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1.

 

This wasn’t how he had pictured it going—if he could say he had pictured it at all in the first place. Meeting Mark’s mom hadn’t been high on his list of priorities, bullet points coming before it including a twelve hour shift, trying to remember what his dog’s brand of food is at the tenth hour mark and wallowing in self-pity at the fact he hasn’t seen his boyfriend of two months in a week. That is twelve percent of the time they've been together, by the way. Doing the math for it was higher on his priority list as well.

That's not to mean it's not in there somewhere, or that—if Donghyuck had counted with the free time for it—he wouldn't have liked to do things right in the most conventional sense of the word, the one that involves Donghyuck fresh out of the shower and ringing her house's doorbell punctually at not too early but just late enough, a family gathering he’s been cordially invited to gatecrash or an arranged dinner at an arranged time. Still, his non-fantasy doesn’t even get the chance to be daydreamed, life unfolding whatever way it makes up its mind to once Mark shows up to pick him up at the large exit doors of the ice rink.

He’s there against all of Donghyuck’s protests, which come in a quickly typed string of texts bringing up the fact Mark’s car is currently in the shop, or that rain is pouring in drops cruel enough to gather as one continuous waterfall, like a pitless bucket hanged over the clouds had been kicked down and left to turn Mark’s clothes damp under his threadbare umbrella when he comes along anyway, that very shabby cloth held over his head being the one reason why he had turned a deaf ear on Donghyuck’s noooo don’t you dare message in reply to Mark’s ill go get u, all stemming from a mindless forgot my umbrella :( Donghyuck had sent while fitting his skates on their bag after wrapping up for the day. 

Mark is on the phone when Donghyuck makes it to the polyester awning held over his head, raising up on his feet without his heels leaving the ground to land a kiss hello on Mark’s cheek. His stubble prickles the blister on Donghyuck’s lip in greeting, both dutiful reminders of weekdays being long and of the razor blade refills at the bottom of his duffel, picked up from the supermarket he walks into in the half hour to spare he gets in between work and training, all to get a four kilo bag of Freshpet once his dog’s kibble brand comes knocking into his memory, along with a pack of Gillette cartridges at Mark’s texted request. 

There’s a woman’s voice on the other end of the wire that Donghyuck can make out as Mark’s mom, both from the gained familiarity of hearing her telltale nasal voice come through a phone pressed to Mark’s ear and from Mark’s only input being long-hummed replies and any and all variations of the word yes, and for the moment that he remains with his back straightened into a tiptoeless stretch towards Mark’s cheek, he catches the tail of the words it’s late and my house is closer, not hard to puzzle out she’s inviting her son over to wait out the rain. 

“I’m with Donghyuck,” Mark says at the same time Donghyuck fits the last four-tabbed jigsaw piece in. Their gazes meet up in a silent gathering as words take form through the speakers, Donghyuck's eyebrows raising in wonder when he’s shown the white of Mark’s eyes so they can take on a dramatic roll. “My boyfriend, mom. I’ve told you—“

He’s cut off by what the sound of Mark’s call set to its top volume lets him know is a dismissal in the shape of not a problem and having more than enough leftovers. It's nearing ten p.m, his stomach is a second away from speaking up in a grumble from being empty since late morning, and the back of Mark’s shirt is glued to his skin from the wind blowing on ice cold water to make it fall crosswise, so it’s nowhere close to being a double bind when he nods in agreement the second he sees Mark’s lips part to ask what he already knows is coming, Donghyuck witnessing the thankful quirk they flash at him before Mark is saying a sure that’s meant to be picked up by his phone’s mic. 

And so, instead of an arranged time arrival, Donghyuck drips rain water on the welcome mat of Mark's childhood home when he lightly bows his head at the door, and his family gathering intrusion is replaced by hunching over a ten seater table in the dimmed down kitchen light with a bowl of miso soup for him to polish off and for Mark’s mom to watch them gulp down, her own dinner plate already in the sink by the time they take a seat with toweled hair and dry clothes, by the grace of the lone drawer in Mark’s brother’s old room being crammed with clothes that become hand-me-downs for the night. 

With a bold-lettered Westbridge High School scrawled across the back of the hoodie Donghyuck shrugs on, he sits through the dinner in a quiet he only breaks when Mark brings him into conversation with a tilt of his head or a oh, Hyuck knows about that, otherwise sticking to keeping his mouth full and his eyes on every new corner they meet. It’s partly because it leads him to find out bits and pieces about Mark he hoards gladly, like the fact Mark's entire family calls him Kee, thanks to Johnny never seeming bothered enough to pronounce Markie all the way when he was five and lazy with his words around a new born brother, or the framed picture of a butt-naked, toddler version of the man beside him splashing bath water at the camera, not too far away from his present version speaking through a mouthful of tofu and dribbling broth down his chin.

The other part, however—

"Your mom was looking at me funny, right?"

It comes out when the question gets tired of lying about his mouth, and the sound of it snaps the untrodden street’s midnight hush in half, abrupt enough to get Mark to look back at him from where he’s leaning out of the stop’s shelter and into the street, checking the empty road for their bus with his head bare and unshielded from the light rain falling down, the earlier unforgiving downpour having knocked itself down into a drizzle. 

Mark's place is closer to Donghyuck's job than his own, and he has an early shift tomorrow morning, a change of clothes in his bag and the untheatrical feeling he might die if he spends another twelve percent of their relationship without Mark at hands’ reach, all adding up to Donghyuck staying over as the only sensible choice. 

"Funny how?" Mark asks in place of an answer while ducking back under the sheet iron shelter, words almost swallowed by the raucous of the clouds' shower meeting the metal. 

The clueless tone to it drives Donghyuck to draw the heavy duffel bag hanging off his frame closer to his chest in an oddly protective gesture, its zipper having been a nightmare to do all the way up with it crammed by everything from a pair of skates to a Freshpet bag, and the weight of it doing no favors to the second-nature slouch of his shoulders. It worsens at the memory of being on the receiving end of a stony look for shaking his head no with a polite smile when offered a second serving of oversalted and underseasoned soup, the gaze he's under further rock-strewn once he bunches up the sleeve of his borrowed jumper to rub away a trail of all-salt-no-seasoning broth off Mark’s chin. 

"Just—with her eyes,” he settles for, an arm wrapping around his shoulders the next moment, with fingers slipping under the bag’s strap to take an nth of the heavy weight off Donghyuck. 

“I didn’t notice anything weird,” Mark shrugs, his damp palm beginning to soak through the fabric of Johnny’s jumper to meet Donghyuck’s lukewarm skin with a small squeeze to his shoulder, a poor imitation of a back rub motion. “Maybe you’re just tense?” 

It takes one more squeeze for Donghyuck to give a doubtful hum, Mark’s eyes already back on the lookout for the three seventy bus by the time he grants a maybe. Seconds go by before the image on his mind of a sour, salty look taunts Donghyuck one more time, and then he’s tacking on, “You’re sure she’s okay with this, right?” 

“Positive. You’re not the first boy I’ve had her meet,” Mark is quick to reply. The silence that meets him has him turning his head back to the side to find himself nose to nose with a pout on Donghyuck’s face, Mark’s arm that is still keeping him pressed to him in a one-armed hug jostling Donghyuck closer at the lamppost-granted sight of a jutted out lip and a crease between eyebrows. “What?”

“Where’s my apology?” Donghyuck manages to ask without disturbing his carefully carved sulk, all an only half-mocking attempt to take Mark on a trip down a guilty road.

“For not being my first boyfriend?” Mark catches on after a blink's time, laugh coming on the way it does when he finds Donghyuck funny for unintended reasons, before he's pressing rain-wet lips to his forehead, as if Donghyuck’s pride could be found on the skin of his temple and kissed better. “Sorry. Won’t happen again,“ he promises with his mouth still brushing the joining curve of forehead and cheek, peach fuzz on Mark’s chin rubbing Donghyuck’s pride spot raw. 

The soup-smelling memory of a funny stare that’s been printed on the back of Donghyuck’s eyelids is given up for the moment, busying himself instead with the deliberate decision to accidentally forget to hand Mark the razor blades still sitting on the floor of his bag until tomorrow morning, temple leaning closer to the tender scratch of Mark’s mouth he’ll selfishly allow himself for the night. “Good.” 

 

2.

 

The second time he's over, this once an arranged time and meal taking place with no clothes borrowed or rain spots on doormats, Donghyuck pays attention to the well-tended-to garden on their way in and asks about the plants while helping set the table, a they just grow all he gets in reply, like Donghyuck would believe the shipshape gardenia bushes lining her cobblestone path simply sprung up like weeds. When he comments how nice the painting by the entrance hall is, she remarks that old thing? it came with the house, pretending they aren't talking about an original Lee Wan. The moment he agrees with whatever she's saying, her argument suddenly makes a U-turn, and honestly, there's no other way around the fact everything Donghyuck does and says seems to always be dipping its toes inside the wrong waters: Mark's mom is homophobic, he's sure, no matter how many times Mark himself denies it.

Donghyuck holds that very belief up until the third time he’s over for dinner, when his mother-in-law sets aside her serving of ice-cream he got for dessert after one bite and turns to Mark to wonder aloud, “Remember that lovely boy you brought over last year? Always got the best desserts. Do you know how he’s doing?”

From across the table, he gets that same guilt-riddled smile Mark has been lending him out all night throughout every disregarded flower and art piece, with third time's charm finally making her funny stare undeniable, and he drowns out his temper on the angriest way he can manage to take a gulp of water as he hears Mark reassure her that Jeno's doing fine, mom.

Great. So it’s not a gay thing. It’s just a Donghyuck thing. 

 

3.

 

It's not hard to figure out why, really.

“I wasn’t made for school,” is one of the first things he tells Mark, eyes all the way on the other side of the rink where Mark’s cousin is following in stride a coach’s demo of how to snowplough stop, if only to distract himself from the arm brushing his side with Mark’s elbows propped on top of the rink topper, his upper body leaning into the ice from where he stands by the grandstand seats, Donghyuck’s skates on the frozen water side unmoving as his back rests between the end of the safety plexiglass climbing over their heads to his right and the inch of space lying before the place where the knuckle of Mark’s pinky is to his left.

It’s the second time that week Yuri has been brought over for a lesson, and it’s only Wednesday. Judging by the way she keeps looking their way with eyes widened in a plea and whining if they can please go now every time she skates past their corner, Donghyuck would go out on a limb and say she seems to have outgrown last week’s thrill to take her first step into becoming a figure skater, the broad smile on her face switching places in seven days time with her older cousin’s lack of interest, who at the present time seems far too busy giving Donghyuck a frown flooding over confusion to care for the let’s go she lets out loud and clear from the middle of the ice. 

“What do you mean? You seem really smart,” Mark says with his frown spilling onto his tone, though there’s no contempt to the words, no disdain for the chipped ice or regard for Donghyuck’s roughed up skates as a waste of potential, but just a well-meant question mark penned down and dotted up after Donghyuck swearing off booksmartness.

Mark’s mistake is thinking Donghyuck’s university aversion and his weekend shifts picking up the phone in the name of customer service (think: try unplugging it and plugging it back in, is it working now?, you’re welcome) don’t have ulterior motives. 

“I am,” he smiles goodnaturedly, calling Yuri over with two come-here fingers she all but loses already precarious balance to get to. He slides away from the topper to lift her up onto it, and gets to work on undoing the first of her skates’ double knotted laces. “Which is how I know you should stop dragging Yuri all the way here,” the most cheerful squeal Donghyuck’s heard in a while cuts through his words, her padded jacket elbow almost knocking into Mark’s nose as she raises her arms high above her head in victory while Donghyuck carries on, “and just ask for my number. I’m free tomorrow after eight.” 

He means for it to come off as a joke, always one step ahead in case he needs to save face. It's a useless precaution this once, if the way Mark seems to only be capable of stuttering out one-off syllables for a moment’s second is anything to go by, followed by a string of yeah and sures Donghyuck repeats inside his head on the bus on his way back home, biting hard on the inside of his cheek not to smile at his mind playing back a nervous I’ll, uhm, I’ll pick you up. You’ll be here, right? Okay, sweet. Drinks on me. 

He isn’t sure he understands passion, was never able to grasp the concept of it between hands that have always been too occupied with the white-finger-turning weight of making ends meet and a brain far more concerned with figuring out how money makes the world turn. Passion (1): a strong and barely controllable emotion, a web search once read back at him, and Donghyuck hasn’t ever trusted dictionaries because words can only do so much, but what he does trust is that the recalling of cheeks hurting from smiling when he was barely taller than the rink’s walls but already grabbing onto another kid’s hands to help them slide forwards on their blades, along with whatever it is he feels now when he glides along ice in that one second he can afford to shut his eyes for, are both something he wants to feel all the time. (That’s one of the second things he tells Mark, who goes up in crinkles around his eyes at the words, and unlike Donghyuck doesn’t bite back his lips from spreading out however wide they want to).

Passion (1), bare control or emotion, call it what you want to, but Donghyuck doesn’t dream of coaching the next regional champion or gold medal winner. He just wants to keep holding onto wide-eyed kids’ hands as they take their first steps over ice, and no one can convince him that's not as big of a dream as Olympic fantasies, because it still means a license, a liability insurance and accreditation programs, all things he needs money to get and hours of practice to earn. (A third thing told, and one that doesn’t get him happy wrinkles or lovesick smiles, but far too early congratulatory kisses pressed to Donghyuck’s neck on the back of Mark’s car a month and some days later, drive-thru paper bags ignored in favor of Mark pecking the tension away from Donghyuck’s shoulders, which are still hefty from the test he just took, fee for it too expensive for him to bear the idea of a non-passing mark being mailed to him in weeks’ time. Mark doesn’t manage to kiss that one away, but Donghyuck can’t say he doesn't try his best). 

Passion, licenses and low-scale dreams, none of that really matters when placed in a ring against the lovely boy who used to get the nice desserts and seems pedestal-worthy in Mark's mom’s eyes: Lee Jeno. A couple jealous jabs at Mark and some deep Instagram scrolling lets him know Jeno is a year older than him (Mark’s age), in his second year of chemical engineering (same bachelor as Mark) and has a stupid pretty face (but not more than Mark's). His imagination provides the missing thought-stuff breezeblocks for the remaining empty gaps in his built up image of this Jeno guy, one that tells him he probably doesn’t work underpaid hours, or still live with his parents, or have to help them out with their rent instead of the other way around, or an endless list of ors that earn him no encouragement or understanding in a mouth curving up at him or pressing down on his skin from Mark’s mom, getting everything but that when he swallows down his bite of food and looks into the place where her eyes would usually be, now with raw expectation sitting in their place, as he tells her, “I would love to be a coach at the local rink. I’m working on getting my credentials.” 

Her response comes almost automatically, a linen napkin patting at an invisible stain over her mouth and tablecloth showing a shadow of movement when her legs cross underneath the table. “So you’ve never considered getting a degree?” 

Donghyuck buys time for Mark to step in as he takes a now customary long angry water sip. He catches Mark’s eye over the edge of his glass to find there’s an apology in it, his socked toes resting over the tip of Donghyuck’s slippers curling on themselves, a gesture meant to mend the moment in a muted manner, but his mouth remains shut even after he’s done chewing his mouthful. 

“Not really,” Donghyuck answers, voice strong and under bare control as he puts his cup down, glass half empty and showing a thin crack around the rim he can’t get himself to point out, a broken record of himself as he adds, “I wasn’t made for school.” 

Her interest in him seems to die just as soon as it came to life, getting up from the table and giving Mark’s head a quick tap with her open palm when she walks past him on her way to the kitchen with a, “I hope you don’t get any crazy ideas from that.” 

The glass breaks in his hand a minute later, and Mark apologizes quietly with a paper towel dabbing at the speck-sized cut on his lip, word whispered even behind the closed door of the bathroom, as if afraid the walls might talk and snitch on his sorry, baby to the wrong person. 

 

4.

 

A pair of arms wrap around his waist and lace over his stomach, using the buckle of his belt as an anchor for them to let go of their weight and rest over it, along with a chin coming down to the dip where his neck trails off into his shoulder, Donghyuck trapped in a backhug between his in-law’s kitchen counter and Mark’s chest that preludes words. “Thank you. I’m sorry she’s always like this.”

The thank you he understands, the same way he gets why Mark keeps whispering around the same house he grew up in through hollered laughs and shrill screams.

Mark's head has been chronically kept down during most of his life, a no brainer Donghyuck has had figured out from the first time he had to sit beside Mark taking a call from his mom and hear him hum and yeah for a good five minutes before hanging up. So he mumbles a thank you into the curve of his neck, as in thanks for never snapping even when she tries to get you to and thank you for offering to come with me, both pieces of gratitude coming from Mark’s chair scraping against the floor when his mom pulls a face at Donghyuck giving a particularly hard bite in a noisy accident, offering to try out her new coffee machine for her and fix them up some after-dinner cups, Donghyuck understanding the silent request (thank you for learning how to read me a little too well) and announcing he’ll go along for help. 

The sorry she’s like this, he doesn’t get as much. 

“I don’t mind. It’s fine,” Donghyuck tries to sound reassuring, thanking his teeth for listening to him and not letting the words come out through the tight spaces between them. He keeps his eyes down on the lit up buttons of the espresso machine, shiny enough to let it be known it sports more zeros in its price tag than Donghyuck’s stovetop coffee maker.

"Liar,” Mark calls him out, pocket-sized voice standing as tall as it’ll go, the small shake his head gives rustling up the shirt Donghyuck blew the dust off his iron for. “It’s not fine. Sorry.” 

The light around the hoop-like bounds of the coffee machine’s buttons keeps blinking on and off, and Donghyuck feels his eye send a formal request for a nervous twitch when a chin digs right over the muscle he pulled that morning while ironing out the fabric of the shirt Mark keeps on creasing up. His motor cortex gives into his eye’s plea just in time for him to also back down and let his irk win him over, eyelid narrowing his sight in a jerky move while he tells Mark, "You could always stand up for me. You know, take my side for once."

"I'm always on your side.” It’s that same disdain-free, confused-filled tone, the one he uses time and time again when Donghyuck makes it known he doesn’t actually think the world of himself or allows a shadow of a doubt to peek through. 

The lights around the buttons keep flickering, and Donghyuck doesn’t know if that’s part of the regular set-up or if it’s a sign the machine is about to blow up, a feeling coming onto him that if it doesn’t go off with a bang he might just fill its shoes and do it himself.

"You’ve got a weird way of showing it," he counters, attempt at not trying to sound bitter falling short, going on in a low voice that makes sure it won’t be carried out of the kitchen. "She goes out of her way to humiliate me and you just let her." 

Mark's arms tighten around him as he echoes humiliate you?, incredulous enough to get Donghyuck to shake his grip off before he's drawn in any closer, turning around in the loose circle of Mark’s slackened hands that’ve slid down to his hips. 

"She criticizes everything I say, and then acts like I'm not even there.” A pointer finger gets shoved in Mark’s chest, odd satisfaction born under his fingertip when Mark’s shirt folds and furrows under its press when he stresses, “You act like I’m not there.” His voice climbs up in strain without his volume raising up, and now they’re arguing in whispers, eye begging to twitch once more and lights blinking on, off, on.

“I just don’t want to make a scene,” Mark’s shoulders go up in a mindless gesture along with the words, sound and motion just as helpless as the other, and the hands over Donghyuck’s hip bones bunch up where his dress shirt is tucked into his jeans, creasing the already rucked fabric on and on. 

“In front of who? Milo?” Donghyuck’s hand waves sightlessly to where he last remembers seeing Mark’s siamese cat, who barely perks an ear from where he’s napping on top of the fridge at the call of his name, neither turning his way as Mark sighs heavy into the shallow space between them. 

“No. It's—” He draws himself to a halt, rolling his neck from one side to the other with eyes half-closed as if dozing off, and breathes out through his nose once more before he goes from a whisper yell to a murmur, keeping his voice the same amount of hushed but moving it down the color wheel into a warmer shade to point out, “You told me you hate your family dinners because they always end in a fight.” 

"Yeah, that doesn't mean I would rather get ignored," Donghyuck dismisses the thought before he can go over it in his head, his own tone moving into bluer hues when he can’t and ends up remembering why his sister and him quit spending their holidays back home the moment they were old enough not to, or why he turned down Renjun’s usual Christmas invite last time to take up Mark’s and pass the evening by trying too hard to fit in between grown-ups that have studied in far more prestigious places than Johnny’s Westbridge High School, before the soju loosens him up enough to lean against Mark’s side and tell his boyfriend’s uncle he doesn’t get it, why can’t the government just print more money? for shits and giggles, but not enough to ignore the narrowed eyes pointed his way from the other side of the table, giving him a look that quit being funny after the first time he heard the punchline. 

"Just admit you can’t say no to your mom. That you care more about her opinion than my feelings,” he gets himself to say while holding Mark’s stare, no warm shade or dark tone but a stroke of a pathetic tint turning what he willed to be provoking to come out as something closer to begging. 

A set of steps can be heard the next moment nearing the kitchen, working as a metronome for the wall-muffled call asking, “Do you need any help, Kee?”

By the time his mother-in-law steps into the room, there’s a footprint of space between them, Donghyuck’s hands having curled around Mark’s wrists to pry them off his ruined shirt before either of them had been made aware of her self-invite to their kitchen trip, right when all Mark does is let his eyes jump back and forth between Donghyuck’s own. 

Mark gets himself to smile through the words we’re fine, but his grin quickly dies down as Donghyuck speaks over him. 

“Yeah, actually. I don’t think I can figure this one out,” he tells her with a pat to the espresso machine’s plastic top, the slight jostle of it finally getting the white light around its buttons to quit blinking like an endless turn signal, and with a bit more effort from his end he gets himself to match Mark’s five-seconds-ago smile, stepping away to make his way out of the room and towards the bathroom. “If you excuse me.” 

A footprint between Donghyuck and the kitchen’s doorframe, and he hasn’t even rounded the corner before he’s made to hear the coffee maker whirr into life followed by a badly concealed, “He has a little bit of a temper, doesn’t he?”

Another one of Donghyuck’s slippers put in front of the other, and there’s no sorry, baby then, but a not now, mom.

 

5.

 

It takes a hand dropping down to the floor to hold half his weight, an arm stretching out from the cliff’s edge of the couch all the way to over the coffee table, and Mark’s palm settling under his belly when his body decides to start sliding off towards the ground, but his fingers finally wrap around a phone. Mark’s, going by the bulky case and cracked glass. 

His back comes back down to the handful of couch-cushion expanse Mark isn’t sitting on, nape laid on Mark's knee and bare feet kicking up into the air and down onto the plush of the couch’s side from where they dangle down the armrest his butt is propped against. Milo’s fluffy face laid across the lockscreen greets him when he lets the phone light up to check the time, and before it dims back into black he catches sight of a calendar notification standing bright and white in between texts, mental lightbulb flicking on as he finds the perfect excuse to bring up the two and two he had put together a few days ago: two (as Donghyuck tried to remember the last time he sat through an endless stream of Mark humming and agreeing with his phone tucked between chin and shoulder and found that he couldn't) plus two (when he attempted to pin down the last time they went over to Mark’s mom’s and realized it had been well over a month going into two) equals Donghyuck turning Mark's phone his way to show him the screen and put on his best innocent act to wonder, “It's your mom’s birthday?” 

Mark hums without looking away from the TV in Donghyuck's living room, the hand that stopped him from slipping off into a rug burn fall not giving up its place over Donghyuck’s stomach even while he made himself comfortable again, instead riding his shirt up when going down in groggy moves to the nosedive of his waist. Blood-warm touch on him, Donghyuck’s resolve begins to dissolve under the comfortable temperature, his own hand following the sleep-addled trail Mark’s lead and curling over the dry skin of his knuckles, before the phone still held over his head buzzes and lights up to raise the curtain and show a text add itself to the pile, Johnny unbothered by hellos to ask at once u coming or what?

Donghyuck lets the phone fall without ceremony to the close end of the couch, case digging on his tailbone as he frowns at the ceiling. “She’s not celebrating? Weird.” 

It takes a hum prompting him on, the finale episode on screen ending and cutting to another show’s trailer, and Donghyuck’s palm clasping the rough and the warm of the back of Mark’s hand in its cradle, but he finally gets it out of him. “She is," he admits, short and clipped.

“Tonight?” 

Someone on screen begins to deliver a poem-sounding line on honesty. 

“Yeah.” 

Donghyuck’s neck curves up and around the length of Mark’s thigh to blink up at him, finding him staring straight at the season teaser playing on. “Then why are you here?”

The voiceover of the honesty monolog goes on during a lull in the conversation, silent interlude chewing at Donghyuck’s already eaten away patience. 

“We had a fight,” Mark finally lets on, before silence can take another bite and get Donghyuck to press on out of his own accord. “I told her I’m not going over anymore until she learns to be civil.”

Donghyuck has no issue with being the one to settle down with the quiet, eyes fixed on the humbling angle of the underside of Mark’s face, in a bit of a stun at the idea of Mark, fight and mom joining hands in the same sentence. Johnny’s text comes into the forefront of his mind then to shake that thought out of the limelight. “Yeah, but it’s her birthday, asshole.”

Mark doesn’t look down as he pushes a finger into Donghyuck’s cheek to turn his head back towards the TV. The moment the index forcing him down is gone, his neck is back to being curved up to look at the granted close up of Mark’s chin.

“I know I told you I wanted you to be on my side, but I didn’t mean you have to go picking fights for me,” he assures the razor cut on Mark’s jaw, the only part of him that is staring back at Donghyuck. He sees the shade of Mark’s pressed together lips go into the whites, and lets his nails lightly scratch at the bones beneath the skin of Mark’s fingers that are still hot on his waist, voice shedding off some of its weight. “Like, this is all very chivalrous of you, but I already stir up enough shit on my own. I don’t think I need any more help.” 

Netflix decides to draw all show trailers and scripted speeches to a halt, leaving Mark with nothing to put his eyes on to pretend he can’t feel Donghyuck burn a hole into the side of his face. Nonsensically pinning the blame for it on Donghyuck, Mark’s hand travels back up from his side to his belly button and dips a pinky finger inside it with no warning, making his body jump at the feeling and getting his touch slapped away from anywhere near Donghyuck’s skin.

“It wasn’t just that,” Mark starts with, only to take on a frown as he backtracks. “It started out as that, but—you were right. I've always put her opinion, like," he stacks one hand over his head in the air, "way up here. Whenever she looks the least bit disappointed in me, I just choke up, and she’s always used that to her advantage, I think.”

Furrowed brows in place, he forgets about Donghyuck’s red flag and puts a hand up to his cheek, long fingers covering the expanse from temple to the point of Donghyuck’s earlobe. “I guess I didn’t realize until that thing with you. Really shitty, by the way.” 

This is a conversation they haven’t had yet, kicked under the rug after overcomplicated coffee makers and remarks of Donghyuck’s temper they were too worn down to pick up on the car ride back, left to pile up under their relationship's doormat until either of them trips over it. It usually boils over, never giving them enough time to stumble upon it, instead overflowing until they find themselves up to their chins in an argument. But Mark’s already gone and got himself one of those all on his own, and from the night Donghyuck goes to sleep without answering Mark’s goodnight text only because he knows he’ll type something petty like not now, Kee before he can stop himself up until now, he’s more than mulled and thought the whole thing over in his head.

“So if she doesn’t care about what I want, I don’t care about what she wants,” Mark carries on with a shrug, as if Donghyuck wouldn’t be able to tell apart every unnatural curve and twist skewing his face into a dubious show of ease.

Deja vu taking over, Donghyuck puts a hand on his mind’s chest to bring it to a halt and avoid it answering back you’ve been caring for a long while, though. His course of thought teeters on the verge of self-convincing as he reminds himself of Mark’s chronic condition of Head Kept Down, and tells himself that, at least for now, he can settle for this, Mark doing his best effort through and through 

“A tantrum. How cute," Donghyuck teases, wiggling about until he can get himself to sit on the couch and then roll off the edge. The second he's up and steady, he makes grabby hands at Mark's slumped form, spelling out moping in the awkward bend of his spine and the pitiful expression he unsuccessfully tries to send Donghyuck's way. “Come on. Up. You’re going.”

“But she—”

“We both know you already got her presents. Plural.” 

A second of nothing, and then, “They’re in the trunk.” 

Donghyuck’s hands are in a tight circle around Mark’s wrists by the last word, pulling him up to his feet way ahead of his voice flatlining. “See?” 

Mark’s tongue stuck out to him is the last thing he sees before he’s facing the staircase and tugging him up the steps to his bedroom, Mark’s fingers wrapping around the space of Donghyuck’s forearms that is at their reach and the dutiful thuds of their bare feet on wood keeping them company on the way.

“Aren’t parents supposed to only want you to be happy and healthy and stuff?” Mark asks once he’s laying on the bed in Donghyuck’s room, with arms spread wide, Donghyuck’s back to him and face up to the ceiling, like it’s the hanging string lights running from one wall to the other the ones that he means it for when he says, "I love you. Why isn't that enough for her?"

Donghyuck’s hands stop their ransacking of his dresser’s winter clothes drawer. The set of his face remains the same, fingers steady and pulse untroubled, only because, by now, his mind knows how to run without moving from its place.

Mark has thrown the words around since Donghyuck heard them for the first time, yet not in a way that makes them come off cheap, as if they were loose change at the bottom of his feelings' most convenient pocket. He says them like they are light to roll off his tongue, not constantly sitting in his mouth but climbing up his throat and out whenever they feel like it. And they look great on him, when he says them through a video call with pixels to vouch for the smile on his face that curls around the L word, or when Donghyuck sits down with him at his desk and sets aside his higher education apathy to try and help Mark understand concepts he has an even rockier grasp of than passion (1), his reward for it being Mark letting out a three-worded thanks against his mouth. Even when he leaves Donghyuck's bed at the crack of dawn, and Donghyuck can’t see him through gunk-closed eyes but can picture him just fine, hair every which way and eyelids full of lethargy, dropping a kiss wherever he can reach as he mumbles it through muddled speech without the first person singular. 

Donghyuck’s words, on the flipside, are the worn, oversized Westbridge jumper in his hands: borrowed, never his, plain for everyone to see they are too big on him, swimming in them towards a watery grave—swimming and not drowning, just because he’s dreadful enough at rummaging through them to not find the due ones at the due time, only able to offer out actions and motions that speak up on his behalf, like setting the hoodie in his hands back on the drawer he took it from to turn around and face Mark, or crawling onto the bed on all fours towards Mark’s moping frame to land stomach down over his one outspread arm and tell him with a cheek squished by the matress, “She just wants what she thinks is best for you.”

It seems Donghyuck is awful enough at speaking that instead of getting to Mark, he manages to have him find the humor in it, a disbelieving laugh breathed out through his nose that Donghyuck is quick to keep talking over, because maybe if he says every word in the book, at one point he'll get them right.

“A little misguided, sure, but she’s a mom, you know?" One of his hands trails up the length of Mark's other arm that isn't trapped under his chest, the back of his hand faintly slapping the line of Mark's neck in a clumsy caress, gently pinching the skin between his knuckles as he goes on. "She’s at that age where the whole world is a threat, and in her head you’re always going to be a baby,” he adds, hand trailing up and up one more time, until it's framing the sides of Mark's mouth to press them down so his lips will come out in a pout. 

Mark's features have gone lax, the wrinkles of his brow deep asleep and the skin around his eyes smooth from a nice minute off the clock, the artificial kissy face Donghyuck is having him pull being the only taut bit on him, and the sight has him taking on a tone he would never admit to being reserved not only just for Mark, but for a Mark in need of Westbridge-sized comfort.

“Let her do her mom thing and smother you with expectations and send you home with Tupperwares and shit.” Mark squints an eye in a soundless protest when Donghyuck tightens his grip on his face to make sure he’s paying close attention, as if there was anything else in the room that could distract him from Donghyuck shifting impossibly closer on his single bed to tell him somewhere between mocking and stern, “And then you go and do your own thing, because it’s not your job to make sure whatever you do is what makes her happy.” 

He holds Mark's eye until he comes across a hint of understanding, and it's enough for his arm to twist—literally, as Donghyuck lets the hand cupping Mark's face to slacken and fall in the space between their faces, and then figuratively, as his voice falls back into pretend solemnity. “It is your job to do what makes me happy, though.” 

Donghyuck's never been more thankful Mark isn't fond of biting down smiles, because right then the corner of his mouth quirking up is a sight for sore-in-law eyes. “Is it now?” 

Those very sore eyes open wide in innocence, Donghyuck's eyebrows raised like they're talking something obvious. “Yeah. Didn’t read the fine print?” 

Mark grins, movement slow and measured, inching closer to kiss what he can get of Donghyuck's mouth that's not hiding away in a duvet valley, which puckers up to kiss back a checkered quilt and the bitten down skin of Mark’s bottom lip. 

“Go,” Donghyuck pulls away to say, coming back in the next moment to kiss persuasion into Mark’s suddenly downturned mouth. He takes his time looking through his mind for the most disgusting thing to hitch on, finally parting from him when he lands on an icky, “For me. Please?”

Donghyuck rearranges himself over Mark’s pins-and-needles riddled arm and sighs in a warm breath through almost closed lips, every ticking second melting Mark's resolution until Donghyuck finds himself standing in a puddle of it. Jackpot. 

“And for your brother," he goes on, coming up into an arm bent at the elbow to rest his head on and peer down at Mark. "Johnny’s gonna hate you if you leave him alone to hear about, I don't know, golf clubs or whatever. Or listen to your aunt casually tell everyone how good your cousin is doing on his first year of med school.” Donghyuck's voice goes higher in pitch and in age to imitate what he can remember of Mark's aunt's condescending questions over last Christmas's dinner. “How’s Kee’s little engineering thing going? Are you finding it hard?”

He's forced to break character by the end of it with a laugh sneaking in between words, from Mark's face scrunching up like he's bit down something sour as he seems to be taken back to the same memory, previous weakly put up fight set aside to make room for a groan in a senseless complaint. 

“God, we need to spend the holidays somewhere else this year,” he declares suddenly, and Donghyuck's mind goes blank in all its well-trained, run-in-place knowledge, heart rate picking up the pace at the candid look in Mark’s eye. “We could just crash at your sister’s place. I’ll bring Milo, food’s on me, and we can go to her roof to see the fireworks at midnight—”

“Okay, Fireworks,” Donghyuck cuts him off with a pat to the middle of his chest, priding himself on not having gone red and being able to get off the bed with the right amount of composure it takes, showing Mark the plain white length of his shirt as he pads his way back to his open dresser. “We’re only a week into April. I know you have enough mommy issues to think your mom is Jesus, but this isn’t his birthday. It’s hers.” 

Some part of him, he knows, is doing this for himself, to show he's the bigger person. Another part just loves the look of Mark in red. A third one, however, admits all that mulling and thinking the whole thing over has softened him some, and he grants it that, perhaps, there’s more to it than Donghyuck’s modern day Cinderella tale behind every one of Mark’s mom’s funny stares. Because Donghyuck did technically walk into her house bordering on unannounced, bringing the storm outside in with him and slipping on a high school jumper to dab its sleeve over spilled soup. His oldest son's clothes—who is now fully independent and having already done his share for her empty nest syndrome—on his other son's boyfriend—still the youngest but already living on his own, close to graduation and in a relationship, all things she's been left out from no matter how many calls a day or nights over he spends, with someone else other than her to clean up the food stains off his chin for him and who he can choose to take their side over hers. 

Option B is that she could simply be a bitch for the sake of it.

Behind him, he hears Mark hum along to the song of Donghyuck's last program, one he has sat and watched Donghyuck run through enough times to be over and done with the sound of blades on ice or that very sequence of piano notes, but even then Donghyuck finds Mark far too often like this—in his head and droning low in his mouth to a Russian named piece neither of them can spell—and he chooses to believe an apple as sweet and as deserving of Donghyuck's eye didn't fall far from its tree. 

He pushes the drawer shut with his hip, turning around with a bundle in his arms made up of his widest pair of skinny jeans to make up for Mark’s joggers and a red, too big Westbridge jumper to make up for—well, Donghyuck’s entire existence, he guesses. “Wear this.” 

Mark sighs as if being entrusted with an impossible task, a breath that keeps coming out and out until the melodrama is cut short by his lung capacity running out, but he gets up with the called-for theatrics that show how much of an effort he’s putting in, and catches the rolled up set of clothes Donghyuck throws his way before it can hit his face, shimming his pants off without a question in between. 

Places switched, Donghyuck lays on his side at the foot of the bed and watches Mark shrug on the jumper, the exuberance to everything he does showing in his arms shooting out to slip the sleeves past his hands that have turned to fists, and in the narrow of his eyes and the drama added to his voice when his head finally makes it out the other end to tell him, “I hope you’re happy.”

Donghyuck looks him over, sulky and draped in red cotton, his jeans too tight on Mark's thighs and too long for his legs, knee hole going down to his shin and fabric bunching up at the hem around his ankles, and hopes how much he means it when he says a poker-faced very doesn’t show through his front. 

 

+1

 

“He’ll be out in a moment.” 

Donghyuck naively waits for something else, like a small talk set phrase or an invitation to come inside, a nod behind schedule taking place when none of it comes, looking down at his feet where stands, the cap of his shoe pressed to the end of the steps leading up into the porch of Mark’s mom’s house. 

He doesn’t get invited in, but she also stays at the door, closing it halfway behind her back as she takes one carefully selected step out closer to him. The gap she leaves  between door and frame is wide enough for sound to slip through it and allow Donghyuck to listen in on the drunken grumbling of Mark against Johnny’s reluctant attempt to wrap a scarf around his neck. 

Five minutes short from an hour ago, he was warm in bed and about to put away his phone to call it an early night, for once not in the mood to push his bedtime with the weight of a six a.m shift hanging heavy over him, when it buzzed with Mark’s name making itself home on his notification bar, new texts coming in one after the other. hey man its johnny!! do u think u could come pick mark up? cant let him drive like this, a blurry picture of Mark sat at the middle of the backyard’s grass, flushed cheeks and huge grin through closed eyelids, i didnt wanna bother u but he insisteddd, and a final can totally call a taxi tho so no worries. 

The offer of letting Mark be taken care of by a bright looking, cost-per-minute car is tempting, but it was Donghyuck who put him on clothes one size smaller and two sizes bigger and asked him to sit at a table with a pissed off mom and a family he sticks out of like a sore thumb, and his mom's place is only a fifteen minute bus ride away from Donghyuck's house. Alas, a jacket and sweatpants thrown on top of his pajamas, a pat down to check for his driver's license at the bus stop, and fifty five minutes later, he gets to stand in eleven o’clock cold and hear Mark tell his brother that itches—a complaint he doesn’t understand from the English it comes out in but thanks to the size and shape of the way he whines it out—as the backdrop for the picture Mark’s mom makes before Donghyuck, who gives him a jolt when she breaks the quiet to tell him, “I’m right to assume you talked him into coming tonight.” 

Looking up from his poorly tied sneakers back up to her, Donghyuck’s brain finds itself already hard at turning every sinapsis and blood vessel in sight upside down to figure out how to reply to that. She’s got her arms crossed and her side leant on a wooden pillar, with no set phrase or weather talk attempt on the tip of her tongue to offer out. Instead, he’s getting something far more uncomfortable: a one on one talk with his mother-in-law where she doesn’t sound like she’d rather be about anywhere else for once, giving him something that’s not a question but is still a cue for him to vouch for what she already knows.

“I knew he would regret it if he didn’t,” he ends up going for, nervous hands digging deeper inside the pockets of his jacket and sticking to the two things he’s always upheld around her. 

The two things in question: saying only what he considers to be true, and a reminder that whatever he does once he puts a foot inside her house, he does with Mark and only him in mind. 

“I’m sure making him wear that jumper was also for his own good,” she agrees easily, as if seeing right through him didn't take much out of her, the lack of malice in it and the first puzzle piece of a smile showing up on her face leaving his scouring mind out of resources on how to carry on. 

Before the silence can stretch out for too long or he can convince himself it was all a trick of the eye, Mark opens the front door wide with anything but finesse and stumbles out of the house on tipsy legs, no scarf in sight but with the oversized hood of his jumper thrown on, turning his face from the nose up into red fabric and denying him of sight. Donghyuck’s arms open when Mark’s blind-taken steps keep coming even after he’s made it down the concrete steps, ready to catch him as his face collides into Donghyuck’s jacket nose-first and his body slumps forward, arms limp by his side while Donghyuck’s wrap around the imaginary line on his back going from elbow to elbow. 

“Hey, Kee." Donghyuck lifts a hand to brush down the top of his hood from where it's grazing his chin, and then lets it carry itself down to the back pockets of Mark’s jeans, patting them to check for wallet, phone, keys as he asks, “Ready to go?” 

Check, check and check, a lazy hum against his chest that he takes to mean yes, and then he's picking Mark’s car keys with deft fingers, walking backwards in the direction of Mark's Civic with a far too rehearsed smile goodbye and an almost sincere though belated wish of a happy birthday.

He guesses nothing has really changed when he doesn't get an answer back, and he's halfway through thinking he'll learn to be okay with things being what they are at some point in time when the almost fully limp body he's dragging along with him turns its head to the side, Mark's ear pressed to his chest as he lets out a loud mom in English that can't be anything other than a reprimand, and after a moment Donghyuck hears the textbook definition of neutrality made into a voice call out a just as belated thank you.

Mark speaks up for the first time since he walked out the door once they are inside the car, with Donghyuck leaning over the gear shift to buckle his seat belt on the passenger seat. 

“We really can’t spend Christmas here," he picks up their last conversation right where they left it off, voice croaky with vowels slurred and eyes closed. “They’re insane. Even Yuri. She started talking about crypto during dinner. Crypto, babe." 

Donghyuck hums just to humor him, Mark either taking it as encouragement to carry on or running his mouth on autopilot. 

"I think my uncle is starting to realize I just pretend to know how the stock market works.” Mark's speech gets blurrier around the edges by the word, his head lolling to the side until it meets the window, with the click of the buckle in Donghyuck's hands matching in time the quiet thump of his forehead knocking into the cold glass. “I don’t get it. Why can’t we just print more money?”

“We can talk inflation when you’re sober," Donghyuck cuts Mark's blabbering short, squeezing his knee both to put his soju-drowned brain at ease and to rest his weight on it so he can fall back on his seat. “And we’ll spend Christmas anywhere you want,” he assures him the following second, avoiding dwelling too much on how he's probably going to regret it later, if only because Mark keeps bringing up and insisting on making plans for days that are three quarters of a year away, as if spending them with Donghyuck was a given. 

Mark's eyes go into waning crescents at Donghyuck's promise, a peek of them coming through barely open eyelids to look Donghyuck's way when he asks far too hopefully, “Your sister’s?”

The ignition key turns, Donghyuck looking into the rear view mirror to pull out of the driveway and avoid catching sight of moonlike eyes. “We’ll have to ask her, but yeah.”

Mark fiddles with his phone for as long as it takes Donghyuck to make a left turn and drive down two badly lit blocks, and then Donghyuck is faced with his sister’s voice coming through Mark’s speakers, volume always at max to the utmost benefit of Donghyuck's eavesdropping tendencies, who hears Mark start the conversation with, "Can we spend Christmas there? I’ll bring the food. And Milo…" A pause. Donghyuck almost misses his next turn from his focus being put to better use to hold in the need to give his laugh free rein. "Hi, yeah, it's Mark. Lee. Hyuck's Mark. Your brother said I have to—Milo? Oh, no, Milo’s a cat. You like cats, right?"

“She’s allergic,” Donghyuck thinks aloud, going unheard by his sister's voice echoing him from the other side of the phone winning Mark's attention over, who spends one more moment in stoic silence before he goes you’re allergic?, the most appalled out of the three. 

Donghyuck doesn’t entertain the idea of reading the entries under passion (1) when he looks it up, like passion (3): feeling that causes you to act in a dangerous way, i.e: nearly speeding through a red light in favor of looking over at Mark, focused frown on and a sleeve pressed to his nose, asking Donghyuck's sister, “Is Claritin expensive?” 

Or maybe passions (plural): emotions as distinguished from reason, as in: words never quite fitting just right and leaving Donghyuck at bay in a sea of stretched out letters, having him make a fool of himself when fulfilling regional coaches and in-law expectations. But they never fail him with this, when Mark hangs up the phone, stays quiet for some glimpse of time, and then lets out, “This thing really smells like you."

Donghyuck takes advantage of the next red light that comes his way to look back at Mark, leant back on his seat with his nose sinking further and further into the neck of the Westbridge hoodie that he's stretched out and brought up to take a deep breath against.

"Yeah?" The sound comes out absently out of him, too distracted by closed new-moon eyes, the sound of another sniff, and the spellbinding look of alcohol, sleepiness and red on Mark.

"Yeah. Like your fabric softener, and also, like, your skin and stuff." 

Donghyuck realizes he truly, honestly doesn't care whether things remain being their Cinderella story, funny-look way or not, and decides to spend the break he gets from holding onto the gear shift bringing his hand up to Mark’s mouth. It sneaks with playful fingers in between the jumper covering half of Mark’s face, until the back of it is held against his lips, a wordless request for a kiss Mark complies to without a sound needing to be exchanged. 

Mark's mouth has reached the vein at his wrist when he has to pull away and move the stick shift into first gear, answering with a hmm? at the call his name once they are back on the move and Donghyuck's eyes are glued to the windshield once more.

"Can I keep it?” Mark asks, voice small and drowsy, never considering that the hoodie he's wearing doesn't belong to either of them and, even on a technicality, it is closer to being his own than Donghyuck's. 

And Donghyuck may suck at speaking up, yet he doesn't think to tell him any of it, and he knows it can’t be the wrong stance to take, to be willing to throw reason out the window and say yes to anything his boy wants before he’s even done asking for it.

“Sure, Kee."