“How many of them are there?” Jackson asked.
“Mmm there are...seven people there,” Youngjae answered, squinting to look through the binoculars. “Three scientists and four security staff. Seven of them, yes.”
Jackson swallowed and changed the weight from one foot to another. He tried to scrunch up his nerviousness like a paper ball, make it something really tiny and toss it in the back of his mind, in a place where he could ignore the voice inside him reciting all the ways in which this plan could go wrong.
“Are you sure you want to do this, Jackson?” This time it was a voice at his back and Jackson turned to face Jinyoung. “I mean, at this point, we can still go back. Sure we will have to refuel the plane so Jaebum can conceal our little trip to the eyes of our supervisors and that will probably mean we won't go on any vacation this year, but...” He stopped and stared into Jackson's eyes, like he was trying to read him. “But we haven't done anything irreversible yet. If we continue... Well, I think your plan could work, I wouldn't be here helping you if I didn't. No one of us would be. And if it works, everything's going to be fantastic, the WSA will want our project, there will be raises for all of us for our 'initiative', and the CEOs of the company will be kissing our asses for a month. But if it goes wrong... if it goes wrong then the least it can happen is that we are fired, our careers end, and no one does anything to help us. And the other option is we just get shot.”
“I know, Jinyoung, ok?” Jackson sighed. “I heard too how Jaebum told us that if this goes wrong, he'll deny knowing anything about it. And I know the consequences. I know all of that. And I still want to do it.”
He turned again to try to make out something of the scientists camp through the distance and the tree trunks, without success. They were in the middle of fucking nowhere, one of the few wild forests left in the country, in the world, and everything felt strange to him. He wondered if the rest felt the same, if they had ever been in a forest before. He knew Jinyoung had been, working for the company, but he didn't know about Youngjae or Yugyeom, the young men Jinyoung had brought with him, telling him they were trustworthy. The air smelled so different there, earthy and intense, and the tall trees and bushes in one million shades of green and brown surrounded them by every side, making it difficult to see what lied ahead. It felt like they had stepped into another world, so different from the city, with its immense buildings of glass and concrete. So different from the solar and crop fields he was used to see, where you could see into the horizon for kilometers, under the bright blue sky.
“I just...” Jinyoung walked to his side and looked at him. The other two guys looked at their discussion with interest, but they didn't seem worried. They wore the uniform of the security staff of their company, not so different from the one the men fifty meters away were wearing, and Jackson thought they just looked too young. Baby faces with the body of an adult, dressed in black, with bulletproof vests which read Horizon Corp, and hands that were bloodcurdlingly sure every time they brushed the electric guns carried in their belts. “I just want to know you are sure of this. It's your plan after all. And I, we, think it's a good plan. And we are sure of our motives to do this, Jackson. But I want to know you are sure of yours. We are following you. We need you to be strong and to be confident. We need you to be sure.”
Jackson looked back at Jinyoung, turned around to look at the three of them. They have landed the company aircraft in a clearing two hundred meters away, a grey, small and silent aircraft that Jackson suspected Jinyoung loved more than any of his friends. They were now closer to the temporary camp the scientist had assembled, monitoring them, waiting. All of them, even Jinyoung, asking him if he was sure, seemed more confident in the plan than Jackson felt himself, and for a moment he felt guilty for bringing them along. Even if they said they were sure they wanted to do it, he wasn't sure he could forgive himself if they failed.
But this needed to be done. He inhaled deeply, the smell of the pine trees, of the soil, filling his lungs. It had all begun like this, too, he thought. In another different place where he had felt for the first time like he was stepping into another world. And he probably was.
A world with only us. A forest in which I get pushed more and more, following you.
“I'm sure too, Jinyoung.” he said.
“Jackson, this is something important. And I want to do it too, but I just want to be sure you're doing it for the right reasons. You have to think if it's worthy doing this just... you know. Just for Mark.”
Jackson stayed silent for a while. Jinyoung wasn't just the only pilot in the company who would have probably agreed to work on such a stupid mission, but also his best friend there, and still, he wasn't sure he could understand how he felt, or if he could have explained it. Even if they had been in another, different place with much more time than they had now. He had tried before, and it never worked, even if for him, everything was pretty simple. If Jinyoung didn't understand, how could he even explain to the two kids Jinyoung had brought because he had worked with them and trusted them, but Jackson had never seen before, all his reasons. That his reasons for doing this weren't just Mark, but at the same time, Mark was the spring of all of them.
“It's not just for Mark. But it's because of him, and yes,” he swallowed again, paused, and then continued with a firm voice. “It is worthy.”
Jinyoung sighed. “Ok, then. Let's continue with the plan.”
Jackson had already been working for almost two years for the Horizon Corporation, one of the biggest biotechnology companies on the world, when the World Space Agency finally reached Hestia, the first thought habitable planet outside the solar system and confirmed it was, indeed, habitable.
Jackson remembered how he had been watching the landing on TV with Jinyoung, like all the rest of the world had been, holding his breath. The images were delayed because of the immense distances in the galaxy, but they had been clear, the first manned spaceship descending onto Hestia, a planet with a lavender sky and no sign of life, but with water and a breathable atmosphere. And after that, it seemed like the whole world had changed. Even if normal people still wouldn't see a visible change in their lives, now everyone knew the human being could probably survive on another planet, and just knowing it reshaped everything. But for people like Jackson, working in one of the enormous corporations dedicated to investigation and development, it had really changed everything.
Soon after the first manned spaceship reached Hestia, it was followed by others, and a scientific colony was established there by the WSA. After a few months it seemed that it was really possible to live there, even if the atmosphere, the composition of the planet and the radiation from the star of its system, of that new sun, were different than Earth's. But the colony relied on supplies sent from Earth, and since they knew that wasn't sustainable over a long period, and seeing the planet seemed habitable, the WSA decided to take the next step, and try to artificially introduce there Earth's ecosystems.
The colonization project would be the bigger ever developed by the WSA, given how many different variables had to be taken into account to replicate a whole ecosystem, and how many different disciplines and experts would be needed for that. It would be a project of years, and billions of dollars.
It was just too juicy for any company, and when the tendering process to win the concessions for developing different parts of the project was announced, the Horizon Corporation was quick to start preparing for the one that would take on the vegetation part of it.
So, Jackson, that until then had been working as a mechanical engineer developing the infrastructures for the company's experimental crops in another part of the country, was relocated again in the city where Horizon Corp had its headquarters, to join the Eden Project. To join the team responsible of developing the project the company would present to the WSA.
He flew back to the city with Jinyoung. He was one of the pilots who transported all the staff and small equipment to wherever the company had interests at the moment, and during those years Jackson had spent away from the city, flying back and forth between the headquarters and the countryside, and between the different crop zones, they had become friends.
“Excited to be back?” Jinyoung asked without taking his eyes off the cockpit window. Jackson was at his side, sitting in the copilot seat, as he had started doing after the first few times Jinyoung had flown him. They were approaching the city, Jackson knew, because the crop fields were starting to be replaced for solar fields. Kilometers and kilometers of solar panels that, in conjunction with the also enormous hydro power stations provided electricity for the huge megalopolis. The sky was bright, the flight was comfortable, as it was Jinyoung presence, and everything felt good, like a new beginning.
“Yep,” Jackson said. “It will be nice to be close to the family again, without having to use you all the time. And this project is going to be so much more interesting than the crops. But I'm going to miss you seeing you all the time, man.”
“Using me, he says,” Jinyoung laughed. “I get paid for this, and very well, don't you think I wouldn't have thrown you out the plane if not. But yeah, I'm gonna miss you too. It's gonna be very weird being back to just transport normal workers who don't ramble all the trip.”
“Do you want me to record a CD for you?” Jackson smiled. Jinyoung burst out laughing.
“Gosh, no,” he replied, still laughing. “God forbid. I don't even know why are we getting so emotional. I'm still going to see you a lot in the HQ. I even suspect high doses of your annoying presence aren't healthy, and this is going to be better for my peace of mind, but after all this time it's going to be weird.”
“I know,” Jackson answered, not bothered in the slightest. “Just text me every time you are there, ok? I don't want you to think you can get rid of me that easily.”
“Don't worry, I've never thought it would be easy. And Jackson,” he said, still not looking at him, focused on the trajectory of the aircraft. “Text me too, ok? Anytime. Even if I'm not in the city, if you need for anything, text me.”
“To bring me in your plane one of those smoothies from that town near the Crop Zone D when I have a craving, for example?”
“Don't stretch it.”
They reached the city soon after that. The solar fields gave place to the factories, industrial states dominated by the gigantic synthetic fuel plants, and these to the buildings and the parks. To the hydroponic gardens in the roof of every apartment block and to the tram rails built so high above the ground that when Jackson had first got on one when he was a child, he felt like he was flying. Now, he was really flying and he smiled. He had never thought his life would be like this, working for such a big company, and in projects that were so important. He had just wanted to please his family and live a normal, happy life, surrounded by the people he loved. But he was happy about what life had gave to him, and even if he hadn't minded being away for a couple of years —and he had been visiting at least once a month either because of the work or because he just wanted to— he always knew he would be back. And it felt good to be back.
They flew over the city, Jackson looking at it with awe, even if he almost knew every roof, every park and every road by heart until they reached its other end, the outskirts of the city where the Horizon Corp had its headquarters. Jinyoung landed the aircraft in the company's airport and let other staff move it to the hangar as he helped Jackson carrying the few boxes he had brought with him while whining.
People called the headquarters of the corporation the Horizon City and it was because it lacked just a few things to be a real one. It was a city inside a city, in its border, formed by all the buildings of the Horizon Corp, from the administrative ones to the laboratories, from parks to houses for the workers. In one of the apartments was where Jackson would live from now on, and that's where Jinyoung and him headed in the car the company had given Jackson. It was as silent as the plane had been, fueled by synthetic gas, but Jackson filled the silence talking without stop, excited and being the one driving for the first time while Jinyoung smiled. When they reached Jackson's apartment and after Jinyoung had helped him with the boxes, they drank a few beers together, in the balcony of the room looking at how people walked from place to place in the Horizon City. They kept talking, even after spending all the day together, until after the sun set and Jinyoung left for his own apartment. Tomorrow Jinyoung would be flying again, and Jackson would meet the rest of his team and start working on the Eden Project.
He slept like a baby, peacefully, without dreams.
The next day Jackson met the team for the Eden Project. It was a big team, and they spent the first days just meeting each other, visiting the places they would work in and learning the structure of the team and their competencies. Even if the Eden project was just a part of the bigger WSA project, it was still big, and there were people with all kind of roles. It was a bit overwhelming, and those days Jackson met more people than he had met in the whole two last years.
And that was also how he met Mark.
Mark Tuan was, at the age of twenty-nine, one of the best biologists in the company, and had been designated as one of the heads of the project. He was the chief of the scientists team, selecting and manipulating, often genetically, the seed that would be sent to Hestia, to achieve the best symbiosis between them and make them grow as fast as possible. Jackson began to work under his supervision, along with the rest of the engineering team, designing the infrastructures for the transportation of seeds through space conditions and the ones that would help to begin the cultivation in an optimal way once there.
There was only one year to present the project that would be developed in depth later, if it was chosen and they began to work really hard since the first day. They knew the competition between the different companies and institutes would be fierce, and the pressure of it was huge. And still, Jackson soon started to love the project and the people there.
He couldn't see Jinyoung that much then, but he befriended soon his new team He got specially close with two guys called Jaebum and Bambam —well, Jackson knew Bambam was a nickname, but he was completely unable to pronounce his real name—. They were very different, Bambam was another biologist and Mark's assistant, and Jaebum was part of a branch of the security department that Jackson was never able to remember the official name, because everyone knew what they really did was industrial espionage. But somehow they all got along, and the three of them, four when Jinyoung was in the city, and his schedules matched would eat together in the company cafeteria, and whine around the coffee machine.
Sometimes Bambam would convince Mark, to sit with them, and then Jackson wouldn't be able to take his eyes off him, looking at how he stayed silent during their terrible jokes and embarrassing stories, but always smiled, his full lips curving and his dark eyes creasing. And Jackson wished Mark would sit with them more often, because he didn't know how it had happened, but after the hectic beginnings of the project, learning their roles and launching their work; when everything had settle down into a routine, he was already in love with Mark like he had been his whole life.
He guessed it had been just inevitable.
There was something in Mark that pulled him. The team for the Eden Project was huge and all of them rarely coincided, except in the big meetings. Jackson was the nexus between the scientists and the engineers teams, translating their needs for the plants into devices, and he saw Mark often, but still he wasn't supposed to visit him on the laboratory everyday, and yet, he did.
He started going at first to the white, big laboratory because he preferred to meet with the scientists there, chatting freely with them and letting them show him what they were working on, and what problems did they have. Jackson was a people person, and he didn't like to wait to know what were they doing until the boring bi-weekly meetings. He just liked people, and people seemed to like him back. No one really said anything even if they knew it wasn't strictly necessary that he visited them everyday.
But after a couple of weeks, he just started going there more because of Mark than because of his work. He could have justified himself saying that it was actually better for his work that he went there, because Mark talked more openly and relaxed there, in his lab, than out of it, but he never tried to. He knew he would have still gone there even if it wasn't.
He knew he liked Mark, and couldn't put a finger on the moment he had started doing it, but whenever it had happened, now it felt like he had liked him forever. He liked to go to the laboratory and talk to him there; he felt something warm whenever he thought of how Mark smiled and shook his head fondly every time he saw him entering the room. And Mark always listened to him, Jackson discovered, not just hummed in agreement. He remembered everything Jackson had told him, and even when he kept looking at his work, they way he smiled and chuckled when he heard Jackson's stories made him feel like Mark never thought anything he had to say was silly. And Jackson just couldn't have enough of Mark's presence, of his company. He liked to observe Mark as he kept working while he talked to him, smiling softly while not taking his eyes off the microscope and the Petri dishes. He liked to see the way his expression changed, his frown furrowed when the observations weren't as he expected them, his tongue darting out when he was focused. And specially, the way he lifted his head and look straight at Jackson sometimes, and smiled. It was a smile that could have lighted a small country, and that made Jackson's heart twitch.
Mark was an introverted person and didn't talk much, but inside his laboratory he seemed at ease. Jackson was still the one doing most of the talk —but to be honest, all his friends, not only the quiet ones, thought he always did most of the talk— but after a couple of weeks Mark also started telling him things. He talked about his work in such a passionate way that Jackson would actually shut up and listened to him with an admired look for hours. He talked about the first time he saw a forest, something that wasn't common in Earth anymore, and how after that he had decided to become a biologist, about strange and funny plants Jackson had never heard of. He also started telling him about his family and friends, and everyday life, and Jackson just listened to these things in the same wonder he had been when Mark talked about his career.
“I remember that after visiting the forest in the nature reserve I was so amazed I wanted to see forests everyday,” Mark said one day, when they were watching how the staff assembled the most ambitious initiative for the project, a kind of greenhouse that reproduced with all detail the conditions in Hestia. “I just didn't want to wait until the vacations and trips to visit them. And I pestered my parents to buy me books, and documentaries, and small bonsais, and I don't know how many family holidays I made them visit forest reserves to complete my herbariums. I don't really know how it sounds, but I was like a kid obsessed with dinosaurs, just it was with forests instead. And I still am,” Mark laughed, shaking his head like he thought it sounded a bit ridiculous. “I just wanted to make them grow, and take care of them, and then I wanted to show them to the people too, how beautiful and amazing they could be.”
Jackson smiled too but it wasn't because he thought what Mark was telling him was ridiculous in the slightest. He kept smiling because in front of him, he was seeing Mark still with the smile of a kid. A kid who had just found a dream, still without a shape but so pure, so exciting, and had decided to go and chase it because, how could he not do it? He suspected he wasn't entirely objective, but how could Mark be so wonderful, he thought. How could he even exist.
“After that I think I didn't surprise anyone when I decided to became a biologist. By then I was already a teenager and I knew more things about forests than the fact that to me they were fucking amazing. I knew about how they affected climate, the temperature of the atmosphere, the droughts and the floods, and how they influenced all our ecosystems. You know, after the invention of synthetic fuels, now that gas emissions are reduced and climate change has stabilized, people think forest aren't a problem anymore. But they still are. The affect more things than just that, and they are still few, and just don't regenerate that fast. Is not just about having or not a place where you can hike with your family on Sundays, even if that's what I cared about at first. There are places where there used to be forests, and now there aren't and what's left instead are droughts, and dry wells and a soil so deteriorated it can't grow anything. Even our company has problems with all of this. Imagine how it is in other places, where if you can't grow a crop, or there's no water in the well you can't just bring it from somewhere else. I thought that I could become a biologist and do something helpful about that. I wanted to focus on reforestation technologies, because I thought I could do something that was both beautiful and helpful. Something that would make the Earth a better place.”
Jackson stopped watching the assembling and looked at Mark. He was looking directly at how the aluminum bars starting to rise to the ceiling of one the basement rooms of the company, and how the technicians moved huge panels of translucent plastic around. He looked distant, like he was somewhere far away, and Jackson wondered if he was remembering that first forest he had seen when he was a kid. He suddenly desired to be able to watch it too, as Mark has seen it then, huge and green, and smelling of damp soil and full of sounds so different than the ones they were used to hear there in the city.
“Why did you become an engineer?” Mark asked then, and Jackson gasped, dragged out of his thoughts. Mark was looking at him now, staring, and Jackson suddenly exposed.
“I was good at it,” he squirmed a bit in his seat, nervous under Mark's gaze. “I wanted to be a fencer when I was a kid, but my father wanted me to go to university, and well, I think he was right. There's not much job as a fencer, and I make a very good living as an engineer. I like it too, it's a bit like assembling a big puzzle, you know? But that's all. It's not that interesting. I didn't get a big call like yours.”
“Maybe it's better like that,” Mark replied, and for a tiny moment his voice was bitter, and when Jackson looked at him he saw a hint of sadness. “I always had clear what I wanted to do, but people
doesn't really seem interested in forests. They think they're pretty, but they just don't see why they should care. This is the first project that is related to what I originally wanted to do.”
“But now you're working on this. You're growing forests, finally. And it's such a big project. After this everyone will want your investigations.” Jackson said, but Mark shook his head and sighed.
“I hope so. But to fully develop them, the project needs to be chosen by the WSA first.” Mark replied. He looked still a bit away, a bit sad, and Jackson just wanted to erase all the sadness away, to comfort him, to make him smile. He reached for Mark's hand, wanting just to held it and comfort him, but when Jackson touched him, Mark jerked away.
He looked at Jackson embarrassed and stumbled a bit when he talked.
“I'm sorry Jackson but I just don't...”
Jackson looked at him confused and hurt for a moment, and then he realized how Mark was looking back at him, uncomfortable and a bit guilty.
“No,” Jackson said finally, and shook his head. “It's ok, Mark. You don't have to be sorry. I just wanted to cheer you up, but you're not comfortable with this kind of closeness and I understand it. I'm sorry I made you feel uncomfortable.”
Mark seemed a bit more relaxed hearing that and smiled shyly back to him. Jackson smiled back to him too, though it hurt a bit, because he still wanted to see him smile.
The first few days after that, Mark still seemed a bit nervous around him, but Jackson acted like nothing had happened, and everything went back to normal between them. They kept talking, and smiling, and laughing, Jackson loudly while Mark chuckled softly, and Mark even began to sit down with them in the cafeteria more often than before.
And it was because Jackson thought that, in the most fundamental thing, nothing had happened and nothing had changed. Mark didn't want to be that close to him, Mark didn't like him in the same way he did, but what did that changed? He still loved Mark. He loved Mark because his smile was bright and shy, because he was always kind to him, because he listened to him like everything Jackson said was worthy of attention. Because he saw how hard he had worked towards his dream, a dream of something beautiful, something better, that wasn't just for him. Nothing of that had changed. Nothing of that could change just because Mark didn't want to hold his hand.
It hurt a bit at first, but for Jackson that could have never meant that the would want to stay away from Mark. He wanted to enjoy his company, and wanted to make him happy and to see him smile. Because Jackson loved Mark, and he loved him because of the way he was, because Mark's dream colored the world in a way he had never seen before, and not in exchange of him returning his feelings the same way Jackson did.
“Hey, Bambam, where is Mark?”
Bambam lifted his gaze from the papers he was reading in that moment. “And what about me? First thing you do coming here is asking about him. Not even a “good morning, Bambam”. I feel mistreated” he whined.
“I come here to talk to you all the time.”
“Not as much as you come to talk to Mark,” Jackson didn't answer to that because there wasn't probably much to argue. “But I was just talking about how your lack of manners, not about that.”
“Good morning, Bambam” Jackson said this time. “Have you seen Mark? I need to talk to him about the project.”
Bambam smiled, pleased. “He's in the basement. In the greenhouse. You didn't see it because you've been two days missing attending those stupid engineer meetings, but it's finished. They have already even filled the part one with the sample plants. It's impressive. You should see it.”
“I'll go there now. Thanks Bambam,” Jackson paused and added. “And by the way, how can you ever feel mistreated when I buy you coffees from the machine every day?”
Bambam shrugged. “I'm high maintenance.”
Jackson laughed and left for the basement.
Bambam was right, it was impressive. The structure reached almost the ceiling of the basement room, and it looked like a crystal palace, and not just something made of aluminum and plastic. It had two separate rooms, one that was still bare, waiting for the plants to be grown from zero, the same way they would be grown on Hestia, and another one already filled with the specimens they were planning to cultivate, to see how they behaved and interacted those conditions.
When Jackson entered the double door of the greenhouse and stepped into the plant room, he felt like he was entering another world. The first meters displayed sample crops and some small garden plants, but after that, filling more than half of the greenhouse, there was a forest. The plants were adult specimens, and some of the trees were so tall they almost reached the top of the greenhouse. There were a lot of different species, some were tall trees, some were small, and there were bushes, and ferns, all of them mixing never ending shades of green. And then there were sparks of different colors here and there, the brown of the trunks and the bright, exotic color of the flowers.
Jackson felt lightheaded and took a moment to regain his step. The greenhouse reproduced Hestia's conditions, which meant that the atmosphere wasn't exactly the same. It was still breathable, but it had more oxygen in it than Earth's and even after getting used to it, Jackson couldn't stop feeling funny. It only added to the feeling of stepping into an alien, mysterious world, even if they were still on Earth, inside one of the company buildings.
“Mark!” he shouted. “Mark, are you there?”
Mark voice replied from the inside of the artificial forest. “I'm in the center of the forest. There is a path if you look at the ground!”
Jackson looked down. There was, indeed, a path there, the soil lighter that the rest. He followed it. With every step, he felt he was entering a strange place, following Mark's voice. The leaves didn't let him see far in front of his, so when he turned a curve in the path and found Mark in the middle of a clearing, he gasped, surprised.
He was waiting for him, looking at Jackson and smiling softly. He was wearing his white lab coat, contrasting starkly with the dark green and light grass around him, but he still looked like he belonged there. His smile was calm and it seemed to veil that many things that were still inside him, things that Jackson wanted to discover, even if it took him a lifetime to walk to the center of Mark. He still suspected that even then, there would be a part of Mark that would always be secret, a sanctuary only for him, but he still wanted to go deep into him, to get lost into him.
He just wanted him so much.
He shook his head, and smiled to Mark. Sometimes he was afraid he would scare him looking at him with that intensity, and he didn't want to make Mark uncomfortable. He wanted everything to be normal between them, for the sake of their friendship, for the sake of keeping that sacred place that belonged to them two, where they both felt at ease. But sometimes, like now, it was just too difficult for Jackson not to stare at Mark, at how beautiful he looked, skin so pale against the dark green, eyes so bright.
“Wow,” he said to Mark, focusing again on his purpose of coming here to talk to him. “This is amazing, really. Did they bring all these trees just in two days?”
“It looks real. It looks more than real. It feels like another world,” Mark smiled again at him when he heard that. “Is this what you felt that time you told me, the first time you saw a forest?”
“For me it was even more impressive then. Because I knew I was looking at something that man hadn't made, something that was alive, and beautiful, and majestic, on its own. I knew I was looking at something bigger than myself.”
Jackson stared at him again, feeling like there there was, again, one of those things he couldn't really comprehend about Mark, something deep and secret, only for himself.
“I wanted to talk to you about the hydroponics for the other room of the greenhouse, but now I feel like all of that can wait.”
“Yeah, I know. It's beautiful” Mark said. “I'm going to like being able to do part of the work here everyday. Much better than the lab.”
Jackson kept looking around, spinning. “This is what you wanted, right? To be able to bring back forests like this. To make people look at them with wonder, the way I'm looking at it now.”
Mark walked to the edge of the clearing, running his hand through the trunk of one of the trees there. For a moment, he turned his back to Jackson, but almost inmediately, he was looking at him again over his shoulder, fondly.
“Not exactly,” Mark said. “I wanted to reforest Earth. I wanted to make trees and plants grow here, not on a distant planet that will probably be just for rich people who can afford the trip and want to live in a beautiful planet, unlike the Earth they have half devastated and then left behind.”
Jackson had never hear Mark talk like that. He heard again the sadness in his voice, and again, he felt the need to reach for him and comfort him. He just wished Mark would let him closer.
“My master thesis versed about whether it would be possible to genetically engineer trees to grow much faster. I though that way we could grow again forests that took hundred of years to form, before the human being chopped all of them down. I thought if that technology was available, people wouldn't be so reluctant to plant trees because they would be planting them for themselves and not just for future generations, when they won't be here and couldn't care less. My thesis was mostly theoretical and the practical part of it were general conclusions about genetic engineering on plants. I got attention because of it, but not in the way I wanted. People were interested in my ideas about modified genetics in plants, but not about the forests part. I didn't find anyone who wanted to fund the original project. It was too risky to fund something so expensive when reforestation wasn't a priority and didn't promise impressive profits. I accepted then the offer from the Horizon Corp to work here, thinking that even if I couldn't investigate what I really wanted, at least I was working and gaining experience in one of the better companies of the world. And maybe, one day, I would convince them to fund my project. But until now all I have been working on are things like efficient seeds for potato crops.”
“My project has only been rescued now, after they discovered Hestia, and it's been because now, there are people with money who want to grow fast an ecosystem in another planet, when they don't even care about the ones here on Earth. They don't care, Jackson. People just don't care if it doesn't affect them. They just care about themselves, and what they want, and when something isn't about them, or isn't going to affect them soon, they look away. Like wanting to have a forest in a distant planet so they can fund a human colony and enter the history books and not caring about having them in their own planet, because how does that benefit them?” Mark shook his head, saddened. “But if it has to be this way, then let it be. At least now I can work on my investigation. And if this works and we win the tendering, I will be able to finish it, and then use the technology for what I originally wanted. For things I care about.”
“I'm sorry, Mark,” Jackson replied in a small voice. He had always thought of himself as an optimist person, but after hearing Mark, for a moment, he felt his disappointment and sadness like they were his own. He wanted to hug him, to hold him. To tell him everything would be ok. “Now I...I understand why you weren't that happy even if you had finally managed to do what you wanted to do. But I'm sure things will be better from now on. Your work is amazing. The results are very promising. I'm sure we will win the tendering with this.”
Mark smiled again, sadly, and it broke Jackson's heart. He looked at him, so small surrounded by the tall trees, and for the first time he saw Mark the way he suspected Mark saw himself. Trapped there, in the greenhouse, trapped in a small box, in a fake reproduction of the world he once dreamt, bearing a smile.
“I hope that too,” he said. “But you don't have to be sorry, Jackson. It's not your fault. And I'm grateful for the opportunity, you know, don't think I'm not. I still want to do this. I still want to do something, I still feel like I have to do something. But I wanted to do it both for the planet and for the people and now I don't know if I have faith on people anymore. If we really deserve it, if we can ever live in harmony with the rest of the planet, with ourselves. And sometimes it's difficult to be happy knowing that. Knowing how people really is.”
“But Mark,” said Jackson. The urge to reach for him, to touch him and comfort him, to give him hope and telling him some things were still worthy, was so intense this time, his muscles moved by themselves and before he could realize he was already gripping Mark's hand. “Things aren't just like that. Some people care. I care. I care about everything you've said. I care about this project.”
Mark smiled softly, and Jackson realized he was holding his hand and remembering what had happened last time, quickly moved it away.
“They pay you to care, Jackson,” Mark replied. He was standing really close to him, and now Jackson noticed that, before he took his hand away, Mark hadn't done it. That this time Mark hadn't jerked away when he touched him. That despite his words, he was still standing in front of him, so close, giving him a half smile that veiled a whole universe and at the same time, promised it.
He was so close Jackson thought he could notice the way his skin smell, like soap, like him. He kept smiling and Jackson just didn't know what had happened, how their conversation had ended and became this, what was going on now. He felt confused, lightheaded again, with the alien atmosphere and Mark's scent.
Mark turned around and started to walk out of the clearing, in the direction they had came. Jackson just stood there, paralyzed, until Mark looked over his shoulder, back at him, and then, like he was an automaton, started to follow him.
Mark moved between the trees with ease, while Jackson felt like he had to avoid branches and bushes all the time. Then, suddenly, Mark stopped and turned to face him and Jackson almost stumbled on him.
Mark kept smiling.
Their faces were now just a few centimeters away. He felt Mark's calm breath over his face, and realized his own was ragged, his heart was beating in his ears.
“You are a strange guy, Jackson,” Mark said, and the words fanned over his skin. “It seems like you see good things in everyone, in everything. That you like people and trust them by norm. I guess I find it fascinating. And people like you and trust you back. Even I like you back, no matter how loud, and sassy, and annoying you may act sometimes.”
“Do you?” Jackson said, in a whisper. Still paralyzed. Still don't knowing what was going on.
“I do,” said Mark. “I am...attracted to you, Jackson. And you like me, right?”
“I've never tried to deny it.”
“I guess you didn't,” Mark laughed softly. “Even if you still tried to act always normal, always avoided to make me feel uncomfortable. I realized. You're something else, Jackson. And I really like your company. But I can't return your feelings the same way you do,” he paused and stared at him. “And still, I want you.”
Jackson gasped for breath, suddenly not finding any. Mark kept looking at him, like he was waiting for the answer of a question he hadn't voiced aloud.
“I don't care” Jackson managed to reply, after a short silence. “I also want this. I don't care if you can't return my feelings. It was never about that.”
For a moment Mark seemed slightly confused and opened his mouth, like he wanted to ask Jackson something. But in the end, he just closed his lips and smiled again.
“Are you sure?”
Jackson nodded. He was looking at Mark, wondering if everything that was happening was real, when Mark approached him and put his hands over his shoulders.
His touch burned him, even still through the clothes. Mark was staring at him, at his lips, his face so close but still without moving, and when Jackson lowered his eyelids and half-opened his lips, he kissed him.
Mark's lips were warm and soft, and the kiss was slow, gentle. It wasn't it in a romantic way, but more like calm and deliberate, like Mark's pace at everything he did. Jackson felt intoxicated, drunk with him, and in that moment, he just didn't care about anything. When Mark started to kiss him open-mouthed, his tongue starting to lick against his, Jackson forgot everything. He put his arm around Mark's waist, hold the back of his neck, tangling his other hand in the soft hair. Bringing him closer, and still, it was never close enough.
He just wanted him,wanted to kiss him, to press him closer. He wanted to make him gasp, to make him shiver, to make him warm, his body against his, and make him forget, even if it was for a moment, all the things that had ever hurt him.
Mark moaned against his mouth, and it was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard. It went deep into his guts, and Jackson took a sharp inhale of air. He stopped the kiss, still holding Mark close against him, their hips pressed, and saw his eyes clouded by desire. Dark and bright, like a well of dark waters. He wondered how he looked reflected on them, if Mark could see the desire on his eyes too, as strong as he felt it inside his chest.
Mark leaned his forehead against Jackson, tugged on Jackson's lower lip with his teeth, softly, and smiled when Jackson groaned. Then, he disentangled from Jackson's arms, took a step back, and, staring at Jackson, took his lab coat and let it fall on the ground, on the grass.
Jackson frowned, disconcerted, and still, kept looking hypnotized as Mark started to unbutton the firsts buttons of his shirt.
“Here?” Jackson whispered, but he was already leaning forward and caressing Mark's suddenly exposed belly. The skin was soft, and heated to his touch, and he just wanted to touch all of it, all of Mark's body. “But what if someone comes?”
“No one will,” Mark replied. He shivered when Jackson ran his hand across his spine, under the shirt, and if there was some willpower left in Jackson, it disappeared. “No one needs to do anything here yet. And if someone comes, we will hear them before they reach here. I wasn't.. really thinking about this, but I don't want to stop now. Keep kissing me like that, Jackson. Keep touching me like that. Or stop it right now if you don't want to continue here, because if you keep doing it all I'm going to want is you on top of me.”
“Fuck, Mark,” Jackson shook his head, but he laughed. Mark chuckled too when he heard it and Jackson looked at him with something that was warmer than just desire. “How do you want me to stop if you put it like that? I also want this, want you, too much.” He leaned towards him and kissed him briefly on the mouth, then on the cheeks, along the jawline, just under his ear, delighted to hear him sigh.
Mark pressed again against him, tugging at the hem of his t-shirt, and Jackson lifted his arms so he could take it off. It ruffled his hair, and Mark laughed when he saw the result. Jackson just made and affronted pout, and kissed him to shut him up.
“I would say this is impressive,” said Mark after a moment, when Jackson let him talk again. He was running his hand over Jackson's abs, his fingers tracing patterns and making heat coil in Jackson's guts. “But I don't want to fuel your ego.”
Jackson laughed again. He just hold Mark closer, their chests were pressed together, their skin beginning to get slightly damp with the heat of the moment and the humidity of the artificial forest. He started to kiss the Mark's neck, soft kisses all along the side, that turned sharper when Mark moaned and let his head fall back, exposing more of the skin to Jackson's mouth. He nibbled at it, sucked slightly, enough to left little red marks, but not enough to make them last, and licked along his Adam's apple.
“You said you wanted me on top of you,” Jackson whispered against Mark's neck.
“I do,” Mark whispered too, tangling his fingers in Jackson's hair, keeping him there, in the crook of his neck. Tugging slightly every time Jackson bit him, moaning quietly. “I want to feel your body over me. I want you pinning me against the grass.”
“Well,” Jackson sat on the ground and brought Mark with him, kissed him again and started to lay him over the grass. He looked so beautiful there, under him, his pale skin against the green grass and his hair messing with the strands. His lips pink and parted, and waiting for him, and his hands running over Jackson's sides, bringing him closer slowly. “Like this?”
“Yeah,” Mark sighed when Jackson laid his weight over him, their hips pressing together. He was hard under his jeans, and Jackson groaned when he felt it. “Exactly like that.”
Jackson braced himself on his forearms, placed at both sides of Mark's head and kissed him softly on the lips. He rocked his hips against him, situated between his legs, and smiled when Mark whined against his mouth. He was hard too, incredibly so, and the pressure of Mark's groin rutting back against him felt almost too good. He wanted to make this last, wanted to make Mark felt much better than this, so he stilled and held Mark's hips against the ground with one of his hands.
“Jackson,” Mark whined. “Why are you stopping?”
“Wait,” Jackson said. He kissed him again on the neck, bit his earlobe softly and Mark moaned and tried to push his hips upwards again. Jackson held him. “Let me do something. Let me make you feel good.”
Mark whined again, but let Jackson do, let him go down over his body with his kisses. First he kissed him on the neck, then on his collarbones, sucked on the skin just over them. He left a trail of kisses over his chest, until he reached his belly button, and then he kissed it reverently too. Under him, Mark was arching his back, pressing against Jackson's mouth, gasping. Jackson run his hands over Mark's hipbones, kissed them, and then Mark let out a loud moan.
He started to unbuckle Mark's belt, and then Mark looked at him expectantly, but didn't stop him. He tugged Mark's jeans down, and when he took his underwear off too, when he stripped him completely, Mark shivered.
He was so beautiful, completely naked, his face and his chest blushed a pretty pink, and his whole skin as soft and pale as it has seemed when he was still dressed and Jackson could only imagine what was under. He caressed his face, his chest, his thighs, and started to spread his legs.
“Jackson,” Mark stopped him. “We don't have...”
“I know,” Jackson replied. “Don't worry, that's not what I had in mind.” He lowered his head and kissed the inside of Mark's thigh. “Just let me make you feel good, as I told you I wanted to do.”
Mark closed his eyes firmly and nodded, letting his head fall back. Jackson kept tracing the inside of his thigh with his mouth, and Mark whined and writhed when he sucked on the skin, this time hard enough to left a blooming bruise, a beautiful purple rose against the white field of his skin. Jackson held him by the hips with both hands this time and kept kissing him, every time closer to his groin, and when he finally breathed over Mark's erection, when he took him in his mouth, Mark let out a sigh that to his ears sounded like an angel's would.
He sucked him slowly at first, wanting to make him fall apart piece by piece, then increasingly fast and hard when he heard the way he moaned, when he felt Mark's fingers messing with the strands of his hair, restless; because he couldn't help it, because he wanted to give Mark everything. He took him deep in his mouth because he wanted to swallow him whole, because he wanted to make him his, to possess him, all of Mark, to be all he could think about even if it was just for a moment.
“Jackson,” Mark's breath was completely ragged. “Jackson, I'm going to come.”
Jackson stopped sucking him off, just to go back to kiss him again on the mouth, and started stroking him instead. He wanted to see him come, wanted to see his face transformed by pleasure, knowing he had make him feel like that and he tightened his hand around Mark's erection.
“You're so fucking beautiful, Mark.” he whispered, and Mark shut his eyes firmly and let out a helpless whine, coming between their bodies after a couple more of strokes.
Jackson kissed him softly on the cheeks, on the chin, brushed his lips against his while he still stroked him gently, drawing his orgasm out. He was still half-dressed, and his own erection ached against the seam of his jeans, but in that moment he didn't care, watching Mark's features washed by the wave of pleasure, the way his skin glowed and his breath was slowly coming back to normal. Mark realized, thought, and drawn him closer, his arms around his neck.
“Come here, Jackson,” he whispered against his ear. “Let me make you feel good too.”
He unbuttoned Jackson's jeans and tugged them down his thighs, along with his underwear. He ran his hands over the skin of his hips, of his thighs, as Jackson had done, then over his ass, groping it lightly. Mark was dragging his lips along the side of Jackson's neck, and this time, he was the one moaning helplessly, burying his face on the crook of Mark's neck.
Mark started to touch him, to stroke him increasingly fast, just the right pressure, while he kept kissing his neck, his ear, breathing hot against the sensitive skin. His arm was still hooked around Jackson's neck, to keep him there, to keep him close, and Jackson felt already on the edge. When Mark whispered his name, when he murmured against his ear he wanted to see him come like that, trying to bury his moans in the space between Mark's neck and shoulder, he was thrown over it, his mind blank with pleasure.
He dropped against Mark's body. Mark kept holding him, and he started to run his hands over Jackson's back, soothingly, as he regained his breath.
“Mark.” he whispered, still against his neck. He knew it didn't sound like the way Mark had pronounced his name, out of lust, pulled by the heat of the moment. It sounded like much more than that, like something warm that lived deeper in his soul. Mark didn't say anything, but he kept caressing him, his back, his nape, his arms, and they stayed like that for a while.
“We should go,” Mark said after that. Jackson lifted his head and looked at him. Mark was smiling, and he did too. “We've been missing for a while, now, and they're going to begin wondering where we are. I don't think Horizon will consider this an appropriate use of the company's time.”
“They won't,” Jackson answered, but still reluctant to get up and abandon Mark's warmth. “But in your case I think they would look over it. I don't think they can go on this project as it is without you. You're one of their best scientists.”
“So are you,” Mark replied, and Jackson blushed, because he didn't know Mark had such a high opinion of him. “But still I don't want to face a talk about the ethics of sex in the workplace by one of the guys in human resources.”
“Yeah, you're right,” Jackson grunted and started to get up. “It sounds awful.”
They started to clean up as best as he could, and dress again, checking on each other when they were done to catch if there was something out of place with them. Jackson brushed Mark's hair with his fingers to take off some strands of grass and Mark laughed.
Jackson laughed too.
They left the greenhouse after that, walking out of it as nothing had happened, and taking the elevator to the laboratories again. The rest of the day was completely normal, and they didn't see each other much, and when they did, they acted like normal, like the friends they were.
It was pretty much like that all the days that followed. The only difference was that now, they were friends that often, had sex.
And that Jackson just couldn't forget the way Mark's eyes had seemed to lose their light for a moment when he said that people never cared, and from that day on, he worked twice as hard in the project to show him that, at least, he did. Not to try to convince him to love him, not trying to win his heart, not even thinking he might be closer to it now that they were having sex. Just to show him that he believed, too.
Because now that he had seen the world through Mark's eyes he thought it made sense. That it made sense trying to build the architecture of a dream as beautiful as that. And he wanted the project to go on as much as he wanted to show Mark that some people cared, that some people did things just out of love, out of generosity. Because he thought Mark was a beautiful person that deserved to have faith back, if there was something he could do about it, and he would still have done it if Mark decided tomorrow that he never wanted to see him again.
“So you think it's going to be better to enter now, while they are working? But wouldn't be easier if we wait until the night, when they are asleep?” Jackson frowned.
“No, I don't think it would. They'll be more scattered then, everyone in their tents, and they're more than us, it would take us more time to reach and neutralize the last of them. If we do something wrong and just one of them has time to react, or to give the alarm, we could be really fucked. ” This time it was the guy called Yugyeom the one who answered. “This way we go against all them at the same time, like lightning, and if we do it right, it will work in our advantage”
Youngjae nodded. “Yeah, exactly. We aren't really sacrificing the surprise element, anyway. There aren't that alert, if you realize. They've been all the time yawning and walking half-heartedly around the camp. But I'd be probably bored out of my mind too if I had to do the security of this operation, too. I'd never imagine there could be people like us. Not here and not for such a boring project, anyway.” Youngjae chuckled.
Yugyeom giggled too and Jackson thought once again that those two looked scary when they talked like that, despite —or maybe, because,— the contrast of how young and childish they still looked. He had always worked with security staff, as they were a constant in the company, always there, watching the buildings and accompanying the staff and the expensive equipment in every project that took place away from the cities. But he had never had to see them in action, never had to see what they were really trained to do when their usually peacefully work encountered a risky situation. He had just saw them there, standing with their rifles and electrical guns, joking with him and the rest of the staff, like their job wasn't ever going to be really necessary.
But all the big companies had security departments, and they weren't small ones. They were there for a reason, Jackson remembered, and the reason was that there was just too much money involved in their work. People compared those companies to empires, and every empire had their armies.
He inhaled deeply. He had to think that, despite that, everything would work. It was too much otherwise.
Youngjae seemed to notice his nervousness. “Hey, man, don't worry. It will work. I'm sure. You said you're sure you want to do this. Just enter there when we're done with them and take what we need. Leave the rest to us. The plan will work.”
“Yeah, yeah, I think it will, it's just...you know. When I first thought about it I thought it was so stupid no one will ever expect it and it had to work. But now that we are actually here, now that it's real and no longer just an idea I'm so nervous it's just seem stupid. It's like I can't see the other part, even if I know it's still there.”
“I know, Jackson,” Jinyoung replied. “That's why you do the plans before, and when the time comes, you just simply act and hope you're doing what's right. We're all nervous, but let's just do what we planned, trust the plan, trust each other, and get out of here.”
“Ok,” Jackson let out the air in his lungs. “So, let's go over the plan again.”
“Ok,” said Youngjae too. “Soon the last of the scientist will enter the central tent with the plants they've been picking up. And then, they'll have to prepare them for their storage. And they will be all together in the same place, excepting probably two of the security staff, who will be doing the watch around the camp. At least that's how I would do it,” Yugyeom moved his head in agreement. “Leave these two to me and Yugyeom. We'll take them out of our way quickly. And then, we'll go and throw the sleeping grenades inside the tent they're working in, and just shoot everyone who tries to get out before the gas has effect.”
“I still can't believe you managed to get sleeping grenades” Jackson said, shaking his head.
“Well, you know, usually companies don't go against each other like this. They prefer the subtle ways, as Jaebum calls them. Cyber wars, industrial espionage, all of that,” Youngjae said. “But companies aren't the only people who's out there wanting to make money, and you haven't been the first one who'd thought of stealing things the good old way. We aren't supposed to do this, but we are supposed to know how it's done, just in case someone tries to do it against us. Imagine if someone entered the laboratories of the medical pharmaceutical branch. Or if they wanted to steal the equipment of the big labs, the ones that cost billions of dollars. The companies think of that. And they prepare us against those possibilities. So yes, we have sleeping grenades, even if it's just for some of the simulations, and we, err... borrowed some of them from the storage rooms of the security department.”
“To use them against four poor biologists who are out on a field trip picking up flowers with security guards that think they got one of the most boring assignments ever,” Jinyound completed, smiling widely. “This is so surreal I can't wait to be done and tell it.”
Jackson smiled awkwardly. “Well, it's my plan, what else did you expected it to be? But to tell the story we need first to do it and get out of here, and without one of the security staff shooting us in the ass.”
“That won't happen, trust us,” Yugyeomm replied. “We are good.”
“They are,” Jinyoung said. “Well, let's go over the rest.”
“Well, first we go and get out the way the guards doing the watch. Then, I'll throw the sleeping grenade inside the scientist's tent and when all of them are knocked out, either asleep or paralyzed by the guns, you get inside while Yugyeom covers you, and I wait outside. You take what we've came here for, get out of there, and we run like hell to the aircraft where Jinyoung will be waiting to take off, and leave this place before anyone can come here to help them.”
“Ok, I got it,” Jackson said. “So, how much time did you say we have until someone comes here, if they have time to give the alarm?”
“Twenty minutes,” Youngjae replied. “The same time it took us to get here in the aircraft from the nearest town. So we have to be fast.”
All of them nodded. They were suddenly serious, despite the jokes they were making just minutes before. Because right now, it all began, as Jinyoung had said. Now all the plans ended and the only thing they could do was to act and hope everything would work.
“Let's not wait anymore,” Jinyoung said. “By now they'll all have entered the tent, and it's as good a time as it could ever be. Take the masks,” he handed them the three gas masks they had brought with them. They were originally meant for the people who had to work with the fumigation gases for the crops, but they would work as good for the sleeping grenades. They had been easier to get, too, and they would conceal their faces just in case. “I'll run back to the plane, start the engines and wait for you ready to leave. Be quick and take care, ok?”
“We'll be careful, Jinyoung, don't worry.” Jackson said. He saw the worry in Jinyoung eyes and tried to smile, to lift the heaviness that seemed to have fallen over them in a matter of seconds, but the muscles in his face didn't obey him. Two weeks ago, he had just been in the company, in his lab looking with frustration at the reports of the project, thinking he would do anything to make it work, to help Mark, but without imagining he would ever decide something like this. Not a year ago, he didn't even know Mark, he was just flying back to the city with Jinyoung, and the only thing he had ever wanted was to keep living his normal life in peace.
But this was now, and the only way he could go was forward. The life, the goals, the dreams that were behind him couldn't work for him anymore, not without this. Not without doing everything he could to achieve a dream that maybe wasn't his at first, but has slowly became so.
It was about believing in a better world. It was about helping the people. It was about giving them that world, and it was about helping Mark to believe again, despite all, that those things were still possible. In the end, and for Jackson, it was just about love, and that was the only thing he had ever believed without any doubt his whole life. And looking at it like that, maybe there had never been other way. Maybe even if he had thought he would never have to make any big decision in his life, or not about people who weren't him; maybe even with all the doubts he had had about doing this, about if this was a good idea, this would have always happened in the same way. He would have always chosen this.
If he wouldn't have done it differently, then, there just weren't any reasons to doubt, he thought, even if the outcome was uncertain.
He smiled to Jinyoung, finally. He smiled to Youngjae, and to Yugyeom, and put on his mask.
“Ok, there we go.” He said. His voice sounded strange through the mask. The two younger guys put on his masks too, and Jinyoung just looked at them seriously.
“Good luck guys. See you on twenty minutes.”
They all nodded, and no one mentioned what would happen if they weren't back in twenty minutes. It was a small possibility, but it was still there. Jinyoung turned his back and jogged back to the aircraft. Jackson looked at Youngjae. It was almost like he couldn't recognize anything in him now, covered by the strange mask. Jackson thought that he looked like a weird kind of bug and he felt unnerved. Yugyeom looked alien too, and he wondered if he did also. There wasn't that much time to think, thought, because Youngjae made a gesture with his hand telling him to follow him, and he did.
They approached the camp of the other company. It was in the middle of a clearing, like the one they had landed their plane on. They didn't have one, but there was an empty space near the tents and Jackson guessed the pilot had just leave them there and would be back when they were done. There were three tents, the main one, in the middle of the camp, where the scientist were working now, watched by two of the security guards, and another two, where they slept. The two left security guards were outside, in front of the main tent, walking from time to time around them. They didn't look really alert, as Youngjae had said, but still, the rifles they had didn't look very reassuring.
They watched them from the edge of the clearing, hiding between the brushes. Then, when the security guards started to walk around the tents, each one in a different direction, Youngjae made a sign to Yugyeom. They waited until the tents concealed them from their sight, and move forward into the camp. They also went each one his own way, choosing a corner of the tents that would allow them to wait for the security wards coming back to the front of the main one. And they waited, in silence.
Jackson waited, too, left alone in the edge of the clearing, alone from the first time since the plan started. He could still see the two of them, but he felt on his own. He felt strangely focused, his nerves tingling and ready, and his mind completely clear. It didn't exist anything but the moment, and he waited for the security guards to reach Youngjae and Yugyeom's positions, without thinking of anything else, without any of the doubts or the thoughts he had just minutes before. He waited, completely focused, even if the seconds seemed to stretch strangely in time, even if it seemed that the guards were taking years to complete the short walk around the perimeter of the camp.
And then, the first of the guards turned the corner of the tent were Youngjae was waiting. When he saw him, he tried to lift his rifle and opened his mouth to scream, and for a moment, Jackson thought he would do it before Youngjae could do anything. But Youngjae already had his gun in the hand, and before he did, he hit him with the back of it in the face, hard and without any doubt.
Despite the fact that they now had became friends with benefits, nothing seemed to change between Jackson and Mark after their little adventure in the greenhouse. At least, not on the surface, thought now Jackson worked harder towards the attainment of the project, with a fire inside he hadn't had at first, no matter how interesting he had thought it was then.
On the surface, they were still just friends, and Jackson still visited Mark a lot in his laboratory, and they both sat in the cafeteria with their friends, and acted normally. It was just than now, a lot of days, Mark and him would leave together either for Jackson's apartment or Mark's, and have sex.
They didn't risk doing anything in the company again, after that first adventure. It helped when they pretended that everything was normal between them.
And somehow, despite all, it was. They were friends with benefits, just that. But they were discreet, and overall, they were responsible. They wanted to focus on the project while they were at work, so they acted professionally. Their friends knew, thought. As Jackson had said, he was discreet, but he had never tried to deny he liked Mark. They knew what was going on between them. And they knew Jackson loved Mark while Mark didn't.
Jinyoung was slightly worried for him. He told him he could be hurt, that he would get too much involved and it would came a time in when it would matter, when it would hurt him, that Mark didn't return his feelings in the same way, even if now it didn't.
Jackson didn't know how to explain that to him that it wasn't about if Mark loved him in that way or not. He wasn't naive, though, and he knew this wouldn't last forever, that at some point, they would have to go back to just friends again, because the relationship would be too unbalanced for them to be happy.
But right now, to him, it wasn't. He didn't expect Mark to love him back, he wasn't expecting to convince him to at some point, with all of this. He just wanted to be with him like that while he could, to enjoy the moment and then let him go. He knew he would still love Mark after that, because to him it was impossible not to, just that it would have to be in a different way.
But that was still far in the future, and now, he just wanted to enjoy the way he kissed him, the warmth of his body at night and the sight of him when he was over him, riding him while Jackson's hand rested on his hips, the lights of the apartment off and his body drawn just by the dim lights coming from outside the balcony.
He didn't care if his love was unrequited, liked their arrangement even if sometimes, there were little things that threatened to upset the balance. Tiny things that haunted him, like the way Mark looked at him sometimes after they had sex, when he thought he wasn't looking. The confusion in his eyes, and the expression of his face, almost like it had been that one time in the greenhouse, like his lips were about to voice a question that was always held back in its place. How lost he seemed, just for a fraction of a second, and in those moments Jackson realized there was so much still hidden inside of Mark, even if he had discovered a little more of him with this, with the moments they shared now. Because there were things that Jackson couldn't read in his face, things he couldn't recognize in his eyes, and in those moments, he always pretended he hadn't notice Mark's gaze, because he didn't know how to face the questions of what could ever mean in their relationship all the things that Mark never said.
There were things he didn't know, and things that Mark just wouldn't let him see, but he decided not to think about that. From the day of the greenhouse, when he hadn't just had Mark for the first time, but also, had heard of his dream, he focused just on making that dream come true, spurred on by the things he could see on the future he had never been able to see before. Spurred by the idea of a world that could be more beautiful and easier to live in.
Spured by the idea of seeing Mark smile genuinely, without holding anything back.
It was just that despite all the progress they had done, now they had come to a halt. And to add to Jackson's frustration, the stagnation was in his team, in the engineering part of the Eden Project.
The project consisted in telling the WSA both how could they transport a bunch of Earth's seeds in a spacecraft to Hestia through space conditions, and in a journey that took many months, and how could they grow them once there, fast and in optimal conditions, so they could replicate Earth's vegetation. The part of how to grow them there was going smoothly, Mark's experiments resulting in plants that grew thrice as fast without any apparent drawback and the final selection of the seeds almost complete. All the devices designed to help that part, the irrigating and hydroponics were ready, over paper and on prototypes, and ready to be presented to the WSA.
The part of how to store and isolate them from the extreme temperature conditions of the space was being more difficult, though. They needed storage for a big amount of seeds, that should be separated, and kept cold and isolated from the temperature changes in the rest of the spacecraft, specially from the heat radiated from all the machines and engines in a space that wasn't physically big.
It was driving all of them nuts, because they just couldn't figure out a way to do it with the materials or the space they had. And without it the presentation of the project was simply incomplete.
It didn't help at all when Jaebum told an exhausted Jackson that another one of the companies in the tender had already figured it out.
“What?” he asked Jaebum in a voice that he realized, was too angry. They were in the company cafeteria and Jackson was by his fourth coffee that morning. He was exhausted, and frustrated, like all his team was, and he had decided to take a break He had decided to go and drag Jaebum out of his office, because he didn't want to show Mark how frustrated he was at the moment with the project too. Mark had enough on his own. “Agh, I'm sorry, Jaebum. I didn't mean to talk to you like that. But seriously, how the fuck have they done it? We've been months locked up with the problem and we aren't closer to the solution now that we were at first. How the fuck, really.”
“We don't know, and it's not because we're not trying to find out, believe me,” Jaebum answered. “But the security they have for this project is demented. I have to admit is as good as the one we have set up,” he said, giving him a half-smile. “Maybe better, though it pains me to admit it. My team is also stressed trying to find out how to hack their computers, or if there's someone in the company who would sell information. But it seems everyone we have sounded out suspects there's going to be much more money if they win the tender than we could tempt them with. We're in a dead end too and I'm afraid I can't give you much information.”
“Fuck it,” Jackson said, momentarily defeated. He pressed his forehead against the table. “Fuck it, Jaebum. How many months are left until the date of the tender? Two? I don't know if we can catch up on them in just two months, not when we don't have any progress to work with.”
“Hey, hey, Jackson, stop,” Jaebum put a hand on his forearm. “They're not so far ahead of us. In fact, as far as we know, their biologists don't have proposals even remotely as interesting as Mark's experiments. They just have this part solved, nothing else. They already had an insulating material that seemed to be pretty effective, and they have found a way to upgrade it for this project. But we're watching the progress of all the rest of the companies in the tender, and they have good projects, but nothing as ours, as Mark's idea. If you think you're frustrated think that every day we're rejecting like a hundred attacks againts the network of the biology department. They are the ones that are really frustrated.”
“Nothing else, he says, as it's something small,” Jackson whined, but he lifted his head from the table. “But if you think we can still win the tender...”
“We can.” said Jaebum, convinced.
“And what about this insulating material? You said they had it from before? They're basing all their storage and preservation system in the properties of this material?”
“We don't know, Jackson, if I knew I would have already informed you and your team. They had the material from before, we know, because it seemed interesting to us and we tried to know what was its composition. But they keep it a secret, and they had never shown it to the public, so we haven't even seen how it is. And then we got more urgent things to find out, and forgot about it, and now that they have found it's key for this project the secret for the new material it's even bigger. I don't know either if they're basing all the system on it, but by the few pieces of information we've been able to get, it seems it's at least the main element of it.”
“Wow, I'd chop my arm to know what this material is, really.”
Jaebum sighed. “We would, too. The CEOs of the company would chop other people's arms to know what is made of, but right now it's just out of our reach. We can't get inside their computers, we can't get inside their buildings and we can't buy anyone to take anything out or to sell information. But we keep on trying. We still have two months to keep on trying.”
“Yeah, two months to keep on trying,” Jackson smiled weakly. “Well, I think it's time for me to go upstairs again to the lab. To keep on working. Thanks for allowing me my daily dose of whining, Jaebum. It helps knowing that you think we have possibilities despite this.”
“A lot, remember that,” Jaebum smiled back to him. “And don't worry Jackson. You know you can whine as much as you want. Jinyoung told me to take care of you. And I will. We're a team, and we're friends and I'm just happier if I can see all of you happy, if I can help you with anything.”
“Oh my god, Jaebum, did you really have to say all of that aloud? You sound like a father giving a really awkward motivation speech,” Jackson complained. “But thanks, really. Coffee is on me, ok? I should go now.”
He got up and smiled one last time to Jaebum, who muttered something about ungrateful children, but smiled back after, and left the cafeteria, ready to keep on working hard on the project, wanting to be sure that no one stole their opportunity to make their dream true.
Unluckily, another month passed by, and Jackson and his team weren't anywhere near solving the problem of the storage and preservation of the seeds. Nor was Jaebum's to find out how the other company had managed to do it.
Jackson was starting to get worried again, despite Jaebum's affirmations that as far as they knew, the other companies were struggling too with other parts of the project, and nothing could be sure until the very day of the tender. Jaebum was the calmer of all of them, but the rest was starting to get worried too.
All of them, except Jinyoung, who wasn't part of the team for the project, were stressed right now. They were less than a month away from the date of the presentation, already having to prepare everything and lacking an important part of the project. Jaebum tried to calm them, to encourage them when they were together, but he had an insane amount of work himself, and they couldn't see each other that much, nor there was much Jaebum could say to help them. And Jinyoung, even if he tried to listen and to comfort them, couldn't really understand how much pressure they had right now. Bambam was frantic, and Jackson was starting to feel like that too. He still tried to work as hard as he could, but he was starting to feel too exhausted and there were times he just had to call it a day and leave, because his brain just refused to keep working, to keep thinking.
Mark, on the other side seemed to have withdrawn more into his shell with all the pressure.
He could see the worry in his eyes, in the way he seemed absent when he visited him in his lab, in the cafeteria, like he couldn't stop thinking about it for a second. He could see it when they were together, alone, the way Mark seemed away from the moment, from the place, even if he still asked Jackson to leave the workplace with him at the evenings. And Jackson was worried.
He was worried because he hated to see the discouragement in his eyes, and because he started to feel maybe he couldn't help him. That maybe despite all he had worked, he wouldn't be able to find the last piece that would allow the project to go on. That maybe Mark had started to retreat to deep into himself, to a place even more secret, a place he wouldn't let Jackson follow him. That all of this would end soon, and what made him sad wasn't just to think that he could lose the moments in which he was alone with Mark, naked skin against naked skin, the sex, though he knew he'll miss it. What kept him awake at night was the thought that he could lose that strange little intimacy they had reached, that Mark had allowed inside their friendship, without having been able to use it to help him.
It have been like that one of their evenings. Mark had asked him to take him home, telling him with a seductive smile that he really needed to unwind from work, and Jackson had happily obliged, even if he had seen that tiny shadow in his eyes that showed that a part of him wasn't exactly there. He had wanted to unwind too, had wanted to have Mark again, something he could never get tired of, but overall, he had wanted to kiss him until he forgot everything. Until he could feel his body relaxed and pliant under him, the stress in his shoulders completely gone, brushed away by his caresses and his kisses.
If he couldn't give him hope, he wanted at least, for a moment, to take him away; to a place far from the world, where hope wasn't necessary because only the present existed.
He was sitting on Mark's bed, back against the wall, with Mark straddling his hips. They were kissing, hot and messy, and Jackson was already running his hands under Mark's shirt, but when he went down and started to cup Mark over his jeans, nothing happened.
“Fuck,” Mark said, leaving Jackson's lap. He shook his head. “I'm sorry I brought you here for nothing. I wanted to have a bit of fun and unwind, but it seems I'm too much stressed from work even for that. I'm sorry.”
“Hey,” Jackson replied. Mark was looking at him with an apologetic gesture, like he thought he had bothered him too much. “Don't worry, I completely understand. Work is hell right now. You don't have to apologize for that.”
Mark sighed. “You're too understanding, Jackson. But I have to apologize. I didn't want to give you a case of blue balls, but it's just...hell, I'm too worried about this, and I can't stop thinking about it.”
“I know. I've realized. I just... you know. Wish I could do something to help you.”
“And what else could you do, Jackson?” Mark said, smiling weakly. “You're already working hard on your part of the project. There's nothing else you can do. And the project is really good, both the part you and your team have already completed and the rest, but I'm still worried because I can't know how the rest of the companies are doing, apart from rumors and the scattered pieces of information Jaebum is stealing. And this one part we lack may not be the whole project, but it's an important part of it and without it it looks incomplete over the paper, even if the rest of it it's really good,” he shook his head again. “And Jackson, I don't want to go back to genetically modify potatoes. I really don't want.”
“I know, Mark,” he said, putting his hand over Mark's shoulder and squeezing lightly. “But we'll fight until the very end, and the end hasn't come yet. We can still do it.”
“I hope you're right.” Mark said, but he was still smiling, even if it was tentative.
“Maybe you should rest now. Probably it will suit you better that sex,” Jackson laughed, and Mark did too, nodding. “I'll leave you so you can sleep.”
“You don't have to leave, Jackson,” Mark said. Jackson looked at him with a frown. It was the first time Mark asked him something like that. Even if Jackson knew Mark considered him a friend, they were never together outside work if it wasn't to have sex. “It's late now. You can stay here and sleep with me. It's not like we haven't done it before, right?” he asked, and there was again in his eyes that little doubt, that little unrecognizable thing.
Jackson relaxed his frown and smiled. “Right,” he said. He didn't know what had changed in Mark's mind, but he didn't care, if that meant he could stay with him a little longer, a little closer. “Well, thank you. I appreciate not having to walk home now in the night.”
Mark smiled back at him. “It's nothing. At least this time,” he said, and Jackson pouted. They went to bed shortly after that, and for the first time Jackson didn't sleep naked, but in one of Mark's shirts. It was the first time they slept together without having sex, so Jackson didn't know if it was ok to cuddle, and just laid there, beside Mark, their sides touching. But after a while, when Mark moved to change his posture, he snuggled against his side, and Jackson smiled in the dark, and put his hand over Mark's shoulders, bringing him closer.
Mark made a little noise, curled more against him, and then fell completely asleep. Jackson tried to stay awake a bit after that, to enjoy the moment, to keep running his hand over Mark's upper arm, hoping he could feel the touch in his dreams, that it could help him rest and feel safe. But he was too warm, and too tired and too happy, and he fell asleep soon too, and for the first time in months he slept like a baby, not remembering the project for a moment.
“Mark is worried.” Jackson said. Jinyoung, Jaebum and him were sitting again in the company cafeteria. Both Jaebum and him had dark circles under his eyes, and Jinyoung looked at them with the lips pressed in a thin line.
“I know,” Jinyoung replied. “It's easy to see it in him. Well, in all of you, but he looks... distant. Not just stressed, but discouraged.”
“You know how important this project is for him. Of course he doesn't feel good.” Jackson said.
“I know,” Jinyoung sighed. “You don't look good either, Jackson. I'm worried for you.”
Jackson frowned. “Me? Well, I'm stressed about the project, like all of us. I've been overworking for the last two months. Of course I look like shit.”
Jaebum, whose dark circles made him look like a panda in that moment, laughed at the plain description of their situation, and Jinyoung had to laugh too.
“Well, not just that,” Jinyoung said. “I mean, you look worried about Mark. And I'm worried about you worrying too much for him. Especially when you take into account that you two aren't a thing, even if you're sleeping together, even if you love him. I know this project has become very important for you. And that you want to help him with it, too, but Jackson, the project it's not only your responsibility. And neither is to make Mark happy.”
“I know, Jinyoung.” Jackson sighed.
“I know I can't make him happy just because I want him to be. But I can try,” Jackson replied. “Why shouldn't I? Why shouldn't I try to help him? I don't know, for me it has never looked as complicated as you see it. I love him, so I want to see him happy. It's not about him loving me back. And I know I don't have the responsibility to make him happy, I know I don't have the ability to make him happy, me alone. But I want to try, I want to do as much as I can. And if I didn't at least try to do that, for the people I love, I wouldn't be happy with myself.”
Jinyoung shook his head, looking defeated with Jackson's stubbornness, but Jaebum smiled at him. It was a strange smile, like he knew more about that, about the situation, than Jackson knew himself.
“I just don't want to know that I had the chance to help him in something that was important for him and I didn't do all that was in my hand,” Jackson continued. “If I do everything I can and I still fail, well, I'll feel bad, but if I know I could have done more, I don't think I would have it easy forgiving myself. That's why I keep working even if I'm tired. The answer could be just one step ahead. And this project is important to me. Maybe it wasn't at first, but now it is. You've heard Mark talking about it. How anyone think it's not important after that? It's just about living in a better world.”
Jaebum looked at him. “It's a dream worth fighting for, Jackson. But understand why Jinyoung is worried. He's been your friend for longer than we've been, and your relationship with Mark isn't exactly conventional. It's easy to be worried about you giving too much, about you getting hurt.”
Jackson looked at Jinyoung, and smiled fondly at his friend. “Thank you, Jinyoung. But you don't need to be worried.”
“Well, I'll try not to,” Jinyoung replied, shrugging again, but smiling this time. “It's just that sometimes I don't really understand you, Jackson. But if you say this is what you want to do, I'll support you. Which doesn't meant I'm not worried about you having a bad time, specially with you asking that much of yourself, and spending that much time trapped inside your lab.”
“Well, I don't think any of us can help that right now, Jinyoung,” said Jaebum. “And the CEOs are putting extra pressure on Jackson's team, because the storage and preservation of the seeds part is on them, and right now is the one we're having problems with. Even if they have worked to exhaustion and they've solved brilliantly their other assignments. But there's a lot of money and influence involved, and only one month left, and I think they're even more stressed than us. They're already thinking of all the money they can lose.”
Jackson groaned. “Thank you for remembering me that it's me team the one who doesn't have its part ready, Jaebum, really,” Jaebum gave him an awkward apologetic smile. “It's just I can't stop wondering how that other company has managed to make a system based just on the properties of a material, without big temperature controlling equipment.”
“We're still trying to find it out, you know, but nothing yet,” Jaebum replied. “It's just that we're not getting any big piece of information from inside the company. It seems like about this project they're completely inscrutable. We are spying them all the time, but we keep getting information we don't need, you know. Some of it it's pretty incredible, but completely irrelevant to the project.”
“Yeah?” Jinyoung asked, interested. He wasn't that insanely focused on the project, so he was still up for company gossip. “Like what?”
“Well, remember that forest reserve in the north of the country that had those plants that only grew there, and that our pharmacological department wanted that much? The ones that were endangered species and the government told us we couldn't collect, not even when the company offered them money “unofficially”. Well, it seems that they weren't incorruptible, as we thought then, just that we didn't offer them enough. Those jerks are going to send an small expedition to collect them. I can't even think how much money they'll have paid.”
“But are those plants worth that much?” Jinyoung asked.
“Well, that depends on what you want them for. Our company didn't think that, for example. It's not a project that big, nothing like the WSA tender or the big crop zones, but if you have a lot of those small projects, well, then you have a big company and a lot of money.”
Jackson hummed, not really paying attention, still thinking of the project. He knew the companies had that kind of policies all the time. That they spied each other, and the governments, and if they couldn't do something the legal way, they searched for other way to do it. They were empires, and the empires had their own politics, their own rules.
Then, he jerked in the seat, suddenly focused.
“What?” Jaebum asked, looking at him with surprise, the same as Jinyoung.
“I remember that. It happened the last year, right? Those small flowers the pharmacological department wanted for those medicaments they were investigating.”
“Yeah, that's what I said,” Jaebum replied. “Why are you asking?”
“Those flowers were really delicate, right? Like that would probably be the kind of plant you would use storage made of that insulating material with.”
Jaebum frowned. “Jackson, you can't imagine how secretive they're being with that material. Yeah, this is a small operation nobody cares about, and plus, every other company is busy with the WSA tender and other, bigger projects. But there's still no way they're risking to get that material out of their facilities.”
“No, they won't do that with the upgraded, new, super especial material they're using for the project. But maybe they would with the old one. You said they weren't that secretive before. Probably they're not giving that much importance to the old materials. And that could be all I need to figure out it's composition and a system for our own project.”
“Maybe, but what are you proposing anyway, Jackson?” Jaebum was looking at him with a serious expression. “To go there, and just take it? Things aren't done like that. Hacking computers, paying people to sell information, all of that it's part of the game, even if everyone denies it. But physical theft is another different thing. That's not how companies go against each other. It's not subtle enough, it's fucking difficult to cover it after and it attracts too much trouble. Not only they would defend themselves, but they would also report to the police, and the company would get into trouble with the government.”
“Yes, it's stupid,” Jackson said, and Jaebum looked relieved he had realized. “That's why no one would expect it, and they won't be ready to avoid it.”
Jaebum made an exasperated gesture while Jinyoung looked at him with the brow furrowed.
“Jackson they would defend themselves.”
“You said it would be just a small team. And we have security staff as trained as them, too.”
“And they would report to the police.”
Jackson smiled. “Yes? And say what? That they were in a place where they didn't have the permission to be, collecting an endangered species of plant for a pharmaceutical company? People hate pharmaceutical companies. The government won't help them because they would be as exposed as them and it would be just an ordinary theft. Just the storage material. Nothing impressive on the surface. We wouldn't hurt anyone, or not much, and they couldn't say it was us, even if they suspect it.”
“We are a pharmaceutical company too,” pointed Jinyoung. “At least one of our branches.”
“Which only means people also hate us.” Jackson said simply.
“Jackson,” Jaebum started, shaking his head. “Maybe you're right. Maybe this is so stupid it could work. “But the company will never allow something like that, not even a small team. It's too risky. Too much different from how they do things.”
“But you say it could work, right?” This time it was Jinyoung the one who asked.
“What?” Jaebum was astonished at the intervention. “Yes, it could. But the company is never going to allow it.”
“No, they wouldn't allow such a risk, not if they had to justify after it was their decision,” Jinyoung continued. “But if it works, they would be fast to applaud the initiative and look over the illegal or risky parts of it. The winner gets forgiven a lot of things.”
“Jinyoung, I can't believe you're taking Jackson's side on this.” Jaebum said. “Yes, the winner takes it all, as you say. But what if you fail? If the security staff doesn't kill you on the spot because if they think they're in danger they may not be thinking of defending themselves in a non-lethal way, then the company will deny knowing anything about you, and they would leave you on your own. They will deny you ever worked here and will erase all your data, and I'll probably be among the ones having to do it. They will abandon you, to avoid problems with the other companies. I don't think you could ever work as an engineer or as a pilot again.”
“If we fail,” Jackson said, suddenly even more encouraged by Jinyoung's support, even if just a moment before he had said he didn't understand Jackson sometimes, even if this was a stupid plan. “But we won't. I think there is a lot of chances this will work.”
“Maybe,” Jaebum replied. “Probably. But chances are chances. You have 90% percent chances you'll win. But if you fall on the other 10%, and luck is also that, you lose it all. Why do you want to do this, Jackson? Just for the project? It's a lot of money, it's a lot of prestige, but is it worthy? For Mark? I don't want to sound harsh, but I think I have to be, to make you realize. He doesn't even want to have a real relationship with you.”
Jackson shook his head. “Mark told me once that people never care. That people just bothered doing things when they were about themselves. From that day, I've tried to show him that I do care. I've always believed that about myself, but now I see that I've never had to make a choice, that I never had to do anything that was out of my comfort zone to help other people. And maybe for a first time this is a big decision, but it's the one I've been given. And I've told you, if I don't do everything I could have done, then I won't be able to be happy with myself after. Because it's just not about Mark, Jaebum. I do believe. I believe a whole new world is possible.”
“You're an idiot, Jackson,” said Jaebum. “And I see I'm not going to be able to stop you. But you, Jinyoung? Why?”
“Because Jackson is my friend, and if he's already taken a decision I can't leave him alone. For the money there will be, too,” Jinyoung shrugged. “And for that whole new world, I guess. I'm a pilot because my father is a farmer and he told me that I could do whatever I wanted to do, as long as I wasn't a farmer like him. I've seen how it is to lose whole crops because of the droughts. I just hope Jackson is sure of this.”
“You can't do it alone, you know,” Jaebum continued. “It's going to be a small expedition, but just two of you is too few. And I'm sure Jackson hasn't held a gun in his whole life. And I don't think accompany you there. You two can disappear for a couple of days, but I can't. Not now. And I can't let you go alone.”
“I know, Jaebum,” Jinyoung said, reaching for him, and patting him on the forearm. For the first time, now that he wasn't trying to convince him of his plan, now that he had stopped opposing them, Jackson could pay attention to his reasons. To the worry on his eyes. “But we won't be alone. I know the perfect guys for this.”
“You can still help us,” Jackson said. “We're going to need a lot of information. We're going to need you to cover us.”
“I will,” Jaebum replied. “I'll do everything that's on my hand. “But still, if anything goes wrong... I'll still have to deny everything. I won't be able to help you, not directly.”
“We know. We know the risks,” Jackson said. “But we won't let anything happen to us. And when we come back, in all our mighty glory, we'll let you share our triumph.”
Jaebum laughed. “Oh my god. I can't believe I've agreed to this. You'd better be sure not to get yourselves killed. Ok, I'll gather all the information I can about this. I don't think it's going to be difficult, not compared to getting it for the WSA project.”
Jackson looked at Jaebum and smiled. He turned to look at Jinyoung, at his side, and saw he was smiling too. He knew he had just decided to do something that was, in his own words, stupid. Something that most of people would think was crazy. But in that moment, he was sure. He knew why he wanted to do it, thought it was worthy, and his friends, no matter how crazy they thought he was, had decided they won't let him alone.
In that moment, everything felt right and everything seemed possible.
The security guard Youngjae had hit in the jaw felt to the ground, unconscious, and Jackson saw how almost immediatly Youngjae bent over him to press the electrical gun to his side and shot it, to be sure he was really knocked out, and he would remain like that for a while.
Jackson held his breath. Back in the company, weeks ago, everything had seemed possible, like nothing could go wrong, like risk was still just an imaginary element of the plan, nowhere as real as the victory chances. But now, all the things that could go wrong, were just there, in front of him, seeming to float so heavy in the air he could chew on them.
In the opposite end of the camp, in the corner of the tent Yugyeom had chosen to wait, the other security way appeared too, completing his walk.
Yugyeom throw him a blow to the temple with the back of his gun, too, with the same controlled, terrifying violence Youngjae had exhibited, and the second guard fell to the ground. Yugyeom shot him once there, too.
Youngjae made a gesture to him to approach them, and Jackson, moving like someone else was controlling his muscles, like he didn't have any control over his body, did. He moved in silence towards them, and when he was with them, Yugyeom told him in silence to wait the one were the three scientists and the other two guards were. Yugyeom stopped him when he tried to go near, shaking his head, and told him to wait crouched, like him, behind one of the smaller tents, instead of approaching the main one, where the three scientists and the two remaining security guards were.
Youngjae was the one who approached the opening in the front of the tent, in silence, and threw the sleeping grenade inside, just to retreat quickly after.
Jackson saw why fast. He had expected the people inside to get out running, but instead, they started to shoot the rifles from inside, trying to blindly hit whoever was outside, making holes in the fabric of the tent. They knew what they were trying to do and were trying to hit them before they had to get out and before the gas had effect.
The sound of the bullets was deafening, and again, it was a moment that to Jackson, it seemed to last forever. Just the loud, constant gunshots, and the shape of Yugyeom's body by his side, laying on the ground aiming his gun at the back of the tent, in case someone decided to go that route.
Then, the shots stopped, and people started to get out of the tent, coughing and stumbling. Yugyeom and Youngjae shot all of them down with the electrical guns before they had took a couple of steps.
Then, they waited in silence for a couple of minutes more, and Jackson could hear his own breath, and the beating of his heart in his ears.
“Come on!” Youngjae shouted. “The gas has already had to do its effect. Let's get inside. I'll go first. Then, you follow me,” he said, pointing at Jackson. “And take what we need. We have to be careful, there's still two people inside. They should be knocked out, but we can't be careful enough. And let's be quick! They've had enough time to alert others while the gas was still doing effect.”
Youngjae entered the tent first, and Jackson followed him, running inside. It was like he was seeing through a fog, the translucent gas floating in the air. There was a big table in the middle of the tent, with something that looked like boxes over it. Youngjae has walked around it, to look at the two people fallen on the ground, and he approached them to shot them with the gun too, to be sure, like he had done with the men outside.
He shoot at the first one, who didn't move at all. Then, when he approached the second one, a man who was lying face down just near one of the fabric walls of the tent, the man took him by the ankle and throw him to the ground. Youngjae tried to shot, but missed, and fell. When the man moved, and shoot Youngjae with his own electrical gun, Jackson saw he had cut a slit in the tent, and had been trying to breath the fresh air outside. He was coughing, and he was sloppy, but he had been waiting for them.
And Youngjae was already on the ground, knocked out, and now, the man was shooting at Jackson, and he was clumsy in his state, but still, he was trained for that, and Jackson, even if he had his own gun, had never shot it before. Just as Jaebum has said.
He crouched behind the table, out of instinct, and shoot from between its legs, hoping at least he was aiming in the right direction.
He heard a thud and saw the body of the man falling on the ground.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he screamed. “Yugyeom, I need your help!”
Yugyeom storming inside the tent, holding the gun in front of him. “What's happened?”
“There was one who had managed to stay awake! And he shot Youngjae!” Jackson said, stumbling with the words. “Fuck, now we almost don't have time to reach Jinyoung before the reinforcements get here.”
“Don't worry, just take your things, and I'll take Youngjae. And then we ran out of here like a bat out of hell. Come on!”
He bent over Younjae and threw him over his shoulders. Jackson almost didn't have time to think at least they were lucky the one who was knocked out was Youngjae, who was the lighter of them three.
He had to take the storage containers made of that stupid material that had got him here in the first place.
He looked around. The boxes over the table seemed to be black containers, almost the size of a box tool. He looked around again. There were some more on the ground, and it didn't seem to be that many things apart from that. It had to be that. Just the stupid boxes, and if they weren't, Jackson was fucked because they didn't have more time to search around anyway.
He opened one. Inside, placed on several trays, over blotting paper, there were tiny white flowers with round green leaves.
“I think it's this. It has to be this,” Jackson said, taking two of them, one in each hand, and turning to Yugyeom. “Let's get the hell out of here.”
Yugyeom nodded, and they ran out of the tent, of the camp, in the direction of the clearing where Jinyoung was waiting for them on the aircraft, the engines already turned on.
It wasn't a long run, but it was a pitiful one. Yugyeom had to run carrying the unconscious Youngjae, and Jackson had to do it carrying the two containers, trying not to trip down. The adrenalin was running through his veins, and for a moment, he thought that, above the beating of his heart, he could ear the sound of another aircraft approaching.
When they finally reached the clearing, and run towards Jinyoung's plane, he realized he was right.
There was another aircraft approaching.
“Why did it take you so long?” Jinyoung shouted from the pilot seat. “What's happened to Youngjae?”
“Just get us out of here, and fast!” Jackson replied, throwing the containers into the aircraft and then helping Yugyeom to get Youngjae onto it. “There's an aircraft coming. We'll tell you everything later!”
“I know there's an aircraft coming, I'm not deaf and I'm not blind,” Jinyoung replied, making an offended gesture. “But they're dreaming if they think they'll get us. Don't worry, guys. Now that you're here leave it all to daddy Jinyoung.” He chuckled.
Jackson just didn't have time to try to understand what was happening, or if Jinyoung really understood the reality of their situation to talk like that, when the plane took off almost completely vertical and Jackson was thrown against the floor. Yugyeom, who was already sitting against one of the walls, holding Youngjae, had better luck.
“We haven't even closed the trap door, Jinyoung!” Jackson screamed.
“Well, then close it!” Jinyoung said, laughing.
When Jackson reached for the trap door, to close it, he saw that Jinyoung was right. Despite the sound, the other aircraft was still far from them, and they weren't getting away even faster. Jackson had never seen Jinyoung piloting like that, but holy fuck, was he good.
They were getting away, Jackson thought. They had gotten the material, they were all alive and they were getting away.
Jackson took the mask off and threw it on the other side of the cabin. It landed near Yugyeom, who smiled, exhausted. He looked outside the trap door, to the forest moving fast under them. It looked like a green sea, and the camp of the scientist and the other aircraft seemed every time smaller.
He thought his chest was going to explode with euphoria and relief.
“Fuck yeah!” he shouted to them, to the world, before shutting the trap door. “Suck on that!”
His words were lost in the air, in the immense sky, bright and blue, as they flew back to the city, back home.
When they reached Horizon City it was already deep into the night and Youngjae had already woke up, only to complain half-heartedly that he had missed half of the action.
Jackson almost threw him out the aircraft, being exhausted and all.
Horizon City was like a star field in the middle of the night, an ocean of one million tiny points of light. They submerged in them with the aircraft. On the ground, on the company airport, there was only one black figure waiting for them.
“Jackson! Jinyoung!” said Jaebum when they got out of the plane. He ran to them and hugged them tight. “You're ok.” He looked at Yugyeom and Youngjae over Jackson's and Jinyoung's heads. “You're all well.”
“Like you didn't know,” complained Jinyoung, half strangled in the hug. “We've talked to you three times during the flight.”
“It's different to see you here, in the flesh, and alive, and well,” Jaebum said, smiling widely, like he couldn't believe what he was seeing, and Jackson laughed. He had to admit he also felt kind of not knowing if everything that had happened was real. “Oh my God, I can't believe you did it. You got the containers?”
“They're inside, in the plane,” Jackson replied.
“I still can't believe this. I still can't. You know what this means, Jackson?”
Jackson smiled weakly, exhausted. “That we aren't on a dead end anymore. That we'll probably win the tender. That Mark will have funds to keep on his investigation.”
“Yeah,” Jaebum said, looking at him again that fondly. “And everything because of you. Because of your stupid idea.”
Jinyoung coughed loudly.
“Ok,” Jaebum said, smiling wide. “Because all of you. And you know what this means, too? Everyone will love us tomorrow. Everyone. Fuck, Jackson, you were right in everything, even in the mighty glory thing.”
“Yeah, but the mighty glory can wait until tomorrow,” Jackson said. “I can't even stand. I need to sleep. I think we all do.”
They all nodded.
“Yeah, yeah, of course. Let's go,” said Jaebum. “And there's no need you get up early tomorrow, none of you. I'll get you covered. I'll tell our superiors the good news first thing in the morning, and after that I think they won't have problem overlooking the fact that you took a morning off to sleep.”
“Well, that's the kind of reward I was waiting for,” said Youngjae. “Thank you, Jaebum.”
Jaebum shook his head. “You're incredible,” he said. “Come on, let's go to sleep. Tomorrow is gonna be an interesting day.”
As Jaebum has promised him he could, Jackson took all the morning to sleep. He didn't get any call from the company asking him what the fuck was he doing, so he guessed everything was alright. That the people who needed to know it was already informed of the good news.
He was already awake, but still lying in his bed, considering it was probably time to get up, but balancing it out with the fact the bed was really comfy and warm, when his doorbell rang.
He wondered briefly who the hell could be, and then, without reaching any conclusion, get out of the bed and dragged his feet to the door.
It was Mark.
“Hey, Mark,” he said, voice deep with sleep. “What are you doing here?”
Mark shook his head, seemingly amazed by his oblivious state. “What am I doing here? What were you doing yesterday, Jackson? What were you doing thousand of kilometers away, stealing things from rival companies?”
“Oh, that,” Jackson said, rubbing the back of his neck. “So you already know.”
“Fuck, Jackson, everyone in the project already knows. They've been on the verge of starting a party on the lab all the morning. By the afternoon they'll have probably already done it. Everyone says now it's practically official we'll win the tender. Your team has already started to work with the material you brought and they say they can reply it.”
Jackson smiled to Mark, still through a small cloud of sleep and disorientation. “But in my book that's good, Mark. Why are you looking to me with such a serious expression?”
“Why didn't you tell me anything, Jackson?” Mark demanded, without smiling. “It was a serious matter. It was dangerous. You could have been hurt, or worse.”
Jackson saw that Mark really wanted to have a serious talk and blinked fast, trying to get completely awake fast. “Get it and take a seat.”
Mark stepped into his apartment and took a seat directly on the bed. Jackson wasn't surprised. It wasn't like it was the first time Mark was there, seated in that exact place.
“I thought you'd think it was dangerous, and stupid, and you'd try to discourage me.” He said, plainly.
“Well, and you were right. It was fucking stupid. Jackson, what if something had happened to you?”
“We planned for it We were ready. And still, if something had happened...well, we knew the risks. I knew the risks, and I still decided to do it. It was worthy.”
“Worthy?” Mark asked, shaking his head. “Worthy for what? For the Eden Project? For all of this?”
“No, Mark,” Jackson replied, looking at him frowning. How could he still not see it? “For yours. For your dream.”
Mark's mouth fell open. “For my dream? But Jackson, why? To risk all of that for what? For my project? For me? To get in my pants? But you were already inside them, you didn't need to do any of this.”
Jackson burst out laughing when he heard that.
“Do you really think it was for that? No, it was never about that.”
“And then what was everything about?” asked Mark, finally, and then Jackson saw that that was what Mark had wanted to ask all along. From the very day of the greenhouse. From the very moment he started to let him closer and closer.
“About me loving you, Mark,” Jackson said, simply. “I never said it aloud because I didn't want to make you uncomfortable, but I love you, and I want to make you happy. To help you, if I can. It wasn't about getting you to love me back, though I can't deny at night, I dream of that. It was because you once told me that people never cared and I wanted to show you that at least, some people do. That I do. That I could believe in your dream too, even if it wasn't mine. That people can believe in beautiful, good things, even if they aren't just for them.”
“So you see, it's not about getting in your pants, Mark. Not even about making you love me. It was about wanting to see you happy, and about doing something, when the time came, about something I believed in. I did it because that's what I thought I had to do, and what I wanted to do. I know I can't make people love me just because I would like them to, and that wasn't what I pretended to do. That's what I always meant when I said it wasn't about that.”
“Fuck, Jackson,” Mark said, shaking his head in disbelief, and still, Jackson realized, at some point, he had started to smile. “You say you know you can't make people love you, but I think you can. Hasn't been like that from the beginning? Coming into my life and making me love you, even if I didn't want to see it then”
“What?” This time it was Jackson's mouth the one to fall open. “You what?”
“Maybe I've been loving you from the very first day you entered my lab, annoying all my team, and smiling to all of them, and when you kept coming even if it was obvious you did it just to talk to me. Maybe there just wasn't a way I could have helped it. I told you once, Jackson Wang. You're something else.”
Jackson smiled and sat down near Mark, in the edge of the bed.
“I never thought there was anything I could have done to help falling in love with you, either,” said Jackson. “From the first time I realized you. Of course I wanted to make you happy. How could I've not wanted it?”
“And you've done it, Jackson,” Mark said, sweeping Jackson's bangs out of his forehead. He was smiling, and it was the smile Jackson had always dream of. Pure and genuine, and bright, without holding anything back. “You've made me so happy, with everything you've done, with everything you are. I want to have you by my side forever. And I want to make you happy too.”
“You've done it too, Mark. All the time. You've shed light into my life in so many ways.”
Mark laughed. “You're a sappy idiot, Jackson. And God help me, because I think I love it too.”
Mark leaned towards him and kissed him. His lips were soft, and warm, and Jackson smiled into the kiss, and felt how Mark smiled too.
Everything had happened too fast. Yesterday, and the whole year before it, when he had came to Horizon City, when he had met Mark. Before he did, he he had lived a pretty normal life, he thought, and had pretty normal dreams. He just had wanted to live his normal life surrounded by the people he loved. It was a common one, but it was a good dream.
He had never imagined any of this. He would have never expected he would ever be part of something like this, or that there would be big choices that he would have to make, him, and not people better than him, more important than him. He had just done everything he could, and hoped what he was doing was right.
And it had been worthy. Because Mark's kiss tasted like all his dreams, the old and the new.