"The road which leads me to you is safe / even when it runs into oceans."
—Edmond Jabes, The Book of Questions
Saying it meant defeat, but Johnny let Donghyuck get away with winning much too many times to start keeping score now. “Miss you already,” Johnny admitted—just as a foghorn blared, bass-deep and apologetic—on the other end of the line.
“What?” Donghyuck said.
“I used your razor,” Johnny retracted quickly.
“—ohnny—I’m losing you—“
Johnny waited as static thrashed their words around. Driving down the highway with Donghyuck on speaker, he could hear the foam crashing against the ferry’s hull, where Donghyuck seemed to be signal-hunting in the middle of taping, miles away where Jeju Salt Beach sat pretty and accommodating for a summer movie crew. Four months ago, Johnny had been in Donghyuck’s place—also for a summer-themed shoot, minus the prescribed season; he’d spent weeks color-correcting the whole thing whilst subsisting on lukewarm Americanos. This type of rage, he was well-acquainted with. “—ing shitty, I swear to god—excuse me, passing through—don’t freak out if you suddenly—me, okay?”
“Careful not to fall overboard,” Johnny said. “I hear the sharks over there like tiny feisty things the most.”
“—sorry ma’am, excuse me—sorry, Johnny, what?”
“Nothing, baby. How’s the ocean?”
“Salty, cold as fuck. Can’t feel my ears,” Donghyuck griped, but Johnny could pick out the smile in it. “Oh! Is this better?”
“Yeah, I can hear you.”
“Finally! So, next scene, right? We’re filming in this top-secret VIP beach that’s super fucking gorgeous, I swear to God, but I left my coat at the hotel and now I’m suffering.”
“Aw, then come home. Tell Kun you’re dropping out of the movie.”
“Clingy baby,” Donghyuck cooed. “You know I can’t. Plus, my manager says I gotta do this movie or I’ll be doomed before I peak. Right now, I’m too niche. Nobody’ll want me.”
“I’ll always want you.”
“Can you sign me a 20 million deal?”
Donghyuck laughed, delighted. His laugh splintered like a twinkling shell. “And there we have it! Even love has its limits! John, I’m shattered.”
“Forgive me,” Johnny wrenched out, amping the drama in his voice to posit, “Are… we breaking up?”
Donghyuck thought about it. “Nah,” he decided. “Wouldn’t wanna waste all that… potential.”
The way he said it—the last vowel devolving into a breathy puff, edged into moan; Johnny nearly missed his turn. Even miles away, Donghyuck was devastating him. “Lee Haechan—don’t you flirt with me while I’m driving. And when I pop a boner, then what?”
“Then ask Mark-hyung to take care of it, duh.”
Johnny tried not to splutter. Somewhere, a seagull cried.
“Seriously?” Donghyuck said, at Johnny’s extended stupor. “We’re still being like this? Hyung. It’s Mark.”
“And maybe stop treating him like the Virgin Mary? We talked about this. You’re tiptoeing around him and it’s not cute anymore.”
“My dick, I take care of it.”
Johnny pulled on the gearshift. “I said, my dick—“
“No, I heard you the first time,“ Dongyuck assured him. “Last time I checked, dating someone meant that sex was on the table, if both partners wanted it, like—? C’mon, now. Not even the boring stuff? Handjobs, at least. No? That thing where you hold your partner’s dick, give it a little tuggy-tug—“
“Stop talking,” Johnny said, because his steering was growing increasingly uncoordinated; he could see, in his mind’s eye, Donghyuck mimicking the motion, and some poor, production assistant onboard had probably seen it too. “I just—don’t see the point in rushing things, alright?”
“Wow, this is no longer cute. I repeat: this is no longer cute,” Donghyuck said, sounding deeply perturbed. “This is just sad. We’re in the sad lands now. Johnny, you’ve been dating for what—four months now? Going on five? And you guys just…? Wanna wait? Couldn’t be me!”
This whole thing was entirely unfair, Johnny thought, because there had been a handjob involved. 1 (one) handjob to be specific—aborted halfway—though the beginning had been pleasant enough; Mark wide-eyed beneath him, flushed from wine and something reckless, waiting to receive it with the accrued tension of someone awaiting the start of a drop tower ride. Which was to say: at the moment of contact, Mark’s elbow had flailed out and sledgehammered their lamp to the floor, sending it crashing to pieces, taking with it Johnny's withering resolve and both their libidos.
And Johnny liked that lamp. Mark’s mother got it for him as a house-warming gift when they first moved in together. It had sunflowers sewn into the linen lampshade.
“It wouldn’t be too out there, you know. What if—” Johnny began, as traffic began to pile ahead of him, “what if I’m not…” and, impatient, Donghyuck said, “Not…?” and Johnny relented, said, “His type?” then felt like crashing his car into the bend right after.
There was an awful pause. Then Donghyuck was barking out a braying laugh that Johnny let on for more than it should have, but then Donghyuck was saying, “Oh my god. This is—you know what? You’ll figure it out.” And then he laughed some more. “Oh, everything hurts. Johnny, if you really wanted to, you could change your life, you know? You’ve done it before. Talk to me again when you have better news. Holy shit.”
“Fine,” Johnny said, “Fine!” letting his pride shutter against Donghyuck’s blatant amusement. Change your life; easy for you to say, he thought, fuming. Donghyuck was in the business of it. That was what he—and Mark—had always been good at: creating something out of nothing, music out of hushed rooms. Johnny wasn’t that kind of artist, though he’d dreamed of it; at the very least, he needed some raw material to work with, something tangible; a sign.
Back then, he’d thought Mark’s tight, flushed body had been saying yes—all of it curving towards him, nodding, please—until the last second, the body closing off, like when you realize halfway through a meal you don’t want it anymore.
Mark liked him, alright. Maybe just not the same brand of desperate.
“Does he ever talk about me,” Johnny blurted, because Donghyuck was a menace but, when it came to it, the person he trusted most to tell the truth. “Just, you know, if it ever came up—just out of curiosity, when you guys—“
“Hyuck? You with me?”
“—think you’re—arting to cut off again—“
“Can you hear me—“ and when he blinked the line plunged into one long, static note. Miles away, Donghyuck’s ship reached its port, and Johnny sat and stared at the tail lights commanding him to wait.
Fortunately, Johnny was much too good at that.
The Venn Diagram
Johnny had been in debate clubs, weathered some of the most uncomfortable, blood-roiling conversations with his own family about religion and the book of Leviticus, but nothing could’ve prepared him for the specific brand of excruciating honesty he’d had to find for The Talk.
Nothing life-threatening—though he kept it for survival, like a Swiss knife in his back pocket, ready for whatever shitty thought his brain threw his way, and there were plenty of those these days. It’s okay if you feel ugly things, he could still hear Donghyuck saying; the room steeped with waiting, just him and the two boys who’d meant the world. That’s just the principle of the thing, I guess. But you tell us. Promise me. And we’ll do the same—won’t we, Mark?
Mark reached for his hand, then squeezed it. Smiled a smile straight from a memory, the one with too much teeth and cheekbones. No secrets. He’d nodded, and that had been it. The grand compromise. And so their lives went on: a grand meandering that kept spiralling back for curious little detours but mostly pitched forward. And Johnny liked detours, but this one—this one not so much.
He supposed purgatory was a close word.
When they finally managed to wrangle the four of them into some mappable coherency, the Venn diagram looked a little like this: weekends were for Donghyuck and Johnny, while Mark crashed at Yuta’s place on gig nights, for convenience. Afternoons of Monday through Wednesday, Johnny was Donghyuck’s, too—“You’ve had him for ten years, Mark, somebody has to even the playing field.”—but on Thursday to Fridays—and whatever slice of time there was left to pocket—Mark was Johnny’s.
(They were all each other’s though, in ways Johnny wasn’t ready to grapple with yet. Because Johnny was an Aquarius, unfortunately, and he appreciated equidistance, neatness, fit. And this possessed none of those.)
He was thinking about it again. The Talk, that is. Existing in the same space as tangential as your boyfriend’s not-boyfriend’s apartment tended to provide the same effect of losing your mind, little by little, like when water dripped on the same rock long enough it hollowed it out. What he’d give to reset his first memory of Yuta’s place. Sitting on his long, threadbare couch, the memory of Mark’s ashen face and that IV drip in his arm brought him back into that paper-thin moment.
He found relief in the new section of the wall opposite him that Yuta had devoted to little trinkets from his life: decorative vinyls, a few pictures of the band—Jungwoo, Jaehyun, Taeil. Half of the whorled shell. A poster of some Everland mascot. Mark’s first EP, which was hung up as a sort of centerpiece, the cover art painted by Yuta himself. Mark had told Johnny all about Yuta’s origin story; how he’d come to Korea with nothing but his own name, that he understood more than any of them how family was something you built with your own hands. But there were pictures of Mark everywhere. Each one a window to some wispy memory that passed him by: Mark blowing on a harmonica. Holding two cones of ice cream in each hand. Mark, taking shots, glitter in his hair, lip-stains high on his cheek. Where? Johnny couldn’t answer. Maybe Mad Dog. Maybe some secret alternate universe only Yuta and Mark were privy to. Maybe Johnny had lived it; he just forgot.
That was a lie; Johnny never forgot. Something strange and oceanic tossed inside him, and when the feeling pulled him out further than he could go, Johnny hastily pulled out his phone, then began to type.
Eventually, Yuta emerged from his room. His hair was damp, a fading red, and when Johnny realized he was wearing Mark’s trademark white shirt, he felt his face move in a smile. It felt true.
Johnny pocketed his phone and stood up. “You ready?”
“Born ready, baby,” Yuta said, fastening on his third earring. He shook the last few drops from his hair. “Can’t believe I’m going on a date with the Johnny Suh.”
“Telling you now—whatever expectations you have, keep them low please,” Johnny laughed lightly, holding the door open. “I need to talk to you about, uh—lamps. It’s a lamp-shopping date. Nothing fancy.”
Yuta shrugged and led them out. “As long as you’re paying, you can call it whatever you want.”
Because Mark was branching out of his regular haunts, Johnny realized he’d be bumping into Yuta’s band more often without Mark’s presence to bridge the conversation. “He’ll only bite if you let your guard down,” was Mark’s cryptic way of assuaging Johnny’s initial anxiety about having to spend more time with him. It wasn’t Yuta himself he was worried about; Yuta was cool, was great, was Mark’s honorary bandmate slash nebulous significant person who looked good in the tank tops he’d picked strategically to draw the eye to the arms, those fine specimens. No; it was just that Johnny did well with people when he deemed their opinion mattered little. Just a life skill he’d picked up to survive the media industry. Unfortunately for him, Yuta’s opinion mattered. Enormously. Because he was Mark’s person—and therefore, Johnny’s too.
Fortunately, Johnny survived the first car ride together to the mall. He’d made a dismally unfunny joke about Yuta’s song choices after plugging his smartphone into the car’s stereo. Yuta stared at him dead in the eye, before throwing his head back and shrieking this scratchy little laugh, and after that Yuta began hanging off of him like they knew each other for years, the same way Donghyuck had, when they first met. Finally: territory he was used to.
They entered a cafe as a warm-up for the day. By the time they drained their coffee, Johnny had learned three important things about Yuta:
- He liked his coffee black, no nonsense, just like Johnny did. Absolutely piping hot or none at all.
- The first tattoo Yuta got was a gift from his first boyfriend in Osaka. Yuta, 19. Him, 26. A bad, Bad break-up. He wished the guy hell, but wouldn’t have the tattoo erased, these bird wings on the back of his delicate heels. “Sure, he gave it to me. But that was in the past. There’s nothing of me now that he owns.” He pulled up his sock and grinned. “This is all mine now.”
- Speaking of Japan, Yuta hadn’t seen home in five years. He didn’t plan to, either; at this point a visit was long overdue, and he wasn’t about to look back. But like all old ghosts, they were all crawling out, begging to be remembered:
Johnny watched Yuta ignore his blinking phone approximately four times before he let himself ask, “Are you picking that up?” to which Yuta chirped back, “Nope,” and took a sip from his cup. It was empty. Yuta looked at the cup’s bottom, slammed it down, and took his phone from the table so he could shove it deep into the recesses of his sling bag, where it buzzed feebly.
It was too late for Johnny to fake nonchalance. He’d seen the way Yuta’s face moved and his shoulders tensed. He wished he’d taken his Japanese lessons seriously, if only to decipher the characters on the caller ID. Sensing Johnny’s stare, Yuta sighed, said: “It’s complicated.”
Johnny shrugged. Complicated didn’t faze him, not anymore. “Shoot.”
“You want the long version, or the short one?”
Yuta’s bag was still buzzing. His face tightened minutely. “Mark probably already told you I left Japan to do music. Not music-music—not like Mark—you get what I mean, right? What you probably don’t know is that when I left, I also left the family business—and no, I’m not the mafia—“
“I wasn’t gonna—“
“—anyway, my dad was never going to let me pursue anything else. So, I left. That’s pretty much it.” Yuta thumbed at a faded blister on his left palm. “The only reason I’m still alive as we speak is because the old man thinks I’m working for some big tech company run by a white guy named Robert. Yeah—he doesn’t like Koreans much. If he realizes I left to do music, he’ll go nuts. I mean it. I’m the eldest, which means my life is practically a walking billboard for the folks back home.” Yuta pulled on his edges of mouth as if he had whiskers. “Dishonor on you, dishonor on your cow—“
“Shit, sounds intense,” Johnny agreed, eyes wide. When the ringing finally ceased, Yuta released a breath and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Around this time each year they—my siblings—they try to convince me to go back. For my dad’s birthday. And I never have, never will, because once I take a step in that airport I know I’ll never be able to leave. My mom already left once, you know; my dad won’t let it happen again.” He was pressing savagely into the blister until he realized what he was doing, and froze. “Don’t get me wrong—I love them. They’re still family, you know? Doesn’t mean I have to destroy myself for their idea of me though.” When he looked up there was a bright look in his eye; Johnny imagined a younger Yuta, peering out the airplane window as a strange dark ocean churned beneath him; and him looking ahead, towards a better elsewhere. Yuta made a sheepish sound. “Sorry, too heavy?”
“Not at all,” Johnny said, and was surprised to hear it was the truth. “I like knowing these things about you.”
“You’re a great listener,” Yuta told him, with a genuine seriousness that rendered Johnny quip-less. “Oookay, that’s enough of me. What’s going on with you? I’m all ears.”
Johnny’s mind flew to the awful string of words he called his thoughts in his Notes app, and immediately kicked that thought back into the gutter. Something domestic was a good start—the upcoming product shoot he had slated in Gangnam next Thursday, or episode seven of It’s Okay To Not Be Okay—until Yuta scratched his cheek, blurted, “You haven’t popped his cherry yet, have you?”
He counted himself lucky that he hadn’t been drinking his coffee. And here he thought Donghyuck had zero finesse. Johnny thumped his chest, choked out, “What—you—“
Yuta cupped his chin with both hands and grinned. “I’ll divulge my source if you answer me,.”
“What did Hyuck tell you?”
“Who said it was Hyuck? What if I tell you it was Mark? That he’s been more—“ Yuta sought for words, “—desperate? More than usual?” Johnny was well-aware of the expression he was making. This was a new development. The talking-about-the-sex bit. Anytime now, the sharp jolt of jealousy would come, but Johnny was surprised to find none. Only the slow-bloom of intrigue. They were hunching towards each other, as if to keep their voices from escaping the bubble between them. Yuta confessed: “I think he broke my dick yesterday. Take some fucking responsibility, man.”
Cross intrigue. Johnny was going insane. In public, where Yuta had him pinned down like a butterfly, right where he wanted him. “Can I, uh, be honest?” Johnny said, and Yuta grinned at him, saying, “Johnny-boy, I accept nothing less.” Johnny swallowed. “Every time he’s near me I feel like—I’m gonna do something—I don’t know.” Their knees almost touched under the table. “It’s just—it’s a lot. I don’t know, man.”
“Whoa there, Edward Cullen,” Yuta said, and a laugh was punched out of Johnny. “It’s not that serious.”
“It is though,” Johnny said, suddenly sure of it. “For me. And maybe for Mark? We were raised to be prudes, okay, that’s just how we’re wired, haven’t you read the manual? I touch him and I feel like God’s gonna smite me where I stand, I don’t know… maybe it isn’t that serious. Maybe… I’m just doing things wrong?” A sheepish stutter fell out of him. “I don’t want to pry but, when you—when you—“
“Johnny, seriously—unclench. There you go. If you wanna know, um—I can just teach you?” Yuta said dangerously, like he hadn’t just suggested something with the potential of upending the cosmic balance. “Seriously, Mark’s not complicated. You guys are like—you know that Tiktok? The one where they kiss their best friend of nine years and see their reaction. That’s you guys—” Yuta tipped his empty cup towards Johnny, “—but it’s never ending. You’re just living that moment. It’s like purgatory. You’re in awkward best friend purgatory, right now.”
“It’s Mark,” Johnny explained with deep misery, which was both everything and nothing all at once. “Every time I kiss him, I think about how his fucking parents saw me through my scene phase.”
“You were a scene kid?”
“Don’t change the subject—and I was fourteen.”
“Johnny, Johnny, Johnny,” Yuta called, emboldened by all the information he’d received today, like a parasitic plant running its feeders up his shoulders; he looked absolutely alive. “Would it really be weird if I taught you a thing or two? You’re already dating two boys.”
With perfect timing, Johnny's phone lit up under his forearm.
“Speak of the devil, Chihiro just messaged,” Yuta said happily, even though Johnny could read it perfectly himself. “Do you guys sext?”
Johnny thumped his chest. “W-why do you call him Chihiro?”
Yuta tilted his head. “Because he’s always in places he shouldn’t be.”
That sounded like Mark. “I always thought it was because he was tiny. And cute.” Johnny moved to pocket his phone but Yuta stilled his wrist to steal it.
“Well, that too. It’s even cuter when he’s mad,” Yuta assured him, frowning down at the message—hyung we’re out of shampoo!!—and continued, “The thing with Markie, see—he doesn’t bend easy. What we’ll need is a slow, controlled burn.” The gears were churning in his head, compounding scenarios Johnny wasn’t privy to; before he could ask, Yuta dragged Johnny close, pulling him by the shoulders, then swiped his phone camera on. Posing, he said, “Let’s make Markie jealous, yeah?”
Johnny hadn’t seen Eunhee in ages. They still messaged—prudently, of course—because one thing he’d prided himself in was an ability to keep friendly with ex partners, though Eunhee wasn’t any other ex. She was Chicago-raised, just like him, plenty tall and possessed a notorious laugh that reminded him of Mark’s, like the intent was to broadcast the sound to the moon’s surface, and then some.
They’d been scouring the shelves for lamps when the voice arrived. “Johnny?” and there she was, straight out of a daydream.
“Eunhee? Holy shit,” Johnny said. Yuta paused inches from licking a pink salt lamp to stare. Johnny was already walking past him to receive her hug. “It’s been—“
“Way too fucking long,” she continued for him, smile wide and radiant; the feel of her bare shoulder under his palm left him reeling, muscle memory, and before he could help it he was laugh-blurting—
“Goddess, how are you?” he’d asked, and she punched his shoulder, cussing him out; she had a mouth on her that Johnny once both feared and admired. “How’s law school?”
“A very expensive mistake. But it’ll make me filthy rich one day, so I can’t complain.” She nodded at Yuta as he smiled politely, passing them by to filter through other lamps, maybe eavesdrop if it called for it. Her eyes gleamed as she looked Johnny up and down. “Goddess, huh? Haven’t heard that one in a long time. You’re taking care of yourself.”
It wasn’t a question. Warmth flooded his stomach. “Yeah,” Johnny nodded. “Yeah, I think I’ve sorted things out. Well—most of it.”
“Good. Good.” She nodded slowly, smiling. “And is that the—?”
Johnny followed the direction of her hooded gaze and flailed. “Yuta—oh no, he’s not—we’ll he’s the boyfriend of—“ a stilted laugh fell out of him. “The boyfriend is not here, so don’t ask.” He paused. “Well, the other one isn’t—“
“The other one?”
Sensing the change, Eunhee waved it off, unperturbed. “Our perfect Johnny Suh, always full of surprises,” she said, clicking her tongue like it was a miracle to take him in. She squeezed his arm, and the citrus notes of her perfume curled around him. And then she stepped back. “It was great to see you again, John. I love your work. Keep giving them a run for their money, hear me?”
Johnny kept grinning and waving until she walked out of sight. Her perfume was still scattered in the air when Yuta popped back in, grabbed him by the lapels, and more or less demanded, “Goddess?”
“It’s an inside joke. Down, boy,” Johnny assured him, knowing full well that this was just Yuta’s protective streak rearing its head; knowing, too, that he’d do the same, had their situation been reversed. It felt reassuring. There was no one else he trusted more than Yuta in this moment, but how could he ever begin to explain? That once upon a time, when his body wasn’t his yet, it wasn’t God or Buddha but a girl named Eunhee who first asked him what he’d wanted. And when he told her he maybe-sorta-kinda was into guys, the same way he was into girls, and that it was dismantling his sense of self, she’d simply kissed his cheek, lifted his chin and said, let me? And he’d let her, and what a beautiful thing that was—to surrender; to give your body up and know it would be returned to shore; she’d pushed his head down into the bed, traced the arc of his back with her mouth, then touched all the parts of himself he was too afraid to touch, the sharp smell of them ripe in the air. He’d kept giving himself up, pushing back into her strap—pink like a body’s secret—wave after wave, and she kept taking it, holding all of him together, even after he’d spilled Mark’s name into her sheets, surprising them both, and after that the world looked different. How Mark looked different, in his eyes—how he’d grown overnight, much clearly now, into the shape of desire. Johnny wanted to bite down. Johnny wanted that sweetness to flood the mouth.
Yuta was still waiting. Johnny relinquished: “It’s just—that thing you did for Mark? She did for me. A long, long time ago.”
As the words sank, Yuta hummed, abated for now. He’d ask questions later, and Johnny was ready—but for now, he dragged Yuta into the aisle and asked, “Okay, so—vintage or modern? I’m quite partial to linen lampshades.”
The scar wasn’t so much Mark’s as it was Johnny’s too, with the way he knew it by heart, its shape, the feel of it under his fingertips. In the light, it was a fading starburst of pale skin, the size of a coin. In the dark, he’d dragged Mark’s bangs back to feel it, under the pretence of studying Mark’s weird head shape—it wasn’t weird, just larger than most, and he probably should’ve stop teasing him about because Mark had grown insecure for real; and even years later, Johnny never really stopped looking at it. It taught him much about life, radicalized him, maybe—their bumpy little scar, a reminder where they came from.
Perfect Johnny Suh, Eunhee had called him; he hadn’t heard that one in a while, too. He’d thought he’d marooned that part of himself in his upstairs bedroom back in Chicago, but turned out it had followed him all the way here, climbing the rungs of history. Even then, he wasn’t so much perfect as he was perfectly obedient—he’d tended to his life to fit his parents’ vision of the model, un-rowdy Asian boy, and he enjoyed it, for a while. God graced him with the height for it; a sharp boyish face, an acceptable build, and a smile that promised your mother things were under control.
He’d never received the same vitriol the other Asian kids on his block did. Unlike Mark. Those square, blocky spectacles and pudgy cheeks and fingers were an open invitation. Mark didn’t get the girls. Johnny did. Johnny got them all—even if they were white, and better if they were, because it felt like he’d proven somebody wrong, walking through the park with a pretty white girl around his elbow. Like he had permission to be here.
And then of course: the afternoon Mark trip-walked into the cul-de-sac, his collar red, staining the movie-perfect mirage he’d sleep-walked through, red like the rush of his own odd anger, flooding his mouth, hardening all his soft, cutting his knuckles on it.
He’d been chasing it since arriving in Korea. The season of bowing his back. A permission to dissent. And what a privilege it was, to be reminded again and again, when he’d needed it most: Eunhee, who saw him first, and later, Donghyuck, who pushed his spine down to the mattress, told him, I like it when you break, love, and broke him, so so beautifully, reached down and pulled him out, gasping for breath, like a man coming out of a mine.
Johnny was still buzzing when he arrived home after his not-date with Yuta. His guts felt swapped with a can of soda, shaken vigorously, and he wanted Mark. Wanted Mark now.
Mark was sitting on the edge of his bed when Johnny opened the bedroom door. Sheet music was scattered on the bed—lyrics to a coffee brand jingle Mark was working on, his first ever client. The full acoustics rung around them, full and sweet. It was the music that hit him first—then the sight of Mark’s bare torso, the hint of wispy black hair under his armpits. Johnny’s pulse jumped. He walked around the bed, eyes tracing the bump of his Mark’s spine, how his knee jogged up and down. Mark still hadn’t noticed him; the cord of his earphones trailed down his hip where it tangled with the rest of it.
When Johnny was close enough, he crawled close behind him, the bed barely dipping because Mark liked to sleep on a slab of discomfort—and pressed a soft kiss into Mark’s exposed nape.
Three things, all at once: Mark clammed up, swivelled around, and slammed the head of his guitar right into Johnny’s face.
Mark ripped his earphones off and hollered, “Sweet Jesus Christ, fuck—hyung.”
The ceiling blurred as Johnny’s eyes watered fast. The buzz was gone now, replaced by the pulsing phantom pain of a tuning key stabbing his eyeball out. “Mark,” Johnny groaned, cupping his eye, “Jesus, it’s just me.”
“Dude, shit! Are you alright?” Mark’s head blotted out the ceiling as he went to straddle him, anxious hands flying over his face, pulling Johnny’s hands away; idly, a small part of his brain registered the pleasant thickness of Mark’s thighs, warm and plush against his hips. And then his whole face throbbed like a fucker.
“Tell me I still have two eyes,” Johnny moaned; Mark kept peering worriedly into his face, kept pressing down, warm, warm, warm. “Well? You can tell me the truth.”
Mark tilted his jaw to the side. “Don’t be a baby.”
“Cruel to call me baby after that.”
“Dude, you're fine—but you may or may not have a black eye tomorrow,” Mark admitted in a rush. He thumbed the soft swell of skin under Johnny’s eye and smiled sheepishly, swatting his chest. “Don’t ever do that again!”
“What? Kiss you?”
“Come up behind me like that! Seriously. C’mon—” Flushing, Mark rolled over so he could pull Johnny out of bed and into the bright light of the kitchen, where the pain doubled impossibly. Mark worried his lip and looked at him. “I’m, uh, gonna ice that.”
The early evening found them both in bed. Johnny was holding a frozen pack of tteokbokki to his right eye, while they watched Netflix on his laptop and Mark giggled apologies each time Johnny hissed, because even laughing hurt. All things considering, it was still a great day. Friday was always intrinsically good in itself, and there was a tub of ice cream between them, tteokbokki (once melted by Johnny’s body heat), and a whole Mark Lee by his side. Still, a sour mood slunk into his system, like a sugary drink gone bad.
Only one way to exorcise it, then. Out loud, Johnny said, “Can I kiss you?”
He didn’t understand why he was bracing for it. Mark’s eyes traveled from the screen to Johnny's hand circling Mark’s knee, which had poked out the covers. To his immediate relief, Mark nodded. “Yeah, sure.”
The tteokbokki pack slid to the floor as Johnny’s drew their mouths together; he felt Mark shiver through the kiss, and he shut his eyes, wanting to chase the cold cloying bite of pistachio in Mark’s mouth. It felt good, kissing Mark. The kind of good just on the border of maddening. Soon, all of Johnny’s available brain power was dedicated to studying the slow measured pulls of Mark’s breaths, the shape of his brown nipples in the dark. Johnny pulled away just to look at them in awe—so pert and perfect, and Johnny hadn’t even touched them yet. He swept his thumb across it, and Mark made a sound like guh? while snapping to grab his wrist—which Johnny took as an opportune moment to lean in and suck on his tongue.
Vaguely, he realized he’d never kissed Mark like this before. Loving Mark had been handwritten notes on the fridge, unspoken trust, and an arm thrown haphazardly over a shoulder and staying there, even when the heat of their bodies made for clammy sweat. Kisses, sure—for hellos, goodbyes, see you later and be careful! Never like this. Like the awful, primal desire to eat something whole. Mark’s nipple pebbled. Oh, Johnny thought: oh. Their heartbeats thrashed. Johnny’s mouth moved down his mouth to lave at his neck, so he could taste the heat there himself. When he felt Mark’s cock swell against his hip, it was over; Johnny’s own felt heavy. Mark could probably feel its weight, with the way his legs fell open to accommodate Johnny’s hips, and Johnny wanted him so badly Mark had to know; every part of him was crying out.
“Mark.” Johnny sounded gutted already. Mark’s mouth fell open, panting. “Mark, I—“ Johnny rolled his hips forward, and then Mark went still, and then Johnny went still—and then Mark was laughing.
“Yo, alright,” Mark announced loudly, swatting his arm like Johnny had just performed a little party trick and thought it was pretty neat. “Dude, I really wanna finish Greed Island tonight. I need to know what happens! I won’t be able to sleep.”
“Right,” Johnny said eventually, as Mark squirrelled out from under him, shaking his head like he just came from a shower. When he turned around his nipples were still hard and Johnny was trying his damnedest to slog his body to the present; it was still stuck five minutes ago, when Mark was pressed against him so perfectly, swelling and thrumming with something.
The bed dipped next to him. Mark had pulled on a shirt. Pillows were piled on his lap. He looked at Johnny, said, “You good?”
“Perfect,” Johnny heard himself say. They burned through eight episodes, watched Gon and Killua play some devastating dodgeball, and Johnny’s dick learned to call it a day. Right before they fell asleep, Mark turned over and touched the side of Johnny’s eye. Johnny startled. “Hey,” Mark whispered into the dark, “sorry about earlier.”
Johnny wanted to ask: which part? Instead, he said, “No biggie, dude.”
Mark looked at his face. He bit his lip. “G’night, hyung.”
In Mark’s quietest voice, he heard: “Love you.”
This part was easy, even though he knew how Mark warred with the words. Johnny dragged the comforter up to Mark’s ears and covered Mark’s hand with his own. “Love you,” he said, and waited for Mark’s breath to even out, losing at his own game, and falling into a fretful dream.
Love, love love, love, love. Of course Johnny loved Mark. Rain fell into the sea became steam rose into fractal clouds fell again, and Johnny loved Mark Lee. There was a list somewhere: how he always had a snack in his back pocket. How his presence grounded him. How Johnny’s own mother loved him, considered him the favorite (though he was never going to tell Donghyuck this; his ego wouldn’t survive the hit). How this list was a poor metaphor, because. Because. It was Mark; there was nothing else he could have possibly needed.
But still—Johnny wanted. Yearned. Chased that rabbit all the way down: how, maybe, it might feel to salt Mark’s spine. Or let Mark salt his! Honestly? Johnny wasn’t picky. He just wanted Mark (wanted, want, wanting) in all the ways he was allowed. Preferably in bed, where he could show him exactly how that love could look like.
Bodies at rest tended to stay at rest, Johnny knew this. Even now, kissing Mark still gave him brain-melt, the wetware of his body screeching: PARSING ERROR, DOES NOT COMPUTE. So many years tiptoeing around the neon Do Not Touch sign floating atop each other’s heads, because boys like them weren’t supposed to make it. Boys like them were taught to bury that seed and never look back. Even when it began to sprout. Roots into branches into leaves, possibly. Possibly—the thumping, bass-boosted heartbeat of it all; surely Mark had to hear it. Right?
Honestly? Johnny felt terrified. Maybe Mark made a mistake? Maybe Mark just liked rockstar catboys with nice arms and luminous grins. Maybe he needed a mullet. Holding on to this flailing live-wire was numbing—all this potential energy, with nowhere to go.
😈 [10:01 PM] Yuta-san, do you wanna hear a sad story
👹 [10:02 PM] 📎 😈 sent a voice attachment.
👹 [10:06 PM] I resent this
👹 [10:07 PM] But you know i’m not surprised. You know how they get
😈 [10:08 PM] close and personal, unfortunately. i think…. it’s time?
👹 [10:08 PM] HEHEHEHE
😈 [10:09 PM] you think they’ll hate us?
👹 [10:20 PM] Are you kidding? We are saving lives. Relationships, my dear dongsaeng
😈 [10:22 PM] god i love your brain <3 wanna game
👹 [10:23 PM] I’ll be on in ten 😘
📩 1 new message - just now
Johnny spent a whole minute trying to uncover the identity behind Bestie until he remembered, Right; Yuta. He looked away once and now he was paying the price. As for the message itself, it was wonderfully cryptic and on-brand:
Bestie [11:41 AM] What a wonderful day to stoke some fires
Johnny replied: ……..this sounds like a threat
Bestie [11:45 AM] Not a threat. A promise ;)
“What is happening,” Johnny said, out loud. He managed to ignore Yuta after that, until twenty minutes later, his phone pinged while he had a pot boiling for spaghetti, and then he couldn’t anymore.
Bestie [12:34 PM] Hit it from the back in one of these
Bestie [12:34 PM] 📎 Photo Attachment
Yuta had sent him a bathroom mirror selfie; his trademark pierced ear covered half the screen as he pressed an almost-kiss into the glass, his eyes glazed over and capturing Johnny right where he stood, barefoot in his kitchen, and puzzled, Johnny typed back: ?????
He could hear the exasperation in Yuta’s voice when he responded: he likes mirrors? get it?
Johnny stared at the words long enough and felt, at a molecular level, a deep disturbance, both fission and fissure accumulating stress into one point between his eyes—until a high-pitched bell from his timer signalled his spaghetti was ready, and he cursed, “Fuck,” and took the pan off heat, only to return to Yuta’s message to stare at it again, so it could change his life some more. “Fuck,” he repeated, as he ate and found the pasta mushy and gross. Too late to salvage it now. He mourned his dinner and the innocence of his evening thirty minutes ago, before he possessed the knowledge that his boyfriend was a kinky little shit who liked seeing himself in action.
Belatedly, his brain reminded him of the full-length mirror they had in the hallway.
do you want me dead? Johnny texted back, and then added, i hate you, chewing his sad pasta angrily—angry, because he only half-meant it. Because he was thinking of it now. Mirrors. Who would’ve thought.
Donghyuck’s approach was far more subtle, but no less effective. The trick, he explained to Yuta, was to get underneath Johnny’s skin without him realizing it was over. A hit and run.
The day Donghyuck arrived back from Jeju, he took a taxi to Johnny’s apartment for dinner, smelling like salt and airport ventilation, bearing black shopping bags filled with finely wrapped gifts in both arms—leftover branded products from all his shoots, he explained, and Mark would be doing him an immense favor by taking them off his hands, they were the same size anyway, so would he, pretty please?
Mark looked at the bags warily. “I mean, if you were just going to throw them out… ”
“Definitely would. You’re saving the planet here, Lee.”
“Well, I mean, why not. Thanks for thinking of me, man,” Mark said, clutching the bags to his chest with a smile, and Donghyuck patted his cheek, said, “‘Course, baby,” and thought: you poor thing; you’re gonna get eaten alive.
The trick, to be specific, was weaponizing his knowledge of his own boyfriend and turning it against him; how he’d worn Jimmy Choo Man Intense long enough during the times spent making out in his tinted van that the effect on Johnny was Pavlovian; how he liked it when they got messy, Donghyuck smearing his Givenchy lip tint all over his jaw, for all the world to see; how Johnny was, underneath the stubborn facade of perfection, just another man who went weak at the sight of classic black Calvin Kleins on a V-cut—a weakness he exploited voraciously.
And now Mark could exploit it too.
Mark was probably the only one who could pull off the briefs better than Donghyuck could; all that cake had to go somewhere. Donghyuck had stuffed four of those in the bag, doubling the chances of Mark walking around their apartment in those tight little things that cupped all that pert potential—a perfect frame for the perfect picture—and for all his work Johnny really should be thanking him once he finally caved and cannon-balled into that glittering pool of kismet, like Donghyuck knew he would, with time; Donghyuck knew everything about Johnny.
Mark whistled. “Dang. Taipei.”
“Yep,” Johnny said. “I didn’t think I’d be flying out again so soon, but such is the cost of success, am I right?”
From the bed, Mark scoffed, laying on his belly and watching Johnny fold his boxers into small, neat squares on the floor. The flight wasn’t in two days, but Johnny liked to be prepared. The open suitcase was almost complete.
Stalling, Mark said, “Gonna get inked again?”
Johnny looked at where Mark pointed and a private smile lifted the edge of his mouth. Johnny always returned from different places with new ink and a newer demeanour, like he’d absorbed all the shiny parts of a new country from osmosis and had no choice but to etch it on his body. Mark loved that about him; that he saw the best in things. That he refused to forget. “You betcha,” Johnny said.
Mark rolled over so he was staring at him upside down. “Bet you’ll get something pretentious though, like a four leaf clover. Or, or, or—three dots that are supposed to resemble, I don’t know. Life.”
“Or worse,” Johnny said slowly, “what if I get a flower.”
“Please don’t get another flower,” Mark begged, though he loved Johnny’s little plant on his forearm, traced the leaves when Johnny slept and wondered how ivy would look, crawling down the rest of him. “Dude, aren’t tattoos supposed to mean something deep? I get that you’re gay and all but please don’t. One day you’ll get both sleeves done and then your legs, and then your ass, and what am I gonna do?”
“Thinking about me naked, Mark Lee? You’re gonna make me shy.”
“Dude, shut up.”
“Markie-Mark, life would be so dull without pretensions; why’d you think I became a photographer?” Johnny shot him a grin; even upside down, Johnny’s handsomeness was jarring. “Also, you can think about me all you want, you know. Feel free.”
“Hyuck is great. You, on the other hand, are changing the subject.”
Mark laughed but didn’t breach it. “I want a shirt when you come back. Oh! And an uke! You know those super pretty hand-carved ones? It’s only fair. I saw the zeroes on your bank account.”
“You make enough money on your own. Hey—“Johnny stood up, “when you get signed—“
“If I get signed,” Mark corrected, blushing already, “we’re still ironing out the details—“
“When you get signed,” Johnny repeated, “Mr. Modest, should I remind you that you just scored a songwriting gig? When you get signed—“ he reached down to attack Mark’s exposed stomach, and Mark clamped up like a starfish, shrieking—“you’ll have way too much money, and way too little time for me, and then you’ll go around on a real tour and everything, and where’s that going to leave us?” Mark looked at him for a beat too long before Johnny laughed at the tightness on his face, said, “I’m joking—dude, what—“
“Sorry,” Mark giggled, pushing to sit up and warily guard his stomach, “Just got these… crazy thoughts for a sec. You know I’m proud of you, right?” Johnny nodded, swallowing. “I’m so proud of you. Like, I can’t even begin to explain it—that the world can see you like I do.”
“Mark,” Johnny tried.
“Things keep changing so fast, though, and sometimes—sometimes, I worry I can’t catch up? Is that weird? Scares me a little, is all.” Mark scratched the side of his nose. The bed dipped. When he turned, Johnny was watching him, his face soft and open, and it granted the words permission to tumble out: “I love watching you shine—love that I get to, you know, share you with everyone else—but sometimes—sometimes I just want to keep you all to myself.” Mark tortured the skin on his own elbow. In his quietest voice, he said, “Sometimes you fly off and I think—he’ll never come back—“
“You’re so stupid,” Johnny said, without heat. “I’ll always come back to you. Not to mention, I am quite literally obligated to keep paying our lease for the next seven months, so.” Johnny reached out to tug his ear. “You’re stuck with me, loser.”
Mark laughed, shoving his hand off. “Dude, I told you. Crazy thoughts. Your flight’s at 9, right? I just realized I have a gig then. I won’t be able to see you off.”
“Then give me a goodbye kiss right now,” Johnny said.
Mark’s eyes dropped to his lips. Watched Johnny’s tongue drop out to wet his bottom lip, and, “Fine,” he said, and then they were kissing. Their thighs pressed together; Johnny’s eyelash tickled his nose, his hand sliding up to cup his jaw, then his cheek, then there was his thumb, sweeping over the rough patch of skin on his forehead, a reminder.
And then Johnny was pulling away. “You—“ he said, tongue darting out again. His breath collected on Mark’s upper lip. “You taste like Hyuck.”
Mark blinked owlishly at him until he remembered. “Oh! He gave me some makeup, remember? I tried the chapstick—? Or was it a lip tint? I’m not really sure, dude, but you know how chapped my lips get . . . “
Johnny was still staring at him, dark and revelatory.
“I should help you pack,” Mark said, noting the change in the air, and hastily stood up.
“Yeah,” he heard Johnny echo behind him. “Yeah, let’s—that.”
😈 [09:02 PM] hyung i cannot BELIEVE after all that johnny is in taipei and absolutely nothing has changed NOTHING
👹 [09:03 PM] I know
😈 [09:03 PM] I gave him everything i own!
👹 [09:04 PM] I know
😈 [09:05 PM] I’m gonna kill him!
👹 [09:07 PM] You won’t
😈 [09:16 PM] yeah i wont. anyway we need to up our game. pull out all the stops
👹 [09:18 PM] I’ll call you when i think of something
😈 [09:20 PM] me too. i think i have an idea but i need a little more time. anyway did mark give you the shirt i got
👹 [09:21 PM] I love it. It’s my most prized possession <33
😈 [09:21 PM] hyung!!!!!!!!!! 🥺🥺🥺🥺🥺
Donghyuck picked up at the first ring. “What’s up, hyung?”
Johnny laughed. “Hyung?”
“Oh—“ a rustle of sheets on the other end, then Donghyuck’s sleep-scratchy voice was directly on the speaker. “Johnny?”
“Hey, baby,” Johnny greeted, then stretched himself out on his bed, “Wanna tell me what other hyungs you call this late at night?”
“There’s a lot,” Donghyuck admitted. “I have a whole list, baby. No, it’s Yuta-hyung, duh. We game?”
Johnny had to take that in for a moment—he knew this cerebrally, but living in a reality where Lee Haechan and his boyfriend’s best friend played Valorant at 2AM (and probably shared a secret telegram chat where they shaded their significant others) required a little more emotional processing time. “Of course,” Johnny affirmed. “So, anyway—“
“Did you call because you missed me?” Donghyuck prodded brightly.
“Hardly,” Johnny scoffed, looking up at the ceiling and imagining Donghyuck curled up on his side, the chaotic crown of his hair splayed every which way. “I just wanted to brag about my hotel room. Taipei has the best goddamn toilets.”
“You’re so annoying,” Donghyuck said. “Well, I miss you. And Mark too. Tell me about your day.”
Johnny let out a small laugh. If only the world could see Lee Haechan like this, whiny and sleep-deprived and perfect; he felt bad for everyone who couldn’t. Donghyuck provided great commentary as Johnny talked, recounting the new production assistant who left a candle burning on set and smoked that room up; Donghyuck sighed wistfully at the hotel food Johnny described, then made small affirmative noises at all the other mundane shenanigans that came up. Donghyuck was like this too, that same night over the phone, Johnny’s own voice tremulous as he laid out the awful God’s honest truth: that he loved Mark, had loved him for a long time, probably would keep doing so and was that something he wanted to try? Did he want to break up?
You’re so annoying, Donghyuck had said, the surety of his voice holding him together, even miles away; throwing the towel when we haven’t even started?
“Tell me how your movie premiere goes,” Johnny said. “Let’s watch it together when you come back.”
Donghyuck’s yawn descended into a choke. “God, no—that’s a horrible idea. Watch it yourself.”
“Why? You said was this was most important project of your life—“
“Ding dong, you are wrong,” Donghyuck said. “Not the most important. But it’s somewhere in the top five, kay? So I’m gonna be a big sensitive baby about it until seeing my face doesn’t make me want to vomit—so let’s not.”
Johnny buried his own fondness into his pillow. “Okay,” he agreed. “If you say so.”
“You still with me?”
“M’here,” Donghyuck said, already drifting off. “Just sleepy. You’re not here.”
“I’m here, baby.” Johnny said; Donghyuck had all of him, all the time. “I’m here,” he repeated, shutting his eyes, staying like that, listening to him breathe.
Mark looked much like a toad presented with nature’s finest bog when Donghyuck slid the ticket across the table. Still: “No,” Mark said. “No, I can’t.”
Donghyuck despaired, “Why not?”
“Because! I can’t!”
“I already bought it, hyung, it’s done, nothing you can do about—“
“What’s that?” Jungwoo said, poking his head into their booth tucked by the back of the Cherry Bomb. He came bearing a second round of drinks, two Cass Light bottle stems dangling between his fingers. “Ooh, going to Taiwan?”
“Not me,” Donghyuck said irritably, accepting his beer. “Mark is. If he just took the damn thing—“
“Hyuck,” Mark began, flinching at the offered drink and vehemently pushing it back into Jungwoo’s hands to say, “Uh, no thanks—look, Hyuck. Listen to me. There is no universe out there where I can afford a one-way business class ticket to Taipei, dude, nada, nil—“
“It’s called a gift, loser, that’s how it works!” Donghyuck shot back, as Jungwoo whistled and decided to recede into the comfort of backstage, where they were preparing for the first set. Donghyuck grabbed his wrist. “Think of it as an early birthday gift—“
Mark pulled his hand away. “Hyuck—“
“And Christmas gift, too. I promise I won’t get you a single thing even then, and for the next three years too. There! Sound fair enough?”
“Three years? Make it ten,” Mark mustered with much incredulity, though Donghyuck noted with glee that Mark had never once stopped looking at the ticket, his eyes wide and round and his mind already elsewhere, basking in the lights of another city, a pair of warm hands; Donghyuck had this in the bag.
Still, he let his voice drop. “Just think about it, Lee. Think! A weekend in a gorgeous city, all to yourselves, no nosy bandmates and loud crowds. And this hotel, I swear to God, Johnny told me all about, you’ll go insane—oysters and wine and all the bao bing you can eat. They got an infinity pool overlooking the city in the roof-deck, I swear it’s gonna be so romantic, you can cap it off by choking on his dick—“
“Oh my god.”
“Like you weren't thinking it! Look,” Donghyuck pressed, “both of us miss him, but at least one of us doesn’t have to this weekend. Lucky for you, I’m a busy man. I got shit to do.” He grabbed Mark’s left palm, turned it over, and slapped the ticket into it with finality. “So go get your man, alright?”
Mark looked at the gift. The backstage door opened, the first band began to file out. “I do miss him,” Mark admitted.
“I know you do,” Donghyuck said, softening. “You’ve done nothing but talk about him the whole evening. You’re not slick.”
“Said the kettle,” Mark shot back, but he took the ticket and covered it with both hands down on the table, something shifting on his face. And then he scrunched his nose up at Donghyuck, grinning.
“Stop smiling like that,” Donghyuck said. “It disgusts me.”
“Really, I owe you big time,” Mark said, and then he kept saying it, pulling Donghyuck into a one-armed hug across the table, knocking over Mark’s drinks—a miracle they were untouched, bottle caps still on—and he promised, with desperate sincerity, “Seriously, man—I love you.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Donghyuck said into his beer, unable to stop preening. “Tell me again.”
Mark was feeling Zen about it until the enormity of Incheon Airport came into view. There was a mighty shudder overhead, shaking the seat of his taxi, his own eyeballs, and his small carry-on (Donghyuck promised clothes were in order) and then seconds later, sailing right over the car—there it was, an airplane, puncturing the soft light of morning and disappearing into the cosmos.
Mark’s heart sped up. There was a hole in his resolve now, and suddenly he was underdressed, under-prepared, unworthy of the key to all his desires tucked between his passport. He should’ve prepared a gift; or was that too much? Maybe he should’ve called Johnny first, give him a little heads up. But that would ruin the surprise. Not that Johnny needed it, anyway. Johnny was probably doing alright, still fast asleep in his hotel room as he should, at 6AM. Mark’s fingers ached for his guitar, its grounding weight.
Frank was crooning emotional support into his ears when his phone lit up with the message. Promptly, his stomach fell.
📩 1 new message - just now
You with hyuck? Don’t let him go online. It’s ugly out there
God, please no, Mark thought, not today, but when he typed Donghyuck’s—Lee Haechan’s—name with clammy fingers into the search bar, he could already feel the lingering seep of fear in his bones; even now, there was nothing to prepare him for it.
The first few entries were decent enough; the rest was just hell cracking open. Movie Review: “Riding” falls flat with one-dimensional characters, was workable. Lee Haechan’s Worst Performance? Not much to go around that.
“Shit,” Mark muttered, slumping against the side of the car door. Time: 6AM. Donghyuck, who was nocturnal at best, would’ve seen it; no doubt about it.
Incheon Airport seemed to shimmer sleepily as they approached. Another plane blinked at him as it rumbled out of the driveway, pitching forward, tilting up and up and up, until potential lifted its wheels and pointed it home. Mark didn’t watch it go. He kept his eyes on the side mirror, watching the concrete road disappear and disappear. At least he still had Frank. Frank was forever.
The Detour, Part One
“Yo, it’s me, Mark,” he called out, and his voice cracked magnificently. “I, uh, was hoping you were home? Surprise?”
No answer. Mark triple checked the number on the door—9080, yep, it was the one—and knocked again. The door was sleek mahogany, with a blinking keypad that perpetually begged for a code. Before he could try his hand at the combination, the door cracked slightly open—and all of Donghyuck’s pinched, bleary-eyed glory greeted him between the gap.
In lieu of a greeting, Mark raised the two tall caramel macchiatos he got for takeout and blurted, “Please let me in, I have caffeine.”
Donghyuck blinked at him twice before he dragged him inside, then poked his own head out the door to scan the hallway. “What the fuck,” Donghyuck was saying, as he stepped back in and shut the door behind him. His bare freckled shoulder poked out the collar of a ratty Star Trek T-shirt that had to be about four sizes too big. “Did my manager give you my address?”
“Dude, you showed me where you lived once,” Mark said, “remember? The guard at the lobby has my ID.”
This seemed to appease him a little, but the cold didn’t thaw. “Right, unfortunately,” Donghyuck said, turning to pad back into his kitchen; his shirt fell below his tiny shorts, which gave the impression that Donghyuck was nude under there, and with a jolt, Mark realized it was Johnny’s shirt. So that was where it went. The thief said, “So—tell me exactly. Why are you here? Don’t you have a flight to catch?”
“I, well—“ Mark stood there dumbly, holding onto his macchiatos; busy absorbing the atmosphere of Donghyuck’s decorated apartment—well-lived, more like, with the way everything was an inch out of place, or stacked with fashion magazines; on the kitchen tabletop there was a half-empty bottle of wine, and behind it, shelves upon shelves of decorative salt shakers, and then a misplaced jar of chocolate bars. By his feet was the shoe rack, which seemed to spill by the sheer volume of footwear Donghyuck owned and didn’t have time to wear, unlike the worn, pink Converses that were on the carpet. Which, too, were pink, as were the curtains, delicate like the inside of an ear, or well-kept interior life. Mark lied, “I lost—my ticket? So uh, I wanted to say sorry.”
Donghyuck hummed. He reached for two cups under the sink and laid them on the island tabletop. “You lost… your ticket.”
A tongue poked the inside of his cheek. “So… it’s not because you saw it?”
“Me on trending. As usual. Well—” Mirth crossed Donghyuck’s face. “Guess this time it’s a little different.”
“Trending—oh, like Twitter, nah,” Mark said, too quickly. “Yo, I hate that bird app.”
“They said I should stick to modelling,” Donghyuck said, pouring them both wine from his half-empty bottle; the liquid sloshed around the edges. “But even that I should reconsider. Apparently, I’ve peaked as a child actor and now am only good on the screen after five rounds of Photoshop.”
“You shouldn’t listen to them,” Mark said in a rush. Donghyuck looked up from the slab of tummy he’d began inspecting. Mark approached the tabletop and perched their coffees there. “I told you—that bird app is vile, the shit people say there? Fucking awful. But I’m sure not all of them are like that, you know? Some people are just—louder than others. So, um, you really shouldn’t be listening to them—“
“You haven’t even seen my movie yet, Marcus Lee.”
“I don’t need to see it to know that it meant a lot to you. You worked fucking hard for it, and I wont—“
“What are you doing?”
Unconsciously, Mark had grabbed the glasses from Donghyuck’s hands and began emptying the contents down the sink; the sharp smell was making him nervous. “Uh, I’m making breakfast,” Mark explained, leaving them there, then walked back to the tabletop so he could slide Donghyuck’s coffee towards him. “The most important meal of the day?”
“That was my last Yellowtail.”
“Really? I didn’t realize,” Mark said. “Sorry.” He wasn’t.
Donghyuck didn’t look angry. He looked like he needed sleep. All the sharpness was sucked out of him. Staring hard into his coffee, Donghyuck sighed, said, “Does… Johnny know?”
“Oh, uh, I didn't tell him I was coming. I should probably call—“
“No,” Donghyuck cut him off, too loudly, and then, catching himself—began to laugh, the sound miserable. “Please don’t call him. He can’t see me like this. He’s gonna laugh and call me stupid and say something like, I can’t be perfect all the time, and stop moping like my career’s over, bla, bla bla.”
“He won’t laugh at you,” Mark said, but decided, “but yeah, he just might call you stupid. Sorry.”
“What for,” Donghyuck laughed. He lifted himself over the tabletop and let his legs dangle. Warming the macchiato between his thighs, he sighed. “It’s my own damn fault. I wish I didn’t open my fucking phone. You know, he’d be right.”
“Johnny. About me, being stupid.”
“Nah. Nah, you’re not. And, good for you, I’m not Johnny,” Mark said; he didn’t know where it was coming from, but he felt a tendril of something protective curl around Donghyuck, who seemed younger, smaller than he’d ever been. Mark felt, strangely, that he’d destroy anything that breached this kitchen, if only to keep Donghyuck safe. “If you want,” Mark offered, “for the next two hours, we can do brunch, mope around, and pretend your career is over. But only for two hours. I can make pancakes?”
Donghyuck bit his lip. A moment passed. And then he looked at him. “That’s a lot of carbs.”
“Good for you, we’re on a carb-only diet this morning.” Mark grabbed a bowl, opened the fridge to fetch some brown eggs. “Oh! And for every pancake you eat, I’ll eat two more. That’s how it works. Johnny said you liked chocolate in them, too, right?”
Something passed through Donghyuck’s face. Swallowing, he slid off the counter, the sharpness returning faintly, and said, “Yeah. Yeah, I do.”
The Detour, Part Two
After Donghyuck cried it out, his voice going runny and the sun properly breaching the sky, he said, “Promise me. A big one, it has to be a big one, or it doesn’t count.” He nudged Mark’s shin under the table. “I hate owing people things.”
Mark laughed incredulously; it was ironic for Donghyuck to say, when Mark deserved none of his kindness to begin with, or even this goddamn ticket. When they were here only because, once upon a time, Donghyuck decided on a detour and crashed through the neat corridors of Mark and Johnny’s world. The way his mind worked was astounding.
It wasn’t the time to bargain, though. “Sure, I’ll let you know,” Mark said, reaching over to squeeze another dollop of syrup on Donghyuck’s pancakes. “I’ll make sure to bleed your wallet dry.”
The Detour, Part Three
Morning fell into brunch into afternoon into night. And now there was a pillow fort.
“Hey!” Mark cried, as Donghyuck toppled the pile he’d been building to reach out and tug the front of Mark’s pants down; Donghyuck was like Johnny when he got drunk, except ten times more handsy. It was proving to be a nuisance.
“I knew it! You’re wearing the briefs I got you! Doesn’t it feel good? Oh my fucking god—I just know your ass looks bomb in it. Come on, show me," and Mark danced out of his reach, giggling, “Haha, dude, stop,” and Donghyuck grumbled, “The hell with being shy! If I had an ass like that, I’d walk around nude all the time. That’s just how it is. It’s the eighth wonder of the world,” and now Mark had to stop; he needed to know. He scratched his neck. “You really think so?”
Donghyuck put a hand to his chest. He slurred, “Mark Lee, your perfect ass is God’s way of showing us he exists. Now—strip.”
Thursday, Part One
Yuta looked like a rightful mess, looking up between Mark’s bare legs like a cat who heard its name. His left cheek was smeared with Mark’s proof, and he ignored it in lieu of crawling over Mark’s torso and kissing up his chest, the three moles on the column of his neck, and finally Mark’s open, panting mouth. “Nice,” Mark said elaborately, by way of thanking him. It felt like an earthquake had passed him, and now Yuta was looking down at the site of wreckage, euphoric, not unlike a baby admiring a wall he just finger-painted.
It still made him reel—the way Yuta looked at him each time they finished, like Mark was the sexiest thing on legs and definitely not the awkward, bumbling sack of limbs he felt like, most times. Most times, being the baby gay Yuta met that day in Mad Dog. It was still in him, that version of Mark. Still wary and too guarded; still holding onto things too tightly. Maybe that was why Yuta tried sucking the soul out of him each time. He was performing an exorcism rite.
Yuta collapsed on the pillow next to him and grinned, full of meaning. “So.”
“So,” Yuta repeated. Spilling out from Yuta’s speakers, Zeppelin was charging the air, wailing about grisly love, a whole lotta of it. Mark’s face filled with heat. “That didn’t happen,” he decided, at the same time Yuta said, “So that happened.”
Mark said, “No,” and Yuta shook his head, said, “I think it did.”
“Drop it,” Mark pleaded, covering his face with his hands.
“No, that was amazing—Markie, you came so much, all I had to do was—“
“Dirty talk your boyfriend was watching us—“ and Mark threw his hands over his face, wailing, “—I’m going to hell—“
“No—what? What the fuck, Mark,” and then Yuta was throwing his leg over Mark’s lap, just shy from his softening cock, and peeled Mark’s hand away from his crumpled face. “That was next level. Even for us. That? Was the hottest thing that ever happened to me, I think. I’m not just saying this because. You went so wild for me, baby. Like a little sex-starved gremlin.”
“Did you just call me a gremlin?”
Yuta tucked Mark’s hair behind his ear, ignoring him. “So you’re kinky—who cares?”
Mark made a garbled noise in the back of his throat. “It’s not weird?”
“Not weird. Not weird at all.”
“That was fun.” Mark was nodding, sliding his hand up Yuta’s side. And then his hand stilled. “Oh my god—“
“Stop that. The thing you’re doing with your brain. Seriously, what’s with you and your Johnny complex?”
“Oh, I don’t know dawg, maybe it’s the years of repression and homophobia, compounded by my early formative years in the church living a split-identity, and having resigned myself for so long that Johnny was off-limits, but I don’t know,” was what Mark would’ve said, had he not been weathering the most devastating post-sex aftershock and distancing himself from the reality of having just done—whatever that was that just happened. Naming things gave them power, so Mark simply laughed and said, “I just feel a lil’ freaked out about it, okay?”
Yuta rolled his eyes. “Uh huh, right.” He pulled away and pushed his sweat-slicked hair back. “And as much as I love our times together… isn’t it a Thursday?”
“Everyone and their mother knows Thursdays, you’re Johnny’s,” Yuta said. His eyes narrowed. “So… why are you here, Markie?”
“Johnny is busy.” Mark replied, reaching over with his shirt to finally wipe the cum from Yuta’s cheek and throwing it to the floor. “I don't want to bother him. He just got back too.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’d love to be bothered. I got this straight from the source,” Yuta assured him. He was moving in again, skating a hand up Mark’s still-trembling calf and stopping at the knee. “You asked me to try, remember? So I did. But you’re not giving yourself the same permission.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m saying, give yourself a chance to hate it! Clearly, you don’t, if the last hour was proof of anything. No one’s tallying this shit anyway. You can fuck up for as many as times you need.” He sighed. “If you don’t wanna hang around your own boyfriend, somebody else is gonna do it for you.”
Mark's stomach tensed beneath Yuta's palm. “You know what I feel about—“ and Yuta interrupted, “Of course I know. There’s nothing about you I don’t already know, Chihiro. You don’t have to tell me either. I already know there’s something else happening here. I’m just saying—“ Yuta swiped his phone from the top of the headboard to shut off the music; the room plunged into a taut silence. He looked back at Mark, said, careful, “You’re not going to be like this forever, right?”
“No…” Mark mumbled. “Not forever. Just not…”
“Just not now,” Yuta continued for him, resigned. “Fine. Okay. But if you won’t,” and there it was, the briefest of mischief in his eyes, “then can I?”
Mark looked up, eyes round. His eyebrows rose. He began to laugh, but Yuta’s face was unchanged. “You want to—Johnny?”
Yuta shrugged. “I’ve got eyes. He’s not too bad. When we started this, we said we didn’t care about what the other person did as long as we discussed it together. So—let’s discuss.” Yuta let his fingers circle Mark’s knee. “If I wanted to kiss your boyfriend, would that be okay?”
Mark gaped. “I—“ The familiar pang of jealousy hit him—of whom, he didn’t know—and as he stayed with the feeling he realized it wasn’t jealousy, not at all, it was brighter, cloaked with heat, filling with color like a photograph and searing itself into the folds of his brain. Click. “I mean—I wouldn’t be—I don’t know—you’d have to ask Johnny—“
“Johnny will like anything you like,” Yuta said, his thumb dipping into the shadow of Mark’s hip. The surety of it rippled through him.
“You don’t know that,” Mark said, swallowing. His hands stilled Yuta’s. “You don’t—“
Yuta looked up. A grin cut across his face. “So let me test my hypothesis, then.”
Yuta crawled over, until he was slumped against the headboard, side by side. He kissed Mark’s sharp shoulder, then dragged a hand over his thigh, knee, mapping the same hypnotic lines. “Mhm. I think you’ll like it. Well—or not. I think I know you pretty well, though. Don’t I?”
“You do,” Mark agreed, gasping as two fingers dipped between his thigh; no living person knew his body better than Yuta did. It was both a blessing and a curse. He felt the shape of Yuta’s grin against his shoulder, and then Yuta was tapping his chest, so Mark could lean against him. Yuta said, “Hear me out?”
Thursday, Part Two
“Is that an ultimatum?”
“Nope. A promise. I’m on your team here. The moment you say no, I’m running out of there, right away, with or without clothes on.”
“Jesus Christ. I should quit you,” Mark decided, into Yuta’s neck, “while I still can.”
“Too late,” Yuta sing-songed, wrapping around him as if he could dig his roots into Mark’s back, as if Mark wasn’t the one with the death grip, pressing Yuta closer and closer, into the shape of a prayer. “You said it, didn’t you? I’m your person—”
The Threshold, Part One
When Johnny received Yuta’s ominous, we need to talk text in the middle of a client meeting, everything else plunged into undistinguishable static. He knew then, that this was it; The End. They’d extended well beyond the expiration date, and now it was time to pack it up. He supposed he was lucky to have lasted this long. To have had Mark for the time he had. Like Yuta promised, he was already waiting in Johnny’s apartment when he arrived, peering at his own face through the hallway mirror and prodding at a faded acne scar below his jaw.
“After all the insider info I gave you,” Yuta said gravely, then turned around to frown, “still, nothing?”
Johnny gaped at him for a long moment before he understood. “Dude,” Johnny said lightly, like he wasn’t just about to experience cardiac arrest seconds ago; he shut the door and began toeing off his shoes. “It just wasn’t feasible. The legroom is nonexistent. We would’ve gotten into an accident.”
Yuta hummed, eyeing the war-zone as he emerged out the hallway. “We’ve managed in smaller spaces,” he commented, and Johnny made a wheeze-like cough as Yuta flashed a familiar expression that had his skin break into gooseflesh, now that he was armed with the knowledge that, at the very least, Johnny had considered the logistics of it; Johnny was growing clumsy. Or maybe Yuta was just rubbing off on Donghyuck’s keen ability to pick out his bullshit.
“Your text,”Johnny said, breathless. “I got it. I thought—I thought something happened. What’s up, man?”
“Oh yeah. Right.” Yuta jerked a thumb at Mark’s closed room, then slumped into Johnny’s couch, legs falling open. “Mark left a couple of stuff at my place. Oh, and his capo, too. I went ahead and put all the stuff back—hope you don’t mind.”
Johnny shook his head. “Nah, thanks. I’d apologize for his sake, but you know how he gets. He’s just a nasty college boy who likes to shed everywhere, and—“ he paused to bite his lip, the smile stilted. “Sorry. You’re killing me here, man. I’m gonna be honest here—I’ve been losing my mind since you messaged me, so—what the fuck’s going on?”
Yuta did it again, The Face, and suddenly it dawned on him who it reminded him of; that was Donghyuck’s little expression, a tongue-in-cheek reaction which he’d developed specifically to tease Mark. The overlap was both incredibly hilarious and sobering. Yuta said, “I was gonna offer we get dinner first, but sure, we can get straight to it.” He drummed his fingers on the seat. “Remember our first date?”
Johnny spluttered. “You mean—when you helped me pick out lamps.”
“Yeah, our first date,” Yuta said, nodding. “Remember when I said—Mark wasn’t complicated, and that if you were interested, I could teach you a thing or two, et cetera, et cetera?”
“I think so,” Johnny lied. He thought about it each night in the shower, but Yuta didn’t need to know the gory details.
“Well, seeing as you never asked—probably never will—I am offering, yet again. Johnny Suh,” Yuta paused, for effect, looking up at him dead-on, as if to wrangle some chaotic beast in his head before he continued, mouth smoothing out into a cheery line, “would you like me to teach you how to fuck your boyfriend?”
The Threshold, Part Two
Johnny didn’t expect Yuta to start talking as soon as he got verbal confirmation. He began reciting each line as if from an imaginary grocery list: yes to pain, but not too much! Push him around, then call him a good boy right after. He loves that shit. He’ll melt in your hands—
“Like putty,” Yuta added.
“Alright, let’s—okay,” Johnny said, feeling weak. He touched his face, checking for corporeality. He wished to be returned to the earth from whence he came. Anytime now, God. Yuta asked him, “A little overwhelming?” and Johnny laughed, “Learning my best friend likes humiliation? Just a little,” his voice a little reedy from hysteria. Nothing felt quite real anymore. “This conversation is really happening.”
“I’m not finished though,” Yuta said, and then continued to finish his list. Johnny had no choice but to sit there and take it, feeling his brain begin to glow white-hot—or maybe that was his dick. When Yuta was through—a good fifteen minutes later, he grabbed Johnny’s face and pretended an electric current passed through them. He announced: “All my knowledge is yours now.”
“Thanks,” Johnny said, in a ringing echo of a voice. “I’ll keep everything in mind.”
“Good. So, dinner?”
The Threshold, Part Three
It continued to bother Johnny after. Picking away at him like a crow’s beak. As they waited for their food to arrive, he blurted, “Were you serious?”
Yuta looked up from his phone and said, “Hm?”
Johnny shifted on the couch. “About everything. But especially about—um. Watching.”
A hint of teeth peeked out of Yuta’s grin. “Every word, baby. I told you: Mark Lee’s a dirty little pervert. Why do you think we work so well?”
“Uh—“ Johnny stalled; an image, pink-tinged and forbidden, flashed behind his eyes: Yuta and Mark, back to chest, toe to toe, and room on the bed for one more. Officially, it seemed, he had gone mad. “I mean—“
“Relax, I get it. The whole complex you guys have? I get it. I really do.” Yuta pocketed his phone and looked him blatantly up and down. “You’re real easy on the eyes, Mr. Suh.”
“You’re not too bad yourself, Nakamoto-san,” Johnny threw back, and knew right away it was all a smoke screen. The last few hours had Yuta dragging something out of him, inch by grisly inch; in the next moment, it wouldn’t be him sitting there anymore, but somebody else. He was sure of it.
“Yeah?” Yuta asked, and Johnny nodded: “Yeah.” Yuta’s eyes flashed. He said, “You’ve been looking at me, too?”
And here it was, the counter shunting towards its inevitable end. The truth, then: “Yeah.” it was impossible not too; the piercings, the bomb-bright hair, the sharp, reckless mouth—the way Yuta moved and lived, a percussion of his own invention. For a while, Yuta existed only in tangent to Mark. How Mark looked like, after a weekend of Yuta fucking out all the bad in his system; how Mark had red dye-stained fingers every three months, because Yuta needed to retouch the torch on his head. Yuta was Mark’s. Even if it felt like the four of them were all each other’s anyway. Johnny couldn’t pinpoint when that changed. When Yuta was just Yuta—all of him now, his heady gaze and his ankle tattoo, the weight of his kindness. Each of it a small fractal discovery, coming together for the full portrait.
“You wanna know another secret?” Yuta said. His hair was in full bloom; last night, Mark had given up on rinsing the color from his fingertips. Johnny watched Yuta’s hand settle on his knee—the last discovery: “I like watching, too,” Yuta said. “I imagine you, in my place, sometimes. How you’d do it. How good you could make it. Mark wants it like that too, you know? He wants it bad. S’like he’s sick with it.”
The heat of Yuta’s palm grew scalding through the fabric. Unbidden, Johnny’s eyes dropped to his lips. Mark was onto something. He wanted to taste Yuta’s mouth, too.
“Sure,” Yuta said. Jolting, Johnny had a moment to catch the smile that crashed through him before he moved, and then they were kissing. Yuta wasn’t Mark, of course he wasn’t—the lines of his jaw wider, scratchy under his mouth, and his lips were fuller—but still, it surprised him. Yuta wasn’t quiet, unlike Mark. Johnny wasn’t himself anymore, too, and Yuta kept humming into his mouth, making pleased, full notes. Their bodies cupped each other.
Yuta trailed a kiss down his neck, his chest, over his shirt, languid as he sank to his knees between Johnny’s legs. Before he moved any further, Yuta pulled out his phone, typed something into it, threw it on the couch, then returned to the task at hand.
“Wait, wait—now?" Johnny said, as Yuta blew on the bulge in his jeans like he was fogging up a mirror. Suddenly, Johnny was wide awake. “Mark—“
“Is on his way,” Yuta said. His fingers framed his hips. “Can I?”
Impossibly, Johnny felt himself thicken. “He’s—?”
“Told you, he’s on his way,” Yuta repeated, then began to look sheepish—a good few minutes too late. “He knows I’m here to, uh, test my hypothesis. My idea, don’t worry. I told you—he's a freak, but he’s trying, too, okay? So—can I please put my mouth on your dick now?”
Johnny looked at him, shattered; what else was there to say? When there was nothing to return to anymore? “Go ahead, christ.”
Yuta pulled his zipper down, pushed his briefs aside, and then his own half-mast cock was in Yuta’s rough hands. “He-llo,” Yuta said cheekily, in Japanese. “Holy—Mark wasn’t kidding. This is what we’re working with? Amazing. Honestly? I thought Mark was being dramatic, but wow. I almost feel embarrassed right now.
“Uh, nice to know word gets around.”
Buoyant, Yuta grinned as he gave him one courtesy tug, his face bright with memory; Donghyuck’s grin, Mark’s grin. “I take it he hasn’t talked about my blowjobs?”
Mark knew the sound Johnny made when he was getting his dick sucked. Eighteen, sloppy head by a white girl named Kelsey, or was it Kate. It was dark out. Only a splash of pink acid on the sky, the shadows lengthening on the asphalt.
He wasn’t invited to this college party, but Johnny wanted him to have fun tonight, so he came. Already, he knew the smell of alcohol fumes and cigarettes would follow him till next week. He gripped his red cup and stood outside the house by Johnny’s parked car, watching the windows flash purple-pink-red and feeling the bass under his heels turn the ground unsteady.
The front door of the house swung open, and there was Johnny, stumbling out with the girl hand in hand. Their eyes met. Johnny let himself be pushed into the backseat. Said, there you were. Said, can you watch the door for me? The car door fell shut, swallowing a shriek of a laugh. Mark’s own face in the tinted window, staring back.
He’d never seen Johnny like that before. Swaying, loose-limbed, and wild. Lipstick streaked everywhere. He’d lost a button, too. And because Johnny had asked, Mark stood there, guarding each of Johnny’s soft escalating groans that slipped out through the door.
In that moment, he’d felt an odd misplaced sense of deja vu. He’d lived this before—or dreamt it, maybe? Patterns; this was one of those. In the dream, or the memory eating its own tail, he was watching himself do it: taking all the wrong turns, falling down another blank corridor, letting them shut the doors in his face.
Mark stood until they finished. In his fist, his cup had crumpled into a pancake. She emerged out the other side, radiant from all she’d stolen, and she was lucky Mark was out of reach—Mark thought he would’ve tripped her so she scraped her knees and dropped all of Johnny’s kisses. He would’ve kissed her stupid to taste Johnny himself.
The Threshold, Part Four
That sound. Mark knew it; the sound of Johnny coming apart.
Now, he knew what it looked like, too.
Like this: his mouth slack, his shoulders a tight coil. He stepped one foot into their apartment, then two. Finally, Mark looked up and met his eyes across the room, when hearing it wasn’t enough, and the air pulled itself into a trembling chord. Only Yuta kept going, bobbing his head, moving them forward.
Somebody cursed—maybe Johnny, maybe Mark himself. His heart was pounding so hard as he slumped back against the door it would’ve trickled out his mouth; it felt like he’d shoved cotton into his ears, like he was hearing Johnny through the walls again.
“Yuta-hyung,” Mark said, his voice cracking. It was an enormous effort to speak. “I’m here.”
Yuta didn’t turn between Johnny’s legs.
“Hyung,” Mark repeated. His fists clenched. Johnny kept groaning, kept making these soft, wounded sounds. His fingers fluttered against Yuta’s shoulders. Mark said, “Hyung.”
There was a wet pop as Yuta pulled his mouth free and said, “Did you hear anything?” Johnny only stared back; already he’d lost a language, or two. Yuta shrugged. “Guess I imagined it.” And then he swallowed Johnny down again; Mark watched Johnny’s whole body curl, like he was punched in the gut. His hand grabbed the back of Yuta’s hair, gathering it in one fist, and when Yuta’s face shifted to the side Mark could see the long curve of his neck and, unmistakably, the smile in his eyes.
Mark realized, then, without a doubt, what Yuta was giving him. When Yuta moved again Mark could feel it, the briefest of doors opening inside him, and now all of it was charging out—anger, jealousy, desire, love—all the impetus needed for a body to break its stasis, march down that distance, and drop to its knees.
Mark looked up and met Johnny’s eyes.
They were so close Mark could taste the ruin in his mouth.
Wordlessly, Yuta made room for Mark’s legs, though he kept nuzzling the fine hairs on Johnny’s crotch and looking at them with something akin to fondness. All this Mark didn’t catch; his view had fish-eyed to the task at hand. He reached up, felt the petal-soft skin of Johnny’s cock, feeling it jump in his fist—then slowly tasted Johnny’s crown, dragging his parted mouth from the underside all the way to the tip. He shut his eyes, just as Yuta said, “Good boy,” and Johnny threw his head back, calling out, “Fuck—“
Johnny was big, but Mark knew that already, wasn’t ready to let go of the novelty of it; he let Johnny slide between the seam of his mouth, slowly letting his jaw come loose—and Johnny just kept going and going inside him, Mark thought he was going to choke, until Johnny stilled, and Mark moaned, gutted, loving the way he felt in his mouth, the small, animal sounds he was dragging out with each bob of his throat. He did that.
“You can grab his hair,” he heard Yuta say.
There was no other way to describe it—feeling Johnny’s large hands sliding up his nape and gripping him by the roots. A shivered note fell out of him, into Johnny’s dick, and Johnny cursed, said, “so hot, you’re mouth’s so fucking hot, baby—look at me.”
Mark did. Yuta took that moment to curl close and put his mouth on Johnny’s balls, and Mark saw firsthand how that combination rendered Johnny useless, hook, line, and sinker—so he did the same, tugging Johnny with his hand so that he and Yuta could take turns laving at the soft, tightening swell of him. And Johnny kept tightening, impossibly, his eyes darting between the both of them, the rapid rise and fall of his chest like he was approaching something soon. Johnny’s grip in his hair grew near-painful, but Mark didn’t care. God could rip out the world by the roots right now and he wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t care, would stay right here, wanting to see Johnny tip towards free-fall; he wanted Johnny to send him down, too.
“Oh, fuck—fuck,” Johnny gasped. As Johnny began to let go, Yuta did, too, letting Mark take the reigns: spreading Johnny’s thighs as far as he could go so he could ruin his throat on it, until Johnny was gripping Mark’s head with two hands, his hips lifting off the couch, “Like that, just like that,” these small halted thrusts, control slipping like cool water between his hands. Yuta pressed a kiss into Mark’s nape. To Johnny, he commanded, “Come in his mouth.”
“Gonna—” Johnny gasped. “I’m gonna—“
“In his mouth,” Yuta repeated. “Or are you still gonna keep him waiting?”
Johnny’s face twisted, and Mark let his hands fall as Johnny shuddered into him, spilling hot and dense, and Mark kept his eyes hooded and watching, like he’d just stepped into a storm for the first time, and when he finally shut his eyes and opened them, it was to a brand new everything, the world bristling and alive, and Johnny was looking at him, ruined past the point of return, saying, “Holy fucking shit, you guys—that was the best fucking head I’ve ever had—“ and Yuta laughed, kissed Mark’s sweaty neck, and it was perfect, should’ve been, but Mark wiped his mouth, shot them a small smile, then began to leave the room.
The Decision, Part One
Johnny had done this before, but no one could catch up to Mark when he was single-mindedly speed-walking like this, just like that time in Underdog’s building, when he’d scurried down the lobby like he would’ve died if he didn’t get out of there. Still, Johnny would take his chances. So he yelped and pretended to twist his ankle again.
Mark froze at the sound, then yelled, “I’m not falling for that shit again!” Johnny wasn’t counting on it anyway. Still, Mark continued to stand there, like Johnny knew would, a few meters from the elevator, his eyes filling with apprehension as Johnny kept playing dead, and then Mark was marching back with furious steps and dragging him bodily to his feet, gritting out, “Dude, I told you—don’t fucking pull that shit—“
“Tell me what just happened,” Johnny demanded, coming to life. He’d meant to loom over Mark, but he felt his frustration crumble into helplessness; Mark already looked so small. “What just happened, back there? Can someone please enlighten me?”
Mark deadpanned, “I sucked your dick.”
Johnny stared at him. “You did. It was really fucking good, too, so—what’s—?” Mark was biting his lip and looking away, and here it was, the awful seed of it all, sprouting consequences. Johnny dragged a hand over his face, hating all of it, and said, “Look, if that wasn’t a good time for you—I’m so sorry. I’m so fucking sorry. I didn’t think—I mean, Yuta said you—well, it doesn’t really matter now, does it? I guess it’s just different with me. I just want to know, like—why not me?” He hated how he sounded, like a petulant child. You no like me? “And I get it, if you don’t. It won’t change a thing about us. I promise, it’s just sex. I’m still learning about this thing we have, how different relationships can be to different people, and you just have to—excuse me a bit as I mourn, I guess, because in case it wasn’t obvious enough—“ he waved vaguely in the direction of his pants, “I’m really really fucking into you. Into fucking you. Into you—I mean, you know!”
Mark said, “Who did it better?”
Johnny blinked. He had to let that sentence air. Then: “What?”
“Who did it better? Me? Or Yuta?” Mark asked. He stepped forward. “You said it was the best head you had—so? Who?”
Johnny stared at him. And then he was laughing. And then he laughed some more.
“You can’t be—Mark Lee. Jesus fuck. I swear to God, you’re going to be the death of me—so you didn’t hate it?“ Johnny looked away, then looked back again. “I mean, I just thought we’d—because you wouldn’t—I mean I thought we’d just have a nice, PG, non-sexual relationship. Which wouldn’t be less of a relationship, just putting it out there—“
“Of course I didn’t hate it,” Mark shot back, his ears pink. “I’ve wanted you to rail me before I understood what that even meant, dude.”
It was Johnny’s turn to undergo mental whiplash. He held his forehead. “Well, then—dude—what’s the problem?” Johnny said, feeling both relief and annoyance break through the surface as Mark worried his lip. They were wasting so much time—
“I just don’t want to be that person,” Mark said in a rush.
“You know. I just don’t wanna be—“ and Mark’s gaze fell away, “too much. Too soon,” and Johnny looked at him dead in the eye and said, wholeheartedly, “That’s the stupidest shit I’ve ever heard,” pulling him in close to kiss him, tasting his mouth, tasting himself.
The Decision, Part Two
“I just want the kind of honesty you and Yuta have. Whatever you want from me—with me—I want to know. There’s nothing you’ll do that’ll scare me off. I just want to know everything about you, all the time, okay?”
“Yeah—me too. I just—get a little overwhelmed. I don’t wanna fuck it up.”
“God, Mark, you won’t. Well, Donghyuck won’t let you. And Yuta too. Do you think he’ll teach me good?”
“Fuck. Hyung—yeah, he’d—Yuta’s—“
“—how to open you up, real nice? What spots you like. How fast to go—“
“—I wanna know, too. Everything you like. Wanna be good to you, Johnny, I’d be so good to you—don’t wanna waste time. We’ve wasted so much time—“
The Decision, Part Three
Donghyuck said, “You’re asking me if it’s okay? After crying about his dick for months? Fucking finally.”
“I wasn’t crying,” Johnny argued, pinning Donghyuck’s wrists over his head. “I was just—”
“Being pathetic,” he answered for him. Donghyuck’s long legs lifted off the bed and wound around his waist, trapping him there. Tilting his chin up, he looked radiant as he wailed, “Why no Markie fuck me?”
Johnny shut him up with his mouth. Their teeth clacked. Donghyuck’s laugh left an aftertaste of spearmint and bad intentions in the air. When Johnny tried to push off, he realized he couldn’t; their limbs were too tangled together. He sighed, said, “Don’t be like that.”
“You know what you’re doing.”
Donghyuck had that look in his eye. He said, uncowed, “What? Thinking about it riles me up. In the best way, of course,” he added, and Johnny laughed; he had no doubt about that. Donghyuck was the root of all evil, the very reason they were here. Johnny pressed up against him, as a tide of gratitude swelled him up and drifted him back to shore. “I don’t deserve you. You know sometimes, I think: why me?”
“S'because of your big, big heart, of course,” Donghyuck purred, then reached up to squeeze his pec, and Johnny rolled his eyes and moved his hand to the other side, saying, “Wrong side, loser.”
Lesson One, Part One
Scene: and so, here they were, yet again. Afternoon. Thursday. Interior: Johnny and Mark’s apartment. Johnny’s denim jeans were pooled around Johnny’s ankles again. Last time had been unpremeditated, but this time, Yuta assured them, there would be a little bit more guidance.
Yuta knelt behind Mark, who knelt before Johnny’s knees—the exact same picture. Smoothing a hand down Mark’s back, Yuta said, “Hey, your fantasy’s finally coming true. You dirty pervert,” and Mark made a sound that Yuta kissed away immediately. Johnny watched their mouths touch, soft and careful. Careful, until Mark turned to grip the back of Yuta’s neck, and the air grew dense with their breaths. Pulling away, Yuta sent Mark a look that was not so much teasing as it was ridiculously fond; Johnny knew that look. He felt it all the time.
The ringing of Johnny’s phone snapped him back to reality. They all stilled, until Mark fished it somewhere beneath Johnny’s discarded jeans and announced, “It’s Hyuck.” And, before he Johnny could prime some sort of plan, Mark was answering it, saying, “Hello—?“
“—Mark? Oh my god, already? I can’t believe you’re doing it without me—”
Johnny snatched his phone back. “Hyuck, I told you it was today.”
“And I told you I couldn’t make it! I was hoping you’d do it, I don’t know, maybe when I'm not stuck in an awful hotel room all by myself!”
Mark piped up, “Yo, we can stop—” and Donghyuck spat, “Don’t be fucking stupid. Well? Don’t be heartless. Lemme see!”
Lesson One, Part Two
“Like the view?”
“Holy shiiiiit. I’m so fucking angry right now. Well? Does it feel good, baby?”
“Feels… un-fucking-believable. Mark, fuck.”
“God, you guys are filthy.”
“And yet here you are, Yuta-san. Look at us. We made it! Hey. Hey, Mark! Be careful, you’re holding my entire world in your hands. Wow, did he just—”
“You did not just roll your eyes at me. Hey—loser! Suck his dick like you mean it—are you listening to me?”
“—M-mercy, please, Mark.”
“As you can see, he’s a little competitive.”
Lesson One, Part Three
“Chopchop boys, I have a schedule in half an hour, if I don’t see a dick in someone’s ass in the next ten minutes, I’ll need a refund—“
“—I swear to God, somebody turn that phone off—”
When Donghyuck finally relented and left for his shoot—with plenty rage, reluctance and a boner to boot—they’d moved to the bed, Mark and Johnny shoulder to shoulder against the headboard as Yuta kissed down Mark’s happy trail and slid his jeans and boxers off one go. He moved against Mark’s body like he’d done this a thousand times—like he could map it out in the dark, like he probably had—hovering over him until he was close enough to lick Mark’s nose. Mark’s face wrinkled. “Hyung,” he giggled.
“Be serious, Mark,” Yuta tutted, receding back to his knees, just as quick. His eyes darted to Johnny, then back to Mark as he settled between Mark’s legs, parting it slowly. “Tough crowd tonight—better give them what they came for.”
Johnny had seen Mark’s dick before—in lesser charged moments—but right now, seeing it curve up his stomach, its tip pretty and pink, the dark curls at the base like the world’s darkest material, Johnny’s mouth felt like the fucking Sahara. If he spoke now he would’ve wheezed sand. He blurted, helpless, “You’re beautiful,” and Mark’s dick jumped.
“It’s easy to rile him up,” Yuta laughed, “but, say—you’re short on time, and you really wanna get there fast? Three things. First—“ Yuta held one finger up, then tapped on Mark’s nipple like it was a doomsday button. The response was instantaneous; Mark jolted. Yuta pressed closer, encircling one in his mouth, licking his name on it, scraping it with a hint of teeth, letting Mark swell and rut against his hip. “See? Markie, don’t be rude.” He tugged Mark’s away from his mouth, where he’d bitten into to muffle the broken notes coming out of him. “Let us hear you.”
So Mark did.
As he got thoroughly debauched, Johnny’s hand drifted beneath his own boxers. Yuta slinked lower, kissing the skin as he went, and with one tap on the knee, Mark’s legs fell open. “Second spot,” Yuta said, like he was in a lecture—still perfectly in character, and Johnny kept nodding, searing each of Mark's sighs to memory, each minute twitch and buck and shudder. He held Mark’s leg down so Yuta could feather a trail of kisses over his pelvis, “Here,” Yuta said, pressing his open mouth into the skin just before his dick. Mark jerked to his elbows, releasing a long, wounded, ah? Yuta grinned. “See? Last time he jizzed right away, it’s like—”
“Don’t say jizz,” Mark groaned.
“—pulling things out of a hat; you’ll never know what you’ll get. Watch the leg though. He almost kneed my nose into my brain once,” and Mark laughed, face apologetic as he grabbed his hand and said, “Are you still angry about that?”
“What's the third thing?” Johnny said, wholly immersed now.
Yuta looked up from the hickey he’d been teaching Johnny to make. Mark’s inner thighs were mottled with it. He grinned: “Be mean.”
Johnny watched him arrange Mark on all fours, Yuta’s cheek pressed between Mark’s shoulder blades, before reaching around to jerk Mark off a little bit, to placate him. “Don’t be afraid to push him around a bit. You like that, don’t you?” and Mark bit his lip, turning around to send a wide-eyed tearful look his way; Yuta cooed, immediately pulling him back so he could press a kiss to his mole, his mouth, everywhere he could reach. “You do; you’ll take everything I give you, right?” Mark gave him a shaky nod.
Yuta smiled at him. Then he shoved him forward.
That one left Johnny a little shell-shocked. The way he did it; like it had meant nothing. Johnny’s eyebrows shot to the sky. “Shit,” he laughed; the shock of Mark’s back splayed between them, pale like spilled cream, wrenched all solid thought out the window. “You—“
“He likes it a little mean,” Yuta repeated, rolling his clothed dick into the cleft of Mark’s ass, and Mark made a sound that had Johnny turning into a better man, just for hearing it; Johnny didn’t want to go back to yesterday, before he knew that sound. Yuta said, “Can you?”
Johnny worked his jaw. “Can I—“
“Do it mean?”
Yuta’s grin was a faint, feral shape against Mark’s spine. “I—that’s subjective,” Johnny said. “What’s a little?” Between them, the head turned, and now Johnny had two pairs of eyes watching him. Mark’s were wide and feverish with want. To demonstrate, Yuta reached down and grabbed a fistful of that dark hair—Mark did it again, The Sound—before letting go and sliding his torso across Mark’s back to kiss the slope of his shoulder like a consolation.
“Like that,” Yuta said, and then he was winking. “If you’re nervous, I get it. I’ll teach you. Oh!” he says, like he had an idea. “Go and straddle Johnny, baby.”
Mark did. Now Johnny had a lapful of Mark Lee staring down at him, his cock heavy and drooping against Johnny’s stomach. “Hey,” Johnny said, cupping his cheek. Mark bit his lip, and smiled, watery. “Hey.”
“Gonna fuck you with my fingers,” Yuta said behind him. “Keep your eyes on Johnny, baby. Don’t be shy, now.” And then he leaned down to do a wicked thing with tongue that Johnny saw weather Mark down, with the way his face stuttered and tensed and came apart. And then Yuta blew on it.
“Hyung!” Mark cried, turning around.
Yuta brought his hand down on his ass. The sound of skin hung in the air. “Eyes on Johnny, babe. Help me out, John?” and then Yuta was offering two fingers up at his face, and Johnny said, “Um,” a little nonplussed, only for a moment, until he realized; feeling the air flint and combust, and as he let his mouth drop open so Yuta could wet his fingers, he was watching Mark’s face—how that ruined him, unalterably, broke him open under the weight of too much sweetness, and how sweet it was, Yuta sliding in, coaxing him to fullness. Johnny kept watching, kept learning, skating his palm up Mark’s chest, the undulating shore of his back, how ripe he’d grown between the thighs. God, he was learning. All the sounds Mark could make. Like God had cracked open the primordial egg and gifted him the very detritus of life. Mark did it again—this particular, keening, choked off sound, hovering over him, and Johnny kept swallowing it, each fumbled note, surprising Mark; he was learning, too.
“Just like that,” Johnny whispered, tucking Mark’s hair behind his ear, while Yuta slipped his thumb into Mark’s bright, spit-slicked mouth, the light catching on his smeared thighs. “Perfect. Two, One—” Click.
The Festival, Part One
It was autumn when Mark scored his first music festival appearance. He spent a solid minute staring at his phone, where the lineup was pulled up, his name a small Mark Lee in a pleasant serif, first on the list, and Johnny dragged him into his arms before Mark could enter total mental collapse, giving him a noogie like he was thirteen, before pressing him up against the fridge like the successful twenty-two year old he was. “Oh my god,” Mark kept saying, in between breaths—nobody cared that the fridge magnets were clattering to the floor—as Johnny swallowed each kiss down, feeling pride deep in his stomach. The night of the festival was cold, swarmed with a blight of tipsy, hippie gig-goers moshing around—all this Johnny endured, if only because Yuta navigated them with ease. When Johnny tripped on a sundae, Yuta was there to drag him to his feet, laughing loudly at his displeasure.
“Seriously wish he’d gotten me instead of using an awful drum machine,” Yuta yelled over the crowd, as Mark appeared onstage to replace the previous act. “But I get it—it’s his show.”
Johnny’s heart leapt a little as the first few beats of Maps came on. Like this, under the pale disc of the spotlight, Mark looked like a miracle. Soon Yuta and Johnny had devolved into the chaos, screaming Mark’s name as he sandwiched covers with his originals, and by God he was brilliant, and they kept cheering and singing along, until Yuta wasn’t—he’d gone still, staring at the glare of his phone. Home was calling.
“Them again?” Johnny said, but it was swallowed by the noise. Yuta smiled at him, then gestured back at the stage, both a reassurance and diversion. He didn’t tuck his phone back.
“Wait, they don’t love like I love you—“
The crowd kept swaying; Mark’s voice seemed to cast a fugue-like spell over them. When the song ended, Johnny turned and realized Yuta had disappeared. He turned around and caught, only for a second, the back of his red head receding between bodies. Johnny cursed. When he reached the back Yuta was still out of sight. Johnny looked back at the stage, where Mark kept singing, eyes clear and open, his longing a cord sent to the future, and in that moment Johnny was struck still by the weight of his affection; Mark was looking for them in the crowd, he knew, feeling the same wave of homesickness, looking and looking. He prayed a small apology, hoping Mark would forgive them—and then he turned around to go find his friend.
The Festival, Part Two
He found Yuta by the side of the empty road. He was sitting down on the concrete, hidden amongst the parked cars with his head hung between his legs.
Johnny pressed on his car keys; the lights blared red, jolting Yuta upright.
“Don’t sit on the floor,” Johnny told him when he was close enough. He ignored Yuta’s spooked expression, opening the car door and stepping into the driver’s seat, calling out, like he was giving out free samples at the mall: “I got air-conditioning here!” And then he waited, keying the engine and filtering through the radio. A bluesy track trickled into the background, all brass. Even here Johnny could still hear the thumping bass, traces of Mark’s electric guitar, the air still saturated with it. Softly, the passenger side door opened. Fell shut.
Yuta said, “Mark will be looking.”
“We’re meeting him now,” Johnny said. “I called him earlier, told him you were coming down with something. He said he’ll take care of you tonight—“
“You shouldn’t have,” Yuta said, quietly, but Johnny could pick out the tightness in it. “He was looking forward to tonight.”
“You think he’ll enjoy it without us?” Johnny said, adjusting the seat. “We’ll pick him up at front, then call it a day.” And then, when he realized Yuta wasn’t going to speak anymore, and that his phone was still endlessly buzzing, ceaseless as if it had been since the first time, in the coffeeshop, like a ticking heart, Johnny sighed and laid the words out carefully: “Family’s tricky. I told you, I get it. You can pick that up, if you want. I’ll be here. I’ll take a longcut.”
Johnny smiled. “Seatbelt, please.”
As Johnny pulled the car off the curb and, as promised, sailed down the street in meandering turns, he heard Yuta let out a resigned breath and pull out his phone. His finger hovered. And then he pressed it: “Otou-san.”
He’d never heard Yuta speak like this, in halted sentences and contained one-answers. The ripple of the language washed over him, though Johnny understood with startling clarity the low anxiety that simmered under it. Yuta’s fist clenched over his knee. Unclenched. The vowels tensing, accelerating, and then quickly dispersing. An argument. Johnny looked out the window, hearing Yuta’s voice grow thick, and with a jolt, Johnny realized Yuta was crying. From his periphery, he caught the movement of a hand hastily erasing a tear track. Yuta grunted what sounded like a goodbye—and then it was quiet, save for the blues.
They arrived at the festival grounds. Outside, people milled about, smoking, kissing, dancing. Yuta stared ahead, his face soaked, and a sheet of summer rain began to patter down over the windshield. There, just ahead of them, Mark was holding his guitar case over his head as he darted towards them, avoiding puddles—and then Yuta was turning to him, mustering one last raspy, “Don’t,” before the door opened.
Mark hauled his guitar into the back before stumbling in after it. “Yo, I’m so embarrassed—I totally entered the wrong car earlier and—is Yuta-hyung asleep?” Mark’s smile vanished. “How is he?”
Johnny put a finger to his lips. “Conked out a few minutes ago. He probably just needs a nap.”
“Dang,” he said, hushed now. “No wonder he’s been acting weird lately. I told him to stop staying up late gaming with Hyuck, it’s going to permanently fuck up his circadian rhythm. I got like—an energy drink? From the sponsor.” He was rummaging into his backpack, “And a burrito, in case he needed something to eat—oh, it’s cold now though—you know, he actually hates festivals like these—“
“Mark,” Johnny laughed—had to salvage the mood somehow, because he’d caught Mark’s pinched face through the mirror, and said, “he’ll be fine. And you were amazing. I’m so proud of you.”
Mark preened, though it was tempered with nervousness. When they finally stopped the car at Yuta’s apartment, Mark cracked the passenger door open and instantly all four of Yuta’s limbs octopused around Mark’s body, as Yuta demanded to be princess-carried into his room. Mark obliged, because he was Mark, and because Johnny was Johnny, he’d taken pictures of Mark’s distress (Yuta was heavier than he looked), and sent it to Donghyuck.
stuuupid, Donghyuck texted back, and Johnny shook his head, smiling. They were all a little bit, weren't they?
The Festival, Part Three
While Mark showered off the day, they sat together in Yuta’s tiny kitchen.
Instead of fussing over him, like Mark had, because the guilt of ruining Mark's day was eating Yuta up, though he wouldn’t show it—Johnny didn’t ask a single question about the call. “Thanks,” Yuta mumbled, around the stale burrito they’d somehow somehow managed to resuscitate, then offered Johnny a bite. Instead of taking it, Johnny said, “You know, he cares about you. Much more than you give him credit for. If you just let him.”
Yuta returned his burrito to its plate. “I don’t doubt that.” He smiled. “Just—I don’t want him to get tangled into every single fucked up part of my life. I'm drawing the line here. I care for him, too, you know? This is my own way.”
“Pretty odd way, if you ask me,” Johnny said, and Yuta laughed, shot back, “Said the kettle.”
Saturday, Part One
Everything seemed to be in order until Donghyuck pulled away from Johnny’s kiss and asked him a question. “Yeah,” Johnny replied, with a blank, far-off look in his eye, and there was no doubt about it now. “Is everything all right?” Donghyuck began.
Johnny blinked then shook his head, moving up against the headboard and tangling their ankles under the sheets. “Yeah—it’s fine, just—“
Johnny sighed. “It’s Mark. I think—something’s off with him. I don’t know—“
“What do you mean? What way?”
Johnny chewed on his bottom lip. “I think it’s because… my birthday’s coming up,” and then, when Johnny turned to him and Donghyuck saw his eyes, he understood, immediately. Johnny squeezed his hand. “I know it’s Saturday, but—“
“Go,” Donghyuck urged him, shaking his head; he would’ve gone too, but he knew on a night like this only Johnny’s presence would fix things. He watched Johnny pull on a coat, shutting the door, and it hit him all of a sudden, later, that it was exactly three weeks til Johnny’s birthday, and that each time he’d talked about planning for it, Mark had flinched, changed the subject, or promptly disappeared. Mark never touched the drinks Donghyuck ordered them; of course he wouldn’t. “I’m a fucking idiot,” he told Yuta over the phone. “The biggest fucked up idiot in the world.”
Saturday, Part Two
Mark spotted Johnny hovering near the back booths as he finished the last set at the Cherry Bomb. He wove past the servers stacking up empty bowls and exclaimed, “You’re here!” He was grinning ear to ear, until it dimmed from whatever thoughts he was letting percolate in his brain. “Johnny.” He frowned. “Why are you here?”
“Uh, my parents own this place? So technically, I do too?” Mark followed him into the booth he picked, settling down across him. “Is mom here?”
Mark shook his head. “No, not till next week.” Mark eyed him down. “Why do I know your mom’s store visit schedule more than you do?”
“Because she's kinda almost your mom, too,” Johnny said, obviously, then perked up when Yuta passed their table, who pointed his drumsticks at Johnny until they were close enough to bump fists. “Aw, Markie don’t like kisses?” he said, laughing as Yuta dropped an ugly, wet smooch on his cheek.
“Well, since Johnny’s here, I’m going to head out—take care, lovebirds,” Yuta said graciously, and then he was off, the bell dinging as the doors shut, and Mark was staring out confusedly at his back—because it was a Saturday, and he wasn’t supposed to have Johnny, not yet.
“Dude, seriously… is something wrong?” Mark said. “Where’s Hyuck?”
“Just you and me tonight,” Johnny said. His fingers circled Mark’s wrist, and then, “Mark,” because it was no use to skirt around things, they’d done enough of that. “You know you can tell me anything, right?”
Mark looked at their hands. “‘Course.”
“It’s been so long, I didn’t think it would still be a thing. But then you started acting strange when they brought up my birthday and—“ a shadow passed through Mark’s face, “I wasn’t thinking. Mark, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize—“
“No, what, no,” Mark was saying. “That? My brain’s just being weird about it. It’s nothing—“
“No secrets,” Johnny reminded him, and Mark’s eyes widened. “Remember?”
Some staff had switched off the stage light, leaving only the lamps over each booth to illuminate the bar. Mark exhaled, shuddering. “Sorry, yeah, it’s—it’s your birthday, and I can’t wait—but it’s also the anniversary of how I fucked up everything, is all. Heh."
Johnny had a slight idea. How Mark hadn’t so much touched a bottle of soju in the past year. All those times they’d talked and Mark regurgitated the bitter, bitter parts of him that he so cleverly hid, because he loved Donghyuck but sometimes the brain was good at telling him he wasn’t wanted. Turned out Donghyuck wasn’t the only actor.
“I forgive you. You know this,” Johnny stressed; Mark still wasn’t meeting his eyes. “And I don’t hold it against you. Whatever thing you’re scared of—there’s nothing left of that in me, Mark. We’re past it now.”
“Yeah,” Mark breathed thickly. “I know. I just—I’m stupid about it, I guess. I hurt you. I know I will again, inevitably. And now there are three more people in the equation, which is fucking wild to me, and so much more than I’ll ever deserve. I’ve hurt Yuta. And Donghyuck, too—sometimes I think he’s just pretending to like me—“
“He loves you, that’s not true.”
Mark laughed, “I know, I know, I know it’s not true—at least, right now, but someday, maybe, things are gonna—they’ll get messy. And things are so good right now, Johnny. They’re so good—“ Mark tugged Johnny’s wrist up so he could kiss into his knuckles. Johnny breathed out. “I just think about how things changed so quickly for us. I couldn’t have you, for so long—then now I can, and it’s like, whaaat. Like, what if one day I wake up, and nothing’s how I left it? You know? If I fuck this up again—“ he pulled in a fraying breath, “it’ll kill me; it will.”
Johnny gathered Mark’s hand between his own. “This thing we got—“ he began, “I mean, it’s not neat. But it doesn’t have to hurt. It can be good.” He pressed his palms together, felt the shudder ebb away. “Let it be good.”
Mark shut his eyes, letting some unfathomable wave pass over his head. “So much of you reminds me of things that scare the shit out of me,” Mark admitted, laughing, and Johnny nodded fiercely, said, “Oh God, me too. Me too.”
In the murk of their room, their legs bracketing each other as they sat face to face on the bed, Johnny slowly unbuttoned his shirt until he could pool it around his waist and show Mark the healed tattoo.
“Taipei,” Johnny explained, grinning ear to ear. “Do you hate it?”
Mark traced over it; Johnny shivered at the touch. “Dang. What flower is this? Is it a flower?”
Johnny thought about that for a moment; even he had a difficult time describing its surreal shape: it looked like a white asterisk, a complicated shell, or yes—the whorled crown of a flower. “It could be,” Johnny answered conveniently, thinking about it now—how time, growth, and pain meant all the same, to a body. He said. “It’s whatever I want it to be.”
“That’s so fucking pretentious,” Mark laughed, delighted. He hadn’t stopped tracing it. “Like a Rorsch test?”
“That. Whatever. It’s pretentious, dude.”
“It’s supposed to be. Plus, it’s a great conversation starter,” Johnny said. He reached up, tracing the high of Mark’s cheek, before honing in on the little bump under his hair. “And look—we match now.”
Mark met his gaze when it sunk in. His eyes were filling with emotion, and then he was pushing to his knees, leaning over and knocking Johnny down and then Mark was kissing him, gasping, “Stupid,” and kept kissing him, gasping like he was coming up for air. “Yours is way prettier.”
Johnny tilted Mark’s head and kissed it. His scar, their scar. “No,” he disagreed, and his voice shook, “yours is. Pretty. All of you is pretty. You’re so pretty—” he was babbling now, didn’t know what he was saying, because Mark’s thighs were on him, plush and warm, grounding him to earth. They grasped at each other, throats spilling with gasps, between them a strong current gathering and cupping static, and then Mark was pulling away, saying, “Wait—do you want—“
Johnny nodded—he wanted it too. What else could he say? He needed it, to share the impossibility of this moment with the rest of them, for no other reason that if he couldn’t have Donghyuck’s smart mouth and Yuta’s scratchy laugh in the next moment he would die; he would.
Johnny wished he’d brought his camera; the expression on Yuta and Donghyuck’s faces were worthy of his most expensive film.
“You’re naked,” Donghyuck said.
“Yeah, we were waiting for you,” Mark blustered, impatient; his whole face was red, revealing what he’d spent the last twenty minutes doing. His resolve had reached its fraying end. Donghyuck crossed the room, said, “You know, I was in the middle of my five step skincare routine—“ and Mark rolled his eyes, said, “Fine, watch us fuck over Zoom again.” And Donghyuck’s jaw dropped, stunned. Yuta laughed, though his eyes were dark, and wanting. “Chihiro, what’s this?”
Mark smiled at him, shy. But his hand drew Donghyuck boldly towards the edge of the bed. “We wanna try something today—but I was thinking, it has to be you.” Mark craned his head up, biting his lip. “Please, hyung?”
“Fucking hell,” Donghyuck said, shooting Johnny an accusatory glance before kneeling into the bed and buckling under Mark’s gaze, like Johnny knew he would. Donghyuck kissed filthy—filthier than Yuta—and soon the air grew saturated with their breaths. Johnny and Yuta watched them, open-mouthed. Yuta floated towards the other side of the bed. To Donghyuck, Mark whispered, “I wanna fuck Johnny. Teach me,” and Donghyuck patted his cheek and levelled his own bright gaze at Johnny and said, “Well, first thing is to ask him nicely, baby.”
Mark looked at Johnny. “Hyung, will you let me fuck you?”
Johnny groaned, sliding a pillow underneath his back. “Aw, missionary,” Donghyuck cooed. Johnny ignored him in lieu of taking Mark’s face in his hands and giving him a reassuring kiss. Donghyuck sank behind Mark, shirtless now, and hooked his chin over his shoulder; he looked like Mark’s personal devil, whispering blood spells in his ear that Johnny ached to hear. “What,” Johnny said, because Mark’s face was morphing into open wonder as he parted Johnny’s legs and saw, what he believed, the results of his hard work a few minutes ago, waiting for Yuta and Donghyuck to come.
“I’m so dead,” Mark said, voice drooping. “Shit, I’m—” and Donghyuck intervened, whispering, “Take it slow, he’s always so fucking tight.” Mark sank one knuckle in and shuddered, like he was the one being speared open, “Fuck. I’m going to die.”
“No, you're not,” Yuta laughed. He had pillowed his head over Johnny’s shoulder. His eyes were dark and blown as he tracked Mark, his hand circling Johnny’s chest and skating down. Johnny watched three fingers disappear into his body, before throwing his head back with a groan. “If I don’t get you in me I’m going to die,” he promised Mark, and Donghyuck’s tight voice piped up and said, “I said slow, not forever—hurry up.”
“Sorry, sorry, sorry—“ Mark shook, lining himself up—and Johnny had to take a moment to laugh at the ridiculous immensity of it all, because Yuta was sucking a hickey into his chest, right next to his new tattoo, and Donghyuck was licking into Mark’s ear—and then he was breaking off into a full, wrenched note as Mark pressed into him, gasping, “Hyung—you’re so—hot inside—oh—” further and further, as they both sank into a dream. Mark choked, “Is this—okay?”
“Fuck, yeah—just keep—like that—”
"Try it like this," Donghyuck murmured, and helped him fixed the angle, so that the thrust turned from good to cataclysmic. Johnny made a ruptured sound that rounded Mark's eyes. He flung an arm over his eyes. "There," he was saying, "there, there—" And Johnny kept coaxing Mark through it, and Donghyuck’s sure hands guided Mark’s waist, Yuta’s sharp, cat-like eyes grounding them here, but still, Mark kept slipping, hooking Johnny’s legs up and slowing with a curse. Johnny said, “Why—why are you looking at me like that?”
“Huh?” Mark asked, and Johnny cupped his jaw, looked into his eyes: “You look like you’re about to cry.”
Mark’s hips stuttered. “Just a lil—overwhelmed.” A tremor possessed his leg. He added, “Feeling—a lot.” So Johnny tugged him by the scruff of the neck, promised, “We can do it slow,” and held him, just proximity, riding the wave, like how time moved in the shower the first time they touched—the seconds sliding between their toes and falling still, into eddies. Their foreheads pressed together. “Slow.”
They drifted like that, finding their way into the deep; a few touches from them, a few words from him: a collaboration.
“Was it any good?”
“It could use some practice,” Johnny admitted. A smile brimmed from his lips. He dug his heels into Mark’s back and dragged him flush against his chest, wanting to maroon him here forever, and said, “Let’s try that one more time—“ and on it went, the both of them failing to recreate the tricks Yuta and Donghyuck taught them at the first try, and what else was there to do but to do it over and over—again and again—until they got it right?
The Morning After
Johnny felt it immediately after standing up—his insides adequately re-arranged. On the bed was the culprit, who’d fainted right after and began snoring, followed by Donghyuck, now curled against him, who was drooling into the sheet. “We should make a run for it while they’re asleep,” Yuta joked, and Johnny hobbled over to the bathroom to drag a wet towel over himself.
When he emerged, he caught Yuta carding through Mark’s sweaty hair, but it was the look on his face that sent him scurrying back into the toilet. He owed Yuta that privacy. Counting to ten, he opened the door and flushed the toilet. When he re-entered the bedroom Yuta was already pushing his pants up. “Where are you going?” Johnny asked, frowning. Yuta replied, “Gonna get food. He turns into a gremlin after sex.”
“I mean, we can always order in,” Johnny suggested. When Yuta looked like he was about to consider otherwise, Johnny sighed and jerked his thumb towards the bathroom. “Take the hot shower. I’ll take care of this lump.”
Slowly, Yuta nodded, grateful. As he began to make his way, like a cosmic joke, somewhere among their discarded clothes, came the shrill, incessant ringing of a phone. Their eyes met. Johnny glanced once at the two sleeping figures on the bed—Donghyuck stirring softly to paw at Mark’s chest—and without thinking, Johnny scavenged for the phone, pressed Answer, and said, “Hello? Who is this?”
“Johnny,” Yuta hissed. He trailed him out the bedroom, right on his heels. “What are—”
Johnny kept walking; on the other end of the line: a trench-like silence. Then, a man’s voice, a deep, accented, “Is this Yuta speaking?”
If asked, Johnny would say he didn’t know why he did it; just because. That the moment was ripe. He looked at Yuta one more time before adopting the most hideous American accent he knew, saying, “No, but this is his boss. Yuta’s in a very important meeting right now. Discussing—“ Yuta shot him a panicked look, “—sales. And things. He’s my best employee and I rather he not be disturbed at this hour. Uh, yes. Bye.” He ended the call.
It didn’t ring again.
They stared at the screen of Yuta’s phone until the screen went dark. “Johnny,” Yuta began.
“Sorry, I don’t know why I—“ Johnny said, and then Yuta was head-butting him in the chest, wrapping his arms around his waist and squeezing. When he looked up his eyes were shining.
“Thanks,” Yuta croaked, and a smile spread across his face like sunlight over a city. He hooked his arm around Johnny’s elbow, said, “I can’t believe we’re dick sisters now.”
The bedroom door creaked open, and out from the depths emerged Donghyuck and Mark, boasting the most glorious, post-sex bedheads Johnny had ever seen. Donghyuck joined them on the table first, demanding breakfast, and then Mark, who hobbled to take the seat between him and Yuta and tried his damnedest not to stare at Johnny across the table. This he failed within five seconds. “Hey,” Mark said, and Johnny smiled, pouring him a glass of water, and said, “Hey yourself.” Mark couldn’t take the conversation further, because Yuta was dialling the volume up on the video he'd been loading on the phone, and out came Mark’s own voice, milky and smooth as the coffee he was advertising, and everyone promptly lost it. “Guys,” Mark moaned into his hands, “It’s just a stupid jingle,” to which Donghyuck replied, singing, “And you wrote it, oh my god!” It was chaos, with Donghyuck crooning the lyrics back every minute, and Yuta making too few eggs, and then too many, and Johnny dragging Mark down the couch later, so they could fail at kissing again. All on a Sunday—but no one had remembered to count.
“Happy birthday, hyung,” Mark whispered, on the long way back, as Johnny pulled the car down the undulating road, past the ice cream parlor, Mad Dog, and the Aristocrat—chasing down a train by the roadside until they emerged into a steep clearing, the moon bruising itself on the asphalt in a hurry to greet them, so close and so bright now that no shadows could exist.
“No secrets, right?” was what Johnny said when he pulled his Notes app up and slid his phone Mark’s way. The first few lines made Mark choke out a laugh: dear god what if maybe i’m just not his fucking type
“You’re 100% definitely my type. Hyung—yo, this is wild—you know you were my gay awakening, right?”
“Well, I know now.”
“Seriously.” Mark turned to face him. “Thank you for telling me; now I want you to never doubt that, ever. You and Yuta-hyung—you’re both so special to me. Okay? Different. But both great. Dude, you saw the recording.”
“There’s more,” Johnny said, touching his neck. “But I might be too late.”
Mark pulled away. “What—?”
“I didn’t mean to keep it from you—“ Johnny began, and Mark interrupted, “Johnny, spill it,” so Johnny blurted in a rush: “Yuta’s leaving. Right now.”
The wheels of his suitcase screeched down the lobby. In the distance, sitting on a bench beside an overgrown fern, Yuta looked up, his placid face inhabited first with confusion, and then concern, and then fear, seeing the figure barrelling in his direction. Yuta stood up. He tore his earphones off. “What the fuck—“
Mark collided into him in a heap of sharp elbows. He swathed Yuta in an embrace. And then he pushed him off and punched him in the shoulder. Hard.
“Ow, Jesus, fuck!” Yuta bristled, like a cat who got its tail stepped on. “Mark? Why are you here—wait, did Johnny tell you?”
“You told Johnny, but not me? Hyung! What the fuck?” Mark cried. “Were you just going to disappear without telling me anything?”
“It’ll just be a few days,” Yuta groaned, though Mark could tell it was a lie; no one knew Yuta better than Mark did. “I’m just gonna drop by for a little fun family reunion. I’ve been putting it off for too long. Might as well face my fears, right? Listen, I—what is this?” Yuta frowned at Mark’s silver Samsonite suitcase—Johnny’s technically, but he wouldn’t miss it—and the guitar case slung across his back.
“My stuff?” Mark said. “Osaka is cold.”
Yuta stared at his face for a beat before his face twisted in a laugh. “You’re not coming.”
“Yeah I am,” Mark said, and when Yuta was about to object, he repeated, “I am.” He pulled out the ticket and waved it under his nose: Incheon to Osaka. Business class. “Cashed in on a favor. I’m ready.”
“Mark,” Yuta said, serious; his smile had flat-lined. “This is—no. Look, I lied. It’ll be more than a few days. A week, at least. But, I’ll come back as soon as I can—well, if they’ll let me—”
“Look, you can’t just drop your life here, okay, you have—a, a, a tour—more fucking jingles to write—“
“And you have to meet your family.” The tour was full of sexist snobs anyway, Mark thought, and he could write anywhere, anytime; he had a whole lifetime of backlog music to send over the Internet. “You keep playing it down, but I know. I know all about it. Family’s tricky.” Mark gripped his hand. “I won’t let you go alone.”
“They’ll eat you alive,” Yuta promised. He swallowed. “They’ll—they’re nosy. They’ll want to know what you are. To me.”
“Then tell them I’m your colleague. Best friend. Bodyguard. I don’t care. We can figure it out on the flight,” Mark said with conviction. His fingers slid up to curl around Yuta’s elbow. “I really don’t care. Do you?”
“What they think of you? Of course I care. They’re my family.”
“Aren't I yours, too?” Mark said, and Yuta looked at him, expression flayed. “Please, hyung. Let me do this for you. I told you—remember? I’d return the favor one day. You’ve given me so much—you need to let me pay you back eventually.”
Yuta was still looking at him, then at the hand Mark had wrapped around his arm like an anchor, mooring him here. “Never pay me back,” Yuta decided, his voice a little uneven, and he reached up and twisted Mark’s ear, grasping him by the neck to repeat, “Never. Don't even think about it. You can't quit this,” and Mark agreed, letting himself be dragged in and pulled asunder by the weight of his own devotion, saying, “Oh, I won’t. Hyung, I won’t.”
The Voice Note
“—doing okay. And now—[static]—open letter to my darling, Mark Lee! How is Japan? I hope Yuta’s family's feeding you enough. Suffice to say—[static] missing your dumb face a little bit. Unfortunately for you, I’m neither a poet nor a musician, but let’s have a crack at this, yeah? Thank you for loving me all these years. Stop making me mixtapes and start kissing me instead. I’ve always been here. It’s crazy, isn’t it? You have three other brain cells now and you haven’t burned the world down. Yet. I’m kidding. I promise I’ll never ask you to get it right. You can go wherever you want in the world and—[static]—I’ll still meet you here.
See you next week. And—I guess I'll keep repeating it until you believe it—sincerely, yours. Johnny.”