Pairing(s): JB/JR, Markson, Yugbam, past Youngbam, past Markson
Warning(s): Drug abuse, major character death, smut, characters with HIV, homophobia, angst
Summary: Rent!AU - Jaebum and Youngjae have been living together in a shitty apartment on the wrong side of town for years, struggling to pay their rent and carrying the weight of their past mistakes. With the introduction of a new neighbour, a meeting with an old flame and the help of a stranger after a mugging, new relationships are built and their lives grow all the more complicated.1
Jaebum awoke to the sound of pencil scratching paper, warmth on his face and birds chattering. He squinted when he opened his eyes, shocked by the rich June sunlight. Grumbling, he sat up slowly, rubbing at his eyes before they focused on Jinyoung seated at the end of the bed, robe falling off a bare shoulder as he leaned a sketchbook on his knee, watching Jaebum with a smirk.
Jaebum smiled back lazily, leaning on an elbow and raking his fingers through his disheveled hair.
'Watching me sleep? How romantic.'
'It's the only time you stop scowling.' Jinyoung quipped, setting down his pencil now that his model had moved. Jaebum scoffed, stretching out a hand.
'Let me see.'
'It's not finished.' Jinyoung pouted, clutching the pad tighter and tensing.
'Just let me see.'
'I haven't drawn in a while -'
'Why the hesitation? What am I gonna do, rip it up?' Jaebum leaned forwards quickly before Jinyoung could retort, snatching the sketchbook with deft fingers and regarding the image etched there while Jinyoung fought to retrieve it.
Jinyoung had started drawing again lately, but he never showed Jaebum anything, though Jackson said the canvases in Mark's room were beautiful. Jaebum wanted to see everything Jinyoung could do, every passion he had.
Eventually the younger man stopped fighting him, crashing his head into the pillow in embarrassment and defeat. Jaebum followed the charcoal lines with his eyes, taking in every detailed stroke and dash.
'Why are you so afraid of me looking? You're talented, Jinyoung.'
Jinyoung turned his head from where he'd buried it in the pillow, looking up at Jaebum balefully, sulkily. 'Hypocrite. where's that song you promised me?'
Jaebum sighed, looking over the sketch once again. Honestly he'd been plucking away at strings since the first night he'd seen Jinyoung, lyrics and lines floating around in his mind and dying on his tongue. He could write a thousand songs, but none would be good enough.
That wasn't the whole of it though, Jaebum knew that - finishing a song somehow felt like taking a step closer to saying goodbye to Jinyoung. In the two months since they'd met, not a day had passed where it hadn't been on his mind, the constant ticking of a clock.
Who would go first? Him or Jinyoung?
'I'm still working on it. I'd get it done faster if you stopped distracting me.'
Jinyoung quirked a brow, a playful spark in his eyes as he sat up slowly. 'Distracting?' He took his sketchbook from Jaebum's hands, dropping it to the floor before straddling Jaebum over the duvet, robe slipping from his shoulders and opening completely as his lips brushed against Jaebum's. 'How?'
Jaebum watched him steadily, never growing tired of the sight of Jinyoung disheveled and keen. 'Are you on heat or something? Do you ever get tired?' Jaebum chuckled as Jinyoung nipped at his lower lip before moving to suck at his neck, hand slipping between his bare thighs to palm Jaebum over the duvet.
'That's rich coming from Mr. Ever-hard.' He tittered, pressing his lips to Jaebum's briefly as his hand shifted more firmly over Jaebum's growing hardness, making him groan throatily against his lips. Jaebum sat up, gripping Jinyoungs waist and throwing him to the side before covering him with his own weight, making him gasp breathlessly.
'You'll be the death of me, you know.' Jaebum breathed, leaning above him and watching those brown eyes roaming over his face, wide and thoughtful.
'Not if you kill me first.'
Jackson hadn't felt such stability in a long time. Most people thought he was always fine, always the one smiling with a story to tell, but truthfully he just didn't want anybody to have to worry about him. Seeing Jaebum and Youngjae again, seeing Jaebum smile... it was a weight off his heavy shoulders.
When he'd left for his internship, he'd left out of guilt. He hadn't been paying rent, and he'd felt like a burden, a leftover from Jaebum's past that wouldn't move from his sofa. Every single day had been empty after he left, empty smiles, empty laughter. People didn't get him the way Jaebum and Youngjae did, didn't understand his humour or his need to impress and comfort people.
At work they would smile to his face and sneer behind his back; he saw it all but he never showed it, treating everyone as a best friend when he truly felt nothing for them. His family was here, in this apartment, and seeing it grow even bigger made him feel safe and right, secure and grounded.
Jackson had always been observant, though; noticing a shift in the atmosphere in a second and adjusting to it accordingly, always knowing when a friend wasn't quite okay. He'd noticed Mark faltering a few times over the past few months; how his hands would shake while he read a book at night, how his appetite would wane to the point where Jackson would have to prompt him into eating, or even force feed him; how his body ached more often, how easily he bruised.
Jackson knew something was wrong before Mark had probably even acknowledged it himself. He also knew the moment Mark knew, the moment Mark realised what it meant, the moment his eyes changed and the lies began to leave his lips.
It was mid July when he first lied. The summer heat was hitting its peak, the two of them enjoying a day off work in the park. Mark had been absentminded all day, losing track of conversations and dissociating for large lapses of time. He stood to grab an ice cream, and Jackson saw his eyes roll back, watched his legs buckle like he was boneless, felt him heavy and motionless in his arms as he shook him back to consciousness. He'd just smiled up at Jackson blearily, eyes cloudy with thought.
'It must be the heat.'
After that, Mark always had an excuse. He didn't want to leave the house because work was too tiring, he didn't want to go to work because he had a headache, he'd stood up too fast so he fainted, he always woke up in a cold, fevered sweat in the summer.
Jackson never delved deeper, never questioned Mark. If Mark didn't want to tell him, that was his choice - the pain of watching and knowing and not being able to say anything was always there, the nagging voice in the back of his head always asking why Mark didn't trust him enough to tell him, asking why he was scared to share something so important with him. He knew it wasn't that, though. He knew Mark was terrified... too terrified to say it out loud.
Too terrified to say that he was dying.
Jinyoung had been in Jaebum's apartment almost constantly, not seeing Mark's condition worsen. He'd commented on how Mark was thinner when they'd gone out for food, had prompted him to eat his meal when he noticed him pushing his food around his plate absentmindedly. It ate Jackson up inside to know and not be able to tell him out of respect for Mark. There was only so long he could hide it, though, only so long Mark could hold onto his denial.
He'd known for so long, had watched for months as Mark faded to grey, but as he sat holding him against his chest, the train carriage rattling and swaying them side to side as Mark muttered nonsense, trembling profusely and drenched in sweat, he realised nothing could have prepared him for it. He didn't cry, not then, just holding him tightly enough to hurt, whispering stupid jokes into his hair and rocking him back and forth until the tremors subsided, until Mark was himself again and the train had already gone twelve stops further than their station.
It was then, piggybacking him home, that the fantasy they'd been living was finally shattered, reality slowing Jackson's steps and weighing down Mark's feather-light body. It was late September, the sun burning red as it sank, turning the whole street to burnt copper as crickets chirped in the grass and Jackson's feet hit the asphalt heavily. They were three miles away from home, Mark a dead weight on his back, barely able to keep his arms around Jacksons neck.
Mark's voice was rough, quiet, as if whispering could make it less true.
'I don't think I'm okay anymore, Jackson.'
'You're not dying.' Jackson breathed, a lump in his throat he just couldn't swallow.
'Promise me you won't take me to hospital. I want to be at home with you, with everyone.
'I won't take you to hospital because you don't need one, you're fine.'
'Jackson, promise me.'
'Don't make me, Mark, please.'
Mark sucked in a short, sharp breath, nuzzling into Jackson's neck with wet cheeks. 'I'm scared.'
'Me too.' Jackson whispered, chuckling without humour. He'd waited so long to hear Mark say it, but now that it was happening it was too real, too raw. 'It's so fucked. I've just met you and you're already saying goodbye. We didn't get to do anything, go anywhere... there's so much more, so many things I could have shown you-'
'We did everything, Jackson. Everything I wanted. There's still time to do more, just as long as you're with me.' Jackson's shoulder was wet with Mark's tears, his voice wavering on every word. 'I've been so scared of dying alone-'
Jackson turned his head sharply, wet eyes meeting Mark's red ones intensely. 'Don't say that shit. You have me, you have Jinyoung and everyone else, you'll never be alone.'
Mark hiccupped on a breath, face crumpling. 'Jinyoung doesn't know. It will break him.'
'It will break him if you don't tell him, he needs to know. He loves you.'
'I don't know how.'
'I'll be with you, from now until the end. You don't have to be scared of anything any more, just hold onto me.'
Mark sobbed himself into exhaustion, falling asleep on Jackson's shoulder as the sky turned purple and the moths danced around the street lights. Jackson watched his feet taking steps as if they weren't his own, his whole body numb, focusing only on Mark's weight, his arms around his neck and his warm breaths against his ear.
By the time they were home, there were no more tears left to cry.
Jinyoung sat fully clothed in the bathtub, cold water raining down upon him and washing away the sweat he was drenched in. The night fevers were happening more often, making him wake up soaked, having to peel himself away from Jaebum's embrace to sob and shake quietly in the bathroom.
He bit his lip, trembling, wishing he could get high. He hadn't used since New Year's and he ached for it now, hungry for the numbness, the escape from fear. Jaebum didn't need to see this - this was exactly what he'd been so afraid of before, of having to say goodbye. Jinyoung didn't want Jaebum to watch him die.
He closed his eyes, skin burning even under the freezing spray, dozing off into fevered dreams so real he could almost feel Jaebum's hands on him, could hear him speaking some nonsense and jostling him around.
When his heavy eyelids opened again the sun was pale upon him, he was dressed in dry pyjamas and had somehow ended up in bed. He turned his head to the side at the feeling of something wet being pressed to his forehead, and saw Jaebum sitting there, deep bags beneath his bloodshot eyes as he dabbed at him with a wet flannel, lips set in a tight line.
'What happened?' He asked blearily, tired and still foggy and fevered. Jaebum sighed, brushing Jinyoung's sweaty bangs away from his clammy skin.
'I heard the shower running and found you passed out, fully dressed.' He looked at Jinyoung for a long moment, seeming to consider his words before he finally spoke again. 'I used to sweat like this, Jinyoung. Are you using again?'
Jinyoung was confused by Jaebum's accusation, wondering how he came to that conclusion. His lips moved to defend himself, to argue until that look of disappointment and distrust left Jaebum's eyes, but he paused. What was worse, the truth or the lie? How could he tell Jaebum what was really happening? Who was he to make him wait around as he wasted away? It would be so much easier to lie, to have him hate him, to watch him walk away than to look into his eyes and tear his heart out.
'I...' He hesitated, licking his chapped lips, knowing Jaebum might never touch him so tenderly again, might never kiss him or hold him. Either way he would break Jaebum's heart, but this way the pieces would be easier to fit back together. 'I'm sorry.'
Jaebum didn't say a word, he just looked at him for the longest moment, a flurry of emotions in his eyes before he stood and left the room. Jinyoung heard the sound of a fist hitting the wall, a restrained shout, and he closed his eyes, letting his fever pull him down into the mattress, into the ignorance of sleep.
Jaebum sat on a bench, warm autumn night air blowing through his hair. His nails were bitten to hell, tiny chips of black nail polish clinging stubbornly to what was left, and his copper hair was growing just that bit too long, black roots unattended. He watched the moths dancing around the lamp beside him, wondering absently what was so fascinating about the light, what drew them to the scalding heat and blinding brightness when all he wanted was the comfort of darkness. He'd been too close to the flame already, and here he was, scalded and ruined.
It had been a week since he'd last seen Jinyoung, since they'd screamed in each others faces, since they'd fucked, scratching and biting and tearing themselves apart as a bitter goodbye. He didn't understand how it had come to this, where it had gone wrong, but he'd been waiting for it since he first saw Jinyoung's face. There was something in his eyes from that first moment and Jaebum knew he would pull him in like a tornado and leave him broken and empty.
Every breath was an effort, every step a mile. Waking up and not seeing Jinyoung's face soft in slumber, fingers twitching in dreams, unguarded and vulnerable, was like a bullet to his heart. Something about Jinyoung before he left made Jaebum analyze every second they were together, because it wasn't right. There was something he was missing, something important that he just wasn't seeing, and if he wasn't so stubborn he would be at Jinyoung's door in a second begging for an answer because the ache was unbearable.
He hated himself for the things he'd said, the way he'd let Jinyoung go without a fight. It was as if he was saving himself from the thing he was scared of most, the thing he'd avoided Jinyoung for in the first place. He knew that letting Jinyoung go would spare him the pain of seeing him die, of having to say goodbye for good. He knew that.
He was a coward. His guitar was still propped against the wall in the living room, untouched, unplayed. It looked like Jinyoung would never get his song.
Standing on numb legs, he focused his eyes on the grey sidewalk before him as he trudged back to his apartment. Every time he took the stairs he'd stop in front of Jinyoung's apartment, sometimes he'd even raise his hand to knock, but this time, just like every other, he just shook his head and continued to his own floor, steps heavy and loud.
The apartment was empty - it always was now. Youngjae was busy with his job, and Jackson just wasn't around anymore. He didn't bother turning the lights on, his only thoughts being on getting into bed and sleeping the pain away, of not existing for a few hours.
The phone rang obnoxiously, and his usual reaction was to ignore it, but something made him answer - the need to hear another voice, or the hope that it was Jinyoung, he didn't know.
'Jaebum?' It was his father, and his mouth ran dry. Something was wrong, his insides twisting in dread. His tone of voice was off somehow, and Jaebum couldn't respond, just standing there waiting for his father to speak. 'Your mother has asked me to call you.
She's been weak since Christmas, but it's time to take her to hospital. She wants to see you.'
Jaebum's throat tightened, his legs turning to jelly. 'Why... why didn't you tell me sooner?'
'You would have made it worse. I don't want her to see the state you're in, the disappointment you've become, but she wants you here. If it were my choice, you'd leave us be-'
Jaebum's hand tightened on the receiver, tears prickling his eyes, and he threw the telephone across the room, the wire pulling from the wall as it crashed onto the floor.
Mark watched Jinyoung's eyes well with tears as he told him the news, the understanding and pain and confusion in his face as he absorbed the information. His hands shook in Mark's, breaths fast before they turned to short, choking sobs, and he buried his face in the crook of Mark's neck where he rested against a pillow.
It had taken a week of convincing from Jackson for him to finally face Jinyoung, paired with the reality that his body couldn't take the stress of hiding it anymore. He needed Jinyoung now, needed his small smiles and comforting presence. Most of all, he needed to know he was okay.
There was something wrong, Mark could see it, something that wasn't to do with the news Mark had just delivered, but he knew Jinyoung well enough to know not to pry. If Jinyoung wanted him to know something, he'd tell him.
'I was planning on lasting until your birthday, but I think that might be too long to hold on.'
Jinyoung scoffed tearfully, mumbling into the pillow as he slumped on the bed, arms tight around Mark's shoulders. 'I'll kill you if you die on me, I swear to God.'
'How can you kill me if I'm already dead?' Mark teased, though his voice was thick with tears.
'I'll find a way, you know I'll find a way.'
'Ok, once more from the top, Bambam-'
'Do we really have to?'
'You asked for my help, so I'm helping.' Yugyeom sighed tiredly, rubbing at his eyes beneath his glasses before readjusting them, eyes scanning a script in his hand. 'And for the thousandth time, the line is "Cyberarts and it's corporate sponsor, Great Communications, would like to mitigate the Christmas Eve Riots...", really what's so difficult-'
'It just doesn't roll of my tongue,' Bambam groaned, kicking his legs out where he reclined on the sofa. 'I like my version.'
'You – dressed as a groundhog – to protest the groundbreaking-'
'-It's a metaphor!' Bambam whined, and Yugyeom just stared at him blankly.
'It's... less than brilliant.'
Bambam sat up abruptly, pointing at Yugyeom angrily. 'That's it, Mr. Smart-Ass!'
'You say I asked you to help? More like you bother me and bother me while I rehearse until I let you ruin my ideas. Ever since Boxing Day I haven't said boo incase it upsets you. I didn't pierce my nipples because it grossed you out, I didn't stay at the gay bar the other night because you wanted to go home-'
'You were flirting with the man in rubber.' Yugyeom deadpanned, and Bambam threw his hands up in exasperation.
'That's what you're caught up on? There will always be men in rubber flirting with me! Give me a break!'
'Are we really having this conversation again?' Yugyeom took his glasses off, throwing the script to the floor and getting to his feet.
They hadn't argued in months, so honestly he'd been waiting for it to come. He leaned against the wall, waiting for Bambam to erupt.
'See, it's this apathy I hate! As if you've heard it all before!' Bambam gesticulated wildly, eyes wide. 'Do you have any idea what I go through, how hard it is for me?'
'How hard what is, Bam?'
'This relationship shit! Every single day I walk down the street and there's somebody eyeing me up, I can't help it if ever since puberty every body stares at me; boys, girls, I can't do anything about it!' Yugyeom watched him blankly, always taken aback by the passion with which Bambam would say the dumbest shit. The shorter man walked up to him catlike, eyes teasing, and it never failed to throw Yugyeom off center just how fast he could flip through emotions. 'Who's in your bed at night, Gyeomie? People would kill to be in your shoes.'
Yugyeom scoffed at his audacity, moving away from the wall before Bambam could wrap himself around him. The shorter man scowled before pouting, catching Yugyeom around the waist. 'Kiss, Gyeomie?'
'It won't work.' Yugyeom grit his teeth, ignoring Bambam's attempts at catching his lips. 'Honestly I don't know how we got this far. I hate mess, but I... I love you. God, I like margins, discipline – I make lists in my sleep.' Bambam had frozen the second the L word had left his lips, arms falling from around Yugyeom's waist as he stood before him dumbly while the older man continued in his monologue unaware of Bambam's shock.
'I have no idea what to do with you, sometimes, no idea why I put up with you playing me around. I know full well I satisfy you, so why compromise?'
Bambam rolled his eyes, over his momentary hesitation. 'You're a control freak. A snob. Over attentive. A loveable, droll geek.'
'Anything else you want to say?'
'That's it.' Yugyeom raised his hands in surrender as Bambam folded his arms stroppily. 'I quit.'
'I'm not changing for you, Yugyeom. Take me for what I am, or leave.'
'Guess I'm leaving, then.' Yugyeom yelled suddenly, tears stinging his eyes, and Bambam jumped at the sudden display of emotion. He stormed over to the door, slamming it behind him and standing in the stairwell, catching his breath. Realisation dawned on him slowly, and his cheeks reddened at the sound of the door opening behind him, Bambam calling to him softly.
'How many times are you gonna storm out of your own damn apartment?'
Youngjae trudged up the stairs, exhausted from filming all day and ready to fall into bed. As he turned the stairwell, he saw Jackson sitting outside Jinyoung's apartment, head in his hands and small noises echoing in the silent space.
He jumped visibly, looking up at Youngjae in surprise, and Youngjae's heart sank. He'd never seen Jackson cry. He looked like a different man, pale and wasted, eyes bloodshot and empty. Youngjae didn't say a word, slumping down beside Jackson and pulling him into his arms. The floodgates opened as he clinged to Youngjae's shirt, sobbing hard, and Youngjae knew before Jackson could say a word.
'Mark, he's...' he breathed through the tears, 'I don't know what to do.'
Mark was propped up by at least six pillows, cheeks hollow and wrists thin and fragile. The light from his beside lamp cast sharp shadows over his skin, turning him a sickly yellow, yet the glow seemed to emanate from him as well, as if the life leaving him was spilling over and flooding the room. He was asleep, and Jinyoung was running a cube of ice over his dry, chapped lips, looking awful himself. Youngjae was too shocked to move at first, but he forced his legs to walk, sitting beside Jinyoung on a chair they'd moved from the living room.
'I had no idea.' He breathed, and Jinyoung seemed to only just notice he was there.
'He didn't want anyone to know. He didn't want us to worry.' His voice was distant, eyes glazed, and Youngjae sighed.
'How are you?'
'I've been better.' He muttered, sitting back and placing the ice cube back into a glass on the bedside table. 'I can't believe how fast it gets worse. He was laughing yesterday but he's been asleep for nearly a day.'
'Shouldn't he be in hospital? He needs an IV, medicine-'
'He doesn't want to go. he wants us to sit here and watch.' He bit out, wiping at his eyes roughly. 'It's only fair that I have to see this. I did this to him.'
'You were young, you didn't know. Jesus, you're still young, mistakes just happen.'
'My whole life has been a mistake.' Jinyoung breathed, eyes wet with tears as his lip trembled. 'When Mark is gone I'll have nothing, nobody. I only just got him back and he's going again.' He shook his head, voice breaking. 'I wasted so much time hurting Jaebum that I didn't even notice my best friend falling apart.'
Jinyoung crumbled, his face distorted in agony, and Youngjae pulled him to his chest, rubbing circles in his back as he sobbed. 'Jaebum is another story,' He said softly, waiting for Jinyoung's tears to calm and subside. 'Why did you lie to him?'
'About what?' Jinyoung's voice was small, muffled by Youngjae's shirt.
'I know you're not using, Jinyoung. Why did you tell Jaebum you were?'
It took Jinyoung a long moment before he pulled away from Youngjae's embrace, wiping at his wet cheeks as he watched Mark's chest rise and fall slowly. 'I don't want him to see me like this. I don't want to watch him walk away and leave me.'
'You know he'd never do that. Jaebum's scared but he loves you, you have to know that.'
'He's never said it. He was all too eager to throw me away.'
'He's an idiot, but you're a bigger idiot if you can't see how he feels about you.'
Before Jinyoung could move his lips to respond, Mark stirred, eyes blinking open tiredly as Jackson's name left his dry lips in a breath.
'I'll go get him.' Jinyoung stood in a rush, hiding his tear-streaked face as he left Youngjae alone. Mark's eyes were unfocused when he turned his head to look at Youngjae with a weak smile, to which Youngjae beamed back.
'You've never looked better, Mark.'
Mark chuckled roughly, and his voice was hoarse and splintered. 'How's your film, Youngjae?'
Nobody asked him about it but Mark, always eager to know, and it touched Youngjae deeply that he still cared. 'In the dust. I have so much work, I don't have time for my own stuff.'
Mark sighed, eyebrows knitting together sincerely. 'You have to promise me you'll finish it. I won't rest in peace otherwise.'
A short laugh left Youngjae's lips, barely an echo of his usual boisterous tittering, his throat tightening with emotion. 'That's not fair.'
Mark clicked his tongue, winking. 'No crying, it's not allowed in here.' Youngjae nodded stiffly, wiping his eyes and taking Mark's hand. 'Being ill isn't so bad, people have to do what I say.' He smirked, and Youngjae snickered. A long moment passed between them, and their smiles fell in the silence.
'Is there anything I can do, Mark?' The younger man took a deep breath, letting it out slowly.
'Look after Jinyoung, he won't be okay after this.' Youngjae nodded, and Mark thought for a second. 'Bambam and Yugyeom should know, too. I've been unfair keeping this from everybody. I thought it would be easier, but it's been so hard on Jackson, I can tell. He needs you guys, even if he seems okay I know he's not.' He reached weakly for the nightstand, tapping the first drawer. 'There's a box in here, give it to Jinyoung when I'm gone.'
'Give what to me?' Jinyoung stuck his head through the door with a grin, Jackson following behind looking as if he hadn't shed a tear. To keep Mark from feeling pain, their own was secondary. Mark withdrew his hand quickly, exhanging a quick look with Youngjae before he smirked at the two taking a seat on the end of the bed.
'A kick in the ass.'
Jaebum found out the next day, sick to the stomach to see Mark so changed, so weak; knowing it could be him lying there, or Jackson, or Jinyoung. The younger man was never awake when he visited, but he held his hand while he slept, would told him his worries while Jinyoung took a break.
Knowing he'd left Jinyoung alone when something so painful was happening destroyed him, his fingers always twitching when he answered the door, wanting to hold him and kiss him and make things okay again. He didn't have that power, though. Be it selfishness or cowardice, Jaebum didn't say a thing, didn't reach out and touch him, didn't tell him he loved him.
He was weak.
The room was dyed purple in the evening light, clouds rolling by outside the floorlength windows, outlined by the setting sun. Sitting on the sofa, Youngjae's hands worked methodically, writing more drafts for his screenplay, cutting and editing the films he'd been shooting here and there and trying to make something work.
His new job was sucking his soul dry, leaving him no time to work on his own film like Mark had urged him to. He hadn't told anyone what he was actually making - no one asked but Mark, and even he didn't know exactly what Youngjae was doing. He'd sneaked his camera around everywhere, getting shots of everyone whenever he could.
Because he knew they'd be gone soon. Soon it would be just him - alone, with just this film to keep him company where his friends would have been.
As his hands worked, his mind drifted, lingering on thoughts of who he was, what he had, where he'd be in the next few years. All his friends were sick, and not a single plan included the sound of their laughter or the comfort of their dysfunctional company.
He fought himself not to dwell on it, pulling himself from his thoughts as he usually did. If he just kept snipping at his film and writing more screen directions, if he kept himself distracted, he wouldn't feel the pain.
Jackson clutched Mark's hand tightly as he dozed between wakefulness and slumber, running ice over his chapped lips as he mumbled incoherently. Jackson hadn't stopped saying I love you since Mark had woken up that day, something telling him that soon Mark wouldn't hear his whispers anymore.
Jinyoung was a mess, skeletal and pale where he'd expired at Mark's bedside, folded over in exhausted slumber on the sofa. Jaebum had visited a few times, holding Jackson as he cried while Mark slept or simply sitting across from Jinyoung in dead silence, neither of them uttering a word unless Mark spoke.
Youngjae visited often, always equipped with a wide smile and a laugh. Even Bambam and Yugyeom came around a few times, still flip-flopping between love and hate and leaving flowers with every visit that were now crisp and decaying, dead petals littering the bedside table.
In just a few months Mark had touched the lives of everyone he'd met, in his small gestures of compassion, his quiet consideration. Jackson hadn't lived until he'd seen his face that night in the alleyway, hadn't loved until he'd kissed him in the cafe.
Jinyoung was still asleep when Mark had finally given up. Jackson lay in the bed beside him, watching his eyes move beneath his eyelids before they opened blearily, struggling to focus upon Jackson's face. He smiled like Jackson was the sun, and Jackson could almost fool himself into believing nothing was wrong, that he was okay, that his fever had broken and their time wasn't up. Mark murmured some nonsense, and Jackson leaned in closer to hear him, desperate to know whatever Mark had to tell him.
All he could catch from Mark's dry lips were the words 'I love you' before his thin wrist went limp in Jackson's hand, the reality not hitting Jackson for a long minute before his world fell apart, holding Mark's lifeless body to his chest and sobbing. It didn't feel real, and he laughed through the tears, telling Mark all the things he loved about him, every funny little thing he did as if he would wake up and mock his sappy words.
Jinyoung woke soon after, taking in the scene before him with wide eyes before he broke entirely and Jackson pulled him to his chest desperately to calm his heart wrenching wails. His trembling hands gripped at him wildly, clinging to him as if it would stop his world from shaking, and all Jackson could do was kiss the top of Jinyoung's head and tell him it was over now, that Mark was free of pain, surrounded by love.
It was better to say goodbye in peace, than hello in pain.
Jinyoung cleared out Mark's room after they took his body away, dizzy and empty to the core. Youngjae stood in the doorway, watching, and when Jinyoung caught his gaze he smile sadly, nodding to the bedside drawer.
'He told me to tell you... he left something for you in there. If you need anything, I'll be around, Jinyoung. Always.'
Jinyoung's mouth was too dry to answer properly, and all that left his lips was a dry 'thank you,' walking numbly over to the older man and embracing him tightly. He didn't notice the way Youngjae's hand lingered on the protruding notches of his spine, the worried look he departed with.
The silence after Youngjae was gone left Jinyoung bereft, as if he'd gone deaf. It was worse than when he'd lived alone; now it was as if the cars had stopped outside, the neighbours next door had stopped screaming and shouting, even his own breaths seemed muffled and distant.
After a long moment his legs moved of their own accord, heavy steps drawing him closer to the bedside table, and his hands shook as he opened the top drawer. Inside was a shoe box with his name scrawled on top, and he removed it, sitting on the bed and taking off the lid as his heart thudded loud and dull in his ears.
His chest tightened at the sight within, pictures from when they were together, from when they were at school. Covering his mouth as his tears fell, he sifted through the photographs in mute agony. He'd always loved disposable cameras, snapping pictures of Mark to piss him off whenever he could, and he laughed through his tears at some of the stories the photos told, the memories behind them. Mark had always been camera-shy.
As he looked through the photographs, the pile began to deplete, and beneath he found all the scribbles and scrawlings he'd once thrown away. Mark had kept every one. Every single one. Sketches on the back of crumpled receipts, bus tickets, napkins; caricatures of their teachers he'd show Mark after class to make him giggle.
Swiping at the wetness on his cheeks, his blurry eyes fell upon a letter at the bottom of the box, folded neatly with his name written in Mark's messy font. He was almost scared to open it, as if reading Mark's words would finalise everything, as if it would make his death a reality rather than the nightmare Jinyoung felt he was wading through.
Jinyoung, if you're reading this, I've croaked. I know you're blaming yourself, and I know you won't listen to me if I tell you to stop, but even so – I don't blame you for anything.
I don't blame you for cracking my tooth when we first kissed. I don't blame you for mixing the peroxide wrong and making my hair fall out when you first dyed my it for me. I don't blame you for throwing up all over my prom suit because you were nervous, meaning we had to miss the prom altogether and just get stoned in my bedroom watching the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy until 4am – without subtitles, while you made me translate the whole thing. I don't blame you for being the best friend I ever had, the most beautiful person I've ever met, or the loudest snorer I've ever slept with. I don't blame you for what happened between us, and I certainly don't blame you for what's happened to me.
I won't ask you to do anything for me, I'm dead so what's the point – you didn't listen to me when I was alive anyway, and when I was alive I could kick your ass so what power do I have over you now? Even so, the last time I left you... you didn't cope well. I won't be coming back this time. I can't fix you again.
So please, for me, don't break.
You are my whole heart.
By the sixth time Jinyoung had read it, the ink was barely legible, the paper trembling in his grip as the words bled out from the dampness of his falling tears.