Mark wasn’t lost. He wasn’t. He was merely temporary disoriented, if that. He’d find his way back on the trail in no time, and back to the campsite in half that.
Mark squinted at the sun hanging low in the sky, and tried to recall if the sun set in the west or the east. He couldn’t. But then, he supposed knowing east from west wouldn’t have helped him. He wouldn’t be able to place the campsite on a map anyways.
Sighing, Mark slumped down on a rock. He wasn’t giving up on trying to find his way back to the tent. Just… taking a break. He lifted up his water bottle to take a sip, and it was worrying how light the bottle was. He lowered it again. Mark didn’t know much about hiking, but he’d watched enough Bear Grylls to know that conserving water was important when one was temporarily disoriented.
Something clenched in Mark’s chest as he watched the sun dip below the tops of the tallest trees of the forest. Spending time thirdwheeling with Jaehyun and Sicheng had made him feel like he was stuck in some shitty feel-good rom-com, relegated to the role of comic relief, but maybe he’d gotten the genre wrong. Wasn’t being stuck alone in the woods how every horror movie started?
The sound of a car engine coughing in the distance only further confirmed his fears. Mark jumped up from his spot on the rock.
“Fuck,” he breathed, mentally scanning the contents of his bag for something he could use to fend off whatever machete-wielding forest man was coming his way. Maybe he could throw granola in his eyes. With luck, he’d blind his attacker long enough to make his escape.
The engine sound grew louder as the vehicle approached. If Mark squinted, he could make out a large mass moving jerkily through the forest undergrowth. He wished he had brought his contacts with him-- the only distinguishing characteristics he could make out of the car was that it was big, and block-ish. Mark shrugged his pack off, unzipped it, and began rifling through it searching for the granola.
The car pulled to a stop in front of him. Mark froze. It had a big ‘U.S. Park Ranger’ stenciled on its hood. Sheepishly, Mark rezipped his bag and shouldered it again.
The car door swung open, and a completely regular, non-machete-wielding boy leaned out. He stood at the edge of the car’s interior, folded his arms on top of the car’s door, and leaned his head atop his hands.
“You lost?” He asked, casually, like he was making conversation while stuck in an elevator with Mark and not finding him on a rock in the middle of the forest.
And, for some fucking reason, Mark responded: “No?”
He bit his lip after, wondering what had possessed him. It’s just-- he grasped at straws, trying to justify his own actions to himself. The boy was cute. He would have been cuter, too, if it weren’t for the smug look on his face. Mark hadn’t wanted to admit to him that he was lost.
“Really? You’re just out for a stroll in the woods, all alone, fifteen minutes before sunset?”
Mark’s mouth seemed to be disconnected from his mind. Internally, every other part of him was screaming ‘yes, I’m lost! help me find my friends! save me!’, but whenever he opened his mouth, he dug himself deeper into a hole.
The park ranger boy tilted his head, looking unnervingly like a puppy eyeing a particularly tasty treat. If puppies were capable of mischievously, anyways.
“Oh, is that so?”
“Mm-hm,” Mark nodded, not trusting his voice not to break if he spoke. Somehow, his predicament was made all the more stressful because it was entirely of his own creation.
“Well,” the park ranger straightened, lifting his head off his arms. Shit. He was really cute, “in that case,” he slipped back into the car, “I guess I’ll be on my way!” Then, he pulled the car door shut with more force than was probably strictly necessary. Mark’s anxiety spiked with the slam of the car door.
He froze, eyes widening at the park ranger boy as he waved at Mark, an all too innocent smile spread on his face.
The car engine kicked on as the park ranger turned the key in the ignition, maintaining eye contact with Mark all the while. The eye contact was all it took to break through the last vestiges of Mark’s pride. He surged forward, hand raised.
The engine cut out again. Park ranger boy reached across the width of the car to open the passenger side door.
Red faced, head ducked down, Mark clambered inside.
“Y’know,” the park ranger beamed at Mark, as he started the car, “this reminds me of something Gandhi said once….”
Mark dropped his head into his hands. As he listened to the park ranger recite a quote about the inherent humility in admitting one’s mistakes, he debated whether this was better than being attacked by a guy with a machete. His ego felt punctured, brutalized by the cute park ranger’s teasing.
Mark shifted his fingers, sneaking a peek at the park ranger. He was still talking. He had only one hand on the wheel, the other was gesturing as he spoke. The floppy brim of his canvas hat obscured the top half of his face, but beneath his hat were some faded orange bangs, poking out over his brows.
The park ranger had on a khaki button down tucked into olive green shorts that were barely long enough to reach the middle of his thigh. Mark’s hands slipped off his face entirely. He felt offended-- that outfit shouldn’t have looked good on him. No one should have been able to pull off the khaki-olive combo.
But this park ranger did.
“Are you even listening? I’m sitting here, imparting life changing wisdom, and you’re spacing out.”
Mark’s eyes snapped up to the park ranger’s face, guiltily. At least he hadn’t noticed that Mark was staring at his legs? Small victories. Mark coughed, clearing his throat.
“Yeah. You were saying something about Gandhi.”
“That was five minutes ago!” the park ranger sounded aghast.
They’d finally reached a trail-- level ground at last-- but the smoother ride did little to quell the odd, buoyant feeling in Mark’s stomach. Maybe he was dehydrated. Maybe the long trek he’d taken during his time being temporarily disoriented was getting to him, making him unable to think straight. It would explain his fixation on the length of the park ranger’s shorts.
“Look, Hatchet-- can I call you Hatchet?”
“My name’s Mark.”
“Uh, sure. Whatever you say, Hatchet.”
The sound of gravel shifting and crackling filled the air as the park ranger reached the end of the forest trail and headed out onto one of the facsimiles of roads that were present throughout the park.
Mark let out an airy exhalation, a sigh of relief he hadn’t known he’d been holding. The sky was darkening as dusk approached, the forest was cast in ruddy purple shadows. The trails weren’t properly lit, but the gravel road had low pathlights lining it, illuminating the road and the nearest trees in warm yellow. They wouldn’t be stuck in the forest in the dark, at least.
Mark realized that, for the first time in the whole ride, the car was quiet. The park ranger wasn’t speaking. Self consciously, he glanced at the boy beside him, wondering if perhaps he’d overheard Mark’s sigh. Just as he dared to look, he caught the park ranger’s eyes flitting from him, and away, to the road ahead. The park ranger had been looking at him-- maybe he had heard him after all. Embarrassed, Mark’s eyes dropped to his lap.
“Wanna listen to some music?” the park ranger’s voice was far more tentative than it’d sounded before. Hesitant. He pointed at the glove box in front of Mark, “We keep the CDs there. I don’t know what kind of music you’re into, but… hopefully there’s something you like in there...”
He trailed off. Wordlessly, Mark popped open the glove box. It was filled entirely with CDs. He had to lurch forward, straining against the seatbelt, so he could keep some of the boxes from tumbling out and into his lap. The park ranger was really into music, it seemed. Mark scanned some of the titles, immediately finding that the ranger’s hopes Mark would find something he liked weren’t unfounded.
There was a lot of old pop-- stuff from the seventies and eighties, stuff that Mark’s parents had played for him when he was a kid. But there were also newer artists that the park ranger had probably had to search high and low to find CDs for, like Justin Bieber. Mark had heard of almost every artist on the CDs in the glove box, and he liked every single one he’d heard of before.
He glanced from the Justin Bieber CD in his hand to the park ranger-- apparently the boy also had decent taste in music in addition to being cute. Or, at least, had similar taste in music to Mark.
In the end, Mark decided on a Best of Michael Jackson CD.
The sun had completely set. It was dark outside, save for the spots of yellow of the pathlights every twenty yards along the road, and the car’s headlights. Mark put in the CD, Michael Jackson started crooning about a pretty young thing, and the park ranger cracked a smile. It was smaller than his smug grin, and much nicer. His lips were heart shaped, Mark realized, his cupid’s bow was curved, softly rounded.
“Good choice,” the ranger said and, oh, shit. Mark was screwed. All it took was a couple minutes of the cute park ranger being nice to him for a change and he was already getting annoying fluttery feelings in his stomach. It wasn’t dehydration. It was a crush, new and tentative, but unmistakably blooming within him.
“Ha. Thanks,” Mark forced himself to speak casually, through his revelation, “you have good taste.”
The ranger hummed, then, inexplicably, he looked at Mark, surveyed him up and down, and said, “Debatable.”
Mark didn’t know how to respond to that, so he didn’t respond at all. He just nodded, hoping his expression sufficiently conveyed his confusion.
The song ended. The ranger hissed a triumphant ‘ yes’ under his breath as the next one started up.
He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, belting out the lyrics without any warning, startling Mark.
“ Hey pretty baby with the high heels on ”
Mark yelped in his surprise. The ranger wasn’t looking at the road ahead at all, too busy singing. The entire situation seemed unnecessarily risky.
“ You give me fever like I’ve never, ever known ”
Mark reached forward to grab the wheel as the car drifted to the right, its wheels dangerously close to veering off road and bumping into the pathlights. He corrected the car’s angle, but didn’t dare take his hand off, not while the ranger was still singing. Or, rather, performing.
Mark turned to glare at the ranger, wondering how it was he’d gotten this job if he acted like this around strangers, around the park’s guests. But he was taken aback to see that the ranger was looking back at him, his face mere inches from Mark’s. His eyes were sparkling, from joy, or perhaps from mischief. Mark couldn’t have said.
“ You’re just a product of loveliness, ” the ranger sang, this time a touch quieter, but no less confident.
Mark could see why. His voice was amazing. High in tone, clear as a bell. Enchanting. Mark blinked once, twice, but he couldn’t shake himself from the spell the ranger’s voice had put him under.
“Hey, Hatchet,” the ranger whispered, his quiet words drawing Mark in ever closer.
“What?” Mark asked, breathless.
“Move. Your fat head’s blocking the road.”
Cheeks blooming with heat, Mark fell back into his seat, drawing his hands into his lap. The ranger laughed a sharp bark of laughter. He turned the car right at a fork, and suddenly, Mark could see brighter lights streaming through the gaps in the trees. At the end of the road in front of them lay a cabin, warm yellowed light flooding from its windows, illuminating the small clearing it lay in.
“ The way you make me feel ,” the ranger resumed singing, and Mark could hear the smile on his face.
Great , he thought, dropping his chin into his hand. He stared out the window at the looming cabin, glum; Fucking up in front of a new crush? Just what he needed to really complete the day’s embarrassment bingo.
The ranger pulled into a spot marked for rangers vehicles only, just outside the cabin. He took his keys out, cutting off Michael Jackson in the middle of line about pleading with a girl to be his, and his alone.
He grinned at Mark, “C’mon. Your friends are waiting.”
Shit. Mark had completely forgotten about Jaehyun and Sicheng. They were going to skin him alive for straying from the campsite and getting himself lost.
The ranger must have noticed his panic, because he reached forward to clasp Mark’s shoulder. The gesture was probably meant to be comforting, but it only added to Mark’s nerves. The ranger-- the cute ranger, with a smile shaped like a heart and the voice of an angel-- was trying to comfort him.
“Hey, it’ll be okay. They’re just going to be relieved to have you back.”
“Mark, you absolute fucking idiot .”
Jaehyun had been raving at Mark for five minutes, and looked to show no signs of slowing down or letting up any time soon. Sicheng stood behind him, arms crossed, looking grim but resolute as Jaehyun paced.
The ranger had a look of dawning horror on his face. He’d long since inched away from Mark’s side, as if just being in his proximity made him vulnerable to Jaehyun’s verbal attack. Another ranger, this one somehow even younger than Mark’s ranger, was in the kitchenette area, unmoving, eyes unfocused. He seemed to be disassociating. He’d been holding the same tea kettle and done nothing with it for the entire duration of Jaehyun’s rant.
“Just-- who just walks off by himself a couple hours before nightfall? What kind of-- who does that?”
“Well. Not me, not anymore. Once was enough,” Mark interjected, knowing it was futile. He would be ignored this time as well, like his every spoken word had been every previous attempt.
“Imagine what would have happened if the park rangers hadn’t been able to find you. Imagine that, Mark.”
Jaehyun slowed in his pacing, if only to turn and shoot Mark another murderous look. Mark sighed. Jaehyun didn’t get angry often, and rarely did he ever get angry at Mark. He understood why he was lashing out. He’d been worried, worried sick probably. Him and Sicheng both. Mark felt downright awful for forgetting about them when they probably hadn’t had that luxury, and had been worrying about him for the whole time he’d been out of their sights.
“Baby,” Sicheng stepped forward, uncrossing his arms. His voice was low, soothing. He placed a hand on Jaehyun’s shoulder. Mark hadn’t noticed how tense Jaehyun had been until after he’d relaxed, appearing to melt under Sicheng’s barest touch.
After sharing a look with Jaehyun, communicating paragraphs with only a quick glance, Sicheng turned to Mark.
“Mark, Jae and I were worried about you. You know better than to go wandering off like that.”
Somehow, Sicheng’s disappointed words hit Mark harder than any of Jaehyun’s angry outbursts had. He looked down at his sneakers in shame. Absently, he recalled how they had been brand new, at the outset of their camping trip. Mark hadn’t spared a thought about how dumb it was to bring brand new sneakers when all he’d be doing was spending time outdoors. Now, they were scuffed, dirty. Mud was caked all around the soles, and little leaves and branches stuck out from the mud. He’d never be able to get them as clean as they’d been before.
“I’m sorry, guys,” Mark said, and he meant it more than anything.
“No. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have blown up at you like that,” when Mark looked up, Jaehyun looked sheepish. He scratched the back of his neck, ducking his head.
“You’ve never been camping before. We shouldn’t have expected you to know all the rules and guidelines about it, anyways,” Sicheng said. Jaehyun turned to him, soft smile growing on his face, the one smile that was reserved for Sicheng alone.
“Are you guys really going to let him off that easy?” Mark’s ranger broke his silence with a low whistle. Mark cringed, shooting him a look. The ranger raised his hands in a placating gesture, “I’m just saying!”
Jaehyun’s ranting and pacing seemed to have drained the rest of the fight in him. The excitement of the day caught up to him, and Jaehyun looked bone tired as he shrugged at the ranger. Sicheng simply nodded, but that didn’t pacify Mark’s ranger in the slightest. The boy pointed at Mark with both of his hands, still raised.
“But he really was dumb! That’s basic stuff. Every cub scout knows not to wander off.”
Jaehyun and Sicheng looked in looks of disbelief and curiosity, respectively, at the ranger. Mark didn’t know what the boy was playing at, why he seemingly wanted to dreg up the bad feelings that had just been put to rest. Or was it that he simply thought Mark was that stupid, and couldn’t resist the opportunity to point it out? That stung, more than Mark wanted to admit even to himself.
Mark was about to ask the ranger-- something, he didn’t know exactly what, but he would’ve demanded an answer, when a timid voice piped up, cutting him off before he’d opened his mouth.
“Does anyone want some tea?” they asked.
Mark looked to the source of the voice -- the little ranger in the kitchenette, in the midst hefting the kettle in his hands up and away from him like it was a ticking time bomb.
It was only when the little ranger passed out steaming mugs of freshly brewed tea to everyone that Mark finally found out his ranger’s name.
“Here,” the little ranger said, handing over a mug with an inexplicable pikachu on it to Mark, “pass that to Hyuck, please.”
Mark paused, his brain working hard, matching the unknown name to the known face. It was only when his ranger’s grabby hands appeared in his vision that he shook out of his stupor.
“Hyuck?” he confirmed, handing over the mug.
His ranger-- Hyuck-- blew over the top of it, wafting the fragrant steam over to Mark. It smelled of green tea, the earthy scent lightened and sweetened with honey.
“Yeah. That’s me. It’s short for Donghyuck.”
“Donghyuck,” Mark repeated, getting a feel for the name.
“But you can call me Hyuck.”
“Hyuck,” Mark said, again.
Just because he could. Just because he knew the name, now, and he’d been given permission to use it. He grinned. Hyuck smiled back at him with a soft smile. It might’ve just been from the warmth of the tea in his hands, but Mark could’ve sworn Hyuck’s cheeks were flushed a light pink.
“Jesus Christ,” Jaehyun’s curse, under his breath, drew Mark’s attention from Hyuck’s face. Jaehyun was looking at him, then at Hyuck, in turn-- and appeared to be majorly disgruntled.
Sicheng gently nudged Jaehyun’s shoulder with his own,. Jaehyun rolled his eyes before issuing an apology-- though he didn’t offer an explanation as to what he was apologizing for. Mark nodded back at him, in vexed recognition.
When Mark looked back at Hyuck, at least counting on him being a companion to Mark’s confusion, he found that Hyuck wasn’t looking at him. He had his eyes fixed on his mug of tea, and, this time, there was no mistaking the pink tint on his cheeks. Mark couldn’t help but feel he was missing something important.
But then the little ranger passed him his mug of tea, and the moment passed with it.
“Where are you guys planning on staying the night?” the little ranger asked. His voice was deeper than Mark had realized. Perhaps his shyness had made Mark remember it as being higher than it actually was.
“Oh. I don’t feel like staying in the forest tonight. Maybe we should drive back, find a motel to stay at?”
Sicheng looked questioningly at Jaehyun, then Mark. Mark’s stomach dropped when Sicheng’s discerning eyes met his. He didn’t want the night to be over already. He didn’t want it to end-- and that’s what staying at a motel meant. They’d have to leave as soon as possible, to reach one.
Without thinking, Mark looked to Hyuck. He might have been hallucinating, but he thought he saw the same thing he was feeling reflected in Hyuck’s wide eyes. He looked to be just as blindsided as Mark was.
“Yeah, that could work,” Jaehyun agreed readily with Sicheng, and Mark felt all the more hollow for it, “we’ve already got everything packed up in the car.”
But then they wouldn’t even have to come back the next day to pick up their campsite. Mark had been banking on that, that if they left at least he’d have a chance of coming back and seeing Hyuck again the next day. But he didn’t even that to look forward to…
“Don’t be ridiculous. You can stay here, in the rangers’ cabin,” Hyuck said, brusque and matter-of-fact. Mark’s ears perked up. That was even better than coming back the next day.
“Uh. I don’t know about that, Hyuck. Yuta--”
Hyuck cut off the little ranger before he could finish his sentence.
“--Yuta would want us to ensure the safety of our park guests, Jisung. Letting them drive off at this time? That’s practically…” Hyuck paused, reaching for the right word. Mark could see when he found it, his face lighting up, “...endangerment.”
Mark nodded enthusiastically. He turned with pleading eyes to Sicheng.
“That’s a good point. Aren’t you guys tired, too? The nearest motel’s probably more than an hour away. Let’s just stay the night.”
Jaehyun looked, for the most part, skeptical at that, and a little bit constipated. Sicheng’s eyes narrowed, and Mark prickled, shifting uneasily under his shrewd gaze. He felt exposed, though he didn’t know why. Then, just a moment later, Sicheng’s expression was back to normal again, leaving Mark to wonder if he’d imagined the whole thing.
“Sure. If it’s alright with the rangers, we can stay,” Sicheng said, easily.
Jaehyun grunted in what might have been agreement.
Mark couldn’t believe they’d relented that quickly. They’d just… given in to what he wanted, even though they were probably still upset with him. But he wasn’t about to question it and risk having them rescind their agreements.
Relieved, and excited, he turned to Hyuck. He found that Hyuck had a grin on his face that rivalled Mark’s own.
Sleeping arrangements were decided easily enough. This particular rangers cabin only had two bedrooms-- and one was “strictly off limits under all possible circumstances”, according to Hyuck. That left the room for the junior rangers for Hyuck, Mark, and Jisung. The room had about six different bunk beds all piled in haphazardly, leaving space for little else aside from an old set of drawers beneath a wide window. Jaehyun and Sicheng were relegated to the couch’s pull-out bed in the living room.
“Sorry,” Hyuck winced, as he watched Jaehyun test the pull-out bed. Its poor coils, not springy enough to begin with and probably overworked from years of being slept on, made a depressing squeak.
“Don’t be. This is better than any motel bed would’ve been,” Sicheng assured him, though his tone was flat and it was difficult to tell how sincere the statement was.
“Probably cleaner too,” Jaehyun added.
And he and Hyuck collectively shuddered at the truth behind that.
“For the record, I’m not happy about sharing a room with you two,” Jisung stated.
After Hyuck and Jisung had helped Mark, Jaehyun, and Winwin had carry in their bags with overnight essentials, they’d separated, leaving the couple to their relative privacy. Mark and Hyuck were stuck in the junior rangers’ room with Jisung, who was apparently harboring some resentment towards them.
“What? Why?” Hyuck sounded genuinely hurt.
He sat down next to Mark, ducking so as not to hit his head on the top bunk of the bed. Mark froze, trying and failing not to note that Hyuck had sat close enough that their legs were nearly touching.
Jisung blinked owlishly at Hyuck. His eyes drifted down to their legs-- the small gap between them-- then back up. He shook his head in disbelief. Without another word, he turned away and went to his bunk on the far end of the room.
“Forgive him. He’s going through puberty, I think.”
Mark’s cheeks felt heated. He was confident it was something else. There was a beat following Mark’s words, a moment of what might have been silence, were it not for Jisung shuffling through his things on the other side of the room.
“The thing is,” Mark began, and it felt gratifying to see Hyuck focus entirely on him as he spoke, rapt in attention, “I’m not so happy that we’re sharing a room with Jisung, either.”
Hyuck smiled, and one corner was crooked minisculely higher than the other. He’d long since taken off his hat, and his bangs fell into his eyes. Mark wished for nothing else in that moment but to be able to reach forward and brush them aside, so he could see Hyuck’s eyes unobscured.
Mark couldn’t though. It would have to stay a wish.
Hyuck moved, and his hand landed on Mark’s knee, a light touch that sent Mark’s heart stuttering, “I might have an idea.”
They waited until Jisung had finally gone to sleep. The light of his phone screen faded, and his snores, at first soft, gradually grew louder. Hyuck’s eyes, shining in the light of the crescent moon outside the window, caught Mark’s. He threw his covers aside. Underneath, Hyuck was wearing his pajamas-- part of his constructed ruse that Mark still wasn’t sure had been necessary.
Nonetheless, Mark had followed suit, donning his own pajamas. He hissed as he slipped out from under the covers and his bare feet hit the cold cement floor. By the time Mark had pulled on the thickest pair of socks he’d packed and a pair of slides, Hyuck was waiting by the open door. He leaned against the frame, grinning. The moonlight caught on his teeth, making them gleam in the dark. Mark grinned back. It felt devious, sneaking out like this, even if they were just sneaking away from a snotty sixteen year old.
“C’mon,” Hyuck whispered, his voice carrying through the cool night air. He reached out with a hand. Mark took it, and Hyuck led him onwards.
As they crept past the bedrooms, and into the small living area, Mark could think of little else but the sensation of Hyuck’s hand in his. Hyuck’s hand was smaller, but only just. It was warmer, but only just. If Mark held too tight, he could feel the delicate bones in Hyuck’s hand shift in his grasp. So he tried to hold it lightly.
Hyuck giggled as he opened the front door. They’d successfully passed Jaehyun and Sicheng’s as they slumbered soundly on the pull-out bed. Mark squeezed Hyuck’s hand, a careful censure, though he wanted to join in his laughter. They crossed the cabin’s threshold onto the patio, grinning at each other, jointly overjoyed at their minute achievement. The door closed softly behind Mark, swishing shut.
“Yo, what the fuck?”
There was someone else on the patio outside the cabin. Immediately, without thinking, Mark drew Hyuck behind him, positioning himself between Hyuck and the silhouette of a man looming by the porch swing.
Mark shifted his feet into a wider stance, his slides slipping on the worn patio wood. Logically, he knew he’d probably be better able to defend Hyuck with both hands, but he wasn’t about to let go of Hyuck’s hand any time soon.
Unexpectedly, Hyuck burst out into laughter behind him. Mark turned around, not quite believing it. Hyuck was utterly nonchalant at a late night encounter with a mysterious man outdoors.
“Yuta, I could ask you the same thing. What are you doing out here, anyways?”
Mark slowly turned back to face the other person on the patio. The man-- Yuta-- walked forward, out of the shadows at the and into the light of the moon. He had a lost expression on his face, and his hands were shoved deep into the pockets of his cargo pants. He didn’t look like much of a threat-- to Hyuck or anyone.
Sheepishly, Mark stood down. He shifted back to Hyuck’s side, grip loosening on his hand. He’d almost let go, almost let Hyuck’s fingers slip through his, when Hyuck tightened his hold on Mark’s hand.
Mark looked to Hyuck, but Hyuck was looking at Yuta.
“I was communing with nature. Also…,” Yuta trailed off. Hyuck waited patiently for him to rediscover his train of thought, and Mark followed Hyuck’s lead, “.... did you know there’s a couple of dudes sleeping on our couch?”
“Oh, so you were getting high?” Hyuck stated, more than asked. He sounded amused.
“This is your boss?” Mark asked, inadvertently drawing Yuta’s attention to him for the first time.
Yuta took a step closer to them, then another. Mark’s nose crinkled unconsciously; he smelled like the cooperative student dorm right by Mark’s favorite coffee place on campus. It wasn’t exactly a bad scent, just. Evocative. Yuta peered at Mark. Mark tried not to angle himself away or flinch. The guy made unnervingly intense eye contact.
“Oh,” Hyuck stepped up beside Mark. He beamed at Yuta, “This is Mark. I found him wandering alone in the wilderness.”
“And what exactly are you doing with Mark?” Yuta asked, suspicion evident.
“...taking him out into the wilderness.”
Mark winced. While none of what Hyuck had said was inaccurate, there had to have been a better way to deliver it.
Nerves rising, Mark attempted to maintain steady eye contact with Yuta, who was meanwhile still intently looking between the two of them. A moment passed. The another, then another. Mark could hear cicadas buzzing, the trill filling the summer air like an anxious itch. He wondered how long they were going to stare at each other.
Yuta sniffed, loudly. He put his hands on his hips and listed backwards, broad smile on his face.
“Ah, what the hell. I don’t actually give a shit. Have fun, kids!”
“You bet, Yuta!” Hyuck gave the man a peace sign, then proceeded to march away, tugging Mark with him.
“It was nice meeting you,” Mark whisper-shouted back at the grinning man on the patio, just to be polite.
“Your boss isn’t what I was expecting,” Mark said, when they were in Hyuck’s park ranger car again. He was hoping conversation would distract him from how cold and empty his hand felt, suddenly, without Hyuck’s hand in it.
“He’s, like, the least chill stoner I’ve ever met,” Hyuck laughed, “but Yuta really does love the park. He works hard to undo all the messes the guests leave.”
Hyuck started the car, and the radio resumed playing right where it’d left off. Michael Jackson was finishing off The Way You Make Me Feel , and it was like no time had passed at all. It was earlier in the evening, and Mark was coming to the unnerving realization that he was falling for a near-stranger, a park ranger with floppy orange hair and a penchant for biting words.
It had been hours since the sun had set, but Mark was wide awake. He couldn’t feel the cloying pull of exhaustion, not with the thrum just under his skin, not with his heart pounding in his ears.
“Where are we going exactly?” he asked, and his voice sounded a touch strained to his own ears.
“Stop asking! It’s a surprise.”
When they reached the fork, Hyuck turned right, onto the road that Mark had never been down before. Almost immediately after the road began, it started to rise, causing the pebbles disturbed by the car’s wheels to bounce downward in its wake.
“Earlier, you said it was stupid how I’d wandered off alone. But now you’re taking me out in the woods again.” Mark spoke. He wasn’t upset now that he’d had time to mull it over. He was just confused.
Hyuck sighed. The combination of the low light from the moon and the weak emanance from the car’s headlights cast his face in blue and orange-hued tones. It made him look like a painting, a portrait that belonged in a museum for the world to see.
“Well, you didn’t have me before, dumbass.”
Right. Mark laughed. Hyuck couldn’t be put up in an art museum. A still painting was no way to portray him.
Hyuck drove the car only a short while before the landscape began to change. The trees thinned out as they ascended, the road that lay in front of them lightening as more ambient light bled through. When Mark craned his head and peeked out the window, he could see the stars that had joined the crescent moon in the sky. They were so bright in the park, away from the light pollution of the inner city. Mark had never seen so many, and had never seen them shine so brilliantly. So this, he thought, was why people went camping.
Mark snuck a glance at Hyuck, wondering if he ever got used to the sight of all the stars populating the night sky. He had to have gotten used to it, by now. Mark didn’t think he could, not even if he spent weeks or months out here.
“What are you looking at?” Hyuck asked, voice low.
He didn’t take his eyes off the road. The road had gotten thinner, barely more than the width of the car’s wheels. The rocks, bigger as they ascended, made a cascade effect when they were dislodged, sending smaller pebbles trickling down the road behind them.
Mark felt his face heat, but he didn’t look away or duck his head, not immediately. He held his gaze, sucking in his lower lip, nervous with the knowledge that with a few frank words could change the atmosphere in the car entirely.
Hyuck made a soft, “oh!”, then spun the wheel, sending the car into an abrupt left turn. Mark hissed, his hand flying up to check on his lip. He’d bitten it in his surprise.
“We’re here,” Hyuck declared, cheerily.
Mark looked up from his fingers. He saw where ‘here’ was: a small clearing, barely big enough for Hyuck to fit the car in, leading to a rocky outcropping, with only the stars and the crescent moon beyond that.
Mark turned back-- the entrance to the clearing was entirely nondescript, just a slightly larger gap between tall tree trunks. It was a wonder Hyuck had noticed it at all, especially in the dark. He looked with wide eyes upon Hyuck, wondering what other surprises hid within him.
Hyuck didn’t catch him looking this time. He reached back and drew a blanket from the backseat. The hem of his tee shirt lifted up as he stretched back, exposing a sliver of tan skin. Cheeks heating up, Mark averted his eyes. Thankfully, Hyuck was soon back in his seat, opening the car door.
Mark followed Hyuck to the rocky area at the edge of the clearing. Upon closer inspection, it was a cliffside. Mark drew back from the cliff’s edge-- the rocks dropped off into darkness, the forest floor below the drop off obscured by countless tree tops. Mark’s heart beat fast, thinking of how it would take just one slip, one fall, to send him down into those dark depths.
Then, a hand was on him, pulling Mark back from the spiraling thoughts, anchoring him. Hyuck grabbed onto the juncture of Mark’s neck and shoulder, gave the tender skin there a light squeeze.
“Aren’t the stars nice here?” he asked. And they were. Mark’s eyes raised from the trees below the cliff to the night sky above.
“Yeah,” he breathed, then, “I’ve never seen so many.”
Hyuck smiled, soft-- just the corners of his lips curling up, really.
“C’mon, help me set this up.”
He pulled away. When Hyuck unfolded the blanket, dozens of tiny little pine needles fell out, scattering across the rocks. He laughed, a bit awkwardly, prompting a smile from Mark. Hyuck gave the blanket a couple quick shakes to rid it of the rest of the needles within.
They sat down on the blanket, side by side, facing out at the cliff’s edge. Hyuck was close enough that Mark could feel the heat emanating from him. The scent of pine in the air, and from the blanket below, intermingled with the tropical smell of Hyuck’s shampoo.
Somewhere, in the distance, a wolf howled. Mark started, then glanced to see if he was lucky enough that Hyuck had missed it. He hadn’t-- Hyuck clapped his hand over his mouth but the sound of his laughter couldn’t be contained. Before Mark could become too embarrassed, Hyuck inched ever closer, so they were pressed flush against each other.
“Remember, you have me now. You’re safe.”
The pace of Mark’s heartbeat quickened, a rapidfire rhythm that had nothing to do with fear of wolves or long falls and everything to do with the boy at his side. He wondered if Hyuck could hear it, in the quiet of the night.
“My hero,” Mark said, eventually, and it didn’t come out as sarcastic as he’d intended it to.
“Hey!” Hyuck drew back from Mark to prod his arm, “I basically saved your life. You should be a little more grateful.”
“If I remember correctly, you were about to ditch me. I had to stop you from driving away,” Mark was smiling.
He was a little taller than Hyuck, he realized. Or perhaps Hyuck slouched a little, when he was seated. From this angle, Hyuck’s lashes cast dark shadows over his cheeks.
“You were being stubborn! I had to do something to get you to come back with me,” Hyuck pouted, but his eyes shone brightly. He shifted at Mark’s side, then dropped his head gently on Mark’s shoulder. Mark froze, holding his breath, wary of startling Hyuck away with even the slightest movement.
“Your heart’s beating so fast,” Hyuck murmured, his voice the only sound in Mark’s ears. All the background noise, the cicadas, the sound of wind rustling pine needles and undergrowth, the occasional branch broken by forest animals-- all of that receded.
Mark didn’t even try to deny Hyuck’s words.
“Yeah, I guess it is.”
Hyuck’s eyes flicked up, meeting Mark’s. Hyuck stared at him, searching. Mark didn’t know what he was searching for, but he hoped he found it. He wanted Hyuck to find what he was looking for in him. Mark swallowed, suddenly encompassed by an all consuming urge.
“I’m nervous. I’m about to do something really stupid.”
Hyuck lifted his head off Mark’s shoulder to stare at him curiously.
Before he lost the nerve, Mark reached forward to capture Hyuck’s jawline. His touch silenced Hyuck. For once, Hyuck had no words, his smart mouth stilled, his lips stuck slightly parted.
Mark slid his hand down Hyuck’s jaw, feeling the soft skin there. The movement elicited a barely audible exhalation from Hyuck, sending a thrill through Mark. He’d done that, he’d made Hyuck make that noise. He thumbed Hyuck’s bottom lip, brushing the pad of his thumb against the pout, the lightest contact enough to make Mark’s heart beat double-time.
Mark angled Hyuck’s face up, then leaned in, closing the distance between them to press his lips to Hyuck’s. Hyuck inhaled sharply, breath catching. After a heart stopping moment that might as well have spanned hours, Mark drew back. He only moved far enough to ask,
“Was that okay?”
In lieu of answering, Hyuck surged forward, threading his fingers through Mark’s hair, drawing him in close. Hyuck kissed him deeply, desperately, like he was drowning and Mark was air. Mark gasped, surprised and elated beyond belief. Hyuck tasted of peppermint toothpaste, and the scent of sunscreen clung to his skin despite the shower he’d taken hours prior. His lips were soft and plush against Mark’s.
Mark’s hand, hovering in the air, finally settled hesitantly onto Hyuck’s side. Impossibly, Hyuck deepened the kiss, leaning half over Mark. Mark’s hand clenched into Hyuck’s shirt as he pushed back, open mouthed and messy.
Finally, thankfully, sadly, Hyuck drew back. Mark opened his eyes first, staring wide-eyed at Hyuck as he lazily raised his eyelids. They were quiet for a moment, both panting heavily, catching their breath.
“Whoops,” Hyuck said, breaking the silence.
“Whoa.” Mark couldn’t say anything else, his brain too fried to translate his thoughts into words.
“Whoa?” Hyuck laughed, airily. His smile flickered in and out, like an old lightbulb, “Is that good?”
Mark frowned upon seeing Hyuck’s smile flicker. He didn’t want a shred of self doubt in Hyuck’s mind about how thoroughly he’d managed to wreck Mark, with just one kiss.
“Kiss me again, Hyuck.”
Mark couldn’t summon up a care for how needy he sounded, not when his words lit Hyuck up like they did, sent him grinning and shining.
And Hyuck did kiss him again. And a third time. They talked about nothing and everything all the night long, interrupted by long bouts of silence as they stared at the stars and even longer bouts of kissing. Hyuck pointed out the constellations he could recognize-- ones Mark had heard the names of, but never would have been able to place on his own. Hyuck lamented he didn’t know more, confessing that Jisung had been teaching him, but he still had a lot to learn.
Mark kissed his frowns away, kissed him until he was smiling as stupidly as Mark was. They talked until the sky started lightening, the darkness abated preceding the arrival of dawn. Then, they could delay no longer.
The ride back to the cabin was spent without a moment where they weren’t in contact in some way. Hyuck had one hand on the wheel, the other held fast in Mark’s. Mark still felt the urge to scold Hyuck when he leaned back to belt out song lyrics, but he couldn’t bring himself to, not when every time, without fail, Hyuck would bring his head right back down and sing facing Mark. He was unabashed, grinning, glowing.
“ Oh, baby, give me one more chance, ” Hyuck sang, and it sent a wave of utter contentedness through Mark. Hyuck, holding his hand, and singing to him.
The sun was rising, though it hadn’t yet peeked out over the horizon. The sky was painted with just the barest blush of pink, at the lowest portion. The stars hadn’t yet disappeared from the sky above.
Mark pointedly looked from Hyuck to the road, reminding him to be careful, please. Hyuck was stifling laughter, though, so the stern effect was lessened somewhat. Hyuck tilted his head to the side, grinning widely at Mark, his puppy move, and Mark couldn’t hold back the tide of laughter anymore. He collapsed into his seat, shaking his head at himself even as he laughed.
Hyuck hummed, pleased. He trained his eyes on the road, but he resumed singing, his lips curling upwards.
“ I want you back. Oh I do now. ”
Mark licked his lips, then joined in at the start of the next verse. His voice wasn’t as good as Hyuck’s-- Hyuck had a natural ability Mark could never match, not with all the practice in the world. But their voices sounded nice together. And, seeing the jubilant laugh it brought up out of Hyuck, Mark couldn’t be bothered to care at all how he sounded alone.
They reached the cabin just as the sun breached the treeline, washing the sky in warm oranges and yellows. At the door, Mark and Hyuck paused in sync. Trepidation overtook Mark as, once again, he realized he’d forgotten all about the rest of the world as he was spending time with Hyuck.
It was possible Jaehyun and Sicheng had noticed they were missing, had woken up and checked their beds or had even been alerted by Yuta himself. Mark could see the same worries of being caught reflected in Hyuck’s eyes. Silently, he reached forward and gave Hyuck’s hand a reassuring squeeze. They’d face whatever lay beyond that door, together.
Mark opened the door, holding his breath, and walked through.
Jaehyun and Sicheng lay fast asleep on the couch, unmoved from the positions they’d been in when Mark and Hyuck left hours before. As Mark and Hyuck crept closer on their way back to the junior rangers’ room, Mark was able to see the faint smiles on both of their faces.
They looked completely relaxed, in slumber. Though the pull-out bed couldn’t have been comfortable, they didn’t seem to care. Jaehyun was curled loosely around Sicheng, his arm protectively placed over Sicheng’s waist.
“Mark, hurry up,” Hyuck whispered, lips brushing up against the crest of Mark’s ear, sending a shiver coursing throughout his body.
He let Hyuck lead him back to their room, where Jisung was sound asleep as well, snoring away. Mark hesitated as Hyuck slipped into his bunk bed. He didn’t want to part from Hyuck, but he couldn’t deny they both needed at least a couple hours of sleep before the others woke up.
Hyuck had already lain his head down on his pillow in the scant time Mark had stood paused in internal debate. Hyuck raised his head, blearily.
“What are you doing?” he whispered, voice a touch too loud in his confusion. He beckoned Mark forward, into his bed, limbs moving slowly, weighed down as sleep approached.
Mark felt like something inside him was sent airborne at Hyuck’s invitation to join him. Without another moment’s pause, he ducked his head and slipped under the covers with Hyuck.
Hyuck shifted forward, wrapping his arms around Mark’s torso, tucking his head under Mark’s chin. He nestled into Mark’s chest. Slowly, Mark encircled Hyuck in his arms. He felt more than heard Hyuck giggle, his tee shirt rustling with the laughs that escaped Hyuck.
“What?” Mark murmured, his eyelids heavy. He struggled to keep them pried open, as Hyuck burrowed in impossibly closer.
“Your heart’s doing that thing again,” Hyuck spoke, slow and warm, his voice muffled by Mark’s tee.
Mark laughed, and angled down to press his lips to the crown of Hyuck’s head. He figured a periodically irregular heartbeat was a small price to pay, if it meant getting to have Hyuck this close.
“I swear to God, I’m gonna be a lifeguard next summer. Screw parks. Screw nature. Screw flirty junior rangers.”
Someone’s dulcet tones disturbed Mark from his sleep. The first thing he was aware of (aside from the angry ranting in his ears) was the warm body in his arms. Slowly, h blinked the sleep from his eyes, exhaustion from a long day and a night spent without sleep catching up to him, making it even harder than normal to wake.
Mark opened his eyes to a head of orange hair taking up his field of vision. Hyuck. The memories of the night before flooded back. Mark was filled with a contented, warm feeling, not unlike that of stepping out from the shade into the full force of the summer sun’s rays.
Without moving from Mark’s hold, Hyuck grumbled, “Please shut up.”
Mark hadn’t realized he was awake too. He wondered how long Hyuck had been awake, how long he’d lain there. For some reason, the thought of Hyuck not moving out of his arms even after he’d awoken made Mark pleased.
“I said I didn’t want to share a room with you. And what do you guys do, despite that clearly expressed desire? Canoodle. You’re canoodling.”
Mark snorted, sending strands of Hyuck’s hair billowing. He sighed, and extricated his arms from Hyuck, apologetically. But Hyuck was stirring too, groaning. Mark reached his arms out, stretching, turning to look at their rude awakener.
Jisung appeared to be severely stressed, his bedhead an unbrushed array around his tense face. Mark only just stifled a laugh. He felt sort of bad, as the culprit behind Jisung’s stress.
“‘Morning, Jisung,” he tried, tone as bright as he could muster.
“Yeah,” Jisung’s voice was higher than his usual lower register, strained, “Morning. Can you guys get up before Mark’s friends come in here to get him and see… whatever this is?”
“Sicheng and Jaehyun are awake?”
Mark felt as if he’d been plunged in ice water, the cold shock that was the reality of having to depart from the park, from Hyuck.
“Yeah. Yuta wanted to try and make them pancakes for breakfast, I think.”
“Wow. Yuta made pancakes?” Hyuck flopped over Mark’s torso, peering at Jisung in disbelief.
Jisung snorted, “He tried to. He ended up dropping a frying pan on his toe,” Hyuck interjected with a sharp ‘Ha!’, and Jisung shook his head, continuing unperturbed, “He woke Mark’s friends up. They’re eating cereal now, and they seemed eager to get going.”
“Oh,” Hyuck said, short.
Mark felt a light pull on his shirt, and turned to see Hyuck holding on to him. Hyuck’s mood had undergone a rapid transformation from hearing Yuta’s mishap with the frying pan to hearing of Sicheng and Jaehyun’s eagerness to leave. Mark’s gaze went from Hyuck’s hand, holding fast onto his shirt, to Hyuck’s face, carefully blank.
“Hyuck, I’m coming back.”
As Mark said it, he realized he had a lot of work to do to make that happen. Fuck, he should probably buy a sleeping bag or something. And a tent. Maybe he could steal Jaehyun’s. No matter how, he’d find what he needed though. Hyuck had lodged himself into Mark’s chest in only a matter of hours, had latched onto him. He couldn’t let that go.
Spontaneously, urged on by the sudden wash of fond feelings, Mark reached forward to place his hand on Hyuck’s jaw, reenacting the gesture from the very first time Mark had kissed him. Hyuck sighed, light, his eyes widening, flooding with light that flickered like dual lit candles.
“I’ll, uh, just be leaving now. Don’t wanna see this at all.”
“Good,” Hyuck bit out, the sharp tone a contrast to his warm eyes, “begone, demon.”
Mark turned to watch Jisung go. As he moved his hand slid down from its place on Hyuck’s jaw to Hyuck’s neck, the skin there even soft, more delicate. After the door clicked shut behind Jisung, Mark looked back to Hyuck. He was smirking, just a touch mischief flaring in his eyes. As Hyuck leaned forward to pepper kisses onto Mark’s lips, Mark could feel the smile as well as see it.
They lay there, in the bottom bunk of Hyuck’s bed, kissing in the shadows as the morning sun rose and set the room alight. After ten minutes, Mark made himself stop. He drew back and placed a finger on Hyuck’s lips, flushed and swollen from kissing, stopping him in his tracks as he tried to follow Mark.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Hyuck asked, indignant, his lips tickling Mark’s finger as they moved to form the words.
“Jisung was right. We probably shouldn’t let Sicheng and Jaehyun walk in on us like this.”
Hyuck whined, “Whatever. Let them.”
Mark laughed. Though they’d been kissing for hours, it was just hitting him that Hyuck liked him back. Maybe, if he was lucky, Hyuck liked him back just as much as he liked Hyuck. Mark got out of the bunk bed, his feet landing lightly on the ground. He extended a hand to Hyuck.
“What-- you think I need your help getting up?” Hyuck asked, as he reached forward to take Mark’s hand anyways.
They walked out, hand in hand. Upon walking into view of everyone, as they were seated around a table just by the kitchenette, Hyuck’s hand nearly slipped out of Mark’s fingers. He recaptured it wordlessly, smiling at Hyuck’s confused face and swinging their joined hands once, playful.
Just because he didn’t want his friends to see them in the middle of making out didn’t mean he wanted his friends to be in the dark about how they felt for each other.
He wanted Hyuck to know that, too.
Sicheng barely reacted upon spotting them holding hands. He nodded minutely, then smiled, bland and unreadable. Jaehyun, on the other hand, managed to choke on his cereal.
“Didn’t you guys just meet yesterday?”
“Love works in mysterious ways,” Yuta said, sagely, and Mark was amused to see that he was staring intently at Sicheng as he spoke. He looked smitten, his head propped up on one hand, cereal forgotten in front of him.
“Hey,” Jaehyun snapped, turning his attention to Yuta, “your cereal’s getting soggy. Eat it.”
Sicheng laughed, low and melodic, looking on with fondness at his fuming boyfriend.
Hyuck showed Mark all the rangers had to offer as far as breakfast food went. Mark grinned as Hyuck picked up a box of granola and, at Hyuck’s questioning look, explained how he’d thought Hyuck might have been a slasher movie killer at first. How granola had been his only hope as a defense against the potential killer’s machete.
Hyuck snorted. Smiling widely, he mused,
“You’re such an idiot. Why do I like you?”
“I dunno,” Mark said, as some winged thing was flapping, fluttering in his chest, “why do you?”
Hyuck shoved Mark in the chest with the box of granola, making a sound of disbelief at Mark’s gall. Cheeks starting to ache from all the smiling he’d been doing, Mark reached up to grab onto the granola. He laughed as he noticed that Hyuck’s cheeks had gone pink. Mark had made him that flustered.
As soon as they’d finished breakfast, Sicheng and Jaehyun enlisted Jisung and Yuta’s help in packing up their car with the scant few goods they’d brought in the cabin. Mark lingered with Hyuck on the porch, watching his friends load their bags. A faint, heady scent of the weed Yuta had smoked the night prior clung in the fresh, pine scented morning air.
“...I’m going to put my email in for good measure, okay?” Hyuck was holding Mark’s phone, filling in his contact information. Mark huffed a fond sigh, hopeless to stop him. If Hyuck wanted to give him his email address, Hyuck was going to give him his email address.
Hyuck handed Mark his phone back, expression stern, “You better text me. Daily.”
“Of course,” Mark promised, tone grave, straight faced, “scout’s honor.”
Then, he grinned, and Hyuck’s face cleared as he mirrored the smile.
“How long til you can come back?”
Mark looked down at his scuffed sneakers, shrugged, “As soon as I find some decent shoes, maybe? I’ll make Jaehyun stop by a store on the way back.”
“Eager, aren’t you?” Hyuck asked, eyes twinkling.
“I am!” Mark said, defensively. He leaned in, affecting a whispered tone, “Honestly, I’ve never done the whole camping thing before.”
“Really? I’d never have guessed,” Hyuck matched his whisper, properly feigning surprise.
Mark slugged Hyuck lightly on the shoulder, making him swing away and sway back closer than before.
“Oh my god, I just realized you’ve never had s’mores before. Or heard scary stories by the campfire,” Hyuck’s tone got higher as he grew excited, thinking of all the things Mark had yet to experience.
Mark shuddered at the thought of scary stories by the campfire. He could barely handle horror movies in the comfort of his own living room.
“Hey. Don’t worry about the ghost stories. Remember, I’ll be there to protect you,”
Hyuck leaned in, smile the same mischief-filled one from earlier that morning. Mark nodded, a little dumbly, as Hyuck drew closer. His focus narrowed and narrowed, as he zeroed in on Hyuck’s lips, pink and parted and, as he well knew from experience, looking soft to the touch.
“Guys! Time to go!” Jaehyun called, his shout accompanied by the slam of the car trunk door.
Mark glanced to Jaehyun. He was waving at them, and Sicheng was already slipping slicky under Yuta’s outstretched arms and into the passenger side.
Mark turned back to Hyuck and, suddenly, before he knew it, Hyuck was kissing him. He’d moved forward so quick, their mouths smashed together, the contact on the cusp of pleasure and pain.
Hyuck drew back just as quickly as he’d moved in, and Mark watched, wide-eyed. He lifted his fingers to his tingling lips to feel for a split.
“Oh, shit,” Hyuck gasped, “I panicked. Ow. I’m sorry.”
Mark removed his fingers from his lips, smiling, the tug exacerbating the ache. He found he didn’t really care.
“Hey, Hyuck. It’s okay.”
He leaned in, pressed a soft kiss to the side of Hyuck’s frown. When it didn’t immediately lift the offending corners of Hyuck’s mouth and make Hyuck smile, he kissed him again. He didn’t have an excuse for the third kiss-- Hyuck was already smiling, eyes closed in delight. He’d just wanted to, and so he had. Mark kissed him deeply, pushing forward when Hyuck returned it, feeling greedy.
Mark parted his lips, sucking Hyuck’s lower lip in, swallowing Hyuck’s subsequent gasp. He nipped at Hyuck’s lip, lightly, then pressed a soothing close-mouthed kiss on the same spot. Finally, Mark drew back, for good.
“There,” he said, breathless, “Now we’re even.”
“Mark,” Hyuck keened, sounding shattered. His voice, like that, saying Mark’s name, made Mark want to do nothing more than keep kissing him.
“Mark!” Jaehyun’s shout broke through Mark’s happy daze. Regretful, but not too broken up, Mark shared one last look with Hyuck. He bit his still tingling lip, grinning as he scanned Hyuck’s face. He took in Hyuck’s kiss swollen lips, his flushed cheeks, his wide eyes.
“I’ll be back before you know it,” Mark said, a promise.
“You’re gonna be sick of me by the time summer ends,” he warned, taking a few steps back, not yet ready to look away. Mark was memorizing Hyuck, just as he was then. Hyuck’s bare feet, his pajama shorts, his faded old Smokey the Bear tee shirt.
“Somehow I doubt that,” Hyuck laughed.
Hyuck wrapped his arms tightly around his stomach. He looked so soft and vulnerable, then, standing alone on the cabin patio. Mark tore his gaze away, turning around and jogging quickly over to Jaehyun’s car. He knew if he’d looked on Hyuck for a moment longer, he wouldn’t have been able to resist bounding up the steps again to wrap him in his arms and lay another kiss on him.
Mark waved out the rear window as Jaehyun pulled the car down the gravelly road and away from the cabin. Hyuck waved back, joined at first by Jisung and Yuta. Jisung and Yuta’s figures soon left Hyuck’s, returning back to the cabin. But even after Mark had stopped waving, Hyuck remained on the cabin’s porch. Mark watched until the cabin was obscured by trees, and Hyuck stayed all the while.
Mark turned frontward, when all that was visible in the rear window was tall pine trees and the rosy morning sky above. He slumped against the car seat, then caught Sicheng’s eyes in the rear view mirror.
He looked away from Sicheng’s gaze, gloomy, not yet ready to talk about Hyuck. Which was what Sicheng was inevitably going to ask him about.
But when Sicheng spoke, Mark felt his sullen mood recede. Because he didn’t ask him about Hyuck, or the kisses they’d shared on the porch in full view of everyone. Instead, Sicheng raised his phone, and asked an innocuous question.
“Any music requests?”
Mark hummed, resting his head against the cool glass of the window. His eyes were sliding shut, the low rumble of the car’s engine lulling him to sleep. An idea struck him, just as sleep encroached.
“You got anything from Michael Jackson?”