down when they reach a couple of apartment buildings, stretching tall up into the sky.

“well, here we are,” yukhei says. “my old building.”

“woah,” mark replies. “so this is where you lived before you moved to our town?”

“yep,” yukhei confirms. and mark so desperately wants to ask why, but yukhei beats him to it. “my parents go away a lot,” he says. mark knows this, that yukhei spends a lot of nights alone, why he’s so self sufficient and street smart. “the city is like a jungle, and they decided that i wouldn’t be able to survive here without them. so we moved. small town, tight community. they thought that could replace them, i guess.”

“they were wrong?” mark guesses. they’re sitting on the steps of the building now, yukhei staring out into the street, mark looking down at his hands.

yukhei shrugs. “partially. no one can replace your parents but...i did have you guys. i love this city, i really do, but i never fit in. no one would have taken care of me, but then all of a sudden i had the, like, entire chinese community in the town as sort of my family. and you guys, you and jungwoo and jaehyun and—” yukhei cuts himself off. “sorry.”

“no,” mark replies. he looks up to catch eye contact with yukhei. “i wanna hear what you think about in that head of yours. it’s a bit of a mystery, you know.”

yukhei smiles. “sure,” he says. “whatever you want.” he reaches over to interlace their fingers, and mark sighs, a little contentedly.

“tell me,” mark starts. “tell me why you decided not to go to school this year?"

yukhei hums under his breath. “money, mostly,” he admits. mark gets it—his mother had left him a decent amount of money for college, but he still had to work hard to pay for textbooks and classes and keep up his scholarship. “i figured that if i work enough this year and save, it’ll be easier.”

“makes sense,” mark agrees, but yukhei’s still rubbing mark’s knuckles with his thumb, and mark can feel nervous energy in the air.

“don’t really know what i wanna do with my life,” yukhei continues. “don’t really think i’m smart enough for school, sometimes.”

mark tilts his head in confusion. “are you serious? you’re smart as hell, yukhei.”

yukhei laughs, a little self deprecating. “dude, i didn't get a single a grade in my junior or senior year. you don’t have to try to make me feel better about it.”

“dude,” mark repeats, “you’re genuinely so smart. fuck grades, they don’t determine anything. you literally…you are so smart and witty and charming and you study so hard. you don’t even have to go to college and i know you’ll be successful.”

it’s relieving to see yukhei be the one blushing for once. “i mean,” yukhei starts, “i do want to go to school. i want to be somebody, you know. help people, or something like that.”

mark grins. “ah, yukhei. you’re so wholesome. always so caring,” he compliments and yukhei scoffs.

“not really,” he replies. “not it comes to you.”

mark raises an eyebrow. “and what’s that supposed to mean?”

“come on,” yukhei says. “i can’t believe that you can’t tell that i look at you like i want to eat you alive.”

mark goes red. “well,” he says, tugging his hand out of yukhei’s grip and crossing his arms, turning his chin up. “i have no idea what you’re talking about,” he finishes and yukhei laughs until he’s wheezing.

the sun dips into evening by the time they make it back home. mark spends most of the drive back staring at yukhei’s hands and leaning over to kiss him at stoplights. yukhei’s grinning like he’d won a million dollars; mark is dizzy with affection.

“so,” yukhei starts, when he slows to a stop in front of mark’s house. “best date of your life?” he asks, and mark can’t help but smile.

“i don’t know,” mark replies. “you might have to take me on a few more so i can really decide.” yukhei’s eyes sparkle, and he reaches over to grab mark’s hand.

“anything for you,” yukhei says, and mark believes him. it’s a weird rush of energy, knowing that yukhei really loves him, entirely and unconditionally.

“you too,” mark blurts out. “you know that? i’d do anything for you too.” yukhei’s cheeks go pink in the most endearing way and his mouth falls open in surprise. mark knows he hasn’t done enough to prove how much yukhei matters to him, but in that moment, he swears to himself that he’s going to try.

the last song in mark’s playlist slows to a stop. when mark bids yukhei goodbye and goes inside, he realizes that he’s still wearing yukhei’s hoodie. he doesn’t think yukhei’s going to mind much.



viii.



dating yukhei wong is not so different from being friends with yukhei wong. sure, there’s more kissing and touching and whispered sweet nothings, but yukhei’s comforting warmth is still ever present. he still feels the same, and mark’s grateful for that. it’s sort of natural, loving yukhei wong, like he was meant to be here all this time.

(he probably was. the closer he becomes to yukhei, the more he believes in soulmates. no, they’re not perfect for each other. but made for each other? yeah, mark thinks so.)

when finals start, mark locks himself up interchangeably between the campus library and his room, because his gpa’s right on the edge, dammit, and he wants that 4.0 more than he’s wanted anything in his life. still, though, he’s better than he was in junior year, and he lets yukhei and donghyuck and johnny talk him out of his shell every once in a while for a break.

it’s nice, dating yukhei, because his good morning texts help mark get out of bed in the morning, and he comes over to mark’s house with boba milk tea and fiddles with his phone on mark’s bed while mark studies at his desk. it’s nice because when mark gets tired or frustrated, he can wrap himself in yukhei’s arms and everything is suddenly so much better. it’s nice because mark’s spent his whole life flailing around in the water, hoping to find something to hold on to, and now he has yukhei, his lighthouse, steady and bright and leading him to the shore.

on the days of his exams, yukhei brings him breakfast and they walk to the bus stop together, sitting on the bench with their burritos. he gives mark a kiss for good luck before he gets on the bus, and the bus driver laughs when mark trips on his way up the steps. mark’s always had test anxiety, but the flutters in his stomach when he enters the lecture hall is more anticipation than fear.

“you’re kind of stupid for thinking that yukhei is anything but good for you,” donghyuck tells him one day, and mark just rolls his eyes, because he knows that donghyuck is right. if there’s one thing he’s learned, it’s that all donghyuck wants him to be is happy, and mark’s happy with yukhei, happier than he’s been in a long time.

the day after his first date with yukhei, mark finally tells donghyuck what had happened on that night in north shore in his junior year. it doesn’t take long before donghyuck has him in a bear hug and is crying into his shoulder.

“i’m so sorry,” he says. “i should've been there to help you.”

“it’s not your fault,” mark replies. “i left you in the dark. i didn't let anyone help, but i should have.”

donghyuck pulls back to wipe his tears away with his hands. “you're so stupid, mark. don’t you know how much we all love you?”

the same night, he calls jeno and tells him too, like he’d thought about doing years ago. “mark lee, listen closely,” jeno demands, once he’s done sniffling. “you’re the strongest person i've ever known, so you better give yourself some more credit. talking to your friends doesn’t make you weaker, ever. we’re always here for you.”

mark swallows down the lump in his throat. “i know,” he replies.

and then, because jeno always has to lighten the mood before hanging up, he says, “so, you sure you’re not just in love with yukhei because he saved your life?”

“oh, fuck off,” mark replies, “you know i was whipped way before that,” and jeno can’t help but agree.

on the day that mark’s semester transcript comes in, he’s on yukhei’s couch, with his laptop refreshing the webpage every thirty seconds while yukhei cleans his kitchen. yukhei’s dragging a mop out of the closet when it hits 3 pm and mark nearly jumps off the couch when he sees his grades pop up in the browser.

“yukhei,” he says, “yukhei, dude, i got all a’s!”

the mop clatters to the ground. “dude!” yukhei exclaims. he rushes over and leans in close to look at the laptop screen. it’s there in black bold lettering: six classes, six a’s. they both stare at it for a second, and then yukhei’s pulling mark up to his feet and crushing him in a hug.

“i knew you could do it,” he says, too loud in mark’s ear, but mark’s too excited to care. “i’m so proud of you, bro.”

then he steps back, only to kiss mark like he’s never been kissed before—warm and all-consuming.

when they pull away to breath, mark’s a little dazed. “there’s gotta be some kind of dating rule against calling me bro and then giving me the kiss of my life,” mark says.

“since when have i ever followed the rules?” yukhei replies and mark cracks a grin. he feels so good, like he could run a marathon. he tilts his head up to kiss yukhei again, and it feels so good that mark doesn’t know how he ever lived without this.

yukhei pulls mark over to the couch and lies down, legs bent to fit the length; mark crawls on top of him and cups yukhei’s cheek in his hand and presses their lips together. yukhei keeps inexplicably laughing between kisses and mark’s heart feels lighter than it ever has before.

“hey, mark,” yukhei says, once mark is breathing heavy and sweat is forming where their skin is touching. it’s starting to be a sticky summer, mark thinks.

“yeah?” mark replies.

“i talked to my parents about it, and i’m gonna apply to schools this fall,” he says. “i’ve saved a lot of money and—i think i’m ready.”

“really?” mark asks. “that’s awesome, holy shit. what do you think you’re gonna study?”

yukhei’s hands brush across mark’s abdomen. “i don’t know for sure yet, but i was thinking social work. i wanna help people, you know.”

“yeah,” mark agrees, “i know.” pause. “you’re really good at that.”

yukhei grins. “thanks, babe,” he says, and mark gives him a long kiss as a welcome. yukhei’s hands tangle in his hair and tug; it’s been a while since mark got it cut, but he’s in no rush.

“mark,” yukhei starts, when he pulls away. “do you want to make celebration cookies?”

“uh…yes?” mark replies. “sure? what’s the occasion?” he asks, but yukhei just barrels on forward.

“i was thinking of doing the recipe that your mom made. remember when i told you i’d make them for you?”

mark remembers. every second of that night’s been permanently burned into his brain, probably. “oh,” he says. mark’s known yukhei for a long time, but he still seems to throw mark off every now and then. “uh, right now?” mark asks. “weren’t you cleaning?”

yukhei rolls his eyes. “i’ve been making out with you for the past ten minutes. what makes you think i care about cleaning?”

mark shrugs. “fair point. now, then.” he rolls off yukhei and plants his feet on the carpet under them. “blow me away with your baking skills, wong.”

“you aren’t even close to being ready, lee,” yukhei replies.

and he’s right. with all the time he’s spent alone, yukhei being a good cook makes sense. yukhei’s versions of mark’s favorite foods are his favorite versions. mark doesn’t really know why that makes him start to tear up.

mark scribbles down the recipe from memory on the back of a receipt and sticks it under a magnet on yukhei’s fridge, next to an old grocery list clearly written by his mother. mark likes being in yukhei’s home, seeing the intricacies of his life written into every wall.

yukhei mixes all the ingredients together while mark leans over the table and bothers him with questions. yukhei feeds cookie dough to mark just as often as he rolls chunks of it into circles and places them on the cookie sheet.

“we’re not gonna be able to eat them all, you know. you wanna call the gang over?” yukhei asks.

mark snorts. “the gang?”

yukhei rolls his eyes, sliding the cookie tray into the preheated oven. “you know what i mean.”

“yeah, i do,” mark concedes, and pulls his phone out of his pocket to text the group chat. it’s been about an hour since the school day ended for them; not like it matters, because half of them are seniors now and couldn’t be bothered about doing homework. chenle and jisung are a little more hesitant to agree to come over, but donghyuck has always been good at peer pressure.

it’s a little weird to realize how much they’ve grown up. it’s like the past few years have passed by in seconds, even if they seemed so long in the moment.

it’s barely ten minutes later when four boys show up, banging on yukhei’s door. jaemin tackles mark into a hug as soon as he pulls it open.

“i haven’t seen you in forever, mark! where the fuck have you been?”

“being a good student unlike your dumb ass,” mark replies.

“oh fuck off,” jaemin says, pulling away and smacking mark on the shoulder. “i already got into college, give me a break.

“hey, mark, good to see you,” jeno says, passing by into the kitchen and ruffling mark’s hair on the way. mark flips him off.

donghyuck, surprisingly, doesn’t have a sarcastic comment on the tip of his tongue when he gives mark a fist bump in greeting. “you okay?” mark asks.

“he’s good,” renjun says. “jaemin just showed us the video that the class officers made for graduation and he’s been emo ever since.”

donghyuck sputters. “fuck you, renjun, it was sad, okay.” renjun just laughs.

“i take it you’re not upset about leaving,” mark says to renjun, when donghyuck runs away to join jaemin, jeno, and yukhei in the kitchen.

“nah,” renjun replies. “i’m going to the place and the city that i’ve dreamed of going to my whole life. why would i be sad about leaving this shit hole behind?”

mark shrugs. “we’re still here.”

renjun’s mouth twists into a pout. “well, that’s true. you guys are the only thing i’m gonna miss about this place,” and that’s probably the most sentimental renjun is going to be in his life. he leans over and pinches mark’s cheek almost painfully, and then drifts off to the rest of them.

chenle and jisung manage to show up just as soon as the cookies pop out of the oven, with their homework in tow.

“disgusting,” yukhei says, “get that math problem out of my house.”

chenle rolls his eyes. “you know they’re gonna make you take a math class when you go to college, right?”

yukhei looks stricken for half a moment, and the rest of them dissolve into laughter.

“you’re applying?” jaemin asks, and yukhei nods.

“yeah, man. finally saved up enough for it,” he says. jaemin reaches out to give him a high five.

“that’s awesome, man. i’m proud of you,” jaemin says, and yukhei’s smile is so bright that mark can’t look away. jeno makes an odd noise in his throat.

“what?” mark asks. jeno has no right to look like an innocent angel when mark knows all the bullshit that he gets up to.

“nothing,” jeno replies. “just happy for you.”

when the cookies are cool enough to eat, yukhei grabs the first one and breaks it in half. “come here, mark,” he calls, and pops it in mark’s open mouth. mark doesn’t know what he expected, but they really do taste like his mom’s cookies. he’s not gonna cry, no, but he’d be lying if a lump didn’t form in his throat at the thought.

“tastes great, babe,” mark says, going for casual. jisung fake gags from behind them.

“no but really, holy shit, they’re so good,” jeno says through the entire cookie he’d shoved in his mouth. renjun ducks to avoid the crumbs that spray out of his mouth.

“you’re revolting,” jaemin says. jeno sticks up his middle finger in response.

donghyuck’s still a little quieter than usual, especially when he tastes a cookie and gives mark a knowing look, but eventually he warms up enough to play video games with them on yukhei’s xbox, four people per round while the rest of them sit around the tv and egg them on.

yukhei’s sitting next to mark on the floor, pressed against his side. it’s nice, even though chenle is yelling obscenities at donghyuck every time he gets sniped.

when yukhei gets up to get the rest of the cookies from the counter, mark follows. the mop’s still lying on the floor where yukhei had left it and mark kicks it idly while yukhei fills up the plate.

“i wanna be alone with you,” yukhei says, voice low, when mark comes closer. it makes mark’s face light up despite himself.

“are you saying you don’t like our friends?”

yukhei rolls his eyes. “you know that’s not what i’m saying. just want you to myself for a while,” he says, and then reconsiders. “want you to myself all the time, i mean, but since i can’t have that—”

“i love you,” mark confesses. “i’m not scared anymore, and i love you.”

there’s a pause, and mark feels himself blush. “oh,” yukhei says. he cups mark’s face with his hand, and leans in close. “i love you, too, you know. and i never want you to be afraid.”

“i’m not,” mark says, “i just love you so—”

yukhei presses their lips together, hard and fast. mark loves it, loves him; yukhei drives him crazy and keeps him sane and yukhei’s the best thing he’s never asked for and never really deserved, but got anyway.

“i can’t believe i have you,” mark says, truthfully.

“well, believe it,” yukhei replies. “because i’m not going anywhere.”

mark leans up to kiss yukhei again, until a pillow comes flying from the opposite room, landing inches from mark’s feet.

“hey, lovebirds!” jeno calls. “stop making out over there and come play!”

“fuck you!” yukhei shouts back, over mark’s shoulder, and pulls mark in again.

it doesn’t take long until the pillow cushion fight of the ages started, the video game left paused and forgotten. they only stop when chenle slams his shin into the side of yukhei’s center table and honest to god screeches so loud that yukhei has to run outside to make sure no neighbors heard them.

they’re sweaty and exhausted from beating each other over the head with couch cushions. yukhei sinks down on the sofa next to mark, instinctively grabbing his hand, and yeah, mark’s in love.

it’s not so bad, though. not so bad at all.