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Winter bird

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It was because of a balloon, a heart-shaped yellow balloon some toddler accidentally let go of in the street.

It reminded Mark of his childhood, all those long years that cruelly passed by. It also reminded him of the balloon he lost when he was seven. It also was bright yellow, the color of a sunshine he used to greet after a sleepless night; his mom spent her last money for it, but Mark let go of the thin thread that was tied to it, and the balloon flew – far, far away. He followed the balloon with his eyes, feeling his cheek burning fire red from his mom’s slap that came after calling him stupid, but weirdly, he didn’t feel any pain. Not until now, twenty years later.

Maybe, just maybe, if he managed to catch it now, his mother would come back and praise him, telling how smart he was.

So he dropped everything he was carrying, flyers and letters he had to deliver together with Jackson, who threatened to break Mark's ribs if the latter fucks up his first day at work. Mark wasn’t sure what that meant, but it sounded pretty painful, since the guy came to their facility from a place where all the bad guys go if their moms don’t love them, but he couldn’t control himself, taking off after the balloon, not paying attention to anything else.

Not even to the fact that he was in the middle of a busy street, not minding Jackson’s terrified shout. Not even the sound of a car hitting the brakes and its horn that followed.

Mark just needed a balloon.

 

“Fuck.” Jinyoung breathed out, feeling the seatbelt cutting into his skin. He didn’t see a person running into the road, probably because his mind was wandering elsewhere, and he thought a car accident would be a funnily fitting finish to this morning – he was tired after an almost sleepless night, he was also late to a meeting and he knew that Jaebum will rip him apart for this.

When Jinyoung finally got out of the car, the guy was lying on the cold ground that was still a bit wet from the rain that was pouring all night, and his heart dropped for a while. But there was no blood or anything and after kneeling next to the person and seeing him weakly smiling, clutching a thread of a balloon, Jinyoung exhaled in relief.

“I’m so sorry, I told him not to run around like crazy.” He heard a voice next to them and confusion filled up his head. Jinyoung turned to the voice and saw a guy, probably not any older than he was himself, panting from running all the way to them with a pile of flyers and at the same time trying to shoo away the crowd that was already gathering to stare at the scene. “Mark, get up.”

Jinyoung couldn’t help but wonder what kind of relationship those two guys had, seeing how the first one slowly checked Mark’s face from bruises and injuries and cleaned his shirt and pants with a few swipes of his hand when Mark finally stood up.

“I got a balloon.” Was the only response of the guy and Jinyoung frowned. Something about him seemed off, but he couldn’t determine what. “Jacks, I finally got one!”

“Yeah, yeah, good job, kid.” His friend sighed, looking at Jinyoung with an apologetic expression and the latter saw a shadow in his eyes, like the situation they were in was painfully usual. “Don’t mind him, he didn’t mean any harm. He’s just a bit… slow, so we keep an eye on him. Is your car okay? My name is Jackson, by the way.”

Actually, Jinyoung wasn’t sure about the condition of his car, but he didn’t even look at it before saying, “I think so. But what do you mean by slow?”

However, Jackson didn’t seem like he wanted to get into details. “Listen, I’m a simple guy, just trying to push through my first day in work, I don’t know all these big fancy words related to why Mark is who he is. He just… doesn’t act his age, that’s that.”

Jinyoung’s eyes shifted to the said guy, still holding the balloon next to his heart, as if it was his most valuable belonging. Mark was smiling brightly and nobody could’ve ever told that a few seconds ago he almost got hit by a car, dark hair tousled on his forehead, always getting into his eyes, making him blink and shake his head every few moments.

“I want to be smart, so that my mom would come and take me back!” Mark suddenly exclaimed, weird childish joy at the thought coloring his voice.

“When he was sixteen, his mom left him to our boss who has some sort of a facility for troublesome people,” Jackson explained seeing Jinyoung’s confused stare. “I got out of jail a few days ago, the man was the only one who accepted me to work, and that’s how I met Mark.”

“Sorry to hear that.” Jinyoung mumbled, feeling uncomfortable. An ex-prisoner and a disabled person wasn’t the company he wanted to be in the most right now, as brutal as it sounded. “If he’s okay, I will be going, I’m late for work.”

“I’m sure he’s fine and you must be busy. I’m sorry again.” Jackson said, slightly bowing to him and poking his friend to do the same.

Mark was still smiling as he waved to Jinyoung and the latter gave him a backhanded smile in return, getting into the car again only to break god knows how many more traffic rules speeding through the streets, Mark and Jackson being shoved somewhere deep down his brain. There were more important things to be worried about.

“What did I miss?” he finally whispered to Youngjae twenty minutes later, one arm in a lab coat already, another one trying to gather his notes of the speech he wrote for Jaebum to say during the meeting.

Youngjae’s response was almost lazy and kind of bored, “Nothing new, just Jaebum losing his mind because you’re late. You know, it wouldn’t be as amusing if I didn’t know that he probably came here from your place.”

“He didn’t.” Jinyoung put on a wry smile, finally getting his lab coat on himself properly, but Youngjae didn’t look like he believed this. However, it wasn’t a lie – it was him who spent the night at Jaebum’s apartment this time, because the latter was panicking about today’s meeting. “Where is he, anyway? The meeting was supposed to start ten minutes ago.”

He didn’t need to wait for an answer, as Jaebum entered the meeting room with a whole bunch of businessmen, trying to look intimidating with all those black suits and stone cold faces. This was an important meeting, they all knew that – it was to determine whether their research gets a sponsorship or not. Jinyoung didn’t hope much, the concept of the research was still too vague and they didn’t even know the exact outcome of it, but Jaebum was obsessed with the thought that they were about to make history.

“So now that we’re all here,” Jaebum started, throwing a cold and accusing stare at Jinyoung and the latter responded with a stare equally cold, “I think it’s time to introduce the investors with our research. Yugyeom, could you please turn on the presentation?”

Yugyeom’s facial expression was clearly saying that he wasn’t paid for taking care of Jaebum’s laptop and its contents, but he complied anyway, and a set of slides, meticulously made by none other than Jinyoung, flashed on the board.

“This was a video of an extremely excellent rat.” Jaebum told five minutes later, after the businessmen started whispering among themselves, not really understanding why they’re shown a video of a lab pet trying to get through a maze. “This little friend of ours is getting a special treatment that includes alpha lipoic xanthine glucoside.”

It was clear that aside Jaebum himself, Jinyoung, Youngjae and Yugyeom nobody had any clue about what was being discussed, so Jaebum continued, nervously fidgeting in his spot, “While doing experiments, we administered this medicine, shortened as ALG, to the neurons of our lab rats, combining it with high-frequency electrical stimulation. As we hoped, synapses in their brain started to form, increasing the number of them tenfold and we found out that it could lead to higher efficiency of the brain.”

“What are you trying to say, Mr. Im?” one of the businessmen asked with a frown etched in his face. “We’re businessmen, not scientists, and I’m sure our clients aren’t either. Can you offer us a simpler explanation? We need to know what exactly you’re trying to sell us.”

Jinyoung saw drops of sweat appearing on Jaebum’s forehead, and his hands that were starting to shake even more – now he was obviously panicking, unsure of what to do.

Im Jaebum was never simple, skipping a few grades of elementary school because he was solving cubic equations when his peers were learning the multiplication table, then graduating from high school at the age of sixteen. Graduating from Seoul National University Chemistry department with honors and a double degree in biology at the age of twenty one. Accepted into one of the most prestigious research laboratories in the country the same month, leaving it two weeks later, because being told what to do wasn’t something that went well with Jaebum’s views on life, then creating his own. Discovering a treatment that could throw the entire world upside down being only twenty five.

And yet, he still wasn’t capable of explaining his trace of thoughts so that others would get a grasp o it.

“What he is trying to say,” Jinyoung loudly exclaimed, trying not to freak out from the stares slowly shifting to him and Jaebum’s eyebrows furrowing at this unexpected interruption, “Is that the treatment we developed maximizes the capacity of the brain. In plain terms, it can make people smarter.”

“Smarter? What is this, a sci-fi movie?” one of the men asked and some others joined him in a mocking laughter, making Jinyoung clench his jaw.

“This is far from the things happening in movies you must like so much.” He poisonously smiled, not ready to throw away his pride and suck up to every rich guy on earth for a few billions of wons. “We’re not talking about producing geniuses, but it potentially could help people with disabilities to reach at least the intellectual capacity of healthy people.”

The businessman, a bit humiliated, turned back to Jaebum, completely ignoring Jinyoung’s words, “Okay, so it worked on a rat. What’s next?”

“Next… Clinical trials with people.” Jaebum quickly answered, shooting a quick death glare at his younger colleague. “We just need a suitable person who would agree to this treatment for us to see if it works on people. To see that it works, I mean.”

“And have you found a person like that?”

Jaebum lowered his head, “Not yet. But we’re trying.”

Another two hours later he finally placed his signature on papers that announced the research center getting a donation worth three billion wons and they all sighed in relief.

“My office, now.” He mumbled passing by and Jinyoung sighed, knowing that it meant nothing good. He didn’t follow immediately, however, as if trying to make a statement that Jaebum couldn’t control him, but a few minutes later he turned to go, Youngjae and Yugyeom accompanying him, as those two were going to the lab to do their shifts.

“Don’t you think Jaebum is a bit reckless with this?” Yugyeom asked, clutching his lab coat closer, trying to protect himself from the harsh early autumn wind as they were walking outside, moving from one building to another.

“What do you mean?” Jinyoung responded, but he knew very well what the younger was talking about. Somewhere deep inside he had thought about it too – Jaebum was like crazy at the times, obsessed with this research like he never was with anything else, rushing it as much as possible.

Youngjae agreed, his calm voice now echoing through the maze of corridors, “If we succeed, it will certainly be a historical moment, but clinical trials all of a sudden? In all our experiments, it was only two or three rats that succeeded. What will happen if we get ahead ourselves and something terrible happens?”

“Nothing bad will happen.” Jinyoung mumbled, trying to convince himself with it as they reached the corridor which led to Jaebum’s office. “He knows what he’s doing. If Jaebum judged that there’s no risk in trying it on people, I have no grounds to disagree.”

“Maybe you’d think otherwise if you weren’t sleeping with him.” Yugyeom shrugged. He didn’t mean it that way, they all knew - he was being blunt and honest, just like he always was, and on other occasions Jinyoung even valued this trait of his, but now it just hurt.

His voice was ice cold, when they finally needed to separate, “I trust him and it has nothing to do with whatever you think is happening between us.”

“But—“

“You’re also a member of this team, don’t forget that.” Jinyoung said, disappearing behind the door leading to Jaebum’s office – that sacred place where no one was allowed in without a serious reason and where no one really wanted to be invited in. Jaebum was pretty intimidating when he wanted to be.

“Thanks a lot.” Was the latter’s greeting when he finally lifted his eyes from the report he’s been writing. Usually it never meant anything, just one word to express gratitude, maybe for Jinyoung getting him out of a tricky situation earlier. But from the sarcasm in it, Jinyoung judged it wasn’t that. “For almost ruining things for us.”

Jinyoung looked at him exasperated, “What are you talking about?”

“Was it necessary to be so rude?” Jaebum asked, anger clearly showing in his exhausted face. “movies you like so much? Is that a proper way to speak with someone who gives us money?”

“He was making fun of you, for god’s sake.” Jinyoung was on the verge of losing his patience. “But if we’re about to discuss the meeting, when were you going to tell us that you’re ready to do clinical trials? It wasn’t really nice to pretend that I knew it when Youngjae and Yugyeom were arguing whether you lost your mind or not.”

It was that moment when Jaebum was the one looking sorry, “I had to convince them to invest, so I just blurted it out. But we are ready, we just need a person for it. But is it even legal to do it when we don’t know what might happen?”

“It’s not a thing you could blurt out, Jaebum.” Jinyoung sighed, seeing the older standing up and giving him an apologetic back hug. A cold and secret one, one that wasn’t ever supposed to be seen by others and it made him helpless.

It was always like that, Jinyoung bitterly thought. Their relationship was always a secret regulated by ridiculous rules. They always had to arrive to work separately, even if they spent the night together. If they ended up in Jaebum’s apartment, Jinyoung could never stay for the night and Jaebum never stayed longer than a few hours either.

It was a public secret by now, but Jaebum refused to go public for whatever reason, making it the hottest topic among everyone working in the center, and Jinyoung, feeling a tiny bit hurt by this, couldn’t do anything else but sigh. He knew that it’s not fair and definitely not even right, and he also knew that he definitely was the more in love one in this relationship, but it didn’t bother him that much, as long as he was feeling Jaebum’s warm breath on his neck.

“Yes, it’s legal, as long as you have a consent and properly inform people about the risks.”

“Intellectually handicapped people, Jinyoung. They can’t give consents.”

“I know. Parents, guardians, anything works.” It wasn’t the greatest topic to discuss while he still was in Jaebum’s cold and controlling embrace, but Jinyoung conveniently minored in medical law while in university and Jaebum wasn’t ashamed of using it to his advantage.

The latter sighed, “I’ve been contacting schools and other facilities for people with special needs, but everyone declined. It’s too risky and they don’t seem to trust me.”

Jinyoung raised his eyebrows at this unexpected confession, wondering what else he had been doing behind their backs. Jaebum was starting to change, that was for sure. He was ready to go incredible lengths for this project and the possible lengths scared Jinyoung.

“You can’t blame them, it’s basically sending a person to the unknown. People are not rats, Jaebum, you can’t expect them to line up in front of your door just because you think you can cure the incurable.”

Jaebum looked sad and tired, his skin had this greyish undertone as an evidence of not seeing the sunlight that often, most probably because of his habit to spend all of his time in the lab working on his projects, one crazier than another, and Jinyoung quickly added, “You’re not alone in this, I’ll do everything to help you.”

He didn’t really have any confidence in his words, but a few rough kisses later, when he was sent out of the office to work, he suddenly remembered the accident in the morning, those two guys. He couldn’t remember their names, because this entire morning was way too overwhelming, but he thought that there was some hope, at least he could try to convince them to participate in the experiment.

With the guy’s determination to become smart, it didn’t seem that hard, Jinyoung only needed to find him.

“I need all possible contacts of the companies that are responsible for post deliveries, flyers and stuff like that.” he said to Yugyeom, when he finally reached the lab.

“You do realize that it will take ages, right?” The younger didn’t even asked what it was for – weird requests didn’t surprise him anymore, considering where he was working, but this task sounded extremely absurd. “There are shitloads of those in Seoul.”

“Not all of them have disabled workers, so that should make your work a bit easier, shouldn’t it?” Jinyoung deadpanned, sitting down and turning on his laptop. “Youngjae, help him.”

The latter just sighed, putting down his half-eaten sandwich, knowing that lunch time was over for them. “What are you up to?”

“It’s for the research.” Was the only response he heard before Jinyoung glued his stare to a bunch of databases. “I want the phone numbers to be on my table before five, if not, you’re not leaving the lab.”

Chapter Text

Weekdays always had their usual routine, carefully rehearsed during the years, and Mark, given all the circumstances, didn’t know anything else but to stick with it. And that particular Wednesday wasn’t an exception.

Wake up at 7, shower, breakfast at 8. Greet the boss and listen to his boring morning speeches that other guys loathed so much, but patiently pushed through with, because they didn’t have any other choice. Come back at 5 PM after finishing delivering mail and handing out flyers; then study something, most probably the alphabet, trying to remember all those complicated symbols seeming so easy for everyone else; maybe get laughed at by one of his “friends”. Nobody in that place understood Mark’s passion for studying – he was just an idiot to them, a clown who sometimes was suitable for picking up girls for them, because even though stupid, he looked kind of cute.

That day, he was woken up by Jackson strictly but somehow softly shaking his shoulder. Mark slowly opened his eyes to his roommate standing next to his bed, dark hair disheveled and a day old stubble showing up on his chin, eyes closed shut because Jackson was anything but a morning person. Funny, Mark decided as he jumped from the bed wide awake, much like a child excited to go to a kindergarten, Jackson looked funny.

After a quick shower, Mark entered the small kitchen of the facility to see a usual view – it was a bit before 8 AM, but some of the residents were already playing poker, Bambam was walking around with a pile of plates in one hand since he was the youngest one, and with a pair of cards in another one. Nothing was unusual except for Jackson letting out some sort of a weird hiss or a sigh when the youngest passed by putting a plate in front of him. Mark didn’t realize what it meant when Bambam swiftly took out another card from the back pocket of his jeans while nobody looked.

“Nice pants you have there.” Jackson sarcastically noted, taking a bite of his sandwich and Mark thought that he was just being nice. On top of funny, Jackson was also incredibly nice, and Mark didn’t imagine anything else hiding behind his personality.

“Thanks, bro.” Bambam was flustered and a bit confused, fully sure that his tricks must’ve remained unnoticed. He was a pickpocket on probation earned from his previous endeavors - swift movements was what earned him money and he expected that a newbie like Jackson who spent like a week here wouldn’t be able to notice anything. “My fiancée loves these the most.”

Along with his weird and foreign antics Bambam had one more surprise to offer – he was engaged, even though Jackson could’ve sworn that it was either a shotgun wedding or his future wife was just as crazy as him. Mark didn’t have an opinion about this, mostly because his brain didn’t know what a lot of words actually meant.

“Jacks, what’s a fiancée?” He asked taking his plate with a toast from the youngest, who just won the jackpot, if you can call a few 10.000 won bills tossed on the table like that.

“It’s…” Jackson had to think for a while, brain clearly not yet ready to work trying to search for the simplest words so that Mark would understand. “It’s a girl you love the most in the world.”

Some of the guys choked on their breakfast when Mark opened his mouth. “Like my mom?”

“No, that one is a bit different. Now shut up and eat, we’re late.”

 

“What are you all doing here?” It was Jaebum’s voice that woke them up from their trances at 8:55 AM the same Wednesday. He looked sleepy and messy, like he would’ve spent the entire night working in the lab himself.

He was scanning the surroundings with his intense gaze and those surroundings were rather amusing – Youngjae was dozing off with his face planted on a desk; Yugyeom was tapping the keyboard thinking he was working, but in reality he was hitting the same spacebar repeatedly while his sight couldn’t focus on anything else anymore; Jinyoung was just staring into the void in front of his own laptop, lifting his head only after hearing Jaebum’s voice.

“Working, obviously.” Was his response, a bit too biting for what he actually intended and Jaebum’s eyebrows furrowed.

“Youngjae is supposed to have a day off and Yugyeom’s shift should start only at noon today.” The latter said and Jinyoung almost started helplessly laughing, because the elder didn’t even mention him, as if him being in the lab 24/7 ready to fulfill every command was already a given, an unquestionable law of nature. “But since you’re all here, we need to start searching for that test subject for clinical trials. We need one fast.”

Youngjae finally raised his head saying, “What about collaborating with rehabilitation facilities for criminals?”

“Ludovico technique?” Yugyeom asked, closing his eyes and stretching out in his chair. “Like in Clockwork orange?”

“Yeah. Showing brutal images while medicating them, reducing criminal anger impulses, stuff like that. It would be easier than to find a person with an intellectual disability.”

However, it seemed like Jaebum was having none of this talk, not even focusing on what his colleagues were saying, as he loudly and clearly exclaimed, “No. Using criminals for this is out of the question.”

Sleep deprivation clearly wasn’t the thing that helped Yugyeom filter his words as he snapped back. “Why do you have make things so complicated?”

Jinyoung slightly flinched in his chair, not sure how Jaebum was going to react, being as unpredictable as the weather of Jeju Island, but the elder’s stare was cold and even empty. “The test subject is the most important person in this research. So to speak, to me he will be like a brother, or even a son. I want to find the most suitable person for this and it’s not going to be a prisoner.”

“He’s fucking crazy.” Yugyeom hissed when Jaebum exited the lab a few moments later. “Son? He’s twenty-seven, what sons is he talking about? This is an obsession, not a research.”

“He’s just tired.” Jinyoung was quick to defend. Everyone in the room had an idea that he wasn’t sure about it himself, but he always was the loyal one – if he believed the idea, Jinyoung was ready to stick with it till the end despite the consequences. And this time he believed Jaebum. “Investors are pressuring him for a quick result.”  

“That, and a whole bunch of personal reasons that shouldn’t be interfering with his work.” The youngest mumbled returning to the screen. “Found a few companies, by the way, will send you the addresses and call it a day, I’m barely alive.”

Jinyoung knew. He knew those personal reasons of Jaebum’s, and he knew them a tiny bit better than anyone else in this whole research center.

 

It was a particularly cold day in the beginning of January one year ago, just a few days before Jaebum’s birthday. Jinyoung was a twenty-four year old university graduate, with a diploma that still smelled of print ink and a lab coat still unstained with various chemicals. He didn’t know why Im Jaebum, out of all people, contacted him, as by that time he was a living urban legend already and Jinyoung was considered being an extremely lucky bastard for landing a job like that, but for some reason, he didn’t feel happy.

He was taking a walk outdoors during his lunch break, a thin sweater and a pair of jeans being the only shield from the cold wind and snowflakes, harshly hitting his face. Jinyoung was lost in his thoughts, trying to understand whether he chose the right path for himself.

It wasn’t like he was regretting getting a degree in biochemistry. He liked the atmosphere of laboratories and the idea of creating something that would help people to get better. It probably was just a usual self-doubt session of a twenty-something, suddenly frightened by the fact that he just entered the adult world, where your choices have consequences.

“What are you doing outside?” Jinyoung couldn’t determine what felt colder – the weather or Jaebum’s voice behind him. It wasn’t anything personal, he knew that Jaebum was like that with everyone, but he always needed reassurance, always needed to know that it wasn’t because of him. But the elder never gave him that.

“Just walking.”

“Is something bothering you?”

Actually, it didn’t even sound like a question. Jaebum, among all the other abilities, knew how to read people, even though sometimes he used it with questionable intentions. But he also had a talent of making people trust him – and who wouldn’t trust a twenty-five year old with his own research center and two degrees? 

“Sometimes I don’t think I chose the right thing for myself.” Jinyoung’s answer was simple and honest, and it earned a stare from the elder, a soft one even, as if he understood or could relate to this feeling.

“And who can tell whether we choose the right things?” Jaebum’s voice was barely audible, a doubt of some kind glimmering in his eyes. “You can choose a wrong one and stick with it. If you’re persistent enough, it will turn into something good anyway.”

This kind of logic had some flaws in it, but Jinyoung ignored them. “And you? Did your bad choices stick with you?”

Jaebum was silent for a while, but when he finally opened his mouth, every word that was spilling out of it started to mesmerize Jinyoung. “Do you know how we’re different from birds?”

In theory, he knew. DNA, hormones, bone structure – he could’ve named hundreds of differences, neatly written in some textbook, but it was clear that it wasn’t the answer Jaebum was searching for. It didn’t seem like he was waiting for the answer at all, as he said, “We’re more intelligent than birds, right? At least that’s what they always tell us.”

Jinyoung just stared at him, wordlessly watching lazy snowflakes finding home in Jaebum’s pitch black hair.

“But people,” he sighed, “They drink, they start fights—They fight over such trivial things – for example, you bump into a person and it becomes a bloodbath. In this modern world going off like that, snapping, beating, to a degree that people die. Birds don’t do that, Jinyoung, none of that, yet the term “bird brains” is still somewhat derogatory.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Humans are ought to be more rational and intellectual, and I want to improve their intelligence, building a calm and peaceful world. This is my main goal, Jinyoung. Who knows, maybe it’s a bad choice, but it’s my choice, my path, if you will. And that’s where you come into the picture. Do you know why I hired you?”

Jinyoung shook his head, because he had no clue – it seemed so out of the blue, when he found an email from Jaebum a day after his graduation, still being semi-wasted after a party. The letter didn’t say much, just a shortened version of what was supposed to be an invitation to a job interview and a phone number, if Jinyoung decided that he was interested. And he was, hoping that Jaebum’s name in his resume will earn him some karma points a few years later, when he’ll be applying for some serious position in another research center.

“I was watching you from afar a few months before your graduation,” Jaebum admitted and Jinyoung felt somehow uncomfortable about that. “I couldn’t care less that you failed your chemistry course back in your 2nd year. But I saw that helping people is what you like to do the most and that’s why I wanted to give you an opportunity to do this. This is your path.”

It didn’t make sense, none of it did, because Jaebum wasn’t a god, he couldn’t know everything, but Jinyoung, always subconsciously yearning for acceptance and care, took it without thinking.

They continued to walk in silence, only their shoulders brushing against each other, and it took a few moments for Jinyoung to find the courage to ask the question that was burning his tongue. “People getting drunk and getting into fights. What happened?”

At first Jaebum looked like he will refuse to explain, but soon after, he mumbled, “One evening she was walking back home alone, because I couldn’t pick her up, since I had to study for my finals. She accidentally bumped into some drunk guy in a subway station.”

“She?”

“My fiancée.”

And that was the whole story – Jaebum’s fiancée was pushed off a train platform and his world shattered into even more pieces that it already was.

“Was she also a scientist?”

“No.” the elder chuckled, as if even the thought of it was amusing. “She played violin.”

At that moment Im Jaebum resembled a human being the most – no ice cold stares, no standard sentences and greetings, just Jaebum, a twenty-five year old wreck, who was right - Jinyoung did want to help people more than anything, and naturally, he wanted to help Jaebum.

Jinyoung didn’t realize why, maybe because he couldn’t give him anything else and their lunch break was about to end, he placed a slight peck on Jaebum’s cheek before walking away. And that was where it started, the long and painful journey to the rock bottom.

 

Jinyoung thought about that day a lot, he used to rewind every tiny detail of it in his head, and he was doing that yet again when he was driving to some sort of a shelter for ex-prisoners to help them adapt to the “normal” life, his last hope, because all the other addresses that Yugyeom gave him turned out to be useless.

He was tired after a second sleepless night in a row, but the childish, or even obsessive, enthusiasm, the thought that Jaebum might finally start appreciating his efforts, was driving him forward and he was ready to sacrifice himself for the greater good – because that was what Jaebum was doing.

When Jinyoung finally stopped his car next to a building which reminded more of a foster home than a mail delivery service, he didn’t know what to expect or whether he should be expecting anything at all. Yugyeom might’ve been wrong again, nobody could’ve been home, the guy could’ve refused – there were too many things that could’ve gone wrong.

Jinyoung took a few careful steps forward, knocking on a wooden door so old, it looked like they were about to fall off from the slightest touch. Nobody opened it and he noticed that they weren’t even locked. At first he hesitated a bit, unsure if it was okay for him to barge in like that, but soon he decided that people who leave their doors open are bound to have some visitors at one point or another.

Jinyoung was walking through a maze of corridors, trying to find at least one person whom he could talk to, but all he saw were rooms, a kitchen and a mess of envelopes and flyers everywhere, until he finally got to a room where he was greeting by a middle aged man who was reading a newspaper.

“How can I help you, son?” the man asked, tossing the newspaper away, face lightening up with a fatherly smile. Jinyoung was taken aback by such informal greeting, but smiled back nonetheless, thinking that he needs to make a good impression.

“I’m searching for…” He didn’t even know what, or who, exactly he was searching for. “This guy… Two guys, actually, they were delivering flyers around Sangdo area yesterday, and—“

The man thought for a while, “Mark and Jackson, they were the ones working there yesterday. If they did something, I can guarantee they didn’t mean any harm and I’d like to ask you not to get police involved.”

Jinyoung interrupted, joy filling up his chest, because he finally remembered the names and who was who. “They didn’t do anything. But I would like to have a talk with Mark.”

The owner’s stare became suspicious, even though the same warm smile was still vivid on his face, “About what?” Jinyoung took out his business card and gave it to him. “Brain physiology research center, nerve cell development department? I’m not good with big words, son.”

“We mainly focus on brain cell research. We are trying to create medicine for brain cells that are damaged, and we’re searching for a test subject. We need a person with an intellectual disability.”

The man’s smile faltered. “So long story short…”

“Yes, we would like to work with Mark.” Jinyoung breathed out.

“There’s no point in doing that.” The man laughed, but the sound of it was somehow sad.

Jinyoung continued to press on, he wasn’t going to go out of this building with nothing, “We believe he’ll get better after our treatment. Didn’t he say he wants to become smart?”

However, he didn’t get a definite answer to this one, as the owner of this facility stood up, as if ready to walk Jinyoung out of the room. “I’m sorry, but I refuse.”

“What?” The latter didn’t intend to sound so rude, it was mostly out of despair, because the chance of succeeding was slipping out of his hands.

“There could be painful side effects, right?”

“No. There would never be.” Lies. They didn’t know, the only thing excusing Jinyoung’s words was that the lab rats weren’t showing any abnormalities. At least, not yet.

“But the risk still isn’t zero, is it?” The man concluded. “Saying this might be selfish of me, but Mark is good enough as he is now. I don’t want him to think about complicated, technical things, this kid has suffered enough already.”

Jinyoung wasn’t ready to give up. “But if he himself wants to become more intelligent and we can offer him this, I don’t think you have any right to—“

His words were interrupted by a loud chatter filling up the corridor, getting closer to the room they were in and a few moments later the door opened widely, bringing both guys, Mark and Jackson, in. The latter was laughing at something and Mark was still trying to get his hair out of his eyes, just like yesterday. They didn’t notice the guest for a few moments, until Jackson finally stopped laughing and looked at him with a poorly hidden confusion that grabbed Mark’s attention.

It seemed like he recognized Jinyoung, as Mark gleefully exclaimed, “You! Beep beep guy!”

Beep beep guy?

“He sometimes calls cars like that, don’t get confused.” Jackson explained, one hand somewhat defensively thrown around Mark’s shoulders. “What are you doing here?”

The owner replied instead of him. “He says he’s a doctor of some sorts, asked if I’d allow them to use Mark for their clinical trials. They think they could make him smarter.”

Mark, who was happily letting out sounds that were understandable only for him under his breath as he was playing with the hem of his shirt, reacted to the word “smarter” like a kid would react to a candy. “Mark wants to be smart!”

Jinyoung forced a smile to him. “You do? I can help you, but you’ll need to come with me and have some procedures done.”

Mark neither questioned nor did he understand what those procedures mean, because all he needed was to hear that he can be smart, just like his mom wanted. He was ready to follow Jinyoung to another side of the world as long as the latter kept the hope going and Jackson, noticing all this, said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“If you can’t give me a permission, can I somehow reach Mark’s parents?” Jinyoung tried again, seeing Mark now sitting on the floor, all the talks about him becoming smart long forgotten thanks to his short attention span. “If they don’t allow me, I’ll back off.”

“He’s living here ever since he was sixteen.” The owner said with a sigh. “But I’m only an old man, entrusted with someone else’s child. I still have his mother’s number, though never had the chance to use it. Call her.”

Deep in his hear he probably hoped that Mark’s mother would protest, call Jinyoung a psycho, because that was undoubtedly who he was by that time, but the events took quite a turn.

The woman picked up the call almost immediately, wordlessly listening to Jinyoung introducing himself and his explanations of why he was calling her. She didn’t even say a word when he was telling her what would happen if she agreed to let her son participate in the experiment.

“Do whatever you want, he’s not my son anymore.” Was her final response before hanging up.

And only then, still holding the phone next to his ear and seeing Jackson’s face distorted in surprise and fear as he was trying to keep Mark distracted so he wouldn’t hear the conversation, Jinyoung realized that the pang he felt when Mark turned around and gave him a blissful, childish smile wasn’t a relief that he finally found a test subject for Jaebum.

It was pity, sadness and emptiness.

Chapter Text

“What do you think about him?”

It was a weird question, Jinyoung thought. Seemingly easy one, though – it never was hard for him to form opinions on people based on how they behave around others, his judgement was always quick, unbiased, sharp and, in most of the cases, correct. But Mark was different, they all could tell by now.

He was like an overgrown almost twenty-eight year old child, a living definition of sunshines and rainbows. But even though his speaking abilities were limited and his understanding of the world was limited even more, Mark had a talent of making people let him closer.

During the week he had spent in the lab already, always carefully guarded by at least of one the researchers and occasionally Jackson, Mark never failed to make Jinyoung smile when the latter was feeling down; never had second thoughts before clapping whenever Youngjae was humming something under his breath. Even Yugyeom, who looked at their test subject with a poorly hidden suspicion at first, eventually gave in. Only Jaebum, now standing next to Jinyoung, who was watching Mark and Youngjae drawing something together, clothes dotted in watercolor stains, remained cold towards everything, as if he didn’t want anyone to be here in the first place.

But for some reason, Jinyoung wasn’t able to decide on his answer. “I don’t know. He’s a test subject, my job is to find out whether he’s suitable for trials or not. It doesn’t matter what I think.”

“Oh, it does. Believe me, it does.” Jaebum’s words were puzzling and mysterious, but he, as it was already a given, didn’t bother to elaborate. When Jinyoung turned to him, his eyes were fixed on Mark like on a prey, but the younger dismissed it as his burning wish to start the treatment as soon as possible. “Do Rorschach’s on him.”

Jinyoung frowned, unsure about this unexpected request. “Why? Yugyeom is almost done with blood tests and Youngjae… Well, he should be focusing on things other than drawing trees, but he said they’ll have all the results by the end of this week. It’s his physical condition that matters right now, not psychological profile.”

“No.” The coldness of the answer cut through Jinyoung’s bones with a questioning undertone to it, as if Jaebum was asking if he really was that dumb to argue with his orders. “If I want this to work, I need to know how he thinks. I want to see how he feels emotions. Anger, sadness, greed, possessiveness – all of them.”

“He doesn’t think.” Jinyoung didn’t intend to sound so insensitive, but it was the truth – Mark didn’t think like the rest of the people. Mentally he was six, seven years old at most, if he even reached that. “At least not like both of us. I don’t understand why you’re so interested in his emotions, it isn’t important right now.”

“Rorschach’s. Now.”

Jinyoung sighed, approaching the table and telling Youngjae to move. The latter unwillingly stood up from his quite terrible drawing of what was supposed to be a forest with unicorns. Mark apparently found it hilarious, too, pointing fingers and mumbling something with the widest smile ever. Seeing a dark mop of Mark’s fluffy hair, still getting in his eyes, Jinyoung felt somehow relaxed and less tired, even though he had spent ten hours in the lab today already.

“Mark?” he carefully asked, trying not to startle the guy, as he and Jaebum approached the table. Mark lifted his eyes full of childish curiosity, anticipating to learn what kind of game they will play now. Everything was a game to him – needles that were used to draw blood were mosquitos that he needed to fight, the MRI machine was only a bed that made sounds similar to a computer game he and Jackson used to play at home during their days off. “I want you to look at something, okay?”

Mark excitedly nodded in agreement, ready to immerse himself in whatever the researcher was about to show him – it didn’t take a genius to realize that he obviously preferred Jinyoung over all the other lab workers, but it had a simple explanation. The guy was just more or less used to him, at least he did know Jinyoung longer than anyone else in this research center, even though the latter didn’t know how Mark perceived their meetings, or whether he even understood what was happening during most of them.

“Game time, game time!” Was all that escaped his lips and Jinyoung felt somehow bad, like he was stealing a childhood from a child, making him think about complex and unnecessary things without any urgent need.

Jinyoung pulled out some pictures out of the drawer that was conveniently within his reach and lined them in from of Mark. The latter got slightly confused, when he pointed at one of them and asked, “What do you see?”

“Umm…” Mark tried his best to think, to understand what is he supposed to tell, but it was pretty obvious that he was having a hard time, the pictures didn’t make any sense to him.

“It can be anything. Whatever you think this is, tell me.” Jinyoung quickly added, noticing Mark’s struggles and almost agonizing wish to figure this one out. “There is no wrong answer, just—“

“I got it!” Mark finally exclaimed and Jinyoung let out the breath he was unconsciously holding in. Maybe his case wasn’t as bad as they all thought – even Jaebum seemed to be interested in his answer for once. “It’s paint. At home, when Jackson trips over a bucket, it looks the same on the floor.”

Jaebum let out a weird sound, neither a groan nor a sigh and Jinyoung himself closed his eyes for a moment, trying to get himself together. “Yes, but do you see something in it? Like shapes, or forms? Anything?”

Mark didn’t. They tried everything – changing the pictures countless times, rotating it, folding it in halves, but that caused even more confusion for the guy, as he started slightly shaking like always did when he was getting anxious and scared.

Mark was afraid that Jinyoung will throw him out if he won’t reply correctly, that the researchers will tell him that he is never going to become smart. And only Youngjae, observing this test from afar, managed to save the day preventing a scene from happening by quickly jumping in and distracting Mark with yet another drawing of his.

They were lucky that Jackson wasn’t around this time as he had to work his shift, now all alone since Mark wasn’t working anymore, because he always got batshit crazy and even aggressive when he didn’t agree with what was happening here.

“If it was any other healthy person, the answers would be pretty standard – butterflies, face of an animal, something like that.” Jaebum said, watching his colleague stuffing the pictures back in the drawer again. “But he doesn’t seem to have any idea of what is being shown to him. Lacks imagination.”

“It’s not a terrible thing.” Jinyoung was quick to defend. “He still has other abilities.”

“Other abilities?” Jaebum raised his eyebrows somewhat mockingly.

“While you were out, Yugyeom made him go through a maze, like we do with our rats.” The comparison left a bitter taste in Jinyoung’s mouth, but he proceeded to talk anyway. “He didn’t reach the finish, we didn’t even expect that, since his understanding of surroundings is pretty much nonexistent, but he didn’t stop. Yugyeom kept him in the maze for an hour, and from what I saw, he was ready to spend there the entire day if only we told him to. He’s a hard worker, he doesn’t give up.”

Jaebum didn’t seem to be impressed by these “abilities”, completely changing the topic. “Do you have the consent signed?”

Jinyoung had, he signed it with his own pen, trying to imitate woman’s handwriting as believably as possible. He had a verbal consent, if you can even call it like that, and it didn’t matter who signed it – Mark was left to them, with the only condition of Jackson picking him up and driving him back to the facility every evening. The owner didn’t want Mark to sleep in a place like this and somewhere deep in his heart Jinyoung agreed with that as well, so he didn’t argue.

“Yes, I do.”

“Book a table somewhere for tomorrow evening.” The addition Jaebum made was an unexpected, but pleasant surprise. Jinyoung, a hopeless romantic, thought that the elder finally knocked off his obnoxious behavior that lasted ever since that board meeting a week ago - maybe he wanted to thank Jinyoung for finding a test subject for him, maybe he remembered that it had been ages since they were out on a date together – anything, he would’ve taken any of those reasons. “Table for three.”

“Three?”

“I’m still not done with him.”

Six words. Jaebum didn’t explain anything else after them and Jinyoung excused himself to the bathroom where he punched a wall, hoping that all the frustration, anger and desperation will bleed out through his bruised knuckles.

It didn’t.

 

And that was how all three of them ended up awkwardly stuck together in some restaurant downtown a day later. Jackson was pretty weirded out hearing that he should pick Mark up around 8 PM and that he won’t be allowed to witness the conversation, but he took it without any complicated questions as Jinyoung threw his best lies at him. Jaebum just wants to know Mark better, he said, to make Mark trust him before clinical trials this big, this important.

Of course.

All he did was stare at the guy, who clearly was having troubles with his meal, all the knives and forks confusing him, a fancy three course dinner not being a thing he was used to seeing after his and his friends’ sandwiches and ramen.

Jinyoung took the role of a babysitter again, trying to slice Mark’s food and ease his struggles at least like that, as well as trying to keep up a conversation of some sorts. But it didn’t help as Jaebum was concentrated on his food and Mark was fidgeting in his seat, mumbling something in his own language.

“Is something wrong?” Jinyoung asked, noticing that the two of them suddenly engaged themselves in a staring contest of some sorts, just that there was a lot more staring from Jaebum’s side and a lot more weird stubbornness to keep his focus from Mark’s.

“Does… Does Jaebum have a fiancée?” Pang. Jinyoung and Jaebum’s forks dropped down almost synchronically as if they would’ve rehearsed this for some idiotic sitcom, attracting even more unnecessary attention from the tables nearby.

Jaebum’s lips moved as if he was going to say something undoubtedly insulting and rude, but his colleague was quicker. “That’s personal, Mark. You can’t ask it whenever you want.”

However, Jaebum raised his palm as a sign for him to shut up, as he took a big sip of his wine that he ordered beforehand. “What do you know about fiancées, Mark?”

“Fiancée is…” Mark’s eyebrows furrowed as he tried to remember Jackson’s words said when they were eating breakfast. “It’s a girl you love the most in the world, right?”

“That’s right.” Jaebum nodded, somewhat satisfied and Jinyoung was sitting there, listening to the conversation puzzled beyond words, not being to grasp what was going on nor the meaning behind this whole gathering. “Have you ever felt an interest in someone like that?”

The expression was way too complicated for Mark, as he only kept repeating the word “interest” without replying. Jinyoung was a quick help, putting his hand next to his heart, “When you think of someone you’re interested in, your heart starts beating faster. Does it happen to you?”

“Yes.” Mark’s answer was clear and Jaebum lifted his eyes from the wine glass he was holding to look at the guy in front of him, but the answer was disappointing. “My mom. But does Jaebum have a fiancée?”

His persistency would’ve been endearing on other occasions and topics, however, Jaebum’s face was like made of stone when he answered, “I used to have.”

“Where is she now?”

“She left.” Jinyoung answered instead of him, strictness clear in his voice.

He felt uncomfortable too, knowing very well that Mark was simply asking whether Jaebum had a person he loved, and upon hearing the negative answer being implied his heart was shattering into pieces yet again. He knew it, somewhere deep in his heart he knew that Jaebum doesn’t love him, but he closed his eyes and pretended not to understand it.

Mark concluded, “Jaebum must be a bad person. My mom left me because I was a bad kid, Jaebum’s fiancée must have left because of that too.”

For a second it looked like the latter will crush the glass in his grip and Jinyoung put a palm on his wrist mumbling him to calm down, but Jaebum didn’t show his anger, in fact, he didn’t show any emotions as he said, “Let’s talk about your treatment.”

Mark had troubles keeping up with this jumping from one topic to another, but Jaebum didn’t look like he cared, spitting long and complicated words out of his mouth so fast, even Jinyoung had troubles understanding this whole plan. “First of all, you will get medicine that will improve your brain function. After that, we’re going to put a microchip into your head, so we could track your progress. For that, we will need a surgery.”

Mark started fidgeting in his seat again, obviously uncomfortable with so many words that he didn’t know the meanings of, and his anxiety transferred to Jinyoung as well. The latter didn’t expect for the surgery to be brought up so early, he thought they would postpone it until the next month or so, when they will have all the detailed test results, but clearly it wasn’t the case.

“Are you afraid?” Jaebum asked suddenly, but the question could have been directed to both of the guys sitting next to him.

“I am.” Mark’s answer wasn’t confident, but it was honest. Even if he didn’t realize or understand it, he did feel uneasy and unsafe. “Jinyoung—“

“What is it?”

“Will you be there during the sur… surg…” The word surely was a mouthful for him, so Jinyoung patted his shoulder as a sign that it was okay, he understood and Mark didn’t need to try so hard.

“I will be there the entire time.” He replied and it wasn’t anything special – he simply had to be there monitoring the situation, to make sure that everything goes smoothly and legally flawlessly.

However, Mark’s request caught him off guard once again. “Promise.”

“I promise.” Jinyoung slowly said, a slight smile appearing on his face upon the sight of Mark sticking out his pinky finger to seal the promise. It made him feel weird, maybe because it was the first time he worked with people for clinical trials; maybe because of the fact that Mark seemed to blindly trust him without asking any questions.

Jaebum wasn’t amused by their pinky promise, or in some sick way he was, Jinyoung couldn’t determine from his strange smirk, after Mark got back to playing with his food instead of focusing on things that were happening around. He also didn’t expect Jaebum to stand up, throw a few bills on the table and leave him and Mark alone.

But Jaebum did, and all he said instead of a goodbye before leaving was, “Schedule the surgery for Tuesday morning.”

Mark had three days left until his life was supposed to be turned upside down.

Chapter Text

“Mark Tuan, twenty-seven, intellectual disabilities.” Jinyoung couldn’t forget the monotonous voice of a surgeon echoing in the meeting room that Tuesday, four hours before the surgery. He looked at Youngjae, who was trying not to fall asleep cradling his third cup of espresso that morning; at Jaebum, who looked kind of bored, lazily tapping his pen on the surface of the table. No one seemed nervous. “Surgical procedure in the left frontal lobe, language area near the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Piece of cake, this should be done in a blink of the eye.”

But for some reason these words weren’t much of a consolation to Jinyoung, who immediately excused himself to visit Mark in his ward after the meeting. Yesterday they transferred him to the hospital the surgery was supposed to take place in and Jinyoung rarely spent time elsewhere than the lab or the ward, where he would watch Mark stubbornly studying alphabet or, like this morning, still soundly sleeping.

Maybe it was out of pity, because it was obvious that asides Jackson and the owner of the delivery company they were working in no one really cared what will happen to him; maybe it was because Jinyoung did like to save people a little bit too much; maybe it was out of guilt that he allowed Mark to be Jaebum’s lab rat.

The latter avoided Jinyoung the entire weekend after the restaurant happening and the younger tried his best to fight the urge to call him or go to his apartment. That one time he slipped, drunk on two glasses of whiskey on Saturday afternoon, Jaebum’s phone was turned off, not welcoming anyone. Later Jinyoung tried to hide his eyes, red from the lack of sleep, overthinking and some occasional angry tearing up from his colleagues and fortunately, Yugyeom and Youngjae either didn’t notice, busy with the workload, or just decided to keep quiet about it.

Suddenly, the doors of the ward opened, startling Jinyoung out of his thoughts, but it was only Jackson – sleepy, with messy hair and clothes, and slightly hungover, but still making it on time to see Mark before the surgery. Jinyoung always wondered why he was so attached, but never had the time, or the guts, to ask.

“Morning, doc.” Jackson mumbled, plopping on the sofa next to him. Jinyoung stopped himself from making a face at him, both because of the smell of cheap beer hitting his nostrils and the contempt that was evident in the guy’s voice.

“Good morning.” He replied, eyes immediately darting back at Mark, who started mumbling something in his sleep. A baby blue blanket was covering almost entire face of his, they could see only his closed eyes, framed by slightly fluttering dark eyelashes. The clock on the wall was ruthless, announcing that it was two hours left.

“So today’s the big day, huh.” Jackson opened his mouth again. “You’ll fix Mark and he’ll live happily ever after.”

Jinyoung wasn’t in the mood for arguing and refuting that mocking intonation in his voice, so he said only, “We’ll try to.”

However, the guy besides him only scoffed at this, completely unimpressed by Jinyoung’s faked stoic tone. “Listen, doc. I’m twenty-six and I don’t need to be fed fairytales for breakfast, you know. You’re going to mess with his brain, I’ve done my part of reading. If you fuck this one up, he won’t be able to talk, right?”

Words “in the best case scenario” remained unsaid. Jinyoung wanted to be honest, it wasn’t a secret that so many things would be at stake if something went wrong, but some part of his heart, perhaps the same one that still believed in Jaebum, made his response strict. “It’s a relatively simple procedure and Mark has the best surgeons in Seoul working on his case. There’s nothing to be worried about.”

“You’re cutting his head open, nothing to be worried about my ass,” Jackson fired back, unconvinced. Usually, it wasn’t that hard to get rid of his comments, Jinyoung simply had to throw some barely understandable medical expressions at him and he would back off, but today Jackson was a lot more stubborn. And it was understandable. “And we won’t even be able to sue you if something goes wrong because of that stupid consent his bitch mother gave.”

Jinyoung flinched at this unexpected cursing. He himself had some stronger words to describe Mark’s mother due to the way she talked about her son and because of what she did, but he always was on the softer side, preferring to hold some things in and never let them out.

“Why do you care so much?”

“I don’t.” Jackson denied shrugging and stuffing his hands in the pockets of his hoodie, nervously fidgeting in his seat. Jinyoung was ready to accept this answer, because it wasn’t his business, but soon enough, continuation followed. “Okay, sure, Mark’s weird, he runs into things, he spills food all over himself, lord, he sometimes pees in his bed, but… There’s something about him, something that makes me want to be a better person, you know? He’s so bright and so out of place in this fucked up world and I should be the one taking care of him, but sometimes, you know, it feels like he’s the one keeping me away from shit.”

Jinyoung knew what he was talking about, in quite a superficial way, but he did. Mark indeed was a ray of light in their gloomy research center, where the only joyful events were paydays and weekends, well, maybe also those times Youngjae would challenge them to dance battles trying not to break the tests tubes they worked on in that cramped space. But Mark…

The way he always found a good word for everyone, even Jaebum, though the latter was never there to hear it, was exceptional and admirable; his curiosity and childish enthusiasm, eventually leading Yugyeom to allow him to feed their lab rats together, was bigger than any man’s of his age. And thinking that they might be risking so many things just for the sake of experiment, wasn’t sitting very well with Jinyoung.

But work was work, too much money and investments at stake, and even though he was feeling responsible for Mark, he was nothing but a slave of the system, dressed in a snow white lab coat.

“Why did you come to that facility, Jackson?” Was all Jinyoung asked, lost in his thoughts.

“I need a roof above my head, duh. This whole reintegration into the normal society thingy seemed pretty welcoming for someone straight out of jail, even though I hate being a mailman. But the salary is pretty good and the boss is really nice—”

“What did you do that you had to go to jail in the first place?”

The answer struck him like a lightning. “I killed a person.”

Jinyoung wasn’t sure whether Jackson was serious, since there was a puzzling smile playing on his lips, but he didn’t have enough time to figure out what to say, because Mark finally woke up and sat up in the bed rubbing his eyes, still obviously half asleep. “Jacks?”

“Your one and only.” The latter’s voice immediately got softer, starkly contrasting with how it sounded a few minutes ago. He stood up to give his friend a friendly hair ruffle what was met with Mark’s groaning and nose scrunching.

Jinyoung’s stare was fixed on this quite domestic scene and he felt like a complete stranger, like a person who had no right to even witness this, because it was somewhat personal. However, Mark, as if he heard his thoughts, lifted his brown eyes and gifted him a wide toothy smile. “Today I’m going to become smart!”

“Yes… Yes, you will.” Jinyoung returned the smile, coming nearer. There were some simple pre-surgery procedures left – he checked Mark’s heart rate, checked if he doesn’t have fever, gave him a few pills to ease him down. Everything was strictly followed by Jackson’s suspicious gaze. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m going to be smart!” Was his default answer and both of the guys in the ward hoped it meant that he was feeling fine. Jinyoung placed the last signature on a pre-surgery checklist, now there was no way back - less than two hours later Mark was supposed to lie down on a surgical table and wake up like a new person. If Jaebum was right, that is.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Youngjae peeked through the door, startling all of them. “But doctors want to do the last checkup before the surgery.”

Jinyoung furrowed his eyebrows a bit annoyed, almost shoving the checklist with his signature in his colleague’s face. “I just did the last checkup.”

“Well then the last last checkup, I don’t know.” Youngjae shrugged. “All I know is that he has to go with me now.”

Jinyoung sighed, but he couldn’t complain – a bit more safety measures than usual never bit anyone in the ass, especially considering what kind of surgery it was. His heart painfully dropped, though, seeing how Mark’s smile was slowly faltering and a hint of fear glimmered in his eyes.

“Ji—Ji—“ The name of the scientist was still too much for him to pronounce sometimes, hence why he tried to stick various ridiculous nicknames to him, but this time Mark’s efforts to say it made Jinyoung feel uncomfortable a whole lot more.

“Yes?”

However, Mark didn’t respond. Instead, he wrapped his hands around Jinyoung, much like a child would hug his parent when he’s afraid; but at the same time it wasn’t exactly that. It was the exact same way Jinyoung sometimes hugged Jaebum when the latter had his breakdowns, it was like telling that everything will be okay, and he didn’t understand why Mark was doing this to him.

He also didn’t understand that prick at the back of his eyes, as he gently got out of Mark’s embrace and brushed the hair out of his eyes.

It wasn’t the right time to be so sensitive.

Youngjae awkwardly coughed and Jinyoung snapped back to the reality avoiding everyone’s stares. Mark jumped from his bed as if nothing had happened and left the ward almost glued to Youngjae’s side, ignoring Jackson’s shouts that he’s barefoot. That wasn’t important right now, Mark was walking to the place where he will become smart.

 

But two hours later when Mark was waiting for the magic to happen and Jinyoung, Youngjae and Yugyeom were nervously following every movement in the operating room through a glass wall in another room, the surgery didn’t start. Minutes were ticking, and that didn’t help Jinyoung fight the anxiety that was creeping in his mind.

“Why are they delaying it?” he asked, nervously playing with the buttons on his lab coat sleeve.

“Jaebum ordered not to start the surgery until he’s present, and he’s well… Not.” Yugyeom mumbled. “I tried calling him, but he doesn’t pick up.”

“I heard he booked the MRI room for this morning.” A nurse who was there to keep an eye on them said. “Maybe you should look there.”

And so Jinyoung did, speeding through various brightly illuminated corridors trying to ignore the smell of the hospital he always hated. Laboratories smelled too, but it was somehow different – they reminded of chemistry and magic that saved lives, hospitals smelled plainly of death and mistakes.

He tried to come up with a reason why Jaebum would need an MRI machine here, the one in their center worked more than fine. Especially at a time like this, when Mark was supposed to get the surgery he rushed so much.

Was it for someone else? Was it for himself? Did something happen, maybe there was a reason behind his borderline unbearable behavior? Jinyoung’s head started filling up with various possible scenarios, one more ridiculous and frightening than another, but all of them went down the drain after he finally found the right room, panting from all the running.

“I’m a little bit busy here.” It was unmistakably Jaebum’s voice behind the screen of a computer, and Jinyoung breathed out with some undeniable ease when he realized that the elder was running the scan on someone else, not himself. “I’ll be in the operating room in ten minutes or so.”

“What are you doing here?” Jinyoung didn’t move. Another patient that no one knew about wouldn’t have surprised him at all – Jaebum was always full of surprises and lies like that. It hurt a bit, yes, because one would expect that, considering their relationship, there weren’t supposed to be any secrets, but sadly, Jinyoung was used to this.

Jaebum’s answer was almost mocking. “An MRI, obviously.”

“Who is he?” Jinyoung asked, taking a patient’s file that was carelessly tossed on the table and looking through the pages, but there was nothing in it, aside some blood tests and a few X rays. A lot of the tests, accidentally or not, were the same ones they did on Mark.

“A candidate.”

“Wasn’t Mark the candidate?” Jinyoung frowned in confusion. If he already had a candidate, why the hell did he need Mark?

Jaebum didn’t look him in the eyes as he said, “If Tuan’s case succeeds, this one will be the… So to say, the second edition.”

Jinyoung got even more confused if that was even possible at this point, shuffling back and forth between the pages of the file, searching for a diagnosis or any previous illnesses, but there were none, except for a flu two years ago. “He’s not intellectually handicapped.”

“He might look healthy now, but as the time goes, his brain will deteriorate. He’ll become delusional and lose the ability to understand what’s real and what’s not. His consciousness will be repeatedly disturbed until he slips into vegetative state.”

“Hold on. Why would he be the second candidate? Why can’t we do the surgery on both of them at the same time? We have all the resources for this.”

As I said,” Jaebum repeated, gradually sounding angrier and angrier, “He’ll be the next one after we review the success rate of Mark’s surgery.”

And then it clicked. Suddenly the link between Jaebum’s words became so clear, Jinyoung thought it was almost hilarious how he wasn’t able to understand it earlier. “So, if I understand you correctly, Mark will be… A test subject for his sake?”

Jaebum didn’t respond, continuing to blankly stare at the computer waiting for the scan to be done, but Jinyoung wasn’t about to give up, feeling anger boiling in his blood, so close to bursting out. “Mark is just a test subject to save him.”

“The way you say it makes it seem more terrible than it actually is.”

Jinyoung couldn’t believe his ears. “Who is he?”

There was no way that Jaebum would go this far, be eager to play with other people’s lives for a mere stranger. This person in the MRI machine, probably having no idea what was happening here, had to be someone – a past lover, relative, anything.

“The son of the president of Yoo Medical Industries.” The response made everything clear. Yoo Medical Industries were their main investors, the ones that rushed the trials so much. Everything was relatively simple now, there were no secrets anymore – Jaebum sold his project to save the son of the CEO. He didn’t give a damn about Mark, because there was basically a fortune chest lying down in that damn MRI machine.

Jinyoung almost started to laugh, because the situation was so absurd, but he didn’t notice how his sudden anger resulted in a few tears rolling down his face. “Those ideals you talked about with me before… It was all lies, wasn’t it? You told me it was to increase human intelligence, to make the world a better place. But in the end it was all because of money, wasn’t it?”

Jaebum looked like he wanted to say something, caught off guard by Jinyoung exploding like this, but the latter didn’t allow him to interrupt. “I was ready to turn a blind eye to all the risks, I fucking forged a signature on Mark’s consent. Even if he died today or was turned into a vegetable, I still was ready to think about all the good things— Deny it, please, tell me I’m fucking wrong.” His last words were almost a whisper.

But Jaebum didn’t plan on denying anything, pressing the keyboard to finish the scan with a stone cold face as if Jinyoung wasn’t even there.

“Where’s Jaebum, the surgeon doesn’t—” Youngjae asked, when he stormed back into the room looking like wreck with his eyes still tearing up, but he immediately shut up upon seeing Jinyoung taking all of his belongings and ripping his name tag off. He didn’t care anymore, he just wanted to run away, from everyone and everything. “What the hell happened?”

Jinyoung didn’t give any answers as he turned to go, but through the glass wall his eyes met Mark’s, who was following everything that was happening around, probably curious why he wasn’t becoming smart.

“I’m sorry.” Jinyoung mumbled, even though he knew that nobody in the operating room could hear him.

He himself didn’t hear a lot of things that happened after he ran out of the building. And that was a whole lot – Mark for some reason freaking out so much, not allowing doctors to come near him, screaming that he won’t undergo the surgery if Jinyoung isn’t there.

Nobody expected Mark to have so much strength, but he easily ripped off all the needles from his arms and got through a bunch of doctors, and now was speeding through the corridors much like Jinyoung was a few minutes ago. He had no idea where was he running or how he was going to find Jinyoung, it was almost the same situation like with that yellow balloon – he just had to catch him.

“You promised! Promised!” Were the only words echoing in the building as Youngjae was calling the security and Yugyeom was trying to reach Jinyoung and Jaebum through their phones, but none of them picked up.

Chapter Text

It was a late evening when Jinyoung finally woke up from his restless nap induced by a very special mix of a few sleeping pills drowned by a mouthful of wine he bought on his way home.

He knew he was acting overly dramatic, that it was dumb and that his words in this research meant absolutely nothing against Jaebum’s. The latter was free to do whatever he wants – if he wanted, he could’ve sold his project for a pack of bubble gum and nobody could say a word, but for some reason this particular lie felt… personal.

Jinyoung wasn’t sure, maybe it was because he always put feelings before anything else, or maybe because he just got used to Mark’s helplessness over the time, but he started to understand what Jackson meant when he was talking about not wanting anyone to hurt Mark. And what bothered Jinyoung was that he did exactly that – couldn’t keep his promise and left the guy alone in the operating room when he needed company the most.

Jinyoung found his phone tangled somewhere in between the sheets, ready to call one of his colleagues to ask how did the surgery go, that was the least he could do at the time, but the phone rang itself before he even managed to press any button. It was Jaebum’s name that was flashing on the screen and Jinyoung wasn’t sure whether he wanted to answer. However, a few seconds after, he did, like always.

“You might not want to listen to me.” Jaebum’s voice sounded drained, but Jinyoung couldn’t force himself to feel sorry about it at all.

“How did the surgery go?”

Jaebum’s words caused him to almost drop the phone on his lap. “He refused it. He said he won’t do it unless you’re present. He also made a mess out of the operating room and one of the surgeons has a black eye.”

Under other circumstances, Jinyoung probably would’ve laughed, because the idea of Mark actually fighting someone seemed extremely incredible and laughable, but now he didn’t have time for that, as Jaebum’s addition made his heart drop. “He ran away and we can’t find him. It’s been an entire day.”

“Why—“

“He’s probably looking for you right now.” Jaebum calmly interrupted, as if he wasn’t worried in the slightest. “If he’s as persistent as you told me, it’s only a matter of time until he does.”

Jinyoung clenched his jaw. “It seems like you don’t understand. I broke our promise and now he probably feels like abandoned him, much like his mother did when he was a teenager. More than anything, he should hate me now.”

“You may not believe this, since I’m only a money driven bastard for you,” Jaebum said. “But he doesn’t feel like that. Mark will come to you, I believe, quite soon.”

Jinyoung felt tired of this shit, but at the same time it was so familiar – the elder feeling like he knows everything and everyone, completely convinced that things will turn out the way he predicted. Jinyoung wanted to hang up, but suddenly an unexpected sound started to echo through his apartment.

Ding dong.

He felt himself freezing on the sofa, hand still helplessly clutching the phone. There was no way, absolutely no way

Jaebum probably heard the doorbell ringing too. “At this moment, Mark might be missing out on a once in a lifetime chance, Jinyoung. A chance to be able to understand the world around him, to feel more than basic emotions. He needs you to do the right thing, he needs you to be strong.”

“It’s not even him, how do you—“

“Just do the right thing.” Jaebum repeated and a deadly silence in the end of the line followed another ring of the doorbell.

There were a lot of reasons why it couldn’t be Mark – first of all, he couldn’t know where Jinyoung lived, second, Mark was too sick to understand how to get to places in a city this big, especially alone, but nevertheless, Jinyoung dragged himself to open the door only to be surprised.

At first he saw only an unfamiliar man standing in front of his door, but after a quick glimpse he noticed Mark standing behind his back. Jinyoung’s heart dropped seeing him like that – scared and confused, eyes not able to focus on anything for longer than a few seconds, shivering and trembling under his hospital gown. His legs were bruised from walking barefoot and it slowly started to hit Jinyoung that it was his fault.

“Are you Park Jinyoung?” the man asked, taking something out of his pocket.

“Yes.” He quickly nodded, trying to avoid looking directly at Mark.

“I found this fellow wandering in the streets in Gangnam. When I asked what is he doing there looking like he just ran away from a hospital, he gave me this.” The stranger handed Jinyoung a piece of paper. It turned out to be his business card, the mailing address on it explaining how they found him. However, it didn’t explain how Mark got ahold of it in the first place. “You should keep an eye on him, I didn’t even have to convince him to follow me into the car, he just blindly trusted me.”

Jinyoung mumbled, “Yes, he… tends to do that. Thank you for taking him here, Mark was missing for a while. How can I repay you?”

The man just critically stared at him, who clearly didn’t look like he had spent a lot of effort in searching for a missing person. “It’s alright, I’m happy I could help. He probably would’ve frozen to death if I left him there. Have a good evening.”

Jinyoung thanked him again, grabbing Mark’s hand to lead him into his apartment. The latter’s hand was cold, rough and a bit bruised and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that Mark fell a lot of times throughout the day. Mark didn’t resist, quietly looking around a new place, not showing any emotions and Jinyoung couldn’t explain what he felt. It was relief mixed with sadness, and also a tinge of his biting guilty conscience.

“Let me look at those.” He finally broke the silence, looking at Mark’s bruises and cuts. The latter didn’t say anything, his signature enthusiasm gone somewhere, but he still complied, sitting down on the sofa.

Usually, Jinyoung being his clean freak self, would’ve gone mad, because there were stains of dirt everywhere, but this time he didn’t have it in himself to point it out, trying to find bandages and plasters in his drawers. Only one thing was for sure – Mark needed a hot shower as soon as possible and Jinyoung for a second freaked out that he’ll need to help the elder, but the guest wordlessly took the towels and the clothes he found for him in the wardrobe and disappeared behind the bathroom door alone.

It didn’t take long, ten minutes and Mark was sitting on Jinyoung’s sofa again, bits of shampoo still left in his hair because he forgot to rinse and dry them properly, streaks of water coming down and dripping everywhere and the borrowed clothes being slightly too big for him, but none of them said a word.

The silence was borderline uncomfortable as Jinyoung’s gaze was sliding down Mark’s arms that were bruised from the IVs that he ripped off in the morning and various other small cuts he got throughout the day. The only exception was Mark’s hisses and other unintelligible sounds he made when the disinfectant started to sting, but all this time he didn’t take his stare away from the younger, who now was sitting on the floor opening a new pack of band-aids. Jinyoung found this staring quite unsettling, but still continued his work, trying to figure out how to deal with the wounds on Mark’s feet.

It felt somehow intimate, even though Jinyoung tried his best to get rid of this bizarre thought. He never thought about Mark as a patient, maybe that’s why it was so hard to keep his professionalism. To him, Mark reminded a bird who had one of his wings broken – still able to function somehow, but struggling too much for others to feel nothing. And so Jinyoung wanted to help, even though he could offer nothing but temporary fixes.

“Hungry?” he asked standing up when he was done, immediately angry at himself for asking something this dumb. Mark spent the whole day outside searching for him, of course he was hungry and the latter confirmed it by a slight nod.

Jinyoung was no cook and his fridge was always empty, the research center’s cafeteria being his most frequented place when he wanted something that wasn’t takeouts or poorly made sandwiches. It wasn’t any different that evening – all he could offer his guest was two packs of ramen, an egg and a carton of orange juice. Well, and a wine bottle, but Jinyoung wasn’t about to give him that.

Mark didn’t mind this poor selection, slurping his noodles in the kitchen half an hour later as Jinyoung took a seat next to him, silently observing the situation.

“Are you mad?” the question escaped Jinyoung’s lips before he even managed to think about it. He didn’t intend to confront Mark about it, at least not now, but the silence and this complete shift in Mark’s personality was making him uneasy.

“Yes, mad.” Mark lifted his head, but his face was clean from any emotions, like he would’ve just blindly repeated what he heard. However, Jinyoung was caught off guard when he added, “But I wanted to see you.”

“Me? Why?” he was convinced that Mark would be furious, maybe would even hate him, but in the end it turned out that Jaebum was right, like always.

“My heart is beating faster.” Jinyoung had no idea what the elder meant, so he decided to let it slide. Mark was just… being Mark, not being able to concentrate on one topic for a longer period of time and Jinyoung knew him long enough to know that it wasn’t anything unusual for him to blurt out some random nonsense.

They didn’t talk after that and while Mark was finishing his dinner, Jinyoung kept thinking about what Jaebum said earlier.

Just do the right thing.

But what was the right thing in this situation? Was the right thing letting Mark get that surgery knowing the exact reason why he was needed for it? Or was the right thing letting him come back to the facility where he would spend the rest of his life having to deliver mail and hand out flyers, taking away his only chance to at least try the treatment?

“You cried.” Mark’s sudden words made Jinyoung flinch and unconsciously lift his hand to his eyes. He might have shed a few tears on his way home this morning, and maybe some more before sleeping, but he didn’t think it would still be visible. But either it was, or Mark was just really talented in guessing other people’s emotions. And honestly, Jinyoung wouldn’t have been surprised if it was the second option.

“I didn’t.” He denied out of habit, not really eager to share his burdens. “It’s just—“ He didn’t even know how to explain this in terms Mark would understand. He also didn’t know why the words kept flowing anyway, as if they were friends of some sorts. “I just felt a little sad.”

“Why?”

“There is a person I really respected.” Jinyoung started, chest feeling heavy from words that were about to finally escape his lips instead of being held in. “I thought… I thought I have the same ideals as that person.”

Mark repeated, “Id… Ideals?”

“I thought we believed the same things. I also thought we feel the same about each other. But… It seems like I was the only one thinking like that.”

He didn’t even feel it when his tears, coming from both anger and sadness, started filling up his eyes again, rolling down his cheeks and dropping on the dark surface of the table. He tried to laugh it off, he always did that when he cried, but it probably looked pretty pathetic right now. “It seems like I somehow misunderstood him.”

Mark was listening to these words nervously fidgeting in his seat. He always acted either like a sponge that absorbed everyone’s feelings, relieving people from it, or like a mirror because he couldn’t offer any other type of closure, and this time, when Jinyoung looked up as he was drying his tears with a sleeve of his sweater, he saw Mark tearing up too, feverishly mumbling something under his breath.

Jinyoung’s first instinct was to think that he scared Mark with his tears, because he never was the first one to cry under any circumstances, but he didn’t have enough time to say anything. Mark stood up and gave him a hug, a second one that day.

It was soft and warm, very similar and at the same time very different from the one in the hospital. This time it was nothing but consoling, as if Mark understood Jinyoung’s complex feelings, even though the latter knew that, unfortunately, it wasn’t possible.

“Hug.” Mark exclaimed somewhere into his shoulder.

“What for?” Jinyoung asked, still half tearing up, half laughing.

Mark explained, “Bambam does that a lot to his fiancée when she’s mad or upset. You look mad and upset too. So, hug.”

Jinyoung didn’t remember clearly who the hell Bambam was, but he knew the name sounded familiar, so it must have been someone from the facility. He smiled at the explanation, getting out of Mark’s embrace feeling a bit flustered.

They finished the evening in the living room watching a collection of old cartoons Jinyoung was still hiding in the back of his drawers. Mark seemed to be completely immersed in it, clapping and mumbling something in awe all the time and Jinyoung was genuinely happy about that.

He tried to push the topic away, but the time was ticking too fast and they were pretty much out of it. “Mark, do you still want to become smart?”

At first the guy didn’t react to the question, dozing off on the sofa next to Jinyoung, but as soon as he heard the magical word “smart”, his eyes cracked open with enthusiasm, all the sleepiness gone.

“You mean the sur… Surg—“ Mark’s attempt of pronouncing the complicated word failed once again, but Jinyoung nodded anyway.

Mark seemed like he was thinking for a while and Jinyoung was waiting for the answer with a bit of weird fear, but Mark looked at him and said, “If you’ll be there with me.”

Just do the right thing kept ringing in Jinyoung’s ear, poking him to finally make a decision.

And as much as he hated himself and Jaebum at that moment, he also knew that despite his terrible personality and shitty reasoning, Jaebum was undoubtedly one of the most talented and competent scientists in the entire country. Even though it was done only for profit, if Jaebum wasn’t sure about the success of his treatment, he wouldn’t have pushed his ideas so much. And Jinyoung himself probably wouldn’t be able to forgive himself if he took the chance away from Mark.

“I’ll be there.” He finally breathed out.

“Promise?” It brought an unwanted flashback from the last week, when they all were in that restaurant, and he slowly grew to hate this memory.

But instead of a reply, he only nodded and Mark turned back to TV screen with a wide smile, completely forgetting the conversation a few seconds after. But Jinyoung’s heart was getting heavier and heavier as the time passed, basically unable to handle his feelings by the moment it was time to sleep.

Mark was trying to get comfortable in Jinyoung’s bed and the latter was sitting on the corner of it, when the elder asked, “Are you not going to sleep?”

“I am.” Jinyoung replied, giving him a slight smile. “Just not here. I’ll be in the living room if you need something.”

He tucked Mark into the bed, softly ruffling his hair instead of a goodnight, what was met with a loud groan. Jinyoung laughed a little, then stood up to turn off the light. He was about to walk out, swiftly navigating through the darkness, but Mark’s voice stopped him.

“Nyong?”

Jinyoung mentally sighed at the new version of his name. “Yes?”

“My heart is beating faster.” Mark repeated the phrase from earlier and Jinyoung started getting suspicious that it actually meant something, but he was too tired to ask. It was an understatement to say that he felt drained from everything that happened.

“Goodnight, Mark.”

When he finally settled on the sofa in his bedsheets, Jinyoung took his phone, slowly typing every syllable in, as if he had no wish to send the message.

[00:06] Jinyoung: He agreed.

[00:08] Jaebum: Tomorrow 11 AM in the same hospital. I knew I can trust you.

That moment, tossing the phone away and pulling the blanket over his face, Jinyoung couldn’t decide which emotion he felt stronger – disgust at the thought that Jaebum seemed to know how everything was going to end, since he had an operating room booked again already, or sadness upon realization that he still could’ve found a thousand excuses for this.

Chapter Text

Jinyoung was a strong supporter of a childish and immature statement that if you ignore the problem, there’s no problem anymore.

So Jaebum wasn’t really a problem that moment when both of them were sitting on a sofa in Mark’s ward, counting the excruciatingly long hours and minutes until the patient wakes up after his surgery. The waiting was tiring and scary, and both of the scientists were doing that because of completely different reasons – Jinyoung wanted to make sure Mark was okay, that the surgery didn’t leave any damage and Jaebum wanted to know whether his experiment was a success, not really giving much thought about the guy himself.

The surgery was incredibly tough despite having the most skilled surgeons in the entire region – it took five hours, even though for Jinyoung it felt like a whole eternity. He was there the entire time, heck, he even got himself a permission to stay in the surgery room, because he promised, and it was his fingers calmly stroking Mark’s arm few moments before the surgery started.

Mark was rushed to ICU immediately after it to be strictly monitored for the first day, and no staff could tell whether the procedure was successful, so they all knew just a few things – Mark was alive and the microchip to track his progress was there in his brain. What was supposed to happen next was a secret that no one, this time not even Jaebum, had an answer to.

“Yugyeom and Youngjae will be monitoring his post-surgery condition all the time.” The latter suddenly said, turning to Jinyoung. The younger continued to maintain his stone cold face, focusing his stare on the floor.

“I know, that was the original plan, wasn’t it. Or did you change it again?” Jinyoung said, but his voice, surprisingly, wasn’t angry or sarcastic. It sounded tired more than anything, spending almost two days awake wasn’t doing any wonders. He couldn’t close his eyes until Mark was transferred to a regular ward, still unconscious from various meds they were giving him, but at least with no real risk to his life anymore.

“Originally, you were supposed to join them in between their shifts, too.” Jaebum continued. “But I want you to keep an eye on Mark not from the medical perspective, but like… As a friend or something.”

Jinyoung finally looked at his colleague. The way he said “friend” sounded weird and awkward, like he wouldn’t use it in his vocabulary that often. “Friend? Why would you care about something like that now?”

“Someone needs to watch his emotional growth, not only intellectual.” the answer made Jinyoung want to throw up, because even this conversation was only about Jaebum’s mad experiments. He never apologized about hiding another patient and keeping the whole point of this research a secret, and Jinyoung, knowing Jaebum for quite some time already, knew that he didn’t even feel guilty about that, didn’t see any point in apologies.

So he didn’t respond, just moved to Mark’s bed as if trying to run away. The patient looked weak, the pallor of his skin reminded of paper, bandages tightly wrapped around his head made him look fragile as if he would shatter into thousands of pieces from a slightest touch. Mark’s breathing was heavy but steady and Jinyoung found himself a little hypnotized by the calm beeping of the machines that were counting his heartbeats.

Friend. They surely could become friends, Jaebum didn’t even have to order this. Mark had that little something in himself, something that made Jinyoung believe that the world wasn’t as fucked up as long as there were people like Mark, always smiling and without any intentions to hurt others, so pure and innocent. Mark unconditionally trusted him and his mind drew a conclusion that whatever he was feeling to the patient was coming from guilt, washing over him exceptionally strongly a few moments later, when Mark’s eyelashes finally fluttered in attempt to open his eyes.

“Mark?” Jinyoung’s lips unconsciously called the guy’s name and for a split second his heart skipped a beat when the latter didn’t react. His eyes looked glassy and somewhat foggy as if he didn’t see anything in front of him. “Do you hear me?”

Finally, a nod followed after a weird heavy sigh, but Jinyoung tried to calm himself down, thinking that it wasn’t anything terrible – it was probably all the medication that was constantly pumped into his body taking its toll. But Jinyoung also knew that he was no neurologist and he couldn’t tell for sure, just hope for the best.

“Ji… Nyong.” Even though Mark’s speech was slurred and more difficult to understand than always, Jinyoung sighed in relief. The patient could speak and remembered his name, at least a butchered version of it, and that was one of the indicators that the surgery didn’t damage him.

“Yes?” It was a bit unsettling, the fact that his name was the first thing Mark said after waking up, but Jinyoung replied in a matter of seconds.

“Surg— Surgery.” Mark exclaimed, voice airy and unsteady. He slowly lifted his arm to touch the bandages on his head, fingers slowly tracing the unknown material. “Did I become smart?

Jinyoung let out a small smile in attempt to encourage the guy, lying in the hospital bed so helplessly, yet never forgetting his initial goal. Admirable, that was only one of the definitions that came into his head whenever he thought about Mark.

“We don’t know yet, you need to recover first. Does it hurt?”

Mark slowly shook his head, but pointed to his lips, “I want water.”

“Sure thing.” Jinyoung turned around in search for a clean cup and only then he noticed Jaebum’s glare. He had completely forgotten about the scientist still being in the ward, Mark waking up completely wiping out any other thoughts out of his head. Jaebum hadn’t moved from his initial position, observing the situation with his hawk-like eyes and slightly tilted head. It was his thinking appearance, Jinyoung could tell that his brain were working rapidly for some reason, but he wasn’t in the mood to figure it out, there were a lot more important things than that.

It did feel somehow awkward though, trying to help Mark take small sips of water while being watched by someone else, someone he had some sort of a past with. Jinyoung wasn’t sure about his and Jaebum’s relationship anymore, everything they had together being slowly set on fire ever since that day in MRI room, but he decided to ignore it. His first priority right now was Mark, slowly dozing off again and for some reason Jinyoung caught himself softly brushing his fingers against the elder’s cheek.

“Make sure he’s alright enough for tests next week.” Jaebum mumbled standing up and turning to leave the room, making Jinyoung sigh. Deep inside he even wished that Mark would start spitting math formulas and chemical equations immediately after waking up, so that it would mean no more stress and tests on him, but he also knew that it was unrealistic, stupid and childish. Just like his attachment to the guy.

“Do you think the surgery was successful?” the question that burned Jinyoung’s tongue finally escaped, but Jaebum’s expression was unreadable before he left.

“We’ll see next week.”

 

However, the days were passing and they all were stuck at the starting point – even though Mark was recovering from the surgery quite fast, returning to his old goofy self in a few days to pester everyone in the lab with his never ending questions about this and that, his test results didn’t show anything promising.

Yugyeom was the first one to give up, closing Mark’s file shut and rubbing his eyes in frustration. “Let’s just stop it. He spent two hours in the maze I programmed, it’s not working, there’s no change. There were significant changes related to memory and comprehension in our rats only a few days after the experiment. It’s been almost two weeks now.”

“His dorsolateral prefrontal cortex seems thicker though.” Youngjae noted, looking at the most recent MRI scan of Mark’s, trying his best to find at least something good in it. “The proportion of gray material in his brain increased, comparing it with a pre-surgery scan. That might be promising. Also, don’t forget that he’s bigger than a rat, it takes time for the medicine to travel around in his body.”

“Slightly for the thickness, and well… Also only slightly for the gray material, it’s not enough to make any conclusions.” Yugyeom refuted, turning his computer off. “What does Jaebum have to say about this?”

Both of the researchers’ stares darted at Jinyoung who was sitting a bit farther from them, drinking his fourth cup of coffee that day, eyes red and puffy from the lack of sleep and overworking. Now he was shuffling through various test results, not really listening to the conversation or at least not showing any signs that he was.

He found what he was searching for pretty quickly, hurriedly exiting the room, leaving his two colleagues absolutely stunned as Jinyoung was the last person to blatantly ignore someone. He was speeding through various corridors of the research center with a few sheets in his hands, running the last few meters till he reached the room where Mark was trapped in those fictional mazes of Yugyeom’s.

The patient was scared, nervously fidgeting in his place because nobody warned him about the test being over. He was left on his own in a huge testing room with only a few flashy fluorescent lamps to keep him company, so it wasn’t really a surprise that Mark didn’t think of anything better than to run into Jinyoung’s arms, when the latter entered the room. He was trembling and Jinyoung’s grip around him tightened almost instinctively, one hand softly patting Mark’s back to calm him down.

“Am I— Am I not becoming smart?” Mark mumbled somewhere into his neck, words interrupted by a few tearless sobs. Usually he would keep smiling even seeing the sour expressions of whoever ran tests on him, enthusiasm and excitement hitting the roof. It was the first time Jinyoung saw him like that and it was seriously frightening.

“We can’t tell yet.” He tried to hide the truth as much as he could, ignoring the facts and trying to remember those times when he would accompany Mark to his next test – just them alone, having nonsensical talks, laughing over nothing, but even Jinyoung could lie only so much. The treatment wasn’t working and even Jaebum seemed to be coming to terms with it in his own way, as he rarely spent time in the lab anymore, compared to earlier weeks when they all basically lived here. “But I want you to look at something again, okay?”

The room had no chairs or tables, so they had to settle on the floor being surrounded by various machines and wires. The floor was cold and unpleasant, but they didn’t have any time to waste, and Jinyoung quickly lined the papers he was holding in front of Mark. He was ready to do the inkblot test on him again, the only one they hadn’t repeated ever since the last time Mark failed it.

“What do you see, Mark?” Jinyoung asked, the question making bitter memories flood his head again. The patient didn’t seem like he would recognize the test, now carefully looking at the pictures, trying to understand what he should answer.

Suddenly, Mark pointed at one of the pictures with such a force, all the others scattered around, and exclaimed, “I know this one.” It was said with such a confidence that it made Jinyoung’s heart drop in anticipation, but he tried to hide his feelings and keep his calm exterior up as much as possible.

“What is it?”

“Jinyoung.”

“Yes? What do you see?”

At first, Jinyoung failed to realize that Mark wasn’t just repeating his name. The elder was simply convinced that there’s a picture of Jinyoung in that particular sheet. Nobody knew what caused him to think like that, to be so sure about that with such confidence and upon the realization, Jinyoung sighed, trying to hide his disappointment, pushing the sheets away and resting his back against a wall.

This was the last straw, the last proof that nothing was working and they couldn’t drag it any more. It was a waste of money and lab equipment, but more importantly, it was a torture for Mark, who was now silently tearing up again, sensing Jinyoung’s bad mood. The latter was trying to think of a way how to tell Mark that he won’t get any smarter and a way to deliver these news to Jaebum. Even though their relationship wasn’t any better these days, Jinyoung knew how much it meant and how many sleepless weeks he had pulled to create this treatment, and he was afraid that the elder won’t handle these news very well.

However, his thoughts were interrupted by his phone buzzing with a message from Youngjae saying that the next test was supposed to start after fifteen minutes, the last one of the day, but from the way the message was written, Jinyoung understood that it meant nothing – it was just some mandatory procedure to fill the checklist, nobody expected anything anymore.

So Jinyoung didn’t rush, gently helping Mark to get up from the floor before they both got seriously cold. Usually their walks were fun and enjoyable, however, today it was silent and a bit awkward. Jinyoung felt sorry and regretful, because it was probably the last time Mark was in this place, and he knew that they won’t be able to meet as often anymore, if at all. Mark probably felt that too, just didn’t understand. Or maybe he did, in his own way, as his fingers tightly wrapped around Jinyoung’s palm.

The latter was bit caught off guard by this, this sudden intimacy seeming incredibly inappropriate, but today, just that one day he decided to let it go, despite how fast his heart was beating – Mark needed closure more than anything and Jinyoung, after this tremendous failure, had to give him at least that.

To everyone’s surprise, when they entered yet another lab room, Jaebum was also there, sitting at one of the tables with a cold expression, slightly nodding as he greeted them. Jinyoung thought he could clearly see the scientist’s lips pursing into a straight line when he saw them holding hands, but it was gone in a second, so he didn’t question it.

“How is this one supposed to go?” Jinyoung asked Youngjae, who already was sitting in front of a computer, quickly tapping the keyboard in preparation for the test.

“It’s pretty similar to the maze one, but this time it’s not about finding directions. It’s simple, actually, he’ll get special glasses and a virtual baseball bat, Mark just need to hit the ball whenever the system throws it at random intervals and I’ll be checking his brain activity.” Youngjae explained, softly smiling at Mark as an encouragement, before taking him away from Jinyoung.

The latter wasn’t nervous anymore, maybe because he had a clear view of how it will go – Mark will definitely fail this one too, and they will call Jackson, asking to pick him up from the research center and he will never come back, all the hospitals, injections and tests becoming only a terrifying past. And his assumptions weren’t too far-fetched as Mark kept missing the balls, swinging the virtual bad to the wrong direction all the time or not even moving it at all, letting the ball drop somewhere behind him.  

“Enough.” Jaebum’s voice was strict and sharp after Mark’s 10th miss. “Take care of the papers, he’ll be going home this evening.”

However, it didn’t seem like Youngjae was listening to him, as his fingers were flying across the keyboard in an incredible speed, programming the system to throw more balls. Jaebum’s eyes even got softer for a while, seeing this helpless attempt to save the experiment, but his voice didn’t change. “I said—“

“Shut up and look at this, both of you.” Youngjae suddenly fired back and both of them shifted their stares to the computer screen, knowing that he was the last person to speak so rudely if it wasn’t something extremely important.

“Look at what?” Jinyoung sighed, seeing Mark missing two more balls. “There’s nothing to see.”

Youngjae looked at another monitor, the one where they could see Mark’s brain activity, virtual model flashing with various colors. He pointed at one of the colors with his pencil. “See this part? He’s not missing the balls because he’s incapable. He’s learning the trajectory of the ball, so he lets them fall. He’s counting.”

“It’s not—“

Hit. “1” immediately flashed in the screen, registering how many balls Mark hit.

2. 3.

“His motor skills have improved.” Jaebum slowly said, mouth slightly open in surprise.

Jinyoung didn’t listen to the conversation that followed, he didn’t remember when was the last time he felt so genuinely happy for someone – the experiment didn’t fail after all and they could grant Mark’s wish.

Jinyoung could keep his promise.

And what he didn’t hear was two important things. One of them was Jaebum, telling Youngjae to double the amount of medicine created for this treatment.

And another one was Yugyeom, peeking his head through the door and saying, “I know that science is a pretty heartless subject, so it might seem a useless sheet, but please, don’t leave Rorschach’s pictures used to determine relationships scattered in the lab like that, I’m not a janitor.”

Jinyoung also didn’t know that now all the labs had security cameras and that Jaebum was watching almost every step of theirs, especially when they were with Mark. And it was only natural that Jaebum didn't take long to find a connection between Mark’s previous words and Yugyeom’s findings - Mark was seeing "Jinyoung" in a test used to determine how he sees romantic relationships.

And Jaebum knew what two plus two is.

Chapter Text

As days were passing, it felt like watching a child grow up. Baby steps – first letters, a paper version of them scattered on one of the research center lab tables, that Mark was able to put into syllables; first words he became able to put into a more or less complex sentence. First pages of a silly book, a fairytale for kindergarteners he could read. He struggled a lot, stumbling over his own tongue whenever they asked him to read out loud, but Mark was stubborn, and he also had Jinyoung, who was always there, hand encouragingly patting his shoulder.

That particular day wasn’t special – they were in a resting zone of the center with Jackson and Bambam who came for a visit, but couldn’t stand the sterile atmosphere for more than fifteen minutes, occupying an empty table to play some card game. Mark was reading again, slightly leaning on Jinyoung’s shoulder, but the latter didn’t notice it, distracted with some sappy romance novel he took in attempt to clean his head from unnecessary thoughts about work. The atmosphere of the room was warm and even cozy.

“Jinyoung?” Mark asked, lifting his head from the book he was trying to read. That was also one of the things that changed – even though his thoughts were still incoherent, Mark managed to pronounce the researcher’s name correctly almost every time, sounds easily escaping his lips.

“Yes?”

The patient pointed at a word in the book. “What does that mean?”

It wasn’t a rare occurrence, Mark asking for the meanings of words he didn’t know yet. It was a challenge for everyone and Jinyoung wasn’t an exception – sometimes he struggled to come up with explanations for words everyone used on a daily basis without really thinking what they mean. However, the researcher had to admit that this challenge wasn’t a bad or tiring thing, if anything, during those weeks Jinyoung felt like became more patient and stubborn himself, trying countless times to explain words until Mark would understand at least the basic concept.

This time it was “influence”.

“Influence…” Jinyoung bit his lower lip, immersed in thoughts. “Okay, imagine this. Life is a series of rooms.”

“Rooms.” Mark slowly repeated, confusion filling up his eyes yet again. “Like the room I and Jackson used to live in?”

Jinyoung nodded. “Something like that. And who we get stuck with in these rooms, those people add up to what our lives are like.”

Mark was obviously still not sure what it meant, blindly repeating only, “Adds up.”

“For example,” Jinyoung said, brains working rapidly to work his way out from this complicated explanation. “You used to live with Jackson, and a lot of things happened during that period, right? Like he would do some things that would make you think certain thoughts. And let’s say, if you lived in the same room with Bambam, maybe those thoughts would be different. That’s what influence is.”

Mark scrunched his nose, now looking like a pouting child. “I don’t want to live with Bambam. When his fiancée stays for the night, we can always hear weird sounds coming from their room.”

Jinyoung couldn’t help but laugh at Bambam, lowering his head down so his blushing wouldn’t be seen, cheeks redder than a traffic light, mumbling something under his breath in embarrassment. Jackson also started laughing, laugh high-pitched and unrestrained and Mark was looking at them with adorable cluelessness, not realizing what he said, before returning to the book he was reading, the unknown word seeming more or less clear now.

Bambam started counting the points of the game they were playing, in attempt to forget the embarrassment. “Mine was twenty-six, thirty, seventeen, nine and twenty-eight. So in total that’s… That’s—“ He got silent, trying to think of an answer by himself, too lazy to take out his phone to count.

“One hundred and ten.” The answer that echoed through the room came not from Bambam’s lips and they all froze. It was Mark’s voice, confident and clear, like the answer would be obvious.

“Could it be?..” Bambam almost whispered in astonishment, finally taking out his phone to confirm. A few more seconds and he lifted his screen, where the number 110 was flashing brightly in a calculator app.

Jinyoung was absolutely speechless. They didn’t push him when it came to the math part of the tests, basic skills such as reading and comprehension seeming more important now. Sure, it wasn’t like Mark wasn’t able to solve problems as simple as 5 + 5, or something like that, but this…

“Two hundred twenty-five divided by five?” Jackson asked.

“Forty-five.” Mark’s answer was quick. His voice was weird too, like he would be surprised by his friends asking such ridiculous questions.

Jackson turned to Jinyoung, eyes pleading to confirm that this was it, the happy ending they all were hoping for and the latter decided to give the patient another test, a whole lot harder if you didn’t have a calculator somewhere near. “One hundred thirty-two thousand, eight hundred and twenty-five divided by two.”

“Sixty-six thousand, four hundred and twelve.” Mark replied, face expression calm and Jinyoung nodded. Sure, the answer was not exactly right, but it was definitely a huge feat, considering no one here taught him, so… And then the guy added, voice still calm, the simplicity of his answer making everyone’s jaw drop. “Point five.”

Jinyoung could swear he saw tears in Jackson’s eyes and he himself found his throat trying into a weird knot, but nobody had any time to say a word as they were interrupted by Jaebum, who entered the room with a bunch of books in his hands.

The atmosphere became weird in a matter of seconds, especially when Jaebum’s gaze reached Jackson. Their eyes met for a second and Jinyoung couldn’t rid of this weird feeling that something happened between them that moment, maybe they remembered passing by each other one day or something, but it all was soon forgotten as Jaebum wordlessly approached Mark.

He looked at the book the patient was reading, colorful pages catching his eye, but he took it away from the guy’s hands, slowly and gently even, putting the books he brought on the patient’s lap. “Read those, by now you should be way too smart for fairytales.”

“Thank you.” Mark’s response was friendly and bright, giving a toothy smile in return to what he considered to be a compliment. Even though getting better in some certain areas, Mark still was exactly the same when it came to his emotions – he still was way too innocent, trusting everyone surrounding him and Jinyoung bitterly smiled at that, looking at the titles of the books.

Kafka on the Shore, really?” He asked, not sure what kind of stunt Jaebum was trying to pull now. “That’s like giving a high school physics textbook for an elementary school student.”

The elder just continued to stare at him and Jinyoung had to internally admit that probably it wasn’t a great comparison – Jaebum wouldn’t consider it shocking, because he started to read those when he was eight or something.

“I hope you don’t mind that I’ll be taking Mark for a walk.” The latter finally said after a long pause, earning two pairs of questioning looks. The only ones that weren’t following the conversation were Mark himself, happily shuffling through pages and Jackson, for some reason avoiding looking at their side.

“What for?” Everyone knew that Jaebum wouldn’t go for a walk, if he didn’t have something in mind.

“He needs some fresh air.”

“We can all go together.” Jinyoung noted, raising his eyebrow.

“I want to talk to him in private.” Jaebum cut off and the younger couldn’t argue anymore when Mark himself jumped from the place he was sitting in, ready to go. And off they went.

 

It was starting to get dark, but that didn’t stop Mark from looking around excitedly, this being the first time to see the small park research center had. He was ready to run after a bunch of pigeons that were searching for food, or do anything else really – despite all the surgeries and tests, he still was like an overgrown hyperactive child in need of constant physical activity to release the energy he had in himself. And Jaebum didn’t say a word against it, walking a few steps behind him and quietly observing the situation.

The progress Mark made was tremendous, nobody could deny it – it was merely two weeks since they finally could say that the treatment showed its first signs of working. They needed to be extremely careful, it was still unknown what other effects it had, but at the same time Jaebum was curious to explore all the possibilities.

“Mark?” He started, trying to get his attention, since the guy was busy playing football with some rocks he found on his way.

“Yeah.”

Jaebum made a pause before he spoke again. “What do you think about Jinyoung?”

Mark stopped in the middle of a step, what caused him to stumble and almost fall, luckily Jaebum’s reaction was quick and sharp as always, quick to prevent him from falling.

“Jinyoung… Umm…” Mark was trying to come up with words that could describe what he feels, yet somehow nothing he learned so far seemed fitting and that made him slightly irritated. “My heart beats faster.”

Jaebum, contrary to the man in question, didn’t need an eternity to figure this sentence out, conclusions seeming pretty clear and confirming everything he had previously assumed. “So when you see Jinyoung, your heart starts beating faster?”

Mark nodded, the feeling of being shy about his feelings still being somewhat foreign to him. He was like a child, honest and straight-forward, a quality that most people his age didn’t have anymore, trying to work their way around uncomfortable questions instead. “Yeah. Am I weird?”

Jaebum’s smile was friendly, as if he was lecturing his own brother. “You’re not, it’s all normal. You have feelings, you love certain people, we all go through that.”

“Does your heart also beat faster sometimes?” Mark asked, but it seemed like he soon changed his mind, rephrasing his question. “Does your heart also beat faster when you see Jinyoung?”

Jaebum’s smile faltered for a moment, but only for a short one. In the end, the conversation was going to the direction he picked himself, it was almost ridiculous how easy it was to make Mark play along. “No, it doesn’t. I just want him to be by my side.”

“You want him to be by your side because he makes your heart beat faster.” Mark said, but he was starting to feel confused. Feelings somehow started to seem much more complicated than dividing odd numbers.

“Wrong.”

“Wrong?”

“I don’t love him as a man.” Jaebum stated simply, not even blinking, those words were easy. “In the very end, love is nothing else but only a strong feeling of possessiveness, a lot of complicated things, and I have no interest in such pointless obsessions. But if someone wishes to be loved not matter what, than there won’t be a more useful thing.”

Mark was thinking. He tried to understand, but Jaebum’s thoughts weren’t sticking together in his head, they completely opposed to everything he knew and learned. “I don’t understand.”

“No, the old you does not understand.” Jaebum smiled, the darkness of the evening that was already swallowing them creating shadows on his face. “The current you understands it perfectly well. Just think about it.”

And Mark did, he stopped walking and tried thinking about it again – words like little ants in his head quickly running through his brain in attempt to find a connection between these words. He was shivering, it was way too cold and he had to squint his eyes to clearly see the dark surroundings.

“Useful.” He said again, feeling his head slightly hurting from all the efforts. The pain was sharp and nothing he felt ever before. “Jaebum will… Love… Jinyoung’s—“

Jaebum was already smirking by that time, feeling the patient’s brain working much like those of their lab rats used for the experiments, the ones trapped in a maze – not matter how tough it was, those little creatures always found their way through it after being pumped with Jaebum’s inventions, and to the scientist, Mark was exactly that – an invention. A lab rat.

“Jaebum will… Jinyoung’s love—“ And then it somehow connected. Like those unknown words Jinyoung always explained to him, it became clear. Maybe not exactly correctly, maybe not through the concepts he would be smart enough to understand yet, but it did. And it made him… Furious. “Jaebum is bad! Jaebum is wrong!”

The latter just laughed, enjoying the confirmation about both Mark being able to connect the facts and his feelings to the researcher.

“Jaebum is bad!” Mark shouted, angry tears filling his eyes and making it hard to speak. It took a few more seconds before he couldn’t take it anymore and he started to run, as fast as he could and as far as he could. And Jaebum let him – there were security cameras everywhere, so he wasn’t afraid about the test subject disappearing. The entire center was one big maze anyway and he knew it all by heart.

“What the hell was that all about?” He heard a voice behind him. It was Youngjae and Jaebum didn’t know how long he had been following them, but he didn’t feel the danger in it, as long as it wasn’t Jinyoung.

He shrugged. “His brain was sleeping for too long, he needed a trigger. A shock therapy of some kinds. Triple the dosage, I see some promising signs.”

Youngjae didn’t say a word against it.

 

It took a while for Mark to run through all the corridors dimly lit by fluorescent lamps. He didn’t know where exactly the person he was searching for was, nor did he see anything clearly through his eyes full of tears, still streaming down his cheeks. He simply followed his instincts and they didn’t lie – Jinyoung was in one of the laboratories, checking some test tubes and raising his eyebrows at the unexpected guest.

“What are you doing here?” He asked. Jinyoung expected that after that mysterious walk the patient would be returned home, to the facility.

“Jaebum is bad!” Mark exclaimed, making the researcher frown, feeling his heart dropping somewhere to his feet. “Jaebum is a bad person!”

Jinyoung cleared his throat, still stubbornly not letting go of the test tubes he was holding as if those would give him some extra reassurance. “Why are you saying this so suddenly? Were you crying?”

Mark, however, was uncharacteristically straightforward even for someone like him. “Do you love Jaebum?”

Jinyoung sighed, finally putting his working equipment down. He had no clue why Mark was asking this, but at the same time he didn’t even know the answer to his question. Jinyoung wasn’t sure, maybe deep in his heart he still believed that there’s something good in everyone, even in Im Jaebum. Perhaps he expected that the latter would change over the time, that all of this was only a side effect of many years spent working on bizarre researches too difficult to handle for someone his age…

Jinyoung didn’t know what he was thinking at all.

“Why are you—“ He tried to dance around the topic, avoiding a direct answer. In his opinion, Mark still wasn’t ready to learn about the complexity of some relationships, so there was no actual reason to burden him with it, the only exception being that evening in his apartment, when Jinyoung felt weak and vulnerable.

“Jaebum doesn’t love you.” Mark said having his palms clenched into fists, as if he would still be repressing the anger he felt and Jinyoung just stared at him, absolutely stunned. Not because of what he said, more because of the fact he said it. “He said he doesn’t love you. He is only using your love.”

Jinyoung closed his eyes suddenly feeling very, very tired. “Mark—“

“He’s using you and that’s why he wants you by his side.” The patient quoted, getting frustrated that Jinyoung seemed not to understand what he was trying to say. So he tried to explain it again. “He said he doesn’t love you as a man, so—“

“Enough!” Jinyoung shouted, almost tearing his disposable working gloves off his hands and slamming them on the table with such a force, he almost broke the test tubes he was working on. Mark flinched, not being familiar with the younger behaving like that and the latter cursed under his breath for losing his self-control. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled.”

They stood silent for a while, Jinyoung trying to fight the emotions that were crushing him all of a sudden and the tears that inevitably started to form in his eyes. He knew, he knew this long time ago, but to have it slammed right into your face like that…

“I understand.” He finally said, turning around so Mark wouldn’t see him trying to wipe away his tears. “I understand it perfectly well, but there are things you cannot help. There are things you can’t change, so please, don’t talk about it anymore.”

“Are you mad?” Mark asked, slowly coming closer and Jinyoung found himself startled by this unexpected proximity.

He tried to smile, but the smile was distorted and twitching. “No, of course not.”

It wasn’t a lie – Jinyoung wasn’t mad at Mark for dishing out facts to him. If he was mad at someone, it was only himself, so dumb, so lighthearted and trusting. And it wasn’t even anger – Jinyoung simply felt hopeless and helpless, especially when he saw Mark tearing up again, because this answer wasn’t convincing enough.

“Why are you crying?” Jinyoung asked, his own voice slightly cracking. “What’s wrong?”

Mark mumbled, lips trembling, “Why, even though I became smart…Why I still don’t understand people’s feelings. Why I still don’t understand Jinyoung’s feelings?”

“You don’t need to understand my feelings, Mark. Why would you?”

“Because Jinyoung is my fiancée!” Mark told, leaving the latter in a state of complete shock. These words didn’t make any sense.

“What?”

Mark impatiently continued, desperate to let the scientist know. “It’s like Jackson has told me, fiancée, Jinyoung is a girl I like the most in the entire world. When I see Jinyoung, my heart starts beating faster.”

That was when Jinyoung stopped holding his tears back, helplessly sliding down on the laboratory floor with his face buried in his palms, and Mark kneeling down, in attempt to comfort him, having no clue what kind of storm he created in Jinyoung’s mind.

Chapter Text

Jinyoung was always good at running, no matter the meaning behind the word. Distances he had to run during PE classes in high school didn’t frighten him, running various tests in the center was okay.

Running from problems was also okay.

He didn’t even remember how he had the heart to push Mark away, leaving the latter confused and half crying in the room. Jinyoung wanted to stop caring, he just wanted to run – away from Mark, away from the research center, away from everything that was drowning him.

So sending Youngjae an email saying that he’s leaving work for an indefinite period of time, using his vacation days he had accumulated plenty of during all those years, seemed like the best idea at the moment. To spend a few weeks quietly, away from all the chaos while sorting out the mess in his head without anyone watching.

The first week of his leave was to drown himself in alcohol, phone turned off, Wi-Fi router plugged out and various drinks in various quantities being his best friends. It was a time for him to lick his wounds, to come to terms that Im Jaebum was fucked up beyond saving and that even though Jinyoung subconsciously knew it all the time, he still didn’t mind to be used.

The second week was for feeling afraid. As the alcohol he had consumed was slowly escaping his body, Jinyoung, tightly hugging himself on the cold tiles of his bathroom floor and waiting for another wave of nausea to pass, felt afraid. Afraid for Mark, afraid of him.

Jinyoung was afraid of Mark’s feelings that appeared out of nowhere. The patient thinking of him as of his fiancée, no matter how ridiculous that sounded, scared the living shit of Jinyoung. It was unethical, inappropriate, and even disgusting – because Jinyoung couldn’t help but feel like in a way they were only torturing Mark for the sake of science.

And at the same time, even though Jinyoung was ready to stay as far from the patient as possible to put an end to those feelings, he was afraid to leave Mark alone in a place where Jaebum was the one in charge of decisions, because who knew what was happening in that sick head of his.

Also, Jinyoung was afraid of himself. Because sometimes, when he repeated the same moments again and again in his head, he realized that he was missing Mark, his innocence and antics. And he had no idea if he had a right to feel like that.

So when the third week of his leave was coming to an end and the dark circles of hangover and lack of sleep under Jinyoung’s eyes were slowly starting to disappear, he wrote Youngjae again, asking if it was okay to come back, if Jaebum still hadn’t kicked him out.

He hadn’t – the research was still going, and Jinyoung’s place in it was still unoccupied. Mark’s reports were showing a shocking growth, the patient now needing math and chemistry lessons to catch up with all the education he missed. And that was who Jinyoung was supposed to be for now – his math and chemistry teacher. Nothing less, nothing more. Especially not more.

 

“You’re back.” Mark’s voice was soft when the younger finally found it in himself to enter the room, standing next to the door of it for good ten minutes trying to get himself together. His voice sounded more mature, initial stuttering and shakiness long gone. “I was wondering where have you disappeared.”

Mark’s gaze was different, too. For Jinyoung it felt like an X-ray, scanning him from head to toes and it was uncomfortable, as he was trying to avoid the stare.

“I was… Just out. On vacation.” Jinyoung forced out a smile, still not sure how to act. Did Mark forget what happened that evening as he gradually got smarter? Did he choose to forget, realizing that love wasn’t what he felt? Jinyoung didn’t know and didn’t want to know, pretending to be searching for a chemistry textbook in a bookshelf so that he could avoid eye contact.

“What did Jaebum say about your vacation?” Mark’s words lingered in the air, as if he knew that this vacation wasn’t exactly for lying on sand somewhere abroad.

“He…” he didn’t care, actually. “He didn’t mind.”

Jinyoung clenched his jaw, shuffling through the pages of the textbook he finally found in a pile. He regretted coming back with every cell of his body, but he couldn’t run away this time – he simply couldn’t let Jaebum play god, treating everyone like lab rats.

His eyebrows furrowed when he saw it’s a crash course of chemistry for high school seniors, the one Jinyoung liked so much when he was eighteen, because it was easy for him. And it definitely had to be too difficult for Mark, given his previous illness, but the latter was sitting with his notebook open, scribbling something in the margins of it while waiting for Jinyoung to start the lesson.

As the time went on, Jinyoung started to feel a little bit weirded out, because Mark seemed detached, slightly, unusually cold. Maybe it was because he was just too used to the old Mark, the one who was a never ending source of optimism and happiness, who loved everyone unconditionally without realizing their true nature. Maybe this Mark, too much influenced by Jaebum these days and now drilling a hole in the whiteboard with his dark gaze, was scaring Jinyoung a bit.

“Okay.” Jinyoung breathed out, finding the page Youngjae marked for him earlier. “Have you learned the chemical bonds already?”

“Ionic, covalent, metallic.” Mark’s response was immediate as if he was bored. “And a few others, but today I’m supposed to learn oxidation, at least that’s what Yugyeom told me earlier.”

Jinyoung nodded, turning around and wordlessly scribbling chemical equations on the board as if his life depended on it – he would’ve used any kind of excuse if it helped him not to go nowhere near Mark, but he still noticed that the latter was absent-minded the entire time, his thoughts easily distracted by anything – the buzzing lamp above him, the cold autumn morning rain tapping on the windowsill, the steps echoing in the corridor behind closed doors.

“So, if here copper is oxidized and lost two electrons,” Jinyoung said, quickly writing down half-reactions. “Then it means that nitrogen will be reduced and will gain three of them. But it only applies for this equation.” He turned around, realizing that he didn’t hear the sound of a pencil brushing against paper, as Mark wasn’t taking any notes. “Am I going too fast?”

Mark kept silent for a while, blank stare fixed on his notebook. He himself didn’t know why, but today he wasn’t feeling excited about anything, not even about becoming smarter. The only thing Mark knew was that he missed Jinyoung, those three long weeks without him seeming incredibly weird as if he was away from his good friend or a family member, but at the same time, it wasn’t exactly that, it was something more, something he was still not mature enough to determine and control.

“Jinyoung?” He suddenly said, voice low and uncertain.

“Yes?” The latter asked, feeling cold sweat forming on his forehead. He wasn’t sure what was going on, hoping that Mark only wanted to ask a question or two about the material of the lesson.

However, Mark Tuan was full of surprises, like always. “Do you like me?”

Jinyoung had to thank all the gods he never believed in that there was that whiteboard he could hold onto, because otherwise he definitely would’ve fallen backwards in surprise, as his knees immediately felt weak upon the question.

Jinyoung didn’t know what was the best way to explain what was in his head, he wasn’t sure if Mark would understand, heck, he himself didn’t understand even a half of it. He did feel protective over the patient – much like a mother would be of her child. He felt guilty that their paths crossed that fateful day, that he was the one who dragged Mark into this.

But at the same time he couldn’t deny that Mark found a place in his heart. And he was too stupid, too oblivious to notice where these feelings were heading, so he let out a soft smile, saying, “Of course I do. But there’s this thing, Mark, there are a lot of different ways to like another person.”

“Different ways?”

Jinyoung nodded. “Yes, like there are different types of bonds in chemistry, there are different bonds between people, too. There’s a certain bond between you and Jackson, and then there’s another one with you and, let’s say, Yugyeom, and there’s also a particular bond that we have. But it isn’t that kind of love you learned from books, it’s not a romantic love, not a love bond. So I think that’s enough talking about that, you should concentrate more on your studying.”

Mark stopped listening halfway, stare now fixed somewhere on a window behind Jinyoung, hands unconsciously clenched into fists under the table. He knew that there are different ways of liking people, he wasn’t dumb anymore – Mark realized that there was a difference between what he felt for everyone else around and what he felt for the scientist in front of him. But he also noticed that Jinyoung was avoiding the topic, trying to distract him with nonsense about studying and it made him unexplainably angry, an unfamiliar disappointment building up in his chest.

Jinyoung turned around, ready to blabber about chemistry again, but Mark got fed up with it, abruptly rising from his seat and now standing in front of Jinyoung so close, the latter thought that a few more centimeters and their noses would touch. Mark was not moving, looking the younger directly into the eyes, and Jinyoung waited, unsure about how the events will unfold.

Mark leaned a little bit closer and took a sharpie from his hand, angrily scribbling on the whiteboard finishing Jinyoung’s equation with an emotionless face, voice now ice cold. “Both sides have six electrons that can be cancelled out, so that leaves three coppers, two nitrogen oxides and four waters. Even if I don’t concentrate much, I understand.”

He forced out a sarcastic smile, a thing Jinyoung never imagined Mark having, and stormed out of the room, leaving the stunned scientist deeply sighing and Jaebum, who was entering the lab, with an ironic smirk, as if he was wondering what kind of sight he just missed.

But he didn’t dwell on those thoughts for long, as he looked at Jinyoung who was staring back with an obvious hate in his face. Jaebum chose to ignore it, he always did. “Good to see you back, I was looking for you.”

“Oh really?” Jinyoung spit back, poison evident in his voice.

“Yeah.” Jaebum continued, unfazed by his attitude. At the end of the day, Jinyoung was always all bark no bite type of person, and he didn’t feel intimidated in the slightest. “There are some things to discuss about Tuan.”

“What about him?”

“As you probably know, he moved to live in the center for us to focus more on the research and his education.” Jaebum said, obviously trying to search for some kind of reaction in Jinyoung’s face, but the latter maintained a blank expression, all of this already known to him.

“Why?” He asked, trying to sound nonchalant, the only question he had no answer to escaping his lips in a rush. “He’ll miss his friends from the facility, and all that.”

Jaebum frowned, as if the concept of missing someone would be impossible to understand. “Why would he? It’s loneliness that creates a genius.”

Jinyoung decided not to argue – it was evident that the elder was trying to “raise” Mark in the same environment he himself grew up, always isolating himself from everyone.

“Anyway,” Jaebum continued. “Mark’s brain are about to reach the intelligence of a university student’s soon, if he maintains his growth, it will happen by the end of next week. However, his heart is still stuck somewhere in middle school. You have noticed it by now, obviously.”

Jinyoung ignored the sarcastic intonation, asking, “So?”

“We are supposed to present our research during the next meeting of Association.” Jaebum started from afar, and Jinyoung listened carefully, trying to see every possible plot hole in his story, being suspicious about everything that was spilling out of his mouth. “Mark will also have to attend. And when we will reveal the results of this project, not only this center and us, but Mark also will grab the world’s attention.”

Jinyoung bitterly smiled, because only Jaebum could chat about worldwide attention so nonchalantly, as if that was his main goal, not healing people and making this world a better place.

“And that will require a lot of mental strength from him.” Jaebum carried on. He was such a great actor, his concern even seemed real, much to Jinyoung’s disgust. “It will cause a lot of stress, so I want to ask a favor from you.”

“What kind of favor?”

“I know about the feelings he has for you.” Jinyoung opened his mouth to interrupt and protest, but Jaebum silenced him with a gesture of his hand. “As he’s getting smarter, those feelings are becoming less and less innocent, and that may cause distress for him. So I want to prevent him feeling any kind of despair before the Association meeting.”

Jinyoung was absolutely lost, not knowing what Jaebum wanted from him, but hey, wasn’t that a familiar feeling for him already. “Can we get straight to the point?”

“Accept his feelings.” Jinyoung had learned that Jaebum is a pile of shit disguised in an expensive white lab coat, but to ask something like that, to ask to lie about his feelings, to give the patient a false hope just for the sake of experiment… It was something else even for Im Jaebum.

“So you’re trying to hook me up with him so that the project wouldn’t fail and you would get your money from the Association.” Jinyoung didn’t even bother to say it as a question, by now merely stating a fact. “Can you get your head out of your ass, Jaebum? When will you see that everything is not about you or money? If we didn’t have an army of lawyers behind us, we all would be arrested a long time ago, because of the stunts you’re pulling here, with forged signatures and everything. Now forcing me to lie won’t get you anywhere.”

The latter didn’t even bat an eyelash, “I never forced you to do anything. You’re here because you chose so, and choices have consequences.”

Jinyoung snorted, “Every relationship of yours that involves people choosing to be with you is based on lies and you, having to see how far you can push it before it breaks. And ours is broken already, Jaebum, the same moment you started using me for your shady intentions.”

Jaebum wasn’t looking at him, a bit taken aback by this unexpected explosion. “Didn’t you say you’d do anything for this research?”

“I did, but I lied enough to Mark already. I’m not you, I can’t fake my feelings just like that and I’m not planning to live with such a lie.”

Jaebum obviously wasn’t about to listen to him, moving so suddenly and unexpectedly, Jinyoung didn’t even have a chance to react – he leaned closer and kissed the younger.

The kiss was warm and somehow reminded Jinyoung of the first days they got involved together, when everything was still fine. It made him miss those times, maybe that’s why he didn’t really resist before Jaebum pulled back.

“See, pretending is not as hard as you make it seem.” Was all he whispered into his ear and Jinyoung felt like he was going to throw up, turning around to leave, but the sight in front made his heart drop to his feet.

Mark was leaning against the door Jaebum left open, probably coming back to take his notebook that was left on the table, watching both of them. Jinyoung had no idea how much the patient saw or hear, but judging from his face, Mark saw just enough. His stare was dark and full of unfamiliar emotions, full of anger, disappointment. And hurt.

“Mark.” Jinyoung opened his mouth to say something, to explain what was going on, but Mark wasn’t in the mood to listen, coldly bowing in goodbye before taking his notes and leaving the room.

Jaebum left soon after, another smile playing on his lips, and Jinyoung wouldn’t have been surprised if that was his plan from the very beginning.

Chapter Text

“Hey, stop staring at her like that, asshole!”

“I’m not, what the fuck, man?”

“It’s okay, Bam, it’s not like he’s going to eat me with his stare or anything.”

Mark had to close his eyes in order not to let all the chaos that came in a form of this mixture of voices, smells and feelings make an explosion in his head. It was the first time in days, weeks even, when he finally found it himself to come back to the facility he basically grew up in – though this time more because he was in search of an escape rather than anything else.

Seeing Jinyoung and Jaebum kissing in that room left a bitter taste in his mouth, making him feel weird – Mark thought he was feeling cold, the coldness spreading through his body, even though he couldn’t name the exact reason why it triggered such emotion. He was shivering despite being inside, the second his and Jaebum’s eyes met for a brief moment as the latter leaned in to kiss the other scientist etched deep in his mind. Something about that kiss felt not okay, not right; something about that kiss made Mark angry.

So after a long wandering around the city, aimlessly rushing from one place to another as if trying to walk his frustration out Mark came back to the facility, and regretted it immediately. The chaos was unbearable – loud voices making his head pound in pain, cigarette smokes annoying his nose. A few guys were playing cards as usual, someone was having a pillow fight, Bambam’s fiancée was also over for the night, long red hair swaying every time she laughed at dirty jokes of the men. Even Jackson seemed to be enjoying, now tossing a few bills on the table after carefully looking at the cards he was holding, a cigarette slowly burning between his lips, a beer can conveniently just within his reach.

For some reason Mark felt sickened by this, knowing that the evening routine was unchanging ever since he first got here being fifteen, so he rubbed the nape of his neck in frustration before turning to go to his room that was still saved for him, hoping to sneak in unnoticed, but Jackson, like always, could smell his appearance. “Mark, you’re here!” He exclaimed, tossing his cards on the table, game immediately forgotten, and standing up to greet him with a hand shake and friendly shoulder patting. Jackson’s eyes were glimmering a bit, an intoxicated kind of glimmering, and it was a no brainer that he was tipsy. “Welcome back, my boy!”

A few more guys, including Bambam, nodded their heads in a greeting, with careless shrugs as if Mark was a stranger, as if those few weeks he was away were enough for them to forget him. “You’ve been studying all day today again, haven’t you?” Jackson continued, hanging on his shoulder with a soft and friendly expression, but for some reason it made Mark even more annoyed, the smell of cheap beer reeking from the younger’s mouth making him sick.

“That’s great.” One of the guys at the table, probably the biggest pile of muscles you would see in your life, said reacting to Mark’s wordless nod. “I haven’t studied for twenty years, I wonder how it feels like.”

These words were met with a round of wild laughter, as if it was the joke of the year, Bambam almost screeching out, “You won’t do that until you die!”

Mark didn’t know how to react to this, these jokes being not funny at all. If anything, they appeared sad for his ears, but Jackson didn’t allow him to dwell on his thoughts for too long, saying, “It’s been a while, sit down and let’s play some cards.”

“No, thanks. I’d rather study than waste my time on useless things.”

Mark’s answer made the entire room silent in a blink of the eye. It was so unexpected, this mocking intonation, that Bambam’s fiancée’s hand stopped halfway ruffling the guy’s hair, some guy stopped in the middle of gulping down his bottle of soju. Jackson was repeatedly closing and opening his mouth like a fish out of water.

“As if your studying wasn't useless all these years.” The same guy who earlier joked about not studying mumbled, returning his gaze to the cards. He obviously meant that, words harsh and looking down on Mark, but the latter wasn’t affected by that at all, eyes cold like metal.

He wanted to bite back, spit fire and fight, even though he had no idea why.

“If you don’t study, your abilities are condemned to stay as they are.” Was his answer, speech slow and full of sarcasm and passive aggressiveness, so not typical for him. “If you don’t make effort, there won’t be any progress. And considering your effort… Well.”

The guy immediately stood up, his chair making an unpleasant noise of being dragged against the floor, rushing to Mark and slamming him into the nearest wall with a loud bang, making everyone gasp in surprise. “Enough of this shittalk.”

“Hey, stop it!” Jackson immediately squeezed himself in between them, trying to drag the guy away from Mark, who looked like a teen compared to all that trained mass and muscles.

But the latter didn’t hear that, blood boiling and painfully pounding in his skull, however, his voice remained completely clear of any emotion. “You can’t solve things with violence. It’s a useless and non-productive act used by weak and barbaric human beings.”

The man obviously had enough of this, growling in anger and clenching his fist ready to teach him a lesson or two, but Mark was quicker, swiftly avoiding the punch, making the furious guy lose his balance and land on the floor. “I told you. Violence isn’t productive.”

“Even though you’re a fucking retard and I should pity you,” the guy spat out, trying to stand up, “You make me sick.”

“Enough, come on, let’s go.” Jackson mumbled somewhere next to Mark’s ear, grasping the latter by the sleeve of his shirt and dragging him away before it led to something more serious than it was already. Bambam followed them soon after, all three of them now freezing outside, cold wind making them shiver.

It took a few moments until Bambam found the courage to ask, “What’s wrong with you today, man?”

“Nothing.” Everything around Mark suddenly started making him so, so mad and even though he was slightly afraid of it, at the same time it felt so good, great even, to show everyone that he wasn’t that naïve dumb boy anymore, that he was smart enough to finally understand how this world worked. Even if he had to learn all that being triggered by two people kissing. “Would it suffice to say that explanations are useless?”

“Try choosing your words a bit more carefully next time, okay?” Jackson asked, rubbing his eyes trying to get himself together. “We don’t need fights here. Sure, you can stay in the center and all, but we still have to live here, you know. And you weren’t like this before, what’s happening?”

Mark just laughed, because honestly, it was almost hilarious how they seemed to not be able to understand, or maybe just pretended not to understand. “The previous me? That pathetic idiot who couldn’t write down his own name, is that the before you’re referring to?”

Both of the guys in front of him froze in their places, unsure where Mark was going with his words that followed after. “If there are such people, others feel at peace, I guess. It must be nice to be able to console yourself that there are people below you. I’m better than this guy, I’m glad I’m not as dumb as that guy. So you can be nice to him – take care of him, take him to a club to pick up a few girls for you, because apparently sick guys can earn you some karma points before knocking some girl up. But it’s not what you call being friends, it’s only a hypocrisy to satisfy your ego.”

It was Jackson this time, provoked like a cornered animal ready to jump on him, sending his fist right into Mark’s eye, however, the latter once again was quicker, blocking the hit and looking his former friend directly in the eyes. “Seems like it was a lucky guess. The fact that I finally understand what’s going on doesn’t appeal to neither of you, does it? Because the person you can look down on is gone.”

Jackson’s voice was a mixture of emotions, but only a few of them were very evident. Confusion, hurt, anger. Fear.

Who the hell have you become, Mark?

The elder didn’t bother to answer, turning around and walking away down the street, back to the city and as far away from them as possible.

 

Jinyoung finally saw him after a week, an hour before the meeting. Mark was already in his brand new dark blue suit, sitting on the floor of one of the laboratories they had, with his back leaned against a wall, a lab rat in his hands, the little animal biting his fingers in attempt to figure out what was going on.

Mark looked tired, dark circles around his eyes getting to the extreme as a result of restless studying and tests, and Jinyoung sighed, not sure how to act around him. They hadn’t talked ever since that morning of their chemistry disaster, both avoiding each other and Youngjae getting back to being the patient’s teacher, as the other scientist got back to his usual duties in the center.

“Mark.” Jinyoung finally stuttered out after a few moments. The guy didn’t even look at him, slowly stroking the rat’s fur, concentrated on the action as if his life depended on it, and it was obviously done on purpose. “The meeting starts in an hour, you should start getting ready.”

Mark only nodded not lifting his eyes at all, avoiding any possible eye contact and Jinyoung tried again, every word demanding so much courage from him. “About what happened that morning—“

“I don’t want to hear that.” He flinched at how cold Mark’s voice was, making it feel like the winter had come a month too early.

“I know what happened with Jackson.” The words escaped Jinyoung’s lips unconsciously and against his will, as he immediately started to regret bringing this up, but at least it finally made Mark look at him.

Mark stood up from the floor, stumbling a bit and shaking his head to shoo away the lightheadedness that probably came from skipping his breakfast that morning while putting the lab rat back into its cage, and looked at the younger again. “How come?”

“He found out my address and came to my place threatening to beat me to a pulp for turning you into a monster.” Jinyoung mumbled, trying to make it sound humorous, but he was scared as hell that night, drunk Jackson spitting threats at him when he had no idea what was going on.

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Mark said. “It’s actually ridiculous when I think about it.”

“What is?”

The patient made a pause before opening up his mouth again. “The view I have now is completely different from the one previous me had, even if we’re talking about the facility. I thought people there are my friends, but actually they were looking down and making fun of me. It‘s ridiculous to think that I wanted to be friends with such people, that I wanted to fit in. Those people have no talent, they don’t put any effort into anything. They’re just a few pathetic human beings who are too lazy to change their lives.”

“Don’t say such things.” Jinyoung breathed out, feeling something very heavy in his chest. Probably the sense of guilt, knowing that he was a part of these thoughts that seemed to slowly eat Mark’s brain away, even though it was more than obvious that Jackson did nothing but adore the elder. “You would feel very unhappy if they weren’t in your life.”

Mark laughed at that. “I’m happy as it is now, thank you. I’m finally able to see the truth. All the people who laughed behind my back. All the scientists that were playing innocent, blushing at everything “inappropriate” I said, and yet not even having enough decency to hide when kissing their boss in front of me.”

Jinyoung closed his eyes as he let out a shaky breath, knowing very well that the last words were targeted at him. He didn’t know why Mark was feeling so angry – no, he knew, but rather, he couldn’t believe that the patient’s feelings for him were so strong, even to the point where Mark’s personality would take such a drastic change if they weren’t reciprocated.

“It’s funny,” Mark continued, every word mercilessly stabbing needles into the younger’s heart. “How people are so quick to forget all the unfavorable memories of themselves and sleep so well at night doing things like this.”

“Maybe those people don’t forget it. Maybe they don’t sleep at night at all, either.” Jinyoung mumbled, not really knowing whom was he talking about. Probably himself though, not being able to sleep more than a few moments a night, constantly overthinking everything. “Maybe other people suffer too. And maybe they should be forgiven.”

“So we all should forget and move on, is that’s what you’re saying?” Mark asked, a cruel smile playing on his lips. “I don’t think so. You see, people are not equal.”

Jinyoung frowned, not sure how that was related to the topic. “What?”

“It’s okay not to forgive people who are not worth that. It’s okay not to forgive those who are useless.” The patient said and the scientist felt a terrible fear burning up inside him. It was the moment when Mark resembled Jaebum the most, those words being so his thing to say, Jinyoung could almost hear the scientist saying them. “And of course, you can heal your wounds and move on, but you’ll never be able to forget. Because you’re smarter than them.”

Jinyoung knew there was no chance to win over Jaebum’s philosophy, already etched deep down in Mark’s brain, so he did what he thought was the best – trying to play with feelings. “The old Mark, the one I met holding a balloon, wouldn’t say such things. It’s not you, Mark, you’re not this cruel.”

“And that’s why,” the elder sighed. “That is exactly why the old Mark is a hopeless ignorant idiot. Because he trusted people too much.”

And then Jinyoung’s insides boiled again, though this time not in fear, but in anger, a rage so intense he didn’t even notice how he slapped Mark, the sound of it echoing through the room extremely loudly, his fingers leaving red marks on the patient’s cheek.

“Don’t talk about him like that.”

Mark slowly reached out his fingers to touch his burning cheek as the younger was panting, suddenly out of breath.

“But I’m also him.” Were his last words before Yugyeom peeked in, sighing in relief that he finally found them, because it was time to go to the conference room. Mark wordlessly turned his back to Jinyoung and followed, leaving the latter tired and resting his head against a cold wall. Yugyeom seemed a bit puzzled over this, but didn’t say a word, leaving together with the patient.

 

The conference room was crowded. It wasn’t a huge place to begin with, but now it was full of people – the Association members, workers of the center, journalists, scientists from other countries and their translators - the event was huge, and Jinyoung, looking at the scene through a monitor, since it was also broadcasted online, could see Jaebum, dressed up in his best suit and hair pushed back, whispering something into Mark’s ear on stage; he could also see the latter’s eyes nervously shooting from one object to another, trying to calm himself down. Jinyoung found it odd that the patient seemed like he was holding onto a side of the chair he was sitting on, as if he was afraid to fall from it.

Jinyoung himself stayed away from the conference room, hiding in the laboratory not wanting to meet anyone there, watching everything online seeming so much better. Suddenly the research started to seem ridiculous, not worth anything, because what was the use of it if the person who had undergone the treatment was not feeling happy at all?

He saw Mark clearing up his throat before speaking after Jaebum’s introduction, but he was soon interrupted by a mass of questions by the journalists, coming in various languages, translators trying to outvoice each other, and Jinyoung raised his eyebrows, when Mark spoke in almost fluent English. “All the questions will be answered once the conference ends. Thank you.”

However, the scientist couldn’t focus much on what was happening in the screen, his stare shifting to the various shelves of the lab, where they kept the medicine they continuously fed Mark. Blue liquid in several ampoules seemed to be mocking Jinyoung, saying that he sacrificed a few things too many for it, and he didn’t feel how he stood up, taking the ampoules in his hand. And moved by some weird inner force, dropped them on the floor.

The sound of the breaking glass made him feel better, the liquid splashing everywhere and painting everything blue allowed him to feel like he was in control, even if he knew that Jaebum could make dozens of those in a day anyway.

It was Youngjae who stopped him from trashing the entire lab, coming in almost inaudibly, firmly grabbing his arm and dragging him away from the equipment, yelling something, eyes dark and so uncharacteristically angry.

“Are you out of your mind? Are you going flip the entire center upside down?” Youngjae hissed, his grip so tight on the elder’s arm, Jinyoung felt pain. “It’s enough, Jinyoung, you’re done here. You’re off the case.”

“You can’t fire me.”

Youngjae took a paper out of his lab coat pocket, for the first time that day looking somehow guilty, but at the same time he was strangely… satisfied. “I can. I’m officially taking over your position in the center, Jaebum signed the papers this morning.”

Jinyoung wanted to say something, but the air left his lungs. For a while he just kept standing there, looking at his younger colleague who had an unreadable expression on his face that didn’t look as innocent as it used to do, but what really caught his attention was the weird silence coming from the stream of the conference.

And when he turned his gaze to the monitor, Mark was standing with his eyes closed in the middle of his speech, looking like he was trying to keep himself on his feet to finish his words. The patient lifted his fingers to his ear for some reason, and then Jinyoung noticed – Mark’s fingers were covered in a sticky red liquid. His ear was bleeding.

Jinyoung wasn’t sure what was happening, suddenly all the thoughts about being fired gone out of his mind, because Mark was bleeding – and it couldn’t be because of the slap. Jinyoung didn’t have enough strength to burst the elder’s eardrum and even if he had, it definitely wouldn’t have happened half an hour later.

And the last thing he heard through the speakers was a loud thump, Mark’s lean figure lying on the ground without any signs of consciousness.

Chapter Text

When Mark finally woke up, it was already dark outside. It took a lot of strength to force his eyes to crack open, he was too sleepy and too lazy to do so, a silent beeping of a heart monitor somewhere near also being nothing but a lullaby. He felt a needle in his arm, an IV pole being near his bed. There was also someone in the room, he could hear pages of a newspaper or a magazine being shuffled back and forth. Mark didn’t know what he was expecting to see, eyes half-closed again to adjust to the unexpected brightness of the room, but the sight of Youngjae and Yugyeom made him slightly disappointed.

He guessed that they were in one of the few wards the center had, surroundings seeming quite familiar to Mark, as he spent a while in similar places after his surgery. He didn’t remember clearly why he was here, he just felt thankful for an opportunity to sleep for longer than a few minutes after such long weeks of studying, but then he felt this uncomfortable feeling in his ear, as if it was pounding in pain and then flashbacks, even though scattered and without any order, started to fill his head.

“Oh, you’re up already.” Yugyeom interrupted his thoughts, putting the newspaper he was reading down and coming closer to check his IV pole, helping him to sit up. Mark felt a bit dizzy and disoriented, but that could’ve easily been due to the eight hour long “nap” he took. “You scared the crap out of us.”

“What happened exactly?” Mark asked, trying to stretch his stiff body out, but soon wincing in pain, as the needle in his arm wasn’t really going to allow him to do so. The things he remembered were vague – blood on his fingers, an unexplainable anxiety before his speech, dizziness, feeling like everything was in slow motion. Desperate attempts to find Jinyoung in the crowd of people when he realized that something wasn’t going well.

Yugyeom looked a bit lost, as if he didn’t know what to say to the patient. “We don’t know yet, we’re waiting for your test results. Your MRI looks clean though, so I doubt it’s something major.”

It wasn’t that Mark didn’t trust him, to a certain extent he did, just how you would trust your doctor, but he still noticed the younger getting a bit disappointed when he asked, “Can I look at the results myself a bit later?”

“Sure, why not.”

Just to make sure he was completely fine, Mark was forced to stay in bed for the most part of the week, various tests and doctors visiting becoming his daily routine again. However, nobody could find a convincing reason why his ear started bleeding out of the blue, because his tests were better than any healthy person’s - so they wrote everything off as stress, his habit of skipping meals, overworking himself and a fear of blood Mark never knew he had. And only when his bed regimen was coming to an end, he realized that something was odd.

Jinyoung never came to visit him that week, and even though Mark knew that the younger had every reason to be mad after the ugly truth being spilled right to his face, he also knew that the scientist was too soft and too caring to abandon people if there weren’t any important reasons, and his absence seemed weird.

Just like this unexpected feeling of loneliness Mark tried to deny reading physics textbooks.

“Where’s Jinyoung?” He finally asked a few days later, when the duo of Youngjae and Yugyeom were taking care of various papers related to his tests. It didn’t slip through his eyes that they both became visibly nervous upon the question, especially Youngjae.

The latter was quicker to respond than his colleague, saying, “He… quit. I’m working instead of him.”

Yugyeom didn’t say anything at all, just lowered his head even more and Mark found it almost hilarious, because a few centimeters more and the younger would’ve planted his face into the paper he was signing. But it was also sad, because they weren’t as good at lying as they thought they were, so Mark only sighed, nodding.

Yes, he still felt bitter about that kiss, he wasn’t going to deny it. Mark was ready to pick a fight with whoever was related to the happening, because he tried, he tried countless times to show Jinyoung his feelings. For a moment it even looked like Mark succeeded, the younger’s soft and warm stare used to be nothing but adoring, but then again, the scientist was too easy to push, too submissive to Jaebum’s idiotic plays, and it angered Mark. He was sure he had never felt like this before, this raw feeling of a hurt pride, but even that was weaker than the longing he felt.

However, Jinyoung seemed like he had already made his decision to remain oblivious to everything that was happening around and all Mark could do was to deal with it, bottling everything up and hiding his true feelings from everyone as well. In the end, he came to the conclusion that it was what everyone here was doing anyway – hiding from everyone and from themselves.

It was Monday morning, eleventh day of Jinyoung’s absence, when Yugyeom came into the reading room and lightly tapped his shoulder, trying to shift his attention from comparing his own MRI scan to the image in some textbook. Something there didn’t match and Mark was gradually getting frustrated.

“Jaebum needs you in his office. Something urgent came up.” The younger told.

Mark only sighed, leaving his books open and various test results waiting for his inspection scattered on the table, lazily dragging himself along the scientist through the maze of corridors. He didn’t even realize how the question escaped his lips, hoping Yugyeom to be honest at least once. “What actually happened to Jinyoung?”

Yugyeom stopped and looked at him with a weird expression on his face, and for a second Mark thought that he won’t respond at all, but then he looked around to make sure no one was listening. “He was fired.”

“Fired?” Mark frowned, not quite sure how to react to this. For all he knew, Jinyoung was a model employee, never late to work, always doing what he was told and even more, and definitely one of the best specialists in this place. It simply didn’t add up. “What for?”

“Youngjae found him trashing the lab we keep your medicine in.” Yugyeom sighed, looking terribly sorry for some reason. “I don’t know what has gotten into him, he was acting weird long before that, to be honest. Technically, he was fired because of that, but… It seems fishy to me, since I found documents saying that Youngjae was promoted to his position even before Jinyoung was fired. I don’t know what’s happening, but I don’t want to risk my job digging into the files I have no permission to see, and you didn’t hear all this from me.”

Mark nodded, Yugyeom could be calm about him keeping his mouth shut. However, he didn’t have enough time to rethink this chunk of information he just learned, as they finally reached Jaebum’s office. The latter offered his brightest smile, dismissing Yugyeom and telling Mark to sit down on a sofa in front of some middle aged man, and Mark complied, unsure of what was going on.

“I had some things to discuss with you,” Jaebum said, after he refused a cup of coffee. “But I got an unexpected visitor, though I think you also should meet him. He’s Mr. Yoo, the CEO of Yoo Medical Industries, the one who made this experiment possible by investing his money in it.”

“There’s no reason to thank me, young man. In the end it’s all driven by my own selfishness.” The CEO sighed, when Mark politely bowed to him, thanking for the opportunity to be treated. Only then he noticed that the man looked weirdly old, even though he really wasn’t – late 50s at the worst case. It was that kind of old, the one that comes too early from stress and worrying, the one that gives you grey hair way too soon. “My son’s symptoms are progressing every day, and seeing how successful the treatment is, I want to hospitalize him tomorrow, Jaebum.”

Mark was puzzled to say the least – he had no clue what the man was talking about, what selfishness and who was the son in question, but he didn’t show it, following Jaebum’s calm demeanor. The latter was calmly listening to the CEO speaking with a polite smile on his lips, and only after a few moments he finally opened his mouth. “Before that, there’s something… Something that is very hard to say.”

“What?”

Jaebum continued, “This treatment is still off-label. At first we thought that the medicine we discovered can adapt to prevent the chain reactions that lead to brain cell death, but as the research progressed, we realized that because it doesn’t prevent automatic DNA fragmentation, it has a very low adaptability to neurodegeneration.”

It was Mark who spoke then, trying his best to explain the words to the CEO, even though his own mind was spinning in circles. “So it means, that it works only on people who have the “wrong” brain cells from the get-go, rather than on those who start to get worse over the years?”

Jaebum slowly nodded, face expression unreadable, and the CEO mumbled, “So in other words… It won’t cure my son?”

“Unfortunately, no.”

Everything that happened later seemed like in a blur, the man grabbing Jaebum by the collar, shaking him and shouting, despair evident in his voice like nothing else. “So why didn’t you tell me earlier?!”

“Sir, please calm down.” Mark said, trying to separate them.

Surprisingly, Jaebum didn’t seemed fazed by this turn of events, maintaining his stone cold face. “I myself learned that only a few days ago, I was trying to find the right moment to inform you. I’m sorry.”

Mr. Yoo laughed, his laugh sounding so sad it was even heartbreaking. “Don’t lie to me that obviously. You knew it all along, you just decided to deceive me. I paid for you to test the medicine on someone else before my son takes it, but you took the research where you wanted.”

“I’m sorry that you think that way.” Jaebum repeated. “But there is nothing I can do. As a sign of apology, we won’t be accepting any money coming from your company starting from today.”

The CEO didn’t say a word anymore, letting the scientist go and slamming the doors so loudly, Mark flinched. He couldn’t deny, those words I paid for you to test the medicine on someone else before my son takes it left him feeling weird and empty, like he was a mere puppet, a lab rat needed for the experiment.

“Is there really nothing you can do about that patient?” He asked silently, watching Jaebum rubbing his hurting neck and sitting down at his working table, turning his laptop on as if it was the most regular working day.

“I can’t fix everything in this world.”

Mark sat down in front of him, scanning the younger man with his gaze. Jaebum looked tired, his eye bags looked terrible and yet, he couldn’t bring himself to feel sorry. “What will happen to the research if we lose the funding?”

The scientist’s answer was simple and clear, calculated and well-planned out. “Ever since the press conference, even though it ended a bit abruptly due to your condition, we got flooded with countless offers from all over the world. Cutting ties with Yoo Medical Industries won’t hurt us much, it won’t hurt us at all, actually.”

It suddenly clicked in Mark’s head, the initial scheme, the plan and everything. And it made him feel disgusted, because he also was a part of it. “So that was your aim from the very beginning, to use their money as a trampoline to get your name out there. You never intended to heal that person, you just needed the funding. You lied to a father, whose son is sick.”

“Everybody lies.”

“Sure, you and Jinyoung should know about it.” Mark’s voice became ice cold again and only then Jaebum stopped his work, focusing his stare on the patient in front of him. “I know about him, by the way.”

The scientist looked intrigued, amused even, when he told, “What he did is unthinkable. He tried to destroy everything I was working on for years. It’s a blasphemy, to me, to you, to the entire science. Or do you think firing him was too severe?”

Mark couldn’t help but internally cringe at how Jaebum conveniently skipped the part that it was clear he was planning to get rid of Jinyoung anyway, if what Yugyeom said was true. However, his bitterness allowed him to say only, “Considering your relationship—“

“Relationship?” Jaebum interrupted, laughing. “You’re talking about the kiss, right? Days are passing and you still keep misunderstanding it.”

“What do you mean?”

“After watching you both, I realized that one day the childish feelings you had for him will become something more.” The younger said, for the first time sounding honest, and Mark couldn’t determine why. Did Jaebum really think he was invincible to the point he could reveal his real intentions just like that? Or was he just done with everything himself, just pushing through with what he started? “The conference was coming and I didn’t want to get you all stressed out, so I simply asked him to accept your feelings.”

Mark’s eyes were wide in surprise. “Accept my feelings?”

“He said that he can’t do this to you.” Jaebum said, frowning in dissatisfaction, as if he couldn’t believe people are so weak. “He said he can’t lie to you, especially when he isn’t sure what he’s feeling. But lying isn’t that hard, so that’s why that kiss happened. I just wanted to prove a point.”

“So, you just used his feelings as well.”

“I’m just protecting my creations. And speaking about creations, I wanted to talk to you about--“ Jaebum didn’t manage to finish his sentence before Mark stood up, feeling fed up with everything that was happening. He did the only logical thing he could’ve come up with at that moment – and that was storming out of the room, as far from all this as possible.

 

Jinyoung had plenty of time to think about what happened. He couldn’t help but keep rewinding every tiny memory he had of Mark Tuan. The guy’s helplessness and childish enthusiasm, the way he tilted his head whenever something was too confusing. The way Mark kept licking his lips whenever he was nervous, everything.

They didn’t allow Jinyoung to meet him after the patient fainted during the conference, his work ID announced void and his name written in the list of people who are unwelcomed in the center. The scientist still tried to find a way to the meeting room, but security guards dragged him away, begging him to go home peacefully so that they wouldn’t need to call the police.

The only thing he managed to see back then was Mark’s face, emotionless and ghostly pale as he was being taken away by the medical staff, lean figure helplessly lying on the stretchers, dark hair with bits of blood in it getting into his eyes. And Jinyoung couldn’t believe that a person who looked so harmless, could’ve been spitting such cruel words an hour before.

Honestly, he knew that Mark was right to some extent. There definitely were people who looked down on him and nobody could’ve argued otherwise, but that was a problem of the entire society – even if the people Mark was surrounded by, Jackson, Bambam, even Jinyoung himself, did nothing but adore him. And Jinyoung felt guilty once again, sitting on a bench in some park and trying to pass the time he had plenty of now, so, so guilty about letting this all happen.

He didn’t know where those feelings were coming from, the softness and care towards the guy, the motherly feelings he had for Mark suddenly transforming into something else entirely. He was ready to stay in the center whenever he thought the patient needed some company or comfort, especially when tests weren’t going that well at first. He was ready defend Mark from everything bad in this world. And that night, when Jackson came to his apartment spitting threats, saying that the guy was nowhere to be found, Jinyoung’s heart shattered. In fear, in realization that his feelings weren’t that innocent anymore, either.

But there was nothing he could do anymore – he was forbidden to even be near the center and Jinyoung knew that he fucked up once more, losing his job in the most stupid way ever, knowing that Jaebum won’t miss the chance to make it difficult for him to be employed anywhere else; hurting and failing to protect the person he suddenly came to love. The only thing he was still able to do, was monitoring Mark’s health as much as possible, bribing Yugyeom into sending him reports of every test they did on the patient, even though he knew that his former colleague was also risking his job.

It was starting to get dark and cold, and it felt like it was going to rain soon, so Jinyoung sighed, snapping back from his thoughts and closing the book, some comedic novel that was supposed to distract him, ready to go home.

Even his apartment started to seem unwelcoming at this point, by now only an empty and lonely place that at first was used only for sleeping a few hours, showering and changing his clothes. Before, because Jinyoung used to spend days and nights helping Jaebum to come up with the treatment; later, because he started to spend more and more time with Mark. Now, the apartment felt just too big for him, too much space he certainly won’t be able to rent anymore, if he won’t find another job soon.

Contrary to his guess, it didn’t start raining – it started to snow, big, white snowflakes falling from the sky a month too early, surprising him as he looked up to the sky as if to check whether he wasn’t imagining the whiteness that was already covering the pavements.

Winter came early that year, both in Seoul and in Jinyoung’s heart.

He wasn’t in a rush, letting snowflakes melt in his hair before he reached home. He turned his pockets upside down, while waiting for the elevator to reach the right floor, because he couldn’t find his key, but when the doors of the elevator finally opened, he immediately forgot his initial task.

Mark was sitting on the floor, back leaned against Jinyoung’s door. His hair was wet from the snow as well, he looked somehow tired, but what the younger noticed first was a heart-shaped yellow balloon in Mark’s hand, almost identical to the one the latter was trying to catch when they met for the first time. And appearance-wise, he was the same Mark Tuan Jinyoung met that day, the same shy smile playing on his lips as he looked at the younger.

“What are you doing here?” Jinyoung asked, shifting his stare to the ground, avoiding eye contact.

“I withdrew from the experiment.”

Chapter Text

In a way, the entire scene reminded Jinyoung of that evening when a random passerby brought Mark to his place, shivering and barefoot. And even though the patient now looked different, without dozens of cuts on his body, taking a cup of warm tea to help him get rid of the late November’s coldness as they both sat down in Jinyoung’s kitchen, the atmosphere felt the same, the same uncertainty with too many questions that were yet unanswered floating in the air.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, the scientist deciding that it was way more convenient to stare at the dark surface of his dining table instead of the guy in front of him. Mark wasn’t saying anything either, busy stirring his drink and surprisingly, this time Jinyoung found the courage to start a conversation.

“Why are you here?”

“I said a few things,” Mark’s answer was more of a mumbling rather than the clear and confident tone he had been using for a while now, as if he was ashamed. “Things that shouldn’t have been said, and I caused you a lot of trouble. You even lost your job.”

Surprisingly, Jinyoung shook his head, finally lifting his eyes too look directly at Mark. The younger’s stare was tired and sad, tortured by many sleepless nights spent thinking about everything over and over. “It has nothing to do with you. I began to have doubts about the treatment and one event after another, everything just spiraled into this.”

“You felt like I was losing something, something important.” Mark wasn’t asking, it was a statement, admitting everything Jinyoung had ever thought about what kind of person he had become. “And you were right about that.”

“Yes.” Jinyoung confirmed, a cup of coffee next to him long forgotten and the drink getting cold, words honest and unfiltered. He was tired of lying to everyone. “The old Mark, as much as you seem to despise him, had this delicate kindness. The days were passing, and the more time you spent under Jaebum’s supervision, the more of it was lost.”

Mark sighed, lowering his head in apology. “I guess I started to think that people like that are not important. It’s funny how Jaebum’s brainwashing actually works, isn’t it? We all know that he’s a terrible person, but we’re still stuck with him like in a spider web. So I started to follow that philosophy of his, because I didn’t know any better – even though it’s not an excuse. All I’ve ever learned was math formulas and chemical equations instead of how real life works, and I started to think that kind people, people like you, Jackson… I looked down on them, thought that they can be used.”

“Maybe.” Jinyoung said, quite unsure what he himself had in mind, but it was probably himself, thinking that the metaphor of his past lover being like a spider being wasn’t so far-fetched. “Maybe there indeed are such people. But not everyone is like that.”

“You see,” Mark told, finishing his cup and frowning a bit, feeling the sugar the younger put too much of out of nervousness, because his hands were shaking due to the unexpected guest. “I kind of know what it feels like to be used. At first I thought that Jackson and Bambam were using me, but when I went to the lab before the conference, I felt a weird need of closure, so I took out a lab rat out of its cage. And then it hit me, that it wasn’t my friends who were using me, that it was the center. I was sitting there on the floor with a rat in my hands and I realized that the only difference between us is that I’m supposed to be a human. We’re both only test subjects, just two randomly chosen objects.”

“I’m sorry about that.” Jinyoung almost whispered, words airy, but uneasy to force out of his lips.

However, the elder met it with a light smile. “You’re not responsible for this. You just did what you thought it’s the best, and I don’t blame you. I guess, I could be pissed off about what happened to me, but there were other people who suffered a lot more. That second patient, I’m sure you know about him, his family was just lied to. Jaebum just took their money to develop a treatment for me and then cut off the partnership. That was one of the reasons why I couldn’t take it anymore.”

“He won’t let you go so easily. Jaebum got rid of me, because I don’t mean shit to him, but he’ll try to keep you around as much as possible.” Jinyoung didn’t want to sound scary or dramatic, not at all, but both of them knew the truth. The older scientist wouldn’t let his money making machine go without a fight, and on top of that, he knew how and liked to play dirty. “What are you going to do?”

Mark shrugged, for the first time looking uncertain of what the future will bring. He was acting upon his flaming emotions without thinking everything through and now it finally hit him that he himself needs a plan. “I don’t know. I can’t really return to the facility, since I fucked things up with Bam and Jackson. I’m sorry about him scaring you that night though, I’m sure he didn’t meaning anything he said. He never does.”

“Hard to believe, that criminal record sounds pretty intimidating.” Jinyoung muttered, still unknowingly shivering after being reminded of that encounter.

“I found this thing once – back then I wasn’t smart enough to realize what that is, but…” Mark suddenly said, tapping his fingers on the surface of the table, looking like he’s concentrating on remembering something. “Jackson always keeps his private stuff locked in his drawers, most of the people in the facility do that, but once he forgot about the lock, and I, being curious and stuff, took a look. There were a few things, like usual – money, some old family photos, I assume. And a junior high school yearbook.”

Jinyoung felt confused, not sure how this topic was significant to their previous conversation. “And?”

“I shuffled through the pages, and believe it or not, he knows Jaebum. They seem like they were classmates or something like that.”

 “Can’t be. Jaebum entered school with 93-liners, since he’s born in early 1994, and should’ve been a year above Jackson. Not to mention that later he skipped a few classes to match his abilities.”

Mark thought for a while. “For all we know, Jackson could’ve started going to school earlier than other kids his age, maybe there’s something Jaebum didn’t tell you. But they do know each other, considering the note on the back of the yearbook. It was something along the lines of I’ll miss you, friend. And it’s signed by Im Jaebum, that’s not a coincidence.”

The younger tried to make a connection between this information, searching for any possible clue, but his head wasn’t working. Even if they did know each other, Jaebum and Jackson never showed it during those few brief meetings in the wards or hallways of the research center and Jinyoung wasn’t even sure whether it was important or not. Interesting, yes, crucially significant – not really. Not now, at least.

“Well.” he concluded, standing up to wash his cup, the same one he didn’t even touch this entire time. “I don’t know what is or was going on between them, but I think you just need to meet your friends and apologize. I’m sure they’ll welcome you back to the facility, they’re not that cruel to completely ignore you over one ridiculous argument.”

“Yeah, probably.” Mark replied. His voice sounded weird, like he was holding himself back, trying to fight an urge to add something more, but eventually he lost that that battle, blurting out, “But what about us?”

Jinyoung flinched upon hearing the pronoun, sounding so unusual, foreign and strange. There was no “us” in his opinion, because it wasn’t right, it was too sudden, too dangerous and just too much in general. So he didn’t turn around, letting the other guy see only his back. “And what about us?”

“Our feelings.”

“I don’t think it’s the right time to discuss this.” Jinyoung still desperately tried to sneak his way out of the question, even after all this time. Living in denial sounded so much more attractive.

Mark smiled, a warm smile finally reaching his eyes after being faked all these months, reminding of nothing but that sweet, naïve and innocent guy he was before all the mayhem. “If I followed your words, there would never be a right time, Jinyoung. The timing to talk about this can’t get any better now – we both are left with nothing, just each other.”

The younger closed his eyes, still stubbornly not turning around. Maybe Mark was right, maybe they did have only each other to survive in this fucked up world with too many complications and terrible relationships, but something, this weird barrier between Jinyoung’s brain and heart didn’t allow his emotions to speak.

And so Mark spoke instead of him, voice soft and words knowing. “Stop denying your feelings. He’s the last person I should be mention in this conversation, but Jaebum told me the real story behind the kiss and that you said you can’t pretend when you’re not sure about your feelings to me. But if you’re unsure, it means that you have them, at least a bit.”

When Jinyoung finally opened his mouth, his voice was shaking as if he was about to burst in tears, washing that damn cup over and over again, like his life depended on the cleanliness of that piece of glass. His answer was a whisper, a barely audible one, “Yes, I do have feelings.”

“Let’s try one more time.”

It was their phrase, their inside joke if you will, when they were still in the research center and Jinyoung was teaching Mark to read. It were the words the scientist repeated countless times, telling the patient to keep trying until correct sentences would finally escape into the room.

“Until recently, you were like an elementary school student. I simply cared for you like I’d care about any person.”

“Until recently?” Mark repeated, his voice reminding of spring and sunshines, holding all the world’s warmth to it. “What changed?”

“We,” Jinyoung said, voice cracking since he was all tears by that time, now drying the cup he was washing with such a force, it could’ve seemed like he was preparing for cup drying Olympics. “We changed. You were starting to get more intelligent and I realized—“ His later words became a mess, an unintelligible feverish mumble, but the elder was patient.

“One more time.”

“I like you. In a way I shouldn’t like a patient whom I dragged into a bizarre experiment.” Jinyoung sighed, the words that he had been hiding deep down for months now finally escaping and changing everything around. He felt like he finally got rid of a stone crushing his insides, it was finally easy for him to breathe. He also felt Mark now standing right behind him, the latter’s warm breath making him shiver.

Mark placed his hands on the younger’s shoulders, making him turn around, and said, “There’s this old Korean superstition, I found it in some book. It says that a young girl should put three freshly cut carnations in her hair and see which one dies first. If it’s the first one, her youth will be difficult. If it’s the second one, her late years will be hard. And if the third one dies first, she will suffer her entire life.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“One night I dreamed it, that I put those three carnations in my hair. And the third one immediately bursted into flames. I don’t believe in dreams, fortune telling or stuff like that, but if I’m really doomed to suffer for the rest of my life, please don’t run away from me, at least you.”

Jinyoung just stood there frozen, puzzled beyond words. And the best he could think of saying was, “You could just use artificial flowers. If none of them can die, you won’t need to suffer. I… I don’t want you to suffer.”

“I love you.” These words were sudden but confident, like Mark would’ve been rehearsing them for a long while prior his visit. And probably he was, during those sleepless night in the center, either in the bed of his lonely monochrome room that was slowly becoming a jail cell or in the library, head hurting and eyes tired from all those small fonts and difficult terminology.

“Why?” Jinyoung was always like that, yearning for closure and acceptance, but having to know the reason of it, as if trying to get the reassurance that it was because of him, not because there were other plans.

However, Mark only shrugged. “There’s no reason. I just know that I love you, and that’s all. You were the only one who cared about me when I was failing all my post-surgery tests. I wasn’t needed before they found out they could make another Jaebum out of me, spitting names for chemicals compounds that still needed to be found, but completely oblivious to anything else. You were the only one who believed in me when I was barely able to talk, and you stuck with me. And now I want to stick with you.”

Jinyoung closed his eyes again, everything becoming too much to handle, all the emotions and thoughts chaotically swirling inside his head. But in the end, he was only human, completely controlled by his impulses and instincts.

And that moment, his only instinct was to say, “I love you too.”

“Once more.” Mark was obviously teasing, with a wide grin on his face, but Jinyoung himself wanted to repeat that, to shout it from all the rooftops, those words that he should’ve said a lot earlier finally being there, finally said out loud.

He didn’t manage to open his mouth though, feeling Mark’s lips brushing against his. Jinyoung hated himself for comparing, but it felt completely different from how Jaebum kissed – if the latter’s kisses were icy cold, making his brain freeze and him feel like he wants to get out of it as soon as possible, Mark’s lips were nothing but a warm, pleasantly burning fire.

Jaebum was winter, Mark felt like summer and Jinyoung was caught in the crossfire.

 

In the end, they agreed that Mark will be staying at his place for a while, at least until they both figure out how to deal with things. They were a pretty weird duo, a genius in the making and a jobless scientist, but both of them, standing in Jinyoung’s bathroom and looking at now two toothbrushes instead of one in the cup on the sink, knew that it was possible to make it work. They hoped.

The first week was passing just like that – them simply being together, enjoying small things like hand holding and chaste kisses whenever Jinyoung made breakfast in the mornings, the latter helping Mark file job applications and the elder helping Jinyoung to prepare for his job interviews. Everything seemed to be fine, but…

It was already a late evening one and a half week later and Jinyoung was dozing off in the living room while watching Mark reading some anatomy textbook he still had with himself taken from the center, until the elder poked him to go to sleep. It was slightly ridiculous, considering that they were kind of an item now, but Mark still kept sleeping on the sofa in the living room, ushering Jinyoung to his bedroom.

The latter was unsuspecting, leaving Mark to read and falling asleep almost the same second after his head hit the pillow, because it was another one of those terrible days with even more terrible job interviews and not getting hired. However, Jinyoung was woken up a few hours later by his phone loudly ringing in a ridiculous ringtone, the caller ID being more than unexpected. It was 4:49 AM and Youngjae was blasting his phone with calls, one immediately followed by another few as Jinyoung was blankly staring somewhere else.

He wasn’t planning on answering, he and his former colleague had nothing to talk about after the latter did him so dirty. It was just a few days after he finally understood what was happening, after all the signs finally fell into their places - Youngjae always trying to defend Jaebum during their arguments with Yugyeom; his eyes always darkening upon seeing his boss together with Jinyoung, even if it was only to walk down a corridor or to discuss various cases and experiments. And the latter thought that he finally deduced why Jaebum was so eager to exchange him into Youngjae – a person like that, blindly in love, was way easier to control.

Jinyoung’s phone rang a few more times before Youngjae finally gave up and he decided to get some water, feeling his throat being incredibly dry. He had no idea whether Mark was still up, so he left his bedroom as quietly as possible and everything that happened later became a blur.

Mark wasn’t asleep, but he wasn’t in the living room either – Jinyoung clearly heard something falling and crashing in the bathroom as he was sprinting there as fast as possible. Only the sight of the scene in front of him made him stop, horror distorting his facial expression.

Mark was lying on the floor covered in blood again, but this time it wasn’t only his ear – he was clearly throwing up seconds before, blood coming out of his mouth and nose. However, he still seemed conscious, when Jinyoung was trying to find his pulse to make sure he was alive.

“I was reading—“ Mark’s voice was rough and unstable as he was trying to cough out all the blood, trying to use his boyfriend as a leverage to stand up, but failing. “And suddenly I felt dizzy and nauseous like I would have motion sickness. I went to the bathroom and then this happened.”

Mark’s phone was next to them as well, buzzing the same way the younger’s was a few minutes ago, with the same name flashing on the screen. And Jinyoung wanted to scream at him to shut up, as if Youngjae was there with them, calls completely unnecessary as he was trying to figure out whether to take Mark to a regular hospital or to Jaebum, begging to somehow fix this.

But it seemed like Mark had another opinion, pointing at his phone and heavily breathing out, “Answer. He wouldn’t call if it wasn’t important.”

Jinyoung wanted to cry, because even in a situation like this Mark still was more concerned about a damn phone call than his actual health, but a few moments later he complied, taking the device into his hand and spitting out, “What?”

“Jinyoung?” Youngjae didn’t sound extremely surprised, but maybe it was because of the fact that his own voice was full of sheer, genuine panic and nothing else really mattered. “The lab—“

Jinyoung almost screeched into the phone, seeing Mark throwing up again, all covered in his own blood, “I don’t give a shit about your lab, there are more important things right now.”

“No, listen!” echoed in his ear, making him freeze even more. “The lab rats, the ones we used for the experiment before Mark came in. They’re dead, all of them."

Chapter Text

Waiting – counting minutes and seconds - was what made Jinyoung both go insane and keep himself intact at the same time.

Something happened inside him upon hearing Youngjae’s words about dead rats; something like a short circuit that now was spreading electricity through his body, making him frantically shake in panic. And at the same time, he felt like had to remain calm, because there was Mark, looking so tiny lying on those cold bathroom tiles, all pale and covered in blood, who needed his help.

“What— What did he want.” The elder asked coughing again, too weak to make it sound like a question, a string of blood dripping down on his shirt. And Jinyoung didn’t know anything better but lie, pretending that nothing was wrong; thinking that maybe if he denied everything, it wouldn’t be real.

“Nothing important.” Those were the last words Mark heard before passing out, and Jinyoung hated himself, hated himself so much as he was holding his boyfriend’s wrist, the elder secured by a seatbelt in the passenger seat of the scientist’s car, counting the rare beats in hopes that they wouldn’t stop before they reach the destination.

It was clear that despite all the dangers – the long trip to the research center, Jaebum’s unpredictability – it was way better to bring Mark to a place where people knew his condition from A to Z rather than to give the guy away for an examination at some random hospital where no one wouldn’t even know how to deal with him and his medical history.

So Jinyoung drove, speeding through the city which was just beginning to wake up as if chased by invisible ghosts, not really giving a fuck about all the speeding tickets he was sure he deserved to get – and that was how they returned to the center, the place Mark thought he escaped. Now he was helplessly tied to various needles and IV poles yet again, and all they could do was wait for the machines to tell what was wrong.

“Jaebum is in a conference in Japan and won’t be back until weekend, so feel free to use the lab as you want.” Youngjae mumbled, not lifting his head from a microscope he was working with, several samples of Mark’s blood lined next to him. “Mark is in the MRI room right now and then he will be getting an X-ray, so I thought it would be faster if we worked on blood samples together.”

Jinyoung opened his eyes, leaning against one of the walls refusing to sit down, knowing that the exhaustion will carry him away in seconds – it was 7 AM and the emotions he felt were draining him more than any physical activities he had done in his entire life.

Maybe Youngjae wasn’t as terrible as Jinyoung tried to convince himself in the heat of being fired. In the end, his colleague was just a young man, almost just out of university, and desperately, obviously in love. And he knew better than anyone else in this place that love makes you do stupid things – it can even make you find an innocent person and throw him under the bus of bizarre experiments. So Youngjae’s suggestion had him searching for that one extra lab coat Jinyoung knew they always kept in the wardrobe and leaning in to adjust a microscope after taking a few samples from the younger.

“Did you tell Jaebum what happened?” he asked.

“No, not yet. I want to try to solve this without him interfering.” Youngjae said, scribbling something down on a sticky note before reaching for yet another bottle of reagent, trying to test every possible chemical reaction in Mark’s blood. Jinyoung just raised his eyebrows at this unexpected rebellion, but didn’t say anything until the younger added, “I’m sorry, Jinyoung.”

“For what?” the latter replied trying to clean the table, since he spilled some of the liquids he was working with, because his hands were shaking too much – he was frightened, knees still shaking and weak.

“I didn’t want to fire you that day. I was just… told to do so.”

Jinyoung soundlessly laughed, because it wasn’t unexpected, and honestly, if the circumstances were different, if he still was Jaebum’s puppet (because that’s what he was for years, anyway), he probably would’ve done the same – Jaebum’s words were laws and Youngjae was simply obeying them. It wasn’t anything inhumane. Stupid, selfish and inconsiderate – yes. But not inhumane.

“Do you know the exact death cause of the rats yet?” he asked, discarding yet another blood sample, because he didn’t have any wish to try sorting out their messy lives, there was no time for that. Mark’s blood cells looked completely okay no matter what kind of tests Jinyoung did on them, there was no sickness in his blood, at least no sickness that they would know.

“Not yet. I left Yugyeom to dissect them, but I don’t know how long it will take.” Youngjae responded finally turning to face his colleague. “But they looked like—“ He hesitated a bit, not eager to let the comparison escape his lips. However, it still echoed through the room, because there was no other way to explain. “They looked like Mark. Blood, blood everywhere.”

Jinyoung unknowingly held his breath upon hearing those words. He still thought, he prayed like he had never prayed before, that these two things wouldn’t be related by any means, that it was just a very sick and unfortunate coincidence, but the younger’s words swept the ground away from this feet and Jinyoung was losing the count of how many times that had happened in a few hours.

It was ironic, he thought, rubbing his sleepy eyes and returning to the microscope. Things were going so well, they were even happy together, left completely alone in their mundane lives, living in that bliss of a cotton-candy like domesticity. Sure, they were on a bumpy road sometimes, as some differences were bound to show up after some time, but still it wasn’t anything unbearable and unexpected. And now it got taken away in a mere moment, this mysterious sickness that was hiding somewhere in Mark’s body was threatening to them, invisible, poisonous and fast.

The two guys continued to work in silence for a while, Youngjae now impatiently tapping the keys of his laptop, fingers uncontrollably flying against the keyboard as he was surfing through various databases in attempt to find matching cases or at least symptoms – but to no avail. Jinyoung was still stubbornly going through blood samples, looking at those small dots in the microscope yet again, wishing that something would change in those few seconds when he was blinking. But nothing changed, nothing at all.

They were interrupted by Youngjae’s phone buzzing in vibration, ringing a few times before the owner of the device finally turned to it, reading the incoming message. “Mark’s MRI and X-ray scans are already done. Though I’d suggest waiting for Yugyeom to be done with the rats, he’s the one with neurology degree here and I don’t want to risk missing anything by looking at it myself.” He told Jinyoung and the latter only nodded, now resting his head against the calmingly cold surface of the table – funnily enough, they were short on time, but they couldn’t rush either.

Suddenly, he felt the younger’s hand comfortingly patting his shoulder, and as much as he still felt slightly bitter about how everything turned out, Jinyoung didn’t shake it off.

“He’s going to be fine.” Youngjae said, but it felt like it was some kind of a pep talk to himself too, voice shaking as if he wasn’t sure about his own words. “Everything is going to be fine.”

“I know.” Jinyoung mumbled, trying to hold his tears that were saying otherwise. It was a mix of everything – exhaustion, anxiety and fear, mostly fear. “He just can’t—“

His colleague only smiled, a smile very sad but still somewhat optimistic. “I know, I know what you feel. I know what being in love feels like.”

 

Mark woke up only in late afternoon. At first he didn’t want to open his eyes at all, this weird darkness floating around him and threatening to swallow him whole seemed even comforting, not requiring effort of any kinds, and he genuinely enjoyed that, but a few moments and a heavy sigh later he cracked his eyes open, only to be surprised.

He had no idea he was brought back to the center, white walls of the ward being already sickeningly familiar. Mark barely remembered what happened before, he just knew there was a whole lot of blood and very scared Jinyoung kneeling next to him, not even realizing that he was crying while talking with someone over the phone.

And now Mark was looking at the younger guy, as the latter was sleeping while resting his head near Mark’s shoulder, still sitting on a chair, body uncomfortably bent and back probably burning in pain by now – he wasn’t sure about how much time Jinyoung spent here.

Mark tried to move a bit, to make more space for the younger’s upper body, but he couldn’t move because of IV poles, needles mercilessly stuck in his arm, and he gave up, because he didn’t want to wake his boyfriend up. Jinyoung looked exhausted and Mark wanted to give him an opportunity to rest at least like that, lightly smiling at how the younger shifted and unknowingly grabbed the sleeve of the hospital gown Mark was changed into, as if trying to keep him by his side. And Mark wasn’t about to go anywhere, softly running his free hand through the dark locks of Jinyoung’s, watching the latter let out a sleepy sigh upon the touch.

For a while they remained like that, Mark continuously drifting to sleep and back, and it was only late hours of the evening when the scientist finally opened his eyes, most likely because of the pain in his back that was slowly starting to become unbearable. He slowly sat up rubbing his sleepy eyes, trying to figure out how much he had slept, and got a bit startled realizing that Mark was already awake and looking at him with a tired, but still the warmest gaze he had ever seen.

“You’re awake.” Jinyoung said absent-mindedly, as if Mark wouldn’t be aware of this important fact himself. The latter only smiled at this, face still barely having any color to it, what didn’t slip through the younger’s eyes. “How are you feeling?”

“Pretty fine.” Mark shrugged. “I don’t really feel anything terrible after these… episodes. I’m just a bit tired, but that’s probably because of the blood loss. Though my arm itches a bit, that place where the needle is.”

Jinyoung immediately jumped from his seat, checking all the lines that brought medicine into Mark’s body before spotting the possible culprit, sighing in relief that it wasn’t anything serious and adjusting the flow of one particular IV drip. “Seems like you’re sensitive to sodium chloride. Youngjae put you on it to stabilize your blood pressure.”

“Youngjae?” Mark frowned, surprised by this unexpected turn of events, but voice remaining humorous even. “I thought we’re not speaking with him, like the good old high school times, when kids have a fight. Or I assume these would be high school times, I never attended one.”

Jinyoung raised his eyebrow, not really understanding how the elder is able to find it in himself to joke about anything when the situation was this serious, but he said a simple, “We’re talking with him now.”

“What made you change your mind?” the question was nothing but knowing, the ability to read the younger like he was an open book coming back to the surface, much to the latter’s dislike. “What happened, Jinyoung?”

“Don’t you remember?” He asked carefully, trying to dance around the topic one last time in attempt to avoid that fact that sooner or later Mark will either catch him lying or find out everything himself.

“I barely recall anything that happened after I ended up throwing up in the bathroom, sorry.”

Jinyoung was silent for a while, trying to organize his thoughts and find a proper way to deliver the news; the news that were supposed to flip their lives upside down yet again. “Youngjae told me that the lab rats, the ones we were doing experiments on before you— They’re dead.”

Contrary to what the younger expected, Mark didn’t start panicking. He didn’t look scared or terrified by the news, he didn’t even seem surprised, but Jinyoung noticed – his fingers were grasping the bedsheets tighter, so tight, his knuckles were all white by now, but Mark didn’t say a word. Maybe he didn’t want to scare Jinyoung with his reaction, perhaps he needed a bit more time for everything to settle in his mind – the scientist didn’t know.

The conversation got interrupted by Yugyeom and Youngjae, who barged into the ward breathless like they were running down the corridors, various papers in their hands and terrified expressions on their faces. Jinyoung knew that it was something bad again, but by the time he was so used to hearing bad news, he felt weirdly relaxed, only waiting to hear the things that were supposed to punch him in the guts.

However, the duo of scientists were hesitant to speak up, slowly saying only, “We got your test results, Mark.”

“And?” The elder asked, trying to sit up in his bed more comfortably, with a slight smile playing on his lips, as if he was expecting that they will tell him that he had a very nasty case of flu or something; that he’ll be able to go home after a few more IV drips, but Youngjae’s stare was darted at the floor and Yugyeom was nervously fidgeting in his place.

The latter sat on the corner of the bed with his head lowered, giving Mark the papers. “Your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is getting thinner again.”

And then something exploded in Jinyoung, but it wasn’t that kind of explosion that would make him flame up in anger and trash everything around, making a mess out of the ward. This one was cold and silent, like of a man’s who suddenly lost a very important part of his life, even though he knew he had no right to feel like that. It meant almost a death sentence for Mark – it was reversal, just like got smarter over the months, now he was slowly returning back.

It was official now – Mark was fighting against time, and that bastard was well armed.

What shocked Jinyoung even more though, probably much more than the diagnosis itself was Mark’s reaction to it. He didn’t say anything at first, wordlessly taking the scans to look at, and the he smiled, the smile toothy, warm and knowing – like it was something he would’ve expected. And the he finally opened his mouth, shocking everyone. “I know.”

“H… How?” Youngjae stuttered, lifting his stare from the ground.

“I realized that something is wrong after the very first time.” Mark sighed, putting the papers away. “When I was saying that speech during the meeting, I stopped talking not because I felt unwell, it rather felt like I can’t connect my thoughts to my voice anymore, like my brains would be against it. But then I woke up and everything was fine again, so I didn’t question it much before taking the test results from the lab to study them further. That day, when Yugyeom came into the reading room to take me to Jaebum’s office, I was studying my own tests. It was barely noticeable at that time, literally only a microscopic difference, but it still was there and I realized what might be happening.” He finished. “Considering that it’s so visible in the scans now after merely three weeks, it seems like my regression is just as rapid as my progress was.”

Jinyoung buried his face in his palms, tears slowly escaping his eyes and sobs shaking his body after understanding that this was it, the point where this story is supposed to end. However, Youngjae, as always, had a tiny bit more optimism in himself. “We’ll find a cure to get you back to normal, there has to be a way.”

Mark simply smiled at these words, dragging Jinyoung closer into his embrace. “But what’s normal, Youngjae? For me, normal is that stupid little dummy who was chasing after balloons.”

Only when both of the scientists left them to be alone for a while, Jinyoung realized that Mark’s grip around him is incredibly tight, as if he was afraid that his lover will disappear. The latter wanted Mark to cry, to shout, rip the needles out of his arm and trash the entire center – to do something, but the elder took it upon himself to be a comfort for Jinyoung instead.

“It’s going to be alright.” He mumbled somewhere in the younger’s neck.

“Of course it will be,” Jinyoung feverishly mumbled, mind going blank at another wave of panic washing over his body. “We’ll work to develop a new treatment, if I need I’ll beg Jaebum to help us, he has to help you, he can’t leave you in this pile of shit like that, it’s not fucking fair, it’s—“ His words turned into sobs again, every trace under his eyes making a tear in Mark’s heart.

The elder softly brushed the tears away from Jinyoung’s cheeks, placing a soft kiss on his forehead. “No, Jinyoung. There’s time for everything and if I need to go… If you really want to do something, find my mother and bring her here. Jackson and Bambam, too. I want to see them while I still understand what’s going on around me.”

Chapter Text

“It’s not just university hospitals all over the country. After the announcement about the treatment, we’ve received a lot of inquiries.” Jaebum said smiling, satisfied and even lazy smile vivid on his lips as he was playing with a pen in his office. “So we should start searching for a new subject.”

“A new subject? Why?” Youngjae lifted his tired eyes from a notebook, a pile of papers that he was writing the elder’s orders in so precisely, trying not to miss even the tiniest details.

“When people think something’s valuable, they throw their money at it.”

Youngjae hesitated for a while before opening his mouth, not sure if what he wanted to say would be appropriate considering Jaebum was his boss, but the words left his mouth anyway, echoing in the room. “I hoped— I thought that you’d be a little bit more upset about Mark leaving the center and quitting the research.”

The older scientist just sighed and raised his eyebrow as if he didn’t really understand where the problem was. “I have no attachment to people, Youngjae, they come and go. And if we don’t have Mark to work with now, it’s better to make a second one, a third one. That’s all there is to it.”

Just like a brother, like a son – what happened to all that?” Youngjae had no idea where this boldness was coming from. Suddenly, he felt very cold and empty as if the elder would be sucking energy out of him and he found himself wondering if Jinyoung used to feel like that too.

However, Jaebum didn’t answer the question, just ushered Youngjae out of the room to work.

 

Jaebum sighed, head pounding in pain due to the flashbacks of that particular conversation with Youngjae that were flooding his head yet again. He would’ve liked to blame it on the uncomfortable seats of the plane he was taking back to Seoul, the irritating noise of engines making everything seem even more unbearable than it already was, but Jaebum knew it wasn’t that. Something was bugging him, and that was a first time in a while.

So he only sighed, asking for a cup of water from a flight attendant, the ice cold liquid making his throat freeze, and leaned his head against a small window, looking at grey clouds they were passing by.

Like a son, like a brother. An equal, a friend – Mark was supposed to be a lot of things, but the most fitting definition probably would’ve been a compensation.

 

“Look at that freak, oh my god.” Jaebum clenched his jaw at this, trying to pretend he wasn’t listening to the conversation, lowering his head to concentrate on his math textbook instead of the insults, but to no avail – there was something buzzing inside his head, blocking him from resuming his work in library.

“Shut up, Jae.” Some other guy said, having no decency to keep it quiet. “Leave him alone.”

The said guy, Jae, wasn’t about to stop though, only continuing his words. “But didn’t you hear? This freak will be in 11th grade next year and he’s only twelve or something. Are you telling me it’s normal? Someone told me that he corrected half of the chemistry book last week because of one wrong equation left due to a printing mistake.”

“He’s fourteen, just like the rest of us, can you please shut up now.”

Jaebum let out a shaky breath trying his best to ignore the conversation, but the truth was, he was tired. That story with the chemistry textbook (even though it wasn’t half a book, only a few pages) – it was nothing but his habit of fixing things, making them right and scientifically correct, that was grown deep into his bones. However, it was Jae who was right that moment. Jaebum was a freak.

He never had any friends due to his personality - Jaebum always was a handful, but on top of that he was easily bored by most of his peers, because they were too dumb and childish to hold a decent conversation with, he couldn’t bear all those never ending talks about girls and parties, newest video games and similar stuff. So Jaebum decided not to bother anymore and slowly isolated himself from anyone, letting all the rumors and gossip flow.

He seemed like an alien to most of the students who surrounded him on a daily basis – some tried to avoid him, because he was that “weird science dude”; some, usually model students, hated him because of his good grades; most of the guys in PE class simple made fun of him and teachers felt annoyed every time Jaebum corrected them. But the latter didn’t mind that – in the end, he still had his books and encyclopedias, and he couldn’t wish for better friends than math and chemistry. However, there was one question that was still bugging him, the one he couldn’t figure an answer to.

If everything – lack of friends and closure with anyone, even his parents – felt okay in his brain… Why didn’t it feel alright in his heart?

And suddenly, the only thing Jaebum noticed was a shadow covering his notes, and he groaned while turning to see who was interrupting him.

“Mind if I sit here?” It was one of the two guys who were talking about him earlier, pointing at an empty chair in front of him.

It wasn’t like the library was crowded and there were no other places to sit, quite the opposite, since it was the place Jaebum had carefully picked with the intention of some peaceful studying. There were a few people in this section, mostly senior year students preparing for their college entrance exams and glaring at the teen that Jaebum was at that time, not really understanding what he was doing here. Jaebum didn’t answer anything, however, the guy didn’t seem to be interested in his answer, plopping onto the said chair anyway.

At first Jaebum showed his default reaction by completely zoning out the guy, who was now busy watching how Jaebum’s fingers were flying across the calculator as he was solving differentials for his calculus class. It was more than clear that the guy saw all these complicated signs for the first time, even if Jaebum was writing them down quickly and lightly like they were as simple as an alphabet, but that didn’t make him any less curious.

“And you’re staring at me like that because?” Jaebum knew that he sounded like an asshole, probably not the best behavior for someone who had rumors about collecting dead cats for science experiments floating around him, but he didn’t really care. “Don’t you have your own work to do?”

“Because it’s interesting.” The stranger responded without any embarrassment about getting caught in his voice, not frightened by this coldness at all. “The name’s Jackson by the way. Your one and only.”

Jaebum wanted to say that he didn’t ask, because it wasn’t interesting to him at all. All he wanted now was to finish this bunch of extra credit work so that he could pass his tests and leave this dumb school as soon as the year ends, hopefully to some decent school that would match his abilities.

“You must be Jaebum.” Jackson continued, now eating a candy he took out of his pocket. “I’ve heard some things about you.”

“Great.” The latter snorted turning the page of his book. “So you probably know that you shouldn’t hang out with a freak if you don’t want to become an outcast, so nice to meet you, Joseph, and bye.”

Jackson sat through this whole speech completely unfazed, as if dealing with people snapping at him would’ve been something he was used to witness on a daily basis. And he only grinned in response. “Ay, what a temper. I don’t think you’re a freak, though.”  

Jaebum’s initial instinct was to believe that this Jackson Wang, whose lips were stained with that stupid chocolate candy he was eating, was shamelessly lying. It wouldn’t have been the first time – actually, a lot of people tried to befriend him at first, in hopes of him helping them out with assignments or such, but Jaebum never allowed himself to fall for it again after a few times, and he wasn’t about to do that now.

“Oh yeah?” He mumbled, turning to a pile of chemistry notes now, all the equations making him sick. “When’s the deadline?”

“What deadline?” For the first time during this entire conversation, Jackson looked completely lost and confused.

“The one you need my help for.”

“There’s no assignment, I just want to make friends. Are you really going to refuse me, the perfect friend, sitting right in front of you? Moreover, your one and only friend, if you don’t change your attitude.”

Jaebum didn’t answer back then, he was so busy with his assignments that he didn’t even hear Jackson blabbering nonsense, unknowingly letting the events unfold as they were destined. And that destiny was this weird, loud guy slowly becoming a part of his life, persistently pestering him and trying to break through all the walls he had built around himself.

And four years later, when they both were eighteen, Jaebum couldn’t understand what have he done wrong; why Jackson suddenly started to ignore and avoid him, and why that one time he spoke, the only words that echoed in the air were, “Get out of my way, freak.”

 

Jinyoung rubbed his tired eyes, trying to get rid of that blur he was seeing due to long hours of sitting in front of his laptop. They all had been working like crazy – he, Yugyeom and Youngjae – hurriedly searching for as many options as possible before Jaebum came back from his conference, as they had no idea whether he will allow them to work on Mark’s case now that he withdrew from the experiment. Even Mark himself, despite Jinyoung’s pleas to rest in order to save his health as much as possible, tried to help with the research, shutting himself in a library, though all the searches were fruitless – they had no idea how to treat his condition. And it crushed Jinyoung’s heart more and more, the same heart that now was running only on a very special mix of coffee, energy drinks and some medicine.

“Take a break.” A voice next to him said, startling Jinyoung so much that he flinched, flipping over a new cup of coffee, contents of it spilling all over the table. Luckily, there weren’t anything important on it, and he turned around to see Mark with a soft, but concerned smile. “We agreed that you won’t be overworking yourself for this.”

“You’re the one to speak.” Jinyoung sighed, looking at the elder, who seemed like he hadn’t slept for a few days. There were some deep lines etched in his face, ones that got deeper with every minute Mark spent awake trying to find a way to survive.

“Papers can wait.” The elder said, grabbing the scientist’s hand and basically dragging him out of the lab, the latter squinting his eyes at the bright lights of the corridor. Yugyeom and Youngjae sent them off with sleepy and a bit jealous looks, but still feeling happy for the couple. A little bit of romance around was enough to lift their tragic moods and forget all the difficulties.

They were walking in the park that belonged to the center, brown and already old autumn leaves silently cracking under their feet as they took their small, slow steps and Jinyoung deeply inhaled the cold air. The coldness burned his lungs a bit, but this clear, fresh November end’s air didn’t smell of chemistry and laboratories and that was all he needed at the time, even if he didn’t realize it at first. And it was all thanks to Mark, who was able to read him like an open book, even when he was the one suffering.

“How can you be so calm?” Jinyoung silently asked. Usually, they didn’t bring this topic up directly – all four of them worked in silence, there was like an unwritten rule not to say out loud what exactly they were searching the cure for, as if it was only some intense biochemistry workshop. “How can you look so… unbothered by all of this?”

“I don’t know.” Mark admitted looking at the ground, fingers wrapping around Jinyoung’s tighter, as if trying to give the younger guy some reassurance. “It feels like I already came to terms with what is going to happen. Maybe because the thought of it was there in my head ever since I collapsed for the first time, or maybe… Maybe because there’s nothing bad in becoming a flower.”

Jinyoung frowned, torn between the urge to say that it won’t end like Mark imagined it to end, but he wasn’t sure what the elder meant with his metaphor. “A flower?”

Mark nodded. “Yes, a flower. If it’s what we think I have, and my brains are dying, soon I won’t be able to talk, I won’t be able to react to anything – there only will be a shell, an outer appearance left out of me that you’ll be able to look at. Alive, but not really – how’s that different from a flower?”

Perhaps Mark was indeed a flower, a beautiful blooming flower, whose petals were now withering rapidly, like it would’ve been thrown into the harshest snowstorm; every petal symbolizing his life and how he lost it. But Jinyoung was stubborn, saying only, “I hate flowers. I always hated them.”

“Why?” The elder probably thought that the response was funny, because his eyebrows were slightly raised in amusement and he was softly smiling at this statement.

“Flowers are never meant to stay. They— They die too quickly.” Jinyoung didn’t want to say that out loud, any form of the word death being strictly forbidden in his mind for now. “And artificial flowers smell weird.”

Suddenly, it began to snow, big white snowflakes slowly landing on the ground, their clothes and hair yet again. Mark lifted his brown eyes to the grey sky, and even though it looked nothing but depressing, just like their current situation, he still didn’t stop smiling. He was being ridiculous, still smiling with his world crashing into pieces, but Jinyoung loved him even more for that.

“Then I’ll become a bird. Birds live longer.”

“There barely are any birds to survive the winter here.”

“So picky.” Mark teased, gently brushing the snowflakes away from Jinyoung’s hair and shoulders. “I’ll be a special winter bird. When I’m all dumb again, I’ll come visit you on winters, so you wouldn’t feel lonely without me. Even though by the time you will probably be with someone else.”

Words about finding someone else when, if, Mark gets back to his previous condition left a bitter taste in Jinyoung’s mouth as it was the exact opposite of what he was planning to do. In the worst case scenario, one that the younger carefully planned out during one of these sleepless nights, he would be taking Mark to live with him, taking care of the elder until the end of their days. No matter the ending, they were supposed to be together, they were in the same sinking boat, but Jinyoung didn’t disclose this plan to his boyfriend – he knew that Mark wouldn’t agree in the slightest.

“You’re so ridiculously comforting.” Jinyoung mumbled, stopping and turning around to see their footsteps pressed into already white ground. “Even back then, before this whole disaster, even if you didn’t understand what was happening in the lab, you always made us smile. It’s like you were taking care of us, comforting and encouraging. Just like now.”

Mark laughed again, eyes bright and smile even wider. “You know, at first I thought I was like that because I wanted to fit in, because I wanted people to like me even though I was clumsier, dumber than them. But now that I think about it, that’s not exactly true. It never helps, hibernating in your own depressing thoughts, so I smiled; without realizing it, I laughed along, because it helped you all to push through with your tasks. I wanted to help you, and I could offer only those few seconds of laugh by walking into objects or talking nonsense. That’s why the old Mark wins against me.”

Jinyoung thought about this for a while and then repeated the words that hurt so much a few weeks ago, but now, put into a new context, meant something completely different. “But you’re also him.”

They continued their walk in silence for a few minutes, shoulders brushing against each other’s, before Mark asked, “Did you find my mother?”

“Not yet.” Jinyoung sighed. “She seems to have changed her number, but Yugyeom is trying to track her down. He has a knack for these things, so we should find her pretty soon; Jackson and Bambam, too. I went to the facility earlier today, but they were already out for their shifts. Though some guys told me that they have a day off tomorrow, so I’ll go there first thing in the morning.”

“Thank you. It means a lot.”

Both of them returned to the center another hour later, lips blue and cheeks red from the cold, but hearts warm like never before as they were laughing at something, all the worries forgotten for a while. For a brief moment they could’ve seemed cheerful, happy even, but then Jinyoung took his lab coat, ready to get back to his equipment for another round of tests, as Mark was talking with Yugyeom about another MRI scan he wanted to run on himself to check if there were any more changes, but then it happened.

Mark let out a weird sound, they couldn’t even determine what it was exactly, and then the elder just froze in his spot – he didn’t move anymore, he didn’t speak, didn’t even blink – he was just blankly staring into the void for a few moments before falling down on the floor and Jinyoung felt panic washing all over him yet again.

He wanted to run to his boyfriend and shake him out of this weird state, but Youngjae firmly held him in his place, as Yugyeom was examining Mark’s pupils and quickly running through his lab coat pockets, trying to find at least some medication he now was always carrying around in case of an emergency.

“What’s happening?” Jinyoung helplessly choked out, trying to squirm his way out of his colleague’s arms.

“He’s having a seizure.”

Mark was becoming a flower faster than they have calculated, withering right in front of their eyes that were filled with horror.

Chapter Text

Jinyoung always was a just in case kind of person – one extra alarm clock if he wouldn’t hear the first one; two packs of ramen instead of one if he suddenly would feel hungry in the middle of the night; a few extra pens in his pockets if others would stop writing. So when Jackson knocked on the door of his apartment that afternoon, his first instinct was to stand a few steps away, just in case the guy got unreasonable yet again.

A few minutes more and they wouldn’t have met actually, Jinyoung was back home only to take a quick, rushed shower and take a new pile of clothes, not planning to return here for a few upcoming days. It seemed like all the team – he, Yugyeom and Youngjae – moved to live in the research center in order not to waste any more time. Even though Jaebum’s plane landed in Seoul on a Friday afternoon, he wasn’t supposed to show up until Monday, and they used it to their advantage – barely eating, allowing themselves only short bathroom breaks and not really caring about their own health. It wasn’t bringing any good, all three of them were swaying to sides running on energy drinks and crackers, but they didn’t know any better – Mark, even though conscious after his seizure, felt like a ticking bomb that could’ve exploded any moment.

“What are you doing here?” Jinyoung slowly asked, staring at the guy in front of him. Jackson looked tired and bothered by something, but he couldn’t determine whether it was because of the workload or something else. And after a few seconds of hesitation, he mumbled, “Come in.”

“I’m sorry for what I told you that night.” Jackson suddenly said, sitting down on the living room’s sofa. Usually, he would look around, maybe judge a few things he thought belonged to what he called “rich people”, but today wasn’t the day to do so.

Jinyoung didn’t want to remember that, so he just shook his head as a gesture that it was okay, he wasn’t mad about that. And he wasn’t lying – he understood what Jackson might have felt and he was sure that at some point he felt the same. But also, he wanted for that conversation to end as soon as possible, because he needed to go – Youngjae texted him that they had a whole new bunch of test results that needed to be analyzed. However, it was a no brainer that Jackson wasn’t here only for the apology.

“I was searching for you.” The scientist noted, nibbling the material of his jeans, avoiding a direct eye contact. “But you either weren’t in the facility or the other guys would tell me that you’re already sleeping.”

“I know about Mark.” Jackson interrupted him, speech feverish and more of a ramble. “I ran into that Yugyeom guy last week, he was going back home to sleep a bit or something. At first we just passed by each other, but then he ran all the way back to tell me what was happening and that you’re trying to find me because Mark asked so.”

Jinyoung tried not to look surprised, but his colleague never mentioned anything about meeting Jackson and telling him everything he wasn’t supposed to know just yet. And as much as he wanted to skin Yugyeom alive for doing so without letting anyone know, he realized that it was better that way – turned out that Jackson had a lot of stuff to figure out in his head before meeting anyone.

“When I realized that Mark is slowly deteriorating,” Jackson admitted. “I got too scared, so I ran away. I had to think things through, because it reminded me of another story, a story of another person in my life whom I couldn’t protect. That’s why I avoided visiting Mark, avoided meeting you – I felt shame.”

Jinyoung wanted to tell him a lot of things, the same ones he was trying to convince himself with like some sort of a pep talk – that it wasn’t neither of theirs fault; that no one could’ve imagined this happening, but when he opened his mouth, he asked only, “Who’s that person?”

Honestly, he thought he already knew where the conversation will lead, the memories of Mark’s findings, that yearbook with Jaebum’s signature, were coming back to his mind and his thoughts got confirmed when Jackson lifted his eyes, looking incredibly sad.

“How well do you know Jaebum?”

Jinyoung thought for a while, ironically enough, not knowing what he should say. “We know each other for, like, two or three years, he was the one who hired me and later it spiraled into some sort of a sick relationship, but… I don’t think he really felt something for me.” That was it, it was all he could think of. Of course, he knew the elder’s birth date, what was his favorite color or food, if he had more time he might’ve even remembered his favorite song and movie, but somehow it felt like it wasn’t the answer his guest was searching for.

Jackson only smiled at this. “Then you don’t know anything at all. Who he was before and how he came to be who he is now. How I’m guilty for that, how I was supposed to be by his side until whenever, and how I failed to do so.”

To him, Jaebum was a lot of things – his first real friend who saw so much more in him than a simple jokester in school; his first crush, his first enemy. Also, the first person he had to let go of, even if his heart was breaking into thousands of shards.

“It all started in junior high.” Jackson started, words slow and heart heavy upon telling this story out loud for the first time in years. “Imagine a kid, a new guy transferred from some other school, who was ignored for the most part at first, then made fun of and who had tons of crazy, bizarre rumors floating around him. Can you imagine,” He suddenly giggled. “Even I believed that he belonged to some black magic cult. He never talked to anyone, just kept reading those weird books about science. That’s Im Jaebum for you.”

Jinyoung weakly smiled in response, because he could picture it in his head pretty well – even in university, people who studied the same subjects as Jaebum did always told that the latter was very weird in the best case scenario and plain crazy in the worst.

“I’m quite a curious person by nature, and I don’t know whether I should regret this or not, but I wanted to find out the reason why Jaebum was so weird. I wanted to find the real him and drag him out of whatever sick hole he was burying himself in, because everyone who had a working pair of eyes and cared a tad bit more could’ve seen that he wasn’t okay – teenagers need to experience life, not to be under a constant pressure about their grades. So I kept pestering him, once I literally had to sit on his lap in the library so that he wouldn’t ignore me, and slowly, step by step I punched my way through all the walls he was building around, and what I saw… What I saw wasn’t pretty.”

Despite harboring a knowledge even most twenty-somethings didn’t have at the age of only fourteen, Jaebum emotionally was still his age, maybe even younger. His entire body was already way too used to sleepless nights of studying to pass more and more tests to justify his overachiever name, but his mind… His mind still needed those simple silly things all people need to go through at his age – occasional partying, a cigarette or two, friends whom he could talk to. Emotions in general, Jaebum needed emotions, because he was turning into a lifeless robot.

“Jaebum always hated people his age, he truly hated them.” Jackson continued after clearing his throat. “But not because they were making fun of him, or spreading shit, but because he was jealous. He wanted that relatively simple life the rest of us had, but there was no way back – his parents would’ve never allowed their precious smart son to quit all the studying. In the end, he was some sort of a celebrity in the neighborhood already. When we met, he was supposed to skip two grades already, to go to eleventh instead of ninth next semester. Jaebum was supposed to have a bright future ahead of him, and nobody expected anything less than perfect from him.”

But then something unimaginable happened, something that was both a curse and a blessing to him – Jackson came into his life and flipped it upside down. They became inseparable, Jackson always making sure that Jaebum wasn’t killing himself over math problems that should’ve been solved by workers in research labs; that he was eating like a normal human being – Jackson was trying to make sure that Jaebum was living, not merely existing. And then another thing happened – Jaebum fell in love. And to Jackson’s biggest shock and disappointment, it wasn’t with him.

“We had this girl in our neighborhood.” He bitterly smiled. “You’d think that our neighborhood was somewhat blessed with all those special kids – I was extremely talented in getting into trouble, Jaebum was a soon-to-be genius, and that girl, Yejin… She had a knack for music.”

This story was full of clichés – a cold-hearted science dude heard a musician, a very pretty one on top of that, playing violin in a school festival like her life depended on it and with every note that was echoing in the crowded concert hall Jaebum’s heart was coming back to life, the melody Yejin was playing becoming his heartbeat.

“Do you know Jaebum is bisexual?” Jackson asked, averting his stare from the floor back to Jinyoung. “I— I don’t mean it like it’s something terribly important, but—“

“I had an idea.” The younger admitted. “I was aware that he was engaged at some point of his life, and that his fiancée was, well… A girl. From those bits he told me, it didn’t sound like he was planning to marry her because he had to hide his sexuality, so even though he never talked about it… I kind of knew.”

Jackson seemed somewhat amused at his words, even though Jinyoung didn’t really understand the reason behind the smile that tugged his lip corners up, and then he continued the story. “He always was a fool for her, she had Jaebum wrapped around her finger – and not in a bad way, they both were goners for each other. I’m not going to deny, by that time I myself had a crush on Jaebum already, but I wanted the best for him, so I pulled some strings to hook them up. She was our age as well, and it wasn’t really a surprise that they clicked immediately.”

That girl, Kim Yejin, turned out to be the water to Jaebum’s fire that was burning his personality and the fire to the water that was drowning him inside; Jaebum felt like he finally found the purpose to actually put some effort in things other than school – to try and graduate earlier not only because of the fact he simply could do so, but so that he could find a job and build a house for both of them, a place where they were supposed to be happy and where he could give her everything. But it wasn’t that simple.

“We were eighteen then, two dumb senior year high school students and a second year university student that Jaebum was due to those few grades he skipped.” Jackson said. “He was in a relationship with Yejin for more than a year already, but then something happened. She started disappearing somewhere for days, weeks even, and we wouldn’t know where she was. Jaebum… Jaebum was going out of his mind, I had to sleep at his place in order to make sure he wouldn’t jump from his bed at night running somewhere to find her. And then one day, this idiot just stormed into her parents’ house only to find out that Yejin was in a hospital. She had this disease, I’m not very good with all those medical terms, but it was something about her muscles. It wasn’t terminal per se, but it was incurable, and she was bound to lose control over her movements, meaning she wouldn’t be able to play violin ever again.”

Yejin successfully hid it for years, excusing her weakness with simple fatigue from studying for entrance exams to music academy, whenever Jaebum had to carry her home on his back. The latter asked her parents not to tell her that he knew, he never visited her in the hospital, patiently waiting for her to come back, but there was a mayhem happening behind the closed doors of his room – Jaebum didn’t sleep, didn’t eat or drink, his whole life became dedicated to various researches to find a cure for Yejin’s disease, but he kept bumping into obstacles, nothing worked and he was nearing the edge. He proposed to the girl as soon as his second year of university was over, barely nineteen at the time, trying to win as much time for them as possible.

And then it was Jackson who went crazy.

“I saw how much they were suffering, both of them. Yejin was hiding her sicknesses, torturing herself in that practice room when she barely could hold the violin for longer than ten minutes, Jaebum was trying to tie himself to a person who was slowly dying, ignoring that fact that he can’t do anything about it and searching for any possible opportunity. And I…”

And Jackson was utterly in love, in love with Jaebum for as long as he can remember. He was a whole bunch of emotions at the same time – he tried to keep up the happy-go-lucky image everyone knew him by, he tried be genuinely happy about the engagement of his friends, he was angry that he can’t change anything, he hated himself for introducing Yejin to Jaebum that day.

“Sure, I loved her like my own sister, like a best friend.” Jackson’s voice was already cracking and Jinyoung didn’t know when he will burst into tears. “But I was only a stupid eighteen year old suffering from unrequited love, so I tried to end it in my own way – I cut all the ties with them, forced myself to ignore Jaebum whenever our paths crossed and that one time he confronted me about it, I told him something unforgivable. I called him a freak, like bullies used to call him at school. And he turned away and never looked at me again.”

“And what happened then?” Jinyoung asked after some hesitation, because the story felt far from being complete. “His fiancée, Yejin, died anyway, right? He said she was killed in an accident.”

Jackson’s eyes got dark upon mentioning it and he clenched his jaw. “Yes, she died, but it wasn’t an accident. It was just easier to let Jaebum think like that.”

He successfully avoided the couple for a year or so, and then Yejin found him herself. By the time, her symptoms were progressing rapidly, it was a matter of time when Jaebum would’ve found out about her disease – officially, at least – and she came searching for her former best friend.

Jackson was already involved with some questionable company, living in the streets, but that evening, when Jaebum was stuck in the library studying for his last final of his third year of university and couldn’t take Yejin home from the academy she was studying at, he came to meet her instead. He was slightly tipsy, but sober enough to behave properly, listening to everything she was telling over that cup of coffee they bought in a coffee shop next to some subway station.

“She asked me to find Jaebum and talk to him, because she didn’t want him to be alone, when she… Well, when she becomes a shell of a girl she once was, and I eventually agreed. I was walking her to a train, but she suddenly felt weak again, her disease was acting up and she lost her balance.” Jackson had to cough out the knot that was forming in his throat. “I tried to catch her, and probably watching from afar it looked like we were fighting, or like I was assaulting her, because on top of everything I started shouting something… And the rest is history. She fell from the platform and I was accused of assault and murder.”

Jinyoung was stunned, to say the least, heart beating heavily and with pity. “But you weren’t guilty. There were CCTVs, her medical records, anything could’ve served as a proof that she was having an episode of her disease and—“

“I didn’t want that.” Jackson interrupted him. “Call me stupid, because that’s what I am, but I felt guilty. For leaving their side for such a long time, for leaving Jaebum when he needed a friend the most. So the most logical conclusion in my head was to admit to the charges. For me, that was a way to protect Jaebum from thinking that she died because he was incapable of finding a cure. I’d rather let him believe that I’m a murderer than allow him to hate himself for something he had no control over.”

“So that’s why…” Jinyoung mumbled, near tears himself. “That’s why he never allowed himself to love someone again. One person he loved died, and the other one… He thought that the other one is a murderer.”

After that Jaebum gathered the shards of his life into his palm, letting all the sharp edges repeatedly cut him, and proceeded with his warped perception of life, trying to punish the entire world for all the wrongdoings he experienced.

“Are you going to tell this to him?” Jinyoung asked, seeing Jackson abruptly standing up and ready to go.

“No.” The elder shook his head, suddenly feeling drained. “Sometimes it’s better not to touch old wounds. It’s already too late to try to repair what we had, and for the time being, Mark’s my priority. Maybe he’ll be the first person I finally manage to help to. I found his mother.”

Jinyoung’s eyes widened. “How? I tried everything, but it seems like she disappeared.”

“I have my ways.” Jackson smiled, but his smile was very, incredibly sad and worn out. “She should be there in the center already, she promised to go there today – so don’t rush back to work, I’m sure they have a lot of things to talk about. I myself will visit him tomorrow.”

 

However, when Jinyoung got back to his former workplace later in the evening, sick of walking in circles around his apartment, trying to process all the information he came to know, Mark was in his ward alone, lying on the bed with his back facing the door, almost all of his body hidden under a blanket.

“Mark?” Jinyoung called and the name echoed through the silent room. He knew that the elder is awake, he saw how his boyfriend’s shoulders moved in surprise at him entering so silently, but Mark still didn’t stay a word. “Is everything okay?”

“Peachy.” Mark said, voice muffled by the blanket and Jinyoung sighed at the sarcasm that his voice was dripping with. The younger brushed his fingers against Mark’s back in attempt to comfort even if he had no idea what he was comforting the elder for. However, Mark surprisingly was having none of it, shaking Jinyoung’s hand off and sitting up. “Don’t touch me.”

“What’s going on?”

Mark sat in silence for a while, his stare drilling a hole somewhere in the wall in front of him before he opened his mouth. “Seems like I made a mistake yet again, Jinyoung. It’s funny, don’t you think? I can solve math problems, chemistry, physics, and yet I can’t stop failing all the simple things. My mother was here this afternoon.”

Jinyoung only looked at him not saying anything, waiting for the rest of the story to escape his lips. “She barely changed over the years, you know. She looks almost exactly the same, just like I remember her thirteen years ago when I was bawling my eyes out after realizing that she’s leaving me alone with all these weird guys and not planning to come back. The owner of the facility tried to console me by feeding me empty promises that she’ll be visiting on weekends, so I used to put on my best clothes every Saturday morning and wouldn’t take them off until very late Sunday evening, but she never came. And now she was sitting there, on the same chair as you now, looking at her only son whom she hasn’t seen nor talked to for the last thirteen fucking years. But her stare, Jinyoung, her stare was something I didn’t expect to see.”

“What did you see?”

Mark sighed, resting his chin on his knees, “I saw that she was tense, but I thought it’s okay, thirteen years is a long time, it’s only natural to be awkward. But as the time was passing and we kept sitting in silence, I learned that it wasn’t that, it wasn’t awkwardness. She was afraid.”

Jinyoung frowned, not sure what the elder is talking about. “Afraid? Of what?”

Mark’s voice was shaking as if he was about to cry not matter how hard he tried to suppress his tears, all of his calm and stoic demeanor he demonstrated all this time gone in seconds. “She was afraid of me, of whom I’ve become. When she came in, I wanted to hug her, but before I even managed to move, she flinched and stepped back as if she thought I’m going to hit her. How ironic, isn’t it? I underwent the surgery for her to accept me, and in the end it was all useless, because she’s afraid of me.”

Mark was finally crying, letting out all the emotions that were bottled up so well for these past weeks. He was sobbing on Jinyoung’s shoulder, fingers tightly grasping the material of the younger’s shirt and the latter clenched his jaw to suppress his own tears – he had to stay strong for Mark, to be that comfort the elder always was to him.

“Why aren’t you afraid of me?” It was hard to understand his words, drowned by tears and unending sobs. “Why are you going through all of this for me? Why don’t you just leave me?”

“I can’t.” Jinyoung mumbled somewhere into Mark’s neck, his grip around the elder tightening as if he was afraid that his boyfriend would disappear. “I can’t be afraid of you, because you’re not that kind of person I should be afraid of. When you love a person, you’re not afraid of him, because you trust him enough not to hurt you.”

“Then doesn’t it mean that my mother doesn’t love me?”

Jinyoung sighed, fingers running through Mark’s back. “No, not at all. She came here, after all those years, she came to visit you and that’s the best proof that she still cares about you. Your mother just needs time to adjust to the situation, to the fact that you’re not a person she expected to see.”

“I wrote her a letter.” Mark mumbled somewhere into Jinyoung’s chest later, when they both were snuggled on the bed of the ward, the scientist letting his boyfriend to hide his face until all the tears stopped completely. “If we won’t find a way for me to stay like this, at least temporarily, give that letter to her. It’s okay if she refuses it at first, just leave it to her and I’ll be glad about that. I want to make things right, I want her to know that she shouldn’t be afraid of me.”

“We will find a cure for you.” Jinyoung said, stroking the elder’s hair to ease him down at least like that. “We will find a cure and you’ll be able to tell her all that yourself, you’ll talk everything out and it’s going to be fine. We’ll get married, adopt a few children and a dog maybe, and we’ll watch each other getting bald and ugly over the years. We all are going to be fine.”

His voice became a whisper, a failed attempt to convince himself with everything he was telling. He reminded himself of Jaebum that moment, because how were they different, really – both ready to go incredible lengths for their loved ones, whispering sweet nothings and lies about their future that was more than uncertain. But it worked for Mark, as the latter was slowly falling asleep, face still shiny from all the tears that had yet to dry.

Jinyoung stayed until he was completely sure that the elder is asleep, silently getting off the bed to resume his work at the lab. He took the letter Mark left on the table next to the bed, clutching it in his hand, but as soon as he closed the doors of the ward, he had had to gather all his strength in order not to let out a scream, as he got startled by a person standing in the corridor. It was Jaebum.

“What— What are you doing here?” Jinyoung asked, feeling his heart pounding so fast, it seemed like it was going to jump out of his chest. “You scared me.”

“This is my property, you shouldn’t question what I’m doing here.” Jaebum’s voice was emotionless, not very different from how he would talk with any stranger. “What are you doing here, that’s a better question. I thought I fired you and forbade you to enter this place?”

“Mark—“

Jaebum’s eyebrows rose in question. “Mark? He quit. You’re all so quick to run away, and then you crawl back?”

“He’s sick.” Jinyoung blurted out, hoping that something from his speech will reach the elder’s heart, he couldn’t be that cruel. “We think he’s getting back to his old self, his symptoms are getting worse and he’s having seizures, so we’re trying to find a cure, and I was hoping you’d help us—“

Jaebum frowned, raising his palm to stop his past lover. “Help? And why exactly should I? You started acting up like a lovestruck fool, Tuan quit the research himself. My work here is done, there’s no reason why I should work with the two of you.”

Jinyoung froze, suddenly feeling anger, pure rage, boiling in his veins. “What do you mean, there’s no reason? He’s like that because of you, if it wasn’t for you and your fucked up experiments, he would be okay, he wouldn’t be vomiting blood everywhere. We would be fucking happy without all your stupid shit.”

The elder’s facial expression didn’t change from that cold, emotionless face when he told, “He’s just a failed experiment, sometimes it happens, you should know what very well. And what do you do with failed experiments? You discard them and do something else. Science is beautiful like that, Jinyoung – you don’t need to get attached. There’s always something new to work on.”

Jinyoung lost it. He just wanted to bite, to spit fire, and maybe even punch the man in front of him, but he spat out only a, “I thought you can’t sink any lower anymore, but it seems like there’s really no limit for you. And I thought that the story with Yejin was a sign that you were capable to feel human emotions.”

He caught himself too late, blurting out things he weren’t supposed to in the moment of anger, hitting where it hurts the most. Jaebum suddenly got very pale, like all the color would’ve been sucked out of his face. He didn’t question where Jinyoung knew the story from, he didn’t ask anything, just slammed the younger into the wall, face only a few inches away. “Don’t you dare to say that name ever again.”

Jinyoung let out the breath he was holding in, feeling his head pounding in pain from hitting it into the wall, and Jaebum finally released him telling, “You both can stay here till Monday morning, but I don’t want to see any of you after that. Youngjae and Yugyeom too. It’s too late to do anything.”

“It’s not la—“ Jinyoung wanted to interrupt, but the elder grabbed the letter he still was holding in his palm, a bit wrinkled from his grip. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Is it written by Mark?”

“Yes. I think so, at least he told me so.”

“Then it’s too late.” Jaebum repeated and turned to go, leaving Jinyoung to stare at the letter, now seeing what the older scientist saw, with horror and another wave of tears in his eyes.

The handwriting didn’t belong to Mark anymore, firm and tightly knit together syllables that were so familiar to Jinyoung were replaced by shaky, almost unreadable lines, much like what you’d see in elementary school student’s notes.

Mark was losing his ability to write and his brain didn’t even register that, passing it as his normal writing.

Chapter Text

Time had stopped at 3:26 AM that night – it seemed like someone had frozen all the clocks, making Jinyoung feel trapped and afraid that this night will never end; both literally and figuratively.

He was sitting in the lab completely alone, only with a desk lamp dimly lighting up his surroundings. It was quiet, scarily quiet as Yugyeom and Youngjae were out to catch up on those few minutes of sleep they desperately needed, and Jinyoung had his eyes fixed on only one thing – the letter, or a pile of papers that were supposed to be one, full of completely unintelligible lines, not even reminding of something that a healthy twenty-eight year old man would write.

Jinyoung looked at those pages with anger, pure rage and disgust, like one would look at a huge poisonous spider that could’ve jumped and bitten him to death any second; like the vicious sickness that was eating Mark from inside was being emitted from the paper. Honestly, at some point he thought that it wouldn’t be so bad, to be heroically sick instead of his boyfriend – to find a way to transfer the sickness to his body or to donate a few organs for Mark to extend his time here while they were searching for the treatment. He wouldn’t even bat an eyelash before doing so, but it wasn’t possible and all he could do was to cry and scream at the void in front of him; hit his head into the table he was sitting at hoping for something, anything, to appear in his head that would help save Mark.

The pair of his colleagues returned early in the morning when a few rays of the sun were about to slip through dark grey clouds, mouths ready to greet Jinyoung in a perky “good morning”, as those few hours of nap did wonders, but they immediately caught up on the mood, realizing that something was off yet again, even more than usual. Jinyoung was sitting in the same place not moving, barely even blinking and breathing, red and puffy eyes looking at the pile of papers in front of him, but not really focusing on anything.

“Is everything okay?” Yugyeom carefully asked, and it sounded somehow ridiculous given the situation they all were in, because during these past few weeks nothing was okay, not even close to it.

At first the elder didn’t respond, he looked like he wasn’t even aware of other people standing in the room, his brain refusing to get out of this weird glitch where he wasn’t really awake anymore, but he wasn’t sleeping either. He heard voices speaking, but they looked so, so far away and it took a slight shake of his shoulder from Youngjae for him to flinch, eyes finally focusing on the guys, “I— what?”

“What’s that, are you working on something?” Youngjae asked, pointing at the letter, and unknowingly, Jinyoung let out a wail, his body’s automatic response to something he didn’t want to exist. He thought that maybe if he prayed hard enough and ignored it, it wouldn’t be real, a very bad dream perhaps, or a hallucination, Jaebum’s words not meaning anything at all. But his colleagues saw the letter too, hence it was real, and it held all the aftermath that they were about to face.

“A letter.”

“Is it… Is it Mark’s?” Yugyeom felt weird, like the object he was curious about held some bad energy in it. His words were slow and unsure, but it didn’t get any verbal response from the older guy. “Why… Why are you keeping it here, in the lab?”

Jinyoung made a weird gesture, one that both of the younger guys took as a confirmation and approval for them taking a look at it. In the end, there was nothing personal in the letter anyway, because it didn’t even mean anything asides the fact that were losing their patient.

“There’s only weird scribbles? Yugyeom silently mumbled, more to himself than to anyone else. He was the only one speaking, because Jinyoung didn’t have any strength left to talk and his throat was hurting due to all the muffled cries, and Youngjae was too stunned to do so. “I guess, agraphia?”

“I don’t know.” Jinyoung finally said, voice cracking and turning into more of a whisper. “He has no awareness of something being wrong with his handwriting and his speech is perfectly fine. Jaebum said it’s too late to do anything.”

It was Youngjae that finally spoke upon the name being mentioned. “Jaebum? When did you two meet?”

“Last evening, he came back to work earlier and was there when I got out of Mark’s ward.” Jinyoung decided to save time and explanations, not mentioning most of the conversation, saying only, “I had the letter in my hands and he just took a look at it and said it’s a lost cause. He also said— He said that we have to get out of here until Monday morning. You two, as well.”

Yugyeom didn’t look fazed by the past part of his words like deep inside he had been expecting this, so he only sighed and told, “If his handwriting looks like that, it’s most probably peripheral apraxic agraphia and it happens due to a damage in certain regions of the brain. We need more tests to confirm, though.”

The way he spoke was emotionless and monotonous, like he would be working in a regular hospital and diagnosing any other patient, and that struck Jinyoung like lightning, making him unable to hold himself back, directing his anger and helplessness towards anyone only to get rid of the feeling that something is tearing him apart in thousands of pieces. “Then fucking do something about it, you didn’t get a degree in neurology for nothing.”

It was due to all the stress and pressure, all the treading on eggshells and the limits their bodies were pushed to, so it wasn’t really a surprise that Yugyeom wasn’t up for being shouted at, firing back with a cold, “And what exactly am I supposed to do, crack his skull open and play with it like it’s playdoh, when I have no idea what caused the damage in the first place? You can’t just play pin the tail with brain like that and hope to hit the right spot in order to fix it.”

“Maybe it’s the microchip that they planted in to track his brain?” A sudden idea popped up in Jinyoung’s head. It was ridiculous and desperate, but at least something to hold on to. “Maybe he’s just allergic to it, or something went wrong while inserting it, or something like that?”

“No.” Yugyeom was trying to be patient and understanding, a bit sorry for snapping back when they all saw what kind of condition the older researcher was in, but there were only so many comforting things he could’ve said. “Allergies don’t act like that and he was operated by the best surgeons in the country, Jaebum made sure of that.”

“Maybe it’s because of the seizure, seizures can damage brain.” Jinyoung tried again, mind working rapidly to work on every idea possible, mentally going through all the material he had ever learned in school. “No other illness progresses as rapid as this, he was fine this morning and then suddenly he cannot write anymore after a few hours? Maybe it’s a virus of some sorts, they can damage brain too? ”

Yugyeom only put his hand on Jinyoung’s shoulder, a hopeless attempt to calm him down, because he was becoming unreasonable, feverishly mumbling ideas and theories like they all were back to med school again. “Jinyoung, you can’t pull out an encyclopedia and just read all the illnesses searching for the one that would fit his symptoms. We neither have time for that nor it’s going to help. And maybe… Even if we do find out what’s wrong with him, it might not have a cure.”

It was the first time someone said it out loud, the echo of the sentence lingering around. They all carried those words deep in their minds from the very first day, hidden and buried under layers of hope and optimism. And now it just escaped into the room like that, slapping their faces with cruel reality without any prior warning. However, Jinyoung chose to blatantly ignore all this, closing his eyes, taking a deep breath and moving on.

“But nothing explains why his are symptoms progressing that fast.”

Youngjae finally interrupted their dialogue, eyes shifting elsewhere as he remembered something. “Actually, I have a feeling that I know why he got so sick over such a short span of days.” He took a few steps towards the shelves were they usually kept all the medicine, including the bottles of chemicals they used to treat Mark with after his surgery, opening it only to confirm his theory. Almost all the bottles were gone, only a few half empty containers of light blue liquid left. “I once met him going out of the lab with his pockets full of something, but back then I didn’t realize. If he continued drinking this shit behind our backs, it’s not a surprise that he’s deteriorating this fast.”

It felt like the ground was shaking and Jinyoung had to grab the corner of the table he was sitting at. What Mark did was beyond understanding and he couldn’t wrap his head around it, he didn’t know how it made sense for his boyfriend to do something like that, literally killing himself.

And then after a few moments it clicked in his mind, all the moments when Mark would hold him closer and promise to stay around for as long as possible, those mysterious sayings that Jinyoung shouldn’t worry about the elder returning to his old self just yet. Jinyoung was a loser at a loss of words, feeling hot tears welling up in his eyes yet again, because Mark was doing it for him, to stay around him for as long as possible until Jinyoung will be able to let go.

So Mark did the only thing he could think of – drank the medicine that helped him to stay intact and killed him at the same time.

It took a while to confirm Youngjae’s guess, they had to wait for decent hours of the morning to wake their patient up and do another bunch of tests that were all met with a wide unsuspecting smile of Mark’s, the latter being all chatty and bright as usual, idiotically optimistic and not knowing what was going on and that his intentions were known to them already; making plans to go to the library to work on his case immediately after they let him go.

Mark kept continuously asking where Jinyoung was that morning, the latter being absent from all the tests. And Yugyeom, accompanied by Youngjae, lied as best as he could, saying that Jinyoung went to sleep a bit, when in the reality he was in the restroom, hiding himself in one of the stalls and crying his eyes out to the point it started to physically hurt.

“The damage on his brain is so severe, I’m surprised he’s still functioning like that, let alone having his intelligence remain the same.” Yugyeom said, looking at the test results a few hours later, eyes rapidly running through all the scans and numbers. “More than a half of his parietal lobe is fried and his blood tests say that his own body is sending signals to attack the brain due to all the mutations of the cells.” He stopped for a while, trying not to look at Jinyoung who was standing in front of him like a lifeless stage prop. “Jinyoung, I’m sorry to make such a comparison, but he’s a ticking bomb. His brains can shut down any second. It can take a few weeks, it can take a few minutes – he can become deaf, blind, he can simply stop breathing if it hits the wrong place. We can’t predict anything anymore. Jaebum, even though deserving to rot in the ninth circle of hell for all of this, was right. It’s too late.”

Jinyoung didn’t say anything, feeling everything blurring in front of him yet again, but this time it wasn’t because of tears. The blur was weird this time, like the white noise of a broken TV, a blur that didn’t allow him to breathe as if sucking all the air out of his lungs. He didn’t hear anything anymore, he didn’t feel how he just sat dropped on the floor wrapping his arms around himself desperately trying to breathe in. He didn’t notice how Youngjae kneeled in front of him shaking his shoulders and telling something – nothing mattered anymore.

Mark was dying and Jinyoung felt like his heart was about to stop any second, too.

When he finally got back to his senses, feeling the panic attack slowly backing off, he realized he was joined by his colleagues, each one sitting by his sides, trying to calm him down. Youngjae was holding two piles of documents, but opened his mouth only after Yugyeom came back with a glass of water for Jinyoung and asked, “What are those?”

Youngjae deeply inhaled looking as if it was hard for him to speak, bothered by something, but soon he said, handing them the documents, one folder each, “I know it might not be the right time, but Jaebum is firing us all, what I got from what Jinyoung told us earlier, and before quitting I want to make things right. Look through all the papers, it should contain every single paper you’ve ever signed during all the time you worked here. Check if there’s anything missing, just in case.”

Neither of the two remaining guys understood what was it all about and Youngjae didn’t bother explaining, telling only, “Jinyoung, have you signed any papers related to Mark, like… Papers you weren’t supposed to sign?”

Jinyoung had a paper like that, the consent form he faked Mark’s mother’s signature on vivid in his memory like a knife that just went deeper into his heart, the wound that will never really heal burning him with guilt and disgust of himself. He didn’t even have to nod, Youngjae knew, taking the consent out of his lab coat pocket and it giving it back to the very confused elder.

“Now go, both of you. Yugyeom, I signed a recommendation letter for you, I’m sure you’ll do very well in any clinic you choose to work in and they should accept you with open arms. And Jinyoung… Take Mark somewhere nice while he still can. I don’t know where, just… Somewhere very nice and far away from the center for the time being.”

“What about you, what are you planning to do?” Jinyoung asked, for some weird reason feeling the younger is saying his goodbyes, as if they won’t meet for a very long time. “Youngjae, what’s going on, why are you returning all these papers to us?”

“Nothing.” He smiled widely, the usual smile that used to brighten their long days of work when everything was fine. “I’m sure you’ll know soon. Now go, don’t waste any more time, guys. I’ll miss you both.”

 

They were walking in some shopping mall – a weird request of Mark’s that the latter voiced out as soon as Jinyoung finally gathered the courage to face him, entering the ward with a fake smile on his face, supported by a few pills that were supposed to prevent him from falling back into panic again. The younger’s words that they have a little bit of time to spend alone were met only with a wide smile as if Mark wouldn’t have dreamed about anything else, loudly planning all the things they were supposed to do together, every word crushing Jinyoung’s heart that was barely beating already.

A few moments after they set their feet in the building, flashy posters and a mass of people almost separating them, Mark stopped by a pet shop, looking at something with a very serious expression on his face. Naturally, Jinyoung followed his gaze, expecting to see a dog or a cat attracting the attention of his boyfriend, but it wasn’t anything like that at all.

Mark was looking at a bird, a small parrot with greenish blue feathers, trapped in a cage and desperately hitting the bars with its tiny body in attempt to get out. His eyes were sad watching all this struggle and he was thinking about something, a frown etched in his forehead, when a friendly shop assistant asked him whether he wants to hold the small pet in his palm for a while, hoping that Mark will buy the terrible mess of a bird out of pity.

Jinyoung’s eyes widened in awe and his heart clenched in yet another wave of agony seeing Mark’s eyes getting softer, looking at the little parrot with all the love in the world – really, his stare could’ve competed only with the one he always saved for Jinyoung – carefully brushing his index finger against the small head of it. The bird immediately calmed down in his palm, all the initial panic and wish to escape gone, now mimicking some weird melody that Mark only softly laughed at. But the elder’s eyes turned sad soon again.

The bird started fidgeting again, biting Mark’s fingers in desperate cries that echoed throughout the entire store, earning a few scandalized looks by other customers, because it probably sounded like Mark was torturing the bird when he did nothing at all, and the latter’s first instinct was to… Let go.

He simply opened his palm and let the bird fly, shouts of the shop assistant mixing with customers’. However, Mark was strangely, angelically calm and unbothered when they exited the store after paying for the bird that the shop lost.

“Why did you do that?” Jinyoung silently asked, the lingering memories of the scene he just witnessed feeling slightly unsettling.

“Do what?”

“Why did you let the bird go?”

Mark sighed, eyes uncharacteristically avoiding any contact with the younger’s, even though his grip around Jinyoung’s palm tightened. “It’s just… There’s a saying that birds can smell death.” Jinyoung stopped at these words, mouth slightly ajar and not knowing what to say. “And when they do, for a short moment they try to comfort the dying bird by singing to it. After that, they simply leave, fly away fast and without turning back to save themselves before predators realize that there’s a weak one in the flock that can be eaten. I sort of… got reminded of that now.” And after a short pause, he added, “If there was something that I didn’t know about my condition… You’d tell me, right?”

Jinyoung closed his eyes. He didn’t want to lie, give false hopes for both of them, but yet, at that moment, he didn’t know anything better than to fake a smile that probably looked like a mere parody, like a mask that was too big for him to pull off, and bury his forehead into Mark’s shoulder, hoping it would hide him better and mumbling, “It’s going to be fine.”

And Mark trusted him, he trusted Jinyoung’s words like he never trusted anyone ever before and they started walking again, the elder blabbering some nothings after placing a light peck on Jinyoung’s cheek, before dragging them to yet another shop.

“You need a watch?”

“It’s not for me.” Mark mischievously smiled, picking one after a few long minutes. It was a very simple one, with a dark blue strap not looking anything special at all. Only when they left the shop, finally ready to go home, Mark stopped his boyfriend, grabbing him by his wrist and Jinyoung looked at him, eyes widening in surprise. “You know, Jinyoung, time isn’t something we can just have.”

“What—“

“Yesterday and the day before it,” Mark continued, his stare being nothing but bright and loving. “You can never get them back. Time is cruel and we’re not allowed to move as we want, we can just go along the flow, but nevertheless, time is precious. Don’t forget that, okay? Don’t spend your days regretting anything that happened and wait for what time has to offer next.”

His words were scary. They were beautiful and tragic, somewhat hopeful and knowing at the same time, and Jinyoung flinched when Mark tightened the strap of the watch around his wrist, the cold and unfamiliar material burning on his skin. He mumbled something, voice weak and mind not even registering what he was saying, but Mark only smiled at that, as they were turning to return to the car.

However, they stopped as soon they reached the electronics shop, this time it being Jinyoung’s fault. There were various TVs put on display attracting people with their bright colors, all set on the same news channel. And the scientist felt his heart dropping to his feet when he saw familiar names in reports; the footage of Jaebum and Youngjae being walked out of the research center with handcuffs on their wrists, none of them resisting, heads lowered in acceptance of whatever is waiting for them.

The anchorman announcing the news said only a robotic, “Famous scientist Im Jaebum, previously gathering the public attention to his invention that could help treating patients with mental disabilities, was arrested this afternoon for various violations such as forging signatures, tax evasion and fraud – one of the victims is said to be the CEO of Yoo Medical Industries. His colleague, Choi Youngjae, is held in custody for further questioning. Stay tuned for the updates.”

So that was what Youngjae meant talking about making things right and giving back their files as if they’ve never worked in the center.

And that was what Yugyeom meant about Mark being a ticking bomb, because the latter was standing next to Jinyoung and looking at the TV screen completely unfazed, turning to his boyfriend and asking, “What does it mean, ‘to be arrested’?”

His ears were bleeding again.

Chapter Text

There is an old tale about a weaver girl and a cowherd; their forbidden love, marked by countless challenges and hardships, ending with both of the lovers being separated to the opposite sides of the Silver River. They still can meet though, once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month – a flock of magpies would form a bridge for them to meet. Not for long, only for one day, but at least they had that; and Jinyoung, cradling an old book of fairytales in his hands one night and absent-mindedly shuffling through the pages, angrily snorted at the line that said “If two hearts are united forever, why do two people need to stay together—day after day, night after night?”

He was jealous, because those lovers were granted at least something, at least that one day once a year – Jinyoung and Mark didn’t have that; Jinyoung didn’t even know if Mark was going to survive yet another night. So he tossed the book on the floor like the tale was a personal insult to him, feeling dizzy and drowsy from all the pills he took, the ones that perfectly hid his true emotions from his boyfriend, allowing them to live in a bliss of ignorance, their very own bird cage collapsing right above their heads.

Mark… He permanently moved in with Jinyoung, because everyone, gushing behind his back so he wouldn’t hear a thing – Jackson, the facility owner and Jinyoung himself – decided that it was for the best, the guy spending his days with someone he truly loved.

He was nothing but smiles, every day forgetting more and more words and people, like someone would be brushing against his mind with an eraser. His ears bled every day and Mark didn’t understand why, looking at his boyfriend, one of those few special people whose name he still remembered, with an expression full of fear, lips trembling like a child’s afraid of darkness that was about to suffocate them all.

Jinyoung never said a word whenever it happened, he tried not to cry thinking that he simply ran out of tears – there was only so many times a human could cry and it seemed like he used all his tears up in the past weeks. He would sit down next to Mark with a napkin, gently wiping away the blood and whispering soft and encouraging words; sometimes blood would get onto his fingers, reminding how they got to this situation and how guilty he was for it. And then Jinyoung would finally cry, tears rolling down despite all the attempts to hide it.

“Why are you crying?” Mark always asked the same question, looking at him with the softest gaze in the world, the one he saved for Jinyoung and him only, having no clue about what was going on. His own voice was always shaking in panic during these times, but there was another person to protect, another person who was crying, another person for Mark to be a support for – and he never hesitated. “Am I— Am I scaring you?”

And then the younger would get a mental reminder that he needed to get himself together, not to bother Mark more than he was suffering already – Jinyoung always wiped his tears away with a lighthearted, but fake laugh and said, “Of course not, what are you talking about.”

“Then why are you crying?” Mark was extremely persistent that evening, a drop of blood rolling down out of his nose this time, ruining yet another sweater – the younger didn’t even bother to wash them anymore, it was useless to do that daily; Jinyoung thought that Mark was so unsure because he cut himself with scissors by accident while trying to open a new pack of tissues due to hands shaking in panic.

“It’s because I’m—“ Jinyoung had to take a moment, his voice making a fool out of him, not allowing him to shamelessly lie to the man he grew to love the most in his life. “It’s because I’m happy.” He finally forced out, voice idiotically cracking in a sob he tried to hold in.

“Happy?” Mark tilted his head in confusion, eyes wide at this somewhat unheard and weird concept. “Usually people cry when they’re sad, don’t they?”

And probably they weren’t usual people, maybe there was some fatal mistake encoded in both of them from the very first second they entered this fucked up world – Jinyoung couldn’t find any other explanation how they ended up like that, but he still managed to force a smile. “I’m happy because you’re here.”

Because you’re still here.

Mark was silent for a while, only frowning at the unpleasant sensation of his boyfriend wiping the blood away with a napkin wet in disinfectant, and then he leaned in to place a kiss on Jinyoung’s forehead as if to console him, to kiss away the pain that was pounding into his skull like a drill. “I love you.”

By that time, Mark didn’t have most of his memories about the research center anymore, the surgery that flipped so many lives upside down almost completely gone from his mind, and after Jinyoung was done with patching him up, he was standing next to a bookshelf, going through the books, even though his brain still couldn’t get a grasp of the fact that he was unable to read anymore, too.

Jinyoung was already used to cautiously follow his boyfriend with the corner of his eye all the time, in case something happened, so he didn’t take long to notice that Mark looked sad, very, incredibly sad and tired, face pale and lips tinted with this weird blueish undertone. His breathing was heavy as well, probably due to fatigue and the sickness slowly eating him away.

“What’s wrong?” He asked, alarms setting off in his head. “Does it hurt somewhere?”

“No, it’s nothing. Just…” Mark sighed, turning to the bedroom to catch some sleep, it was a late evening anyway and there was this weird heaviness he felt in his chest, at that moment getting even heavier if that was possible. “I wish one day I was smart enough to understand them all.”

Jinyoung felt physical pain in his heart, biting his tongue and taking deep breaths to breathe the sadness out, dropping everything he had in his hands to come and hug Mark, arms tightly wrapping around the elder’s body. The latter didn’t seem to remember that he had read all these books already, margins full of corrections made when he wouldn’t agree with authors about some certain things. Mark sighed into his shoulder, as if telling sorry for bothering Jinyoung with his nonsense, and then wordlessly went to sleep to the bedroom where he now lived alone, the younger trying to give him as much space as possible.

And that night Jinyoung wasn’t able to fall asleep for some reason no matter how many pills he swallowed – he stopped after the fourth one, trying not to go insane while staring at the white ceiling of his living room, thoughts, one more ridiculous than another about how to save Mark sneaking their way into his mind. It wasn’t really late, just before midnight or so, but it still was torturing, not being able to close his eyes, but then all his thoughts were wiped out when he heard some weird noises in the bedroom, someone talking. Mark sleep talking wasn’t a rare occurrence, he was always like that, especially when dreaming something unpleasant, but Jinyoung jumped from the sofa nevertheless, rushing to free his boyfriend from any possible nightmare.

However, turned out that Mark wasn’t asleep at all – his eyes were wide open, lips feverishly moving in incoherent rushed syllables and his breathing was even more labored than before. Jinyoung stormed into the room as fast as he could, asking questions, so, so many questions that Mark, all covered in sweat and blood as his ears were bleeding again, didn’t have the answers to and didn’t even understand half of them. So he just slowly dragged his hand to Jinyoung’s mouth, gesturing him to keep quiet.

He wanted to say a lot of things – if he could’ve, he probably would have written books containing everything he wanted to say to his boyfriend, but the only words that escaped his lips were, “I love you, but— Don’t torture me anymore, Ji— Nyong. Let me go.”

It was that moment when the latter finally understood – everything was lost and burning like wildfire. His hand stopped midway searching his phone in the pockets of his jeans to call the ambulance, there was nothing they could do; every treatment they could try would’ve been temporary, only making Mark suffer even more in attempt to tie his body to the world he didn’t belong in anymore.

“It’s time to let go.” Mark’s words were becoming a whisper, speaking requiring more and more strength from him that he didn’t have anymore, followed by series of coughs that pierced right through all the walls, droplets of blood dropping on his shirt and on the bedsheets. “Bird… A bird needs to fly.”

Jinyoung couldn’t hold himself together anymore – by now he was helplessly clutching onto Mark’s hand, that soft, warm but weak hand, as if trying to hold him back, hot tears spilling everywhere, but he was only a loser, only a mere human being against nature.

Mark took a deep breath, trying to gather his remainders of strength he had left to slowly run his fingers through Jinyoung’s hair, in the exact same way he did countless times before, when things were different. “Beep beep.” He breathed out and Jinyoung lifted his teary eyes to look at him, seeming so angelically calm while saying these words, the same ridiculous words he said when the scientist came to the facility for the first time to get him into this disaster. “It’s you, the beep beep guy.”

“Beep beep.” Jinyoung repeated like a prayer, trying not to choke on the sobs that were shaking his body. “Beep— Beep.”

One could use these words to describe a lot of things, you just need to tell them in a different pace and emotion; it could’ve meant a car horn; it could’ve meant the calling signal once you call someone over the phone. It can also mean a heartbeat, the very last beats of Mark’s heart that eventually became mute a few minutes later.

The clock on Jinyoung’s wrist, the same one Mark bought him, stopped at 1:31 AM, when a little bird finally escaped Mark’s chest; free and uncatchable, leaving Jinyoung screaming and begging to return.

 

There is another legend, the one Jinyoung learned only two years later, telling that a flower, a very special one and known by various names – red spider lily, hurricane lily or simply a corpse flower – exists, paving the way to someone you meet for the last time; it would bloom along the path to the person whom you’ll never see again; and naturally, Jinyoung wished for something like that to happen, for a hurricane lily to lead him to Mark one day, but it didn’t happen.

Instead, it was snow.

Jinyoung felt himself dragging his bare feet through piles of snow, leaving traces as if for someone to follow. He didn’t feel his skin burning in cold, he didn’t feel the chilly wind breathing into his face, caressing his cheeks with fleeting touches of winter, he didn’t feel anything – and it was ridiculously freeing after all these years of nothing but pain and suffer, it was so good to feel numb. Jinyoung didn’t even know where he was going or how he got there in the first place, he just felt the urge to move forward in hope to find someone out there, among all the snow. To try and find Mark, the same person who was endlessly torturing him in dreams almost every night anyway.

Jinyoung felt tired from aimless walking, he was about to turn around and go searching for another direction, the one he hadn’t walked in yet, when he finally saw him – it was undoubtedly Mark, standing in the horizon far away from him. The elder was also barefoot just like he was, only with a hospital gown to protect his body from the cold, but his toothy and wide smile was still tearing his cheeks apart, so perfectly visible even from afar.

There were a few other people with him, playing in the snow a bit further – Jinyoung was sure he could recognize faces of Jackson, Bambam, Youngjae and Yugyeom, they were laughing at something, laugh wild and uncontrollable, hitting each other with snowballs they made while trying to build a snowman of some sorts. Jinyoung stayed still, not moving, just observing this whole scene as it didn’t seem like the guys would notice his presence, and then his eyes met Mark’s again.

And what a miracle – a few seconds later, Jinyoung didn’t even understand how, Mark appeared next to him, dragging him into a warm hug, the one he missed so much during these two years, and it suddenly made the younger forget everything – all the struggles to keep himself sane during all the mayhem that was happening deep inside, all the screams that were absorbed by his the walls of his apartment.

However, the hug wasn’t bound to last – it was all a dream anyway, a dream Jinyoung didn’t want to wake up from; ready to stay here for the rest of the eternity if only that granted Mark being with him, but the latter shook his head as if hearing his thoughts. And he probably did, there were absolutely no rules in this realm.

“You need to move on, Jinyoung.” Mark’s voice was still the same as the latter remembered, but still somehow different and unfamiliar, like it wouldn’t belong either to the guy himself or in the world Jinyoung was hopelessly stuck at. “It’s time to let the bird fly.”

It hurt, it burned, and it made Jinyoung want to scream from pain, heart twisting in the most painful way yet again upon hearing those words he dreaded so much after Mark died. But he also was aware of the fact that Mark was right – somewhere deep in his heart, he knew he needed to let it go and save himself, that mess of a twenty-nine year old guy who was ruining his own life drowning his thoughts in alcohol more often than not, working various part time jobs to keep himself fed and taxes paid, but hating every single one of them; avoiding any lab-related job on purpose.  

“But I love you.” There wasn’t much Jinyoung could’ve thought of saying, the same words he always whispered at least once a week when he’d visit Mark’s grave with a bouquet of flowers; always carnations, the same ones they talked about before becoming a couple, as if to test his destiny – and the third one would always die first, condemning Jinyoung to suffer for the rest of his life.

“I love you too.” Mark softly brushed his fingers against the younger’s cheek, before turning around to look at the bunch of guys, now lying down on the snow, some making snow angels, some just lying there and laughing. “But they need you. Remember what I’ve told you about time, Jinyoung. You can’t change the past, so there’s no use of you hibernating in it for the rest of your days. If you want to change something, change your future, don’t make yourself regret.”

Jinyoung noticed that Mark was slowly starting to fade, ready to disappear yet again, but they both knew that this time it was permanent. The younger unknowingly dragged Mark closer, as if trying to hold him back, tears welling up in his eyes, facing yet another separation. He remembered the tale of the weaver girl and a cowherd again – and he didn’t feel jealous anymore, now feeling how painful the separation is after being allowed to see each other.

“Don’t leave me.” he whispered, his voice cracking. “Please.”

“I’m not going to leave you.” Mark responded, smiling widely and brushing Jinyoung’s tears away with his thumbs with all the love he had. His hands found their way down to the younger’s heart, which was beating wildly and hurriedly, so contrasting with Mark’s nonexistent heartbeats. “I’m always here. But it’s time to go, for both of us.”

Then everything started to disappear as if someone would be erasing all the details one by one – Mark slowly faded into the background, all the guys were gone too. It started snowing - for the first time this winter, Jinyoung thought – but when he lifted his eyes to look up at the abnormally blue sky, he realized that those weren’t snowflakes. It was feathers, hundreds of them floating in air, as if symbolizing that hope and peace he yearned for so much, symbolizing that new beginning Mark wanted so much for him to see.

And Jinyoung finally smiled, for the first time in years, accepting it and granting that one wish of his boyfriend’s, in the end he was right again – time isn’t something we all could simply have. Yesterday and the day before, you can never get them back. Time is cruel and we’re not allowed to move as we want, we can just go along the flow, but nevertheless time is precious. So there’s no point in regretting.

He turned his head and finally noticed another person, two of them, actually, and a smile lighted up his face again. Jaebum was there too, sitting on the snow, not caring about freezing at all, while a girl standing in front of him was playing violin.

Jaebum was crying, but he was also smiling at the same time, and for a short while his and Jinyoung’s eyes met and the latter slightly nodded to him. It’s always easy to hate, but it takes strength to be gentle and kind; and maybe, Jinyoung thought, maybe he had some left to forgive.

 

He woke up back in his apartment, jumping from the sofa and looking around as if to make sure he was really there, only to see a huge mess he never noticed before – all the empty packs of junk food he had been keeping himself alive on, a few bottles of alcohol here and there, the trash bags that were supposed to be taken out a few days ago, all the other things scattered on the ground after his yet another fit of thrashing his own place out of despair earlier that evening.

He stayed at his living room for these long years, the bedroom becoming a cursed and scary place he never visited after the funeral. But for the first time, he felt the urge to go, to finally force himself to face his biggest fear, and so he did, slowly and timidly opening the door.

The room was clean, he always took care of that even if he never bothered with anything else in this apartment, making sure to pay the neighbor auntie for changing the bedsheets every week while he was visiting Mark, and Jinyoung took a seat on the corner of the bed.

There was supposed to be a photo on the nightstand, flipped over so Jinyoung would never ever see the contents of it again, but that night he put it back into its former place, revealing a photo of him and Mark, the latter making some weird silly face at the camera as they were taking a walk somewhere back when he first moved in after quitting the experiment. Jinyoung found himself slowly brushing his fingertips against the elder’s face, forever frozen in that happy uncaring expression that he was meant to be remembered by.

And then he started sobbing again, but this time it finally wasn’t because he was in pain over the loss. It was because he wasn’t weak and alone anymore, he wasn’t planning on giving up anymore; he wasn’t afraid of starting anew.

Because Mark was there once.

 

His clock, Mark’s gift that he never took off, started ticking again at 1:32 AM like it wouldn’t have stayed completely still for the past two years, but Jinyoung didn’t even notice it, trying to clean his flat in a weird rush – all the sleepiness and tiredness was gone, head now full of plans of how to live again.

Yes, he will clean the apartment over the night, then he will finally return those countless calls Yugyeom was constantly attacking him with; a few days later he’ll go to the cemetery to visit Mark’s grave and see that this time all three carnations somehow survived the harsh weather as if wishing him luck with his new life.

A few weeks later, Youngjae will be released from jail after two years he’d been sentenced with, getting it relatively easy after admitting to all the things he had done and even to those he hadn’t, they all – him, Yugyeom and Jinyoung – will meet to discuss a plan of opening a new research center even if Youngjae will be afraid that his reputation, shredded in pieces, will affect their work. It's going to be hard, but it will be fine.

Few months later, he will visit Jaebum in jail, being the first visitor in years; at first they won’t talk at all, both of them finding it more comfortable to look anywhere else but each other, but then, moments before leaving, Jinyoung will hug him and Jaebum will cry, begging for forgiveness and spitting out apologies that were due a long time ago. Jaebum will beg not to leave him alone for those ten upcoming years he still has left out of his twelve year sentence. And when Jinyoung will exit the room, he’ll meet Jackson, waiting for his turn to finally face the past. It’s going to be fine as well.

And then, Jinyoung will live happily ever after, bringing the memory of Mark Tuan with him everywhere he goes – however, not as a burden and a source of pain, but as a very, incredibly precious memory he will never forget, and most definitely, never regret.

Somewhere, a winter bird will sing, its beautiful song echoing in Jinyoung’s ears every morning as he’s driving to work; every day until the winter passes and spring comes.

Both in Seoul and in Jinyoung’s heart.