(When Jaemin rings the doorbell of the address he had been told to report to, he waits a few minutes before the door is cracked open and a harassed-looking man in a white lab coat and disheveled hair peers out.
"Hi... uh, I'm here for the interview?" Jaemin says hesitantly, and the man's eyes clear with comprehension. He opens the door a bit wider and gestures for Jaemin to come in.
Jaemin closes the door gingerly behind him as he steps in, scanning his surroundings. The office is spacious but gives the impression of being cramped because of the various odds and ends strewn over every surface. He can barely see an inch of floor beneath the layer of assorted loose-leaf documents, folders, scientific apparatus and trash of all kinds. The air is stagnant and stuffy.
The man has the decency to look embarrassed, furtively kicking away random pieces of litter with his feet and hastily sweeping a landslide of scientific journals off the couch to clear a seat for Jaemin. Jaemin perches uncomfortably on the edge of the couch and declines the man's offer of a drink politely.
The man settles down on the loveseat opposite him, eyes serious and businesslike as he holds out a hand. "I'm Mark's associate, Lee Jeno. I'll be conducting the interview today."
Jaemin grips his hand firmly. "Nice to meet you, Mr Lee. My name is Na Jaemin."
Jeno takes the proferred resume from Jaemin's hands and flips through it briskly. His brows crease with concentration as he peruses Jaemin's portfolio, eyes widening slightly as if vaguely impressed as he closes it, looking up to study Jaemin more closely.
"You majored in mechanical engineering?"
"Graduated with honours, sir," Jaemin replies politely.
Jeno nods with approval. "Your qualifications and expertise seem to be in order. But I have a question. What do you know about Mark Lee?"
"Everything there is to know, sir," Jaemin replies immediately, but admits after a moment's hesitation, "That is, very little." He tells Jeno about how robotics has been his passion since young, and how he avidly respected Mark as one of the foremost researchers in the field. He knew Steel VS Skin, the graduation thesis the reclusive, enigmatic inventor had written about android construction by heart, but he had not heard any news about him ever since he had fallen off the radar of the scientific world a few years ago.
Jeno nods, eyes impenetrable. "Have you heard of Mark's partner, Donghyuck Lee? He's involved with a lot of the research process too, so you'll have to work closely with him."
Jaemin frowns. "I wasn't aware that Mr Lee had... a partner. No offense, but I always thought he didn't work well with other people."
"Donghyuck's not a person."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You heard right," Jeno says, the corners of his mouth twisting down in a wry smile. "He's an android. A robot, if you will. Part-machine, part-human, and Mark's greatest invention."
Jaemin's jaw drops. "So all these years..." he breathes, "Mr Lee had been working on a new project that no one knew about?"
Jeno laughs mirthlessly. "That's one way to put it." He leans forward, eyes intent. “Mr Na, you're not going to believe a single word of what I'm about to tell you." Jaemin leans closer too, holding his breath, and Jeno starts, "Listen very carefully...")
"Welcome back, baby,” Mark whispers as No. 67's dusky eyelashes flutter open to reveal chocolate irises flecked with hazel, the dark pupils in those almond-shaped eyes so unsettlingly lifelike that Mark stumbles back with a choked gasp.
The man bends his joints stiffly into a sitting position, stretching his newly-formed arms with a familiar catlike agility that makes Mark's breath catch in his throat.
"Mark?" he says disorientedly, blinking groggily as those devastating eyes focus on Mark, registering recognition. It's the sound of his name in Donghyuck's unmistakable voice that breaks Mark completely.
”D-Donghyuck," Mark stutters a sob. He hasn't tasted the word on his tongue for so many years, it slides down his throat like forbidden fruit. "Donghyuck," he repeats, voice a little steadier but still cracking at the end, and suddenly he's crying "DonghyuckDonghyuckDonghyuck" like a broken tape recorder and his fingers are curling in the fabric of Donghyuck's shirt, his tears dampening Donghyuck's shoulder.
Donghyuck looks startled but his arms reflexively rise up around Mark's shoulderblades. "Hey, what's wrong?" he whispers soothingly in Mark's ear. "Shhh. Don't cry."
Mark wrenches out of Donghyuck's arms, making him look even more confused. "D-do you recognize me?" he demands, hiccupping and looking increasingly hysterical.
Donghyuck looks bewildered but nods. "What happened?" he asks softly. "I remember that we were driving home when there was a bright light and a crash..." He winces in pain, rubbing his forehead. "I can't remember anything after that. Was there an accident?"
Mark quickly grabs his hand, stroking his fingers tenderly through Donghyuck's hair. "Yes, honey. Don't try to remember. It's alright now. You're alright."
He takes Donghyuck into his arms, feeling the younger's body relax against his chest. So it had worked. Mark had transferred all his memories over to Donghyuck's synthetic brain, so all Donghyuck knew of the incident was where Mark's recollections ended. It was a stroke of luck that he had harvested the memories before he regained the blocked part of the accident, Mark thinks and shudders. He has to live with the images of Donghyuck dying every day, again and again in his dreams. The last thing he wants is for Donghyuck to be tormented by them too.
Suddenly, Donghyuck's arms lock around him like bars of iron, his worried gaze sweeping over Mark's body. "Hyung, are you okay? Did you get hurt? I'm so sorry --" Donghyuck's opalescent eyes glimmer with tears that spill over, warm and wet on Mark's skin as he smothers Mark in a hug so tight that he can't breathe.
Mark's heart contracts like there's a vice clamped over it, his mind still spinning dizzyingly from Donghyuck, suddenly alive and talking and moving in his living room. His head swims and his stomach lurches, but he swallows down the giddy spell and strokes Donghyuck's back until his blubbering calms down into soft breathless sobs.
Mark caresses Donghyuck's tearstained face lovingly, hesitantly leaning forward to kiss Donghyuck's tears away. Donghyuck closes his eyes and melts into his touch. Donghyuck's tears taste salty and warm, exactly the way they had tasted when he was human.
"Don't worry, I'm fine," Mark croaks, feeling Donghyuck trembling against him. "I got out unscathed because you... you protected me."
("I met Mark and Donghyuck in university," Jeno begins. "We were all majoring in Physics, and minoring in Electrical Engineering. Even back then, they were already the most popular guys in school, the smartest and most good-looking, but they only had eyes for each other. They were inseparable, the campus' golden couple."
He describes how Donghyuck and Mark were like at nineteen and twenty, young and carefree and toppling into love with each other. "They graduated at the top of the class. They had it all planned out -- once they got their degrees, they'd start building the android that they'd been designing since they were young. It would be revolutionary, introducing the world to a brand new age of technology. Mark was one of the best scientific minds in the country and Donghyuck was a brilliant mathematician and long-running champion of international Olympiads. Both of them were among the most highly ranking members of MENSA for their age. Together, they were invincible, unstoppable."
"But then tragedy struck.")
Mark knows that he can't hide the truth from Donghyuck for much longer, knows this from the way he catches Donghyuck studying his hands when he thinks Mark isn't looking, heartbreakingly puzzled like he hasn't seen them before; from the way Donghyuck inhabits his own body with an unease that has never plagued him. Donghyuck looks so lost and uncomprehending that Mark almost breaks and confesses the truth, but he can't even start to imagine the look of horror on Donghyuck's face when Mark tells him that he's not human.
Mark struggles with the words, rehearsing them in his head again and again, but simply can't find a way to explain their senseless predicament logically. Finally, though, Donghyuck is the one who shatters the silence.
"Hyung..." he says. "What did you do to me?"
Mark gulps and attempts to play dumb, blinking innocently. "What do you mean?"
"Come off it," Donghyuck says irritably, but his smile is sorrowful. "This..." he touches his face. "This..." he pinches his arm. "... isn't real. This is," he raps the side of his head, "but the rest feel different."
"Mark," Donghyuck says gently, eyes glistening with unshed tears. "It's okay. Just tell me what happened. I can handle it."
Turns out, that was a lie. Mark had overestimated Donghyuck's emotional capacity, forgotten that he was overwrought and fragile from just waking up days ago. All his newly-constructed nerve endings were thrumming like a power plant and it had taken just a few careless words from Mark to send his system into overdrive.
Mark catches Donghyuck as his eyes roll up in his head and he slumps against Mark's frame, still warm. To an ignorant bystander, it would look like he had just passed out from exhaustion, but Mark knows better.
When Mark opens him up, he finds a vein in his heart shot and burnt out, like a fuse in a short circuit. He repairs it carefully, biting his tongue until he tastes the metallic tint of blood. Donghyuck's body is lifeless in his arms, reminding Mark of what he had managed to forget for the past few days -- that this is not the real Donghyuck, but No. 67. An imitation that will always pale hopelessly in comparison to the original, no matter how authentic he seems.
Reset, reboot. Mark presses the buttons that he has pressed sixty-six times before, about to toss the useless body with all the others in the storeroom when something stops him. There is an indefinable quality about No. 67 that is different from the others, something that tugs at Mark's heart, something undeniably human. Maybe it's the few days they've been through together, those fleeting windows of transient happiness. If Jeno knew about this, he would say that Mark had become hopelessly sentimental since the accident, and maybe it's true. But Mark can't bring himself to throw a body that had held even the slightest glimmer of Donghyuck in it away, at least not until he confirms that it is completely, irredeemably mechanical.
He takes a deep breath and knuckles down. Compared to starting all over with a new body, trying to revive this ruined one will take twice the effort and time. He will have to take on the backbreaking and daunting task of taking Donghyuck apart completely, and putting him back together again. But Mark feels the faintest tendril of hope, winding its way around his heart, as his fingers find the familiar buttons at the base of Donghyuck's spine and he feels the machine stirring to life beneath him.
("Mark lost his senses when he woke up from the coma and found out that Donghyuck was dead. He was inconsolable and unstable, and had to be sedated heavily. People always throw the metaphor insanely in love around, but Mark was literally the embodiment of it. It was painful to watch. When he seemed to calm down a few weeks later and they took him off the morphine, he attempted suicide. He was a wreck. He just kept repeating that life was worthless without Donghyuck. For awhile there it was touch-and-go. We thought we'd lost him too."
Jeno stops talking and rummages in a pile of clothes for a box of tissues, offering it to Jaemin with a sympathetic, uncomfortable smile, and Jaemin realizes that his eyes are leaking unconsciously like a faulty faucet. He takes one gratefully and sniffles as he dabs at his face in embarrassment, gesturing for Jeno to go on.
"By some kind of miracle, he survived," Jeno says, crossing himself and muttering a silent prayer of thanks. The relief on his face is still apparent, as is his obvious affection for Mark. "He stopped crying all day, started eating. He was pale as a ghost and had lost all this weight, I thought he'd snap like a twig in a gust of wind. At least he started living again, started working. But he was never the same again. He sat there with me and answered when I asked questions but his eyes were dead and soulless. It was like when Donghyuck had gone, he had taken a piece of Mark with him."
"Was he trying to... resurrect him?"
Jeno chuckles bitterly. "It's so obvious to me now, but I hadn't the slightest clue then. He threw himself into his work like a man possessed and all we thought was that it was a good thing because at least it gave him a distraction. He swore that he would continue the work the two of them had started together, that he wouldn't rest until he had brought it to completion. They had already worked out all technicalities of the basic model so all he had to do was make some modifications, and it could be personalized to become anyone he wanted it to be. And if an android was to be designed as a clone of a living person, what better inventor to do it than that person's lover? It was the easiest thing Mark had ever done, because he knew Donghyuck like the back of his own hand. He knew every single mole on Donghyuck's body, every single pore and blemish, even better than he knew his own. It was, by all accounts and purposes, an impossible feat. But then again, he had always been impossibly talented."
"Still, he didn't get it right immediately. It took him time."
"Years," Jeno says simply, the single word laden with meaning. "No one else could have done it. That was how much he loved him."
"I'm sorry," Jaemin says tremulously, but Jeno shakes his head reassuringly. "Don't be. It's all in the past.")
Lying in his hospital bed staring up at the cracks spiderwebbing over the off-white ceiling, Mark had felt the dim stirrings of memory. A year ago, on their sixth anniversary, Donghyuck had given him a large, gaudily-wrapped gift box with a wide ribbon around it. When Mark had opened it, he realized it was one of those Russian nesting doll boxes that opened up into smaller and smaller ones until finally, right in the heart of it, he found a simple, unlabeled memory card.
He turned it around in his fingers, unimpressed, but Donghyuck smiled knowingly. "Guess what's inside."
"Our sex tapes?" Mark joked, taking the bait, but Donghyuck batted his arm, miffed. "Be serious."
"Okay, okay," Mark raised his hands in surrender, laughing. "I give up."
Donghyuck looked smug. "I cracked the last code on the memory and brain waves transferring device last week. The first thing I did was to harvest the contents of my mind and copy them all in here." He patted the miniscule card proudly.
Mark blinked at him and deadpanned drily, "So... my anniversary gift is your brain matter. Romantic."
"Shut up," Donghyuck laughed. "If one day something happens to me, at least you'll be able to rebuild me," he jested, but Mark immediately clamped his hand over his mouth, panicked. "Don't say such inauspicious things!" he hissed, and Donghyuck's eyes softened as he slowly kissed Mark's anxieties away.
The moment Mark recalled the incident, he bolted upright in the hospital bed, hope flooding into him like liquid strength. He ripped out the IV from his wrist and scrambled out of bed, nearly falling facefirst on the linoleum floor as his weak knees buckled beneath him.
He had barely walked a few steps when Jeno approached on the corridor, foiling his escape plans. "Mark-yah?" he looked shocked at seeing Mark out of bed and standing upright. "What are you doing outside your room?"
"I'm going home," Mark mumbled, not stopping his agonized footsteps.
Jeno caught him as his vision swam and his knees gave out again, carrying him back into the room like he weighed nothing. When he woke up, it was dark and Jeno was sitting cramped in the bedside chair, his head pillowed on his folded arms as he dozed on the edge of Mark's bed.
He snapped awake groggily when Mark started crying soundlessly. "What's wrong?" he whispered, hands reaching out worriedly to feel Mark's body. "Are you hurting somewhere?"
Mark was too tired to even gesture to his chest, just rasping, "I have to go home."
Jeno looked confused but relieved as he said warily, "Of course you're going to go home, bro." He brushed a lock of Mark's hair out of his eyes. "When you get better, okay?"
"Now," Mark whined, sounding infantile, but Jeno only smiled patiently and offered, "How about this... if you agree to eat something, I'll talk to your doctor tomorrow. Deal?"
Mark blinked through his tears. Jeno was looking at him with a mischievous and hopeful gleam in his eyes, and Mark grimaced and nodded.
Within minutes, Jeno had a tray of hot, aromatic food served in and was spooning bites into Mark's mouth.
Mark took Donghyuck's eyes from the prisms of sunlight lancing across solitaires, the creamy caramel silk of his skin from white jade, his cheekbones from the steepest ski-slopes, his laugh from the tinkling of wind chimes, and the arc of his smile from the gradient Donghyuck had mapped a million times against his lips. He remembered with crystalline clarity every cadence and inflection of Donghyuck's sandy, mellifluous voice, the piano of his breaths and the fortissimo of his breathless moans as he twisted beneath Mark. He remembered the dangerously slurring drawl of Donghyuck's accent, the way he rolled Mark's name on his tongue and his sheer facility with languages. As for the remaining data needed to reassemble Donghyuck's system, it was all in the memory card Mark had raced home after he was discharged and found thankfully intact.
Because Mark knew Donghyuck so thoroughly they could complete each other's sentences, could predict with absolute accuracy how Donghyuck would react to every question, in every situation. He had the entire lexicon of Donghyuck's smiles at his fingertips, because the only thing Donghyuck loved as much as he loved Mark was smiling.
Mark took months to write the first rough draft of the program. He wasn't doing anything that many other inventors hadn't attempted before, wasn't exploring unchartered territory. But what made his program different, the magic ingredient, was how painstakingly intricate it was, boasting a complexity that had never been seen in robotics before. He had broken down the fourth wall, the thin, invisible line that distinguished androids from humans. And while his work was tedious and solitary, he never felt alone, because every day he could feel Donghyuck's spirit alongside him, silently helping and accompanying him.
Donghyuck made his presence known in ways more obnoxious and less romantic than spiritually too. He was there in the rapidly blossoming android that grew steadily more lifelike under Mark's careful hands with each passing day, in the way the half-formed but already surprisingly precocious mannequin would snap open its eyes suddenly when Mark's hands were elbow deep in its heart or some other less appropriate place, and say something in its robotic, still unedited voice that made Mark snort a startled laugh.
Donghyuck hadn't been lying when he said the memory card contained his essence. In the budding android, Mark could already see unmistakable echoes of Donghyuck's inexhaustible energy, irrepressible positivity, inimitable candor, brutal honesty, sparkling wit, and exhilarating spontaniety. It filled him with a warm glow that bubbled up uncontrollably and spread from his chest through his body, energizing him. Donghyuck had left so abruptly and without warning, the tiny and unremarkable memory card his only legacy. But from the wealth of information contained inside, Mark was confident of replicating him.
He shook his head in exasperation when he realized that the android had also inherited Donghyuck's wacky sense of humour, and his quirky fashion sense. Donghyuck had a hang-up about his thighs and liked to wear hip-hop fashion. He had a vast collection of baseball caps and bucket hats and almost his entire wardrobe was Gothic black. Mark nearly choked on his water when he went to the kitchen for five minutes to get a drink and came back to see the previously nude android dressed in a black shirt of his and a snapback pulled jauntily over its head. Even in death, Donghyuck had to have the last laugh, didn't he? The muscles in Mark's face ached with unuse when he unwillingly smiled for the first time in he-couldn't-even-remember-how-long.
In this way, Mark had forged a tenuous and inexplicable relationship with every android he had built from the unpolished, amateur No. 1 to the final vastly-improved but still unsuccessful No. 66. It was the gravitational pull that Donghyuck had exerted on him from the very first day they met, manifesting itself every time Mark loaded the data from the memory card into the new android's empty brain. Every time he disposed of yet another failed attempt, it felt like watching Donghyuck die all over again. Mark wondered how many times he would have to send Donghyuck away, before his penance would be paid in full. He didn't know. The only thing he knew was that no matter how many times it took, he would willingly oblige.