("He knew," Mark says cryptically, his dreamy, mellow voice drifting through the phone.
"Knew what?" Jeno says, confused. By now, he's gotten used to Mark's habit of making random and distracted remarks out of nowhere when he voices some fragment of his thoughts.
"He predicted that I'd try to overwrite his failings, so he forestalled me. Because he knew, Jeno-yah. He knew that I could only see the good within him."
"I'll never give up on him, Jeno-yah. He's everything to me, everything. Do you know how that feels?"
"Yes. Yes, I do.")
"Watch yourself. I can destroy you as easily as I created you, you know."
"Don't fucking walk out when we're in the middle of a conversation -- Goddammit, don't you dare leave me again!"
"I've never left you before."
("It was such a pity. He had limitless potential, his whole future ahead of him."
"But maybe he didn't think it was a waste. Maybe that was exactly what he wanted, to devote the rest of his life to rebuilding him."
"You're right. I've never seen it that way.")
Mark's heart stops terrifyingly one day when he overhears the female interns in their lab whispering and giggling about something disturbing.
When he gets home, he storms into the kitchen where Donghyuck is preparing dinner, looking saccharine sweet and guileless in an apron, but Mark now knows better. He slams his briefcase onto the counter, drawing Donghyuck's attention.
"Oh, welcome ba--" Donghyuck starts, but Mark hisses, "What have you done?"
Donghyuck blinks. "What do you mean?"
"Come off it," Mark snarls. He's so livid, his whole body is shaking. "I heard you agreed to start dating one of the interns."
"Oh, Youngji?" Donghyuck says casually, untying his apron like he isn't singlehandedly sending Mark's world crashing down. “Where’d you even hear something like that?”
"How could you... how could you do this to --" Mark hastily chokes back the word on his tongue, amending, "-- to her?"
"Do what?" Donghyuck has the cheek to look confused.
"You're a machine!" Mark shouts, relishing the way the word makes Donghyuck flinch visibly. "How could you fall in love with a human?" The word love burns like acid on his tongue, and Mark feels like the biggest hypocrite in the world.
Donghyuck's piercing eyes seem to see right through him, his cold silence judgemental. His lips twitch, a mocking smile playing at the corners.
"What does that make you then?" he says cruelly, taking a step forward. "Since you're in love with this machine."
Mark inhales sharply, stunned by the malice and contempt in Donghyuck's tone. He grips the edge of the counter as his face burns with shame that Donghyuck knows of his dirty, unspeakable feelings.
Mark feels like the most pathetic and depraved creature in the world, hopelessly in love with a dead person and now a robot who doesn't even reciprocate his feelings. He thinks of Youngji, who he's seen around the lab occasionally and is the most popular intern. She is feminine, petite, cute and bubbly, everything Mark is not. Of course Donghyuck would rather date her than Mark, the mad scientist, the crazy inventor in love with his android. His number sixty-seven. Mark thinks of Donghyuck melting her with his blinding smile and teasing her with his hyena laugh and tastes something sour, a lump lodged in his throat.
"Your software is corrupted," Mark mumbles, striding across the room to Donghyuck. "I need to fix it."
This time, Donghyuck backs away, fear flickering uncertainly across his eyes. But then he squares his shoulders and meets Mark's eyes defiantly, eyes flashing with the pridefulness that Mark has always loved most about him.
But then those dark orbs soften unexpectedly, and Donghyuck's voice is like honey as he says caressingly, "She doesn't mean anything to me."
Seeing Mark falter, caught off guard, Donghyuck continues, emboldened. "You know I'm yours, hyungie."
His voice is deceptively silken, his eyes inscrutable as Mark searches them. Mark's stomach knots. Donghyuck has learnt to lie, mastered the art of subterfuge and deception. Mark wants so badly to believe that he's telling the truth but he knows better than to flatter himself with delusions.
Mark curses under his breath. "Fucking brat. You're too clever for your own good," he mutters darkly.
"If you try anything, I'll leave tonight," Donghyuck drawls in that gravelly voice of his. Mark can see that death has done nothing to blunt his sharp tongue.
He growls. "Are you threatening me?"
Swiftly, he closes the remaining distance between them, and deals an expertly-aimed blow to the base of Donghyuck's spine.
Donghyuck crumples instantly and Mark catches his boneless form in his arms just before he hits the ground.
When Donghyuck wakes up, Mark is leaning over him. "Don't ever forget who you belong to," he warns, the softness of his eyes betraying the steeliness of the words.
Donghyuck struggles weakly to sit up, but Mark doesn't touch him, getting to his feet.
"Where are you going?" Donghyuck says shrilly, and Mark turns with a small sad smile.
"What?" Donghyuck breathes, stunned.
Mark shrugs and laughs hollowly. "You don't need me anymore. I'm just holding you back."
"I need you," Donghyuck babbles, latching onto his leg and clutching his thigh needily.
Mark simply shakes off his grasp and looks at him kindly. "You'll be fine, baby,” he says, voice soft as feathers as he runs a hand through Donghyuck's hair.
"I thought you said you loved me," Donghyuck whines piteously, tears welling up in his eyes.
Mark shakes his head regretfully. "I was just using you as a substitute."
The blood drains from Donghyuck's face, and Mark forces himself to look right into his wounded, devastated eyes to deliver the final blow. "You'll never be as good as him."
("I lied," Mark confesses, finally falling to pieces on the couch in Jeno's apartment. "He isn't as good. He's better."
Mark confides in Jeno how disloyal and guilt-stricken he feels. "I'm forgetting him, Jen. The texture of his skin, his temperature, his smile, the sound of his voice. I remember him a little bit less every day and this Donghyuck -- he's so sweet and caring and funny and considerate. He has dinner prepared when I get home and washes the dishes after we eat and he doesn't leave the faucet running or his hair clogging up the bathroom sink. He's perfect and I... I can't stop thinking about him.")
"You betrayed me. How did you become so weak, so... human? I'm disappointed in you."
"It's all your fault. You made me like this. You made me human with your stupid smile and your stupid eyes and your stupid tears that could melt even a heart of chrome."
("Mark's research on the subject contributed to great advances in technology in the field of android construction. Many aspiring scientists travelled from all around the world, hoping he would take them as his students. He received staggering offers of up to millions for his prototype. There were so many broken hearts, so many people who would move mountains just to see their beloved living and breathing again.
But the only one Mark ever took as his disciple was a young engineer from China, Renjun. Since his childhood friend Chenle passed away, he had spent more than a decade trying to construct his robotic twin. Finally, miraculously, he managed to succeed with Mark's help. They both flew back to China, but we still keep in contact.")
And Mark thinks that they're like two satellites spinning through the lonely sky, in their solitary orbits. But once in a blue, blue moon, their trajectories intersect, like parallel lines converging.
It's been six years since Donghyuck passed away, but Mark still feels like there's a piece of him missing. Donghyuck was his other half, his better half. Sometimes Mark thinks that he was the one who was Donghyuck's shadow. That would explain why when Donghyuck was ripped away from him, Mark felt untethered, no longer anchored by gravity.
(The door of the office creaks open, startling Jaemin and interrupting the cozy atmosphere that has settled between them like fine dust. He turns, jaw dropping to see Mark Lee in the flesh, standing in the doorway and looking sheepish.
"Am I intruding?"
"N-not at all!" Jaemin hurriedly assures, standing up and bowing earnestly. "It's so cool to finally meet you! You're my idol," he gushes, then realizes how much like a teenage boy he sounds and struggles to recover his composure. "My name is Na Jaemin and I'm here to interview for the position of research assistant."
Mark looks taken aback by his excitement, and Jeno looks a little miffed for some reason. "Don't drool on yourself now," he grumbles under his breath, and Jaemin blushes, discreetly moving his hand to his mouth to check for excess saliva.
Jaemin avidly takes Mark in. He is wearing an identical lab coat to Jeno, but over a cream cable-knit sweater and collared shirt. If Jaemin had thought Jeno was scruffy, Mark is worse, his hair unkempt and stubble unshaven. The white of his coat is creased hopelessly.
"Oh," he chuckles self-consciously under Jaemin's scrutiny, running a nervous hand through his lank hair. "Sorry for... my appearance. I've been working on a project and haven't had time to shower in a while."
"More like days,” Jeno says, wrinkling his nose, and Mark flushes but good-naturedly clasps Jaemin's enthusiastically proferred hand. "Hi. How's the interview going?"
Jaemin opens his mouth, but as he's about to answer a voice calls, "MARKIE!” and a young man comes tumbling headfirst into the room, with a mop of messy hair falling into his dark eyes, and the smile that transforms Mark's face makes Jaemin's breath hitch. Because Jeno hadn't been exaggerating when he said Mark's smile was breathtaking. If angels could smile, they might look like Mark.
Jaemin can't take his eyes off Donghyuck. Mark is glowing like a whole jarful of fireflies as they banter and bicker and tease each other playfully and generally flirt shamelessly back and forth like Jaemin and Jeno are not in the room.
After they have finally left, hand in hand, Jaemin sighs in hushed amazement. "So you weren't having me on. He's a walking miracle."
Jeno smiles quietly, not taking offense. "I couldn't have made it up if I tried.")
Mark opens his eyes one morning to Donghyuck shaking him awake impatiently, his eyes shimmering.
“Hyung,” Donghyuck says, voice trembling. "I remembered something."
"Whaa...?" Mark mumbles blearily, still unsure of what is going on. Donghyuck just shakes his head in exasperation and grabs Mark's hand, tugging him off the bed and out of the room.
Mark shivers in his pajamas, rubbing his eyes as he watches Donghyuck overturning the living room, flipping through pages of books on the shelf and tossing CDs as he rummages through the cupboards.
"What are you looking for?" he asks, but Donghyuck ignores him.
"I'm pretty sure it's somewhere here --" he mutters under his breath, eyes narrowed with determination.
Mark yawns, looking longingly back at his bedroom when Donghyuck yells, "AHA!" making him jump out of his skin. He swivels back to see Donghyuck's face flushed with excitement as he clutches a tiny thumbdrive aloft. Mark's heart skips a beat.
"What's that?" he asks slowly, and Donghyuck's face softens as he finally looks at Mark.
"Last night, I had a dream," he says hushedly. "I dreamt that there was a thumbdrive, hidden right there." He points to the mess of shelves and cupboards.
Mark's heart is roaring in his ears. "What's inside?"
Donghyuck smiles shakily, wide eyes looking equally terrified and thrilled as Mark feels. "I guess we'll see."
Mark inserts the drive into his computer after connecting it to the flatscreen plasma TV in the living room. Inside, there is a single video, a few minutes long. Mark's hand is shaking so badly, he can't press the play button. Donghyuck's warm, steady hand covers his, coming to his aid.
Mark watches in disbelief as the screen flickers to life. It's Donghyuck, sitting in their living room, on the very same spot of the couch Mark is sitting on now. The frame wobbles, zooming in and out as Donghyuck fiddles with the settings, finally settling the camera down before him and starting to talk.
"Mark... I don't know what to say. If you're watching this, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I don't know why, I don't know how, but something terrible must've happened. Something that made me... have to leave you.
Hyung, do you remember the memory card I gave you for our sixth anniversary? I'm sure that by now, you'll already have decoded the encrypted data inside. But there's something else. Inside the data, I embedded a little byte. Think of it as the second door. You've already unlocked the first. And now, you've managed to open the last.
The microchip I implanted was an unbreakable code, one nobody in the world could solve except you. You did it, Mark hyung. I never doubted you could. I'm so proud of you.
I'm so worried that I can't be beside you to take care of you. Have you been eating well? Have you been crying yourself to sleep every night? You always forget to eat when you get lost in your work. Please... take care of yourself for me, okay?
Hyung, you know that I always keep my promises, right? So listen carefully now: I promise that I will come back to you one day. I don't know how, or when, but I will. Just believe me and trust me.
Remember the first time you kissed me? I was fifteen and you were sixteen and we were just two little boys in an apocalyptic love bigger than both of us. At that time, we swore that our love would change the world. And look... it has.
You are so brave, so strong. Braver and stronger than I could ever be. That's how I know, that you'll be okay without me.
Ah, it's getting late. You'll be home soon, I have to start preparing dinner. I don't even know why I filmed this video, I just suddenly had a premonition... If I tell you, I'm sure you'll say I'm being superstitious again.
We’ll never see each other again, but we'll be together forever. I love hyung so, so much. Don't ever forget that, okay?"
Donghyuck flashes his million-dollar smile, the one that used to get Mark to forgive him anything. Mark had forgotten how splendid it was. On the screen, Donghyuck gets up from the couch and approaches the camera, walking closer and closer until Mark can only see part of his shirt. He bends down, and for a heart-stopping moment one of his eyes fills the entire frame. Then his palm descends on the screen and the video flickers into static, then a dead blackness, and a gasp wrenches out of Mark's throat like a limb has been torn from him.
He immediately hits the replay button with a slippery finger, cranking the volume up to maximum so that Donghyuck's voice reverberates in the room, echoing in his bones. The video is far too short, far too fleeting. Mark wishes that it would last forever, that he could just sit in front of this TV and watch Donghyuck talk for the rest of his life. Mark wishes that Donghyuck could've said something to absolve him, to give him closure, a magic word that would erase this whole nightmare and make everything okay again.
Gentle arms encircle his waist, and Mark can feel Donghyuck's warm breaths on his neck as he sits beside him, a silent sentry. Fresh tears course down his face as Donghyuck tightens his arms around him until he can't breathe, as he presses his lips to the crown of Mark's head and strokes his hair with exquisite gentleness, brushing his tears away carefully.
"I'm here, Mark," Donghyuck's voice rumbles by his ear, his recorded voice fading to white noise. "Right here." And Mark can feel Donghyuck behind him, in front of him, surrounding him. Donghyuck had always been like the air he breathed, as taken for granted, as necessary.
It's taken Mark so many years to reach this epiphany: there's no one in the world who can replace Lee Donghyuck. Because what Mark had loved most about Donghyuck were his imperfections, his impetuousness and emotional intensity, his quick temper and soft heart and sharp tongue.
And Mark is sure that he will continue loving Donghyuck till the end of time. Even when he's not present, his existence will always be tattooed on Mark's heart, indelible, irreplaceable.
Since the day they had met, Mark had spent his life trying to unlock the enigma that was Donghyuck Lee. Donghyuck was his labyrinth, his playground, his home. And now, Mark knows that Donghyuck is also his forever.
("You were in love with him," Jaemin states. It's not a question.
Jeno just tilts his head and smiles, but doesn't deny.
"I'd always dreamt of loving and being loved the way he did, selflessly, wholeheartedly, without self-preservation."
"Sounds to me like you were more in love with their love, than him."
"Perhaps so. What they had was magic, pure and simple. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.")
"Do you still miss him?" Donghyuck asks, his voice so desperately gentle that it cleaves Mark in two.
"It's okay if you do. It's okay to cry," Donghyuck says quietly, pulling Mark into the hollow between his chin and shoulder. Mark wonders when Donghyuck's mechanical warmth had become the realest thing to him in this fabricated world. If humanity were measured by one's capacity for love, Donghyuck would be the most human being Mark had ever met.
"Did I do the right thing?" Mark murmurs, and Donghyuck takes his chin, tilting his face up to look into his eyes.
"Mark," he says gravely. "You brought me to life. I wouldn't exist, if it weren't for you."
Mark thinks of the days after Donghyuck first left, when he had nothing in the world except excruciating regret and bittersweet memories and a handful of broken promises of forever. He thinks of the journey over the years to here and now, Donghyuck sitting beside him, himself but at the same time not, warm nonetheless. And maybe, all along, this warmth was all that mattered.
("Well... I guess that wraps up the interview. The job is yours if you want it."
Jaemin hesitates, surprising himself. "I don't know if I'm... good enough," he says honestly.
Jeno's smile is disarming. "I'm sure you'll do just fine."
Jaemin smiles back tentatively, his heart swelling with hope. "I'll try my best."
They shake hands again, but this time Jeno holds on a heartbeat longer.
"It's been so long since I've touched human skin," he says in wonder. "I'd forgotten how warm it was."
"Maybe I can help you with that," Jaemin says coyly, meeting Jeno's searching eyes with his own.
"I'd like that," Jeno says after a lifetime of silence, breaking into his first genuine smile and Jaemin forgets to breathe because Jeno's smile is so wide, his eyes vanish into it and Jaemin feels like he might just follow.
"I can't believe it's only been an afternoon," Jaemin muses softly, looking out of the window into the orange shadows of the setting sun.
"I know," Jeno agrees. "It feels like I've known you much longer than that."
Jaemin frowns. "I've been meaning to ask... you look kind of familiar. Have we met before? I vaguely remember us working together on an android for a competition, forming a team called... Dream?”
Jeno shakes his head. "Nope, pretty sure we haven't."
"Oh." Jaemin tries not to sound disappointed. "Must be my imagination then."
"Maybe..." Jeno says, and his eyes are dancing. "Maybe it is a real memory."
Jaemin looks at him questioningly.
"A memory of the future.")
"It's me, Duckie. I'm home."
"Don't mess around, Hyuck. I'm tired."
"Because Donghyuck always takes care of Mark."
"What? What did you just say?"
"I've kept you waiting."
"It's impossible. No one knows that except --"
"Wake up, Mark. Don't be afraid."
"Am I dreaming?"
"Open your eyes and you'll know.”