Jeno hates parties.
Not the concept itself -- drinking or noise or dancing, even. He likes all those things. He hates the crowds, big groups of people who are bound to lose something — too many broken promises, forgotten assignments, memories thrown back with every drink. It makes his head hurt. His arms, where the curse mark vines over his skin, tingle.
Unfortunately, Jeno loves his friends more than he hates the headaches they introduce to him.
“We want to have fun tonight, right?” Chenle asks, gripping Jeno’s wrist as he leads him toward the elevator. Even from the ground floor, the music shakes the walls, pumping like a heartbeat.
“Right,” Jeno agrees. “And I’m the life of the party.”
Chenle jabs at the button for the fourth floor until the doors close. “Nah. But thinking about you lying in bed on a perfectly decent Friday night was going to make my own night miserable.”
“Better to watch me stand in the corner?”
“That part’s up to you.” Chenle jostles him as they step out of the elevator, grinning with a spark in his eyes. “You look good. Maybe you’ll meet someone exciting.”
Chenle doesn’t wait, forging ahead to the half-open doorway.
Jeno trails after him, biting his lip. Maybe Chenle’s right. Jeno just hopes it won’t be anyone too exciting.
One step into the apartment and a dull headache blooms at the base of his skull. His vision swims, brain splitting focus in a hundred directions. He closes his eyes. Counts to ten.
When he was a kid, even the slightest headache overwhelmed him. Meditation has helped. No time for that now. He takes a few deep breaths and lets go of any idea that he might not cause a problem tonight.
Chenle appears again and hands him a drink. He finishes it in a few gulps, before the taste of the alcohol can smack his taste buds, and slips past Chenle to pour another.
If only he could forget, too.
Then he sees Mark.
He looks good. He’s just wearing a sweatshirt with a hood, jeans, sneakers. He hasn’t even done his hair -- it falls flat over his forehead, the tips curling out in little wisps.
He looks normal, really, so Jeno’s heart shouldn’t stop at the sight of him in the doorway, greeting his hockey friends. But for Mark, normal is good.
For Jeno, that’s not so good.
Their eyes meet. Mark tilts his chin up in a nod, smiles. Jeno turns away.
He escapes to the living room, slipping between acquaintances on his way to the sofa.
On one end, a couple whispers and giggles, clutching at each other. The other end is free. Jeno sinks into the cushions and tries to look small, hoping...
Hoping to disappear or be noticed, he isn’t sure.
Jeno tips his head back, staring at the ceiling. He could be at home, curled up in bed, watching a true crime documentary. Instead, he’s here, with a growing headache, stuck in a small apartment with his crush, who can’t be his crush.
Beside him, the couch cushions dip. Praying the couple hasn’t shifted any closer, Jeno turns his head. He blinks.
Mark swipes his fingers through his fringe. It falls back into the same place. “Hi.”
“Hi,” Jeno says, his voice cracking. He grimaces and turns his head back to the party.
Mark leans back, slinging his arm over the back of the sofa. It’s a poor imitation of laying his arm around Jeno’s shoulders. But his fingers drum on the cushions, a rhythm Jeno imagines he can feel on his back, all the way down to his toes.
Jeno taps his feet to the same beat, tucked safely from view under the coffee table.
Looking at Mark directly feels like losing something. Maybe his dignity. Jeno knows he stares at precious things like glittering eyes, silver smiles. He presses the rim of his cup to his lips and nibbles at the curve of it, the plastic between his teeth something to fixate on that isn’t Mark’s dark eyes.
“Hey, I like your tattoo,” Mark says suddenly.
Jeno knows what he means. He holds his cup in his mouth as he tugs his sleeves down over his wrists, hiding the curse mark vining over his skin.
“Thanks,” he mumbles around the cup. It comes out half-unintelligible, and he’s definitely drooled a little out the corner of his mouth.
Mark’s smile doesn’t waver. “Yeah, welcome. I’ve just always meant to tell you that.”
All around them people are talking. Jeno feels the silence over them like a bubble waiting to burst, swelling with all their exhales, desperately needing to be popped. Mark tried.
“You know who lives here?” Jeno asks.
“Yeah,” Mark says. “We went to the same high school. You’re a film major, right?”
“Yeah,” Jeno says. This is going nowhere fast. Across the room, he catches Chenle’s eye.
Chenle glances between him and Mark, lifting a brow. His expression says this will be mentioned tomorrow at brunch in the dining hall and— well, if it’s going to be brought up, there might as well be something to talk about.
Before he can change his mind, Jeno swallows his pride and asks, “You want to get out of here?”
Everything about Mark, from his voice to his presence in a room, had towered over Jeno from the moment they'd met, Renjun introducing them in a noraebang.
Jeno had been distracted, his fingers itching to grab onto the things left behind in their cramped room. There wasn't anything tangible to hold, to carry back to the people who'd abandoned something here during drunken nights.
With his vision swimming, the echo of Donghyuck's voice in the microphone, he could barely nod as Mark introduced himself.
But then Mark took his hand. And it all fell quiet.
It's cold out tonight, and the street is nearly empty.
He and Mark amble down the road, their hands tucked into their coat pockets. Jeno walks on the sidewalk, Mark just off the edge of the curb. The end of the block is like the light at the end of a long tunnel -- a convenience store illuminates the dips in the road where shallow puddles wait to be stepped on or over.
Mark pauses to pick up a half-crushed can from the gutter.
Jeno lifts his brows, bemused.
"I'll throw it out in there," Mark says, "or at the station."
"Oh," Jeno says. "Are you going home?"
Mark opens the convenience store door, holding it for Jeno. "Depends. You want to have a drink with me?"
"Depends," Jeno says as he passes him, offering a smile and a nod to the cashier as they greet them.
"Are you paying?"
Mark laughs, squeezing Jeno's shoulders as he steers him toward the refrigerated section. "I'll treat you this time, alright?"
"Sounds good then," Jeno says. His heart seizes. "I'll treat you next time."
Mark hums. "Deal. You pick whatever. I'll get the cups."
Jeno realizes for the first time that he's just a little taller than Mark, just enough that he has to tilt his head down to meet his eyes. The glass bottles sweat against the heat of Jeno’s palm. They’ll chill again once they step outside, numb his fingers.
Jeno hovers by Mark's elbow as Mark pays. "Thanks, hyung."
"We made a deal." Mark flashes him a smile as he opens the door again. "You'll buy next time."
"Right," Jeno says, "so I can't thank you?"
"You can thank me for other things," Mark says. "Not a deal, though. Just hold up your end."
Jeno recognizes the tiny pleasure that flushes his chest. It isn’t new. It’s always been there, as long as they’ve known each other. He’d tried to get rid of it a thousand times before. Even thought he’d managed to lose it, once.
But lost things always come back to bite you in the ass.
“I have a curse,” Jeno says.
He’s lying on Mark’s balcony. Mark lies beside him.
Their shoulders brush as Jeno fidgets, and he’s always fidgeting, really, so they’re nearly always touching. They’re close enough that the rest of them could be pressed together, too. From ankle to hip Jeno can feel the warmth of Mark’s body.
“A curse,” Mark says. “Wow.”
“Yeah,” Jeno says. “It’s not a love curse, though.”
“No? Thank god.” He can hear Mark’s smile.
“Don’t laugh,” Jeno says.
Mark turns his head to face him. It would be rude not to mirror him, tilting his head so the tips of their noses touch, just so.
“I’m not laughing,” Mark says. So close, his eyes are like the marbles Jeno used to roll around his palms until the cool glass went warm — this one with a twist of amber, that one with a lustered universe at the center.
Jeno takes a deep breath, slow, steeling himself. “I find things.”
Mark hums, curious. “That’s a curse?”
Jeno has to look away, blinking fast. “Sometimes I find things people want to lose. Things they don’t want to come back.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.”
Jeno’s stomach twists. He wants to snap at Mark even though he doesn’t really deserve it, wants to make it clear how bad it can be, how it’s better to stay away from him so he doesn’t end up finding the things that dog his steps. Better for Jeno not to know what it feels like to have him and what it feels like for Mark to turn away after the fact.
But it wouldn’t be fair to be angry at Mark for not understanding that Jeno’s life is fucked up.
Jeno bites the edge of his thumb, occupying his mouth before it can let out the ugly words he’s stashing at the back of his tongue.
Mark’s face suddenly appears in his vision. He’s propped himself up on his elbow, leaning over Jeno to get a look at his face. He doesn’t seem to like what he sees, scrunching his nose.
If Jeno were in a better mood, he might have laughed. As is, all he can do is meet Mark’s gaze and try not to let the sting in his eyes grow further.
“It’s bad, then,” Mark says.
Jeno bites down on his knuckle until it hurts.
“Bad enough that you don’t want me to stay?” Mark asks.
Jeno shakes his head.
Mark curls his hand over Jeno’s wrist, drawing his hand away from his mouth.
Jeno’s ears pink as Mark moves his hand up to Jeno’s, holding it despite his spit wetting his fingers.
But Mark doesn’t seem to mind. He bows his head and presses his lips to the back of Jeno’s hand. When he meets Jeno’s eyes it’s like all the air has been sucked from between them.
Jeno’s mouth is numb, his tongue too heavy to speak.
Mark smiles. “Bad enough that you don’t want to kiss me?”
Mark tastes like mint leaves and sugar.
His lips linger on Jeno’s long after Jeno goes home, the taste crystallizing on his tongue as he lies in bed, like a peppermint candy stick he clutched in a tiny fist one Christmas, turning stale and sticky before sunrise.
Jeno likes Mark.
It's a shame -- years spent keeping boys at arms length gone to waste. Renjun always said Jeno would find the right person at the right time and everything would change.
"Maybe I don't need anyone," Jeno would say, his heart thumping hard with the lie.
Renjun would just smile and squeeze Jeno's knee, leaning into his side. "You don't need anyone, Jeno. But it's okay to want."
And then there would be a knock at the door and Renjun would leap up, grinning, and open the door and there would be Mark, sweeping Renjun up into a hug, drawing him close, tipping his head down and--
Yeah, maybe Jeno shouldn't linger on the past.
But maybe Renjun was right, too. Maybe Jeno just had to wait for the right person to come along at the right moment. There was no sign that it would be Mark, with his rowdy laughter, his tight hugs, dark hair and dark eyes and sweet tongue.
"I thought you liked pretty boys," Chenle says, waiting to swipe his card at the dining hall entrance.
"Yeah?" Jeno says. "How do you know what I like?"
"I pay attention." Chenle smiles, glancing at him as he taps his card against the reader. He thanks the cashier before moving on, but waits for Jeno to do the same before continuing into the dining hall. "You like 'em tall, pretty. Mark's..."
"Mark's pretty," Jeno says before cringing. He rubs the back of his neck. "I mean, he's a lot of things. Are you worried about me or something?"
"Worried?" Chenle snorts, shakes his head. He grabs a plate and slides through the line. "What the fuck is that, pickles on pizza? Are they trying to kill us?"
"Thousands of dollars in student debt to destroy your guts."
"Not even in the fun way."
Jeno smiles a little, scooping pasta onto his plate. "Mark's great. I mean...you met him. You know him. He's..."
"He's great," Chenle repeats. "I know. And if he does anything to you, or screws you over..."
"You'll beat him up?" Jeno guesses.
Chenle jostles Jeno with an elbow, smiling. "You've got it, man."
"Thanks," Jeno says. Something warm expands in his chest.
Chenle steps away to grab a drink.
Ahead of Jeno, a folded piece of paper flutters from a tray to the ground. He stoops to pick it up, fingertips like static. It’s a note with a name written in neat block letters and a flowy heart. He doesn't recognize the name.
"Hey," Jeno says, tapping the shoulder of the guy now in front of him. "I think you dropped this."
The guy's eyes widen. He shakes his head, but it's too late. The girl with him turns and sees the note, too. In seconds, her demeanor shifts, her nostrils flaring. Jeno can almost see steam coming out of her ears.
"What the fuck?" She snaps. "Seriously? I thought you said you were never going to speak to her again!"
Jeno bites his lip, guilt sinking heavy as a stone in his gut.
The guy’s expression hardens. He squints at Jeno. "Thanks a lot, man."
"Sorry," Jeno mumbles, sidestepping the brewing argument before it explodes.
Twenty years old and he still apologizes every time he returns something. As if it's his fault people are liars, cheaters, guilt-ridden.
Sometimes he wonders if he could just keep what he finds, but he never does. He finds, he delivers, and plays the role he's been born into. Most likely to kill the mood -- his unofficial high school senior superlative.
Chenle cups his elbow and guides him away from the messy break-up, parting the sea of curious students with one look alone. Tucked away into the back corner booth, Jeno can breathe a little easier, but it doesn't ease the knots in his stomach.
"Maybe you should be more worried that I’ll hurt Mark," Jeno mumbles, staring into his soggy pasta.
"Nah," Chenle says. "You wouldn't hurt a fly."
He sounds so sure.
Jeno wishes he could believe him.
For two weeks after their first kiss, Jeno shies away from Mark’s touch.
When Mark reaches for his hand, Jeno pulls away. There are so many things to suddenly point at, so many distractions to pull, that Jeno realizes he could keep this avoidance up forever.
Mark seems keen to let him.
He's gentle, sweet, caring. It was pointless for Jeno to ever think he could help but like him, kind Mark who always asks if he can carry Jeno's backpack and brings him boba after class.
Mark shoves another player and he smacks against the glass hard enough for it to shake.
Donghyuck laughs and sips his hot chocolate. “I can’t believe you’ve never come to a hockey game before.”
"I don't have a lot of school spirit. And no one I know plays. Until now anyway," Jeno mumbles under the heat of Donghyuck's harassment, shifting back and forth on the arena bench. "Why would I come to a school game?"
"Boys, Jeno," Donghyuck sighs, hooking their arms together. "Beautiful boys."
Jeno can't argue with that, especially when Mark skates. He's not as big as some of the other players, but he makes up for it in sturdiness and grace. The crack of sticks on pucks and fists on chins may make Jeno sink down in his seat, but watching Mark fly across the ice makes it worth it.
“You’re like a bird,” Jeno blurts out once he finds Mark.
He’d stuck to the sidelines to clean up the mess of Donghyuck’s popcorn after the victory. Apparently winning a home game prompted the more school-spirited to throw their arms in the air, concessions be damned.
That’s why he’s a little late congratulating Mark, only catching up to the small crowd of students in the parking lot. He hopes Mark doesn’t mind his intrusion.
Mark opens his arms for him, even as his brows rise in question. “A bird?”
A few of Mark’s teammates — Jeno’s acquaintances — hover close by, their conversation interrupted by Jeno’s arrival. With the allure of Mark’s hug, Jeno is helpless but to step into his embrace, regardless of the eyes on them.
Mark wraps his arms around his shoulders. “What kind of bird?”
“Are you laughing at me?”
“Am I laughing?” Mark tilts his head. “Yangyang, did I laugh?”
Yangyang laughs and swings his sports bag onto his arm. “No way, dude, don’t bring me into this.”
“A couple’s thing.”
“Oh,” Jeno says, because they haven’t really talked about that .
“Coward,” Mark says. He looks at Jeno again. “So? What kind of bird?”
Jeno swallows hard. “Like a...fast bird.”
Mark hums thoughtfully, and squeezes his shoulder. “The fastest?”
“Or the most violent,” Donghyuck interrupts, sidling up to them. Although Mark’s arms remain around Jeno, Donghyuck leans his head on Jeno’s shoulder, fully aware and unbothered by the concept of personal space. “Nice swing, hyung.”
Mark’s smile falters.
Jeno has the strongest urge to jab his elbow back into Donghyuck’s gut.
“Are there violent birds?” Mark asks, keeping his voice pointedly light.
Jeno sighs, touches his fingers under Mark’s chin briefly. “Donghyuck....”
“Didn’t mean to ruin the poetry of this moment,” Donghyuck says. “Are we going to get food or what?”
“If you’re buying.”
“Winwin-hyung’s buying,” Donghyuck responds cheerfully. He bounds away again, eager to catch the hockey captain’s attention.
Mark looks at Jeno and the trouble in his expression falls away. “You want to go? Might be crowded.”
“I don’t mind,” Jeno murmurs. “You should celebrate.”
“Celebrate, huh?” Mark tilts his head. “What if I just want to celebrate with you?”
Jeno rolls his eyes. “Your friends probably want to spend time with you.”
“Nah,” Yangyang says, already walking backwards away from them. “We’ve had enough. You can have him, Jeno!”
“Hear that?” Mark murmurs, squeezing Jeno’s hand. “You can have me.”
Jeno can look past a lot, but Mark bleeding into his mouth from a split lip isn’t one of them. He ushers Mark into the bathroom as soon as they get to Mark’s apartment. Collecting the first-aid kit is a semi-tragic affair, kneeling between Mark’s thighs to pull it from under the sink, while Mark thumps his heels back against the cabinet doors.
Simply being between Mark’s legs shouldn’t affect him so, but Jeno’s starting to realize, through the heat that envelops his face whenever Mark reaches out and touches him, that maybe he’s a little repressed. Maybe he doesn’t have to be.
Jeno rises and clears his throat, busying himself with bandaids and antiseptic wipes so he doesn’t have to meet Mark’s eyes.
"You didn't have to come," Mark murmurs. "I know you don't, like... like violence."
Jeno presses his fingers to the bruise blooming under Mark's jaw.
Mark's gaze stays steady, unflinching.
Jeno shrugs. "It's not like you're a boxer. I can stand you getting thrown around a little bit."
Mark smiles. The split in the corner of his lip is pink, and then red. Jeno sighs and presses a cleansing wipe over it until Mark tilts his head away.
"You like watching me get thrown against a wall?"
"Or two," Jeno murmurs. "Although, I think I'd rather be the one doing it."
Mark clutches Jeno's waist. "Yeah?"
Jeno brushes Mark's hair back from his forehead. He doesn't see any more cuts or bruises. At least, not any on his face. "Well, I think you'll live to see another day. How do you know I don't like violence?"
"Jeno," Mark murmurs.
"You hide your eyes during horror movies."
"Could be the gore."
"Could be," Mark agrees. "You didn't answer my question."
"I did." Jeno runs his fingers through Mark's hair, pinching a lock between his thumb and index finger. "I said it first. I'd rather be the one pushing you up against a wall."
Mark palms Jeno's jaw, rubbing his thumb over his cheek. "Jeno."
Jeno tilts his face into Mark's touch. "You said that, too."
"I don't know what else to say," Mark says. "You surprise me. Every day."
Jeno chokes back laughter. "I'm not so surprising."
"Don't argue with me," Mark murmurs. He studies Jeno's face, tapping his fingers against his hip. "Can I kiss you?"
"Oh," Jeno says, quiet. "Yeah."
When Jeno closes his eyes, he thinks about the crack of bones as Mark's fist connected with a stranger's jaw at the rink, how they flew back, spitting red onto the ice.
Mark kisses him and the image vanishes, lost to his gentle hands on Jeno's jaw, squeezing his hip, and his stubble tickling Jeno's upper lip. His mouth tastes of blood and sweat.
Jeno slides his hand over the nape of Mark’s neck, curling his fingers into his hair, and tugs. Even as they part, Mark indulges him with a smile.
“You stink,” Jeno says. “Get in the shower.”
Mark curls his fingers into Jeno’s shirt. He pokes his lips out in a pout. “I showered after the game.”
“Hmm.” Jeno considers him for a moment before leaning in, pressing his nose against his neck, and inhaling deeply. “Have you considered using soap?”
Mark doesn’t answer. When Jeno leans back, Mark’s staring at him, his cheeks flushed.
Jeno lifts his brows.
Mark blinks fast and clears his throat. “Um.”
“Shower,” Jeno murmurs.
“But I’ll miss you,” Mark whines.
Jeno reaches up, pinches the collar of his shirt and ducks. As he steps back, he pulls his shirt off over his head, leaving Mark still perched on the sink, hands full of empty fabric.
Mark’s lips part as though to speak. Nothing comes out.
“Why?” Jeno asks. “I’ll be right behind you.”
Mark opens and closes his mouth a few times. He glances down, then up, down, up again. His Adam’s apple bobs as he swallows. “Jeno. You know what I said about surprises?”
Jeno hums and reaches past the shower curtain, twisting the knob until the water runs warm over his hand. “That you really, really like them?”
“Love them,” Mark says, already shucking off his clothes and dumping them in a pile on the floor. Jeno averts his eyes before his boxers hit the laminate, staring at the grout between the shower tiles. Mark could really do some deep cleaning around his apartment, but it’s not so bad that Jeno feels disgusted at the thought of stepping into the tub.
But he can’t do that until he strips off the rest of his clothes.
Unbothered and endlessly patient, Mark steps under the spray. The water runs in rivulets over his shoulders, until he turns to face it, dunking his head under the spray. He runs his fingers through his hair until it’s soaked, then slicks it back.
Jeno tries not to follow the course of the water down the column of Mark’s throat, but it’s inevitable that his gaze trails downward, snagging on the line of his collarbones, the sweep of his narrow waist, the dark hair shading down the line of his abs.
“Hey, Jeno, babe?”
Jeno looks up quickly, caught. He bites his lip, preparing to spit out an apology, but Mark just holds out his hand.
“You’re getting water all over the floor.”
Something in Jeno’s chest eases and he laughs. “Sorry, um.”
“I won’t look,” Mark offers. “Not if you don’t want me to.”
Jeno unbuckles his belt and slides it through the loops of his jeans. With an easy flick of his fingers, he undoes his fly.
His voice drops low, a rumble in his throat like in the early morning, when he’s not quite used to speaking yet. Something about being with Mark feels like a sunrise, just before the sky shifts from purple to blue. “No,” he says. “Look.”
Mark does. He looks. His eyes rove over Jeno’s body as he drops his jeans, dark with intensity even as Jeno stumbles a little, his ankle caught on the hem.
He’s still staring once Jeno joins him and tugs the curtain closed, leaving them in the shadows of the singular lightbulb beside the sink. The dimness makes it a little easier to stand in front of Mark, naked, and let him look his fill.
“You can touch, too,” Jeno murmurs, teasing. Still, he holds his breath as Mark skates his fingers over Jeno’s sides, trying to keep his stomach flexed and tight.
Mark slips his arm around Jeno’s waist and pulls him to his chest. His hand rests just over the slight swell of Jeno’s ass, palm hot on his bare skin.
They’re too close for Jeno to hold his breath any longer; the combination of his quickened heart rate and lack of oxygen are already making him dizzy. Passing out in Mark Lee’s arms, fully naked and wet, would be far more embarrassing than letting him know he’s just human, despite the curse vining around his forearms.
“Hi,” Mark murmurs. He tilts his head, his nose scrunching up.
Jeno tries to suppress a smile and fails. He imagines his eyes must shine, matching the stars swimming in Mark’s. “Hey.”
“So,” Mark murmurs, “about the whole...pushing me up against the wall thing.”
Jeno licks his lips, quietly relishing in the way Mark’s eyes flick down to follow the movement. “I’m not looking to slip and bash my head into the wall tonight.”
“No? Tomorrow, then?”
“Mm. Maybe I can pencil you in sometime next week?”
Mark laughs. His lips graze Jeno’s chin, his jaw, brush over Jeno’s lips again, and he keeps laughing, breathy bursts of amusement against Jeno’s skin that tug Jeno’s mouth into a grin against his will.
“So,” Jeno murmurs, “I’ll take that as a yes.”
“Please shut up,” Mark murmurs. “I’m going to shut you up now.”
Jeno’s breath hitches. “Please.”
He doesn’t need to ask twice. Mark’s mouth is hot and Jeno likes the burn.
Jeno winds his arms around Mark’s shoulders, pressing closer despite the wings tickling his stomach, butterflies tumbling over one another at every brush of skin against skin. In the back of his head, some rational part of Jeno wonders if it’s smart to cling to each other like this -- won’t they both fall if one of them trips?
Mark chases away Jeno’s concern with his teeth, dragging them over the juncture between his neck and left shoulder. Jeno can’t think much after that.
Mark brushes his knuckles down Jeno’s side, thumbs over his hip.
As he takes Jeno in hand, Jeno muffles his surprise into Mark’s shoulder.
“Okay?” Mark breathes, his breath hot on Jeno’s ear.
Jeno scrunches his eyes closed against the spray of water that hits his face as Mark tilts his head. “Yeah. Yes. You can—”
Mark chuckles. The sound reverberates down Jeno’s spine. He nips at the shell of Jeno’s ear, stroking him slowly.
“Jeno,” Mark murmurs. “You’re so beautiful.”
Against Jeno’s stomach, Mark is hard.
“Let’s get out,” Jeno says.
Mark huffs a laugh against the side of his face. “What about cleaning up? With soap.”
“What about not dying in a dirty tub?” Jeno takes a deep breath. “Your bed would be more comfortable.”
Jeno runs his hand over Mark’s stomach, teasing his fingertips close to him.
Something stirs in Mark’s eyes. His smile drops as he regards Jeno. “You sure?”
“Turn off the water, Mark,” Jeno murmurs.
Judging by the speed with which Mark turns the knob and whips the shower curtain aside, he must have been waiting for this moment.
Jeno laughs as Mark towels off, his eyes pricking with tears at the force of his amusement as Mark drops the towel onto his head, too, vigorously rubbing his hair dry. Jeno swats at his arms, tumbling out of the bathroom. He’s glad Mark doesn’t have a roommate.
“I’m barely wet,” Jeno gasps out as Mark chases him with the towel.
Mark whips it at his ankles and Jeno falls back onto his bed, beaming. He doesn’t bother covering himself. Already, Mark has gotten more than an eyeful.
He runs his hands over Mark’s sheets, open palmed, one foot drawn up by his thigh, and waits for Mark to look more. He doesn’t have to wait long. Mark kneels on the edge of the bed, abandoning the towel on the floor.
“Jeno,” Mark murmurs, “Jeno, Jeno.”
Mark crawls forward, kneeling between Jeno’s thighs.
Jeno tilts his head to the side, giving him a show of the expanse of bare skin, just for him. Mark leaves open-mouthed kisses all the way down his neck to his collarbones. There, he pokes his tongue out, half-teasing, but Jeno sees the glint in his eyes when he laps his tongue over Jeno's skin, the shade of deep satisfaction at how Jeno shudders.
Mark shifts lower, his breath ghosting over Jeno's chest. Jeno swallows hard as he feels his nipples harden, and Mark hums, obviously noticing, too.
"What's the matter, Jeno?" Mark murmurs, pressing a wet kiss to the center of his chest. "Are you cold?"
"Yeah," Jeno breathes. He closes his eyes as Mark skates his fingers over the inside of his thigh, taking a deep breath before he continues, "Totally. Can't you see I've got chills?"
"Mm." Mark sits up again, pecks the corner of his mouth. "Think you should put some clothes on? You're just lying here naked and all..."
Jeno laughs. "Oh, yeah, I could use a sweater."
Mark rolls off of him, slanting a smile as he lies on his side. "Go ahead, then. You can get dressed if you want."
It's a dare -- a sick one, at that, considering Jeno would be a fool to put his clothes on while he's in bed with his gorgeous... boyfriend? They'll have to talk about that.
Jeno glances at Mark's dresser. He said he likes surprises, didn't he?
Jeno doesn't miss the way Mark's smile goes slack as Jeno slips off the edge of the bed and crosses the dresser, as though he really believes a draft would win out over the feeling of his hands on Jeno's bare skin.
Jeno keeps his back to him as he slips Mark’s hockey jersey over his head, almost afraid that he's pushing a line -- just one of many they haven't discussed. But he doesn't miss the sharp intake of breath behind him, how the bed creaks as Mark sits up.
The hem brushes over the top of his thighs, barely hiding anything. He rubs his hand over the front as he turns to face the bed again, dragging his fingers all the way down.
“That’s better,” Jeno murmurs.
Mark stares at him, his lips bitten red enough to match the split near the corner of his mouth. He swallows hard. Jeno follows the motion of his throat. “Come here.”
Jeno steps forward, stopping when his knees hit the edge of the mattress.
Mark sits up straighter, reaching for Jeno.
Jeno takes Mark’s hand, drawing it up to his mouth. He presses a soft kiss to the inside of Mark’s wrist, then his palm, his knuckles. Slowly, Mark turns his hand over, drags his fingers over Jeno’s bottom lip. His fingertips graze Jeno’s teeth.
His eyes lock on Jeno’s, knowing, waiting. Jeno pokes his tongue out slightly, passing it over the pad of Mark’s middle finger.
“Jesus,” Mark breathes, pressing his index and middle finger past Jeno’s lips, onto the flat of his tongue.
Jeno curls his hand over Mark’s wrist, holding his hand there as he closes his lips around the digits, and sucks.
Mark’s gaze fixes on his mouth, his face settling into something new. Something hungry.
With his hold on Mark’s wrist, Jeno draws his hand back, slow, letting Mark’s spit-wet fingers drag over his chin.
Mark’s chest heaves with a deep breath before he’s curling his hand over the back of Jeno’s neck, pulling him in, kissing him hard, and there’s a rush in Jeno’s ears that’s more than the thrum of blood through his veins, his pounding heart.
He pushes Mark back onto the bed, only parting from him for a moment, as he straddles his hips, both their cocks heavy on Mark’s stomach as Mark’s tongue fucks into Jeno’s mouth.
Jeno rolls his hips forward, the slightest friction between Mark’s bare skin and the jersey making him groan, then Mark’s flipping him over again.
It’s fast. One moment, Mark is kissing his neck, fingering him open, the next Jeno’s on his front, holding himself up on his forearms as Mark presses into him. Everything is Mark, sticking to his skin, flesh against flesh, full of him.
Jeno gasps into the corner of Mark’s pillow, the fabric already wet from the spit dribbling out of the corner of his mouth as Mark fucks him, his hands on his hips, on his thighs, fingers digging into flesh as though to leave prints there forever.
Mark fists his hand into his jersey, pushing it up Jeno’s back. The cool air sends a chill racing over Jeno’s skin, but it’s nothing compared to the effect on Jeno when Mark swears and says, “I wish you could see yourself like this, Jeno.”
Jeno can imagine the sight -- his face pressed into the mattress as Mark watches his cock drag in and out of him. He curls his fingers into the sheets, everything tingling, everything on fire -- and for once, it’s not his curse to blame, but Mark’s arm slipping around his waist, his thumb skimming his cockhead.
Jeno comes on the inside of Mark’s jersey, his thighs spread in a wide V as he falls forward onto the mattress.
Mark comes on the back of his thighs, Jeno’s name on his tongue.
Jeno floats somewhere between reality and heaven. Wherever he is has to be a combination of the two. Mark’s jersey sticks to Jeno’s belly as he rolls over, and Mark smiles, brushing his fingers through Jeno’s hair.
He could get used to this.
Mark opens a window after they clean up, and they lie on top of his duvet all night, trading kisses between secrets. Jeno whispers praise into Mark’s hair, Mark tucks his response into the crook of Jeno’s elbow, to find later, to carry a piece of this quiet.
There’s a reason they don’t go to Jeno’s apartment.
It’s Jeno’s hold up, really, because he never invites Mark around. He’s not sure what Mark’s answer would be, but it doesn’t matter, because he doesn’t ask.
He doesn’t think about the reason when he’s at Mark’s place, comfortably curled up on his couch and in his bed. But it plays in his mind the whole way home, down the street to the station, the ride, transfer, the walk up the hill to his building.
By the time he steps inside, his worry has run through to his bones. His feet guide him down the hall, but instead of taking a right into his room, he veers left, through the open door, and drops heavily onto the mattress.
“Hello to you, too,” Renjun says lightly.
Jeno rolls onto his stomach, shoving his face into the pillows to hide his expression.
Renjun’s never been someone who allows self-pity. He curls his fingers into Jeno’s hair and tugs until he lifts his head again.
“What is it?” Renjun asks.
Jeno tries not to frown, because it’s Renjun and Renjun doesn’t deserve his unhappiness or his tantrums. He’d prefer to wallow in it on his own, but Renjun’s already closed his book, watching every twitching muscle in his face intently.
Jeno picks at Renjun’s sheets, rubs his thumb over the edge of the pillow, glances away and back again. “The novelty of making out with your ex has maybe worn off a bit.”
Renjun looks surprised. “You don’t like him anymore?”
“No, not that,” Jeno mumbles.
Renjun studies his face for a few more seconds before rolling his eyes. “There’s nothing between me and Mark.”
“Yeah,” Jeno says. “You’ve said.”
“And I mean it.”
Renjun lifts his book over his head as though threatening to smack him, but his finger’s still tucked between the pages and he’d probably hurt himself more than he’d hurt Jeno.
“Alright, alright,” Jeno sighs, sitting up. “It’s just weird.”
“Are you mad at me?”
Renjun lowers the book, but the look he cuts at him is twice as threatening. “Are you going to ask me that every day for the rest of our lives?”
“Maybe until we move out.”
“Then move out,” Renjun says. “Go stand outside, I’ll toss your clothes down to you.”
“Come on,” Jeno says, laughing. “I just mean… I’m trying to be sensitive, you know?”
“Is that why you don’t bring him around?”
Jeno shrugs. “I don’t want it to be awkward. And, like, thinking about you being around when he and I are…”
“Hanging out,” Jeno finishes quickly. “I don’t know. I don’t want to hurt your feelings.”
Renjun shakes his head. “You care too much about what I think. I don’t want Mark. I couldn’t care less if you bring him around. Just don’t have sex on the couch.”
“No problems with that.” Jeno smiles as he shifts off Renjun’s bed, a weight lifting from his shoulders. “Thanks.”
Renjun shrugs. “Just do what you want, Jeno. I don’t want Mark. You would know if I did.”
In the doorway, Jeno pauses, looking back. “Really? How would I know?”
Rejun leans back and opens his book. “I would already have him.”
There’s a spot on Mark’s back, between his fourth and fifth ribs, that looks like a paint splatter.
“Or a sun,” Jeno muses, trailing his fingers down Mark’s spine, and up again. “Is it always warm?”
Mark chuckles, his cheek pressed against his arm as he watches Jeno, eyes half-closed. “You tell me.”
Jeno hums. He brushes his knuckles over the mark, and leans down to press his lips to it. Under his touch, Mark shivers.
“I guess so,” Mark mumbles, pressing his wrist over his mouth.
“Is it a curse mark?”
Mark raises his eyebrows. “I don’t think so. I’ve never really had anything happen that’s…”
Bad, Jeno fills in for him. Neither one of them say it, they never do.
Jeno rests his hand on the back of Mark’s neck. “A blessing, then?”
“Don’t know,” Mark says. “I’m pretty average.”
Jeno could laugh for hours. Nothing about Mark is average. Mark, who fills Jeno’s chest with petals and storms, erases every worry.
“I don’t think so.”
“No?” Mark rolls onto his side and winds his arm around Jeno’s waist, pulling him closer. He drops kisses over his face, pressing his lips along his jaw, up to his temple. “Maybe I’m your blessing, then, Jeno.”
Jeno catches Mark’s lips with his own. They exchange lazy, open-mouthed kisses, Jeno’s hand carding through Mark’s hair, until Jeno pulls away. “Don’t you have a paper due tonight?”
“Oh my god,” Mark mumbles, already chasing Jeno’s mouth again, “please don’t.”
Jeno laughs, leaning in, letting Mark pull him under.
"Are you on your way home?"
"Mm." Jeno checks his watch. "Should be half an hour? I'm picking up food on the way."
"Oh, what are you-- doesn't matter, bring me some."
"You're so needy. Sure," Jeno says. He frowns. "Are you at my place?"
Chenle hums. "Hanging out with Renjun. He's making me watch Avatar again. If you're nice, we'll let you join us."
"It's my apartment."
"I'm not above locking the deadbolt if you don't bring me dinner."
"I said I was," Jeno sighs. "Are you listening?"
"Totally. Were you at Mark's?"
"Did you finally seal the deal?"
"That's fucking disgusting," Jeno mumbles. A woman passing him in the crosswalk covers her toddler's ears, shooting him a look. He smiles apologetically. "Don't ask him that, either."
"Oh, too late," Chenle says.
The worst part is that Chenle might, so Jeno can't be sure if he's joking. "Boundaries."
"You think so little of me. Hey, can you get something to drink, too? Renjun poured all his thesis misery into your stash."
"My personal stash?"
"Uh, I would ask, but he'd probably try to put me in a headlock again."
"Can't risk your face," Jeno says flatly. He hops up onto the curb and nearly trips on a piece of trash. Swearing, Jeno stumbles forward, kicking the paper bag across the sidewalk.
"Jeno? You okay?"
"Fuck," Jeno mumbles, shaking out his leg. His ankle protests the movement. "Yeah, shit. I almost dropped my phone."
"I'll buy you a new one," Chenle offers. His voice fades, warbled in Jeno's ears.
Jeno's hands tingle. He nudges the paper bag with his injured foot. "That's sweet. Listen, I have to go."
"Better people to talk to or somethi--"
Jeno hangs up, sweeping up the bag. Ahead of him, someone walks speedily away.
He doesn't have to give it back. He doesn't. He can be sick all night instead -- kind and feverish. Or selfish with a movie marathon and takeout.
“Hey!” Jeno calls out.
The person pauses, glancing over their shoulder. When they see Jeno, they bolt.
Jeno stares after them, reconsidering his options. The curse mark burns, twisting around his arms. “Hey!”
Jeno sprints after them, clutching the bag to his chest. The closer he gets, the looser the grip of the curse around his wrists.
The stranger flies past the steps leading down to the station, crosses the street, ducks down a side road. When Jeno follows them into the alley, he praises whatever powers may be for dead-ends. He skids to a stop, lungs burning for air.
“What the fuck?” The stranger spits, chest heaving.
“You...dropped this…” Jeno pants, thrusting the bag toward them.
“Just take it,” Jeno says. “Please.”
This time when the stranger runs, they shove him for good measure.
Jeno falls, sprawling onto the cold and damp concrete. One second he’s standing, the next he’s staring up at a neon VACANCY sign, his vision hazy. His mark hurts. His head, too.
Under his finger tips, the bag crunches. He drags it closer, rolls onto his side to prop himself up on his elbow. A headache flares at the base of his skull. He grimaces, pushing through the pulsing pain as he unrolls the bag, and peeks inside.
“Oh,” Jeno says, “shit.”
“I can’t believe you chased someone down the street with a gun.”
Jeno huffs out a laugh and groans as his head throbs in retaliation. He adjusts the ice pack over his eyes. “You say that like I held them at gunpoint and tried to mug them.”
“Close enough,” Chenle sighs. “That would be pretty cool.”
“Jeno, please don’t try to rob anyone,” Renjun says, patting the top of his head. “I really need you to pay your half of the rent.”
“Wouldn’t it be better if he did rob someone then?”
“I was just,” Jeno pauses, licks his lips. His mouth is so dry. “I was just returning the gun. The bag. I didn’t know the gun was in the bag.”
“Hey, stop harassing the patient.” Mark touches Jeno’s temple and the headache dulls, as though muffled behind soundproofing.
Jeno dutifully sits up, though he keeps his eyes closed.
“How do you feel?” Mark murmurs.
“About the same as two minutes ago.”
Mark sighs. “Are you sure you don’t want to go to bed? The doctor said you’re not concussed, you can go to sleep.”
“Yeah,” Chenle says, “go to sleep so we can trade secrets about you.”
“No thanks,” Jeno murmurs. He peeks at Mark, attempting a smile.
Mark doesn’t look so assured. He purses his lips and cups Jeno’s cheek, thumbing under his eye. “Are you sure you’re—“
“Mark,” Jeno murmurs. He raises a hand, taps his knuckles under Mark’s chin. “I’m fine. It’s just a little curse-sickness.”
Truthfully, he feels better the longer Mark sits nearby, as if by touch alone Mark is capable of leeching the fever out of him.
Still, Mark seems unconvinced. “Is it okay if I stay?”
“It’s fine as long as you shut up,” Renjun says. “We’re having a movie marathon and you have terrible opinions about movies.”
“Ouch,” Mark says. Instead of arguing, he slings his arm over the back of the couch and rubs Jeno’s neck, still looking at him. “Okay?”
“Yeah,” Jeno murmurs. “Please stay.”
The first time Jeno wakes is sometime after the movie’s end, when the title menu cycles too many times, and begins to sound like an alarm.
He blinks bleary eyes around the dark room, taking in the shadowed lumps of his friends. The tips of his fingers tingle, as if his hand has been asleep, and it’s possible that’s due to Mark, leaning on his shoulder, his mouth hanging open in his sleep. Jeno smiles. Sleep’s claws are buried deep in him, and drag him back under.
The second time Jeno wakes he’s cold. The menu song loops on and on.
He considers Chenle curled up on the armchair. There’s a knitted blanket draped over his knees, but it doesn’t seem to be doing much good. Jeno could swipe it and pass right out again, pleasantly warm and comfortable sunken into Renjun’s couch cushions.
Then he hears the voices. Mark's low murmurs, Renjun's laugh. The sound slips under his skin and digs, carving out the warmth that had settled in his chest.
He stands, follows the light of the kitchen doorway. He doesn't get as far. Something stops him in the hall. He pauses, one foot barely pressed to the floor in front of him, and leans back, holding his breath.
"I missed you, you know," Renjun murmurs, his voice full, even as he lowers it to keep quiet.
"Oh, really?" Mark laughs lightly. "I wouldn't have guessed."
"Should I be throwing myself into your arms?"
"Mm... maybe groveling would suffice."
Jeno's mouth is drier than it's ever felt. His face flushes warm as he peeks around the doorframe.
They stand close, tucked into the corner, by the stove, Renjun's head tilted in toward Mark's as they look at something between them. Jeno can't see it from here -- their hands as hidden by the angle of Mark's body, his back to the door. Jeno stares at the nape of his neck, willing him to turn around and ease his mind with a smile, the way he always does.
But Mark doesn't notice him. Neither of them do, laughing softly.
"I've never been a beggar," Renjun teases.
"Maybe if you're desperate enough." Mark lifts his head, dropping his hand to Renjun's shoulder and squeezing. "Hey, seriously. Don't worry about him. He's just a boy."
Renjun smiles. His eyes shine like they do whenever Chenle buys them all dinner, something between smug satisfaction and pure adoration. "They're all just boys until they're not."
Jeno's set alight. He makes it back to the couch in a daze. Clutching his arms to his chest, his fever returns in a sudden wave that crashes over his head and leaves his stomach rolling, sweat peaking over his brow.
He closes his eyes, furious, sick, not wanting to give back what he has, what he thought might be his.
It's stupid to skip class over something like a boy breaking his heart, but Jeno's never been one to let stupidity stop him.
He hides in the bathroom all morning until Chenle coaxes Mark out of the apartment, and then slips into his room and locks the door. Renjun can probably pick a lock. Just to satisfy his desire to be dramatic, throw something, break a window, Jeno shoves his desk in front of his door, too, and doesn't even pick up his pens when they roll off the edge and onto the floor.
He climbs into bed, a little sweaty, his hands shaking, and pulls his duvet over his head. He doesn't cry, or sniffle, or press his face into his pillow and let his tears wet the fabric. But he aches.
Then he sleeps.
His phone rings. He reaches out with his eyes scrunched closed, mouth tasting of death and dust, and silences the ringer. The early morning light has dimmed to gray. Hours have passed. His phone history records 3 missed calls, one from Chenle, two from Donghyuck, and a handful of texts.
i don't want to be pushy, just let me know when you want to talk , the last one reads.
Above it: jeno, are you okay?
And before: hope you're feeling better, babe, want me to bring you anything to eat? :(
Jeno pushes his phone under his pillow, pulls it out again. His thumbs fly over the keyboard, in a blur, and maybe that's because of the sting in his eyes, but he won't cry.
He tosses his cell onto the floor. It lands on a small pile of dirty clothes, the jacket he was wearing when he fell in the alley, the sweatpants Mark borrowed last night.
Jeno stares at the phone. It buzzes, the screen lighting up with Mark's contact photo, a selfie they took together just a few weeks ago, Mark’s cap in Jeno’s hand, his arm slung over Jeno’s shoulders. Mark is kissing his cheek. He hadn’t shaved that day -- two seconds after the camera’s shutter sound Jeno had pushed him away, laughed at how his stubble tickled his skin. Mark had responded by throwing his arms around Jeno again, complaining loudly about how Jeno hated him until Jeno had kissed him quiet.
Jeno turns to face the wall. He closes his eyes, waiting for the call to end, waiting. Then he sleeps again.
The problem with the human body is that it doesn’t allow time for heartbreak. Survival, after all, is its topmost priority. Jeno’s horribly human body is the reason Renjun finds him in the kitchen in the middle of the night, building a sandwich with the last two pieces of bread and a variety of leftovers.
“You look terrible,” Renjun says, opening the fridge. “Are we out of milk?”
Jeno shrugs. He tucks his water bottle under his arm and sweeps up his plate, eager to hurry back to his room. He makes it to his door before Renjun’s footsteps trail behind him.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Not with you,” Jeno mumbles. He sets his plate and bottle on his desk and turns to close the door again. He startles at Renjun’s proximity, his roommate leaning against the doorframe.
“Is that an attitude? Maybe you hit your head harder than we thought.”
“I’m just not in the mood to talk about it with you.”
“Me, specifically?” Renjun stands up straight, frowning. “Why?
Jeno grinds his teeth, locking his mouth shut. But the bitter tang on his tongue is a quick lockpick, and the stone sitting heavy in his stomach rises up to be spit out. “You lied.”
Renjun blinks. "What are you talking about?"
"I know," Jeno takes a deep breath, "that you still have feelings for Mark."
Renjun gapes at him. "Excuse me?"
Jeno twists the drawstring on his hood around his fingers, rocking on his heels. "I heard you talking, the other night."
"And I know that you two are... or that you want to..." Jeno contemplates taking a step back and swinging his door shut, but he'd have to come out eventually. Their lease isn't going anywhere. He swallows hard, lifting his gaze to meet Renjun's again. "Can I just ask a favor? Can you...not bring him over?"
Renjun holds his hands up between them. He closes his eyes, shaking his head. "Stop. Just...stop."
"Okay," Jeno says quietly, heart sinking. "I guess you're right. It's your home, too. He can come over. Can you just tell me before, then? I don't know if I can--"
"Jeno," Renjun snaps. "I don't know what you heard, but I'm not interested in getting back together with Mark."
Jeno clamps his mouth shut again, twisting the strings tighter around his fingers. He surveys Renjun, studying his expression -- drawn brows, lips pressed into a thin line -- and his arms crossed over his chest. Renjun's never lied to him before. He wouldn't know what it looks like. But he has seen Renjun frustrated, especially when he and Mark were dating.
Slowly, Jeno says, "It sounded like..."
Renjun shakes his head again. "The other night, after you got knocked on your ass? When we were in the kitchen?"
Jeno exhales, nodding.
"We were talking about school. And this guy I'm seeing. It wasn't like... I was just asking for advice."
Jeno looks down at his feet, toeing the seam in the flooring between his room and the hall. "You said you miss how you used to be."
"Yeah," Renjun sighs. "I do."
Jeno's chest tightens, his heart lodging in his throat. It must show in his face, because Renjun's expression shifts, too.
He grabs Jeno's wrists, squeezing gently. "I miss being able to talk to him without it feeling awkward. He's-- I mean, you know how he is, obviously. Talking to him, being around him... it makes it feel like everything's going to be okay, doesn't it?"
"Yeah," Jeno says quietly.
"Yeah," Renjun repeats. "You know how I get, like, really stressed. It was so bad when Mark and I were dating, remember? With all my internship stuff. Whenever I was with him, it would just... stop. Everything would go quiet."
Jeno glances up at him. He knows how that feels. When he blinks, he can see the sun-splatter on Mark’s back, its gentle heat. "That's all?"
"That's all, Jeno," Renjun murmurs, squeezing his wrists again. "I don't like Mark anymore. Not like that. We're only even friends now because of you."
Jeno looks down, staring at his and Renjun's arms. Where his curse mark winds over his forearms in lazy vines, Renjun's skin is clean, clear. He is neither cursed nor blessed. Jeno wishes everything could be that easy.
"When I heard you," Jeno says, "it felt like finding something. Something you wanted to lose."
Renjun blinks fast, struck, but he doesn't pull away. Instead, he steps closer. "Jeno-- maybe, yeah. Maybe we both wanted to forget about everything, when we broke up. But...maybe it's okay to find things you wanted to get rid of, you know? It's okay to start over, even with the bad stuff."
Jeno glances over his face. His cheeks feel flushed, warm with an emotion he can't explain. Shame for eavesdropping? Embarrassment for assuming?
"I'm sorry I didn't trust you," Jeno says.
Renjun tsks his tongue against the roof of his mouth. He rolls his eyes. "Whatever. I appreciate it, but it's not that deep. You can be insecure every now and then, even if it's... completely unfounded. You didn't dump Mark already, right?"
Definitely guilt. Jeno swallows. "Um."
Renjun groans. "Jeno."
“I text him,” Jeno says. “Um. He’d just texted and called and I didn’t want to talk to him, so I said…”
Renjun’s thumbs move over the inside of Jeno’s wrists in slow motions. He nods, encouraging him on.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to talk to you.’”
Renjun rubs his forehead. "At least you didn't dump him, really."
"You think it's okay?"
"I don't know about that." Renjun smiles, but he just looks tired. He must still be nursing a pretty awful hangover, his eyes are rimmed pink, his lips chapped.
"Sorry," Jeno says suddenly. "You don't need to, like, counsel my relationship problems. You have your own...issues. You must be--"
"Exhausted?" Renjun finished. "Yeah, it's just a headache and school shit, though. Mark has good advice, so I've sorted it out with-- anyway, it's a shame you can't just ask Mark to talk it through with you. He's great at this stuff." He taps his finger against his chin, his smile spreading wider. "Hm, wait a second..."
Jeno stares at him. "I'm not going to-- I can't just ask Mark to talk to me."
"Because that's... I have to figure out what to say to him, first."
"You want to memorize a script or something?" Renjun shakes his head. "You'll probably have a hard time sticking to it. Arguments are hard to recite your way through."
"You think we'll argue?" Jeno asks softly.
"Oh," Renjun says, rubbing Jeno's arm, "Jeno."
Jeno's gaze falls down to their feet. "I don't want to argue."
"Sometimes people argue. I doubt it'll be a big thing. Mark doesn't really make scenes, you know? And if anything, he's just hurt, you know? I haven't talked to him about it, so, I don't know how bad it is. I just know that…” Renjun offers him a smile, the kind he only grants their drunk friends when they’re at their most pitiful. “I would be pretty hurt if the guy I was head over heels for told me to leave him alone without any explanation."
"I never wanted to hurt him," Jeno says. "But I did."
He feels a little dizzy, so he steps back, and leans against the edge of his desk. Staring down at his hands, he thinks about how the curse mark could be a little more helpful, could at least tip him off, spread and sprawl and spell out the exact words he needs to fix the chasm he's dug between himself and others.
"Do you think he'll want to break up?"
Renjun scoffs. "Now you're being dramatic. I don't think I should be the one to have to stand here and tell you that Mark's head over heels for you."
Jeno laughs, and it comes out as a short, dry cough. "But you just did."
Renjun sighs heavily, crossing his arms over his chest. "Yeah, I guess I did. What are you going to do about it, now that you know?"
"Apologize," Jeno guesses. "Beg for forgiveness. If he hates me... move out of town."
"I don't think you'll have to go that far. But be sure to send me your half of the utilities before you run away, okay?"
Jeno laughs, for the first time in 48 hours, and the shake of his shoulders knocks his chest loose. He breathes and his lungs expand and he exhales again. His curse sickness still throbs in the back of his head, but he welcomes it. Anything is better than the ache that flooded him before.
"Thanks," he says. "Really, Renjun, thank you."
"Mm." Renjun shrugs. "No problem."
"I mean it," Jeno says. "We should talk to each other more. And, you know, you can talk to me about your worries, too. If you want."
Renjun hums and steps back into the hallway. "We'll see. Get your shit together first, Jeno, and then we'll talk."
"That's a big ask," Jeno says, but Renjun's already gone, vanishing into his own room, and Jeno's left alone with an open door, a messy sandwich, and the useless vines curling over his forearms. They tell him nothing.
Eight paces from his morning lecture, Jeno freezes.
Across the hall, in the open-plan study space, someone sits hunched over his laptop, his head bowed. He’s holding his face in his hands, but Jeno would know the line of his shoulders anywhere -- covered in that too-bright yellow and red sweatshirt, that white cap covering dark hair, the same one Jeno holds in his contact picture.
Mark doesn’t have a class in this building. He’s not even in the same department as Jeno. His being here, where Jeno comes every day, isn’t a coincidence.
Jeno takes a step, then another. Everything -- passing chatter, fingers on keyboards -- muffles into the distance, muted as if Jeno’s swimming underwater. He pauses, hesitating just an arm’s length from the back of Mark’s seat. But what chance has there ever been for Jeno, in a world without Mark’s bright eyes?
If Mark is at the bottom of the sea, caught between jagged rocks and twisting, tangled seaweed, then Jeno will dive. He’ll swim against the current, if he has to, in order to reach him.
If he has to, he’ll drown for peace.
He reaches, and taps Mark’s shoulder.
Mark’s chair squeaks noisily as he pushes back from the table, startled. He jerks his headphones off at the same time as he turns, blinking wide-eyed and open mouthed up at Jeno. “Jeno-- hey!”
“Hi,” Jeno says softly.
“Do you want to--” Mark gestures at the chair beside him, kicking it out from the table.
“I have class,” Jeno says. He sits.
Mark closes his laptop. He doesn’t move his chair again, but shifts his whole body to face Jeno. He clasps his fingers together, leans forward, then back again, his knees bouncing. “Are you feeling better now?”
“Yeah,” Jeno murmurs, “loads.”
“That’s good.” Mark swipes his cap off, runs his hand through his hair. “Great. I’m glad.”
Jeno lifts his hand to his mouth, biting the edge of his thumb. A litany of sorries circles his mind, disrupting any train of thought that might lead to a real apology with each new possibility. He just has to spit something out. He just has to open his mouth.
He drops his hand, twists his fingers around each other. “Mark.”
“That’s me,” Mark says quietly. His smile wavers, looking more green by the second.
Jeno leans forward. “Is it okay if I--” He flexes his fingers, halfway to Mark already.
Mark purses his lips, sucking in his cheeks. He nods.
Jeno hates how even Mark’s habitual thinking expressions makes him feel weak-kneed and silly, his stomach swooping.
But he relishes in the permission, lays his hand over Mark’s bouncing knee and squeezes. Looking into Mark’s eyes, touching him, being so near, the muddled waters become so clear. “Mark, I’m sorry.”
“Do you want to break up?” Mark blurts out.
The question stings. Jeno resists the urge to recoil. Instead, he leans in.
“No,” Jeno says. “No, I don’t want to break up. Not now, or ever.”
Relief flits over Mark’s face. His hand hovers over Jeno’s, fingertips brushing over the back of his wrist, the edge of his sleeve. “What did I do? Was it-- did you really not want me to stay? I thought you wanted me to, but you have all these… boundaries. I don’t know where the line is if you don’t tell me.”
“Yeah,” Jeno says softly. “You’re right. I know I’m not easy to get along with.”
Mark smiles as though surprised, startled into amusement. “Are you kidding? Being with you has been the easiest-- the greatest. Maybe it’s… you’re challenging, sure. But you’re the best challenge I’ve ever faced.”
Jeno feels shy under Mark’s eyes, and has to look away, to the floor, his backpack, their shoes. “You make being high maintenance sound so romantic.”
“Is that what we’re calling it?” Mark trails his middle finger down the back of Jeno’s hand, tracing the line of his veins.
Jeno turns his hand up, offering his palm. Mark accepts, lacing their fingers together.
“I was jealous, I think,” Jeno explains, quiet. He isn’t sure why -- there isn’t anyone close enough to overhear them. So maybe it’s Mark that he wants to keep this from, even though it’s his, too. “Or scared.”
“Losing you.” Jeno glances up at his face, sees only confusion. “Not being able to find you again.”
“I think you’re underestimating your abilities,” Mark murmurs. “Because I know I’d go to the end of the earth to find you again, and I don’t even have your talent.”
“Talent,” Jeno murmurs. “I think you’re biased.”
Mark smiles. “Well, you found me here, didn’t you?”
Mark’s pouring sand and rock into the chasm stretched between them. He’s offering a way out, a way in. Jeno just has to take the step.
“No,” Jeno says.
Mark’s face falls. He sits up, shoulders rolling back. “Oh.”
Jeno stands and steps between Mark’s legs, cups his face between his hands and tilts Mark’s face up to him. “No, Mark. You found me.”
He doesn’t make it to class. Not in the morning, or the afternoon.
Mark has a way of convincing him to stay. He starts with a kiss, his lips dry against Jeno’s shoulder, and continues down to his elbow, his wrist. His hands find Jeno’s hair, then his jaw, his chest, back again.
He starts with, “Jeno,” which becomes, “Babe,” and, inevitably, open-mouthed and wet at the crease of Jeno’s thigh, “Baby.”
It’s more than instinct for Jeno to melt into his touch. It’s inevitable.
Finding lost things fills Jeno’s mouth with rust and metal, electric static from his fingertips to his elbows. Jeno’s gotten used to the taste of blood.
When Mark kisses him, all Jeno tastes is cool water, mint and sugar.
Mark whispers, “I love you,” and everything is his, nothing old, everything to lose.
“I love you, too,” Jeno breathes, and he does. And everything is brand new.