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The air in the practice room is hot and humid.

Mark stares himself down in the mirror, takes in the sweat dripping down his face, the way his hair is caught halfway between standing straight up from how many times he’s run his hands through it and sticking damply to his skull; the loose shirt he’s wearing that might be Jungwoo’s, and the soft, breezy material of his basketball shorts. He looks in the mirror and sees a 21-year-old boy.

Behind him, the door opens. Yuta sticks his head in. “Hey,” he says, slipping into the room and coming to stand behind Mark, chin hooked over his shoulder. He reaches out, smoothes down Mark’s hair, pets over his stomach appreciatively. Something in Mark’s gut jumps, twists, and then settles. “You need to shower before we go.”

“I know,” Mark says, but he can’t help but trace over the way they fit together in the mirror. Yuta’s hair is starting to grow out again, soft and wavy, tickling gently against Mark’s neck. Mark shrugs him off, if only to save him from the sweat that clings to his body.

“‘Kay, see you in the van,” Yuta says. He smacks Mark’s ass and presses a kiss to his cheek before flouncing out of the room as quickly as he came in.

Mark takes another moment to take stock of himself in the mirror. His hair is black again; should he dye it a different colour? The fans like his black hair the best, but maybe he should try something new. Pink is always popular, but Mark doesn’t know if he could pull it off the way that Taeyong and Jaemin can. He’s got a pimple on his chin, something easily hidden by a mask and concealed by makeup, but it reminds him that he needs to visit the dermatologist again. His skin should be perfect, flawless like Jaehyun’s. He tugs his shirt tight for a moment, observes the faint, faint outline of his abs. Maybe he needs to start working out more, eating better.

So many little things to improve on.

With a sigh, Mark drags himself over to where he’s left his bag by the door and scoops it up. He turns off the lights in the practice room and heads down the hall to the showers. They’re slated for a Weekly Idol taping in a couple of hours, but Mark had wanted to come into the practice room beforehand anyway. He’d been unhappy with his last performance of their new single on Inkigayo the day before, and he wouldn’t be caught lacking in their next performance.

The bathroom is empty when Mark enters. He dumps his bag in one of the lockers, pulling out his towel in the process, and strips. The tiles are cool against his bare feet as he steps into a stall, avoiding catching his eye in the mirror. It’s one thing to look at himself sweaty and worn out in the practice room and entirely another to look at himself laid bare in the harsh light of the bathroom.

The water sluices over him. Mark lets it wash the sweat from his body, the worries from his mind. Right now he’s a clean slate, and in an hour he’ll be made up and dressed as a caricature of himself. Mark closes his eyes, tilts his head back, and lets his mind go blank.

 

 

Mark doesn’t dislike variety shows. They’re usually a lot of fun and tend to show more of their personalities than things like interviews or behind-the-scenes videos that they shoot for the YouTube channel. Mark had watched their last episode of Weekly Idol the night before, had scrutinized every single one of his own actions. Was he smiling too much? Too little? Did it seem weird if he shrugged off the arm Yuta had on his shoulder? Should he try and interact more with other members?

A stylist comes by to fix his hair, brushing it lightly with her fingers before attacking it with a burst of hairspray. Mark knows from experience that by the time he heads home he’ll have half the bottle in his hair.

The others are scattered around the set. Johnny and Taeyong are chatting with Eunhyuk-sunbaenim. Haechan is trying his best to earn kisses from Taeil, with Jungwoo egging them on. Yuta, Doyoung, and Jaehyun have their heads crowded around a cellphone, laughing at whatever they’re watching.

Mark feels adrift, standing in the middle of the all-white set.

“Mark-ssi.”

Mark turns his head, smiles at Kwanghee as he saunters over. He likes Kwanghee, likes the sort of dorky, endearing persona he plays on camera and the kind, warm-hearted person he is in real life. Mark shakes his hand when it’s offered.

“Sunbaenim,” he says, bowing his head. Kwanghee laughs.

“Please,” he says. “Hyung is fine.”

They have some semblance of this conversation every time they meet. Mark doesn’t mind. He’d rather be polite than presumptuous.

“Hyung,” he amends. “How are you?”

“I’m well, thanks,” Kwanghee says. “Enjoying my time here, as always. It’s always fun to see what the new kids are doing. So different than when I was performing.”

10 years is a long time, Mark thinks. He was 11 when Kwanghee debuted, still living in Canada. K-pop wasn’t even a dot on the radar for him. He wonders if things would have been easier back then.

Easier in the sense that Mark wouldn’t be hyper-aware of the member of his staff that has a camera trained on him right now. Easier in the sense that Mark wouldn’t have to worry about the hordes of fans that are standing outside, waiting to snap a picture of him and post it on Twitter five minutes later. Easier in the sense that Mark wouldn’t spend countless hours every day poring over every aspect of himself trying to pick out the flaws and vanquish them with hard work and dedication so that he can present a better version of himself to his fans.

“Have you found any new music you like, hyung?” Mark asks, an impressive show of restraint from his brain-to-mouth filter.

It’s easy to get Kwanghee to talk about music. Mark keeps half his brain attuned to the conversation, nodding along and commenting on music he likes too, and half his brain monitoring the rest of the set. Doyoung, Yuta, and Jaehyun have splintered apart; Doyoung’s gone to hang off of Taeyong’s shoulders and Yuta is making a beeline towards him.

“I like that song too, hyung,” Mark says just as Yuta latches onto him, his momentum rocking Mark in place. “The melody is super catchy.”

“Yes!” Kwanghee exclaims, clearly pleased. “I couldn’t stop humming it the first time that I heard it.”

Kwanghee gets called away to go over the scripted parts of the next segment, leaving Mark and Yuta alone. Yuta snuggles in closer, turning Mark around so that they’re hugging properly. The staff’s camera tracks their every move.

“How are you doing?” Yuta asks quietly, too low for anyone else to hear.

Mark shrugs, jostling Yuta’s arms around his shoulders. “Fine,” he replies, because it’s the truth. He’s not great, but there’s nothing bad about being here either. Maybe just the same weariness that seeps into Mark’s bones during any public appearance.

“What were you working on in the practice room earlier?” Yuta asks, swaying them from side to side. Mark catches Jungwoo’s eye over Yuta’s shoulder and braces himself as Jungwoo comes bounding over, taking it as a clear invitation to join their embrace.

Happy Now choreography,” Mark says, thinking about the stage they have the next day for their new mini-album. He didn’t like how stiff he’d looked in their last performance. “What else?”

“Dunno,” Yuta drawls. “The Great Mark Lee always has so many projects on the go. Can’t always tell what you’re working on.”

It’s true that Mark’s got a lot of different hats. They’re all part of the same costume, but the tiny tweaks make themselves apparent in each group. In 127 he’s the curious younger brother. In Dream he’s the fearless leader. In SuperM he’s the maknae on top.

“Just us,” Mark says. “Don’t worry.”

He can feel Jungwoo snuffling at his hair, knows that the stylist will be back the moment his two members let him go to fix it. It’s fine. He doesn’t mind offering himself this way if it brings comfort to someone else.

They get called back to set. As predicted, a stylist zeroes in on Mark's hair, combing and spraying it back into perfection. The rest of their staff run around fixing hair and makeup and smoothing wrinkles out of clothing. Their personal camera goes away. Mark sinks back into his second skin.

It's not that his idol persona isn't himself, too. Mark settles into his chair, drums up some energy from deep within his gut so that his leg bounces cutely and his fingers tap a mindless rhythm against his leg. This is all parts of himself, but they're the best parts. Mark Lee at his most charming.

The rest of himself gets shoved away into a box, only to be opened in the safety of their dorm rooms.

"Okay, rolling," the director calls. The snap of the slate falls. Kwangee and Eunhyuk launch into their scripted dialogue. Mark plasters a happy, curious expression on his face and sinks into his role.

 

 

Mark spends an astounding amount of time picking apart his own idol persona and putting it back together again with a few minor tweaks here and there. He diligently monitors himself on every variety show they go on, every speaking engagement he has on the music shows, every interview they have anywhere in the world. Each moment shows him how he needs to be better at schooling his facial expression into something less bland, how he needs to work on thinking before he speaks, how he can’t keep turning to the other members to help him out of a jam. SuperM was a good reminder of that.

Idol personas are tricky. Mark thinks it would’ve been easier if he had a stage name, an identity to separate the reality from the facade. Kai from EXO is renowned as a fashion icon, a strong and fluid dancer, a beautiful face with a pretty voice to match. He’s one of Korea’s It Boys. Kim Jongin, on the other hand, is soft and silly and dorky and laughs at all of Mark’s jokes even when they don’t make sense in Korean. He’s an adoring older brother.

Mark thinks about this as he climbs into the van after they’re done filming. A stage name doesn’t necessarily equal a clear divide; Mark can’t remember the last time he called Haechan by his real name, the line between NCT’s full sun and the boy that Mark met as a trainee blurring by the day.

Mark’s eyes watch Jungwoo as he clambers into the car after him and sits down in the seat right beside Mark, even though the entire back bench of the van is open.

Jungwoo’s stage persona and his real life persona are not that different. Mark suspects it’s part of the reason for Jungwoo’s burnout last year, the inability to decipher fiction from reality, the constant compounding of negativity on the parts of himself that Jungwoo showed to the world that couldn’t be reconciled from the parts he kept hidden. It’s something Mark keeps in the back of his mind every time he picks himself apart, a reminder of what could happen if he’s not careful.

“Hi,” Jungwoo says, soft voice and big puppy eyes. He leans into Mark, pressed against his side even as Johnny and Doyoung climb into the single seats in front of them.

“Hi,” Mark echoes, offering Jungwoo a smile. “What’s up?”

He bats his eyelashes, tilts his head on Mark's shoulder even though he has to scrunch himself in his seat to do so. "Want to hang out when we get home?" he asks.

There's an emphasis to his words, a suggestion of what Jungwoo really wants. Mark isn't—he's not adverse to a little stress relieving, but he doesn't like it the way he knows some of the other members do. The way Jungwoo does.

"Sure," Mark says easily, because that's what good friends do. "Like, right away?"

"No time like the present," Jungwoo says with a laugh. He turns his head, presses a wet kiss to Mark's neck that makes him shiver.

"Okay," Mark says, hoping his voice doesn't sound as high and breathy as he thinks it does. "Okay.”

In front of him, Johnny tilts his head to the side, like he’s trying to be inconspicuous about listening to their hushed conversation. Mark feels his entire face heat up. He doesn’t have anything to be embarrassed about; the members actively blow off steam together, and Mark knows that Johnny participates too, but they’ve never done it together. It makes something ugly and unhappy twist in Mark’s gut.

The rest of the ride back to their dorms is quiet. Mark plugs in his headphones and whittles away the time listening to Bazzi and Lewis Capaldi and Justin Bieber. Doyoung falls asleep. Jungwoo stares out the window, knee bouncing against Mark’s in eager anticipation.

Mark’s clambering out of the car when he feels Johnny’s hand drop on his shoulder, the weight both familiar and daunting at once. “Hey,” Johnny says, tugging on one of Mark’s earphones lightly until Mark takes it out. “Do you want to come over later and work on some music? I have some beats I think you’d like.”

It’s such a weird contrast from Jungwoo’s proposition. They both want to hang out, but to do wildly different things. If Mark could only pick one, he knows what he’d choose.

“Sure, hyung,” he says. “But probably not till after dinner?”

Johnny nods, gives him a knowing look. Mark can’t tell if it’s judgemental or not, doesn’t want to dwell on it and doesn’t have to because Jungwoo comes back for him and grabs him by the arm. “Play time,” he announces cheekily, blowing a kiss to Johnny and dragging Mark into the elevator. “See you later, Johnny-hyung!”

Johnny offers them a casual wave. As the doors close, Mark gets a moment to take in Johnny’s side profile: the casual, artful slouch of his shoulders; the strength of his jawline; the easy, burnished colour of his hair, now turned an amber-highlighted brown. He’s so handsome, and he leans into the look well. Mark just feels awkward when the stylists try to make him look sultry, like a kid trying on shoes too big for him.

The higher the elevator rises, the more Mark retreats in on himself. It’s not that he doesn’t enjoy the things he does with Jungwoo. He’s not unwilling, and he gets something out of it, but—but it feels more like a service he provides for people rather than a mutual agreement to have some fun together. Mark lets Jungwoo drag him out of the elevator and into their dorm, lets him steer them past the others who are already home and sitting around in the living room and into the room Mark shares with his manager. Luckily, the manager has gone home for the day.

Jugnwoo pushes him down on his bed as soon as the door is locked behind him. He’s got a devilish grin on his face, a far cry from the soft, sweet smiles that he reserves for the camera. His enthusiasm, though, is the same.

“Today was fun,” he says, coming over to Mark and reaching for the button on his jeans. “I like going on Weekly Idol.”

“Yeah,” Mark says a little breathlessly. “Yeah, the hyungs. They’re nice.”

Jungwoo laughs. The button on Mark’s jeans pops, the zipper making a soft snick-snick-snick sound as Jungwoo drags it down. “Stylist-noona did a good job with your hair. Wish they’d push it back more often.”

Mark knows that they often style his bangs across his forehead because it makes him look younger. Cuter. Paired with his big, wide eyes gives him the air of innocent curiosity. It’s the same song and dance for Jungwoo.

“Take a picture, then,” Mark replies. Jungwoo just offers him a goofy smile in response and tugs Mark’s jeans and underwear down to his knees.

Mark hates to be on the receiving end first. He’s never hard when they start, not for lack of beautiful bed partners. Still, Jungwoo never seems perturbed by this, just gets even more eager to get Mark’s cock in his mouth, work him up till he’s the same state of turned on as himself. Mark closes his eyes as Jungwoo grips him—small in Jungwoo’s big hand—and licks up the underside of his cock.

With his eyes closed, Mark lets himself sink into the sensation. He doesn’t have to watch Jungwoo suckle on him, doesn’t have to watch his own cock fill out and stiffen. All Mark has to do is lie back and let it happen, and then turn around and return the favour. Easy.

“Feels good,” he murmurs when Jungwoo pulls off, fisting Mark’s cock lazily now that it’s fully hard. Mark can picture the salacious grin, the way Jungwoo is likely licking his lips. “Come on.”

Mark’s brain floats away as Jungwoo gets to work. He still needs to practice the choreo for Happy Now, but now that he’s going to Johnny’s later, he’ll have to put off practice until the next day. Maybe early in the morning again; they’re shooting mid-morning so he has to have it all perfected by then. Or maybe he can just stop by the practice room after working with Johnny. That would probably be better.

Mark’s back arches off the bed as Jungwoo pulls back so he can suck on the head of his cock. His hand pumps a steady rhythm along the shaft before trailing down to briefly fondle his balls. Jungwoo’s pulling out all the stops to get Mark to come quickly, which Mark is thankful for. He doesn’t think he could draw this out longer.

“Woo,” he warns, trying not to buck his hips up even though he’d like nothing more than for Jungwoo to sink all the way down on his cock again. “Shit. I’m gonna come.”

Jungwoo doubles his efforts.

It takes hardly any time at all after that for Mark to come. His orgasm rolls through him, leaving him shivery and warm, but not overly worn out. It’s perfect. It means he can roll out of bed once Jungwoo is taken care of, have a shower, and head down to Johnny’s.

But that’s getting ahead of himself.

Mark blinks his eyes open, stares at the smooth ceiling above his bed before sitting up. He offers Jungwoo a soft smile and shimmies his pants back up his legs before rolling off the bed and motioning for Jungwoo to climb on. Jungwoo is only too happy to oblige, pushing down his sweatpants and letting his erection spring free.

He’s hard already, cock dripping against his thigh where it lies. Mark takes a moment to bite the inside of his cheek, clear his head. Then, he leans forward and takes Jungwoo’s cock into his mouth.

Mark doesn’t dislike giving blowjobs. There’s something nice about the weight of dick in his mouth, even if he doesn’t quite like the taste. Maybe it’s because he spends so much time talking, it’s nice to have something to just shut him up for a bit. Kinky, Mark muses.

Like most things he does, Mark applies himself to being good at sucking dick. There’s no point in half-assing it—he wants to make people feel good. Mark bobs his head expertly, swallowing down a little more each time until his nose is pressing to the neatly trimmed hair at the base of Jungwoo’s cock, the head knocking against the back of his throat. Mark swallows just to hear the soft, whining noise Jungwoo makes, before pulling off and suckling on the head.

Jungwoo is easy to please. Mark’s been fooling around with him long enough to know the fastest way to get him off, the best way to draw things out if they have the time and Mark has the desire. Today, he works quickly, switching it up between deep-throating and bobbing shallowly, getting Jungwoo to come in what Mark estimates to be under five minutes.

“Shit,” Jungwoo breathes as Mark pulls off and spits into a proffered tissue. “Were you trying to suck my brain out through my dick?”

Mark chuckles. His voice is super raw sounding; hopefully Johnny won’t want him to record today. “Just doing my best, hyung.”

Jungwoo rolls his eyes. They’ve long since dropped honourifics between themselves. “Ugh, okay, well, congratulations. Absolutely fully capable Mark Lee does it again. SM’s Golden Boy, et cetera, et cetera.” He sits up and tugs on his sweatpants, shimmying and rucking up the sheets. It’s fine. Mark will change them before he goes to Johnny’s anyway.

Jungwoo leaves with a smacking kiss to the cheek, flouncing out of the room like he didn’t just have a debilitating orgasm five minutes prior. Mark watches him go, listens to the sound of Jungwoo’s laugh as he throws himself onto whoever’s still in the living room. Mark can hear the sound of Super Smash Bros. being played. Good.

Reality comes back to Mark in increments. The tiny twist of anxiety sitting in the pit of his belly—temporarily soothed by an orgasm—flares to life again as he strips the sheets off the bed.

Instead of wasting time rolling around with Jungwoo, he could’ve been rehearsing. Or working on something with Johnny. Something more productive. Then again, just because Mark didn’t find the sex particularly necessary, doesn’t mean Jungwoo didn’t. Mark knows that Jungwoo’s energetic puppy act can quickly descend into insecurity the longer it goes unchecked. Blowjobs seem to be one of the ways of helping ease the tension before it boils over.

So. The time wasn’t wasted, but Mark doesn’t exactly feel fulfilled.

He dumps his sheets into the laundry hamper and heads to the kitchen to make himself some tea for his throat. There’s a mug in the cupboard that Johnny had bought him for Christmas a couple of years ago, some bougie hand-crafted piece with a pretty painting of a lion glazed over on the side. Mark drops a tea bag into the mug and waits for the kettle to boil.

His world seems to settle by the time that the kettle clicks off, head clear and chest feeling less tight. It’s not unusual, but it’s tiresome, the way his mind will check out as soon as the bedroom door closes, leaving Mark’s brain in a foggy state until he can clear his head again. The tea steeps, and Mark’s mouth twists.

As idols, their lives are put into tiny boxes by the company and toted around to different environments based on public needs. Don’t get into trouble, and certainly don’t get caught for it. Don’t date, but if he finds his soulmate, he’s not allowed to be seen with them. Don’t engage with other artists in the public eye. Don’t let the world know you like listening to other k-pop music. Don’t, don’t, don’t.

It’s easier this way, to seek intimacy within their group, but Mark wants—he wants it to mean something, and he knows it never will.

He dumps the tea bag in the garbage and chugs the tea, even though it’s still scalding. It’s fine. His throat is wrecked anyway.

The clock on the microwave says it’s close to five in the evening. Mark had said he’d swing by Johnny’s room after dinner, but he doesn’t think he can wait that long. He wants to get out of the dorm, wants to sink into the comfort of music and—and Johnny.

Mark leaves the mug in the sink, runs back to his room to grab his phone. No one glances up from their game in the living room as Mark shoves his feet into his shoes and heads out the door. Mark doesn’t look back.

 

 

Johnny’s sitting in his room when Mark lets himself into the fifth floor dorm. He’s got his back to the door, headphones on as he taps away at the midi board on his desk. Mark’s not really surprised to find Johnny making music, but maybe something about what he just left from had him thinking maybe their afternoon would be for something else.

Johnny has never asked Mark for anything like that, though, and it’s not because he doesn’t hook up. Mark knows that Johnny fools around with Taeyong and Yuta sometimes, but he’s never asked Mark, and Mark—Mark isn’t sure if he likes that. On one hand, it’s nice to be able to separate Johnny from the dirty feelings Mark wallows in after hooking up, but on the other, Mark really wouldn’t mind fooling around with Johnny.

He’s the one person Mark actually wants to hook up with, and the one person he knows will say no if he asks.

Johnny flinches when Mark puts a hand on his shoulder. When he turns, Mark watches the annoyed expression on his face bloom into a fond grin instead. “Dude,” he says. “I thought you weren’t coming over till later?”

Mark shrugs and sinks down onto Johnny’s bed. It’s the same as his—they’re all the same—but Mark knows if he lays down it would feel different. It would smell like Johnny. The depression in the middle of the bed would be Johnny-shaped. The sheets would be softer because Johnny actually cares about those kinds of things whereas Mark just bought several cheap sets that he can switch out whenever someone wants something from him.

“I, uh, finished things with Jungwoo early and didn’t want to stick around the dorm,” Mark replies.

“Uh huh,” Johnny says, spinning idly in his chair. “And how’s that going?”

Mark feels like his whole body freezes up for a moment before relaxing in increments. He’s not uncomfortable talking about these kinds of things with Johnny—Johnny gave him the sex talk when Mark was 15 and perpetually horny and anxious about being horny—but they just. Don’t.

“It’s alright,” Mark says. “Jungwoo enjoys it.”

“And you?”

For two seconds, Mark considers telling Johnny about the nerves he feels when the members proposition him, how he checks out the minute the backs of his knees hit the edge of the bed. How he feels as he wakes up from the haze. “It’s alright,” he repeats instead.

Just like how he has different idol personas for each group he’s in, Mark puts on different fronts for the people he cares about, too. The Mark that would tell Johnny about what goes on behind closed doors is not the Mark that Johnny is familiar with, and Mark won’t rock the boat. Not now, at least.

Johnny doesn’t look entirely convinced, but maybe he doesn’t want to rock the boat either, because he doesn’t say anything. Instead, he picks up the headphones and hands them to Mark. “I’ve been working on something,” he says. “Do you think you could write lyrics to this?”

Mark pops the headphones on and offers Johnny a thumbs up to hit play. A light bass line; ambient tones that reverb from one side to the other; standard percussion drop that fades out and then drops in again. Nothing groundbreaking, but it fits Johnny. Mark wants to fit it, too.

“This is sick,” Mark says. He taps out a flow on his thigh, imagining how the tone of his voice might fit in with what Johnny’s created. “Smooth.”

“Thought you’d like it,” Johnny says, just barely audible over the sound of the music as it crests in Mark’s ears before fading out almost immediately through the song’s outro.

Mark pulls off the headphones, mind already running a mile a minute. He needs to write stuff down, but he had forgotten his notebook back on the 10th floor after fleeing so quickly. Wordlessly, Johnny hands him a pad of paper stamped with The Hilton at the top. Mark idly wonders which city Johnny snagged this in as he jots down a few ideas on the paper.

“I like how chill it is,” Mark says. “I think it would be really cool to do almost, like, a life story sort of thing? Like, something that will be nostalgic? And kind of—oh shoot, what’s the word? Melon—mello—“

“Melancholy,” Johnny supplies.

“Yeah, yeah. Melancholy. Especially because, that’s, like, what our lives are like? Nostalgic and melancholy?”

Johnny raises an eyebrow at him. “Really?” he asks, the teasing lilt to his voice taking the sting out of the question. “You having an existential crisis or something, Markie?”

“What? No,” Mark says, which is probably true enough. Maybe. “I just mean, like, dude. You know … “

Johnny looks like he very much does not know, but he puts Mark out of his misery by saying, “Sure. I mean, I know this is a collaborative project and everything, but you do you, man, and I’ll just review it after, yeah?”

Mark bobs his head. “I mean, yeah, okay?” he says, then adds, “What about you, though? Like, do you want to write on it too? And sing? Because so far it’s just been me and I don’t know. Maybe the fans are tired of that.”

Maybe Mark had spent several hours this past week scrolling the comments on their YouTube videos and on Twitter, trying to gauge the response to their songs QTAH and Bad Smell. Maybe he had read that people wanted Johnny to write and produce a song himself without Mark.

“I’m still practicing,” Johnny says easily, leaning back in his chair. “My songwriting isn’t that good, you know.”

Mark frowns. “It’s good,” he reassures. “Hyung, it’s fine.”

Johnny shrugs but offers Mark a kind smile. Mark feels his heart jack-hammer in his chest. He loves Johnny the best when he’s like this: thoughtful, nice. When he treats Mark like an equal and not the pesky younger brother he never had. It’s not always a given, so Mark will take what he can get, greedily gobbling up any affection Johnny gives him, like a stupid sunflower turning towards the sun.

Mark thinks about Johnny’s tattoo and doodles a flower on the pad of paper with his notes on it. “Do you have anything else?” he asks, refusing to look up to meet Johnny’s eye. “You wanted to do another episode of Sunny Side Up again, didn’t you?”

Johnny exhales. “Yeah,” he says. “I’m in the process of mixing some things together. I’ve been chatting a bit with the DJ that helped me last time. Anton, remember? We’re supposed to meet up tomorrow morning, actually.”

Something like jealousy blooms heavily in Mark’s chest, which he knows is irrational because Johnny’s meeting will be strictly business. He’s asking an industry expert for help, help that Mark can’t provide for him. It’s fine. He’ll probably be in the practice room anyway.

“Cool,” Mark says. “That’s—yeah, dude. That’s cool.”

Johnny shoots him an amused look before hauling himself out of his desk chair and flopping on the opposite of the bed. Mark bounces with the force of it. “Loosen up a little, Mark Lee,” Johnny says. “I’m getting a tension headache just looking at you.”

Is Mark tense? He makes a conscious effort to relax his shoulders, rolls his head from side to side to try and shake out the lingering—anxiety? Stress? He just got off with Jungwoo less than an hour ago.

“Sorry,” he murmurs, fixing his posture. That’s another thing he’s picked apart recently after looking at some airport photos that fans have taken. He slouches too much.

“Nothing to be sorry for,” Johnny replies, “but you look like you could do with some stress relief. What’s up?”

Everything. Nothing. Same old, same old. Mark weighs his options carefully and opts for the safest, most Johnny-friendly choice: “Just comeback worries still, I guess,” he says. “You know, two weeks of promotions. Guess I’m just getting more worn out than usual.”

“You’re getting old,” Johnny says sagely.

This is where Mark is supposed to make a joke, pick up the easy set-up Johnny’s left for him and call him ancient in response. Instead, he says, “I guess so,” and goes back to doodling on his paper.

The bed shifts underneath him. A hand lands tentatively on his lower back. Mark can feel the heat of Johnny’s skin through the thin t-shirt he’s wearing. He wonders what it would be like, without the fabric in between them.

“Mark,” Johnny says. “You know you can always tell me anything, right?”

Mark thinks about the way Johnny looks at him when Jungwoo or Yuta ask him to play, the casually judgemental expression on his face. He thinks about the way Johnny teases him, riles him up just to see Mark get flustered and embarrassed. Thinks about how Johnny is always telling Mark that he can be open and honest with him, but never comes to Mark in return.

Mark thinks about how his heart swells when he sees Johnny smile; about how even despite being held at arm’s length, being treated like nothing more than a younger brother, Mark yearns for him. He’ll take whatever Johnny will give him, but it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want more.

He’s fine with friends, but Mark wants to feel Johnny’s hands on him for real. He wants to know what it feels like to be held and treasured by someone, to be seen, and yet—

Mark looks at Johnny, looks at the way he’s sprawled across the bed. His hand has dropped from Mark’s back to stroking along the sheets absentmindedly. Johnny’s always been available to him, but Mark wonders how much he hides away from Mark, which masks he puts on for their relationship.

Mark doesn’t just want to be seen, he wants to see other people too.

He gets up and puts the pen back on Johnny’s desk before grabbing the laptop off the stand and bringing it back to the bed. Johnny scoots to the side so that they can sit together. Mark brings up Netflix, hits the first sitcom he sees on Johnny’s Continue Watching list and says, “I know. Thanks, hyung.”

 

 

“You spend a lot of time in the practice studio for someone who’s nailed the choreography.”

Mark’s staring at himself in the mirror again as Happy Now loops again in the background. Ten’s standing in the doorway, leaning against it like he’s a model and the entire world is his catwalk. Mark doesn’t know what he’d do with that much confidence, that much self-assurance.

“It’s not perfect,” Mark replies, moving over to the sound system so he can turn the music down. “It never is.”

“No,” Ten replies, “but it also doesn’t look much more polished than when you performed it yesterday. You know better than most of us that you can’t burn yourself out, Mark Lee.”

Mark wonders if there’s a touch of jealousy in his voice, a hint of cynicism. He remembers when he’d been splitting time between NCT U, NCT 127, and NCT Dream while Ten had mostly been sitting on a shelf, honing talent with nothing to show for it. The tension between them had been palpable, but Mark had always been too tired to deal with it and too scared to invoke Ten’s wrath. He’d heard from Jeno how fiery Ten could be when he was mad. In the end, maybe it didn’t matter; Ten was always supportive, always hyped him up, and always offered him comfort when he needed it.

Now Ten has his own subunits, his own fashion magazine spreads, his own dance videos. They get to tour the world together as SuperM. Despite it all, though, Mark wonders what secrets Ten hides away from him, which emotions he squirrels away into the deepest parts of his heart.

“What are you doing here?” he asks.

Ten rolls his eyes. “So polite,” he says, stepping into the room. He dumps his bag by the door and goes over to the sound system, unplugging Mark’s phone and hooking his up instead. A bass-boosted song in English filters through the speakers while Ten sits himself down to stretch. “Can’t I be interested in the well-being of my little bro?”

Mark hates that he’s suspicious. If Johnny has always been the nurturing older brother, Ten has undoubtedly been the clever, ambitious, encouraging one. He’s been reaching for the stars since they’ve met, and he pushed Mark to try for more, too.

“We just haven’t talked much since our comeback,” Mark replies.

Ten shrugs. “Yeah, and we’ve gone months without talking before. Why? You keeping secrets from me, Mark Lee?”

Mark ponders the question as Ten stands up. He does a couple more stretches, shakes out his body, and tilts his head, like he’s trying to listen to the music.

Mark’s not keeping secrets per se. His brain-to-mouth filter is notoriously bad for that, but he thinks about telling Ten what he couldn’t say to Johnny. He thinks about talking to him about what he gets up to with Jungwoo. Ten wouldn’t judge him for any of that the way that Johnny would.

“No secrets,” he says finally. Whatever song was playing before comes to an end, a new one following quick on its heels. Ten perks up at the beat, body swaying easily, arms moving fluidly. Mark’s always in awe when Ten dances; he’s never seen anyone move like him. “Just—worries, I guess.”

“Oh,” Ten says, twisting his body this way and that. “Well, you know you can talk to me about stuff, right?”

It’s the same with any of his members, Mark thinks. He can tell them anything, they say, but it’s not true. There are things Mark couldn’t burden them with, anxieties and fears that keep him up at night that he wouldn’t share with them. What could they do, anyway? Reassure him that their fans love him even when he reads the comments people leave on articles and videos? Tell him he’s doing a good job when he can pick out every misstep or pitchy moment in his performances?

Mark’s brain isn’t designed to take people’s comfort at face value when it can see the lies in them so clearly.

“Thanks, hyung,” Mark says. He tries a few freestyle moves just to make Ten laugh, his choreography completely at odds with the easy flow of Ten’s. They’re so different, but they have their similarities too: foreigners chasing a dream, leaving behind what they know to dive into something brand new and terrifying.

Mark thinks Ten’s handled it better than he has. He can only hope that he still has time to catch up.

 

 

The promotions keep going.

Mark completes the first week feeling like he’s been run over by a truck. He’s thankful for the two days off they get before they launch into the second week, but he hardly spends any time relaxing. There’re still practices to attend—individual and group—and the company is starting to make noise about an NCT Dream comeback too. Mark feels stretched in a hundred different directions, but also like he’s trapped inside his own head.

He fucks Yuta on one of their days off, window thrown open to the soft spring breeze and door locked against prying eyes. Yuta looks like a dream, sprawled out across the blankets, hair disheveled and curling at the temples from sweat. Mark wishes he could feel anything besides the instinctual need to keep thrusting his hips, the vague thought of how he’s giving Yuta what he needs. He wishes he could feel half the amount of pleasure Yuta seems to feel, wishes he could find it in him to be present in the moment instead of a thousand miles away in his own head.

When they’re done, Mark ties the condom and tosses it in the trash with shaky hands. When he turns to look over his shoulder, Yuta is grinning at him lazily. “Thanks, Markie,” he says. “Feels good to finally have time to fuck around.”

“Yeah,” Mark says, for lack of anything better to say. “I mean, like, promotions are always nice but it’s nice to get some time off.”

Yuta looks at him consideringly. “You’ve been back in the practice room a lot,” he comments. “Still working on Happy Now choreo? We’re in second week, baby, we’ve got this shit on lock.”

When Mark had first met Yuta, when they had been scraggly, lost teenagers, Yuta hadn’t been half as confident as he is now. There was a hint of shyness that came from the inability to communicate, a loss of personality as Yuta struggled to find the right words. Mark had always had Johnny and Ten and Jaehyun to talk to in English, but Yuta had had no one.

Years have given Yuta his confidence back: lazy smiles and tantalizing eyes. Piercings all up and down his ears, in his bellybutton, through his nipples. A magnetic force that people gravitate to, just to be dragged along in Yuta’s orbit of influence. Jungwoo’s nipples are proof of that.

Mark’s gained some confidence too, but not in the same way. He’s confident that he won’t irrevocably fuck up on stage, but the idea that he’s ever doing his best is foreign. He’s certain that he’s skilled and talented, but there’s always so much room for improvement. Mark’s ideal self, the one that exists only as a persona for the fans, is so far out of his reach that Mark sometimes thinks it’s not even achievable.

The small part of him that still believes it, though, is what he holds onto.

“I like the practice,” Mark says finally, tugging on his underwear and shorts. His dick feels tacky from the condom, and he wants to take a shower. If he turns the water cold enough it gets him out of his head faster, even if it leaves him feeling particularly chilled afterwards.

“Mark, why don’t you just relax a little?” Yuta asks, not unkindly. “Like, take a nap. Watch a movie or something.”

Mark could do that. He likes hanging out and watching movies in his spare time, but the guilt of sitting around when he could be improving sits heavy in his chest even just thinking about it.

“Maybe later, hyung,” he says. He pauses with his hand on the door handle and adds, “Uh, thanks for this afternoon. It was nice.”

Yuta rolls his eyes. “It was nice,” he mocks. “What’s it going to take to blow your mind in bed, Markie?”

Wider shoulders. Tattoos spiraling across the skin. Strong arms. Fewer body piercings.

“I feel like telling you would be cheating, hyung,” Mark says, mustering up as much false cheer as he can. He twists the nob and steps out into the hallway, ignoring Yuta’s protests.

He’ll take a shower and then go to the practice room. There’s a part in the dance break that’s been bugging him; something about his expression paired with the movements, like he’s looking at a painted smile on his face. Maybe he’ll have time to watch a movie when he comes home.

 

 

Whatever fog in his brain that had been summoned during his last—tangle with Yuta, doesn’t leave. Mark takes a cold shower, practices choreo until his bones ache, plays his guitar until he feels like his calluses have calluses, but nothing helps. It feels like he’s living underwater and the surface world is where all his emotions lie. As it is, he doesn’t really feel much of anything.

He wakes up on the first morning of their week two promotions feeling lethargic and tired. It’s not fatigue or a cold, just. An exhaustion that seems to sit heavy in Mark’s bones, that drags him under the waves every time he seems close to breaking through.

“Cheer up,” Haechan tells him just before they go on stage. He mimics the dance moves, a familiar sunny smile on his face. “Did you not sleep well last night?”

Mark slept very well. Eight hours, straight through.

“Something like that,” he replies. He peers into the mirror over Haechan’s shoulder, widens his eyes, straightens his shoulders, works his smile open wider in increments until it looks normal. Until he looks happy.

“Okay, well, let’s go get Starbucks or something after we record,” Haechan says, fluffing his hair a little until it glows under the dressing room lights. It’s dyed a nice sandy brown for this comeback.

“We’ll see.”

Haechan shoots him a bemused look, but they’re ushered out of the room by the stage hands, lining up at the bottom of the stairs to head up onto the stage for their recording before he can say anything. It’s fine. Once the recording is over, Haechan will likely forget about his suggestion and Mark can go home and sleep some more.

For all the practice that he’s put into the choreo for the piece, the dance moves still feel robotic. Mark goes through the motions, bouncing across the floor to the beat, body rolling to the house-style melodies. He likes this kind of music, something like a cross between Highway to Heaven and Touch. Something not quite as hard-hitting as their last comeback had been. As excited as he had been to record this album, he can’t seem to find the energy for it now, even as his own verse comes up.

Dream a little dream, keep reaching.
Stop stretching so far, though, because the dream’s right here.
Live it, love it, feel it, keep it.
Then tell me: are you happy? Are you happy now?

They record everything twice after taking notes from their team and the producers at The Show. Taeyong makes a suggestion to him about a transition they share. Johnny claps him on the shoulder in passing as they set up for their second run-through.

It all feels a million miles away.

Mark plugs in his headphones as soon as he gets into the car and tips his head against the window. He can vaguely hear other people getting into the van, startles when someone settles next to him and cuddles into his side.

“Markie,” Jungwoo croons. “Markie, Markie.”

Mark grunts in lieu of opening his mouth and trying to form actual words.

Jungwoo tugs on one of his earphones until it pops out and whispers, “Do you want to play today?”

Mark feels his entire body tense up. He doesn’t—does he ever?—but the idea of disappointing Jungwoo doesn’t sit well with him. Mark’s always been their eager, easygoing younger brother. It would go against his nature to refuse.

“Jungwoo, maybe you should let it go for today,” Johnny says from the seat in front of them. Mark’s eyes snap open; he hadn’t known Johnny was there. “Mark looks pretty tired.”

Mark expects to see disappointment on Jungwoo’s face, or maybe anger at Johnny for interrupting them. Instead he sees a soft smile and sympathetic eyes. “Of course,” he says, leaning in to press a kiss to Mark’s cheek. It’s a testament to Mark’s exhaustion that he doesn’t even react. “We can hang out another time.”

Just like that. Easy. Jungwoo gently presses the earbud back into Mark’s ear and flops across Taeil, who’s crammed himself into the seat on the other side of the bench. Mark stares at them for a long moment, Post Malone back in stereo sound in his ears, before chancing a glance at Johnny.

Johnny’s already looking at him, turned around in his seat so he can meet Mark’s eye. You okay? he mouths. Mark shrugs.

When they get out of the car back at the dorms, Johnny catches his wrist. “Come crash in my room,” he says. “Haechannie’s out for dinner with the rest of 2000 line.”

As suspected, Haechan’s already forgotten about his suggestion of coffee and has made other plans. Mark’s not really surprised.

The music in his earphones has shifted to some sad Taylor Swift song he’s certain Mina recommended him almost a year ago. It feels appropriate for how despondent he feels. “Okay,” he says, and lets Johnny lead him to the elevator.

Johnny doesn’t let go of his wrist until they’re tucked away in his bedroom on the fifth floor. Mark wonders if he’d be excited about this development if everything wasn’t so clouded by the fog in his brain. Would he feel butterflies in the pit of his stomach? Would his heart beat faster?

“Are you feeling okay?” Johnny asks. He sits Mark down on his bed, gently tugs the earphones out of his ears. It reminds him of Jungwoo in the car, but at the same time, it’s so different. In the car, Mark felt himself ramping up towards that cliff edge of anxiety. Here, he just feels safe.

“Just tired,” Mark replies. “Like, exhausted, really.”

Johnny nods like he understands exactly what Mark is saying. “Well, take a nap,” he says, pushing on Mark’s shoulder until Mark lies down on the bed. He manages to tug Mark’s phone out of his pocket by the headphone cord and lays it on the shelf in the headboard. “Can’t have you burning out.”

Is that what this is? Mark shifts so that he can fit his head on the pillow. Burnout? It’s weird that it would happen now and not when he was younger, when he had so many more group activities to schedule for. Maybe it’s just years and years worth of stress piling up at once.

Maybe it’s the toll of looking in the mirror everyday and picking apart everything that he sees.

Johnny’s pillow smells like Johnny’s shampoo, something deep and earthy smelling. The sheets smell like Johnny too, like the expensive Tom Ford cologne he’s been wearing lately. It was a birthday gift from Taeyong, and the smell of it makes jealousy burn hot in Mark’s gut. Mark had bought Johnny a sweater for his birthday and has never seen him wear it. Another thing that he’s failed at.

It feels like a vicious, never-ending circle: cracks in each of Mark’s masks that he rushes to repair, only to find new fractures when he puts on a different face. How long can he keep his crush a secret from Johnny? How long before Yuta and Jungwoo find out that he sleeps with them out of obligation instead of passion? How long before the stage starts looking like a trap instead of the free space Mark’s always been able to express himself on?

How long before the line behind NCT’s Mark and Mark Lee blur beyond recognition, until Mark can’t tell reality from fiction anymore? It seems inevitable, but also like there’s not much Mark can do to stop it from occurring. He’s on a runaway train bracing for impact.

“Hyung,” he says, blindly reaching out for Johnny. After a beat, Johnny sits down on the edge of the bed, threading his fingers through Mark’s. Brotherly. Familial, because that’s all Johnny sees him as.

“Yeah?”

“Can you—sorry. It’s dumb.”

Johnny’s thumb strokes over his knuckles. “It’s not dumb,” he says confidently, even though he hasn’t heard what Mark has to say.

Mark fidgets, but he can already feel the tug of sleep at the edge of his brain. It’s all he’s wanted ever since waking up this morning. “Ah, okay. Can you please sing me a song?”

It seems like such a childish request, asking to be sung to sleep. The last time someone comforted him like this it had been his own mother after a particularly earth-shaking thunderstorm.

Johnny hums under his breath, doesn’t say anything for so long that Mark thinks maybe he’s waiting for Mark to fall asleep naturally to spare each other the embarrassment. Mark’s just about to tug his hand back from Johnny’s grip when Johnny squeezes tightly and starts to sing.

Somewhere over the rainbow … “

His voice is soft, the full tone laying over Mark like a blanket, weighing him down differently than his muddled mind. This feels comforting, like a balm to soothe a wound. Like if Mark just keeps listening, he’ll wake up and everything will be better. He drifts off listening to Johnny sing about bluebirds and lemon drops and dreamt up lands.

 

 

Things don’t really get better. In fact, they seem to go downhill.

The drive to practice, to improve, to perfect has seemingly vanished from Mark’s brain. Instead, he wakes up in the morning 10 minutes before they have to leave, showers more as a matter or principle than anything else, and passes out again in the van. He follows everyone up on stage, sings about how the tough times are over and that it’s the moment to be happy now. If he could muster up any sort of emotion, he’d laugh at the irony.

“Hey,” Taeyong says near the end of their music show promotional efforts. Johnny is hovering over his shoulder. “I know you’re super tired lately, but try and perk up a bit for the fansign on Monday, okay?”

The fansign. Mark had forgotten all about it. He likes meeting the fans, likes to listen to them tell him how he’s impacted their lives and how they admire him, but the idea of putting himself out there now makes his head hurt. There’s a huge crack running down the middle of his idol persona and he’s afraid they’ll be able to pick up on it when they can observe him so closely.

“I’ll be okay, hyung,” he says, offering Taeyong what he hopes is a reassuring smile. Taeyong frowns, but doesn’t say anything else, just pets Mark’s ear once before a producer is dragging him off to chat about camera angles or something.

Johnny’s still standing off to the side. He’s eyeing Mark speculatively, like he’s trying to piece something together. Mark pats at his face self-consciously. “Hyung?” he calls out.

Several heads turn, but Johnny steps forward, closes the distance between them. He tilts Mark’s chin, touch gentle. “You sure you’re not coming down with something?” he asks, low and in English. This is not the kind of conversation they should be having in public, where image is everything. This isn’t the kind of topic to cover while they’re wearing the masks of their profession.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Mark replies. He musters up a smile, one that he’s practiced in the mirror so often that he’s certain it’s foolproof.

Johnny doesn’t look overly convinced. He pets a hand over Mark’s hair, crunchy with product. It’s comforting, and Mark would like nothing more than to cuddle in close to Johnny, let him take his weight for just a moment. It’s not who Mark is, though. He’s the person who runs from physical affection, screams comically any time someone offers him a kiss to the cheek. That’s who he’s built himself up to be.

They're being called back to the set, being ushered towards their positions. Johnny looks uncertain still, like he has more to say but either isn't sure how to say it or isn't sure what to say. Mark offers him another practiced smile and hurries onto the stage.

Their run-throughs are fine. Mark monitors himself diligently, picks up on a hundred different things he could fix but doesn't have the energy to change. He feels almost like he's on the outside looking in: like he's standing outside an exhibit at a zoo, watching the Mark from the previous week spending extra hours in the practice room with a strange, morbid fascination. Where did all his will-power go?

Maybe he should pop into the practice room after this anyway. He'd like nothing more than to go home and take a nap, but he can see all the errors in his movements, his lack of facial expression.

"Hey," Johnny says, appearing at his shoulder. He keeps popping up like that, like Mark is conjuring him with his own personal yearning or something. "You look good."

Mark shrugs. "Are we running it through again? I need to fix my face."

Johnny laughs and slings an arm over Mark's shoulders. "I mean, I've been trying to tell you that for years, Markie," he says. He pokes Mark's cheek, curls his fingers around Mark's jaw. "Such a baby still."

The one mask that hasn't cracked yet, Mark thinks. This image that Johnny has of him as his little brother is so airtight Mark thinks it might last until it's a relic for archeologists to dig up in the future. He should stop chasing the unattainable dream, but every time he falls into bed with someone else, Mark can't help but hope—

"Earth to Mark."

Mark tilts his head against Johnny's shoulder. He's so tired, but he should ask if they can run through it again. He should go to the practice room. He should, he should, he should ...

"Let's go again," he says, loud enough that everyone can hear. From the deepest part of his gut, he pulls out the effort to seal the cracks in his idol persona. He's NCT's Mark: effervescent second-youngest, the nation's little brother, SM's Ace and Golden Boy. There's nothing that NCT's Mark can't do, including putting up a facade so strong that the crumbling foundation underneath can't ever be seen.

"Okay, positions," the producer calls, directing camera operators around. Mark leads the way back up onto the stage.

"You didn't like the last take?" Taeyong asks as they ready themselves, side-by-side in the centre of all their members. This is where Mark should feel safest, surrounded by the people he's grown up with and grown to love. Instead, he feels trepidation and anxiety, like one false move will break his resolve.

"I think this one could be even better, hyung," Mark says and ducks his head just as the music starts.

 

 

Ten calls him the next day when Mark is still lying in bed. He can't muster up the energy to go to the practice room, even though he's been telling himself to since yesterday.

"Do you want to freestyle with me and then go out for lunch?" he asks.

Mark looks at the clock. It's almost two in the afternoon. He woke up at eight.

"I don't know," Mark replies, because it's the truth. Does he want to? Sure. But the idea of dragging himself out of bed feels like a monumental effort that he doesn't possess. He'd turned down Jaehyun's offer for coffee earlier, ignored their dorm auntie asking if she should make him some soup in case he's sick. He's ignored every message from Johnny and Taeyong, inquiring after his health, undoubtedly because he's been tattled on by someone else from the 10th floor. He wonders who told Ten.

"I mean, we could just do one or the other," Ten suggests. It's noisy on his end of the line, like he's walking outside. "Or neither. Just thought it would be nice to dance with you.

Mark wants to scoff. Between the two of them, Ten is the dancer. He's practiced, polished, fluid. Mark's spent every night in the practice rooms for weeks trying to perfect Happy Now and still found flaws in every run-through, in every monitor on every music show they attended.

"Who asked you to call me?" he says.

"What?"

"Which member asked you to call me to try and get me out of bed," Mark asks. The ceiling above his head is smooth and unblemished. The last dorm they lived in had popcorn stucco ceilings. Mark used to map out each of the bumps and ridges, pretending it was a fantastical map for a made up world. Somewhere far away from here.

"No one asked me to call you," Ten says. He sounds annoyed. "What's wrong with you?"

Mark laughs. He can't help it. "Fuck if I know," he replies, rolling over. "I'm tired all the time. I have no motivation. I'm suspicious of everyone and anyone who wants to do something nice to me. That's probably not normal, right?"

The ambient noise on Ten's end of the line disappears. He must have gone inside, probably the company building. "You need a break," Ten says. "This comeback has been hard on you."

Mark doesn't know why everyone thinks it's the comeback. He doesn't understand why no one else can comprehend that the issues he has run deeper than just what he can produce on the stage for the television cameras. He feels trapped, cornered, no way out except deep inside himself where it's sad and lonely but free from prying eyes.

“We just have a fansign next week and then we’re done,” Mark says, an echo of what the managers had told him the night before. “And then it’s on to the next.”

“Mark,” Ten says, sharp and commanding. The tone makes Mark snap his mouth shut. “Seriously, what’s wrong? You said you were still in bed? Are you sick?”

“I’m fine,” Mark snaps back. It’s the most emotion he’s mustered up in the last couple days.

“Well, you don’t sound fine.”

As quickly as the burst of energy had come, it disappears. Mark feels like a puppet with all its strings cut, sinking back into the mattress. He wonders if he could convince Yuta to fuck him today; they don’t switch often but Mark’s desperate to feel anything. “Thanks for noticing,” he says blandly. “I shouldn’t keep you.”

“Mark—”

“Thanks for calling, hyung,” he says and hangs up the phone. A second later it’s ringing again, Ten’s name flashing on the call display. After a long moment, Mark cancels the call and turns off his phone.

The dorm is quiet. No one else is home. They have two more show recordings this week, so everyone is either taking the morning to relax, or ramping themselves up in the practice room. Just a week ago, Mark would’ve fallen into the latter category.

He wants to cry, but the tears won’t come. It’s like there’s nothing in him at all, just an empty void, a black hole that swallows up all his emotions. Is this what happens in the end? The love from the fans turns to poison in his veins as they cheer for someone they think they know? The adrenaline for the stage turns to anxiety because now he’s too exposed and everyone will see every single one of his flaws? The world becomes tinted from rose coloured glasses?

Mark rolls over and sticks his head under his pillow. He should—he should talk to someone, ask for help, but even that makes anxiety spike in his chest. For so long, Mark has drilled it into his head that he can only show his best version of himself to people outside this group. To show anyone else a shred of weakness could spell the end of his career.

The tears still don’t come, but sleep does. Mark passes out at 2:30 in the afternoon to harsh afternoon sunlight peeking through the window and the air conditioner whirring to combat the heat.

 

 

Mark wakes up to someone shaking his shoulder. It takes him a long time to feel like he’s fully awake, and when his brain finally logs on he registers that it’s Johnny sitting on the edge of his bed, looking at him with something akin to concern.

Outside, it’s dark out. Mark has no idea what time it is or how long he slept for. He feels incredibly disoriented.

“Ten called me,” Johnny says. “He was worried about you. Said you sounded pretty out of it and then you turned off your phone when he tried to call you back.”

“I was tired,” Mark replies. He tries to roll out from under Johnny’s grip, but Johnny just squeezes tighter, to the point where Mark can feel his bones squeak in protest.

“Auntie says you haven’t come out of your room all day,” Johnny continues. “And judging from how bad you smell, I’d guess you haven’t gotten out of bed at all.”

Mark wants to feel offended, but it’s hard to when Johnny’s nailed it all on the head. “I’m not feeling well,” he says. “I want to go back to sleep.”

“Mark,” Johnny says. He hates the way people have been saying his name today, like he’s a petulant little kid that needs the strong tone of authority to wrangle him. Maybe he is. Maybe that’s just who he is under all the glitz and makeup. “If you’re sick, you have to tell us so you can rest.”

It’s not physical ailment, Mark wants to say. It’s all in his head. He should be able to overcome it, but he doesn’t have the willpower.

“Leave me alone,” he says instead. “I’m not sick.”

The thing about Johnny is that he never uses his size, age, or experience against any of them. He’s easily the biggest member of their group, but he’s always gentle with them. Besides Taeil, he’s the oldest. He trained at SM the longest. Johnny never lords it over any of them, is always willing to bow to someone else.

Maybe that’s why it’s such a surprise when Johnny yanks his arm until Mark is sitting upright, feeling dizzy and confused.

“Hyung?” he gasps.

“Don’t be a brat,” Johnny hisses. His grip on Mark’s wrist is bruising. “Don’t push me out. If you can’t tell me what’s going on, who are you going to turn to? You’ve already shut Ten down and I know you’d never tell Taeyong or Yuta what’s going on because you like to paint this ideal picture for them. So tell me what’s wrong before I bring management into this.”

“Let go,” Mark says weakly. Suddenly the fact that he hasn’t eaten anything today makes itself known. Mark feels like he might pass out for real.

“Tell me what’s wrong.”

“Nothing,” Mark replies. There’s something welling up in him and it takes him a moment to realize it’s a weird mix of anger and panic: fight or flight. “That’s the problem, nothing is wrong!”

Johnny’s grip on his hand loosens, but he doesn’t let go. There’s a furrow between his brows. “What do you mean?” he asks, softer, like he’s realizing that if he talks too loudly he’ll break Mark apart.

Mark shudders. He shouldn’t tell Johnny. This is something he should be able to handle on his own. Once they’re done with promotions he can relax a little. He won’t have to pretend for the fans, just for the members. The cracks in the masks can be repaired. Everything will be alright.

“I’m just—I’m really tired all the time,” he says. “That’s all. I don’t feel sick or anything, I just want to sleep.”

Johnny frowns. “Maybe we should still get you checked out,” he says. “You could have, like, lyme disease or something.”

Mark shakes his head. “It’s fine, hyung,” he says. “I think I’m just—burnt out or something. That’s what Ten said.”

Johnny looks entirely unconvinced. “Mark,” he says, almost more like a warning than anything else.

Mark finally manages to shake his wrist loose from Johnny’s wrist. Now that he’s sitting up, he should probably try and make it to the kitchen to find something to eat. There’s always leftovers in the fridge. Mark doesn’t even think he has the energy to heat them up, though. Whatever’s there he’ll eat cold. Anything to get out of this room.

His knees buckle as soon as he gets out of bed, and Mark’s certain he would’ve cracked his head on the floor if Johnny hadn’t grabbed him around the waist. They tumble off the bed together, but it’s a much softer landing than if Johnny hadn’t been there.

“Jesus,” Johnny says, hands frantically roaming Mark’s body. “Are you okay? We’re going to the hospital. This is fucked up.”

“Hyung, no!” Mark exclaims, trying his best to push Johnny off him. “My legs are both asleep, that’s it. I promise. I’m okay. I’m okay.”

For the first time in a long time, Johnny looks angry. Really and truly angry. There’s a fire in his eyes that Mark thinks is usually reserved for the stage, an edge to his voice that’s only for management and never for members. “Don’t lie to me,” he growls.

Mark shrinks in on himself. Everything feels wrong. His skin feels like it’s too tight, itchy and restrictive. His head is fuzzy, vision dotted with spots as he tries to get his bearings. Johnny is mad. He’s never mad. And certainly never at Mark.

“I’m not —I haven’t —I don’t lie to you, Johnny,” he settles on, voice cracking.

Johnny laughs, a bitter, cruel sound. “Sure,” he says. “Just like how you’ve been brushing off all our invitations for food for the past month because you’re not good enough and need to practice? Like how you’ve been telling us you’re fine when you’re so obviously not?”

“They’re not—they’re not lies!” Mark exclaims. He’s a little alarmed to feel tears welling up in his eyes, but maybe that’s better. Feeling some sort of emotion, having a response to them, is better than the empty void he’s been sitting in for the past week, isn’t it?

“Maybe not to me, then,” Johnny says, sitting back on his hands. “But you’re lying to yourself, and that’s worse.”

Mark sucks in a deep breath, feels the way it stutters on the way out of his chest. No, he thinks. They’re not lies … “Hyung—”

“You don’t need the extra practice, Mark,” Johnny says. There’s a tinge of desperation to his voice now, like he’s pleading. Begging. Mark can’t look him in the eye. “You’re so good, already. It’s like whenever you monitor yourself you find something else to pick apart. Why can’t you see that everything is fine?”

It feels like there’s an elephant sitting on Mark’s chest, making it hard to breathe. Johnny’s words ring around in his head, but the only thing he can hear is his own voice, chanting in his head how he’s a disappointment. He’s made Johnny upset, has disappointed him unimaginably.

“Does anyone else bother to tell you this shit?” Johnny asks, more to himself than to Mark, it would seem. “Does Yuta or Jungwoo when you guys fuck?”

Mark feels like he’s been sucker-punched right in the solar plexus. The elephant on his chest gains 100 kilos. He can’t breathe.

“Mark?”

The tears spill over. Why? Mark doesn’t understand anything that his body is doing right now, can’t comprehend the reaction he’s having. It feels almost out-of-body, like he’s watching it all unfold from some tiny, safe space inside himself while his body panics.

Mark curls in on himself, bending in half until his head is tucked between his knees, arms wrapping around himself like he’ll be able to keep all his pieces from flying apart. He thinks he can hear Johnny talking to him, but it sounds like it’s a million miles away underwater. All he can think about right now is trying to breathe, trying to dislodge the elephant that’s weighing him down. He has to pull himself together; Mark doesn’t think he can handle knowing he disappointed Johnny like this, too.

It feels like a lifetime before Mark feels like he can breathe properly again. Awareness comes back to him slowly: the way he’s clutching at his own hair; the hand Johnny is rubbing along his spine; the ache in his joints from how tightly he’s curled in on himself. It takes monumental effort, but eventually, Mark straightens himself out.

He almost can’t bear to look at Johnny, but when he peeks from under his bangs, he’s surprised by how wrecked Johnny looks. His skin is pale, eyes wide and a little glassy. There’s sweat beading at his temples, along his upper lip.

“Sorry,” Mark whispers, which just makes Johnny shake his head.

“God, no, what are you apologizing for?” Johnny asks, running a hand through his hair. His voice is all rough with emotion. “I should be apologizing. I was rude, and that was clearly a sensitive topic for you.”

Mark shrugs. “How could you have known?” he asks. He stretches, revels in the way his spine pops under the weight of Johnny’s hand that’s still absentmindedly rubbing small circles into his lower back.

“I—“ Johnny starts, then pauses. “Mark,” he says, mouth twisting into a sad little frown. “Do you—? You’re not doing stuff that you don’t want to do, are you? They’re not—forcing you into things, right?”

Mark’s stomach flips over at the insinuation. “Hyung, no,” he says, but it comes out all raspy and cracked sounding. He licks his lips, feels how dry they are. “I—it’s not involuntary.”

“But you don’t like it,” Johnny says, states instead of asks. “You do all that shit with them but you don’t like it.”

“I—“ Mark starts, but what can he say? Refuting Johnny would be the biggest outright lie he’s ever told him. “It helps them.”

If possible, the crease between Johnny’s brows increases. “It helps them,” he repeats, dumbfounded. “So, you’re doing this out of some fucked up sense of—obligation?”

How could Johnny possibly understand? How could he ever comprehend Mark’s need to contort himself to fit every situation? Johnny’s at the top of the pecking order in their group. He commands respect and attention everywhere he goes. Mark is just the happy-go-lucky little brother. His role is to help everyone else.

“If I don’t help them, who will?” Mark asks. “I’m not unwilling. It’s—it’s fine. They like it and it’s fine.”

Johnny’s laugh is a little hysterical. He’s looking at Mark with something manic in his eyes. “Who will help them? Maybe their own right hand? Or a hookup? Not you? God, Mark, that’s so fucked up on so many levels. Why don’t you hook up with someone you actually like for a change?”

Mark’s surprised by how quickly tears well up in his eyes again. Considering he hasn’t had any water today he’s surprised he has any liquid left in him at all. Still, the tears come, blurring the room and Johnny’s snide expression morphing into one of concern.

It hurts. Everything hurts. Mark had been numb for so long that it feels like a shock to the system to feel anything at all again, but he feels like he’s being battered on all sides. He doesn’t know what makes him say it, but he ducks his head and chokes out, “Because the person I like doesn’t want to hook up with me.”

The room is silent except for Mark’s occasional sniffle and the air conditioner. Johnny doesn’t say anything for a long time. It makes Mark’s chest ache.

Finally, Johnny speaks up. “You don’t mean that,” he says, flat and devoid of emotions. Mark can’t bear to look at him. “You—Mark, c’mon.”

“Why does it surprise you so much?” Mark asks.

More silence. So, not a surprise then. Mark doesn't know if that makes things better or worse.

“You don’t mean that,” Johnny repeats, almost more to himself than to Mark. “You hook up with Yuta and Jungwoo because they want to. You wouldn’t—not with me.”

This at least makes Mark look up. Johnny looks as wrecked as Mark feels, but it doesn’t stop the burning flame of anger kindling itself in Mark’s belly. “You just asked me why I wouldn’t hook up with someone I liked,” he spits out. “And now I’m sitting here on the floor, crying over how much I like you, and the only thing you can think to say is that—is that I’m lying to you?

Johnny shakes his head. “I didn’t say that,” he says. “You’re twisting my words.”

“Then tell it to me in plain English,” Mark shouts. He startles himself with how loud he is and wonders who’s sitting outside his door listening to the conversation.

“I don’t trust you,” is what Johnny says in the end, voice quiet and soothing, a foil to Mark’s anger. “I don’t trust you to know your own heart. You go around trying to make everyone else happy, putting on all these different acts depending on who you’re with. I don’t want you to pretend with me. You never have to pretend with me.”

It feels too close. It hits too hard. Mark reels back, staring at Johnny with wide eyes.

“I see how you look at yourself in the mirror,” Johnny continues. “The way you smile, the way you practice different expressions, different postures. If you want me, Mark, I want the unfiltered version of you. No games. Just you.”

Mark blinks, tries to soak in all of what Johnny’s just said. There’s one point that sticks out, though. “You want me?” he asks, surprised by how small his voice sounds.

Johnny blows out a frustrated breath, looks away to break their eye contact. “I—“ he starts, then says, “Yeah. Mark. I want you.”

Something flips in Mark’s belly, something close to elation and surprise and joy. He can’t remember the last time he felt like this, a moment of pure, unadulterated happiness.

It all comes crashing down a moment later.

“But I want the real you,” Johnny continues. He still won’t look at Mark. “I want the Mark I’ve known since he was a dumb 13-year-old rookie. I want the Mark that looks at the world with curiosity, that looks at a challenge with determination. That looks at me and sees me.”

Mark doesn’t know what to say. There’s a panic welling in his chest again, but not the same all-consuming kind as before. Now it’s just the easy, fluttery panic of worrying about what to say next. Like one wrong word could crack the moment right in half. “I—“ he starts. “I see you, Johnny. I’m still—I’m still that person.”

Johnny shakes his head and uses the bed to pull himself to his feet. Mark tries to scramble up next to him, but his body is still too weak. He flops back onto the floor ungracefully.

“I see you put on a mask for everyone you talk to,” Johnny says. “Even the members. I’m not sure when it started happening, but it has to stop. Not just for me, but for them, too. I understand the need to protect yourself, but we can’t help you if you won’t tell us what’s going on. No more playing pretend, okay?”

“Hyung,” Mark says, because he doesn’t know what else to say. He can feel the moment slipping through his fingers.

“I’ll get Auntie to bring some food and water in for you,” Johnny says, hand on the door knob. “Make sure to eat it all or else we really have to go to the hospital.”

He doesn’t look back when he leaves. Instead, he closes the door softly behind him, leaving Mark alone on the floor.

He feels weighed down again, like the fog that had been consuming him for the last few days was on its way back into the edges of his mind.

Let it come, Mark thinks despondently, leaning against the bed. He doesn’t have enough energy to pull himself back onto the mattress. He doesn’t have enough energy for anything, really. It’s like Johnny had injected him with a boost of serotonin and then took every emotion Mark was capable of with him when he left.

Mark was a fool, but at least he doesn’t have to feel like one if he can’t feel anything at all.

 

 

The day of the fansign, Taeyong takes one look at him and frowns.

“Are you sure you’re going to be alright?” he asks, pressing a hand to Mark’s forehead, like he has any idea what he’s looking for. “You look so pale.”

“It’s fine, hyung, don’t worry,” Mark replies. He’s been practicing his lines all morning, has been standing in front of the mirror for hours trying to make sure his face doesn’t look as devoid of emotion as he feels. He’s not fully convinced it’s effective, but Haechan had seemingly bought into it, and if it’s good enough to fool Mark’s best friend, it’s probably good enough to fool his fans too.

Taeyong worries his bottom lip—his makeup noona is going to have a fit—and glances over at Johnny standing on the other side of the room.

After the fiasco in Mark’s room, Johnny hadn’t so much as blinked in Mark’s direction. Mark knows that the others have picked up on it, the weird tension in the room intensely palpable, but no one has wanted to brave Johnny’s bad mood, and Mark’s brushed everyone else off with a shaky smile and a wave of his hand.

And a sloppy make-out session with Yuta that had left Mark feeling like the worst person in the world after.

But everyone knows something’s up with them, and it’s definitely permeating the mood. Everyone seems a little out of sorts.

Mark offers Taeyong one of his practiced smiles and a pat on the shoulder before falling into the line their managers are ushering them into.

It’s nice to do the fansign and forget about all his personal problems for a change. Mark had been dreading the idea of having to go out on stage and pretend in front of everyone that he’s alright, but it’s almost a relief. Here, he can pretend to be the kind of person that’s put together and affable and kind. He greets the fans with a wide smile that almost feels genuine, finds all the words he needs to write heartfelt messages, holds hands with girls who swoon with stars in their eyes. Mark likes knowing he can provide them with a little touch of happiness to their day.

It’s enough to make him forget about all the troubles that have been looping through Mark’s head for the past few days, until they’re being ushered off the stage and the fans are filing out of the auditorium. Just like any performance, the adrenaline rush spikes in his chest, before deflating like a punctured balloon, leaving Mark feeling dizzy with the loss.

Like the wind being let out of his sails, Mark feels the momentum of the day stutter and die inside him. It’s enough to make him stumble over his own feet, trip into the person in front of him, who just so happens to be Johnny.

Of course it would be.

Johnny’s expression morphs from concerned to stoic in a moment. Mark’s chest aches.

“Be careful,” he says, righting Mark before ambling off to plaster himself to Haechan’s back. Mark watches with envy and jealousy burning in the pit of his stomach.

If he wants Johnny to take him seriously, he has to get better, but it’s hard to get better when he doesn’t have the motivation to. Mark feels caught in an endless circle, a vicious cycle that keeps dragging him down.

Maybe it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe this is the universe’s way of telling Mark to move on. Get over it. Get over Johnny.

Mark knows he should, but he doesn’t have the self-preservation instincts to follow through with it. Johnny is all he knows, and if he lets go of that, Mark’s certain he’ll know even less about himself than he does now.

 

 

Days pass by in a strange time warp. Some of them fly by in a blur, and others trickle by with the speed of chilled molasses. Mark spends his days alternating between scribbling lyric ideas in his notebooks and lying around on the couch watching tv with the others.

He turns down enough of Yuta’s propositions that Yuta actually asks him about it one day. “Are you okay?” he asks, sitting down on the edge of Mark’s bed and looking him over with an expression that makes Mark feel like he’s being seen. Yuta’s scarily good at it.

“I mean, yeah?” Mark says. “Just. Not in the mood.”

“You haven’t been lately,” Yuta says, “which is fine. But I just want to make sure you’re okay. You’ve been really down these days.”

It shouldn’t surprise Mark that Yuta’s noticed. Some of the others have, after all, but Yuta is—Yuta’s never been that person, to Mark. In the group, Mark has an older brother in Taeyong—and Johnny, even if he desperately wants to change that. Yuta’s always been more of his cool, older friend. Like, his older brother’s friend. Someone who has looked at every different mask Mark has put on and adapted to each one seamlessly.

“I’m just—sorting through some stuff,” he admits. Tentatively, he takes the seat next to Yuta, which turns out to be a mistake when Yuta drags them down so that they’re lying crosswise on the bed with their heads dangling off the other side. Mark can already feel himself starting to get a little light-headed. “Oppa,” he whines, because he knows Yuta likes it.

Yuta offers him a kind smile. “Does this have to do with the way you and Johnny won’t look at each other anymore?” he asks.

Always perceptive, always watching. Especially when it comes to Mark. Mark should’ve figured Yuta would have guessed. Plus, he was home that night that Johnny had come over. It’s likely he heard a few things.

“A little,” he admits. “I—I guess I’m just. A little lost.”

Yuta hums, a soft sound, and says, “I don’t think I can be a very good guide for you,” he says. He sounds a little sad about it, regretful. “But I can walk this road with you, Markie. You’re my best friend, and I’m always by your side.”

Maybe it was the lack of emotional attachment Mark felt whenever they hooked up, but somewhere along the line he had forgotten just how much Yuta actually loved him. Actually cared about him. And how much he loved and cared for Yuta in return. The realization startles him, grasps at his heart painfully and twists, as if to say, Remember this feeling? This feeling of loving and being loved in return?

“Oh,” he whispers. His voice feels like it might crack if he tries to speak any louder. “I—oh, oppa. Thanks.”

Yuta tips his head closer, presses a kiss to Mark’s cheek. Familiar, loving, nothing more. “Any time, my love,” he says, before sitting up. Mark follows, head spinning as the blood in his body redistributes itself.

There’s a noticeable shift in Yuta, like—like the changing of a mask. Except Mark sees it for what it is now: not a different mask for Yuta, but more like the removal of one. And not one that Yuta had put on himself, but one that Mark had applied for him. Now he sees Yuta plainly. Bare. He sees the boy he met when he was 13 and confused in foreign country, and he sees the man that has grown up to love Mark like family. It’s—relieving.

“Oppa,” he says, leaning forward to touch Yuta’s elbow. Yuta turns to look at him with curious, bright eyes. “Thank you,” Mark says. “I love you, and. Thank you.”

Yuta grins. It’s Mark’s favourite smile of anyone in their group: wide, unashamed, joyful. Everything a smile should be. Everything happiness should be.

“I love you, too, Markie,” he says, easy as anything. Mark believes him.

 

 

Things don’t magically get better, but it feels a little easier, like there’s one less person Mark has to pretend around. He doesn’t share all his burdens with Yuta, but it’s nice to have someone to lean on—physically and metaphorically—when the worst of Mark’s emotionless state gets to him. It’s easy to fall into a rhythm with Yuta as they start to ramp up their preparations for the repackage, which is maybe why Mark doesn’t find anything out of place until suddenly everything feels like it gets flipped on its head.

“Let’s go out for lunch,” Taeyong comments one day after their last recording session. “Hyung will treat you.”

Mark glances around the room where some of the other members are still loitering. “Just us?” he asks, already suspicious.

“Sure,” Taeyong replies easily. He offers Mark a soft, shy smile, one that Mark has always caved to, and curls a hand around Mark’s elbow. “How about that sushi place around the corner?” Mark finds himself unable to refuse.

When they step into the restaurant, though, Mark’s eyes immediately fall on a table in the back that’s already occupied by two people. Even though they’re wearing inconspicuous clothing and bucket hats to cover their hair, Mark knows. He spins on Taeyong, heart pounding in his chest at the betrayal, but Taeyong’s not there. The door is swishing shut and Mark just catches a glimpse of Taeyong’s silvery-purple hair as he disappears out of sight from the windows. A moment later, Mark gets a text.

Sorry. I thought you’d want the privacy.

Mark feels frozen in place. He could leave, walk out the door and not face the intervention that’s waiting for him, but one of the figures at the table has already turned and is looking at him. With a grin, Baekhyun waves him over.

Mark’s feet carry him on auto-pilot. He feels stiff, awkward in a way that he hasn’t felt around Baekhyun and Jongin since they were put together in SuperM. He wants to know what he’s walking into, what Taeyong has maybe told them already. If they know, does anyone else? Can anyone else see how quickly Mark is crumbling?

“Hi,” Baekhyun says as Mark sits down in one of the empty chairs. They’ve sat opposite each other so that Mark doesn’t have to face them head-on, like an interrogation, and Mark is grateful for that. He thinks he’d be even more nervous if he had to look at them both. As it is, he finds himself opposite Jongin, who grins at him kindly while Baekhyun practically vibrates in his chair beside him. “It’s been a while.”

“I’ve been busy,” Mark replies, which isn’t a lie.

“I liked the album,” Jognin adds. “And I liked the title track, too. Happy Now. It’s nice.”

It’s not a smooth segway. For all the poise and charisma Jongin has on stage, he’s endearingly awkward off of it. In this instant, Mark appreciates it; he’d hate to beat around the bush with this particular topic.

“Thanks,” Mark says just as the server stops by their table with a tray full of food. Mark hadn’t ordered anything, but Baekhyun loads up a plate for him anyway and slides it over. “We just have the repackage and then a bit of a break.”

“But you have stuff with NCT Dream, don’t you?” Baekhyun asks. “Later in the year?”

Mark stuffs a piece of sushi into his mouth and nods.

“Are you taking care of yourself?” Jongin asks. Mark sort of hates the way they’re bouncing back and forth, taking turns, like they’re trying to figure out who’s going to be more productive at getting him to talk.

“As well as I can be,” Mark replies. He swirls his chopsticks in the little dish of soy sauce and adds, “Is that what you wanted to talk to me about?”

He doesn’t miss the small glance Baekhyun and Jongin share, but he can’t read it. Finally, Baekhyun says, “Sort of. Taeyong mentioned to us that you’ve been quite out of sorts since promotions started, and now that they’re done you’re still seeming as worn out as you were when you were performing. He’s worried about you.”

“All the members are,” Jongin adds.

Mark scrubs a hand through his hair. He’s lost most of his appetite, so he pushes his plate away, too. Jongin frowns at it. “I’m tired,” he says, which is the standard answer he gives everyone, but Baekhyun and Jongin look more—perceptive. “I feel—so tired.”

“Like, mentally,” Baekhyun supplies.

Mark nods.

Baekhyun hums but doesn’t say anything else. He keeps picking at the food on his plate, occasionally grabs more of a roll or plucks pieces of vegetable tempura from the basket by Jongin’s elbow. Mark watches them go about their lunch feeling very detached from the situation.

It’s weird to be sitting here with them having such a serious conversation. The thing about SuperM is that it’s fun: from the get-go, Baekhyun, Jongin, and Taemin had made it clear that their footings were all equal. They were hyungs, not sunbaenims, and they would go through this new experience together. Everyone had their own strengths that they brought to the table, everyone was needed, and when everyone is equal, it’s easy to joke and be friendly and let loose.

This newer, more serious side of his hyungs unnerves Mark a little.

He realizes, suddenly, that it’s because he’s looking at them through a new lens. Viewing them with new masks slid over their perfect features. Everything boils back down to personas, he thinks with a strangled laugh bubbling in the back of his throat. “Hyung,” he says before he can stop himself. Both Baekhyun and Jongin look up at him, waiting for him to say something.

Mark takes a breath, slow, measured. He tries to find a mask to put on but he’s got nothing left. All that’s there is regular old Mark Lee: bare and open for two of the industry’s best. “How do you—how do you keep going?”

To their credit, neither Baekhyun or Jongin seem fazed by the question. They just continue eating like it’s the most natural thing in the world for Mark to be inquiring about, like it hasn’t consumed Mark for the past several weeks. Finally, Baekhyun puts down his chopsticks and pushes the remainder of the food towards Jongin, who seems to inhale it happily. “You need to trust yourself,” Baekhyun puts simply. “You need to believe that you’re good enough as you are.”

Mark splutters. “You’re always preaching about constantly improving,” he shoots back. “When we practice, you’re always pointing out little things in the choreography like when we’re not in sync or when someone makes a mistake.”

“Sure,” Baekhyun says easily. He shifts in his chair so that he can lean against the wall and face Mark, foot propped up on the chair, elbow draped across it casually. Effortless. Casual and confident. Mark feels like he might vibrate out of his skin. “But I do that because I know that when we make the mistakes it’s because we’re not living up to the abilities we already possess, not because I think we’ve hit the ceiling and need to crack it open.”

“What are you afraid of?” Jongin asks. In the instant that he meets Mark’s eyes, Mark can see it: instead of being Kim Jongin, he’s Kai of EXO. When he blinks, it’s gone.

“I—“ Mark starts, finds the words catching in his throat. Does he know the answer to Jongin’s question? Maybe it’s more that he doesn’t want to admit it, like voicing it aloud will break him somehow, but what else does he have to lose? Is wallowing in his bed all day already not the lowest he can get? Can he fall any further than feeling tired and emotionless and unhappy all the time?

The words of his own song play back in his head: Tell me: are you happy? Are you happy now?

“I don’t want to disappoint anyone,” Mark says after a long pause, but once he gets the words out, it feels like a dam is breaking open. “I’m trying to be my best for everyone but everyone wants different things from me and I—I don’t know how to be what everyone needs. And Johnny said he wants the real me but I don’t know who that is. Like, when you take away all the parts of me I put on for everyone else what am I left with? The stage, the variety shows, the practice rooms, the dorms. Everywhere I go I pretend to be someone else but where do I get to be myself?”

His palms feel sweaty and his breaths catch in his throat. Mark feels like he’s made out of porcelain, like the words that come out of Baekhyun or Jongin’s mouths —for better or for worse—will break him, and Mark really doesn’t feel like breaking down in a sushi restaurant of all places.

The pause is long and drawn out, teetering on the edge of a cliff. They’re silent for so long that the waitress comes by to clear away their empty plates. Mark fidgets in his seat restlessly.

Finally, Jongin: “Who do you think you have to be when you’re with us?” he asks, quiet and a little sad sounding.

The answer is easy, even if saying it isn’t. “A star,” he replies, voice catching awkwardly around the syllables. “Someone worthy of sharing the stage with you.”

It makes the frown lines between Jongin’s eyebrows deepen. “Even now?” he asks, gesturing to the empty table in front of them, the soy sauce-stained wood, the linen curtains hanging above the doorway to the washroom, the lucky cat statues scattered around the restaurant. “When it’s just us?”

Mark thinks about all the ways his relationship with the two men at the table has changed in the year and a half they’ve been working together as SuperM. He can remember how nerve-wracking it had been to watch them both peel back the layers of their personas to reveal the people hiding underneath, like knowing them in this personal, intimate way might change the fundamentals of how Mark saw them. Instead, it had felt seamless, like slipping into a warm pool of water: easy and comfortable and safe.

He thinks about how Jongin has indulged him with silly choreography pieces for them to try together, how he’s taken Mark out for meals, has walked with him along the river, has played games with him even though they’re both bad at it. Or how Baekhyun has driven him home to the dorms on more than one occasion even though his own apartment is in the opposite direction, how he’s always happy to offer Mark advice on everything from singing to idol life to where to buy the biggest, softest sweaters. How within minutes of knowing each other both of them had insisted that Mark call them hyung and scrap the formal sunbaenim title.

He just—he doesn’t understand.

“Do you not pretend around me?” he asks, voice soft and crumbling at the edges.

Baekhyun reaches over, squeezes his knee under the table. “Sure, we keep things from you sometimes,” he says. “Little things that we don’t think you need to be burdened with, but we don’t hide ourselves from you. We trust you.”

It’s this more than anything else that makes tears prickle at the corners of Mark’s eyes. They trust him to be themselves around him, but Mark can’t do the same with anyone. Not with Taeyong, his brother. Not with Haechan, his best friend. Not with Johnny, who wants it the most.

“Mark,” Jongin adds, “I know it seems really hard right now, but you have to learn to trust your people. If you can’t be yourself around them, then who else? Again, what are you afraid of?”

The same question, the same idea, different applications. Mark has to trust himself, but he has to trust others too. He has to let people in and let them see him. It’s daunting. He’s spent so long crafting masks, building walls, perfecting personas that it feels insurmountable. Like he might never get past this.

“What if people don’t like me?” he says finally. “What if they finally see the real me and they’re disappointed?”

“You know what’s happening right now?” Baekhyun asks. He’s picking at a loose thread in Mark’s sweats, tugging hard enough that Mark swats his hand away lest he unravel Mark’s clothes in the middle of the restaurant. “You’re showing us the real you. And we’re still here.”

“We still like you,” Jongin chimes in.

Mark thinks about it. Is this the real him? Emotional and vulnerable and scared of the world? It makes him feel like he’s 13 again, just starting at the company, but then, he supposes, wasn’t that where this all started anyway? The trainers always taught him to not give all of himself away, to save a few things for himself and his friends and family. Maybe the last time he really was just himself —just Mark Lee from Canada—was when he first started at the company.

“Okay,” Mark says. Baekhyun reaches over again, squeezes his knee. Pulls at that thread again. A metaphor, for the way they unravelled him at this table. “I—okay. Okay, thanks, hyung. Okay.”

 

 

Mark goes home that day and picks up his guitar for the first time in days. He strums a few chords, practices a few scales, picks out the notes for Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself. All relatively easy and monotonous things that he’s done a hundred times before.

Yuta pokes his head in through the crack in the door. “Sounds good,” he says. He doesn’t stop in, but he flashes Mark a blinding grin and a thumbs up before disappearing down the hall.

Little things like that come back to Mark in increments. The lyrics to songs come more easily from his pen. The apologies fall off his tongue with sincerity when he calls Ten. The dance moves take over his limbs naturally when he takes time to freestyle after practice.

These things feel essential, the most important parts of himself. They feel genuine and real, like they’re things that Mark needs to hold onto to feel like himself. Music. Dance. The ability to be sincere and honest and open. Still, it feels difficult to wrap all of these things up in a nice tidy package and present them to people as the truest parts of himself.

They finish up preparations for the repackage and Mark feels—satisfied. He thinks back to the recording period for Happy Now and how he’d spent so many takes in the booth thinking that it never sounded right, never sounded the way the producer wanted it to sound. Chasing perfection like it was water running through his fingers. He feels much better about their new title track, Shine On .

It catches Mark by surprise when he comes out of the studio to find Johnny sitting in the lounge, sipping at water from a paper cup and scrolling through his phone. He looks equally as surprised to see Mark.

“Did you have recording today, hyung?” Mark asks carefully. He and Johnny haven’t been hostile since their conversation, but they’ve certainly held each other at arm’s length. Mark’s not sure when he can cross that boundary again, if Johnny will want him to or will let him.

“I already finished,” Johnny replies, which makes Mark’s brow furrow. Maybe there wasn’t a car available to take Johnny back to the dorms, or maybe he had wanted to talk to their producer about something but had to wait till Mark was done. Surely he wasn’t waiting—

“You’re done pretty quickly,” Johnny comments. To anyone else it would sound casual, polite conversation, but Mark knows better now. He’s fishing, trying to figure out if Mark is finished because he’s satisfied or finished because he doesn’t give a fuck anymore.

“I—yeah,” Mark says lamely, trying to sound confident in his answer. “I was happy with what we worked on so—so they said I could go home.”

Johnny blinks at him. Untrusting. It doesn’t surprise Mark, but it does sting. Finally, Johnny sets his phone down and says, “That’s good.”

Mark could let the conversation end there. He could bypass Johnny and get himself a cup of water. He could turn his back and let Johnny leave the room to do—whatever it was he was sticking around to do. They could both pretend that this conversation never happened and go back to the frigid way they greet each other now.

Or Mark could put some effort in.

“Hyung,” he says, pulling out a chair at the table and sitting down on its edge tentatively. “I—I’m feeling a lot better lately.”

Johnny eyes him critically, so Mark continues. “I’ve been going out more, spending less time agonizing over things. I’m doing things I like to do—“ He pauses. “I haven’t hooked up with anyone in ages.”

This, at least, startles a laugh out of Johnny. “No shit?” he asks, offering Mark a soft smile when Mark shakes his head. “Mark, you know it wasn’t the fact that you were hooking up that made me upset, right?”

Mark nods. He hasn’t sat down to analyze those feelings very much, but he’s certain he understands why Johnny was so upset with him. It’s the last little compartment he has to unbox inside himself, the last mask to snap in half.

“Yeah,” Mark breathes out. “I know.”

“Good,” Johnny says. He stands up, gathers both of their empty cups and tosses them in the bin. When he ruffles Mark’s hair he says, “Want to head home? I have some mixes I think you might like, unless you’re tired of all this recording stuff for the day.”

Something blooms in Mark’s chest. Even if nothing ever changes between him and Johnny, Mark wouldn’t give up their friendship for anything. To have it back after weeks of radio silence feels like filling his head with soft music again: comforting and healing, like he’d been missing a part of himself he couldn’t quite pinpoint before.

“I’d like that,” he says shyly. Johnny’s eyes soften at the edges as he slings an arm over Mark’s shoulders.

“Sure,” he says. He’s already typing on his phone, getting a car lined up for them. “Let’s go home.”

 

 

Talking with Yuta about ending their—agreement is easy. Yuta takes it all in stride, asks, "Can I still kiss your cheek?" and laughs when Mark splutters, "Yeah, but just not on camera." Things with Yuta are always easy because he just rolls with the punches. He understands exactly who he is and where he stands, and if he's ever uncertain about anything, he asks. Mark admires that about him.

So ending things with Yuta is easy, but talking with Jungwoo makes Mark's stomach flip-flop nervously.

He's not sure what it is. Maybe he's afraid that he'll hurt Jungwoo's feelings. Maybe he's afraid that Jungwoo will come to the same conclusion that Johnny did: that Mark wasn't a willing participant. Mark knows that that would destroy Jungwoo more than if he thought Mark just wasn't interested anymore.

He catches Jungwoo one day after dance practice, one week out from the release of the repackage. "Hey, Jungwoo," Mark calls out. He's still packing his bag and he'd noticed Jungwoo about to step out the door with Jaehyun. He lingers, though, when he hears Mark's voice, a mischievous glint in his eye. Mark swallows nervously. "Uh, can we chat?"

Jungwoo blinks, like he's unsure if this is Mark using a different innuendo or if he really just wants to sit around and talk. Either way, he shrugs and nods and plods back over to where Mark is sitting with half the contents of his bag strewn around him. He'd been looking for his headphones, but he abandons the task to fiddle nervously with the zippers on the bag while the other members file out.

Yuta shoots him a knowing look as he goes, and Johnny looks pleased. He offers Mark a thumbs up before he leaves, the last person to depart. The practice room feels huge now that it's empty.

"What's up?" Jungwoo asks, leaning against the wall next to Mark's things. "Are you feeling okay?"

Mark had brushed off more than a few of Jungwoo's advances during the worst of his foggy days, so it makes sense that he asks, but Mark can't help but feel that little tinge of guilt in his belly anyway. He hates to worry the others as much as he hates to disappoint them.

"I'm doing better," he admits. "But, um, I guess I wanted to talk to you about us? Like us over the past couple weeks?"

"Sure," Jungwoo replies, "but you know I'd never be upset with you for not wanting to hang out if you're feeling sick."

Mark forgets sometimes. Not that he could ever forget Jungwoo's absence from the team a couple years ago, but sometimes he forgets the reasons: overworking, anxiety, depression. Jungwoo had told him, before he'd gone on hiatus, that the fear of letting people down was driving him insane. The drive for perfection too demanding. At the time Mark hadn't understood it, but now he feels like he knows it all too well.

"I—okay," Mark stutters. "Um, and if I, uh, didn't want to at all?"

Jungwoo's brow furrows. "You don't want to hang out anymore?" he asks, sadness tinting his voice.

Mark flaps his hands, like he can erase the words out of the air in between them. "No, no," he says hurriedly. "That's not what I meant!"

"Oh?" Jungwoo tilts his head like a puppy.

"No, no, I meant, like. The hanging out. But, like, with sex."

Jungwoo's eyes widen. "Oh," he says. "You don't want to hook up anymore."

It's not a question, just a statement, and it's not judgemental. There's nothing in Jungwoo's expression or body language that gives away that he's upset.

"I—no," Mark admits.

Jungwoo bobs his head. "Okay," he says, easy as anything.

Mark doesn't really owe him an explanation, but the way that Jungwoo lets it go so easily compels him to at least add, "I'm not hooking up with Yuta either anymore."

Jungwoo’s grin is a little mischievous, a little shark-like. “Oh?” he asks, fiddling with the strap of Mark’s backpack. “More for me, I guess.”

It startles a laugh out of Mark, and with it goes all the tension in his body. In hindsight, it’s hard to see why he was so afraid of telling Jungwoo. Easy-going, understanding, caring. Jungwoo would never hold it against him.

“Mark,” Jungwoo calls out to him, bringing Mark’s eyes back into focus. Jungwoo’s looking at him with a patient, adoring smile. “I just wanted to know—and you don’t have to answer—was it something I did? Or—?”

“Oh, gosh, no,” Mark says hurriedly. He stuffs the last remaining things in his bag—his headphones are discovered in the tangle of miscellaneous items—and adds, “No, no. It wasn’t you. Or Yuta. It was a me thing, I think. Like, I just realized I have to, uh, do things for me, I guess. Not that I didn’t want to hook up with you! Just—“

Mark trails off. He’s not entirely sure how to say all this without it sounding like, Hey, I willingly sucked your dick at least twice a week for almost a year but it wasn’t really my cup of tea. Not the dick part, but the you not being the dick I really wanted to suck, part.

“Mark,” Jungwoo repeats. This time his grin is amused. “It’s okay. Don’t hurt yourself.”

Mark feels his face go bright red.

The silence that falls over them isn’t uncomfortable, but Jungwoo is looking at him curiously, like he’s a puzzle that needs to be cracked. After a long moment, Jungwoo says, “Are you feeling better now?”

“I—oh, yeah,” Mark replies. “Um, I guess some days are still hard but most days are okay now.”

Jungwoo nods. “Yeah, I get that,” he says. He doesn’t push Mark, doesn’t try and make him talk the way all of Mark’s other hyungs have tried. It’s this, paired with the fact that Jungwoo knows—intimately—what Mark is struggling with, that gives Mark the courage to ask.

“Hyung,” he starts, which is rare enough in itself. He and Jungwoo long since stopped using honourifics. “I—do you ever feel like who you are on stage or in front of the camera isn’t really … you?”

Jungwoo laughs. It’s not the delicate sounding giggle that he saves for the fans, but the full-bodied laugh that bursts out of him when they’re at home. It makes Mark feel at ease. “Of course,” Jungwoo replies. “You know me, Mark. You can see, can’t you?”

Mark shrugs. “I mean, yeah,” he says, but even to his own ears he sounds unsure. “I just mean—you’re not overly different, ‘Woo.”

“Well, no,” Jungwoo says, shaking his head. “There’s still a difference between Jungwoo the idol and Jungwoo the human, but it doesn’t mean that the two sides aren’t bound by some realms of truth, either.”

Mark looks at the person sitting in front of him, takes in the soft smile and the sweaty hair. Jungwoo is always sweet, always cute, but when he’s on camera or in front of their fans, he dials it up to 100. Like the addition of strangers or acquaintances into the mix amplifies all the most likeable parts about Jungwoo.

“Mark,” Jungwoo continues. “There’s always a difference between who you let the public see and who you keep for yourself and your friends and family, but it doesn’t mean that you have to be a completely different person. It’s okay to show the fans a little bit of who you are. Besides, aren’t the most convincing lies the ones that are based on truth? I like acting like a puppy off camera, too, but it’s not, like, my entire personality, contrary to what the fans think. I act that way in private because I like to, not because I feel obliged to.”

Mark fiddles with the strap on his backpack. "What if they don't like me?" he asks in a whisper, an echo of the same question he'd asked Baekhyun and Jongin. It's not that he didn't believe what they told him but—he needs the reassurance. He needs more people to tell him that he's wanted still.

Jungwoo frowns. “Then they don’t like you,” he says, “and that’s their loss.”

Mark can’t help the way his jaw drops. It makes Jungwoo giggle. “You don’t—? It doesn’t bother you?” Mark asks.

“Of course it bothers me,” Jungwoo says easily. He leans forward, offering Mark his full attention. “But what can I do about it? If I give them my best and that’s not good enough for them, that’s not my fault. I know the fans don’t love us all equally, but the fans that do love you will support you through thick and thin.” When Mark doesn’t say anything, he adds, “You can’t make everyone happy, Mark, so you might as well start with yourself.”

Trust himself. Put himself first. They seem like fairly innocuous pieces of advice, common sense, but they were things that had somehow escaped Mark. Too simple, maybe. The most basic of concepts were the things Mark overlooked because they seemed too easy, too obvious.

“You’ve already gone through the hard part,” Jungwoo says. He puts a hand on Mark’s shoulder, tugs until they can press their foreheads together. Mark closes his eyes. “The breaking apart is the tough stuff. Putting yourself back together is easier.”

Slowly, Mark has been putting himself back together, stacking the blocks that make up the core of his being. There’s nowhere to go but up, and Mark is looking forward to it.

“Thanks, ‘Woo,” he whispers, feels the ghost of a kiss against his cheek.

“Anytime, Markie,” Jungwoo replies. He doesn’t pull away, so Mark stays too, letting them sit in the quiet of the practice room under the fluorescent lights.

 

 

Falling into step with Johnny again feels natural, but Mark can still feel the underlying tension between them. At first he thinks it’s because Johnny is wary about upsetting Mark again, but it doesn’t take long for him to realize it’s because Johnny is trying to date him without saying it in so many words.

And, well, it’s not that Mark hadn’t believed Johnny all those weeks ago when he’d said he wanted Mark, but—there was a lot of time between then and now and Mark had assumed maybe the feelings had gone away, that Johnny had taken a look at how completely messed up Mark was at the time and decided he didn’t want to get more involved. So, knowing that Johnny is still interested makes something bright and hopeful unfurl in Mark’s chest, like a flower blooming after the winter.

They do all the same things they used to, but now there’s little added actions: the way Johnny’s hand will rest on the small of his back now instead of his shoulder; the way he buys Mark sweet iced coffees on their off days; the way he’s added a little heart emoji next to Mark’s name in his contact list.

It makes Mark want to work harder.

Not in the same, manic way as before, but in a softer way. He tries his best to do little things for Johnny, too. Mark tangles their fingers together under the dinner table when no one’s looking. He sends Johnny good morning texts with sunflower emojis and goodnight texts with various hearts. On one chilly, overcast day he makes a trip out to the speciality wine store to try and buy Johnny something nice for him to sip after long days at the company building. He’s trying, and he puts in the effort not because he thinks that’s what Johnny expects of him, but because he wants to. He wants to be able to reflect the love that Johnny shines on him.

As the promotions for the repackage start, Mark finds Johnny trailing after him like a shadow. They take the same car to the music show recordings, and once they’re there, Johnny follows him around, much to their hair stylist and makeup noona’s annoyance.

He hovers, like if he looks away for a moment, Mark will find something to be upset about and revert back to the moody, aimless person he’d been throughout Happy Now promotions. After the third time Johnny’s makeup noona complains that he needs to sit down now, or so help me I will stab you in the eye with this blending brush! Mark decides to take things into his own hands.

“Hyung,” he says while the hair stylist is brushing his bangs off his face and spraying them into place with half a can of hairspray. “Let’s go for a walk after.”

Johnny perks up. “Sure,” he says easily, cool and collected despite how his knee fidgets. Mark smiles.

The nice thing about Inkigayo is that Jaehyun had shown them a lot of the ins and outs of the building during his tenure as a host. Mark uses this knowledge by grabbing Johnny by the wrist and dragging him through the maze of corridors, bowing at other artists and staff as they go. Several turns later leaves them standing in front of a door that reads, Authorized Personnel Only.

“Mark,” Johnny says warningly, but Mark just ignores Johnny and opens the door.

The climb up to the roof doesn’t take long; Mark’s thankful that the studio is in a relatively short building. When they emerge, they’re greeted by grey clouds and faint traffic noises and a wind that only buffets them now due to the change in altitude. It’s not exactly a romantic spot, but that’s the last thing on Mark’s mind.

He spins around when the door closes, letting Johnny’s hand drop, and just—takes him in. Inky black hair swept back off his forehead, freshly dyed for this comeback. Light denim jacket overtop a plain white t-shirt. His makeup is subtle except for the highlighter—the same styling that’s being applied to all of them so that they shine on stage.

Like this, Johnny looks every part the idol that he’s trained to be. Effortlessly handsome, poised, controlled. Mark can see past it all, though. He can see how Johnny shifts from foot to foot, how his fingers wriggle like he’s trying to hold himself back from clenching his hands into fists. He’s nervous.

“What’s up?” Johnny asks. For his part, his voice comes out a lot more even sounding than Mark’s would if their situations were reversed.

Mark grins at him, shoves his hands into the kangaroo pouch pocket on the front of his windbreaker. He quite likes it—maybe he’ll ask the stylist if he can keep it after promotions are over. “You were bothering Yuna-noona,” he says, picturing the annoyed look on their makeup artist’s face. “Figured maybe some fresh air might help.”

Johnny grimaces. “I didn’t mean to be a nuisance,” he mutters, petulant. It makes Mark smile more, makes him take a step forward, slowly closing the distance between them.

“It’s a good thing I find it pretty endearing, then,” Mark says. They’re standing almost toe-to-toe, pristine white sneakers just shy of kissing. Johnny shifts back slightly.

He’s looking at Mark with a humorous look of curiosity and scrutiny. Several weeks ago Mark would have found this unbearable. Now, he feels … hopeful. Encouraged. Bold.

“I’ve really enjoyed our dates the last couple weeks,” he says, reaching out to touch Johnny’s arm. As he trails his fingers up the rough denim, he imagines the curling vines of Johnny’s tattoo, imagines the ink coming alive to wrap around his fingers. “I’ve had a lot of fun hanging out with you, hyung.”

This, at least, seems to snap Johnny out of his stupor. “Dates?” he asks, a smirk curling at the edges of his lips. He reaches out, fits his hand over Mark’s hip and tugs him until the space between them has been erased. Mark braces himself on Johnny’s chest, looking up at him with what he hopes are his best starry-eyes. It’s not hard; he’s sure that’s just how he’s always looked at Johnny anyway.

Like something to be revered, something to be valued and treasured. Johnny has weathered all of Mark’s storms, has been an anchor for the most turbulent parts of Mark’s life. He’s been patient and understanding and has cared for the person he knew Mark could be even when Mark had a hard time figuring that out for himself. Mark’s long since realized that what he feels for Johnny goes beyond the bedroom.

“I mean, that’s what they were, right?” Mark asks. “Unless you treat all your friends to fancy coffees and dinners out and movie nights in. I’d feel way less special if that were the case, though.”

He giggles when Johnny ducks his head and presses a smacking kiss to Mark’s cheek. It’s silly, the kind of kisses all of them give each other. “Oh, so you want to feel special?” Johnny asks, cradling Mark close. Mark can feel the thud of Johnny’s heart under his hand, the rhythm of it easy and measured. No trace of nerves.

“Only when I’m with you, hyung,” Mark replies.

Johnny offers him a soft smile, a gentle kiss to the forehead, before stepping back. He keeps their fingers tangled together, but allows space between them for words. Mark appreciates it.

He feels—not unready for this conversation, but something closer to the nerves he gets before he steps on stage, nerves born from the desire to not mess up. To not be nervous would mean that Mark doesn’t want whatever’s waiting for him on the other side of this conversation, and that’s far from the truth. Mark wants it. Desperately.

“Hyung,” he says, licking his lips. His makeup noona had put a layer of lip balm on before they’d come outside; it’s a welcome change to how chapped his lips normally are. “I—”

Johnny squeezes his hands, shakes his head. “Me first?” he asks, and Mark is helpless to do anything but nod.

The smile Johnny offers him is soft and pleased, small quirks at the corners of his lips, accentuated by the tint of the lip oil that the makeup noona has used. He’s so handsome, Mark thinks helplessly, swaying dangerously close, unconscious of his actions. It at least makes Johnny’s eyes crinkle at the corners.

“You’ve grown up so well,” Johnny says. The wind steals his voice, disperses it so that Mark has to concentrate to hear what Johnny’s saying. “I was worried about you for awhile. Not just with what’s happened in the last few weeks, but the last little while, really. I tried my best to keep an eye on you. I thought maybe you were on the edge of breaking down a few times, but you always proved me wrong.”

He squeezes Mark’s hands, brings them up so he can brush his lips against the knuckles. When he pulls back, there’s a sticky trace of lip product on the backs of Mark’s hands, but he can’t bring himself to care. He’s afraid if he looks away for a moment he’ll miss something important, if he pulls away from Johnny’s grip the motion will break something precious between them.

“I adore you,” Johnny continues. It makes Mark’s stomach flip over, sets his heart on fire in the most pleasant way. “All the little things you tried to hide from us—from me—as you grew older: the way you laugh, the way you’re so dedicated, the way you look at me sometimes like I’m the coolest person you’ve ever met. I never want to see you hide yourself again, because the person you are is the person I want to spend all my time with. I can’t stop thinking about you, Mark Lee.”

Mark Lee. Not NCT Dream’s effervescent leader. Not NCT 127’s awkward youngster. Not SuperM’s talented maknae, not SM’s ace. Just himself: a silly, hard-working boy with a dream.

“Thank you for waiting for me,” Mark says quietly. Tentatively, he takes a step forward, dares to bridge the gap between them again. When Johnny makes no protests, Mark unlinks their hands, pulls Johnny in for a hug with his arms around his waist. He loves the feeling of Johnny’s strong arms wrapping around his shoulders, the press of Johnny’s cheek to his hair as he leans his head on Mark’s. “Thank you for always being beside me. I know it was hard, but I hope it was worth the wait. And—you know—I’ve been waiting too. I’ve liked you for so long, wanted you for so long.”

“You can have me,” Johnny says. Mark feels the words vibrate through the both of them. “Just don’t shut me out again.”

Mark thinks back to that conversation they had on his bedroom floor, when Mark thought he couldn’t feel any worse and Johnny gave him an ultimatum. Johnny had asked to be seen, and at the time, Mark hadn’t understood fully what he had meant.

Now, standing on the rooftop of the television studio, the sounds of their adopted city filling Mark’s ears, he thinks he gets it. With every mask that Mark had donned, he had looked at the world differently, too, like each one came with different lenses. And with those lenses, he’d viewed people differently, too.

Johnny, their unwavering pillar. Johnny, who had been at SM the longest. Johnny, their mood-maker, patient older brother, fiercest defender. Maybe it’s why Mark had never thought Johnny could like him back.

“I won’t,” he says. He wants to rub his cheek against Johnny’s shoulder, burrow into him like Johnny might be able to just absorb him, but he knows their stylists will ream him out for getting makeup all over Johnny’s jacket. Reluctantly, he pulls away, but not far. Johnny’s gentle grip on his face won’t allow him. “No more hiding. No more pretending. Just me. And you. I see you, Johnny.”

Johnny laughs, loud and bright, carried away on the wind. Mark misses the sound immediately, but he knows he’ll get to hear it again. Johnny is always laughing with him, which is how it should be, Mark thinks.

Even in the shoes the stylists have put him in for the performance, there’s still too much height difference between them. Mark rocks up on his toes, steadies himself against Johnny’s shoulders. “Hyung?” he asks, his lips a hair’s breadth away from Johnny’s. “Can I?”

“Yeah, Mark Lee,” Johnny replies. “Yeah, of course.”

Mark closes the distance between them, presses his lips to Johnny’s. It’s a sweet kiss, no urgency, nothing demanding about it. Just the slick slide of their lips, soft little sighs breathed out as they pull away just to come back together again. They’re going to smudge all of their lip product, and the makeup noonas will be unhappy, but Mark couldn’t care less. It feels like it’s been weeks, months in the making, and the journey had been rough, but Mark’s right where he’s supposed to be, no masks, no personas.

Not NCT’s Mark, just Mark Lee.

 

 

EPILOGUE

Three Months Later

Fall descends on Seoul seemingly all at once. It’s like Mark blinks and one day they’ve got beautiful, warm sunny weather and the next thing he knows the wind is blowing in between the high rises and the clouds have rolled in. He doesn’t overly mind; summers in Seoul are unbearably hot usually, and it’s nice to get the reprieve of the cooler weather.

The change in seasons also means that Johnny starts pulling out all sorts of cozy sweaters and teddy-bear coats and soft scarves, and Mark finds himself hoarding them all away for the nights when he gets sent back to his room on the 10th floor to sleep by himself. Or he’ll toss one on when he’s hanging out with Johnny, working on more music, or on days when he heads into the studio to record.

Johnny doesn’t complain, even though half his wardrobe seems to end up in Mark’s laundry. “It gives me an excuse to buy more,” he says with a wink, like Mark supports his obnoxious spending habit on clothing.

Being in a relationship with Johnny has been relatively easy. There are still arguments and licking wounds and passive aggressive eye rolls, but for the most part, it feels natural. Like the next step in their friendship. It’s easy to cuddle in close to Johnny when they’re watching movies with the others, easy to demand kisses between takes when they’re recording in Johnny’s bedroom.

The sex had been easy, too. Mark had been nervous the first time; he couldn’t remember the last time he had sex with someone because it was something he desperately wanted and not because it was something he felt like he should do to be helpful.

“Hey,” Johnny had said, rolling them over so that Mark was on top, straddling Johnny’s waist. He remembers how wet he’d been, how his dick had left a smear of pre-come across Johnny’s abs. That had never happened before with Jungwoo or Yuta. “We can go as slow as you want, baby. I’m not going anywhere.”

Their first time together had been slow, passionate, lovely. Mark remembers everything, from the way it had felt to take Johnny inside him, to the soft words of encouragement Johnny had whispered in his ear as he’d started a gentle and easy rhythm. There had been lazy kisses and hidden love bites, and Mark had felt present, in the moment, the whole time. He was in love with making love to Johnny.

So, sex was easy between them. Sometimes it was fun and Mark laughed at the exaggerated faces and sounds Johnny made just for him. Sometimes it was soft and sweet and lazy, like in the mornings if Johnny slept over on days when their manager went home. Sometimes it was unbearably sexy, hot enough that Mark felt the passion singing in his blood days later.

And sometimes—like today—it was a little kinky.

In three months they’d tried several different fantasies on for size. Some are tried and true go-tos now: Mark really likes being spanked—which is fine with Johnny because he spares no opportunity to tell Mark how much he loves Mark’s ass—and he loves to be edged. Johnny’s into bondage and sensory deprivation. But there are some things they won’t touch again with a ten-foot pole, like degradation and humiliation and gagging.

Mark doesn’t think today’s experiment is edging into the territory of things they don’t enjoy, but Johnny had been apprehensive about it anyway. “You’re sure this is alright?” he had asked that morning, pulling on a sweater while Mark lazed in bed. Johnny was supposed to leave the dorms 20 minutes before Mark.

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Mark had affirmed. “And besides, I know what to say if it’s too much. So do you, for that matter.”

Now, half an hour later, Mark is standing at the edge of Seoul Forest, fiddling with the edge of his beanie and twirling his phone between his fingers. He scans the streets, looks left and right for a familiar figure, but spots no one.

“Mark?”

Mark spins around, spots Johnny coming up behind on the path that leads into the park. He’s got a baseball cap on, dark navy and white for the New York Yankees. They match his casual sneakers, giving him a relaxed look despite the expensive camel peacoat he’s got on, open over a dark henley. He looks exactly like the pictures he’d sent.

“Oh, uh, yes,” Mark stutters. He feels suddenly underdressed in his black skinny jeans and windbreaker. Will people look at them and think he’s punching out of his weight class? Or maybe they’d just assume he and Johnny are brothers. “Hi, Johnny.”

Johnny smiles at him, extends a hand. Mark shakes it, let’s the space linger between them when they let go and Johnny motions towards the park. “It’s nice to finally meet you,” Johnny says, natural sounding despite the nerves Mark knows he’s hiding.

The roleplaying had been Mark’s idea. Initially, he hadn’t been interested; he didn’t really want to do the weird porno style scenarios where they re-enact fucking the pizza delivery boy or the handyman or whatever. But Johnny had asked—one day during a quiet afternoon lazing around in bed—what Mark thought he’d be doing if he weren’t an idol, and that had gotten the wheels turning.

What would it be like if they had met the way other young people these days meet? Over a dating app? Maybe online through a shared interest? What would that first date be like, their first meeting in person? The idea planted roots in Mark’s head, bloomed whenever he had a spare minute to think about it.

Johnny had been more apprehensive, not necessarily because he didn’t think it was hot but more out of a general concern for Mark’s well-being. “You sure you want to do this?” he had asked when Mark had brought it up, the two of them sitting cross-legged on Johnny’s bed, facing each other. Seeing each other. “Like. You want to—act.”

Mark understands the implication, the idea that it might set off a landslide in him that will have him slipping back into old habits. He’ll admit that he had thought of it too, worried the idea in his mind one night when his anxiety made a brief return to keep him up at night, but with Johnny by his side, in his corner, Mark had known that it would be alright, and he’d told Johnny as much. Johnny has always been a grounding force for him, and Mark’s certain that he won’t slide with Johnny holding him tightly.

Now, strolling through Seoul Forest making idle small-talk, Mark knows he was right.

Even though he knows Johnny, can read him better than anyone else, there’s a certain thrill about getting to know this character that Johnny’s created. This person is just as charismatic and captivating as Mark’s Johnny, but he differs in that he’s a graduate of Berklee College of Music in Boston, working on his masters of musicology at SNU. He works part time as a music teacher to help pay for school and he wants a dog but settled for a goldfish instead.

Mark tells him about himself, too. He crafted his backstory to be along the lines of possibility, too: graduated from UBC with a degree in English literature. Taking a gap year to travel and ended up in Seoul for a week. Today is his last day and he'd downloaded Tinder on a whim, had found Johnny by accident, and now they're here.

The walk in the park is more to be polite than anything else. Mark knows that people meet up for hookups all the time without a date beforehand but Mark figures if he's going to spend his last day in Seoul getting fucked 10 ways till Sunday he might as well get to know his partner a little.

They wander until the wind picks up, making Mark shiver in his windbreaker. "Let's take an Uber back to my place," Johnny suggests, slinging an arm over his shoulders and tugging him back towards the road. He's already got his phone out, thumb moving erratically over the screen.

The Uber comes (actually just their manager in the company black sedan) and they chat about music—the only thing Mark can think of to talk about that won't sound extremely weird to their manager in the front seat. They get dropped off at the dorms and head upstairs, all the way to the 10th floor because Mark was more successful about convincing everyone to vacate the premises for the afternoon.

"My roommates are out," Johnny says as he keys in the door code and leads Mark in. "Sorry, they're kind of slobs."

Mark rolls his eyes. "Whatever," he says, good-naturedly. "I mean, I'm not really here to judge their cleaning habits."

"Fair enough," Johnny replies. His grin is a tad salacious, a bit mischievous as he pulls Mark down the hallway to Mark's bedroom.

Mark thinks that if this were a real hookup—if Johnny were an actual stranger—he’d probably be a little more interested in the contents of the room. He briefly considers asking Johnny about the guitar in the corner, the notebooks piled up on the desk at the foot of the bed, but Johnny has other ideas. As soon as the door closes behind them, he’s crowding Mark up against the wood, caging him in, close enough that Mark has to awkwardly tilt his head back in order to meet Johnny’s eye.

“This isn’t moving too fast for you, is it?” Johnny asks. He’s got one hand clamped against Mark’s hip, the other stroking gently along his cheek. Mark closes his eyes, leans into the touch.

“No, Johnny, it’s fine,” he says. Johnny’s name feels awkward on his tongue—he usually calls Johnny hyung in bed, faster and easier to get out when all the other words that normally crowd Mark’s brain get too jumbled in the throes of pleasure.

“Good,” Johnny replies, and ducks in for a kiss.

Mark remembers their first kiss—not the one on the rooftop where they had been shooting for Inkigayo, but the first heated kiss in the bathroom on the fifth floor when Johnny had gone to scrub the stage makeup off his face. That kiss had been a little messy from how much Mark had been smiling, a little sloppy with their eagerness in learning each other. Now, three months later, they’re far from their first kiss, but Mark tries to recapture that energy, tries to imagine what it would be like to just fall into bed with a stranger he met on the Internet.

Johnny kisses Mark like he’s trying to devour him. His lips are insistent, parting Mark’s easily so that he can slip his tongue in, lick briefly inside before pulling back enough that he can nip at Mark’s lower lip. Even though they’re supposed to be strangers, Johnny pulls out every trick he knows that will have Mark whimpering in his arms.

“You’re pretty easy, hmm?” Johnny asks against Mark’s lips. The hand that’d had on Mark’s hip has moved around to his ass, palming him easily through his jeans. His other hand is braced against the door next to Mark’s head. “You like this for every guy you meet off Tinder?”

“Just you,” Mark moans, which is at least the truth. He tips his head back, baring his neck to Johnny, begging without words for a mark, a memory for the beautiful man he’d hooked up with in Seoul.

“Yeah? You liked the dick pic I sent you that much?”

The picture in question had been sent to Mark over their secret KKT chat. Low level lighting, no discernable features in the way of body parts or background. Just a nice, grainy picture of Johnny’s hand around his dick just after an orgasm, come dripping down his knuckles. Mark feels himself salivate at the thought.

“Yeah, I really liked it, Johnny,” he whimpers.

Johnny tugs the collar of Mark’s windbreaker to the side, bites at the jut of Mark’s collarbone. “You’re in my town tonight, hon,” he says. “Call me hyung.”

If Mark wasn’t hard in his jeans before, he is now.

They don’t waste anymore time with the foreplay. Mark’s windbreaker ends up tossed in the vague direction of the open closet door. Johnny’s peacoat crumples right at their feet. They shed layers like it’s a race before falling onto the bed together, a little breathless and very naked.

“Wow,” Mark says, mostly involuntarily. He reaches out and traces a finger along the curves of the tattoo on Johnny’s shoulder, vines that wrap around the top and down the upper part of his arm. It’s intricate and beautiful and Mark is distracted enough that he jolts when Johnny’s palm smooths down his stomach and pauses just to the side of where Mark’s dick is lying flush against his belly, already leaking a little at the tip.

“You’d look good with some ink on you, too,” Johnny says, pushing at Mark so that he rolls over onto his back and Johnny can straddle his thighs and look down at him from his perch. He looks quite smug about it while fitting his hand against the span of Mark’s ribcage. Mark shudders at the size difference. “Something here, maybe? Something bold and beautiful and strong, like you?”

It’s a hint of reality bleeding through the character, but Mark can’t bring himself to care. He whines at the idea, of the image of harsh lines of ink spiraling across his torso. Lucas had told him that it had hurt like crazy to get his own ribcage tattoo, but it’s the last thing on Mark’s mind right now. He’s never wanted a tattoo before, but maybe this version of Mark does.

Or maybe he just wants to impress Johnny.

“Yeah, please,” he whines, arching into Johnny’s touch.

Johnny laughs, shuffles down the bed so he can lay a kiss to the skin where he’d proposed the tattoo before trailing further down. They hadn’t really discussed what exactly they’d be getting up to in bed, but it’s not a huge surprise when Johnny takes Mark’s cock into his mouth and suckles at the tip. It makes Mark groan loud enough that he’s immeasurably grateful no one else is at the dorm today.

Johnny sucks dick like if he doesn’t give it his all right from the get-go, someone’s going to take said dick away from him. Like Mark could ever. He feels immobilized on the bed, pleasure curling his toes as Johnny sinks further down his cock with every bob of his head. “Hyung,” Mark gasps, trying not to hitch his hips into the feeling. “I’m not gonna—I’m not gonna last.”

Johnny pulls off with a wet pop and grins at Mark like he’s proud of how quickly he’s brought Mark to the edge. He bites a bruise into the inside of Mark’s thigh before dragging himself back up the bed to kiss Mark silly again, even though he knows Mark hates the second-hand dick taste. Mark rolls his eyes but accepts the kisses anyway.

“You good like this or do you want to flip over?” Johnny asks, rutting his hips against Mark’s thigh. Mark groans. “Or do you want to be on top?”

“Like this is fine,” Mark says against Johnny’s cheek. He feels it when Johnny laughs, the vibrations of it shaking through him.

“Should’ve guessed you’d be a pillow princess. Little twink like you? Bet you just want a big strong guy to bend you and have and just fuck you stupid.”

Mark blinks. Johnny’s good at dirty talk but this is—filthy. Mark’s only a little embarrassed by the amount of precome that leaks out of his dick at Johnny’s words.

“I, uh, yeah,” he stutters. “Fuck me, hyung.”

This time, Johnny’s laugh is fond when he pulls back, like he knows exactly what went through Mark’s head 10 seconds ago. He plants a chaste kiss to Mark’s cheek, a moment of reprieve from their roleplaying, before pulling back and reaching for the lube that’s been left on the bedside table for convenience. Mark bought it a month ago and it’s already half empty.

“You know what I thought when I saw your profile?” Johnny asks, slicking up his fingers and nudging Mark’s legs apart. He presses one in easily, letting it sink all the way in without pause, making Mark moan. “I thought, that guy is so cute. You’re the kind of guy everyone wants to take home to their parents because they’ll love you and fawn over you and think you’re the most precious thing in the universe. As soon as I saw you, I knew I wanted to ruin you.”

He punctures this admission with a second finger slipping into Mark, the stretch making itself known. "Oh, fuck," Mark moans, back arching obscenely. He grinds his hips back down, opens his eyes to give Johnny his best sultry look. "What are you waiting for, then?"

The noise that rumbles out of Johnny can only be described as a growl. He slicks up a third finger, presses it into Mark alongside the other two, and doesn't pause before fucking them in harshly. Before, he had been teasing; now he's prepping for the main attraction.

Mark can feel the sweat beading on his skin, how it slides down his temples into his hair, gathers along his upper lip and along the backs of his thighs. He'd never really gotten sweaty during sex before Johnny; never stuck around long enough for it to be strenuous. He'd been quite embarrassed by how he and Johnny had had to toss the sheets in the wash after their first time together; now it's just a minor inconvenience of having hands slip while they're fucking and then having to do laundry after.

Johnny pumps his fingers a couple more times, spreads them wide until Mark's whining at the stretch, feeling almost as full as when Johnny's sunk his cock in him. When he pulls them out, Mark feels the emptiness acutely. He squirms on the sheets in discomfort.

"So impatient, aren't you?" Johnny asks, like he doesn't know that Mark hates the moments of having to adjust to having nothing inside himself anymore. According to the roleplay, he doesn't. "You want my cock that bad?"

Johnny's cock is hard and leaking, jutting out proudly as he kneels above Mark. Mark had been intimidated the first time they'd hooked up; in the grand scheme of things, he hadn't been that experienced and the idea of doing anything with a dick like Johnny's was a little daunting.

Now, Mark loves nothing more than to sink down on Johnny's cock and take him apart with languid rolls of his hips. He's only a little embarrassed to admit how—how slutty he feels.

“Yeah, please, hyung, come on,” Mark gasps, reaching out for Johnny. “I don’t have all day.”

Johnny just laughs, leaning forward easily when Mark beckons him closer. They share a lazy kiss—one at odds with the urgency of their make-believe timeline—before lining himself up with Mark’s hole and pushing in.

“Hnng.” The noise Mark makes as Johnny screws himself deeper is insanely unattractive, but Mark can’t bring himself to care. The sensation of being filled, of the relentless pressure of Johnny’s cock making space for itself inside him, it’s all too good for words. Mark didn’t know sex could be this mind-blowing until he started having it with Johnny.

“Fuck,” Johnny mutters, stilling once he’s fully seated himself. His hair hangs limply away from his face where he’s looming over Mark, matted with sweat. “You’re so fucking tight. Knew you’d feel amazing.”

“You’re big,” Mark comments, because he’s certain that’s something he’d say to a veritable stranger while in the middle of being dicked down. “Oh, shit, yeah. You’re, like. Really big.”

“Too much?” Johnny asks, faux concerned.

Mark shakes his head. “No,” he says breathlessly. He trails his hands up Johnny’s back to tangle in his hair. “I want it so that when I get on that plane to Tokyo tomorrow I have to limp my way through the airport.”

“No problem, sweetheart,” Johnny says, sliding his hips back and punching them forward again.

Beyond the insane pleasure Mark gets out of being fucked by Johnny, he loves the intimacy of it, too. He never thought he would, but he loves the idea being connected to Johnny, of their bodies being physically intertwined. It somehow makes it easier for Mark to let his emotions play out across his face. After wearing different masks and shrugging on the personas of different roles over the years, there’s something incredibly cathartic about being unabashedly himself in bed.

“Fuck, fuck,” Mark whines, voice high and heedy as Johnny’s hips slam into his. “Oh, fuck, just like that, please!”

“Beg for it,” Johnny grunts, as if Mark isn’t doing just that. “Yeah, c’mon, let me hear you.”

Mark’s brain-to-mouth filter is broken at the best of times, and during sex it seems to vacate the premises entirely. “Oh, hyung,” he moans, nails scraping down Johnny’s shoulder blades. “You fuck me so good. Fuck. Fill me up so well, never had someone like you before. Gonna dream about your dick every time I touch myself after.”

Johnny’s laugh is short and breathless. “Yeah?” he asks. “Should I keep sending you dick pics so you can get off to those? Maybe a video?”

Mark whines, too lost in pleasure to form a comprehensive reply.

 

“Maybe get a mould of my dick done and send it to you, so you can take me with you wherever you are in the world.”

It’s not a bad idea. Mark’s always traveling around for promotions without Johnny. He’d love to have a dildo that could fill him as well as Johnny does when they’re not together.

“Fuck, yeah, please,” Mark gasps. “Want you, please. Want you always.”

They’re tipping on the edge of reality and fiction, the roleplay slipping through their fingers, but Mark can’t bring himself to care. He’s so close, pleasure coiling tight in his belly and zipping down his spine like sparks. His spine arches.. “Can I—hyung, can I come?”

Johnny coos at him. “Ooh, such a good boy asking if he can come,” he says, grinding in deep. The pressure against Mark’s prostate has him sobbing. “Did someone teach you to do that? Or are you that clever on your own?”

“Hyung!”

Johnny sits up, hauls Mark’s hips so that they’re on his lap, and wraps a hand around Mark’s cock. He’s so fucking wet. “You might as well have come already,” Johnny grunts. “Look how much you’re leaking. You just couldn’t help yourself, hmm?”

“Feels good,” Mark slurs. His tongue feels so heavy in his mouth, weighed down with the promise of his orgasm. “Want to—want to come, please.”

Johnny rocks his hips, tightens his grip on Mark’s dick. He twists his wrist on the upstroke, thumbs over the slit and applies pressure just below the head. “Okay, baby,” he says. “You can come.”

 

Mark’s never come on command before. He’s pretty sure his body isn’t hard-wired that way, but as soon as Johnny says so—as soon as Johnny gives him permission—Mark comes. His brain whites out, no room for anything else besides the intense pleasure of his orgasm and the knowledge that he’s been good. He can feel his come hit his belly, streak up his chest, can feel the way he clenches tightly around Johnny, tight enough so that Johnny can’t even moves his hips. The sound that comes out of Mark’s mouth can only be described as a wail.

Slowly, awareness seeps back into Mark’s brain. The first thing he notices is how sore he feels from how hard he’d arched his back, how tightly he’d fisted his hands in the sheets. His whole body aches.

The next thing he notices is how Johnny is still inside him.

“Oh,” Mark says, flexing gently around Johnny’s cock. It makes them both moan—Johnny out of desperation, Mark from overstimulation.

“Fuck, you were so hot,” Johnny comments, idly running a hand up Mark’s flank and then across his stomach, fingers playing with the come that’s drying there. Mark’s belly jumps under the touch. “So good for me, coming when I said you could.”

“Hyung,” Mark whimpers. He can’t usually go after he comes, everything too sensitive but—but he wants it, this time. He wants Johnny to come inside him. “Keep—keep going.”

Johnny raises an eyebrow at him. “Yeah?” he asks, cautious.

“Yeah,” Mark sighs.

He feels like a livewire as Johnny starts moving his hips again, like he’s on fire. The sensation is almost too much, too acute, bordering on painful, but Mark wants. His desire to be filled outweighs his nerves. He clenches around Johnny, rocks his hips into each of Johnny’s thrusts, helping where he can.

“Never seen someone come as hard as you,” Johnny gasps, thrusts picking up speed. “Fuck, hottest thing I’d ever seen. You were out of your mind with pleasure, baby.”

“Want that—want that for you, too, hyung,” Mark gasps. He can feel tears leaking out the corners of his eyes, drool gathering at the edge of his mouth. “Fuck, c’mon.”

“Yeah, yeah, okay,” Johnny pants.

Their words taper off after that, the only sound in the room being harsh breathing; airy, high-pitched whines; skin slapping against skin. Mark’s on the edge of tapping out, the pain leaning a little too close to too much when Johnny mutters, “Oh, fuck,” and comes.

If Mark hadn’t just had a mind-blowing orgasm, he thinks he might come again. He loves the feel of Johnny filling him up, making him wet. “Hyung,” he whines. Johnny just laughs, folds himself over Mark like a blanket to give him a kiss.

“Fuck,” Johnny mutters, twitching through the aftershocks, hips thrusting minutely like he can work his come deeper into Mark. “Fuck, that was so good.”

Mark hums, pets his hands down Johnny’s sweaty back. “Yeah,” he agrees. “I really liked it.”

Johnny sits up again, gently pulls his softening dick from Mark’s hole, much to Mark’s protesting. He can already feel Johnny’s come leaking out of it.

“Oh my gosh, come here, you big baby,” Johnny says with a laugh, man-handling Mark onto his side. He spoons up behind him, crooks Mark’s leg so that it’s propped on Johnny’s hip, and slides three fingers back inside Mark. Mark sighs.

“Thanks,” he says, wriggling further back into Johnny’s embrace.

They’re quiet for a couple minutes, just basking in the afterglow, when Johnny asks, “You liked everything? Like, not just the sex, but the roleplaying, too?”

Mark thinks it over, recalls the walk in the park, the getting to know each other. He likes how—normal it had felt, like they could have lived that life in another timeline. “Yeah,” he says, kissing Johnny’s arm where it’s crooked under Mark’s head like a pillow. “I did.”

Johnny hums, the vibrations rumbling through Mark’s back. “I thought it was fun,” he says finally, a little carefully. “I think I liked that it was grounded in reality. I don’t think we’d be good at, like, sexy delivery boy roleplays.”

Mark laughs. They wouldn’t be able to take things seriously, and while he’s certain that they’d end up having sex, the point of the roleplay was the chance to pretend.

“Yeah, I liked this, too, hyung,” Mark says. “We should do it again sometime.”

He stifles a yawn into Johnny’s arm, huffs when Johnny presses a kiss to the back of his neck and says, “Take a nap.”

Mark flexes experimentally around Johnny’s fingers. He’s too sensitive to go again, but he likes the weight of them inside him, likes to be grounded in this way, reassured. Like no matter who they pretend to be, inside or outside the bedroom, Mark has Johnny always.

“You too,” he mumbles, already feeling sleep tugging at him.

Later, they’ll wake up and clean up. They’ll take a shower and Mark will spend a ridiculous amount of time fingering Johnny’s come out of himself while Johnny strips the sheets. They’ll have to air out the room, too. The others will come home and Johnny will stay for dinner and maybe a movie and maybe the night. There’s a lot of possibilities.

Mark entertains them all as he drifts to sleep, lulled by the rise and fall of Johnny’s chest behind him, solid and warm and his.