Johnny is shaken awake, which is disconcerting in itself.
He’s typically an early riser, the guy that wakes everyone else up. The fact that Donghyuck is standing over him shaking his shoulder makes Johnny feel incredibly disoriented.
“Hyung, wake up,” Donghyuck says, shaking Johnny’s shoulder harder. “We’re going to be late.”
The fact that Doyoung isn’t in the room yelling tells Johnny that they’re not going to be late, late, but it does mean that he probably doesn’t have time for much more than a quick shower and breakfast on the go. There won’t be time to carefully pick out an outfit. Everything feels a little too frantic, and Johnny hates it.
They have another day of their music video shoot for their comeback today, so Johnny grabs the first pair of sweatpants he finds and a long-sleeved tee and beelines it for the bathroom. He practically bowls over Mark on the way.
"Hyung," Mark says, but Johnny ignores him in favour of pulling off his pajamas before he's halfway through the bathroom door. He doesn’t pause to wonder why Mark is downstairs in their dorm anyway, instead of heading to the studio with the members who live upstairs.
He tries to temper his mood while he's in the shower. Johnny knows the impact he has on his members, recognizes that they all turn to him as a guiding force through much of the mayhem of their overpacked days, but it's hard. He's everyone else's rock, but sometimes Johnny finds it difficult to lean on them in return. They’re just all so young and impressionable. He doesn’t want to burden them with his own troubles.
With a sigh, Johnny makes a mental note to text Sehun about grabbing drinks soon.
He showers in record time and climbs into a car with Doyoung and Mark, hair stuffed under a beanie that he’d pulled out of the basket by the front door. It was maybe originally Taeyong’s, discarded not long after purchase in favour of something else softer and more colourful. Johnny doesn’t mind, as long as it keeps his hair from freezing to his head before the stylists can blow dry it for him.
The car ride is quiet. Doyoung is listening to music and their manager is never a morning person by nature. Johnny takes a moment to set an alarm on his phone for their schedules the next morning and then tips his head against the seat rest behind him and closes his eyes, feels himself just on the cusp of sleep when he feels someone poke him in the shoulder.
“Hyung,” Mark whispers.
Johnny’s brow furrows. “What?” he asks in English without opening his eyes.
“Ah, I was just wondering if you were still okay to hang out later?” There’s an almost tangible nervous tinge to the lilt of Mark’s voice, which Johnny chalks up to his own temper. Mark stopped being shy with him about two days after they first met; the only time he’s ever hesitated is when he’s afraid of pissing Johnny off.
Given Johnny’s current mood, it seems pretty reasonable.
“I don’t know, Mark,” Johnny replies. “It’s going to be a long day and I’m not really feeling great.”
“Oh. Yeah. Of course,” Mark mumbles. “I get it. Some other time.”
Johnny can hear Mark slump back in his seat in the row behind him. He feels a bit bad, but he spends a lot of time with Mark. There will be other days to hang out, even with looming busy schedules. Honestly, it’s not like Johnny is going anywhere.
Unsurprisingly, Johnny’s day goes from bad to worse.
His hair stylist and makeup noona both complain to him about the general state of his everything: wet hair, dark circles, grumpy demeanor. They put him through his paces and then shoo him off to wardrobe so they can sink their claws into the next sleepy victim.
He messes up several times during various parts of the shoot. It’s like he can’t remember what sets are for what part of the song, which leaves him terribly out of place every time the music starts. The first couple times the members chalk it up to early the early wakeup call and finding the groove of things, but by the fourth time, Johnny can tell they’re starting to get impatient.
“Maybe you should rest for a bit and we’ll do some of the individual shots with the others,” their manager advises kindly, before ushering Taeil and Jungwoo back onto the set.
Johnny kind of wants to rest forever, honestly, but he knows this will pass. It’s just a bad day in a sea of many, and tomorrow he’ll wake up feeling more like himself, and everything will go back to normal. That’s how it always is with them.
He spends most of the day puttering around the studio, occasionally being asked to be part of group shots, but largely being left alone. The members file in and out of the set and makeup until there’s only a handful of them left and hardly anything left in the day.
“You feeling alright?” Taeyong asks, sinking down into the seat next to him. He’s got his hair shoved under a beanie and his eyeshadow is all smoked out and intense looking. He looks gorgeous, honestly.
And, well, it’s not that Johnny ever feels ugly. He thinks he’s handsome enough, but Taeyong is just. Something else. Ethereal. A lot of their members are like that: dainty and wide-eyed and pouty. Mark’s like that too, and just as talented as Taeyong.
“I think I just woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” Johnny replies. “I’ll be better tomorrow. Sorry for today, though.”
Taeyong hums quietly, bopping his head to the music playing on the set. Johnny thinks that he’s escaped any real sort of lecture when Taeyong asks, “Are you feeling happier about this comeback?”
It’s a bit of a weird question. Loaded, too. Johnny frowns. “What do you mean?”
Taeyong swivels in his chair so that he’s facing Johnny fully, primly folding one leg over the other and straightening his spine. He’s talking to Johnny as the leader of NCT 127, not as Johnny’s friend, and it makes Johnny’s skin prickle uncomfortably.
“I just mean, I could tell you were unhappy with Regular-Irregular. You didn’t get a lot of lines. But now you have quite a few. Are you feeling better about it?”
Johnny opens his mouth but finds that the words elude him. Is he happier? Sure. He’ll take more lines any day of the week. But to acknowledge that he’s feeling better would be to admit that he was ungrateful in the first place and that’s -- that’s not Johnny.
“It’s more work,” he says carefully, watching the way Taeyong’s brow creases, the makeup crinkling at the edges.
“That’s not what I asked.”
“It’s fine, Yong, don’t worry about it,” Johnny says tiredly, but Taeyong doesn’t let it drop. He’s never let Johnny off the hook easily before. Johnny supposes now shouldn’t be an exception.
“I try not to but sometimes I just -- I worry about you,” Taeyong says, picking absently at a loose thread on his pants. Johnny wants to reach over and still the movement, lest Taeyong pull too hard and ruin them. The stylists would have a fit.
But something stops him. The tiny sliver of pettiness in him keeps his hands folded neatly in his lap, because he knows what Taeyong is really saying underneath the careful veneer: I feel guilty that I get all these opportunities and you don’t. I feel bad that you trained for so long and have so little to show for it. I don’t want to let you down, because I don’t know how to do this without you. That’s the way it’s always been with them: Johnny a pillar of strength for Taeyong to lean on during all his leader duties and additional promotions. Johnny’s never been jealous, never felt like he’s been left on the sidelines, but the way Taeyong speaks of it now irks him. It stokes a fire in him that’s been building all day.
“I don’t want your pity, Taeyong,” he says. Taeyong pulls nervously at the thread. “Yeah, it sucks being idle sometimes but it’s not like there’s anything I can do about it, so, just. Let it go.”
Taeyong looks like he wants to continue the conversation, but Johnny is spared the lecture by the director waving him over for his individual shots. If he’s lucky, Taeyong won’t stick around for him and will head back early with some of the other members.
Johnny tries to put on his best smile for the director, pull up the easy-going demeanor he’s known for. He goes where he’s directed, smiles when he’s asked, and pouts when the director changes his mind. It’s all autopilot now.
He rolls Taeyong’s words over in his head. He’s doing fine, but what he’d said about staying idle while some of the others went off to do other projects was also true. It’s hard to watch the others record OSTs and MC music shows and get sent off to be in supergroups. He’s even a little envious of Donghyuck’s hectic schedule promoting both 127 and Dream.
It’ll get better, Johnny tells himself, a balm over a stinging wound. Promoting with your brothers is better than any solo endeavour anyway .
As expected, the studio is pretty well empty by the time Johnny’s done. They’d left him for last after his foul mood earlier, so he’s not expecting anyone to be waiting for him. He bows towards all the staff and heads off to the dressing room, pausing in the doorway when he spots a lone figure curled up on the couch inside.
Mark has his head pillowed uncomfortably on the armrest, knees pulled up to his chest while he scrolls through something on his phone. He looks -- young: tongue poking out as he navigates something difficult. Johnny wonders if it’s a level in a game or something mundane. He knows Mark isn’t great with technology.
“What are you still doing here?” he asks tiredly. He hopes it comes out sounding more exhausted than snappy. Being angry the whole day has left Johnny with little energy and few fucks to give.
Mark straightens up immediately, phone falling uselessly onto the couch. “I was waiting for you,” he says. His eyes are so wide Johnny has to look away.
“Well, duh,” he replies, tugging his shirt off. He carefully hangs it up on the rack and pulls his t-shirt back on over his head. “I mean, was there something you needed? I told you I didn’t think I could hang out tonight.”
“Oh, uh, yeah,” Mark says, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. “I just thought. I don’t know. We could take the same car back? Taeyong-hyung and I have to leave really early tomorrow and then we’ll be really busy when we come back. It’s fine, though. If you just want to sleep in the car. That’s okay. I get it. It’s okay.”
Well. Shit. Johnny definitely forgot that Mark and Taeyong were jetting off to America on tour. He doesn’t understand where the days keep going; it seemed like the first two weeks of January lasted for four months, but now it’s already time for SuperM to go back on tour. Johnny really needs to get his head on straight.
Mark’s still babbling and Johnny wishes he could turn off his ears, switch to noise-cancelling mode. It’s Mark’s way of covering up, of hiding how disappointed and sad he is that Johnny can’t make the time for him before he goes off to the other side of the world for three weeks.
Just another layer of guilt on top of the building load on his shoulders. It reminds him about the argument he’d had with Taeyong earlier. He’ll leave tomorrow too, knowing Johnny was upset with him, and that kind of thing always eats Taeyong up inside.
“It’s fine, Mark,” Johnny says, cutting off Mark’s rambling. “Just. I don’t know. Show me what you’re listening to these days.”
He doesn’t miss the way Mark’s eyes light up with happiness, or the way he scrambles to untangle his headphones while Johnny changes into sweatpants. It’s a bit like having a puppy following him around, and on any other day, Johnny wouldn’t mind. He hardly ever minds when it’s Mark, but the black cloud hanging over his head leaves him feeling cynical.
He’s better than you, the jealous voice in his head says as they traipse out to the car, Mark practically stepping on his heels with his eagerness. He’s indulging you.
Then let him , cuts in the rational part of his brain. Tentatively, he slings an arm over Mark’s shoulder once they’re settled in the van, and Mark cuddles into him instantly, handing him an earphone and chattering away about the song that he’s picked for them first. Mark’s grown up so fast; Johnny can afford him a little bit of childish happiness.
Mark grows less talkative the closer they get to dorms, and by the time they get into the elevator, he’s got nothing left to say. Still, he fidgets aimlessly with his headphones, tugs nervously on his ear. Johnny sighs and steps out on his floor when the elevator doors open, tugging Mark after him.
“Hyung?” Mark asks, clearly confused.
“Spit it out,” Johnny says. “What’s got you all jittery?”
Mark’s face turns red and he ducks his head. “Oh, uh, nothing, hyung. Don’t worry about it.”
Johnny tsks and chucks Mark under the chin, forcing him to look up. Mark caves in an instant.
“I guess. I’ll just -- miss you?” he stutters out.
Johnny raises an eyebrow. “Really?” he asks, raising an eyebrow at the way Mark frowns back at him.
“What? Yeah, of course,” Mark replies.
Johnny -- finds that hard to believe. Mark’s going to be spending almost two weeks with their seniors, members of EXO and SHINee that Johnny is friends with. He’ll have Ten and Taeyong, and he’ll have a friend in Lucas. He won’t need Johnny to hold his hand through interviews; Johnny saw the way Mark navigated all of SuperM’s debut promotions with ease. He isn’t a little boy anymore, and Johnny sees that more clearly than a lot of people probably do.
“You’ll be fine,” Johnny says, tucking his hands into his pocket. “You’re a superstar, Mark Lee.”
Mark frowns harder. “Thanks,” he says, sounding unsure, then adds, “I’ll miss your birthday.”
The comment surprises Johnny. He didn’t think it would matter that much to Mark; the members aren’t always on top of gift-giving, and Mark is notorious for being bad at picking out gifts in general. If he were home, Johnny might’ve invited him to eat out and then come home and watch a movie, but that’s stuff they do on the regular anyway. Just because Johnny’s turning a year older shouldn’t change anything.
“Don’t worry about it,” Johnny says. “It’s nothing special.”
“It’s special to me, though,” Mark says. There’s a hard edge to his voice, the tone close to cracking in a way that Marks’ grown out of. “I just -- you’re special to me, Johnny, so things like your birthday are important to me.”
Johnny doesn’t really know what to say. He doesn’t know how to comfort Mark and he doesn’t want to dive too deep into what Mark might be implying. Mark’s his little brother, but. He’s not so little anymore. He knows this.
Blindly, Johnny jabs at the elevator button behind him. It doesn’t take long for it to come down from the floor above them.
“It’s fine, Mark,” he says, gesturing for Mark to get into the elevator. “Buy me something when you get back.”
Mark makes a distressed sound in the back of his throat, stepping past Johnny. Sullenly, he jabs the button for his floor, but he won’t make eye contact with Johnny.
“Have a good tour. Stay healthy,” Johnny says lamely.
When he crawls into bed 20 minutes later, the hurt expression on Mark’s face is what plays back to him against the darkness of his closed eyes.
Johnny is shaken awake, which is. Weird. It’s unlike him to oversleep two days in a row, and even more unlikely since he distinctly remembers setting an alarm for himself. When he cracks his eyes open, Donghyuck is standing over him, looking just as concerned as yesterday. He’s also wearing yesterday’s clothes, which Johnny immediately chirps him for.
Donghyuck frowns. “I wasn’t wearing this yesterday,” he pouts. “I wore that black and white turtleneck yesterday. In case you can’t tell, this is pink.” He twirls obnoxiously for Johnny and then scampers across the room to the door. “Hurry up,” he adds, halfway out of the room. “We’re going to be late.”
Johnny takes a quick moment to glance at the clock. He swears their schedule wasn’t until later today, but he rolls out of bed anyway. If Donghyuck is already up and ready to go, he must be right. The boy is a notorious night owl and never voluntarily wakes up before noon if he can help it. Johnny grabs a pair of jeans and a hoodie out of the closet and heads for the bathroom --
-- and immediately runs into Mark in the hallway.
Johnny blinks. He rubs his eyes, just to make sure he’s seeing things correctly, but standing in front of him is Mark Lee, idol extraordinaire.
“Aren’t you supposed to be on a flight?” Johnny asks. Mark isn’t even dressed for the airport; he’s wearing the same casual joggers and sweater combo he was wearing the day before.
Mark frowns at him. “No, that’s tomorrow,” he says.
Johnny blinks. He wants to argue with Mark, scold him for being late, but if Johnny doesn’t hurry up he’s going to be late for his schedule today too, so he just grunts and shoulders past Mark into the bathroom.
The same grey beanie that he wore yesterday is back in the basket by the front door. Johnny frowns at it before he tugs it on over his wet hair. He was sure he’d left it on the shelf in his headboard last night when they got back from the shoot, but maybe someone grabbed it from him while he was getting ready for bed and moved it. No matter. It’s on his head now and it’s keeping his hair from freezing, and that’s all that really matters.
Doyoung is in the car already when he gets there, slumped against the window and listening to music again. Johnny settles into his seat and is just about to pull out his phone when Mark pops his head over the seat from the back row.
“Hyung,” he says, startling Johnny hard enough that he yelps. Their manager glances in the rearview window at them before turning on the car and backing out of their parking spot.
“Jesus, you scared the shit out of me,” Johnny mutters, clutching his heart. Then his brain catches up with him. “Wait, seriously, aren’t you supposed to be on a flight?”
Mark frowns again. “I told you earlier,” he says, “it’s tomorrow. Are you okay?”
Johnny blinks at Mark, stares at his wide, bright eyes. They’re so big and earnest, and they’re the number one reason Johnny has definitely doted on Mark more than he should have while they were growing up within the walls of the company. Johnny can always read the emotions in Mark’s eyes, and right now all he’s getting is confusion and a touch of worry. There’s no joking glint to them, no touch of teasing. Mark is being serious.
Something in Johnny’s gut twisted. He had set an alarm last night for his schedule today, but he’d still been woken up by Hyuck telling him he was late. Mark had been in the hallway in the same clothes even though he should have been on a flight to LA. Doyoung was in the car again this morning.
Johnny swallows audibly. He picks up his phone from where it had fallen when Mark had startled him and turns the screen on. The date stares back up at him and it only takes Johnny half a second before it registers that it’s the same as yesterday.
Johnny doesn’t really remember a lot of the rest of the car ride; he’s too distracted by the fact that the days haven’t changed. Mark pesters him a little more until Johnny swats him away, barks at him to leave him alone, and if Johnny were in his right mind he’d feel bad about the way Mark shrinks back in his seat and how Doyoung glares at him, clearly having heard him over the music in his headphones.
But. It’s the same day.
Maybe you just dreamed everything , Johnny’s brain tries to supply. Everything that happened yesterday was just a dream.
He wants to believe it, truly, but they get out of the car and everything is the same. The same stylist noona scolds him about his wet hair while the makeup noona tells him he needs to sleep more so she doesn’t have to use so much makeup to cover up his dark circles. He’s put in the same outfit, the set is the same, and the choreo is the same.
Johnny even messes up the same way he did yesterday, except this time it’s because he’s so distracted by everything, instead of just being moody and upset. He can’t help but fixate on the way the director is yelling the same things, or how Jaehyun trips on his untied shoelace. There’s so much to look at, so much to catalogue, that Johnny almost misses it when the director yells, “Cut!”
“Sorry,” several of them chorus at once, scrambling to get back into position.
They run it three more times, and by the fourth, Johnny knows they’re going to stop for good. The director will ask for individual shoots, and Johnny will be asked to get his head on straight.
“Maybe you should rest for a bit and we’ll do some of the individual shots with the others,” their manager says, word for word what he said yesterday. Johnny nods robotically and moves to sit down off to the side.
He just -- he has no idea what’s going on. Everything is exactly, exactly the same and that just can’t be. There is no reasonable explanation as to what is happening. Maybe he’s still asleep. If he didn’t dream up yesterday, maybe today is the dream and his subconscious is punishing him for all the mistakes he made the day before.
Punishing him for that haunting look Mark had left with him before they’d parted ways for two weeks.
Which, if that’s the case, Johnny is fully ready to wake up and send Mark a long-winded message about how he was in a bad mood but he shouldn’t have taken it out on him. And how he’ll make it up to Mark when he gets back. Or send him flowers or something to one of the venues on their tour. Whatever it takes. Johnny would really like to wake up from this nightmare now.
Sadly, the day keeps going. Like the day before, he’s left until almost the very end of the day for his individual shoots, so he’s entirely unsurprised when Taeyong drops into the seat next to him and asks, “You feeling alright?”
“Feeling a little weird,” Johnny says, because that’s the truth. “Like, intense deja vu.”
Taeyong scrunches his nose. “I hope you feel better,” he says earnestly. “We need you.”
Johnny bobs his head, feeling something akin to relief wash through him. They didn’t talk about this yesterday -- but then again, yesterday Johnny wasn’t suffering from the weirdest dream ever -- which means that maybe the pattern has been broken. Maybe this is a turning point. The light at the end of the tunnel.
Taeyong asks, “Are you feeling happier about this comeback?”
Johnny leans back in his chair and smacks his head against the wall. Taeyong makes an alarmed sound in the back of his throat. “Johnny?”
“I’m very happy, thanks, Yong,” Johnny says. “We worked really hard on this album and it shows.”
“That’s not really what I asked … “
Jesus, Johnny really can’t catch a break. He doesn’t know how to satisfy Taeyong without outright saying that he’s happy with the album, which -- isn’t a lie, but still feels like an omission of some truths. He recalls what they talked about the day before. Or the same day. Whatever.
“I wish I had more projects outside of 127 sometimes, but I’m not unhappy with the work I’m doing,” he says carefully. “And I’m super proud of this album. It sounds awesome.”
Taeyong bobs his head nervously. He’s shifted in his chair so that he’s facing Johnny, looking much the same as he had the last time they had this conversation: one leg crossed over the other, spine straight. Leader face on. It makes Johnny’s jaw clench.
“It does,” Taeyong says carefully. “I just -- worry about you. Maybe unnecessarily, but you’re one of my best friends, Johnny. I want you to be happy.”
The day before, Johnny’s bad mood had classified this as pity, but today Johnny’s more willing to accept this as friendly concern. Admittedly, he feels the same way about Taeyong but in reverse: he’s never seen anyone work as much as their leader, except Mark. If they’re not careful they’ll run themselves into the ground.
“Thanks,” Johnny says. “I am happy, Taeyong, don’t worry about it.”
The words sound a little hollow, even to Johnny’s ears, but he chalks it up to the fact that he is seemingly living this day twice. Taeyong doesn’t look overly convinced, but Johnny’s saved the additional lecture by the director waving him over to finally begin his individual shots.
He thinks that this conversation went better than the one the day before, but it’s hard to tell. Despite answering things differently, Taeyong had still asked the same questions. As he poses for the photographer, Johnny wonders if he can make Taeyong think differently if they have this conversation again.
Which, they won’t. Because tomorrow is going to be a new day and Johnny will not be living in a weird dream state.
He’s so focused on his conversation with Taeyong that when Johnny steps back into the dressing room when he’s done his shoot, he’s surprised to see Mark there. Like the day before, he’s curled up on his side with his phone, same expression of concentration twisting his face comically.
“Hey,” Johnny says, startling Mark. “What are you still doing here?”
“Oh, um,” Mark sits up, scrubbing a hand against the back of his head nervously. He looks young, soft, apprehensive. It reminds Johnny of when he first met Mark, when Mark was barely even a teenager and homesick but so, so determined to live out his dreams. Johnny had taken him by the hand -- physically and metaphorically -- and led Mark through the life of a trainee and now Mark is here: absolutely fully capable. It makes something like pride and nostalgia twist in Johnny’s stomach. “Hyung, I wanted to apologize for bugging you in the car earlier.”
Pride and nostalgia morph into guilt quickly. “Ah, no, don’t worry about it,” Johnny says. “I was in a bad mood, that was my fault. I’m sorry for snapping at you.”
Mark bobs his head. He still looks nervous. “It’s okay,” he says, and then adds, “Are you okay, hyung?”
Johnny shrugs and then peels himself out of his clothes in favour of the streetwear he’d worn to the set. “Weird day, I guess,” he says. He’s not really sure what makes him say, “I feel like I’ve lived this day already.”
Mark laughs, the same high-pitched giggle Johnny is so familiar with. “I mean, we do this fairly often,” he says. “We’re always shooting for something.”
Idly, Johnny wonders if all the sets blur the same to Mark. He’s had a lot of filming for NCT 127 and SuperM in the last six months. It must be hard to keep them all straight, to remember which memories belong to which music video or pictorial.
“Well, yeah,” Johnny says, tugging his borrowed beanie on over his head. He makes a mental note to leave it on his headboard tonight. Just in case. “But I mean. I’m having a really weird sense of deja vu, I guess.”
“Oh,” Mark fiddles with his phone for a moment before shoving it in his pocket and standing up. “Is that why you asked me if I was supposed to be on a flight?”
Johnny frowns. “Yeah,” he says. “I -- I don’t know if it was a dream, or what, but I lived this day yesterday. And at the end of the day I said goodbye to you because you and Taeyong were leaving the next morning. Except now it’s the next day and you’re still here.”
“Disappointed?” Mark jokes, but there’s an underlying hint of -- caution to his voice. Like what Johnny answers matters. The image of Mark’s hurt expression from the night before flashes through Johnny’s mind again.
“I’m never disappointed to have you around,” Johnny says. He slings an arm over Mark’s shoulders and ruffles his hair. Mark tries to duck out of it, but it’s half-hearted. “I’m just -- concerned about my brain, I guess.”
Mark laughs, short and breathless, like he didn’t mean to. “It was probably just a dream, hyung,” he says as they saunter out to the car. Their manager ushers them in, clearly impatient to get going. As soon as the door to the car shuts behind them, Mark is back in Johnny’s space, cuddling in close like the night before. “Want to listen to some music?” he asks, hopeful.
Johnny nods, accepts the earbud that Mark offers him and bops his head along to all the same songs they listened to yesterday. He wants to believe Mark, wants to know that he’ll set his alarm tonight and wake up tomorrow morning on time for their schedule, but something tells him he won’t be so lucky. But if he does wake up to the same day tomorrow, what does he have to do to change it? Do everything differently? Do everything the same? How many Tuesday mornings does he have to live through before it becomes Wednesday again?
Like the night before, Mark gets more fidgety the closer they get to the dorms, but Johnny has the foresight to at least know why. He keeps Mark close as they exit the van, tries to exude calming energy while simultaneously physically keeping Mark’s feet on the ground.
“Relax,” he says in the elevator. Mark seems to be practically vibrating at this point.
“Sorry, sorry,” Mark says.
Johnny waits for Mark to elaborate, to say what’s bothering him, but it never comes. The elevator door dings open and Mark moves to extract himself from Johnny. Instead, Johnny tightens the grip he has on Mark’s shoulder and pulls him out with him.
“Hyung?” Mark asks, looking uncertain. His eyes are so wide, despite the late hour and how long they were filming today.
“Tell me what’s up,” Johnny says. He leans against the wall, tries to project something friendly and open instead of -- bored. The last thing he wants is to make Mark feel bad again.
“I guess. I’ll just -- miss you?” Mark manages. There’s more distance between them, this time. Johnny remembers how he and Mark had stood close together the last time they had this discussion, how Johnny could practically feel the air vibrating around them with the intensity of Mark’s emotions.
This time -- maybe because he’s looking for it -- Johnny hears the sincerity in Mark’s voice. The surprise from last night isn’t there anymore. He and Mark are close; a bond forged over being the only native English speakers of their trainee bunch. Mark had trailed around after Johnny like a lost puppy those first few years, but he’d grown up. He followed less, led more, which is maybe why Johnny had been so taken aback the night before.
Today he can still see that despite how much Mark has grown up, he still looks for that shoulder to lean on. Maybe Johnny’s just still surprised that that shoulder is still his.
"You'll be fine," Johnny says, an echo of the night before because this, he knows, is true. "You don't need little old me hanging about. You're a superstar, Mark Lee."
The same upset look turns the edges of Mark's mouth down. "Thanks," he says. Johnny can't tell if he sounds more despondent than the day before. "I'll miss your birthday."
Johnny opens his mouth to respond, then pauses. The night before, Mark had been upset when Johnny had brushed it off. It had led to the argument that had left Mark look so sad in the hallway, an expression that had haunted Johnny all night. Maybe this is where he needs to change his attitude.
"Yeah, best day of the year and you're skipping out on me, Markie?" Johnny teases. The edges of Mark's mouth turn up a bit.
"I wouldn't if I didn't have to," he says, finally relaxing back against the wall opposite Johnny. "Like, I love touring and everything, but I wish I could spend the day with you."
"Yeah? And what would we do?" Johnny has no idea where this is going.
Mark shrugs easily. "Whatever you want, hyung," he says. "It's your birthday."
Johnny thinks about what he'll actually do on his birthday. Probably spend some time by the river. Maybe go shopping. Go out for dinner with some of the members. Call his mom. "We could go out for chicken," he says, "that stand a few blocks down. The one with the ahjumma who thinks you're the cutest human being she's ever seen."
Mark's face turns a violent shade of red. "Hyung," he whines. "Why that one? Is the chicken really better than anywhere else?"
It's not. Johnny's favourite chicken place is closer to the company building, but Mark likes the food at this smaller stall. And sometimes the ahjumma will give them free soft drinks because she likes Mark so much.
"Yeah, I want to go to the one down the street," he says easily.
Mark rubs the back of his neck. It's a nervous gesture, one Mark does when he's feeling shy or overwhelmed. Idly, Johnny thinks it might be the reason why he's started squeezing Mark's shoulder so much; an unconscious effort to make Mark feel comfortable when he's nervous.
"I'd buy," he says. "And then -- maybe we could go shopping? I -- I got you a gift but. You know. I'm bad at those kinds of things." He laughs awkwardly, eyes downcast but no longer sad. "I could buy you something you'd actually want."
"And who's to say I wouldn't want whatever you already got me?" Johnny asks.
Mark laughs again. "It's silly, hyung," he says. He pushes himself off the wall and adds, "I should head to bed, I guess."
Johnny frowns. "Aren't you going to give me my gift?" he asks. "Since you're going to miss my birthday, after all?"
Mark shakes his head. "Nah," he says. "I'll get manager hyung to give it to you on your birthday. It's -- probably better if I’m not actually here to see you open it."
"Why?" Johnny asks. He's intrigued now. He doesn't want to wait till his birthday now.
"Just forget about it, Johnny," Mark says. It's rare for him to drop the honourifics; Johnny knows it's serious. "Have a good birthday."
"Have a good tour," Johnny says faintly. "Stay healthy." He feels -- off-balance. Mark doesn't keep secrets from him, and while this isn't exactly a secret it still feels like he's not being told the whole story. It unnerves him. He watches Mark punch the elevator call button and returns the wave Mark offers him before he disappears inside.
Johnny goes back to his own dorm and puts his beanie on the headboard. He sets the alarm on his phone and crawls into bed. This time, when he closes his eyes he doesn't see Mark's hurt expression, but he does see a boy who looks uncertain and apprehensive, and Johnny hates that he made Mark look like that too . He falls asleep hoping for a better tomorrow.
Johnny is shaken awake again, which is starting to become less jarring and more annoying. When he cracks his eye open, Donghyuck is babbling on about how he's going to be late. He's wearing the same clothes from the day before, but Johnny doesn't bother commenting. When he checks his phone, the date is the same.
It's easier to get ready, now that he knows acutely what's in his closet. He grabs a pair of jeans and a different hoodie and heads into the bathroom. Like the last two days, Mark is standing in the hallway, looking hopeful. Johnny manages to sidestep him today without running him over.
"Hyung," Mark says before Johnny can duck into the bathroom.
"I haven't decided if we can hang out later today, Mark," Johnny replies, stripping off his pajama shirt and tossing it on the counter. "Ask me again in a few hours."
Mark's open mouth snaps shut with an audible click. He looks confused, but also a little hurt: his eyes are wide behind his glasses. It makes him look young. Or maybe it just makes him look his age.
"Woke up on the wrong side of the bed today?" he asks, but he doesn't stick around for Johnny's reply, just slinks off down the hallway, presumably towards the front door.
Johnny showers quickly, finds the grey beanie by the front door again, and shoves it on his head. Doyoung and Mark are already in the car when he gets there, but they both ignore him. Johnny can't tell if Doyoung's cold shoulder is the same as it has been every day, or if Mark had told him about Johnny's bad mood. Probably the former; it would be uncharacteristic of Mark to drag someone else into a petty argument.
In hair and makeup, Johnny beats his hair stylist and makeup noonas to the punchlines: "Yes, I should've woken up earlier to wash my hair so it wouldn't be so wet for you. Yes, I know I should sleep more so my under-eye circles won't be as bad. Sorry for inconveniencing you." The noonas exchange worried glances but get to work on styling him for the day.
The dancing, at least, goes mildly better. There's no anger today, and no confusion, just a deep-seated resentment. Why is it still the same day? What will make time move on? Is he stuck in a time loop forever?
The day before had been almost a carbon copy of the first day. Johnny isn't sure if he should keep down that path or try something different. He's saved the trouble of deciding, though, by the director.
"Okay, that's good for the group shot," he announces. "Let's try the unit with Taeyong, Jaehyun, Mark, Johnny, and Haechan."
"You look like you've seen a ghost," Donghyuck comments as they get into position, hair stylists and makeup noonas running in to touch them up.
"It's different, that's all," Johnny mutters.
"From what?" Donghyuck asks. He bends a little for a noona to pat some powder on his forehead.
"Nothing," Johnny says hurriedly, getting into position and ducking for his own makeup noona. She tuts over his under-eye circles again. "Just -- been having weird dreams lately. Sorry, noona."
She pats his face once with her powder puff and hurries off the set. The director is saying something to him, and Johnny figures he should probably actually listen, considering he's never gone through this part of the day before, but Mark sidles up to him.
"You haven't been sleeping well?" he asks, mouth twisting in a frown. "Are you feeling alright?"
"I'm fine," Johnny replies, swift and automatic. He's not -- how could he be when he keeps repeating the day over and over again? -- but it's the canned response they give to each other all the time. The only time the facade cracks is if any of them wants to actually spill their guts about what's bothering them.
"Okay," Mark says, but he sounds unconvinced. He adds, "Sorry I snapped at you earlier," before the director is yelling at them to get ready.
The music starts and Johnny is decidedly not ready, which means it stops almost as soon as it gets going. "Sorry, sorry," Johnny says. He had been surprised by Mark's apology, but he tucks it away in the back of his head so he can actually focus on not screwing up his dancing for the third day in a row.
There wasn't really anything for Mark to apologize for, Johnny thinks as he schools his face into something he hopes gives off sexy martial artist vibes. He lip-syncs automatically to his parts and switches positions when the choreography calls for it while his brain focuses on other things. Mark hates conflict and almost always caves to the other person if he thinks it'll end the argument faster (The Great Donghyuck Fight of 2017 aside). The fact that Mark thinks that there's conflict between them is worrisome.
Is that what he's been thinking the past three days? Johnny wonders. Has Mark been too afraid of pissing Johnny off before he heads overseas for two weeks? Obviously it's nice not to have any lingering arguments when they separate for different projects, but Mark hadn't been this clingy in November when he'd done the first leg of the SuperM tour. So, what changed between November and now?
The thought lingers with Johnny as he goes through the motions of the rest of the day. It's nice to have something different. Taeyong doesn't talk to him about the serious stuff, though he does ask Johnny if he wants to borrow his white noise machine to help him sleep at night. Everyone wants to actually be around him, instead of giving him and his attitude a wide berth.
It’s the kind of day that reminds Johnny that no matter the line distributions, the screen time in the music videos, the opportunities outside the group, these boys are Johnny’s best friends. His family. He wouldn’t trade any of them for a different life. Whatever resentment he’d held for their previous albums, for the unfairness of it all, has disappeared over time. Every choice in the company led them to this album, to Neo Zone, and Johnny can’t be more proud of his team.
By the time the evening rolls around, Johnny’s feeling way better than he has any of the other days.
"Okay, I think everyone else is good to head home. Johnny, I'll just do some of your individual shots now and get them out of the way."
"Sure," Johnny says. This is familiar, the same as other days to the point where Johnny wonders if he had always been scheduled to go last during the day or if somehow the day is bending towards a certain outcome. An outcome where Johnny finds Mark in one of the dressing rooms after his shoot.
"You're here," Johnny says, not a question but just. A statement of fact. The day keeps repeating and Mark keeps waiting for him, seemingly at every turn.
"I am," Mark replies easily, flipping his phone over in his hands. Johnny can’t tell if it’s something that he does every day in the time loop, or if it’s just a nervous habit that Mark’s always had. It’s getting difficult to distinguish things like that, and it’s only been three days. "Are you really okay? Like, I don't mean to pry but -- " He trails off, looking young and uncertain.
As good of friends as they are, Johnny tries his best not to burden Mark with too much. He'd like nothing more than to protect Mark from all the world's horrors, but he knows he can't shelter Mark forever. He's an adult, he can make his own choices about things now. Still, if the day repeats itself tomorrow, then Mark won't remember any of this anyway.
"I've lived the same day for three days in a row," he says, changing quickly.
"Really?" Mark asks, leaning forward like what Johnny's just told him isn't the weirdest thing in the world. "Are you sure it's not a dream?"
"It's a pretty long-ass dream if it is," Johnny replies. Instead of waiting for Mark to stand up, he goes over and flops onto the couch next to him. "Every day for the past three days, Donghyuck has woken me up because I've overslept and we've come here to shoot the Kick It music video. This is actually the first day where something different happens."
"Oh?" Mark asks. He fits his head against Johnny's shoulder, easy and familiar. "What happened today?"
"I didn't mess up any of my dancing in the group take this morning," Johnny says. He can't help the relieved laugh that bubbles out of him. "Changed the whole day for me."
Mark hums. They sit there for a long time in silence, which is nice. A moment just to slow down and -- he doesn't want to say live in the moment, because he's been living the same moments over and over again but. It's nice just to spend this time with Mark, this instance that is different from all the other days.
"What happens after?" Mark asks, voice soft. "Do we -- do we hang out after?"
In all honesty, Johnny had forgotten that this had been Mark's initial request everyday. The excitement of having a different day had distracted him from it. He's tired, but if he wants to continue to do things differently, maybe this is the best route to go. Maybe it will mean he'll wake up and it'll actually be tomorrow and Mark will be on a flight to LA.
"Yeah," he says, trying not to feel bad about the lie when Mark beams up at him. "What did you have in mind?"
Mark sits up, grin wide and uninhibited. "I mean, I still have to do some packing but I thought maybe you could just come over and chat? Manager-nim is going home today so it'll just be me, so we don't have to worry about keeping him up - "
They're interrupted by said manager popping his head into the room. "Are you guys ready to go?" he asks, looking tired. Johnny’s sorry for making him wait.
"Yeah, sorry, let's go," he says, dragging himself up off the couch and extending a hand for Mark to take too.
It's weird how some things change and some things stay the same. Mark still cuddles up next to him in the car and offers him an earbud. They still listen to the same songs, and Mark still gets fidgety the closer they get to the dorms. But Johnny can already tell the energy is different. The last two days Mark had been nervous all the way home, now he seems to be -- happy.
"Are you excited about the tour?" Johnny asks. He's asked Mark a few times in the last week or so, but Johnny knows feelings and nerves change about these kinds of things.
"Sure," Mark replies easily. "I always like performing, you know that. And I like SuperM. They're fun."
Mark shrugs, jostling the arm Johnny has over his shoulder in the process. "I mean. NCT is my fam, you know? It's super cool getting to perform with guys like Jongin and Taemin and Baekhyun, but I always want to be with you guys at the end of the day."
It's not an entirely unexpected answer, but it's still sweet anyway. Johnny smiles, tips his head against Mark's briefly. "Thanks," he says. "That means a lot from Superstar Mark Lee."
"Oh my gosh," Mark groans. "Don't call me that."
"Absolutely Fully Capable Mark Lee?"
Mark makes a sound akin to that of a small, sad puppy. Johnny just laughs.
They chat aimlessly about the music video shoot for the rest of the drive. Everything feels decidedly more lighthearted than the previous car rides home they shared. Mark babbles as they take the elevator up to his dorm, and even when he quiets down when they go inside, there's still a spring to his step. He looks happy, and it takes Johnny a moment to realize that it's a stark contrast from the days before. And not just the repeated days, but the days Johnny can remember before he got stuck in endless todays. He hadn't realized how despondent Mark had gotten in the last little while.
Most of the members seem to be holed up in their own rooms. Johnny's certain that if they had gone back to his own dorm, it would look the same, save for Taeyong likely running around trying to pack last minute items.
Mark leads the way to his room, nudging open the door and flicking on the light. It looks like a bit of a disaster zone: there's a big suitcase spread out on the floor, and Mark's backpack emptied of its contents on the bed. A toiletries kit sits half-full on the desk.
"Are you packing for the end of the world?" Johnny asks, gingerly sitting down on the manager's bed. His side of the room looks way less disastrous, though some of Mark's belongings will undoubtedly make their way over throughout the night.
"You know how it is," Mark complains, trying to stuff some of the items on the bed back into his backpack. It's a lot more elegant looking than the beat-up Jansport backpack Mark used to use, but Johnny kind of misses the old thing. It feels like a remnant of their past being packed up and pushed into the back of the closet to be reminisced on later. "I need, like, a billion different outfits for the airports and then, like. Four things to wear the rest of the time."
"Please, wear some cooler clothes," Johnny says, laughing at the way Mark squawks in protest.
"My clothes are cool!" he says, but he doesn't look entirely convinced by what he's saying. "I mean. They're alright, right?"
"You're asking the fashion evaluator for his opinion?" Johnny teases. "That's dangerous territory, Markie."
Mark flushes and turns back to his bag. Johnny watches him stuff a notebook and a couple pens into one of the pouches. "Well, I mean. Your opinion matters to me, so. If you told me what I wore was really stupid, I'd change it."
The sincerity reminds Johnny of that very first night, when Mark had complained about missing Johnny's birthday. It was something so trivial to Johnny, but it apparently mattered to Mark a lot. To Johnny, it felt like a lot of responsibility.
"I mean, I wouldn't wear some of the stuff in your closet, but it suits you," Johnny says easily. "Very ... cute."
Mark groans and flops onto the cleared space on his bed. "I've been talking to Baekhyun-hyung a lot about clothes because he always looks so comfortable and cool. I want to look like that too."
Mark shrugs, rumpling the sheets under his back. "I don't know. Cute is good here. Sometimes I feel like I need to dress cooler to be with SuperM. You know, I travel around with Taeyong-hyung and Jongin-hyung now. I can't look like a slob."
Johnny barks out a laugh, too loud in the quietness of the dorm. "Mark, you could wear a potato sack and Jongin would still think you're the cutest person in the world."
Mark giggles and turns his head so he can look Johnny in the eye when he asks, "And what about you?"
Johnny's brain stutters. "What if I wore a potato sack?" he asks.
"No," Mark says. "Would you still think I'm cute if I wore a potato sack."
It's a loaded question, but one that Johnny could easily brush off as a joke, and he knows Mark knows this. He can see the out that Mark has given him if he wants it.
And why wouldn't he want it? Mark is like his little brother. His cute little brother.
Johnny lets his gaze wander over Mark. There's an almost elegant way that Mark's lying on the bed, limbs artfully akimbo while he waits for Johnny's answer. His hair is still styled, the gel keeping his bangs swept from his forehead. The hairdo makes his eyes look huge, bigger than they normally are, accentuated additionally by the high points of Mark's cheekbones. Johnny can remember when Mark's cheeks were all baby fat, but they've hollowed into something sharper. More handsome.
It's a weird train of thought, cataloguing all the ways Mark has grown up in the time that Johnny's known him. How he's grown from a boy into a man.
Johnny blinks a couple times, lets his thoughts settle. Mark's pushed himself up onto his elbows, frowning a little at Johnny's silence. "You okay?"
"Yeah, sorry, just. Spaced trying to imagine you in a potato sack," Johnny says easily. "I think you'd look dumb."
Mark squawks indignantly and rolls off the bed. "I guess this is why Jongin is my favourite hyung."
"Yeah, yeah, keep telling yourself that," Johnny replies. He watches Mark open the closet door and rummage around for some more clothes to toss into his suitcase. What catches his attention is the gift bag sitting on the top shelf.
"What's that?" he asks, pointing at it.
"What's what?" Mark asks, even as he's looking up already. Johnny can see the back of Mark's neck flush from across the room. "That? Oh. Nothing."
"Doesn't look like nothing," Johnny says, getting up and crossing the room until he's standing right behind Mark. Mark tenses up, so Johnny rests a hand on his shoulder, feeling the way the tension bleeds out of Mark. He goes to reach up to grab the gift with his other hand, but Mark backs them up suddenly so that they're tripping over themselves back onto Mark's bed.
"Dude," Johnny complains as Mark rolls off of him. "What?"
"You can't look at it," Mark replies. He doesn't sound upset, but there's still a tinge of panic in his voice. "Not yet, anyway."
"Is it for me?" Johnny asks, raising an eyebrow questioningly.
Mark nods his head, but he won't meet Johnny's eye. "It's, uh. Your birthday present. Since I'm not going to be here and all." He says the last part quietly, like it's a shortcoming that he can't be in two places at the same time. Johnny coos.
"You got me a gift?" he asks. "Mr. Bad Taste found something to give little old me for my birthday?"
If possible, Mark's face seems to colour even more. "I put a lot of thought into it," he mutters, then turns to his suitcase to start packing some of the clothes he'd tossed into it from the closet.
Johnny feels bad. He should've known Mark would be cagey about the gift from their conversation on the very first night, but he couldn't help it. He's always teased Mark about these kinds of things.
"Hey, I'm sure I'll love it, Markie," Johnny says, sitting up. "You know I always keep everything you gift me."
Mark rolls his shoulders, like he's preparing himself for something. "I don't know, man," he says. "This is ... different."
Personal, Johnny interprets. Something more than just a mindless trinket. He wonders how long Mark has been preparing for this particular gift. Was it before the tour was announced and he knew he was going to miss Johnny's birthday? Or was it after, because he was going to miss Johnny's birthday.
"I appreciate it," Johnny says. He slides off the bed so he can sit on the floor next to Mark and haul him into a hug. Mark squeaks, body tensing for a moment before he's relaxing back into Johnny's arms.
It's kind of weird how they don't fit together the same way anymore. When Johnny first met Mark he could tuck Mark under his chin. Now Mark is older, taller, and fits himself into the crook of Johnny's neck. His shoulders have filled out and his body is all strong, corded muscle now.
Mark wriggles around a bit until he can slouch better in between Johnny's spread legs, head pillowed against Johnny's shoulder. They don't say anything, just sit in the silence and the soft orange glow of the lamp on Mark's headboard, surrounded by piles of clothes.
"I'm going to miss you a lot," Mark says quietly. "It's not the same touring without you."
"I mean, I wouldn't know any different, but touring with 127 is the best," Johnny agrees aimlessly.
Mark makes a soft noise and sits up so he can face Johnny properly. The light reflects off his glasses, making it difficult for Johnny to see the expression in his eyes. "No, I mean, I'm going to miss you, Johnny."
"What about the others?" Johnny asks.
Mark just groans. He grips his hair in frustration and Johnny instinctively reaches up, untangles Mark's fingers so he doesn't rip his hair out. The stylists would freak. "Don't do that," he chastises gently, rubbing his thumb over the backs of Mark's knuckles. "Don't pull like that."
Mark shakes his head. He's jittery again, shaking slightly, and Johnny frowns. He's not sure how he's managed to turn the mood sour between them again, but it seems like no matter what happens between him and Mark on these days, it always leads them back to here. Standing on the edge of something that only Mark is privy to. Johnny feels very much like he's being left in the dark.
"I'll miss everyone but I'll miss you the most," Mark says, but he sounds listless now. Tired. "I'll make sure manager-hyung gives you your birthday present, though."
It's a dismissal without the actual words passing between them. Johnny frowns as Mark pulls his hands from Johnny’s grasp and turns his back to him, picking up articles of clothing and folding them haphazardly into the suitcase. He doesn't acknowledge Johnny.
Johnny feels like he's swallowed a handful of ice. His insides feel cold. He stands on shaky legs, stumbling over the mess Mark has left on the floor. "Have a good tour, Mark," he says quietly, hand on the doorknob. "Stay healthy."
Mark doesn't say anything as Johnny slips out of the room and heads back downstairs to his own room.
Johnny wakes up to Donghyuck shaking him awake, but instead of climbing out of bed and heading to the shower, he just lies there and stares at the ceiling. He can't stop replaying the night before through his head, watching the way Mark shuttered himself off in the blink of an eye. He wonders how much Mark has been keeping from him lately, how many secrets he hasn’t shared. Does he tell them to someone else? Taeyong? Yuta? Jongin? For some reason, that thought makes something tight curl in the pit of Johnny's stomach. He's been Mark's confidante for so long, it hurts a little to think that there are things that Mark can't or won't share with him for one reason or another.
Speaking of which. There's a knock on the door and Johnny tilts his head, watching as Mark nudges his way into the room. "Hyung?" he asks, twisting his hands nervously. "Are you okay? Hyuck said he woke you up but. We're going to be late if we don't leave soon."
Johnny sighs and stares up at the ceiling. He's so tired. It's exhausting making any sort of progress within the day just to have it all reset again when he goes to bed. He wants to be done, wants it to be tomorrow already, even if it means seeing Mark jet off on another schedule.
"No, I think I'll stay home today," Johnny says to the ceiling. He hears Mark shuffle across the room, feels the edge of his bed dip under Mark's added weight.
"Are you okay?" he asks again. His brow is furrowed, and his lips jut out in an adorable pout. Mark is bad at aegyo on command, but he's naturally cute. Taeyong comments on it all the time, but Johnny agrees with him. The strength of Mark's natural charm knows no bounds.
"This is the fourth time I've lived this day," Johnny replies. There's no point in hiding it from Mark. Tomorrow he won't remember anyway.
"What do you mean?" Mark asks. He reaches out and presses his hand to Johnny's forehead and frowns harder, probably due to how cool Johnny's skin is. Can't even blame his delirium on a fever.
"I mean, for the past three days I've woken up to Donghyuck telling me to hurry up. I go to the same music video shoot everyday. Sometimes I have the same conversations. Sometimes things are only slightly different. I always seem to piss you off in the end, which would suck if you actually were leaving tomorrow. But tomorrow will just be today again, so I guess it's fine."
Mark looks -- vaguely alarmed. "Should I get someone?" he asks. "You're not making any sense."
"It's fine, Mark. Just go to the shoot. I'm gonna stay home."
Mark looks like he wants to argue, but after a moment he relents. He stands and heads to the door, before pausing and hurrying back. Much to Johnny's surprise, Mark leans over him and presses a kiss to his forehead.
"Things will get better, hyung," he says. There's a red blush painting his cheeks, and he all but runs out of the room.
It's unlike Mark to display affection like that. Johnny must look truly pitiful. He shuts his eyes, hopes that sleep will overtake him again, but he's interrupted again by someone else barging into the room.
"Get up," Doyoung intones. He crosses the room and throws open the curtains.
"Uh, no, I don't think I will," Johnny replies. He squints at Doyoung, silhouetted in the window.
"Because I don't want to?"
Doyoung's face pinches. Johnny knows that he hates to be the resident bad guy, but also knows that Doyoung isn't above being mean to get them going.
"We have to do the shoot today, Johnny," he says. "Mark and Taeyong are leaving tomorrow."
"It's going to be fine," Johnny replies. Doyoung stalks across the room and makes to yank the covers off of Johnny, but Johnny's quick enough to grab them before he can do so. They spend a moment tugging on two ends of the blankets before Doyoung gives up.
"Get up," Doyoung repeats instead, crossing his arms over his chest.
Johnny would feel bad about how much stress he seems to be putting everyone through, but he can't really bring himself to care today. There's no reason to. Tomorrow will be the same. He deserves one day in bed to be monumentally depressed about how he's stuck in a time loop, destined to pick the same fights everyday. At least on this day he can have a bit of excitement, rebel a little.
"He said all the days are the same," Mark says timidly from the doorway. "That he's lived today three times already and that tomorrow is going to be the same."
This at least makes Doyoung look a little more concerned as opposed to just angry. "Are you -- okay?" he asks. Johnny wants to laugh.
"Please, just. Leave me alone," Johnny says. He pulls the covers up over his head, tries to block out how today is the same as yesterday, and how tomorrow will be the same. Maybe he can just sleep forever and not have to deal with any of this anymore.
He can hear Doyoung and Mark whispering furiously, Donghyuck's curious lilt from the doorway. Then there's the manager's voice, concerned, Mark's voice rising in volume as he insists Johnny stay home today. Johnny is grateful.
It seemingly takes a long time before he can hear the sound of people shuffling out of the room. The last thing he hears is Mark whispering, "Get well soon, Johnny-hyung," before the door clicks shut and Johnny is finally alone.
He goes back to sleep.
Donghyuck's got his hand two inches from Johnny's shoulder when Johnny wakes up. It startles a small scream out of his roommate.
"Dude," Donghyuck says, retracting his hand hastily. "Warn a guy."
Johnny just sighs.
A glance at his phone as he's grabbing clothes out of the closet tells him it's still Tuesday. Wallowing in bed the day before apparently hadn't changed anything, so Johnny figures he might as well get up and be active. It's easy to forget how depressing the days are when he's concentrating on dancing for the music video.
Mark is in the hallway again, looking hopeful. Johnny contemplates his options before saying, "I'll help you pack later," and slipping into the bathroom. He doesn't miss the grin that spreads across Mark's face.
The shower feels nice after having not left his bed for over 24 hours. Johnny scrubs himself down and dumps a bunch of conditioner in his hair. If he's going to piss off his stylist today with wet hair, he might as well try and make it nice and soft for her anyway. He forgoes the beanie, ignoring the way it sits blatantly in the box in the hallway and not on the nightstand where he left it all those nights ago.
Johnny does his best going through the motions. He apologizes to his noonas for giving them so much work to do in the morning, and pays attention to the director throughout the shoot. His dancing is good enough that he can do the unit shoot with Taeyong, Mark, Jaehyun, and Donghyuck again. Then he's relegated to the side to wait.
As he's come to expect, Taeyong finds him after a few minutes.
"Hey," he says, sinking down into the chair next to Johnny. He tugs his jacket around himself and pulls his knees up to his chest. It's a weird juxtaposition, seeing Taeyong all done up in the most tantalizing of looks, just to watch him curl up like a child in his chair. Even after all these years Johnny still has a hard time with the duality of it all.
"Hey," Johnny replies.
"You doing alright?" Taeyong asks.
Johnny shrugs. It's the best he can offer. He's technically alright, but he's tired. "Could be better, I guess." He pauses, then adds, "How about you?"
For some reason, he's never asked Taeyong this, in all the days they've had this conversation. It's always been about Johnny, and that makes Johnny feel guilty. Taeyong's one of his best friends and Johnny's always prided himself on being attentive to those he cares about. He doesn't want to blame it on the days all melding together, but his brain has been preoccupied. Today, at least, he can be better at this.
"Oh, I'm alright," Taeyong replies. "I guess I'm just feeling a little stressed with our schedules, but it's fine. I try not to let it show too much."
I try not to let Mark see, is what Johnny hears.
It's always been that way for Taeyong, putting on a brave face for everyone, despite how busy he is. Johnny's always been a shoulder for him to lean on, though, so he reaches over and slings an arm across Taeyong's shoulders.
"You're doing amazing, sweetie," he says in English, just to watch Taeyong scrunch his nose in annoyance. He knows it's a joke, but the humour is still a little lost on him.
"You're doing really well too," Taeyong says. "This is your comeback, man."
Johnny has thought the same. He thinks back to that very first conversation he had with Taeyong, about how Taeyong had asked him if he was happy about this comeback. On that first day Johnny had been resigned and sulky. Today, though, he feels -- grateful for this, at least. He feels excited for Neo Zone, for the opportunities he was given with this album. Maybe he hasn’t shown it very well, but having the days repeat themselves has made Johnny appreciate his life a little more.
He and Taeyong sit in silence for a while, watching the proceedings on the set. The director is talking to some of the members. Mark is off in a corner, stretching his back.
Which makes Johnny think.
"Hey," he says. Taeyong turns to look at him, one perfectly sculpted eyebrow raising in acknowledgement. "Uh. Has Mark talked to you recently?"
It's a pretty vague question, and Taeyong scrunches his nose again in confusion. Johnny wants to smack himself a little. "I mean. Like. Is he worried about the tour or anything?"
"Oh," Taeyong says. He unfolds his legs and slouches in his chair. "I don't think he's too worried about the tour. You know he never gets too worked up about those kinds of things. But, I guess he seems a little spacey lately."
Johnny bobs his head. He's noticed it, even before the time loop. Mark always looks lost in thought, but whenever Johnny talks to him it seems -- normal. He gives Johnny the same attention he always has, looks at him with those big adoring eyes and laughs at all of Johnny's dumb jokes like he always does.
"Why do you ask?" Taeyong asks, he sits up straight and fixes Johnny with an unwavering gaze. His leader look. "Has he told you something that you think I should talk to him about?"
Johnny shakes his head. He doesn't want to worry Taeyong unnecessarily before their tour, though he figures that maybe it won't matter anyway. He can worry Taeyong as much as he wants today because tomorrow it will all just be the same. A clean slate. "No," he replies. "Just thought he was acting a little weird. He's been clamming up on me, lately. I wanted a second opinion."
Taeyong's mouth forms a pretty 'o' shape. "He hasn't been talking to you?" he asks.
Johnny shrugs. "No, he has. But, it's like he's keeping secrets from me, and he never does that. I figured if there was anyone else he'd tell those secrets to, it would be you."
Taeyong hums, tugs absentmindedly on one of his earrings. It's a bad habit that Doyoung chastises him for all the time, lest he pull one straight out of his ear. "I'm flattered you think Mark puts that much trust in me," he says with a bit of a laugh. "I'm sure there's nothing he tells me that he hasn't told you already. Unless it's about you, I guess."
It feels almost like a cold bucket of water has been dumped on Johnny's head. Unless it's about you. Of course Mark would never talk to Johnny about anything regarding their own relationship. Mark's too afraid of conflict for that. He'd either keep it bottled up or go to Taeyong about it.
"And -- has he talked to you about me at all?"
Taeyong at least has the decency to look a little shifty. "I don't think I should tell you, even if he has," he says finally. "I wouldn't betray his trust like that."
Johnny bites his lip and glances back across the set. Mark's talking to Yuta about something, gesturing animatedly and making Yuta laugh. Something hot twists in Johnny's belly, and it takes him a moment to realize that it's jealousy. Weird.
"Fair enough," Johnny says after a moment. "I'll see if I can talk to him about it later."
He moves to get up, find some water, maybe some food, but Taeyong puts a hand on his arm. "Will you wait?" he asks, eyes wide and pleading. "Till after we come back from tour?"
It makes Johnny pause. Whatever it is that Mark has told Taeyong is apparently enough to make Taeyong worry about Mark's well-being while they're away. Johnny knows that Mark's much too professional to let personal matters get in the way of a stage, especially with his SuperM hyungs, but it's an interesting revelation all the same.
"Don't worry about it, Taeyong," he says, patting Taeyong's arm. "Come tomorrow, it'll be like it never happened anyway."
Johnny feels doubly ready when he comes back to the dressing room later to find Mark on the couch. "Hey," he says, stripping off his clothes efficiently. Mark makes a weird strangled noise in the back of his throat in lieu of a proper greeting. "What's up?"
"Uh, just playing Words With Friends with my older brother," Mark replies. "He says his English is getting bad because he doesn't use it as much."
"Your vocabulary isn't too stellar either," Johnny points out, which just makes Mark whine. Cute.
Johnny slips into his street clothes. It feels weird to not have a hat to put on afterwards, but change is good. In a world of never-ending days, small changes are apparently all Johnny can have.
He ushers them back out to the car, takes the earbud Mark offers him and lets the music wash over them. They're halfway home when Mark asks, "What's the rush today?"
Johnny shrugs. Today, he feels like the one that's vibrating with energy. "Guess I just wanted to talk when we get back," he says. He feels the way Mark stiffens next to him. "Gotta get my Mark Lee fill before you're gone for the next few weeks."
The tension bleeds out of Mark easily. "Oh yeah, haha," Mark says, relieved, before adding, "You'll miss me?"
Johnny glances at him. "Yeah, dude, of course," he says. It takes him a moment to realize that this is the first time in all these days that he's admitted this. Usually it's Mark saying that he'll miss Johnny, but Johnny is finding this is true too: he'll miss Mark a lot while he's gone. "Did you think I wouldn't?"
This time Mark shrugs. He won't meet Johnny's gaze. "Sometimes I wonder," he says quietly. "You don't really need me around to keep yourself entertained. Sometimes I just feel annoying, I guess."
It's an insecurity that Johnny is familiar with, even with Mark. He can remember the early years when Mark would come to him, feeling nervous about the relationships he was building within the company. Do you think Donghyuck thinks I'm too cold? I don't want him to think I don't like him. Do you think Jaehyun-hyung will mind if I ask him to hang out today? Would Minseok-hyung be mad if I called him and asked him about what it's like to be an idol? They've lived so closely together for so long, it's hard not to second-guess every interaction that passes between them.
"You are annoying," Johnny says, but he pinches Mark's arm to let him know he's kidding. Mark yelps. "But then my life would be too boring without you."
Mark hums, acknowledging Johnny's words, but there's something in Johnny that he's not really listening.
"Hey, look at me," he says, and Mark immediately turns, blinking up at Johnny. Johnny tugs the earbuds out of each of their ears, let's the cord dangle from his grip. "Mark, I always miss you when you're not here. Always. Don't tell the others, but, you're, like, my favourite person to be around."
A smile blooms on Mark's face. It makes him look younger or -- his own age. Johnny forgets sometimes how young Mark is; he never acts like one of their youngest members. It never shows that there's four years between them.
"You're my favourite person too, Johnny-hyung," Mark says, tucking himself back into Johnny's side. He takes the earbud back from Johnny's grip and slips it into his ear. "You can tell everyone. I don't care." He pauses, then adds, "Well. Maybe not Yuta. He'd be sad, I think."
"Can't have that," Johnny replies with a laugh. He tips his head back against the headrest and let's the motion of the car lull him into a doze. It's nice to just have this moment with Mark, like a calm before the storm Johnny knows is waiting for them back at the dorms.
They trek up to Mark's dorm and head into his disaster of a room. The suitcase is lying on the floor, still, the backpack and its contents strewn across the bed. Johnny sits down on the manager's bed and watches Mark putter around, putting things away. He remembers sitting here the night before and identifying all the ways Mark has changed, grown up. Something flutters in Johnny's chest.
"Are you excited?" he asks, leaning back on his palms.
Mark shrugs. He holds up two shirts for Johnny to pick, and Johnny picks the one on the right. Mark tosses it into the suitcase and lets the other sit on his pillow, out of the way. "Yeah," he says. "Of course. But -- I don't know. I'm tired, too. Sometimes I wish I could just stay here and sleep for two weeks instead, but then I feel guilty."
"You shouldn't feel bad about needing a break," Johnny says immediately.
"I'm fine, I'm fine," Mark says easily. "I just mean -- I know I'm super lucky to have all these opportunities and receive all this love from people, but sometimes it feels pointless when it's not from the people I care about most."
Johnny frowns. "Are there people who aren't supporting you?" he asks carefully. He's not sure who wouldn't want to support Mark, but he'd like to know who they are. Just to talk.
"No, no, nothing like that. Ugh. This isn't coming out the way I want it to," Mark says with a bit of a laugh. He puts a few more things in his suitcase before sitting down on his bed, facing Johnny.
"Hyung," he says carefully, nervously twisting his fingers. "Have you ever been in love?"
It's the weirdest question Mark's ever asked him. Ever. Including all of the awkward sex-related conversations they've had in the past as Mark grew up. It's also so incredibly out of left-field that Johnny just sits there for a moment in stunned silence. Mark, for his part, doesn't say anything, just looks at Johnny with wide, curious eyes.
"Uh, no," Johnny says finally. "I can't say I have been."
Mark exhales, a slow whoosh of air that somehow sounds relieved and resigned at the same time. "I think you're pretty lucky, then," he says quietly.
Johnny's brain seemingly catches up with the situation. "Are you trying to tell me you're in love with someone?" Johnny asks gleefully, bouncing on the bed slightly. "Little Markie, all grown up and in love!"
Mark groans and flops back onto the bed, draping an arm over his face, either to block out the light from the overhead lamp or to block out Johnny's face. "Ugh, hyung," he whines, kicking his feet a little. Cute.
Johnny gets up from the manager's bed and flops down next to Mark on his, nudging Mark with his elbow. "Well, well. Tell me about her. How'd you meet? Do I know her? Does she like you back?"
Mark's entire body goes tense next to Johnny. His legs stop kicking. If Johnny weren't looking at him, he'd be afraid that Mark wasn't even breathing. "Mark?" he asks, genuinely concerned.
"What if -- what if it wasn't a girl?" Mark asks quietly, voice barely above a whisper.
It's -- it's not really something they ever talked about. Any of them. Like, they'll talk about people they've hooked up with, and no one seems to bat an eye whether it's a guy or a girl or anything on the spectrum in between, but Johnny's never really put a lot of thought into the people Mark has potentially hooked up with. He'd always just assumed they'd been girls. Maybe they had been, but it doesn't really matter now. Not with what Mark's asking him.
"Hey, that's fine," Johnny says softly. He strokes a hand through Mark's hair, smoothing down the weird tufts where they've been clipping in the blonde streaks. Mark still won't look at him and he's starting to shake a little, so Johnny rolls over enough that he's pretty much lying on top of Mark, squishing him into the mattress. Normally when he does this Mark complains about how heavy Johnny is, but Johnny also knows that Mark finds it grounding too, in moments of anxiety.
It takes a few minutes, but eventually Mark seems to relax under Johnny's weight. Johnny's spent the time humming mindless tunes, and he laughs a little when Mark joins in. It takes him a moment to realize he's been humming the melody of one of the songs off their new album, White Night.
"Sorry," Mark mutterst. "I didn't think -- I didn't think it would be that scary to say that out loud. To you."
"Don't apologize," Johnny chastises. He keeps petting a hand through Mark's hair. "I'm sorry it was hard for you, though."
Mark laughs, humourless and hollow sounding. "I care a lot about what you think, hyung," he says. "I guess I was just really scared that you wouldn't think it was okay."
"I'll love you always, Mark," Johnny says, because this much is true. "Unless you, like, murder someone. But, things like this? We're chill, man."
He pretends he doesn't hear the way Mark sniffles and focuses instead on the feeling of Mark's hands gripping the back of his t-shirt, scrunching the material between his fingers. Johnny doesn't know how long they lay there, but eventually Mark makes a disgruntled noise and squirms underneath him.
"I wish we could stay like this, but I do actually have to pack," he mumbles. He sounds tired. Johnny presses a kiss to the top of Mark's head and rolls off him.
Mark's eyes are still a little glassy looking, and they're rimmed red now too. His hair is a weird combination of flattened by Johnny's hand and rucked up from the pillow. He looks surprisingly good, which just makes Johnny huff. Trust Mark Lee to always look good, even in an emotional crisis.
Mark gets up from the bed and heads over to the closet, pulling the door open carefully so it doesn't bang against the wall. The gift bag on the top shelf catches Johnny's eye again, but he decides to hold off on asking about it. He remembers the way Mark had dismissed him the night before, how guarded he had been about it. Johnny figures it would not be the best way to lead off the rest of their night after the emotional turmoil of earlier. Speaking of which --
"So, that guy you're in love with," Johnny drawls, watching the way Mark's shoulders scrunch up near his ears. "You gonna tell me about him?"
"Uh, maybe," Mark says shiftily. He grabs a couple shirts at random and flings them in the general direction of the suitcase. Johnny snickers.
"Well, why would you ask me if I've ever been in love if you're not gonna spill the beans on your own great love!" Johnny exclaims. He slithers off the bed and picks up one of Mark's shirts, folding it neatly and tucking it into the suitcase. The next one he picks up he tosses back. "Don't take that one. Take the one with the moose on it instead."
The aforementioned shirt comes flying out of the closet at him, followed by Mark's uneasy stare. "I was hoping you'd say yes and could then impart some great wisdom on me, but I'm quickly finding out you're kind of useless for that."
Johnny squawks. "Fine, see if I ever help you pack again," he says, even as he's folding up more shirts for Mark. He asks, "What do you need advice for, anyway? You're telling me Absolutely Fully Capable Mark Lee can't nab himself a boyfriend?"
Mark groans. "Don't call me that," he whines, tossing a beanie in Johnny's direction. Toque, Johnny's brain supplies. That's what Mark calls them, some weird Canadian thing. "I just -- I don't think he likes me back like that. I guess I wanted to know what to do with all this dumb love."
Johnny's heart aches a little in sympathy. He's had his fair share of unrequited feelings, but they've all been harmless crushes through high school. Granted, he's not entirely sure how legit Mark's love is, but he's not about to question it. He can ask Taeyong or Yuta about it later.
"You could tell him," Johnny says. A pair of pants lands in the suitcase and he folds those too, sticking it in the opposite compartment from the shirts. "Like, I know that's super scary, but he's either gonna reciprocate the feelings or reject you."
"Gee, that sounds awesome, hyung. Thanks," Mark says dryly.
"Well, yeah. The rejection sucks, but sometimes you need shit like that to get over people," Johnny says. "It's like that final kick in the pants your heart needs to realize that it's not going to work out, so you can move on."
Mark hums. The hangers in the closet rattle against the rail as he flips through the clothes. Johnny picks up a pair of shoes from beside the suitcase and contemplates where to put them. He decides on the compartment with the pants.
"I guess -- I guess I was thinking that too," Mark says finally. He crosses the room with his arms full of clothes and drops onto the floor next to Johnny. Johnny rifles through the pile, vetoes some of the options, and begins folding the rest. Mark watches sullenly from beside him. "Maybe I was just hoping there'd be some magical happily ever after."
"Mark," Johnny says, leaning back against the bed. He reaches out and pushes Mark's bangs back off his forehead. Mark stills under his touch. "Any guy that doesn't want to go out with you is an idiot and I'd like to meet him. Just to, you know, talk."
Mark eyes him skeptically. His eyes trail down Johnny's arm and land on his bicep. "Yeah, okay, sure," he says. His cheeks have gone a little red as he turns back to folding more clothes. "But, um. Thanks. For looking out for me."
"Of course," Johnny replies. "It's what older brothers are for."
Something in Mark's body language shifts. Johnny can feel it, a palpable change in the air between them. The weirdest part about it, though, is that Johnny can't read it. He has no idea what Mark is feeling right now.
"I'm not -- " Mark starts, then cuts himself off. He makes a frustrated noise in the back of his throat and drops the shirt he's folding into the suitcase. "I'm not a kid anymore, Johnny."
Johnny frowns. "I didn't say you were."
"No, but. Just -- " Another pause. Mark twists his hands together, rubs one hand over the back of his neck. Plucks his glasses off the bridge of his nose and tosses them on the bed behind them so he can rub at his eyes. "Is that just how you see me? As your little brother?"
Johnny doesn't know how to answer the question. He doesn't know how he should answer. They're standing on that cliff again, the one Mark keeps leading them to. Johnny's morbidly curious: he wants to know what's at the bottom of the cliff, what he'll find in the freefall on the way down.
"I -- my cool younger brother?" Johnny offers weakly.
It's like Johnny's words have taken the wind out of Mark's sails. His whole body seems to slump, different from earlier when Johnny had been lying on top of him. Then it had been relaxed, anxiety seeping out of Mark in increments. This now feels like the opposite, like the anxiety is enveloping Mark again.
Mark stands and heads back over to the closet. For a moment, Johnny thinks he's going to bring more clothes back over, but instead Mark reaches up, stands on his toes so he can reach the gift bag on the top shelf.
Johnny's mouth goes dry.
"Here," Mark says. His voice is flat, devoid of emotion. "I was going to ask manager-hyung to give this to you on your birthday, but you might as well open it tonight. It doesn't matter anyway." He thrusts the gift into Johnny's lap and straightens up, staring down at Johnny. It's kind of a surreal moment; Johnny is usually the person looming over everyone else. "Maybe it's best if you open it back at your dorm."
"Mark," Johnny says, but Mark won't look him in the eye. He picks up his glasses from the bed and slides them back on his face, pulls the hood of his sweater up over his head. "Mark, whatever I said, I'm sorry."
That's new too. He's never apologized in these conversations.
"There's nothing to apologize for, hyung, it's fine."
It's weird how Johnny can interpret little things from how Mark talks. He'd dropped the honourifics earlier, which he only does if they're having serious conversations, when Mark wants to be on equal footing. The way he calls Johnny older brother now sounds -- resigned. Condescending. An inkling of an idea sits in the back of Johnny's head, and he glances down at the gift in his lap.
He stands up, ignoring the way his body protests the movement. "For what it's worth," he says, putting a hand on Mark's shoulder. Mark refuses to look up at him. "I think you should reserve judgement until you hear what he has to say. You might be throwing him a curveball here, Mark Lee."
Mark chances a glance up at Johnny. It's those damn eyes, again, wide and hopeful. Once upon a time, Johnny had hoped Mark would always look at him with those eyes. Part of him still does.
But another part wants Mark to look at him not with adoration, but with the confidence of someone looking at their equal. Mark's long since deserved it.
"Things will be better tomorrow," Johnny says and, on a whim, leans forward and presses a kiss to Mark's forehead. "Trust me, it'll be like this never happened."
Donghyuck is, luckily, not asleep when Johnny gets back to his dorm.
"Can you go bug Taeyong for a bit?" he asks. He feels bad because he'd passed Taeyong in the hallway and he'd looked frazzled, but it's like what he told Mark. It doesn't matter what happens tonight, how unprepared Taeyong feels in this moment, because tomorrow they're not going on tour. Tomorrow it will just be today again, and they'll have a whole 24 hours to feel freaked out before they do it all over again the next day, and the day after, and the day after that.
"Hyung, I'm playing a game," Donghyuck whines. He must notice the gift bag in Johnny's hand because he asks, "What's that?"
"Nothing," Johnny replies. "And please take your game elsewhere. I just need, like, 10 minutes."
Donghyuck pouts, but he -- wisely -- chooses not to challenge Johnny's authority. He tells Johnny two more minutes, bangs rapidly on his keyboard, and then packs up all his stuff five minutes later and exits.
In the remaining silence, Johnny sinks down onto the floor beside his bed and stares down at the little gift bag. It's nothing fancy, but clearly something Mark picked up specifically for the occasion and not just last minute at the corner store. The bag says Happy Birthday on it and there's even some tissue paper stuffed in the top. Johnny can't remember the last time any of them bothered with something as trivial as tissue paper.
He pulls the fluff from the top of the bag and peers inside. It's not a large bag to begin with, but all that's inside is an envelope and a flashdrive sitting at the bottom. Johnny upends them both into his hand and just sits there and holds them for a minute.
He has a vague inkling about what he might find inside. Maybe he's had some idea this whole time, but the conversation with Mark tonight feels like a confirmation of sorts. Now it's up to Johnny to decipher his own feelings.
Carefully, he slips his thumb under the edge of the envelope and pulls. The sides separate easily, like Mark hadn't spent a lot of time sealing it, and Johnny pulls out a card. He's surprised to find it's handmade: a photo of the two of them from Johnny's house in Chicago, when they were there for the NeoCity tour. It's printed on glossy photo paper, the image reflecting the light as Johnny examines it.
When he flips open the card, there's only a short message inside, written in English in black Sharpie. Johnny traces over the letters with his thumb: sorry I'm too cowardly to say it to your face. I love you.
The flash drive suddenly feels warm in the palm of Johnny's hand. He glances down at it, marvels at what secrets might be hiding on it. Slowly, he stands up and grabs his laptop off the desk crammed in the corner of the room and his headphones off the headboard of his bed. He plugs the flash drive into the laptop.
There's only two files on the flashdrive. One is a .mp3 file titled The Lighthouse. The second is a word file called lyrics. Johnny pauses for a moment, then opens the music file first.
It's a quiet little song, just the guitar and Mark's soft vocals. Johnny listens to it in its entirety once, then opens the lyric file just to confirm what he thought he'd heard.
Pull me close and guide me back to where I'm from. My heart longs for you. On the darkest night you light me up and remind me that you're my home. A lighthouse.
The song runs out after three minutes and 20 seconds. Blinking, Johnny switches windows back to the music player and plays it again. And again. And again.
It's one thing to have an idea of Mark's feelings, to guess that maybe this is where all their conversations were heading, but it's another to hear Mark's confession so plainly, in the language they learned to understand best. Music is all Johnny has ever wanted, and now here it is, delivering to him a message that Mark is too scared to tell him in person. It's full of hope and longing and desire, but it conveys the caution Mark has executed too. Traversing an ocean, reaching out for a shore that seems too far away, with too much in between them.
After five listens, Johnny closes the laptop. He pulls the flashdrive from the port and puts his headphones away. Then, he just sits on his bed and stares at the wall.
He isn't surprised -- not really -- but somehow, he still feels blindsided by it. Of all the people Mark chose to fall in love with, it's him. He, Johnny Suh, is the holder of someone's heart.
He gets up and heads straight out the door. There's no one in the main sitting room, so Johnny continues down the hall until he's knocking on Taeyong's door. "Come in," Taeyong says.
Much like Mark, he's sitting in a whirlwind of clothing. There's soft music playing out of the speaker on the desk. Donghyuck is perched on the bed, banging away at the keyboard again, narrating the game to Taeyong.
"Can I talk to you?" Johnny asks. He's still standing in the doorway, so he takes a moment to step into the room and nudge the door closed.
"Is it really important?" Taeyong asks. "I'm kind of having a crisis." He gestures at the large piles of clothing around him, of which maybe half will fit in his suitcase.
"So am I," Johnny admits, stepping over one of the piles of clothes. This at least makes both Taeyong and Donghyuck look up. "Uh, Hyuckie, I'm gonna need you to head out."
Donghyuck's eyes narrow. "So first you kick me out of our room and now you're kicking me out of my place of refuge? I see how it is." He doesn't sound particularly upset about it -- maybe a little annoyed -- but Johnny knows that if there would be a tomorrow, he'd have to take Donghyuck out for a meal. Good thing there isn't.
He lets Donghyuck finish another round in his game before sinking down in the vacated spot on the bed, watching the door click shut. Taeyong's been folding his clothes, but he puts down his shirt and swivels to face Johnny, offering him his full attention. It's appreciated, but Johnny also feels a bit nervous.
When it's obvious that Taeyong isn't going to say anything, Johnny bites. "Did you know?" he asks. Taeyong raises an eyebrow at him.
"About what?" he asks.
"About Mark's crush. Or his feelings. Or whatever."
Taeyong tilts his head, tight-lipped and thoughtful. It takes Johnny a moment to realize what he's waiting for: permission.
"Mark gave me my birthday present tonight," he says. "A song. You knew about that too, didn't you?"
Taeyong exhales, shoulders slumping like Johnny's lifted a weight off them. He probably has. None of them have ever felt burdened by the secrets they share amongst one another, but Johnny knows from experience how difficult it can be to keep them. "I helped him record it," he says finally. "We shut ourselves in a studio last week and did it in one take."
Johnny bobs his head. He's certain that Taeyong must understand the concept of the song, even if he's not aware of what most of the lyrics mean. Mark would have had to have told him the feelings behind it for the recording to have conveyed the amount of emotion that it does.
"What should I do?" Johnny asks, tipping backwards so that he's lying down, staring at the ceiling.
"Well, that probably depends on how you feel about him," Taeyong says carefully. There's the rustle of more clothing as he begins packing again. It's such a similar feeling to being back in Mark's room two hours before. Deja vu inside his deja vu. "If you like him back, then you date. If you don't, you let him down gently and move on."
"You don't think dating will be hard for the group?" Johnny asks, the words leaving his mouth unbidden. It's not really what he had meant to ask, and Taeyong can clearly tell.
"Not anymore than if you break his heart," Taeyong says. "It's interesting that that was your concern, though."
"I don't know how I feel, Yong," Johnny admits. "I've -- I've never thought about Mark like that."
"But could you?"
Johnny shrugs the best he can while lying down. He thinks back to what Mark had told him earlier. I'm not a kid anymore. Mark's all grown up now, and whatever qualms Johnny may have had about their age difference seem less like a valid argument. He knows Mark would never accept it.
"I mean -- I guess? Like, I could like anyone if given the chance," Johnny says uneasily, which doesn't seem to spark a lot of confidence in Taeyong.
"Look, just. think about it, maybe," he says. "We'll be gone for the tour for two weeks. You'll have plenty of time to figure out your feelings and then tell Mark when we get back. Or over the phone. Whatever floats your boat."
It's Taeyong's way of asking Johnny to leave so he can finish his packing. Johnny wants to tell him it won't matter, he'll have to do it all over again tomorrow, but Taeyong is seemingly lost in his own world, singing along softly to the song playing on the speaker. Johnny leaves him to it and heads back down the hall to his own room.
Donghyuck is -- surprisingly -- asleep. Johnny takes care to get ready quietly before slipping under the covers of his own bed. There's only a thin sliver of light filtering in from under the doorway, Donghyuck's soft breathing from the other bed. Johnny closes his eyes. Mark Lee is in love with him. Mark Lee is in love with him, and Johnny has no idea what to do about it.
It takes him a long time, but eventually, he falls asleep.
Johnny is shaken awake the next morning. He gets up, grabs his clothes, heads to the bathroom. Mark is standing in the hallway. Johnny agrees to hang out later and then goes and has a shower. He skips washing his hair today; he'll get lectured about how greasy it is, but at least it will be different from the chewing-out he's been getting about it being wet.
They get to the set for the music video shoot and Johnny is climbing out of the car when he has a thought. About Mark. About him and Mark.
"Hey," he says, grabbing at Mark's sleeve before he can get too far away. Doyoung and their manager have already gone inside. "Do you want to do something?"
Mark scrunches his nose at him. "Yeah, hyung," he says. "That's why we're hanging out later, right?"
Johnny shakes his head. "No, I mean, like, right now."
This time, Mark frowns. He rubs a hand over the back of his neck. "We have the shoot," he says, gesturing towards the building.
Johnny shakes his head. He's told Mark in previous days about the time loop, but Mark's never taken it seriously. Johnny needs him to now. "It doesn't matter," he says, covering Mark's mouth with a hand when he goes to protest. "I'll tell you about it, but we have to go now before they come looking for us."
"Hyung," Mark says. He looks uneasy, caught between following the rules and following his heart. Johnny feels a bit manipulative, but he puts a hand on Mark's shoulder and squeezes encouragingly. "I -- okay? But you have a lot of explaining to do."
"Of course," Johnny promises. He slings an arm across Mark's shoulders and steers them back towards the street.
Luckily, the set isn't too far away from transit. Johnny's got enough cash in his wallet to pay for bus fare for the two of them on the first bus that they find. Johnny's not even sure where it's going. Beside him, Mark's twisting his fingers together nervously. His phone has been lighting up in his lap, calls and messages from the other members, and while Mark scrutinizes it every time the screen turns on, he never touches it. After a couple minutes, Johnny reaches out and gently pockets Mark's phone.
"What's going on, Johnny?" Mark asks quietly. "We're going to be in a lot of trouble. You know this is the last day Taeyong and I can shoot for this."
Johnny shakes his head. "I'm going to tell you something and you're not going to believe it," he says. "You haven't any other time I've talked about it."
The frown on Mark's face deepens. "Why wouldn't I believe you?" he asks, like his blind trust in Johnny is the only unwaverable thing he believes in. It makes Johnny's insides twist both with discomfort as well as a fierce protectiveness.
"I've been living this same day every day for almost a week," Johnny says. He's almost stopped keeping track. "Every morning I wake up and it's the same. Donghyuck shakes me awake because I missed my alarm. You're standing in the hallway waiting to ask me if we can hang out after the shoot. We go to the set and we film. I'm last for my individual stuff, and you wait for me in the dressing room. There's variations, of course, but everything is the same. And then I go to bed and when I wake up I do it all over again."
Johnny chances a glance at Mark, watching the way Mark's mouth opens and closes in some weird proximity of a goldfish. "I --" he begins, then cuts himself off. "What?" he asks.
Johnny laughs humourlessly. "I told you you wouldn't believe me."
The bus rolls to a stop and Johnny stands up, leading the way out the doors. He doesn't really know where they are, but they're far enough away from the set that they'll be able to wander around without fear that their managers will suddenly show up in a van to drag them back. The streets here aren't too busy, but Johnny still flips the collar and hood of his coat up. He hadn't grabbed the hat this morning, so he's trying to make do with the limited privacy he can afford.
"I didn't say I didn't believe you," Mark says, hustling to keep up with Johnny's long strides. He tugs his own hat further over his ears and shoves his hands in his pockets. "But, uh. It is kind of unbelievable."
Johnny shrugs. Because they're not at the set, he can't prove to Mark any of the things they've done in the past that would convince him otherwise. There's only one thing that Johnny knows that Mark is in the dark about, and Johnny isn't sure if he wants to pull it out yet.
"I don't know how to get out," he admits. "I try doing the same thing. I try doing different things. One day I just stayed in bed all day and when I woke up the next morning I had to go back to the set. Today we're playing hooky, but I don't know if it means that tomorrow will be the same or if I'll finally get to move on."
"Why would today make it change?" Mark asks. "You said you tried doing different things already. What would make this different day more different than the others?"
Johnny takes a moment to wrap his brain around Mark's question. "Because I'm spending it with you," he says finally, because that much is true. He hadn't wanted to admit it when the idea had come to mind, but Johnny knows what he's doing: today he'll take Mark on the best date of his life, and if Johnny doesn't know how he feels by the end of the day, he may as well give up on ever finding it in himself to see Mark as anything other than a little brother.
But there's definitely a part of him that hopes he'll find something different.
There's a cafe up ahead, which reminds Johnny that he's sorely caffeine deprived and also a little hungry. He nudges Mark in the right direction and holds the door open for him when they approach. Mark beams at him appreciatively.
The cafe itself isn't that big, decorated in a modern, minimalist look. It's the kind of decor that Johnny really appreciates, and he makes a mental note to remember where this cafe is so he can bring Jaehyun when he gets out of the time loop. Or another day of the time loop. Johnny's not overly confident he will ever get to leave.
He orders an Americano and a muffin at the counter and then waits for Mark to make his selection. Mark's pondering the board, head tilted to the side, when he realizes that Johnny's looking at him. "Are you waiting for me?" he asks. There’s a faint blush on his cheeks.
"Take your time," the barista says. She waves her hand at the empty cafe. "As you can see, we're not busy."
Still, Mark flushes more and says, "Oh, uh. I'll have a hot chocolate please. But, Johnny-hyung, I can pay for that."
"It's fine," Johnny says, handing his card to the barista. "I kidnapped you. My treat."
The barista looks at them with skepticism. Johnny winks at her.
They settle at a table with Johnny's muffin while they wait for their drinks. Johnny splits it in half and pushes the plate over to Mark.
"I'm not going to eat half your muffin, hyung," Mark says, pushing the plate back. "I know you didn't eat breakfast this morning."
"We have the whole day to eat," Johnny replies. "You can eat half my muffin."
The barista comes over with their drinks. They're so different: Mark's chocolate concoction and Johnny's plain black espresso. It reminds Johnny of them, actually, of the differences between them. But then, he notes, coffee and hot chocolate go well together. They make a mocha, after all.
Tentatively, Mark picks up his muffin and takes a bite. "Tastes good," he says around his mouthful, which Johnny just rolls his eyes at. He finishes off his own half in three bites and scorches his tongue a bit on the Americano. Perfect.
"So," he says, watching Mark pick at the muffin and his drink. "What do you want to do today?"
Mark looks up at him. He's still got his glasses on, and it makes him look soft and a little innocent. Johnny likes how they look on Mark. "This is your idea, hyung," he says. "Whatever you want to do, I'm good with."
Johnny frowns. "Uh, no. That's boring. Like, if it were up to me we'd probably stay here for a few hours and then go find something else to eat."
Mark scrunches his nose and takes a sip from his hot chocolate. "Well. I don't know. I didn't really have any plans for today since we, you know, had an official schedule." He tries to say it sternly, but there's a grin creeping into the edges of his mouth. For as reluctant as Mark had been to come, he's clearly enjoying the rebelliousness of it all now. Johnny can't tell if it's just because they're together, or if it's because Mark actually believes that the consequences don't matter and that tomorrow they'll get a do-over.
"Okay, fine. How about: if you could go on a dream date in Seoul, what would you do?"
Mark chokes on his hot chocolate and gingerly sets the cup down. He wipes his mouth with a napkin and stares at Johnny with wide eyes. "A date?" he squeaks out.
"Sure," Johnny replies easily. "You know. Someone wants to take you out. What would be the dream date?"
Mark's looking at him with an inscrutable look on his face. Johnny would say he looks suspicious, but also a little -- hopeful, and it doesn't take a mind reader to know why. He's essentially giving Mark everything he could hope for while seemingly not knowing about it. No better way to torture a heart, Johnny muses.
"I guess -- " Mark bites his lip. His ears have gone quite red, so Johnny offers him an encouraging smile. "I guess right now I'd like to go ice skating? And then more hot chocolate after. Maybe some shopping? And dinner?"
"Go big or go home, eh?" Johnny asks with a laugh. The colour from Mark's ears bleeds onto his face, and he ducks his head in embarrassment.
"Well, you asked for my dream date," he mutters.
"Yeah, and it sounds pretty dreamy," Johnny says. He drains the last of his Americano and reaches across the table to squeeze Mark's hand. "It sounds like a good day. Now come on, we don't want to waste any time."
Johnny hails them a taxi outside the cafe and lets Mark rattle off the name of their destination. 20 minutes later, they're pulling up to Yeoui Ice Park and Johnny is pulling out his wallet.
"You should let me get it, hyung," Mark says, but Johnny just shakes his head. "It was my idea."
"Yeah, but you shouldn't have to pay on your own date," Johnny replies, though he does let Mark pay for their rental skates. They settle onto a bench and tuck their shoes under the seat next to several others. Johnny's not overly attached to this pair, but he still hopes they'll be able to find them later.
"Have you ever ice skated before?" Mark asks him. His fingers are clumsy with the cold, but sure in their movements as he ties up the laces of his skates. "I used to go all the time with my friends in Vancouver."
"I mean, what else are you supposed to do in Canada, in the land of ice and snow?" Johnny jokes, like he's never been to Canada in the spring before. Mark rolls his eyes and punches Johnny good-naturedly in the arm. "You'll have to teach me the ropes, then, because I'm not a very good skater."
Mark frowns down at the mess Johnny's made of his skate laces. "Here," he says, getting up from the bench. He kneels down in front of Johnny and tugs his foot until he can fit the blade between his thighs. After a moment of fiddling, the knots come undone and Mark starts again.
Johnny can't help but stare at Mark. Granted, there's not a whole lot else to look at; it's still early enough that the rink isn't completely crowded, but Johnny could look at the scenery. Instead he's drawn to the way Mark's fingers tug on the laces; how the early morning sunlight glints off his glasses; how said glasses sit prettily on the curves of Mark's cheekbones. He looks tired and rumpled, the way they all do in the morning when they know they're just going to have someone do their hair and makeup for them, but it's a look that Johnny likes. To him, this sleepy, soft Mark reminds him a lot of something warm and comfortable. Something like home.
" -- too tight?"
"Hmm?" Johnny asks, letting his brain log back online. Mark's looking up at him expectantly.
"I asked if it was too tight," Mark repeats. "Did you fall asleep?"
"Power nap," Johnny says automatically, and then flexes his arm. There's no point, though. No one can see his muscles under the puffy jacket he's wearing, but Mark still laughs anyway, high and breathless.
"You're ridiculous," he says. He shifts Johnny's foot from between his legs and makes grabby hands at the other skate. "Gimme."
Mark makes quick work of Johnny's second skate, and then they're on their feet, standing at the edge of the rink. A few people drift by lazily. There's one person speeding around the middle, like it's their own personal race track. A figure at the far end of the ice spins, their back arched and arms held gracefully above them.
"Okay, so. When I used to go skating we'd always be at a rink that had boards around the edges so I'm not really sure how to go about helping you," Mark says, stepping onto the ice. He's a little wobbly at first, but after a moment he seems to find his footing. He takes a few tentative steps, scrapes to a stop, and returns to Johnny. Certainly not the greatest skater on the ice, but he's already miles better than Johnny is.
"Guess I'll be holding onto you, then," Johnny says, and before Mark can protest, he steps out onto the ice.
At first, nothing happens. Johnny stands there on his skates, one hand on Mark's shoulder, the other held out for balance. This is -- fine. It's good. So he moves his right foot.
Immediately, it's like the rug's been pulled from under his feet. His centre of gravity feels way off. Johnny's long-since prided himself on being very attuned to his body, but somehow he has no control over his limbs or his core, or his mental faculties either. With a manly shout, he throws his arms around Mark and just about takes them down.
"Oh my god," Mark huffs, trying to haul Johnny upright. "You barely moved and then you were just like - " He flails one of his arms around in a dumb approximation of Johnny. Dumb, but probably accurate.
"I have literally never done this before," Johnny complains. He manages to straighten himself up, loosening his grip on Mark's shoulders so that he can link their arms togther instead. Mark purses his lips, the corners of his mouth are turned up. "But I want to make it around at least once. We have to make the trip worth it."
Mark laughs and starts moving, tugging Johnny along. Occasionally Johnny will attempt to shuffle his feet a little, but all it does is seem to knock him off balance. He never falls, but that's probably more to do with Mark's upper body strength than any capabilities of Johnny's.
It takes them way longer to go around the edge of the rink than it should. They get lapped by an ahjumma twice, and Mark can't hide his little giggles when she shakes her head at them good-naturedly.
Eventually, they make it.
"Oh my gosh, I can't believe it took us that long," Mark says, tugging Johnny to a stop next to the bench where they put their shoes. Johnny is pleased to see that they're still there.
"But we made it, and that's what counts, right?" he asks. He wants to bend over and put his hands on his knees but he's not convinced he won't just topple over with a shift in balance. "It's about the journey, not the destination?"
"You're full of cheesy quotes today," Mark says with a laugh. He's loosened up a lot, already putting the fear of their managers and members' anger behind him. It's nice to see him look so carefree and happy.
"You should go for a lap by yourself," Johnny says, nudging Mark lightly. "You'd go around in, like, five minutes."
Mark bites his lip. It's starting to get a little chapped in the cold, so Johnny offers him the lip balm that's in his pocket. Mark looks up at him, surprised. "Thanks," he says. Johnny traces the path of the lip balm as it coats Mark's lips. "Are you sure you'll be alright here?" There’s an nimplied but unspoken question here: will you okay if someone recognizes you?</i> They try not to go out alone too much, try to take another member with them to deflect some of the interest. It’s nice that Mark is thinking of this, even when they’re relatively alone on the rink.
"There's, like, 10 people here and I've got knife shoes on. I think I'll be good for five minutes," Johnny deadpans, ruffling Mark's hair over his hat. Mark squawks, but his smile seems extra wide as he pockets Johnny's lip balm and scoots off for another go around the rink.
Gingerly, Johnny makes his way off the ice and over to the bench. It's easy to pick Mark out of the small crowd of people, tottering his way around ice, gradually gaining confidence. It's a pretty good representation of how Mark is in real life, too: cautious at the beginning, but a quick study. By the end of the day, he'll be an ace. It's one of the things that Johnny's admired most about Mark over the years.
It's a perfect day to play hooky from their responsibilities. Johnny leans back on his hands and lets the pale winter sun sink into his skin in an attempt to warm him. He's thinking afterwards that they can find another cafe to sit around in, and then go do some shopping. Johnny doesn't really need anything, especially if it's not even going to be in his closet tomorrow, but he's entertained by how happy Mark will be.
And that's what it boils down to, really, making Mark happy.
Johnny's not really sure when it went from a desire to a priority, when keeping a downtrodden expression off Mark's face became the most important task on Johnny's daily agenda. Maybe around the time that Mark was running between three different groups, shedding costumes and personas across the stages like an actor putting on a different mask. Those days Mark would come home from one practice just to sleep for three hours and stumble out the door to the next. It always made Johnny want to wrap Mark up in a blanket and let him sleep the day away.
He still feels that way, honestly, but watching Mark whizz around the ice now satisfies something else in him. It's nice to get to see Mark enjoy himself, and Johnny feels better knowing he's the reason why.
It's almost like a slow blooming flower, unfurling in the centre of Johnny's chest. It warms him from the inside out, more radiant than the sun. Johnny watches as Mark nearly trips over his own feet and then throws his head back and laughs. He turns his head and waves happily at Johnny, and Johnny waves back, completely endeared.
He's not sure if it's love. But it's something. He has an answer to Taeyong's question.
Mark insists on taking him out for another lap before they turn in their skates again. Johnny spends the entire time clinging to Mark. He wishes part of it was a guise for his newly unearthed feelings, but he knows it's mostly because he still feels like Bambi on ice. It's probably the only good thing about tomorrow being the same: he won't have the muscle soreness from today, if his past experiences are anything to go by.
Johnny finds them another cafe not too far from the rink. This one is more crowded than the first one they go to, so they grab their drinks to go and wander down the street, poking their heads into stores as they open for the day. Men in suits bustle past them towards office buildings. Women in heels march down the sidewalk, chatting on their phones.
"Do you ever wonder what your life would be like if you were like that?" Mark asks in English, nodding at a group of businessmen they pass by. "Like. You're 25, hyung. That could actually be you right now. But in Chicago."
It's kind of a weird thought. Johnny's a quarter of the way into his life and in a month he's going to be dancing around on stage with muscle tape wrapped around his chest. If he'd stayed in Chicago, never tried out for SM, he'd be done university by now. He'd have a job. Hell, he doesn't even know what he would have gone to school for.
"It'd be pretty boring, I guess," Johnny says. He drapes an arm over Mark's shoulder, tugs him in closer like he's trying to keep Mark from getting run over by everyone hurrying off to their days. "And it wouldn't have you in it."
Mark ducks his head. "Johnny," he whines, but Johnny can tell he's pleased by this answer.
"What about you?" Johnny asks, giving Mark a break. "You'd be in university right now. That's crazy. I remember when you weren't even in high school yet."
Mark huffs. He finishes his drink and tosses it into the next garbage can they pass. "I don't know what I'd be doing," he admits. "Maybe sciences? I don't know. That's what some of my friends went into."
"Doctor?" Johnny hazards. Mark shrugs.
"I guess that's sort of the idea, but I never wanted to be a doctor," Mark replies.
They spend the rest of the day flitting in and out of clothing stores and cafes. Eventually it gets dark enough that they have to start thinking about more substantial meals than coffee and pastries. Johnny snags them a taxi and they go out for Korean bbq close to their dorm. Then, Mark drags him to an arcade after, seemingly to kill more time, like he doesn't want the day to end.
Frankly, Johnny doesn't either.
The day ending means that tomorrow he has to start again. It means that whatever he and Mark build today gets erased the moment Johnny falls asleep. All of Johnny's feelings will stay the same, but Mark won't remember anything of this day, and that hurts. It's been a long time since Johnny's had a day as fun and memorable as this one.
"Hey, what's up?" Mark asks as Johnny puts more money into the claw machine game they're playing. They've been trying to win themselves a penguin for the last five minutes.
"What do you mean?" Johnny asks, maneuvering the claw into position. "This game is what's up. I hate it."
"No, I mean, you kind of spaced out there for a moment," Mark says. He presses in close to the glass, watching the claw descend on its helpless victim. "Like, I was talking about places to eat in San Jose and you were just. Not with it, man."
The claw snaps shut around the penguin and begins to lift. They watch it with baited breath. Halfway back to the drop zone, the penguin slips from the claw's grasp. Johnny and Mark both groan.
"Sorry, Mark," Johnny says, both for the penguin and for not paying attention. "Got a lot on my mind, I guess."
Mark nudges him out of the way and takes a turn. The claw drops, the penguin is scooped up. It rises jerkily.
"Anything I can help with?"
It wouldn't hurt to say anything, Johnny muses. Mark won't remember it tomorrow.
"I guess I'm just kind of bummed that you won't remember this day tomorrow," he admits. He leans against the machine, eyes watching Mark while Mark watches the penguin.
"What do you mean? Hyung, this was the best day ever." The penguin makes it to the drop zone and falls down the chute. A second later it appears in the bottom for Mark to collect. He hugs it gently to his chest, petting a hand over the soft fabric. He looks adorable.
"I told you, I'm in a time loop. When I wake up tomorrow it's going to be the beginning of today again. It'll be like this never happened."
Mark looks stricken. "It resets?" he asks.
"Well, yeah. Time loop. I've been telling you about it, remember."
"Sure," Mark says slowly. He wanders over to a table nearby and sits down on the bench heavily. There’s no one else around. "But, like, I don't know. I guess I never really thought about how I wouldn't remember anything." He looks up at Johnny with an imploring expression. "I don't want to forget today, hyung," he whispers.
It hurts, but there isn't anything Johnny can do about it. He sits on the bench next to Mark and puts his arm around Mark's shoulders. Mark leans into the touch immediately, tucking his head against Johnny's shoulder. He fiddles with the penguin for a moment before reaching across Johnny for his other hand and lacing their fingers together.
The arcade seems to fade away around them. Johnny feels trapped in a moment, hidden away in his own little bubble that just includes him and Mark. There's no outside noise here, no pressures, nothing. He thinks back to what Mark had asked him earlier, about being one of the businessmen they'd passed on the streets. If Johnny had taken that path, this could have been their future. Two boys cuddling together in an arcade.
But he also remembers what he had told Mark in response: It wouldn’t have you in it.
"Hyung," Mark says, tracing his thumb over Johnny's. Johnny hums in response. "I, uh. I have something for you."
Johnny perks up. He's not sure what it could be; he didn't see Mark buy anything over the course of the day, so it would have to be something Mark's been carrying around with him since they left the dorms.
"Oh?" he asks. He untangles them enough so that he can look at Mark properly. "A gift? For little old me?"
Mark cracks a small smile. He looks nervous, so Johnny squeezes his hand comfortingly.
"It was supposed to be for your birthday. I had it all ready back at the dorm but - " He shrugs. "If the day is just going to repeat itself, I guess I can just show you now. I won't remember how embarrassing this is tomorrow, but I'll need my phone."
Johnny's eyebrows raise. He's held onto Mark's phone all day, the notifications switched off somewhere around noon when the vibrations had been too annoying. He digs it out of his pocket and hands it to Mark, watches as Mark's thumb hovers over some of the notification badges before swiping open to the files app. Of course Mark would have a copy of the song on his phone.
He tugs a pair of earbuds from his pocket and offers one to Johnny before plugging them in. Johnny holds his breath as Mark presses play.
The first time Johnny had listened to the song, he'd thought about how these were all the things Mark was too afraid to say to him in person, how there had to be weeks and an ocean in between them before he became brave enough to admit this secret. Now, here he is, baring his soul to Johnny in person.
Pull me close and guide me back to where I'm from. My heart longs for you. On the darkest night you light me up and remind me that you're my home. A lighthouse.
The song comes to an end, and suddenly, it's like all the background noise that Johnny had blocked out comes rushing back in. Arcade music fills his ears, the games dinging and beeping all around him. He's sitting in a basement arcade at a grimy picnic table, listening to a love letter. A confession.
Beside him, Mark is vibrating. It reminds Johnny of every night that they spent in the van on their way back to the dorms, Mark's nerves rattling through him. Every trip home led to this moment, every night of Johnny building up Mark's confidence, and it all boils down to this.
"I'm sorry it's not a very good gift," Mark whispers, barely audible over the noise in the arcade. He takes his earbud out and lets it dangle limply from his fingers. "It's -- it's selfish, I guess."
"Mark - " Johnny starts, but Mark shakes his head.
"I -- I didn't mean for it to be like this," he says. "I didn't even know I liked guys until recently. Oh fuck, I never even told you that, I guess. Ha ha, surprise. I think I'm a little bit gay."
There's no humour to Mark's laugh. In fact, it sounds a little wet. With a soft noise that sounds suspiciously like a sob, Mark pulls his glasses off his face and buries his face in his hands.
Immediately, Johnny is yanking his own earbud out of his ear and is kneeling down on the -- frankly disgusting -- carpet in front of Mark. "Mark, hey, Markie," Johnny coos softly, enveloping Mark's wrists in an effort to get Mark to look at him. He can feel the bones and tendons shift under his grip. "Hey, baby, it's okay."
He doesn't know where the endearment comes from, but it makes Mark sob a little more. Johnny reaches up with one hand and smoothes Mark's hair, curls his fingers around the shell of Mark's ear and tugs gently. "Whatever you're worried about, I promise it's okay."
He doesn't know how long they sit there. Johnny's knees start to ache after a while, but he doesn't move to get up, not until Mark's shoulders have stopped shaking and his breathing evens out. Finally, Johnny shifts up so he's not sitting on his heels anymore and envelops Mark in a hug.
Tentatively, Mark's arms snake around his neck. Johnny can feel how wet Mark's face is where it's pressed into his neck. He hates to see Mark cry, especially over something like this. "It's okay," he whispers, rubbing Mark's back. "You don't have anything to cry about, baby."
"Hyung," Mark says wetly. "Don't call me that."
Johnny hums and pulls back. Mark has his head ducked still, so Johnny nudges it up with a finger under his chin. Mark won't look at him. "Why not?" he asks, both hands coming up to wipe the tears from under Mark's eyes.
"I don't want your pity."
Johnny's heart breaks in that moment. He smooths his thumbs against the thin skin under Mark's eyes, watches as his eyelashes flutter against his cheeks while he gathers his thoughts. He decides on the truth.
"I heard the song yesterday," Johnny admits quietly. "You gave me my birthday present yesterday while you were packing. You also told me you were in love with a boy."
Mark's laugh is choked sounding. He looks like he's two seconds away from hunching in on himself and crying again, so Johnny says, "Hey, hey, look at me."
Mark looks up, like a puppet on a string. Even blotchy and bright-eyed, Johnny thinks he looks beautiful. "I thought maybe I should take you on a date," he says. "See if I felt something too."
Several emotions flicker across Mark's face. Eventually, it settles on angry. "So this was an experiment for you?" he asks, trying to wrench himself out of Johnny's grip. Johnny lets him go, leans back on his heels to give Mark the space he clearly craves. "Just a little test to see if you can muster up some feelings for me?"
"Don't say it like that," Johnny says. He stands up, knees creaking and popping. "This wasn't pity, and it wasn't all about you either."
Mark at least looks chastised, but he straightens his spine, stares Johnny in the eyes. "Well," he says. "What did you find?"
The fight leaves Johnny as quickly as it had come. He sits down on the bench next to Mark, stares at his hands for a moment as he collects his thoughts.
"You know, when we first met you were, like, 13," Johnny says. "You came up to the middle of my chest and your voice was all high and cute. I'd been training at SM for awhile, but when I met you, that was the first time I felt like I had found a family here. I'm an only child and I'd always wanted a little brother."
He can feel Mark's shoulders slump beside him, so Johnny reaches over, tangles their fingers together and squeezes once, trying to tell Mark to wait.
"I've had the most amazing opportunity to watch you grow up," he continues, turning so he can look at Mark. "It's been eight years. Eight years of you taking up space in my heart."
"Johnny -- "
"When I first heard the song, I wasn't sure. I was -- I wanted to be able to give you this, but I wasn't sure if I could. I hadn't spent any time thinking about you in any other way other than my little brother. I didn't even know I was going to take you on a date today until this morning, when I asked you. But I just had to know. I had to know if I could make this work. I'd give you the world, if I could, Mark, but I didn't know if I could give you this."
Tentatively, Mark reaches out, touches Johnny's cheek. His eyes are wide and hopeful, and there's a small smile toying at the edges of his mouth. "And now?" he asks, cautiously tipping into Johnny's space.
Johnny thinks of this day, of this day repeated over the past week. How Mark has sought him out at every turn, has craved his approval, his advice, and his affection. He thinks about ice skating and coffee and arcade games. In his head, Mark's song plays over and over again.
"Now. Now I think I could give you the whole world and more," Johnny admits, and closes the space between them.
It's not a very long kiss -- the arcade is deserted but Johnny's still highly aware they're in public. He presses a quick, chaste kiss to Mark's mouth and leans back, watches as Mark brings his fingers up to touch his lips unconsciously. It's cute. Mark blinks twice, as if clearing a fog from his brain, and then he breaks out into a huge, goofy smile.
"Hyung," he says, squeezing his arms around the penguin. "Hyung, I'm so happy."
Johnny smiles and hauls Mark in for a hug. He presses a kiss to Mark's cheek, his temple, the crown of his head. "Good," he says. He can't help the silly grin on his own face. "I'm happy too."
As expected, they get entirely chewed out by their management team when they get back to the dorms. By the end of it, Mark looks like he wants to cry, but he straightens his spine, apologizes sincerely, and then asks if he can be excused to pack up his things for tomorrow. And because everyone loves Mark Lee, they let him go.
Johnny, however, is not so lucky.
"We know we can't baby you and monitor you because you're 26, but we're really disappointed in you, Johnny," their manager says. He rubs a hand over his face. "We've had to reschedule a lot of the shoot for after Mark and Taeyong come back, which isn't ideal because they're going to be tired enough as it is. And furthermore - "
Johnny only feels a little bad about the fact that he tunes out most of the rest of the lecture. It's fine. Tomorrow will be a brand new same day and no one will remember anything. Except Johnny. Johnny will remember everything.
It opens up a chasm in his chest, just thinking about it. He's finally figured out all his shit, got all his ducks in a row with Mark, and tomorrow it won't even matter. Maybe it never will.
"Sorry," Johnny murmurs, ducking his head. He feels a little like he might be sick.
"You don't have to apologize to us," the manager says. "You'll need to apologize to your members though." Johnny bobs his head and hurries out of the room. He had intended to go to the washroom, but he's met by Taeil, Yuta, Jungwoo, and Jaehyun in the hallway, clearly eavesdropping.
"Hi," he says, trying to edge around them. Jaehyun's arm shoots out, clamping around Johnny's bicep like a vice. Johnny winces.
"Uh, what the fuck, dude?" Jaehyun asks. "Like, seriously. What the fuck? Do you even know how worried we were today?"
It's not really the lecture Johnny thought he was going to get. He thought it would be somewhere along the lines of now we have to do more work when Mark and Taeyong come back, but he forgot that he and Mark had ignored everyone's messages all day. He figures it's probably reasonable for everyone else to think they died in a ditch or something.
"Sorry," Johnny says earnestly. He tugs on Jaehyun's arm until Jaehyun stumbles into his chest and wraps him up in a hug. Jungwoo makes a soft noise and throws himself onto the pile. Soon they're all hugging in the hallway. "I just -- it got to be a little much. I needed some space."
"Well don't scare us like that again," Yuta grumbles. Johnny laughs softly and tugs on a strand of Yuta's long, white hair.
"Noted," Johnny says. He extricates himself from the tangle of limbs and gestures at the door to Mark's room. "I'm just gonna -- check on him."
The others nod and disperse. Jaehyun's already on the phone, undoubtedly telling Taeyong everything that happened. Johnny will definitely be getting an earful about it later, but it does remind him. He pulls out his own phone, ignores all the unread messages and voicemails and missed calls, and opens up his own chat with Taeyong.
Thanks for the advice , he writes. Taeyong won't understand, because today's Taeyong never talked to him about how Mark feels, but it makes Johnny feel a bit better. Still, now that his brief interrogation and affectionate ambush is over, the sadness taking up residence in Johnny's chest returns full force. He tucks his phone back into his pocket and continues on down to Mark's room.
If possible, Mark's room seems to be an even bigger disaster than it had been the night before, but Johnny figures it's probably because he wasn't here to fold all the clothes Mark was haphazardly tossing into the suitcase. There's a veritable mountain there now, so Johnny closes the door behind him and heads over to make quick work of it.
"I'm veto-ing some of these clothes," he announces, tossing a funky little plaid number onto the manager's bed. Just because Mark's going to be in Canada for 24 hours doesn't mean he has to dress like it.
"Sure, sure, whatever you want, hyung," Mark murmurs, rummaging through his closet for another sweater. He tosses it onto the pile.
"Hey, are you doing okay?" Johnny asks. He puts the shirt he was folding into the suitcase and stands, crossing the room to where Mark's rifling through the hangers. It's easy for Johnny to wrap his arms around Mark's waist, kiss the back of his head gently. Mark deflates like a puppet that's had its strings cut, but Johnny can still feel all the nervous energy thrumming inside him.
"They're not mad," Johnny says softly, toying with the hem of Mark's shirt. "They were just really worried about us."
"I know," Mark says. "Jaehyun told me." He doesn't sound any less relieved though, so Johnny shifts so he can kiss Mark's cheek.
"Then what's on your mind?"
Mark turns in his arms, looks up at Johnny with bright, sad eyes. "The day is almost over," he whispers. His voice sounds suspiciously wet. "When we wake up -- this all goes away, doesn't it?"
Johnny's heart breaks. He tugs Mark in impossibly closer, lets Mark cling to him desperately. "Yeah," he whispers back. "But I'd find you in every today and tell you how I feel, now that I've had the best day ever."
Mark sniffs. His nose is cold where he presses it against the side of his neck. "Will you stay here tonight, then?" he asks. "If I don't get to wake up and have you, I at least want you for as long as I can."
"Of course," Johnny says. He pulls back enough to tilt Mark's chin up. "You've got me, Mark Lee."
Their second kiss is a lot better than their first. They don't have to worry about being spotted or having their picture taken. Instead, Johnny gets to take his time, gets to pull soft noises from the back of Mark's throat and coax his lips apart with his tongue. He gets to feel the way Mark's grip on the back of his shirt tightens, how he shifts to slot their hips together better, how his heart thuds in time to Johnny's.
Johnny really could just stand there and kiss Mark for the rest of the night, however, Mark seems to have other plans. Eventually, he nudges Johnny away, looking thoroughly debauched and breathless. "I really want to keep kissing you," he says, so Johnny swoops in for another kiss. He loves the way he can taste Mark's laughter, trace the edges of his smile with his lips. "But," Mark says against his mouth. Johnny trails kisses along his jaw instead, making Mark giggle more. "But I have to keep packing."
"I told you, it doesn't matter," Johnny says, sucking a bruise just below Mark's ear. It startles a breathless moan from Mark's mouth. "Tomorrow we're gonna wake up and it'll be today again."
"Stop saying that," Mark says abruptly. There's a hard edge to his voice that makes Johnny pull back and study him.
"Because you keep believing it," Mark says, frowning. "And I don't want to. It's not fair. You'll get to remember today but I won't? Hyung, this is one of the best days of my life. I don't want to forget it." Mark's voice goes a little high and emotional at the end. All traces of their earlier happiness have vanished.
"So you want to pack your suitcase?" Johnny asks dumbly, because he doesn't know what else to say. He's done this day five times before today; he can't help being a little pessimistic about everything.
"Yes, because I want to wake up tomorrow and have it be tomorrow!" Mark exclaims. Idly, Johnny wonders if anyone is standing outside the door, listening. They'd be pretty confused about the topic of conversation.
"Fine," Johnny says tiredly. He unwraps himself from around Mark and goes back to the suitcase, picking up the first article of clothing he can find and folding it. "How about I let you have your feelings and you can let me have mine. I know it sucks, the idea of not remembering today but -- it's hard for me too. I've done this day so many times already. I just -- I don't know how to fix it."
If possible, Mark's frown gets deeper as he crosses the room. This time, he's the one wrapping his arms around Johnny from behind. He presses his cheek to Johnny's shoulder blade, kisses the t-shirt covering the bone.
"Sorry," he whispers.
"I'm sorry too," Johnny replies.
"Don't be mad at me," Mark continues. "I hate it when you're mad."
Johnny sighs. He puts his folded shirt on the bed and squeezes Mark's hands. "I'm not mad, Mark," he says quietly. "Just -- tired."
"Okay, well. Let's finish packing and go to bed, then," Mark says. "I want to make-out more."
For some reason, this startles a laugh out of Johnny. Mark always knows the right thing to say to lift his mood; sometimes it's unintentional. But Mark's a lot more emotionally attuned than what the cameras tend to show, and Johnny appreciates that. He lifts one of Mark's hands to his mouth to kiss, then drags them both down to the floor to finish packing.
Between the two of them, it takes little time at all. Johnny vetoes a few more clothing choices, gets up to find more suitable ones from the closet. While he's there, he spots the gift sitting on the highest shelf.
"What are you going to do with this now?" Johnny asks, hauling the gift bag down and waving it in Mark's direction. Mark's zipping up one half of the suitcase when he looks up.
"Uh, nothing, I guess," he says. "You opened it yesterday so you already know what the card says, and you've heard the song so the actual gift part is kind of irrelevant."
Johnny fishes the card out of the bag, stares at the picture on the front. "It was a really good gift, Mark," he says. He pulls out the flashdrive and drops it on Mark's desk, then folds up the gift bag and the tissue paper. He grabs a couple more shirts from the closet and brings them back to Mark. "It's probably the nicest gift anyone's ever given me."
Mark's entire face turns red. "A song?" he asks.
"A song and a boyfriend," Johnny corrects, which makes Mark snort.
They finish up and Mark lends Johnny some shorts to wear to bed and digs out a toothbrush for him from their medicine cabinet. There's always a healthy stock of them at both dorms, which makes Johnny grateful for Doyoung's foresight. They brush their teeth in tandem at the sink, Johnny pulling funny faces around the foam in his mouth that make Mark sputter and giggle.
It's a tight squeeze in Mark's small bed, but they make it work. Despite his general aversion to skinship on camera, Mark can be cuddly under the right circumstances. Like sleeping with his boyfriend, apparently.
"I don't want to go to sleep, but I'm so tired," Mark says around a yawn. He's pillowed his head on Johnny's chest, body curled around Johnny's easily.
"It's fine. Go to sleep, baby," Johnny says, kissing the top of Mark's head.
"Yeah, but if I fall asleep, today comes faster."
Johnny laughs, tugging on Mark's shoulder until Mark shuffles up the bed enough so that they can kiss lazily. Mark's not great at it, a combination of being inexperienced and tired, but Johnny doesn't mind. He'll take any kisses he can get in the limited time he has left.
Eventually, though, Mark's lips slow. His breathing evens out, and he drifts off to sleep. Johnny watches him for as long as he can, catalogues the way Mark looks younger in his sleep: stress-free and peaceful. He wishes Mark could look like this always, wishes that he could be the reason Mark looks like this.
"Thank you," Johnny whispers, kissing Mark's forehead. "Thank you for being brave." He closes his eyes and drifts to sleep.
THE NEXT DAY
Johnny wakes up the next morning to someone shaking him awake.
"Donghyuck, go away," Johnny mutters, attempting to roll over. It's hard because the blanket seems to be tangled around him.
"Feels pretty bad when your boyfriend thinks he's waking up to a different man in his bed," Mark says.
Johnny's eyes snap open.
The room is dark still. Probably because it's still dark outside. Johnny has no idea what time it is, but it's earlier than all the other times he's woken up this week. Plus, there's the fact that he's in bed with Mark. In Mark's bed. No Donghyuck in sight.
"Mark," he breathes.
Mark's sitting on the edge of the bed, already dressed in the outfit he'd laid out the night before. He’s already put contacts in and got his backpack slung over his shoulder. “Happy tomorrow,” he says, which is just about the most Mark Lee thing he could say.
Johnny laughs. He sits up, lets the sheets pool around his waist, and hauls Mark in for a kiss. Mark squeaks against his mouth, but relaxes immediately, leaning into Johnny’s space.
There’s a knock on the door before it’s opening and Taeyong’s poking his bleary looking head in. “Mark, hurry up we’re gonna be late -- oh!” He retracts his head so quickly that he bangs his head on the door frame. “Ouch.”
“Oh, hyung, are you okay?” Mark asks, jumping up. Johnny misses his warmth immediately.
“I’m -- yeah. Ouch, that really hurt. But, uh. Sorry!” Taeyong mutters from the other side of the door. He’s left it open a crack so they can hear him, but he’s clearly too mortified to come in. “I guess I should have expected you’d be here, Johnny. When you didn’t come back last night, Donghyuck thought you’d been murdered by the managers.”
“Well, if not the managers then probably by Doyoung-hyung,” Mark says, then widens his eyes. He turns back to Johnny and says in English, “Oh shit, hyung. It’s tomorrow.”
It takes a moment for Johnny’s brain to get online, and when it does, he feels himself pale. It’s tomorrow, which means all the consequences of the day before … are now real. He skipped an entire day of music video shooting to take Mark on a date, largely because he thought it wouldn’t matter.
“Oh my god,” he mutters, flopping back down on the bed. “Doyoung is actually going to murder me.”
“Yeah, and manager-hyung is going to murder us if we don’t get going.” Taeyong pushes the door open again. He’s got a hand covering his eyes. “Are you two decent? We have to go.”
Mark laughs, bright and easy. He leans across the bed and kisses Johnny on the cheek. Johnny pouts and puckers his lips. He wants real kisses, thank you.
“Stop making out, come on,” Taeyong complains, hauling Mark’s suitcase up onto its wheels and dragging it to the doors. “We’re going away for two weeks, not two years. You’ll see each other soon.”
“Hyung, you’re so mean,” Mark pouts, letting Johnny tug him down onto the bed again.
“Yeah, Yongie, you’re so mean,” Johnny echoes with a laugh.
Taeyong sighs, long-sufferingly. Johnny thinks he picked up the exact pitch and style from Doyoung. “Fine. Five minutes. If you’re not out by then, Mark Lee, I’ll tell Yuta you were the one that broke his favourite mug.”
“What, oh my god, hyung I told you that in confidence!” Mark whines.
“Five minutes!” is all Taeyong yells back before slamming the door behind him.
“Let’s not waste any time, then,” Johnny says, tugging Mark back down again. It’s nice to have Mark laugh against his mouth.
They don’t get to kiss for as long as Johnny would like. Mark pulls back after only a couple of minutes and says, “I think we should talk a little before I go.”
“Oh my gosh,” Johnny says, running a hand through his hair. He hadn’t washed it yesterday, he remembers, so now it’s extra greasy. “I can’t believe you want to be responsible at a time like this.”
Mark giggles, but he sits up, likely so he doesn't get distracted again. “I just want to clarify: we’re dating now, yeah?”
“Yeah, Mark Lee, we’re dating,” Johnny replies. Mark rolls his eyes.
“And we’re going to tell people about it?”
Johnny ponders this for a moment. “Whatever you’re comfortable with,” he says, finally. “I’d like to tell people eventually, but if you don’t want to now, that’s fine too.”
Mark hums. “I thought about it,” he says, “but then I thought everyone might be more lenient on you if you butter them up with a cute story about why you kidnapped me yesterday.”
Yikes, Johnny is definitely not excited to face that music.
Mark sighs and stands up. He runs a hand through his hair and says, “I wish I weren’t leaving you to do this on your own.”
“Mark, it’s fine,” Johnny says. He sits up again and leans back against the headboard. “Besides, on this path we walk together, I’m never alone.”
“Oh my god, you can’t sing our own unreleased songs at me to make me feel okay,” Mark says, but he looks pleased all the same.
Johnny laughs. He pats the edge of the bed and Mark sits down on it. “What I’m trying to say to you, seriously, is that the distance doesn’t matter. For as long as I’ve known you, Mark, I’ve always been by your side, and I always will be.”
Mark sniffs lightly, so Johnny leans forward and presses a kiss to his cheek.
“Thanks, hyung,” Mark says a little wetly. He turns so they can kiss once more before he’s reluctantly pulling back and standing up. They’ve run out of time. “I’ll call you when we land.”
“Sure,” Johnny says easily. “Eat some greasy American food for me.”
“Anything for you, hyung,” Mark says, and then he’s walking out the door.
Johnny slumps back down into the sheets. He’s still dreading going back downstairs and facing the members he didn’t talk to last night, but at the end of the day, he knows it’s going to be fine. Their comeback is important, but personal happiness is important too. They’ll catch up on what they couldn’t film yesterday, and life will go on.
They have tomorrow. And the day after, and the day after that. Johnny has so many days to come, and he can have them all with Mark by his side. Everything will be just fine.