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you look at me and the whole world shakes

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(When Jaemin rings the doorbell of the address he had been told to report to, he waits a few minutes before the door is cracked open and a harassed-looking man in a white lab coat and disheveled hair peers out.

"Hi... uh, I'm here for the interview?" Jaemin says hesitantly, and the man's eyes clear with comprehension. He opens the door a bit wider and gestures for Jaemin to come in.

Jaemin closes the door gingerly behind him as he steps in, scanning his surroundings. The office is spacious but gives the impression of being cramped because of the various odds and ends strewn over every surface. He can barely see an inch of floor beneath the layer of assorted loose-leaf documents, folders, scientific apparatus and trash of all kinds. The air is stagnant and stuffy.

The man has the decency to look embarrassed, furtively kicking away random pieces of litter with his feet and hastily sweeping a landslide of scientific journals off the couch to clear a seat for Jaemin. Jaemin perches uncomfortably on the edge of the couch and declines the man's offer of a drink politely.

The man settles down on the loveseat opposite him, eyes serious and businesslike as he holds out a hand. "I'm Mark's associate, Lee Jeno. I'll be conducting the interview today."

Jaemin grips his hand firmly. "Nice to meet you, Mr Lee. My name is Na Jaemin."

Jeno takes the proferred resume from Jaemin's hands and flips through it briskly. His brows crease with concentration as he peruses Jaemin's portfolio, eyes widening slightly as if vaguely impressed as he closes it, looking up to study Jaemin more closely.

"You majored in mechanical engineering?"

"Graduated with honours, sir," Jaemin replies politely.

Jeno nods with approval. "Your qualifications and expertise seem to be in order. But I have a question. What do you know about Mark Lee?"

"Everything there is to know, sir," Jaemin replies immediately, but admits after a moment's hesitation, "That is, very little." He tells Jeno about how robotics has been his passion since young, and how he avidly respected Mark as one of the foremost researchers in the field. He knew Steel VS Skin, the graduation thesis the reclusive, enigmatic inventor had written about android construction by heart, but he had not heard any news about him ever since he had fallen off the radar of the scientific world a few years ago.

Jeno nods, eyes impenetrable. "Have you heard of Mark's partner, Donghyuck Lee? He's involved with a lot of the research process too, so you'll have to work closely with him."

Jaemin frowns. "I wasn't aware that Mr Lee had... a partner. No offense, but I always thought he didn't work well with other people."

"Donghyuck's not a person."

"I beg your pardon?"

"You heard right," Jeno says, the corners of his mouth twisting down in a wry smile. "He's an android. A robot, if you will. Part-machine, part-human, and Mark's greatest invention."

Jaemin's jaw drops. "So all these years..." he breathes, "Mr Lee had been working on a new project that no one knew about?"

Jeno laughs mirthlessly. "That's one way to put it." He leans forward, eyes intent. “Mr Na, you're not going to believe a single word of what I'm about to tell you." Jaemin leans closer too, holding his breath, and Jeno starts, "Listen very carefully...")



"Welcome back, baby,” Mark whispers as No. 67's dusky eyelashes flutter open to reveal chocolate irises flecked with hazel, the dark pupils in those almond-shaped eyes so unsettlingly lifelike that Mark stumbles back with a choked gasp.

The man bends his joints stiffly into a sitting position, stretching his newly-formed arms with a familiar catlike agility that makes Mark's breath catch in his throat.

"Mark?" he says disorientedly, blinking groggily as those devastating eyes focus on Mark, registering recognition. It's the sound of his name in Donghyuck's unmistakable voice that breaks Mark completely.

”D-Donghyuck," Mark stutters a sob. He hasn't tasted the word on his tongue for so many years, it slides down his throat like forbidden fruit. "Donghyuck," he repeats, voice a little steadier but still cracking at the end, and suddenly he's crying "DonghyuckDonghyuckDonghyuck" like a broken tape recorder and his fingers are curling in the fabric of Donghyuck's shirt, his tears dampening Donghyuck's shoulder.

Donghyuck looks startled but his arms reflexively rise up around Mark's shoulderblades. "Hey, what's wrong?" he whispers soothingly in Mark's ear. "Shhh. Don't cry."

Mark wrenches out of Donghyuck's arms, making him look even more confused. "D-do you recognize me?" he demands, hiccupping and looking increasingly hysterical.

Donghyuck looks bewildered but nods. "What happened?" he asks softly. "I remember that we were driving home when there was a bright light and a crash..." He winces in pain, rubbing his forehead. "I can't remember anything after that. Was there an accident?"

Mark quickly grabs his hand, stroking his fingers tenderly through Donghyuck's hair. "Yes, honey. Don't try to remember. It's alright now. You're alright."

He takes Donghyuck into his arms, feeling the younger's body relax against his chest. So it had worked. Mark had transferred all his memories over to Donghyuck's synthetic brain, so all Donghyuck knew of the incident was where Mark's recollections ended. It was a stroke of luck that he had harvested the memories before he regained the blocked part of the accident, Mark thinks and shudders. He has to live with the images of Donghyuck dying every day, again and again in his dreams. The last thing he wants is for Donghyuck to be tormented by them too.

Suddenly, Donghyuck's arms lock around him like bars of iron, his worried gaze sweeping over Mark's body. "Hyung, are you okay? Did you get hurt? I'm so sorry --" Donghyuck's opalescent eyes glimmer with tears that spill over, warm and wet on Mark's skin as he smothers Mark in a hug so tight that he can't breathe.

Mark's heart contracts like there's a vice clamped over it, his mind still spinning dizzyingly from Donghyuck, suddenly alive and talking and moving in his living room. His head swims and his stomach lurches, but he swallows down the giddy spell and strokes Donghyuck's back until his blubbering calms down into soft breathless sobs.

Mark caresses Donghyuck's tearstained face lovingly, hesitantly leaning forward to kiss Donghyuck's tears away. Donghyuck closes his eyes and melts into his touch. Donghyuck's tears taste salty and warm, exactly the way they had tasted when he was human.

"Don't worry, I'm fine," Mark croaks, feeling Donghyuck trembling against him. "I got out unscathed because you... you protected me."



("I met Mark and Donghyuck in university," Jeno begins. "We were all majoring in Physics, and minoring in Electrical Engineering. Even back then, they were already the most popular guys in school, the smartest and most good-looking, but they only had eyes for each other. They were inseparable, the campus' golden couple."

He describes how Donghyuck and Mark were like at nineteen and twenty, young and carefree and toppling into love with each other. "They graduated at the top of the class. They had it all planned out -- once they got their degrees, they'd start building the android that they'd been designing since they were young. It would be revolutionary, introducing the world to a brand new age of technology. Mark was one of the best scientific minds in the country and Donghyuck was a brilliant mathematician and long-running champion of international Olympiads. Both of them were among the most highly ranking members of MENSA for their age. Together, they were invincible, unstoppable."

"But then tragedy struck.")



Mark knows that he can't hide the truth from Donghyuck for much longer, knows this from the way he catches Donghyuck studying his hands when he thinks Mark isn't looking, heartbreakingly puzzled like he hasn't seen them before; from the way Donghyuck inhabits his own body with an unease that has never plagued him. Donghyuck looks so lost and uncomprehending that Mark almost breaks and confesses the truth, but he can't even start to imagine the look of horror on Donghyuck's face when Mark tells him that he's not human.

Mark struggles with the words, rehearsing them in his head again and again, but simply can't find a way to explain their senseless predicament logically. Finally, though, Donghyuck is the one who shatters the silence.

"Hyung..." he says. "What did you do to me?"

Mark gulps and attempts to play dumb, blinking innocently. "What do you mean?"

"Come off it," Donghyuck says irritably, but his smile is sorrowful. "This..." he touches his face. "This..." he pinches his arm. "... isn't real. This is," he raps the side of his head, "but the rest feel different."

"Mark," Donghyuck says gently, eyes glistening with unshed tears. "It's okay. Just tell me what happened. I can handle it."



Turns out, that was a lie. Mark had overestimated Donghyuck's emotional capacity, forgotten that he was overwrought and fragile from just waking up days ago. All his newly-constructed nerve endings were thrumming like a power plant and it had taken just a few careless words from Mark to send his system into overdrive.

Mark catches Donghyuck as his eyes roll up in his head and he slumps against Mark's frame, still warm. To an ignorant bystander, it would look like he had just passed out from exhaustion, but Mark knows better.

When Mark opens him up, he finds a vein in his heart shot and burnt out, like a fuse in a short circuit. He repairs it carefully, biting his tongue until he tastes the metallic tint of blood. Donghyuck's body is lifeless in his arms, reminding Mark of what he had managed to forget for the past few days -- that this is not the real Donghyuck, but No. 67. An imitation that will always pale hopelessly in comparison to the original, no matter how authentic he seems.

Reset, reboot. Mark presses the buttons that he has pressed sixty-six times before, about to toss the useless body with all the others in the storeroom when something stops him. There is an indefinable quality about No. 67 that is different from the others, something that tugs at Mark's heart, something undeniably human. Maybe it's the few days they've been through together, those fleeting windows of transient happiness. If Jeno knew about this, he would say that Mark had become hopelessly sentimental since the accident, and maybe it's true. But Mark can't bring himself to throw a body that had held even the slightest glimmer of Donghyuck in it away, at least not until he confirms that it is completely, irredeemably mechanical.

He takes a deep breath and knuckles down. Compared to starting all over with a new body, trying to revive this ruined one will take twice the effort and time. He will have to take on the backbreaking and daunting task of taking Donghyuck apart completely, and putting him back together again. But Mark feels the faintest tendril of hope, winding its way around his heart, as his fingers find the familiar buttons at the base of Donghyuck's spine and he feels the machine stirring to life beneath him.



("Mark lost his senses when he woke up from the coma and found out that Donghyuck was dead. He was inconsolable and unstable, and had to be sedated heavily. People always throw the metaphor insanely in love around, but Mark was literally the embodiment of it. It was painful to watch. When he seemed to calm down a few weeks later and they took him off the morphine, he attempted suicide. He was a wreck. He just kept repeating that life was worthless without Donghyuck. For awhile there it was touch-and-go. We thought we'd lost him too."

Jeno stops talking and rummages in a pile of clothes for a box of tissues, offering it to Jaemin with a sympathetic, uncomfortable smile, and Jaemin realizes that his eyes are leaking unconsciously like a faulty faucet. He takes one gratefully and sniffles as he dabs at his face in embarrassment, gesturing for Jeno to go on.

"By some kind of miracle, he survived," Jeno says, crossing himself and muttering a silent prayer of thanks. The relief on his face is still apparent, as is his obvious affection for Mark. "He stopped crying all day, started eating. He was pale as a ghost and had lost all this weight, I thought he'd snap like a twig in a gust of wind. At least he started living again, started working. But he was never the same again. He sat there with me and answered when I asked questions but his eyes were dead and soulless. It was like when Donghyuck had gone, he had taken a piece of Mark with him."

"Was he trying to... resurrect him?"

Jeno chuckles bitterly. "It's so obvious to me now, but I hadn't the slightest clue then. He threw himself into his work like a man possessed and all we thought was that it was a good thing because at least it gave him a distraction. He swore that he would continue the work the two of them had started together, that he wouldn't rest until he had brought it to completion. They had already worked out all technicalities of the basic model so all he had to do was make some modifications, and it could be personalized to become anyone he wanted it to be. And if an android was to be designed as a clone of a living person, what better inventor to do it than that person's lover? It was the easiest thing Mark had ever done, because he knew Donghyuck like the back of his own hand. He knew every single mole on Donghyuck's body, every single pore and blemish, even better than he knew his own. It was, by all accounts and purposes, an impossible feat. But then again, he had always been impossibly talented."

"Still, he didn't get it right immediately. It took him time."

"Years," Jeno says simply, the single word laden with meaning. "No one else could have done it. That was how much he loved him."

"I'm sorry," Jaemin says tremulously, but Jeno shakes his head reassuringly. "Don't be. It's all in the past.")



Lying in his hospital bed staring up at the cracks spiderwebbing over the off-white ceiling, Mark had felt the dim stirrings of memory. A year ago, on their sixth anniversary, Donghyuck had given him a large, gaudily-wrapped gift box with a wide ribbon around it. When Mark had opened it, he realized it was one of those Russian nesting doll boxes that opened up into smaller and smaller ones until finally, right in the heart of it, he found a simple, unlabeled memory card.

He turned it around in his fingers, unimpressed, but Donghyuck smiled knowingly. "Guess what's inside."

"Our sex tapes?" Mark joked, taking the bait, but Donghyuck batted his arm, miffed. "Be serious."

"Okay, okay," Mark raised his hands in surrender, laughing. "I give up."

Donghyuck looked smug. "I cracked the last code on the memory and brain waves transferring device last week. The first thing I did was to harvest the contents of my mind and copy them all in here." He patted the miniscule card proudly.

Mark blinked at him and deadpanned drily, "So... my anniversary gift is your brain matter. Romantic."

"Shut up," Donghyuck laughed. "If one day something happens to me, at least you'll be able to rebuild me," he jested, but Mark immediately clamped his hand over his mouth, panicked. "Don't say such inauspicious things!" he hissed, and Donghyuck's eyes softened as he slowly kissed Mark's anxieties away.



The moment Mark recalled the incident, he bolted upright in the hospital bed, hope flooding into him like liquid strength. He ripped out the IV from his wrist and scrambled out of bed, nearly falling facefirst on the linoleum floor as his weak knees buckled beneath him.

He had barely walked a few steps when Jeno approached on the corridor, foiling his escape plans. "Mark-yah?" he looked shocked at seeing Mark out of bed and standing upright. "What are you doing outside your room?"

"I'm going home," Mark mumbled, not stopping his agonized footsteps.

Jeno caught him as his vision swam and his knees gave out again, carrying him back into the room like he weighed nothing. When he woke up, it was dark and Jeno was sitting cramped in the bedside chair, his head pillowed on his folded arms as he dozed on the edge of Mark's bed.

He snapped awake groggily when Mark started crying soundlessly. "What's wrong?" he whispered, hands reaching out worriedly to feel Mark's body. "Are you hurting somewhere?"

Mark was too tired to even gesture to his chest, just rasping, "I have to go home."

Jeno looked confused but relieved as he said warily, "Of course you're going to go home, bro." He brushed a lock of Mark's hair out of his eyes. "When you get better, okay?"

"Now," Mark whined, sounding infantile, but Jeno only smiled patiently and offered, "How about this... if you agree to eat something, I'll talk to your doctor tomorrow. Deal?"

Mark blinked through his tears. Jeno was looking at him with a mischievous and hopeful gleam in his eyes, and Mark grimaced and nodded.

Within minutes, Jeno had a tray of hot, aromatic food served in and was spooning bites into Mark's mouth.



Mark took Donghyuck's eyes from the prisms of sunlight lancing across solitaires, the creamy caramel silk of his skin from white jade, his cheekbones from the steepest ski-slopes, his laugh from the tinkling of wind chimes, and the arc of his smile from the gradient Donghyuck had mapped a million times against his lips. He remembered with crystalline clarity every cadence and inflection of Donghyuck's sandy, mellifluous voice, the piano of his breaths and the fortissimo of his breathless moans as he twisted beneath Mark. He remembered the dangerously slurring drawl of Donghyuck's accent, the way he rolled Mark's name on his tongue and his sheer facility with languages. As for the remaining data needed to reassemble Donghyuck's system, it was all in the memory card Mark had raced home after he was discharged and found thankfully intact.

Because Mark knew Donghyuck so thoroughly they could complete each other's sentences, could predict with absolute accuracy how Donghyuck would react to every question, in every situation. He had the entire lexicon of Donghyuck's smiles at his fingertips, because the only thing Donghyuck loved as much as he loved Mark was smiling.

Mark took months to write the first rough draft of the program. He wasn't doing anything that many other inventors hadn't attempted before, wasn't exploring unchartered territory. But what made his program different, the magic ingredient, was how painstakingly intricate it was, boasting a complexity that had never been seen in robotics before. He had broken down the fourth wall, the thin, invisible line that distinguished androids from humans. And while his work was tedious and solitary, he never felt alone, because every day he could feel Donghyuck's spirit alongside him, silently helping and accompanying him.

Donghyuck made his presence known in ways more obnoxious and less romantic than spiritually too. He was there in the rapidly blossoming android that grew steadily more lifelike under Mark's careful hands with each passing day, in the way the half-formed but already surprisingly precocious mannequin would snap open its eyes suddenly when Mark's hands were elbow deep in its heart or some other less appropriate place, and say something in its robotic, still unedited voice that made Mark snort a startled laugh.

Donghyuck hadn't been lying when he said the memory card contained his essence. In the budding android, Mark could already see unmistakable echoes of Donghyuck's inexhaustible energy, irrepressible positivity, inimitable candor, brutal honesty, sparkling wit, and exhilarating spontaniety. It filled him with a warm glow that bubbled up uncontrollably and spread from his chest through his body, energizing him. Donghyuck had left so abruptly and without warning, the tiny and unremarkable memory card his only legacy. But from the wealth of information contained inside, Mark was confident of replicating him.

He shook his head in exasperation when he realized that the android had also inherited Donghyuck's wacky sense of humour, and his quirky fashion sense. Donghyuck had a hang-up about his thighs and liked to wear hip-hop fashion. He had a vast collection of baseball caps and bucket hats and almost his entire wardrobe was Gothic black. Mark nearly choked on his water when he went to the kitchen for five minutes to get a drink and came back to see the previously nude android dressed in a black shirt of his and a snapback pulled jauntily over its head. Even in death, Donghyuck had to have the last laugh, didn't he? The muscles in Mark's face ached with unuse when he unwillingly smiled for the first time in he-couldn't-even-remember-how-long.

In this way, Mark had forged a tenuous and inexplicable relationship with every android he had built from the unpolished, amateur No. 1 to the final vastly-improved but still unsuccessful No. 66. It was the gravitational pull that Donghyuck had exerted on him from the very first day they met, manifesting itself every time Mark loaded the data from the memory card into the new android's empty brain. Every time he disposed of yet another failed attempt, it felt like watching Donghyuck die all over again. Mark wondered how many times he would have to send Donghyuck away, before his penance would be paid in full. He didn't know. The only thing he knew was that no matter how many times it took, he would willingly oblige.

 

Chapter Text

("Not many people knew, but after the accident, Mark suffered from partial amnesia initially."

"He lost his memories?"

"He couldn't remember the cause and effect of the accident, only the events leading up to it. The doctor said it was normal that he had repressed some memories because of the trauma."

"Did he ever regain them?"

"... Yes."

"What's wrong? Were they unpleasant?"

"..."

"I mean... of course they were unpleasant. What am I saying? I'm sorry, that was insensitive."

"No, don't worry about it. It's just hard for me to remember. He was distraught. He kept saying that it was all his fault."

"Why?"

"Because Donghyuck had sacrificed his life to save him.")



This time, Mark has learnt from his mistakes. After he finishes reconstructing No. 67, instead of loading his own memories into the android's brain, Mark deliberately leaves it a clean slate. So this second version of No. 67 is a strange mix of adult and innocence, Donghyuck's brilliant mind and lightspeed reflexes tempered by the amnesiac quality the space where his memories should be gives him.

Even so, this Donghyuck is breathtakingly intelligent, even more so than the real one ever was Mark sometimes thinks. More intelligent than a non-human has any right to be. Donghyuck's intellect had always been one of his most attractive qualities to Mark. He liked when Donghyuck got all Maths geek on him, losing himself in the equations he'd pore over until the dead of the night with his eyes serious behind oversized spectacles, his knuckled hands dwarfing the pen he was holding.

No. 67 is vibrant and headstrong and wilful, spitting and clawing like a wildcat the first time he sees Jeno until Mark lays a hand on his shoulder and wordlessly calms him.

"You've got him on a leash, haven't you?" Jeno observes with amusement, sitting on the couch and accepting a drink after Mark has mollified Donghyuck and sent him to the bedroom and clumsily pasted a band-aid over the scratch on Jeno's arm. "You always did."

Mark drops his gaze shyly, blushing. He can't help feeling a little smug over the difference in Donghyuck's reaction towards Jeno and him when they had first met. Although Donghyuck hadn't remembered Mark, he seemed to somehow recognize him. If Mark was being romantic, he'd say that maybe it was deja vu, memories from a past lifetime. But the scientist in him took over and he figured out logically that it must've been some retained recollection in his mind because Donghyuck had known him a decade longer than Jeno.

Donghyuck has grown into his own body now, lounging comfortably around the house with that sleek pantherlike grace and smiling that wicked smile that makes Mark's heart skip a traitorous beat as he teases Mark mercilessly. But he hadn't always been this cocky. Mark fondly remembers the first few days after Donghyuck had woken up, when he had followed Mark around with plaintive puppybrown eyes, trailing at his heels like a fledgling. It was only after Donghyuck had gone that Mark realized that he had always been his shadow. And wasn't a shadow what made someone truly human? Could one live on without it, without feeling like a ghost?

Mark finds himself lost in the curve of Donghyuck's unspoiled smile, reveling in the way every emotion he feels flickers across his face instantly, transparent as water. Donghyuck is touchingly artless, not having mastered the art of disguising his emotions and hiding his reactions. Mark enjoys this new, uncomplicated relationship, the lack of subterfuge that had clouded almost all their interactions nearing the end, but his heart clenches to think of the cost at which it had come.

And if there's anything unnatural about the rhythm of Donghyuck's movements; if he blinks a little less than normal; if the glint in his eyes looks a little too much like glass in a certain light; if sometimes his actions and responses are a little too predictable, it's much easier for Mark to close one eye and pretend not to notice. It doesn't bother him. Not in the least.



("When I saw the latest model of Donghyuck in Mark's house that afternoon, I knew that it would be the last," Jeno says thoughtfully, sipping his coffee. His eyes are cloudy with distant memories like the swirls of soymilk Jaemin stirs into his own cup. He had grown thirsty from the tearing up as he gradually settled down for the long haul, knowing that he wouldn't leave this grubby office today without hearing the tale to the end.

"Sugar?" Jeno offers, and Jaemin nods, pushing his cup over. Jeno rips a packet of packaged sugar crystals open and tips them in.

Jaemin cradles the cup in both hands as Jeno continues, inhaling the wafting aroma of the steam and feeling the temperature of the hot coffee seep through the enamel mug into his palms.

"It was amazing. He could walk and talk and function like a real person. If I didn't know that he wasn't, I'd be completely hoodwinked. I mean, I worked with androids. I was no stranger to their technology. But I'd never seen anything so... lifelike. It was frightening, how real he was. I couldn't take my eyes off him.

But what was most amazing was that he wasn't just human, he was Donghyuck. Mark had captured all of Donghyuck's defining characteristics so perfectly, it was unimaginable. His snark, his temper, his expressions. God." Jeno closes his eyes, reminiscing.

"He had done it. Mark had immortalized Donghyuck in this living, breathing android, and it was nothing short of a miracle. I was the only witness to this unbelievable sight. That android was a walking tribute to his love, to their love and it was heartbreaking.

We covered up the accident. It was a testament to how indistinguishable he was from a human that we managed to pull it off. It was like Donghyuck come back to life. No one suspected a thing, not even Donghyuck's own parents."

"That must've been a difficult secret to keep." Now, Jaemin is the one looking at Jeno with sympathy.

Jeno inclines his head, concurring. "It was. Especially because sometimes it seemed I was the only one who knew he wasn't real.")



Now, when Mark wakes up from nightmares, he isn't alone anymore. Donghyuck is beside him in bed, his body taking up half the mattress, reassuringly broad and sturdy. He immediately awakens, warm and drowsy with sleep but worried and solicitous as he takes Mark into his arms with wordless soothing murmurs. His chest is firm as a barrel and his shoulders seem broad enough to singlehandedly carry the weight of Mark's world.

"That dream again?" Donghyuck says knowingly, and Mark nods.



It's always the same dream. Him and Donghyuck driving along a dark road too late at night, arguing. Mark had been sulking because of some reason he had already forgotten and was still hanging on to because he was too proud to admit he wasn't angry anymore. Donghyuck was distracted, imploring as he pleaded with Mark to forgive him.

A ear-splitting screech, tires squealing on gravel, a blinding light, a resounding, bone-shaking crash. Donghyuck's scream. Then, mercifully, oblivion.

When Mark swam back to consciousness, the sky was a blanket of stars above him and they were surrounded by wailing sirens and flashing neon crimson ambulance lights. The paramedics were trying to cut them out of the wreck.

"Help," he tried to say, but gurgled and choked over a mass of liquid that tasted like rusty blood.

"I can't reach the breathing one. The other guy refuses to let go of him."

"Isn't he...?"

"Yeah. But he keeps holding on."

The breathing one... Mark took a shaky breath. It felt like inhaling knives, but he was undeniably able to breathe. That meant...

Mark struggled beneath Donghyuck's heavy weight, trying to look at his face. When he saw Donghyuck's ashen, bloodless features, his heart sank like a stone and his stomach lurched sickeningly. Donghyuck's eyes were open, but the light in them was extinguished, snuffed out like a flame. Mark twisted weakly to take in their position. When the realization blindsided him like a punch, it felt like a stake being driven through his heart.

Donghyuck had thrown his body in front of Mark to take the full impact of the crash. He had always serenaded Mark with Bruno Mars' Grenade, greasily swearing to Mark that he would take a bullet for him.

Mark hadn't believed him.



”Hyung?” Mark is hauled back to the present by Donghyuck's sleepy, tentative voice, prickling on the edges of the stars outside the window. Donghyuck is bathed in luminescent silvery moonlight, his skin glowing luminously. He looks too much like a ghost for Mark's liking. His eyes darken and the rough pad of his thumb comes up to brush Mark's eyes, before Mark realizes that his cheeks are wet with drying tears. Donghyuck's arms come up protectively around his body and Mark realizes that he's shaking uncontrollably. He feels like he's falling apart at the seams and Donghyuck's able hands are the only things in the world holding the pieces of him together. "I'm sorry, Hyuck,” Mark blurts out, the incoherent apologies spilling from his lips unchecked. "I'msorryI'msorryI'msorry --"

Other times, Donghyuck is the one repeating apologies until they become a meaningless chant as he tries to subdue Mark, who is a thrashing and flailing hysterical mess in his arms. Donghyuck doesn't flinch even as Mark berates him viciously, hitting his chest with angry fists and trying to squirm out of his embrace.

Mark feels betrayed, lied to, abandoned. Donghyuck had always seemed so infallible, so strong, larger than life. He always boasted and bragged about how powerful he was, thoughtlessly promising Mark forever. And like a fool, Mark had believed him. But ultimately, Donghyuck had turned out to be only human.

He wants to lash out at Donghyuck for leading him on, for stealing his heart and then absconding with it. He hadn't even given Mark time to prepare before he had deserted him heartlessly, like the cad everyone had always told Mark he was but he refused to listen. But who was Mark kidding? Even a lifetime wouldn't be sufficient to prepare himself for the agony of losing Donghyuck.

He wants to turn back time, go back to that car, that night. This time, he would be the one to protect Donghyuck. As he always should've been.

Donghyuck cages Mark in his gentle embrace and repeats the magic words again and again until Mark grows limp and boneless, slumping against him. Then he carefully and tenderly lays Mark's drained body back on the pillows, tucking him in. Donghyuck's eyes are moist and unbearably soft, filled with a bitter regret. His hands are uncharacteristically gentle, like Mark is made of brittle porcelain and Donghyuck is afraid to shatter him. He doesn't say anything, just presses a lingering kiss to Mark's forehead, his lips branding. "Sleep, my precious," he whispers, and Mark closes his tired eyes obediently.



("But as time went by, I realized that this Donghyuck wasn't just a doppelganger, the spitting image. He was better than Donghyuck."

"How do you mean?"

"It might not have been obvious to most people. Maybe they just assumed Donghyuck had turned over a new leaf, become a nice guy. But I'd known him for four years. He was one of my best friends. It was immediately apparent to me that Mark had made some... alterations to his personality."

"Alterations...?"

"It was like Lee Donghyuck, the new and improved version. The upgraded model. After his death, Mark had romanticized him, glossing over his flaws and placing him on a pedestal. I don't mean that the real Donghyuck was bad. But he was human, you know? He was just a normal guy.

I wasn't surprised, though. Because even when Donghyuck was alive, Mark had only been able to see the best within him.")



And sometimes, rarely but occasionally, Mark has the sweetest, loveliest dreams. When he awakes to the white clouds etched across the powder blue sky, Donghyuck is beside him too, stirring drowsily as he murmurs, "Good morning, babe."

With just a glance, a volume of conversation passes between them. "That dream again?" Donghyuck guesses, and Mark's answering smile is radiant.



It always goes like this: They were in their first year of university, and rooming together in the dorm. Mark was falling in love with his roommate and it was the biggest cliche in the book, except that it wasn't funny at all.

Because Donghyuck's lopsided smile gave him butterflies in his stomach and Donghyuck's stupid jokes made his heart do flip-flops in his chest.

To put a stop to Jeno and his roommate Jisung’s annoying habit of barging into their room at the most inconvenient times, Donghyuck devised a special kind of do-not-disturb sign. It would just make their dorm look suspiciously like a skeevy motel room if they were to hang the normal big-lettered kind on their doorknob, so Donghyuck bought a pair of plushies and hung them on a hook outside the door. They informed Jeno and Jisung that if the plushies were facing inward, that meant that they were not allowed to enter on any terms. If they were facing out, they could do as they liked.

Donghyuck asked Mark to pick one of them. He picked the smaller plushie. Donghyuck smiled in satisfaction like he had predicted Mark's choice and arranged them so that his tiger plushie was in front of Mark's.

"Why did you do that?" Mark asked later, puzzled, in the privacy of their room.

Donghyuck smirked, but his eyes were kind. "Because Donghyuck always takes care of Mark," he replied, smooth as butter.



”Hyung?” Donghyuck says patiently, pulling him from his reverie, and Mark snaps back to reality. Donghyuck looks overwhelmed under the wattage of his beaming grin but Mark can't wipe it off his face. "Do you remember the time we..." Mark starts, not letting Donghyuck getting a word in edgewise.

Donghyuck is subdued and thoughtful, his eyes clouded and distant as he listens carefully to Mark's rambling. He must be lost in the same memories, Mark thinks. But then why does he look at Mark so longingly, as if Mark is someplace far away he cannot reach?



("It was only supposed to be temporary," Jeno muses resignedly. "When I found out he was building the android, doing experiments, I was immediately strongly opposed to it and tried to convince him to stop. But he talked me into helping him.

He had the worst case of survivor's guilt. He kept saying, it should've been me. I couldn't watch my best friend suffering and not lift a finger. What kind of person would that make me?

I promised that I would keep it a secret for him, if he agreed to one condition: he would deactivate the android after a year.

I figured that was enough time for him to get over it, accept reality and move on with life. I thought that if 'Donghyuck' came back to life, it would help him. But it only seemed to encourage his grieving.

Somehow, he managed to find a way to elongate Donghyuck's life. His lifespan should've expired after a year, but I suspect Mark used some unorthodox means to prolong it. There was nothing he wouldn't try when it came to Donghyuck. He had no scruples, no ethics.

Theoretically, it was impossible. But Mark was constantly upgrading Donghyuck's capabilities, modifying and adapting and tinkering with his system. He improved Donghyuck infinitely, breathing life into his artificial body, giving him more and more humanity. If this case weren't so personal to me, as a scientist, I would've been utterly fascinated by Donghyuck's rapid evolution. I would've dreamt of case studying it. Because Donghyuck's existence defied all the laws of nature and science. It contradicted all preconceived notions and conventions of modern robotics technology. It was something that would break records, make history.

He knew they were subsisting on borrowed time, but he didn't care. It was like having a loved one hooked to a ventilator. You knew they were dead, but you couldn't bring yourself to pull the plug.")



Mark knows that they are subsisting on borrowed time, that sooner or later he will have to tell Donghyuck the truth about his identity. Donghyuck is growing smarter and smarter every day, his mind expanding with astonishing velocity. Soon, he will have questions that Mark cannot kiss away and thoughts that Mark cannot derail with a hand running down his thighs.

So when Donghyuck asks beseechingly, earnestly, "Mark, who am I? What am I? Why don't I remember anything?" looking anguished, Mark answers him honestly and forthrightly. He gently takes Donghyuck's clammy hand and leads him to the locked storeroom, revealing the lifeless forms of his predecessors sprawled over each other in the dark. Donghyuck gulps and tears his eyes away, and Mark can feel his heart pounding through his fingertips.

He climbs onto a stool and opens the cupboard, taking out the photo frame containing the picture they had taken together in Canada, the summer after graduation, right after Donghyuck had proposed to him. Donghyuck's arms instinctively reach out to encircle his knees, pulling Mark's thighs onto his shoulder and protectively lifting him down. He sets Mark gently on the couch and kneels down before him, taking the frame from his hands.

The look on Donghyuck's face when he sees the photograph cuts Mark to the quick.

"It's me," he whispers, running his thumb over the miniscule thumbnail of his face. "But I've never been there before."

Donghyuck looks bereft, numb with panic, adrift in a sea of bewilderment. He looks like he's slipping away, and Mark panics too, grabbing Donghyuck's chin desperately and wrenching it up, forcing him to look at Mark. Donghyuck is taken by surprise, bracing his hands on the couch on either side of Mark to catch his balance.

Mark cradles Donghyuck's face with his hands, gazes deeply into his eyes. “Hyuckie,” he says gravely, unconsciously slipping into English. "There's only one thing you need to know. Whatever you are, whoever you are -- whether you're man or woman, human or non-human, I will always, always love you. Even if I was the land and you were the sky and we could never, ever meet; even if I was the moon and you were the sun and we could never see each other, I'd still be in love with you."

Donghyuck looks dumbstruck by his speech, and Mark blushes hotly at his cheesy words.

But then a drop of liquid falls on his hand, and Mark looks up in surprise to see two lone tears streaking down Donghyuck's face.

He covers Mark's hand with his own, intertwining their fingers, and gently places it back in his lap. "Thank you," he simply says, quieter than a whisper, and gets to his feet, padding silently to his room and closing the door.

Mark lets out the breath he had been holding, feeling his shoulders sag with relief. It feels like a heavy weight has been lifted off him, but he feels an uneasy clutch in the pit of his stomach as he places the photo frame back on the coffee table, where it had originally been.



Donghyuck is back to his normal, boisterous self the next day, seeming to accept Mark's revelation with unsettling calm and stoicness. He is bright and cheerful, whistling as he prepares breakfast and Mark doesn't dare to broach the subject with him.



("Why didn't you advise him?" Jaemin interrupts. "That he was living in denial, dwelling in the past."

Jeno chuckles drily. "Do you think I didn't? I tried, more times than I could count, until I lost my voice. It was no use. He was smitten, infatuated. Donghyuck had him wrapped around his little finger. Even in college, they were the same. Mark was the only one who could tame Donghyuck, and Donghyuck worshipped the ground Mark walked on."

"And..." Jeno's eyes soften, curiously dreamy as the faintest tinge of pink dusts over his cheekbones. "He was smiling again. God, I hadn't seen his smile in years. It was worth everything."

Jaemin clears his throat awkwardly. Jeno snaps out of his reverie and coughs nervously. "Have you met him before?"

Jaemin shakes his head. "I've seen pictures."

Jeno laughs. "Pictures don't do justice."

Jaemin chews his lip thoughtfully. "Is his smile that beautiful?”

Jeno smiles warmly, and the last word catches in Jaemin's throat, tripping back to the tip of his tongue.

"It's breathtaking."



"He's grown so intelligent, Jeno-yah," Mark had said, a glitter in his eyes Jeno had never seen before. "I can't leave him now. He needs me."

"Mark-yah, it's not too late to stop. You've made a very big discovery, a very important invention. If you showed this to the world, if you sold it... you could become a very rich and famous man. You wouldn't have to worry about money for the rest of your life. You could have anyone you wanted --"

Mark cut in, eyes growing cold and hostile. "Jeno," he said, voice reproachful. "I would trade all the money and fame in the world, just to see Donghyuck standing in front of me again, alive and healthy, for one second."

Mark's voice broke, and suddenly he was in Jeno's arms, clutching at his shirt, his fingers curling tightly in the fabric.

"Jen,” he pleaded desperately, "Promise me you won't tell anybody. They'll take him away from me."

"Mark --" Jeno started helplessly.

"Please. I'll do anything you want."

"... Anything?"

"..."

"Then get on your knees and suck me off."

"..."

"Mark? Mark? I was joking! Christ, get up. I won't tell, okay? I won't breathe a word to a soul. No, stop it -- Oh, God."



Jeno breaks off abruptly, breaking his gaze away from Jaemin's and avoiding his eyes guiltily, like he's hiding something.

Eventually, he simply says, "I couldn't do it."

He raises his eyes to Jaemin, and they contain a world of sadness.

"I couldn't make him watch Donghyuck die again.")



When Mark finds out a way to make Donghyuck able to function without charging, he exuberantly calls Jeno to share the breakthrough. He had been working on this issue for almost a year, slowly but steadily minimizing Donghyuck's necessity for charging from every week, to every month, to every year.

Now, Donghyuck is officially bulletproof, able to survive like a normal human being without electronic power. Now, the only hint that Donghyuck is a machine is the single tiny button at the base of his spine, flesh-coloured and invisible to the untrained eye. Mark knows its exact location without even having to look, his fingers having mapped the route towards it a hundred, thousand times. But no one else does, and Mark dreams of a day when he will be able to do away with the button too.

Jeno is a skeptical cynic. "He'll never be a hundred percent human, no matter what you do," he says moodily, and Mark counters testily, "What's your problem?"

"You know I'm right, hyung,” Jeno says heavily, and something in Mark snaps.

He launches into an impassioned and righteous argument they have had variations of countless times. "He gets happy, sad, angry. He smiles, laughs and cries. For God's sake, Jeno, he breathes. If that's not proof of being human, I don't know what is."

There is a loaded silence. Then Jeno says conversationally, “Do you know those plants whose leaves fold up when you touch them?"

"... Mimosas? Yeah..."

"Would you say they have feelings too?"

Mark nearly drops the phone, his hands are shaking so badly. "Did you just compare Donghyuck to a plant?" he finally says.

Jeno takes a reluctant breath, then delivers his final blow. "At least plants are alive."

"Fuck you." Mark slams the phone down, trembling. He should never have called Jeno, knowing what a wet blanket he was.



Donghyuck walks into the room, his forehead creasing in concern as he takes in Mark's paper white face. "Hyung, are you okay?" he crosses the room in three strides, eyes raking down Mark's body.

Mark wishes Jeno could see Donghyuck now, the countless emotions flashing across his eyes -- worry, anxiety, care. Love. Jeno would eat his words if he could see what a depth of feeling Donghyuck had in his warm heart.

"I'm fine, babe,” Mark murmurs reassuringly, kissing his knuckles. "Let's go have lunch."



Mark watches Donghyuck sitting across the kitchen table, spooning rice into his mouth apathetically. Donghyuck had quickly acquired a taste for human food, but he had never quite displayed the hunger. Nevertheless, Mark thinks, didn't the proverb go, If it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, and walks like a duck, who's to say it isn't a duck?



(Jeno tells Jaemin about the rare occasion when he walked into Mark's apartment and didn't immediately see Donghyuck, bouncing off the walls and making a ruckus.

"Where's Donghyuck?" he had asked Mark, who smiled innocuously.

"He's at the supermarket," he said, and Jeno's heart sank.

Taking a deep breath, he decided that it was now or never to say the words he had been holding back. He didn't know when the next time he could catch Mark alone would be.

"Mark-yah..." he started gently, chest aching at Mark's guileless eyes. "Don't you think it's time to move on?"

"Move on?" Mark repeated, blinking at him blankly.

Jeno sighed. "Donghyuck's dead. But we're alive."

"Donghyuck isn't dead," Mark retorted, a sharp edge to his voice. "He's at the supermarket."

"I meant... the old Donghyuck," Jeno quickly amended appeasingly. Pain flashed across Mark's eyes at his words, but he continued pretending.

"I don't know what you're talking about."

Jeno's heart was breaking, but he said calmly, "I understand how you feel."

"You don't understand anything," Mark snapped, voice harsh as a whip.

Jeno couldn't help flinching, hurt, but he tried not to lose his temper. "I was his friend too," he said defensively.

"Is that all you were?" Mark shot back bitterly, and Jeno was taken aback.

"What do you mean?"

"God dammit, Jeno," Mark muttered, voice low. "I have to know. That night at the party I didn't attend, when Donghyuck got drunk and crashed at your room... did you fuck him?"

"No!" Jeno vehemently denied, and Mark's face paled with relief, his jaw unclenching.

"I wanted to." Although he knew it would hurt Mark, the guilty confession spilled from Jeno's selfish lips in a rush. "We were both drunk and horny, but he said no. He said he couldn't do that to you."

Mark's face twisted with pain and surprise. He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes and groaned softly. "It bothered me for so long but I didn't dare to ask. He'd never let me live it down."

Jeno stared at him. "I didn't know you cared so much..."

Mark breathed a laugh. "I know, I'm pathetic. What does it matter now, anyway? If he were still here, I wouldn't give a shit if he slept in your room every night. I wouldn't argue with him over stupid shit like that. If he just came back... God, I'd forgive him anything."

Jeno was shocked to hear a dry sob spilling from between Mark's fingers, his shoulders heaving. He had no idea that Mark's grief was still so raw, after all these years.

"Mark..." he started helplessly, voice thick, but Mark recoiled from his tentative touch as though stung and dashed a defiant arm roughly over his pink eyes.

"You should go," he said, avoiding Jeno's eyes. "Donghyuck will be back soon."

"You know he's not real, right?" Jeno couldn't help blurting out callously, his own nerves frayed to breaking point. “Hyung, you're in love with a machine."

Mark spun around, looking like he had been slapped. Then his eyes narrowed dangerously. "Don't ever call him that again," he warned, the manic glint in his eyes chilling. "I love him.")



"They say you're just a glorified computer, an android," Mark whispers to Donghyuck as they snuggle on the couch watching TV, biting off the term scornfully as if it's a dirty word. "But don't worry, my Donghyuck. I won't let them treat you like an object."

Donghyuck doesn't say anything, just presses the hard length of his body against Mark's to show him that he is very much human, with human desires and urges and feelings. His hands span Mark's back, warm through his threadbare shirt as he holds Mark the way he needs. Mark wants to savour the breathtaking simplicity of afternoons like these, languid and unremarkable but exactly the kind of memories Mark had regretted not making more of after Donghyuck had gone.

Donghyuck strokes Mark's hair gently, whispering unintelligible words into Mark's ear that Mark doesn't understand. All he knows is that they are sweet, soft and adoring.

"I love you too," Mark whispers back in English, and Donghyuck breaks into a boyish, bashful grin.

Mark can't afford to lose him.

 

Chapter Text

("He didn't even say goodbye." Mark's voice is like shards of broken glass, muffled against Jeno's shoulder. Jeno lifts his hands up behind Mark's back apprehensively, wrapping them loosely around his shoulders. He pats Mark's back clumsily. It's one of the rare days that Mark isn't pretending everything is fine, that he's willing to admit that one third of their trio is missing, his absence like a yawning abyss.

"You know..." Mark says pensively later, after he has calmed down. They're lying on their backs side by side on an emerald green meadow, gazing up at the cloudless periwinkle sky. "I used to think he was the sky."

Jeno turns his head slightly to study Mark's chiseled side profile, lifting an eyebrow inquisitively.

Mark laughs softly, a lovely, missed sound. "Because he gave me the ability to fly. He was the wings behind my back, the sky I soared in, and when he was gone, I became flightless."

"Maybe he's still up there," Jeno says quietly.

Mark squints up hopefully. "You think?"

Jeno smiles, reaching out to caress his face gently. "I think that wherever he is, he'll never stop watching over you."

The brilliance of Mark's smile makes his own eyes mist up too.)



Mark had promised not to be greedy. He had thought that he would be satisfied with just Donghyuck's presence by his side. He wouldn't dare to ask for more.

But Mark has been celibate for five years, and he's a young man in his prime with all the typical male urges. Donghyuck isn't helping with the way Mark opens his bedroom door to find Donghyuck splayed across his bed, wearing nothing but the smile Mark had fallen in love with more than a decade ago.

"Donghyuck!" Mark bellows, quickly backing out and slamming the door, collapsing against it breathlessly, his heart racing and his cock twitching in his pants with an incontrovertible hunger. "Put on your goddamn pants!" he pounds a fist on the door, groaning as Donghyuck's high-pitched giggles drift out from inside the room.

Mark is still cursing, trying to think of the Pythagora's theorem and recite the periodic table to calm down the growing bulge in his pants, when Donghyuck hauls the door open abruptly, making Mark fall backward into the room, arms pinwheeling as he shrieks.

Donghyuck's strong arms come up behind his back, catching him firmly. They hold him in their grip as Donghyuck smirks down at him, eyes flickering down to Mark's tented crotch and darkening with desire.

In a flash, Mark finds himself imprisoned against the wall by Donghyuck's perfectly built arms, his intense, hooded gaze making Mark's face burn, his hipbones digging into Mark's as Donghyuck grinds the ridge of his erection against him.

A breathless moan escapes Mark's mouth, the sight of his boxers slung low over Donghyuck's hips somehow even hotter than him wearing nothing.

”Hyung,” Donghyuck breathes, whining helplessly as he grabs the back of Mark's left leg and lifts his knee up to his clothed cock. He pants labouredly as he ruts sloppily against Mark's knee, his rhythm quickening, and fuck if that's not the hottest thing Mark has ever seen. He obligingly nudges his knee up, pushing it between Donghyuck's thighs and Donghyuck inhales sharply, eyes squeezed shut as he shudders to his climax, a growing spot of cum dampening Mark's boxers. It's enough to make Mark lose control, unzipping his fly and reaching clumsily into his own boxers to touch his leaking dick, pumping his hand relentlessly over it. Donghyuck watches him with glittering eyes, hand moving towards Mark's but Mark grabs his wrist tightly and holds him away till he strokes himself to release.

"I'm... not going to touch you," he pants, stumbling to the bathroom to wash his hand. Donghyuck tails him like a kite string, pouting. "Why?"

His face is flushed, his bangs slightly damp with exertion and Mark is careful not to look at him. "I don't want to hurt you," he mutters evasively, pushing past Donghyuck and fleeing briskly to the storeroom, locking himself up.

In the dark, dusty room, Mark buries his face in his hands and feels his walls collapsing. He doesn't know how long he can hold himself back. Every day of living with Donghyuck is like purgatory, but then Donghyuck smiles that smile, pure as driven snow, and Mark thinks it's hell in heaven.

Mark doesn't want to admit that there is another reason he refuses to lay a finger on Donghyuck, besides his innocence. He looks at the pile of wasted doll-like Donghyucks and thinks how very fragile and frail Donghyuck is, no matter how tough he acts, how his system could so easily be pushed into overdrive like it once was. Mark can't lose him again. He has a special bond with this Donghyuck, his number sixty-seven.

Despite his inexperience, Donghyuck's insatiable libido seems to be unchanged, partially because of the data in the memory card and partially because, well... Mark had personally sculpted his physique and defined his urges in graphic detail. Donghyuck is explicitly designed and skilled enough to be classified by some as a sex doll, but there is nothing raunchy about the painstaking detail Mark lavished on his body, only the purest of love.

Donghyuck has abstained for almost as long as Mark, and has the raging hormones of an adolescent teen due to the whole being newly-created thing. Coupled with his characteristic lack of patience, Mark doesn't know how long he can fight Donghyuck off. He knows that the only thing holding Donghyuck back from having him is his deep love and respect for Mark, and that he will never do anything Mark doesn't consent to.

But him and Donghyuck living together in the same house is tantamount to trapping a starving dog with a meaty bone. Soon, one of them will devour the other. The worst thing is that Mark is no longer sure whether he's the dog or the bone.



When Mark comes out of the storeroom, Donghyuck is slumped against the wall outside the door, thankfully now dressed in a shirt and his own boxers, his shoulders looking like broken wings as he hunches into himself.

His head snaps up eagerly when Mark steps out, his eyes remorseful. “Hyung, I'm sorry," he says in a small voice, hanging his head. "I don't know what came over me."

Mark's heart tightens as he crouches down to take Donghyuck into his arms. "Don't apologize. It's not your fault."

Donghyuck flinches away from his touch, and Mark recoils, stung and hurt. Donghyuck is looking at him with equally pained eyes.

"Sorry," he whispers, voice strained. "I can't... If I touch you right now, I won't be able to control myself." His hands are clenched into fists at his side, knuckles white.

"Then don't," Mark finds himself saying.

"W-what?" Donghyuck's mouth falls open in shock.

"Then don't," Mark repeats, louder. As he says the words, he feels a rush of impulsive conviction. He's tired of being prudent and controlling himself and doing the right thing. He just wants to be stupid for once, stupid and reckless and lawless, the way he had fallen for Donghyuck against all propriety.

Donghyuck's eyes are shining like mica as they fix unblinkingly on Mark for so long that Mark has to remind him to blink. Donghyuck does, breathing a disbelieving laugh as he hitches Mark's legs up around his hips and sweeps Mark effortlessly off his feet, carrying him to his bedroom with his hands steady under Mark's ass.



Donghyuck lowers Mark gently onto the bed, bracing himself over Mark and gazing deeply into his eyes with undisguised, unadulterated lust, but after that he seems slightly lost, clueless as to how to take the lead. Mark laughs. No matter how confident Donghyuck pretends to be, Mark can see right through him. Donghyuck blushes a pretty pink but allows Mark to sit up and push him down instead, spreading him across the bed like a promise as Donghyuck follows his actions with wolfishly gleaming eyes.

Mark unwraps Donghyuck as slowly as a present, taking his time to unveil the nubile, ripe body that he knows so well, that he personally sculpted and chiseled. Donghyuck's skin is smooth, his exquisitely wrought collarbones drawing Mark's eyes to the birdlike heartbeat in the hollow of his throat. His pectorals are cut like glass, abdominal muscles defined under the flesh and the sinew of his biceps ripples hypnotically beneath his soft skin.

Donghyuck's body responds to Mark's touch with ultrahuman sensitivity, coming to life beneath Mark's fingertips as Mark's skillful fingers dance expertly over it, playing him like a piano. Mark knows exactly how to touch to make Donghyuck's blood sing, how to blaze a symphony over his skin.

But even though technically, Mark should know every square inch of Donghyuck's skin, it still feels like unchartered territory. Mark has done it a hundred, thousand times, but he doesn't know if exploring and rediscovering the cryptography of Donghyuck's body will ever lose its novelty for him.

Donghyuck is breathing heavily, arching his back into Mark's touch and almost keening. His arousal strains against the thin cotton of his boxers, and he gasps sharply when Mark reaches beneath the waistband to close his hand over Donghyuck's throbbing cock, his eyes flying open.

Donghyuck's eyes are so lustful and trusting at the same time that Mark wants to tie a blindfold around them. He is so hard he can barely think straight, but Mark struggles to concentrate on the most important thing: to keep the pleasure under control, to make sure not to overstimulate or overheat Donghyuck and make his system crash.

Donghyuck's fingers scrabble in the sheets, clawing at them as he erupts in little shivers and breathy moans that go straight to Mark's dick. His eyes are squeezed shut in concentration and pain, his skin flushed deliciously and Mark has never seen anything so erotic. Mark ignores his own mounting desire and continues stroking Donghyuck's cock, flicking his wrist over the head and running his thumb over the slit till he can feel precum leaking out. When he knows Donghyuck is dangerously close, he bends over him and presses an open-mouthed kiss to the tip, placing an anchoring palm on Donghyuck's hipbones when he bucks helplessly into Mark's mouth.

Donghyuck makes a frustrated noise in the back of his throat as Mark moves his mouth away. Mark takes a deep breath and looks down at Donghyuck, his dongsaeng, his one true love, miraculously come back to life and smiling that drowsy smile up at him, eyes glassy with want. He's so precious, so unbearably dear. Mark would do anything for him.

He keeps his hand wrapped around Donghyuck's cock as he maneuvres with difficulty to the bedside table where the bottle of half-used lotion is kept. Mark lets go of Donghyuck's cock for a moment, drawing a choked noise of protest, to douse his fingers liberally with the grease. It's cold and Donghyuck inhales softly as Mark's hand closes around his cock again. Mark slicks up Donghyuck's cock, lubricating it, before straddling Donghyuck, aligning him at the cleft of his ass and sinking down slowly onto Donghyuck's erect cock, his thighs quivering. It stretches him apart, making Donghyuck hiss at the tightness, his hands closing around Mark's hips, fingers gripping bruises. He snaps his hips up erratically and Mark pushes himself down on Donghyuck's cock with difficulty, his ass finally meeting his pelvis. Donghyuck groans loudly and rolls his hips up into Mark, hitting a spot that makes Mark cry out.

Mark is shivering in shock and pleasure, the alien sensation of being penetrated for the first time foreign but not unpleasant. He can feel Donghyuck all the way inside him, thrusting so deeply that Mark feels like he's going to rip in half.

”D-Donghyuck," Mark pants. "Touch me."

Donghyuck's hand obligingly moves from his hips to find his cock, closing his callused fingers around it as he continues to slam into Mark from below. It's been so long since Mark has been touched, and he comes almost instantaneously, spilling over Donghyuck's hand and stomach.

Donghyuck's eyes glint, and he brings his fingers to his mouth, licking Mark's cum off as he thrusts sharply up, hitting Mark's prostate and holy shit Mark thinks as Donghyuck explodes inside him, groaning. He had no idea this was how sensational Donghyuck always felt when Mark was pounding into him.

Mark expects Donghyuck to pull out, but in one swift move he flips Mark onto his back, hitching Mark's legs up around his shoulders as he finds another angle, growing impossibly hard again inside him. Mark breathes harshly as Donghyuck drives himself into him. He grabs Mark's ass with both hands and pulls Mark's hips up towards his body, making their bodies align together like jigsaw pieces with no excess space between. Mark feels heat pooling in his stomach and pressure building in his groin at being connected so deeply with Donghyuck, writhing helplessly as Donghyuck rocks into him, his punishing rhythm intensifying towards climax.



("It wasn't fair, but it was true," Jeno says, looking out of the window. "He continued haunting all of us, even after he was gone. I didn't blame Mark, because Donghyuck was a hard guy to forget."

"You still think of him?" Jaemin murmurs, and when Jeno smiles, it reaches his eyes this time.

"Every day. It's just that I preserve my memories the right way.")



The moment Donghyuck is initiated to the pleasure of sex and Mark stops resisting, they start fucking like bunnies, to put it crudely. All day, every day, in every possible position they can think of. They're like a newlywed couple, unable to get enough of each other.

Mark knows that Donghyuck will spiral out of control if he doesn't put down some boundaries, but he's equally swept up by the hunger that seems to have possessed Donghyuck. For too many lonely years, it's been only him and his hand and the Gaussian blur memories of Donghyuck like a cherished, overexposed photograph seared on the back of his eyelids. So Mark lets Donghyuck have him any way, any time he pleases. The only line he refuses to cross is letting Donghyuck bottom.

Even though he fiercely misses the sensation of Donghyuck pinned beneath him, thrashing and moaning, Mark doesn't know if Donghyuck's body can take the pressure of being penetrated. He can't take the risk. And Mark would never admit this, but he doesn't really mind playing the submissive to Donghyuck. In fact, he even enjoys it. Mark would never submit to any other man, but because it's Donghyuck, somehow it doesn't seem so important who's in charge.



Donghyuck is a fast learner, an incredibly sensual and sensitive lover. He quickly finds out exactly how to crook his finger against Mark's prostate to make Mark cry out unintelligible oaths, how to circle Mark's rim till his hips are grinding down in wanton circles on Donghyuck's saliva-slick fingers.

"Mark," Donghyuck whispers reverently, eyes at half-mast and burning into Mark as his other hand strokes his own cock like Mark is the sexiest thing he's ever seen. Mark raises himself off Donghyuck's fingers with difficulty and goes down on his hands and knees over Donghyuck's cock, flicking his tongue over the head. Donghyuck moans obscenely, hands moving up to Mark's head to pull him down. His fingers twist in Mark's hair as Mark takes him into his mouth until Donghyuck's cock slaps the back of his throat. He bobs his head diligently over Donghyuck's cock, swirling his tongue over the shaft until Donghyuck shudders violently and erupts hotly and copiously down Mark's throat.



But Mark still knows all the little tricks to make Donghyuck come undone, to make him beg for mercy until he's sobbing Please and "MarkMarkMark --"

"Can you call me Minhyung?” Mark asks shyly one day, when they are sitting on the couch with Donghyuck's heavy arm slung around his shoulder. Donghyuck's eyes snap to his, annoyance flashing across them but his voice is silky as he says, "Why? Did he call you that?"

Mark's gaze flickers instinctively to the photograph frame on the coffee table and Donghyuck's arm tightens around him. Before he knows what's happening, Donghyuck has slammed a palm down on the photo frame, knocking it facedown and Mark is pinioned to the back of the couch by Donghyuck's rough grip on his shoulders, his eyes blazing into Mark's and not letting him look away.

Mark is surprised by the flare of Donghyuck's temper. He had deliberately omitted jealousy from Donghyuck's lexicon of emotional traits when he programmed him, because his possessiveness was one of the few qualities Mark didn't appreciate in the real Donghyuck.

But Donghyuck is looking at him now with unmistakably territorial eyes and Mark shivers as Donghyuck flips him onto his back in one swift motion, mounting him. He carelessly wrenches down Mark's sweatpants without the usual foreplay, thrusting his fingers into Mark's mouth and ordering him to suck.

Mark obediently wraps his lips around Donghyuck's fingers and swirls his tongue around his fingertips. Donghyuck inhales sharply, his eyes gleaming fever bright. "Enough," he snaps, pulling them brusquely out of Mark's mouth. His hot, throbbing erection digs into Mark's thigh through the fabric of their clothes.

Donghyuck opens Mark up with his own saliva-moistened fingers, breathing hard as his other hand slides roughly down Mark's body to cup his ass. Donghyuck spreads Mark's legs wantonly wide and undoes his own fly, thrusting into Mark's tightness and moaning as Mark clenches around him.

"Minhyung," Donghyuck drawls obligingly but insolently as he pounds relentlessly into Mark. "Who fucks you better, me or him?" he says low by Mark's ear, voice hoarse. Mark pants erratically as he grabs Donghyuck's shoulders for leverage, every thrust rocking his whole body, slamming him back into the couch and making the springs creak. He twists weakly away from Donghyuck's intensity, trying to push back against him with his hands and hips but Donghyuck overpowers him effortlessly, subduing him, dominating him.

"You," Mark gasps out breathlessly. "Always you," and the words seem to make Donghyuck lose his bearings, his hips stuttering and his eyes stricken and fathomless as they meet Mark's. Mark twists beneath him again and his movement draws a guttural groan from Donghyuck's lips as he convulses and shatters to orgasm inside Mark. Donghyuck collapses over him, panting, his weight knocking the breath out of Mark's lungs. Mark's hands come up tentatively over Donghyuck's back to stroke his feverish skin as Donghyuck's sated and spent breathing evens out beside his ear.



("Can I ask you a question?" Jaemin ventures delicately.

Jeno raises an eyebrow. "Go ahead."

"Why... why did the last research assistant leave?"

Jeno's eyes widen with surprise, and he hesitates. "He was fired."

Jaemin swallows. "Why?"

Jeno shakes his head with a small smile of resignation. "He fell in love with Donghyuck."

"He... seduced him?"

Jeno laughs humourlessly. "Donghyuck can be very charming. Once he sets his sights on a target, no one can resist him. Jisung had been nursing this huge crush on him since college. He didn't stand a chance."

"You won't have to worry about that with me."

Jeno laughs again, eyes sparkling with mischief. "Don't be too sure about that. Even I wasn't immune to his charms."

"I would never disrespect Mr Lee like that."

Jeno regards him, looking impressed. "You seem to have a good head on your shoulders, and decent moral values."

Jaemin blushes slightly at the unexpected praise. "Thank you."

They sip their cooling coffee in silence for a beat before Jaemin remarks offhandedly, "But it seems kind of unfair to blame everything on... them?”

Jeno shrugs, looking exasperated. "Mark wasn't stupid. He was just stupidly in love. Donghyuck knew that he was Mark's Achilles' heel, and wasn't above taking advantage of it.")



Donghyuck is... indescribable, unforgettable, one-of-a-kind. He's like a bull in a china shop, but that feisty hotheadedness is exactly what Mark loves the most about him. He likes that Donghyuck challenges him, provokes him, always keeps him on his toes. As Donghyuck grows steadily and rapidly into himself, Mark watches with a mixture of resentment and pride, holding him the way you fly a kite, letting the string out for it to climb the sky but keeping it close at the same time.

"You're such a handful," Mark scolds, but Donghyuck only grins unapologetically, knowing him too well to be intimidated by the indulgent warmth in Mark's eyes.

Mark can't resist spoiling Donghyuck, because Donghyuck has never failed to bring out the older brother in him effortlessly just by pouting and wheedling Mark hyung. Donghyuck knows exactly what to say to make Mark's heart melt and Mark knows that he's being manipulated but doesn't even care.

It figures that Donghyuck doesn't need to be taught how to flirt, Mark chuckles to himself as he watches Donghyuck hitting on hot chicks.

Mark doesn't mind. He can be generous because ultimately, at the end of the day, Mark's bed is the one Donghyuck comes back to and his arms are the ones Donghyuck falls asleep in. Donghyuck may stray, but Mark has no doubt that he will always come home to him.

At least his obedience is the same, Mark notes with satisfaction as the harmless flirting gets a bit too heated and he calls sharply, "Donghyuck, behave."

The two short words are enough to make Donghyuck fall silent, chastised as he dismisses the girl without a second glance and meekly trots back to Mark.



Still, it's not all smooth-sailing. Sometimes his insecurities get the better of him, and Mark wonders if his attempt to recreate Donghyuck has backfired. He longingly recalls the initial, rose-coloured days after Donghyuck's rebirth, when he had followed Mark around like a fawn, and feels the overpowering urge to clip Donghyuck's wings with the same hands that had taught him how to fly.

This intense yearning to possess Donghyuck makes Mark less and less certain if this is love or obssession.

 

Chapter Text

("He knew," Mark says cryptically, his dreamy, mellow voice drifting through the phone.

"Knew what?" Jeno says, confused. By now, he's gotten used to Mark's habit of making random and distracted remarks out of nowhere when he voices some fragment of his thoughts.

"He predicted that I'd try to overwrite his failings, so he forestalled me. Because he knew, Jeno-yah. He knew that I could only see the good within him."

"Oh."

"I'll never give up on him, Jeno-yah. He's everything to me, everything. Do you know how that feels?"

"Yes. Yes, I do.")

 

"Watch yourself. I can destroy you as easily as I created you, you know."

"Can you?"

"Try me."

"..."

"Don't fucking walk out when we're in the middle of a conversation -- Goddammit, don't you dare leave me again!"

"I've never left you before."

 

("It was such a pity. He had limitless potential, his whole future ahead of him."

"But maybe he didn't think it was a waste. Maybe that was exactly what he wanted, to devote the rest of his life to rebuilding him."

"You're right. I've never seen it that way.")

 

Mark's heart stops terrifyingly one day when he overhears the female interns in their lab whispering and giggling about something disturbing.

When he gets home, he storms into the kitchen where Donghyuck is preparing dinner, looking saccharine sweet and guileless in an apron, but Mark now knows better. He slams his briefcase onto the counter, drawing Donghyuck's attention.

"Oh, welcome ba--" Donghyuck starts, but Mark hisses, "What have you done?"

Donghyuck blinks. "What do you mean?"

"Come off it," Mark snarls. He's so livid, his whole body is shaking. "I heard you agreed to start dating one of the interns."

"Oh, Youngji?" Donghyuck says casually, untying his apron like he isn't singlehandedly sending Mark's world crashing down. “Where’d you even hear something like that?”

"How could you... how could you do this to --" Mark hastily chokes back the word on his tongue, amending, "-- to her?"

"Do what?" Donghyuck has the cheek to look confused.

"You're a machine!" Mark shouts, relishing the way the word makes Donghyuck flinch visibly. "How could you fall in love with a human?" The word love burns like acid on his tongue, and Mark feels like the biggest hypocrite in the world.

Donghyuck's piercing eyes seem to see right through him, his cold silence judgemental. His lips twitch, a mocking smile playing at the corners.

"What does that make you then?" he says cruelly, taking a step forward. "Since you're in love with this machine."

Mark inhales sharply, stunned by the malice and contempt in Donghyuck's tone. He grips the edge of the counter as his face burns with shame that Donghyuck knows of his dirty, unspeakable feelings.

Mark feels like the most pathetic and depraved creature in the world, hopelessly in love with a dead person and now a robot who doesn't even reciprocate his feelings. He thinks of Youngji, who he's seen around the lab occasionally and is the most popular intern. She is feminine, petite, cute and bubbly, everything Mark is not. Of course Donghyuck would rather date her than Mark, the mad scientist, the crazy inventor in love with his android. His number sixty-seven. Mark thinks of Donghyuck melting her with his blinding smile and teasing her with his hyena laugh and tastes something sour, a lump lodged in his throat.

"Your software is corrupted," Mark mumbles, striding across the room to Donghyuck. "I need to fix it."

This time, Donghyuck backs away, fear flickering uncertainly across his eyes. But then he squares his shoulders and meets Mark's eyes defiantly, eyes flashing with the pridefulness that Mark has always loved most about him.

But then those dark orbs soften unexpectedly, and Donghyuck's voice is like honey as he says caressingly, "She doesn't mean anything to me."

Seeing Mark falter, caught off guard, Donghyuck continues, emboldened. "You know I'm yours, hyungie."

His voice is deceptively silken, his eyes inscrutable as Mark searches them. Mark's stomach knots. Donghyuck has learnt to lie, mastered the art of subterfuge and deception. Mark wants so badly to believe that he's telling the truth but he knows better than to flatter himself with delusions.

Mark curses under his breath. "Fucking brat. You're too clever for your own good," he mutters darkly.

"If you try anything, I'll leave tonight," Donghyuck drawls in that gravelly voice of his. Mark can see that death has done nothing to blunt his sharp tongue.

He growls. "Are you threatening me?"

Swiftly, he closes the remaining distance between them, and deals an expertly-aimed blow to the base of Donghyuck's spine.

Donghyuck crumples instantly and Mark catches his boneless form in his arms just before he hits the ground.

 

When Donghyuck wakes up, Mark is leaning over him. "Don't ever forget who you belong to," he warns, the softness of his eyes betraying the steeliness of the words.

Donghyuck struggles weakly to sit up, but Mark doesn't touch him, getting to his feet.

"Where are you going?" Donghyuck says shrilly, and Mark turns with a small sad smile.

"I'm leaving."

"What?" Donghyuck breathes, stunned.

Mark shrugs and laughs hollowly. "You don't need me anymore. I'm just holding you back."

"I need you," Donghyuck babbles, latching onto his leg and clutching his thigh needily.

Mark simply shakes off his grasp and looks at him kindly. "You'll be fine, baby,” he says, voice soft as feathers as he runs a hand through Donghyuck's hair.

"I thought you said you loved me," Donghyuck whines piteously, tears welling up in his eyes.

Mark shakes his head regretfully. "I was just using you as a substitute."

The blood drains from Donghyuck's face, and Mark forces himself to look right into his wounded, devastated eyes to deliver the final blow. "You'll never be as good as him."

 

("I lied," Mark confesses, finally falling to pieces on the couch in Jeno's apartment. "He isn't as good. He's better."

Mark confides in Jeno how disloyal and guilt-stricken he feels. "I'm forgetting him, Jen. The texture of his skin, his temperature, his smile, the sound of his voice. I remember him a little bit less every day and this Donghyuck -- he's so sweet and caring and funny and considerate. He has dinner prepared when I get home and washes the dishes after we eat and he doesn't leave the faucet running or his hair clogging up the bathroom sink. He's perfect and I... I can't stop thinking about him.")

 

"You betrayed me. How did you become so weak, so... human? I'm disappointed in you."

"It's all your fault. You made me like this. You made me human with your stupid smile and your stupid eyes and your stupid tears that could melt even a heart of chrome."

 

("Mark's research on the subject contributed to great advances in technology in the field of android construction. Many aspiring scientists travelled from all around the world, hoping he would take them as his students. He received staggering offers of up to millions for his prototype. There were so many broken hearts, so many people who would move mountains just to see their beloved living and breathing again.

But the only one Mark ever took as his disciple was a young engineer from China, Renjun. Since his childhood friend Chenle passed away, he had spent more than a decade trying to construct his robotic twin. Finally, miraculously, he managed to succeed with Mark's help. They both flew back to China, but we still keep in contact.")

 

And Mark thinks that they're like two satellites spinning through the lonely sky, in their solitary orbits. But once in a blue, blue moon, their trajectories intersect, like parallel lines converging.

It's been six years since Donghyuck passed away, but Mark still feels like there's a piece of him missing. Donghyuck was his other half, his better half. Sometimes Mark thinks that he was the one who was Donghyuck's shadow. That would explain why when Donghyuck was ripped away from him, Mark felt untethered, no longer anchored by gravity.

 

(The door of the office creaks open, startling Jaemin and interrupting the cozy atmosphere that has settled between them like fine dust. He turns, jaw dropping to see Mark Lee in the flesh, standing in the doorway and looking sheepish.

"Am I intruding?"

"N-not at all!" Jaemin hurriedly assures, standing up and bowing earnestly. "It's so cool to finally meet you! You're my idol," he gushes, then realizes how much like a teenage boy he sounds and struggles to recover his composure. "My name is Na Jaemin and I'm here to interview for the position of research assistant."

Mark looks taken aback by his excitement, and Jeno looks a little miffed for some reason. "Don't drool on yourself now," he grumbles under his breath, and Jaemin blushes, discreetly moving his hand to his mouth to check for excess saliva.

Jaemin avidly takes Mark in. He is wearing an identical lab coat to Jeno, but over a cream cable-knit sweater and collared shirt. If Jaemin had thought Jeno was scruffy, Mark is worse, his hair unkempt and stubble unshaven. The white of his coat is creased hopelessly.

"Oh," he chuckles self-consciously under Jaemin's scrutiny, running a nervous hand through his lank hair. "Sorry for... my appearance. I've been working on a project and haven't had time to shower in a while."

"More like days,” Jeno says, wrinkling his nose, and Mark flushes but good-naturedly clasps Jaemin's enthusiastically proferred hand. "Hi. How's the interview going?"

Jaemin opens his mouth, but as he's about to answer a voice calls, "MARKIE!” and a young man comes tumbling headfirst into the room, with a mop of messy hair falling into his dark eyes, and the smile that transforms Mark's face makes Jaemin's breath hitch. Because Jeno hadn't been exaggerating when he said Mark's smile was breathtaking. If angels could smile, they might look like Mark.

 

Jaemin can't take his eyes off Donghyuck. Mark is glowing like a whole jarful of fireflies as they banter and bicker and tease each other playfully and generally flirt shamelessly back and forth like Jaemin and Jeno are not in the room.

After they have finally left, hand in hand, Jaemin sighs in hushed amazement. "So you weren't having me on. He's a walking miracle."

Jeno smiles quietly, not taking offense. "I couldn't have made it up if I tried.")

 

Mark opens his eyes one morning to Donghyuck shaking him awake impatiently, his eyes shimmering.

“Hyung,” Donghyuck says, voice trembling. "I remembered something."

"Whaa...?" Mark mumbles blearily, still unsure of what is going on. Donghyuck just shakes his head in exasperation and grabs Mark's hand, tugging him off the bed and out of the room.

Mark shivers in his pajamas, rubbing his eyes as he watches Donghyuck overturning the living room, flipping through pages of books on the shelf and tossing CDs as he rummages through the cupboards.

"What are you looking for?" he asks, but Donghyuck ignores him.

"I'm pretty sure it's somewhere here --" he mutters under his breath, eyes narrowed with determination.

Mark yawns, looking longingly back at his bedroom when Donghyuck yells, "AHA!" making him jump out of his skin. He swivels back to see Donghyuck's face flushed with excitement as he clutches a tiny thumbdrive aloft. Mark's heart skips a beat.

"What's that?" he asks slowly, and Donghyuck's face softens as he finally looks at Mark.

"Last night, I had a dream," he says hushedly. "I dreamt that there was a thumbdrive, hidden right there." He points to the mess of shelves and cupboards.

Mark's heart is roaring in his ears. "What's inside?"

Donghyuck smiles shakily, wide eyes looking equally terrified and thrilled as Mark feels. "I guess we'll see."

 

Mark inserts the drive into his computer after connecting it to the flatscreen plasma TV in the living room. Inside, there is a single video, a few minutes long. Mark's hand is shaking so badly, he can't press the play button. Donghyuck's warm, steady hand covers his, coming to his aid.

Mark watches in disbelief as the screen flickers to life. It's Donghyuck, sitting in their living room, on the very same spot of the couch Mark is sitting on now. The frame wobbles, zooming in and out as Donghyuck fiddles with the settings, finally settling the camera down before him and starting to talk.

"Mark... I don't know what to say. If you're watching this, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I don't know why, I don't know how, but something terrible must've happened. Something that made me... have to leave you.

Hyung, do you remember the memory card I gave you for our sixth anniversary? I'm sure that by now, you'll already have decoded the encrypted data inside. But there's something else. Inside the data, I embedded a little byte. Think of it as the second door. You've already unlocked the first. And now, you've managed to open the last.

The microchip I implanted was an unbreakable code, one nobody in the world could solve except you. You did it, Mark hyung. I never doubted you could. I'm so proud of you.

I'm so worried that I can't be beside you to take care of you. Have you been eating well? Have you been crying yourself to sleep every night? You always forget to eat when you get lost in your work. Please... take care of yourself for me, okay?

Hyung, you know that I always keep my promises, right? So listen carefully now: I promise that I will come back to you one day. I don't know how, or when, but I will. Just believe me and trust me.

Remember the first time you kissed me? I was fifteen and you were sixteen and we were just two little boys in an apocalyptic love bigger than both of us. At that time, we swore that our love would change the world. And look... it has.

You are so brave, so strong. Braver and stronger than I could ever be. That's how I know, that you'll be okay without me.

Ah, it's getting late. You'll be home soon, I have to start preparing dinner. I don't even know why I filmed this video, I just suddenly had a premonition... If I tell you, I'm sure you'll say I'm being superstitious again.

We’ll never see each other again, but we'll be together forever. I love hyung so, so much. Don't ever forget that, okay?"

 

Donghyuck flashes his million-dollar smile, the one that used to get Mark to forgive him anything. Mark had forgotten how splendid it was. On the screen, Donghyuck gets up from the couch and approaches the camera, walking closer and closer until Mark can only see part of his shirt. He bends down, and for a heart-stopping moment one of his eyes fills the entire frame. Then his palm descends on the screen and the video flickers into static, then a dead blackness, and a gasp wrenches out of Mark's throat like a limb has been torn from him.

He immediately hits the replay button with a slippery finger, cranking the volume up to maximum so that Donghyuck's voice reverberates in the room, echoing in his bones. The video is far too short, far too fleeting. Mark wishes that it would last forever, that he could just sit in front of this TV and watch Donghyuck talk for the rest of his life. Mark wishes that Donghyuck could've said something to absolve him, to give him closure, a magic word that would erase this whole nightmare and make everything okay again.

Gentle arms encircle his waist, and Mark can feel Donghyuck's warm breaths on his neck as he sits beside him, a silent sentry. Fresh tears course down his face as Donghyuck tightens his arms around him until he can't breathe, as he presses his lips to the crown of Mark's head and strokes his hair with exquisite gentleness, brushing his tears away carefully.

"I'm here, Mark," Donghyuck's voice rumbles by his ear, his recorded voice fading to white noise. "Right here." And Mark can feel Donghyuck behind him, in front of him, surrounding him. Donghyuck had always been like the air he breathed, as taken for granted, as necessary.

It's taken Mark so many years to reach this epiphany: there's no one in the world who can replace Lee Donghyuck. Because what Mark had loved most about Donghyuck were his imperfections, his impetuousness and emotional intensity, his quick temper and soft heart and sharp tongue.

And Mark is sure that he will continue loving Donghyuck till the end of time. Even when he's not present, his existence will always be tattooed on Mark's heart, indelible, irreplaceable.

Since the day they had met, Mark had spent his life trying to unlock the enigma that was Donghyuck Lee. Donghyuck was his labyrinth, his playground, his home. And now, Mark knows that Donghyuck is also his forever.

 

("You were in love with him," Jaemin states. It's not a question.

Jeno just tilts his head and smiles, but doesn't deny.

"I'd always dreamt of loving and being loved the way he did, selflessly, wholeheartedly, without self-preservation."

"Sounds to me like you were more in love with their love, than him."

"Perhaps so. What they had was magic, pure and simple. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.")

 

"Do you still miss him?" Donghyuck asks, his voice so desperately gentle that it cleaves Mark in two.

"It's okay if you do. It's okay to cry," Donghyuck says quietly, pulling Mark into the hollow between his chin and shoulder. Mark wonders when Donghyuck's mechanical warmth had become the realest thing to him in this fabricated world. If humanity were measured by one's capacity for love, Donghyuck would be the most human being Mark had ever met.

"Did I do the right thing?" Mark murmurs, and Donghyuck takes his chin, tilting his face up to look into his eyes.

"Mark," he says gravely. "You brought me to life. I wouldn't exist, if it weren't for you."

Mark thinks of the days after Donghyuck first left, when he had nothing in the world except excruciating regret and bittersweet memories and a handful of broken promises of forever. He thinks of the journey over the years to here and now, Donghyuck sitting beside him, himself but at the same time not, warm nonetheless. And maybe, all along, this warmth was all that mattered.

 

("Well... I guess that wraps up the interview. The job is yours if you want it."

Jaemin hesitates, surprising himself. "I don't know if I'm... good enough," he says honestly.

Jeno's smile is disarming. "I'm sure you'll do just fine."

Jaemin smiles back tentatively, his heart swelling with hope. "I'll try my best."

They shake hands again, but this time Jeno holds on a heartbeat longer.

"It's been so long since I've touched human skin," he says in wonder. "I'd forgotten how warm it was."

"Maybe I can help you with that," Jaemin says coyly, meeting Jeno's searching eyes with his own.

"I'd like that," Jeno says after a lifetime of silence, breaking into his first genuine smile and Jaemin forgets to breathe because Jeno's smile is so wide, his eyes vanish into it and Jaemin feels like he might just follow.

"I can't believe it's only been an afternoon," Jaemin muses softly, looking out of the window into the orange shadows of the setting sun.

"I know," Jeno agrees. "It feels like I've known you much longer than that."

Jaemin frowns. "I've been meaning to ask... you look kind of familiar. Have we met before? I vaguely remember us working together on an android for a competition, forming a team called... Dream?”

Jeno shakes his head. "Nope, pretty sure we haven't."

"Oh." Jaemin tries not to sound disappointed. "Must be my imagination then."

"Maybe..." Jeno says, and his eyes are dancing. "Maybe it is a real memory."

Jaemin looks at him questioningly.

"A memory of the future.")

 

“Minhyung.”

"Mmmph?"

"It's me, Duckie. I'm home."

"Don't mess around, Hyuck. I'm tired."

"Because Donghyuck always takes care of Mark."

"What? What did you just say?"

"I've kept you waiting."

"It's impossible. No one knows that except --"

"Wake up, Mark. Don't be afraid."

"Am I dreaming?"

"Open your eyes and you'll know.”