It's been pelting down rain for the last hour and the only customers Jacob has seen in that time were a bunch of teenagers, too giddy and giggling to care about getting wet as they piled onto the amusement park ride.
But even they cleared off when the rain kept coming. Jacob can't imagine there's anyone left now except employees like him, stuck counting down the minutes until they can clock off.
Finally it hits nine pm, and Jacob can punch his card and go home. He heads to the parking lot (this too almost deserted, with everyone hurrying home as quickly as they can, trying to avoid the rain) where his car is parked in the very furthest corner. He's just about to get in when he hears something.
"Who's there?" Jacob says, warily, peering out from under his umbrella in the direction of the bushes. He frowns. It sounds almost like a wounded animal... He fumbles in his pocket for his device, turns on the flashlight, and gets the shock of his life.
There's two men, both soaked to the bone, one of them unconscious and cradled in the arms of the other, the front of his thin shirt streaked with what looks like blood. "Stay back!" the unhurt (less hurt?) one snarls, hand thrown up against the light. "Don't come any closer!"
"I'm not going to hurt you," Jacob says, immediately turning the light off again and taking a big step back.
In the dim lighting of the parking lot, neon reflections shimmering against the wet asphalt, Jacob blinks rapidly, trying to recall what he'd seen in that brief moment. The one who spoke was wearing what looked like body armour, and the unconscious one was in some kind of uniform. They were both lean, fit, like athletes or soldiers.
They looked less like homeless people, and more like fugitives.
"You couldn't hurt me if you tried," the man says, with a weary laugh.
"Well, I'm not going to try," Jacob says firmly. He crouches down in the rain, so he's closer to eye level with both of them. Then he folds up his umbrella and holds it out, handle first. "Here. Take this."
"What?" The man sounds startled.
"Take it." Jacob thrusts it forward again. "You're getting drenched."
"So are you!"
"You need it more."
After a moment the man reaches out, takes the umbrella. It makes a faint popping sound as it snaps into shape, giving a little shelter to them both.
"Your friend looks like he needs help," Jacob says. The rain is still coming down hard. He can feel his work uniform getting wetter and heavier and colder by the second, but there's nothing to be done about that now. "I'm guessing you don't want to go to the hospital or anything like that. But if you want a safe place to wait out the rain... I can drive you somewhere. Or you can just stay in my car."
"You -" The man laughs again, disbelieving. "You don't even know us."
Jacob takes a deep breath. "I know you need help."
The man is silent until the wounded one in his arms stirs and mutters something, and he looks down at his friend with such a worried, scared expression. Right on the heels of that, there's the sound of sirens and distant choppers... Maybe it's not for them. But from the look on the man's face, it might be.
"Fine," the man says, with the air of someone giving up, "fine, help us. Please. But listen, if you try anything -"
"I get it, I get it," Jacob says, hands up placatingly. "Okay, so do you need me to lift his feet?"
The man stands up, hefting his friend in his arms like he weighs nothing, umbrella still pinched carefully in one hand. "I think I'll be alright."
"Um." Jacob opens the door to the back seat of his car. "I guess you will."
Jacob turns on a newsfeed as he drives. The third item is about a high security military operation at the nearby spaceport. The spaceport isn't far from the amusement park, both of them situated outside the city limits due to noise restrictions. It's not hard to join the dots.
He quietly turns off the newsfeed. Neither of them comment.
"Where should I take you?" Jacob says instead. He can see the man visibly hesitate. "If you don't know or you don't want to say then that's okay. We can drive around for a while. Or I can drive you back to my place."
"Back to what?" The man looks incredulous, and then indignant. "Are you out of your mind? We could be killers. I could rob you blind. Do you have any sense of self preservation, do you have any idea what people are like, I can't believe you would just -"
"Are you done?" Jacob says, when he finally sputters off into incoherence.
"No," he says, glaring at Jacob in the rear view mirror. Jacob tries not to find it cute.
"I work minimum wage at an amusement park," Jacob says. "There's nothing I own that's worth stealing. But my place is dry and it's warm. I can give you some clothes. Your friend too. We can look at his wound."
The man just frowns and looks down at his friend, whose head is resting in his lap. He woke up briefly as they got into the car, but then hadn't stirred again.
"I'm just going to keep driving then," Jacob says, when the man doesn't answer. "Okay? I'll keep heading back home, and anytime you want me to stop, you can just say."
It's a forty minute drive. They complete it in near silence.
"My name is Jacob, by the way," he says as he pulls into his parking spot. Jacob looks in the rear view mirror and they meet eyes.
"You can call me Hyunjae," he says, with only a little pause. "This is Juyeon."
They manage to carry Juyeon up to Jacob's apartment without being seen by any of his neighbours, and his apartment block is run down enough that none of the surveillance devices are reliable. Jacob gives Hyunjae a baseball cap and they put a hoodie on over Juyeon anyway, for plausible deniability.
While Hyunjae takes Juyeon to the bathroom to check his injuries, Jacob looks for his first aid kit and grabs some clean clothes for all of them. When he gets back Hyunjae's already unbuttoned Juyeon's shirt and is dabbing at his wounds with one of Jacob's towels, a bowl of hot water beside him.
Jacob gasps at Juyeon's injuries, but Hyunjae shakes his head. "It's okay, it looks worse than it is," he says, sounding relieved, taking the first aid kit from his hands. "After I dig out the bullets he'll heal up fine."
"Dig out the -"
"Yeah," Hyunjae says, rummaging through the kit. "Hey, do you happen to have a pair of pliers? And like, a really sharp knife?"
While Hyunjae does his field surgery on Juyeon in the bathroom ("there's going to be a bit of blood," he says casually), Jacob retreats to the kitchen and takes deep breaths, trying not to think too hard about what Hyunjae is doing with that knife behind the closed door.
The comment about Juyeon healing quickly kills off any last doubts Jacob had about his two visitors. They're not human. Not biologically, at least. They're people but they're not human.
When the Earth grew too polluted, stripped of all its natural resources and wracked by the destructive forces of climate change, everyone who could afford it left for the stars. Earth is for the left-behinds, the no-hopers, the rest. Like Jacob.
In space, humanity was meant to make a new destiny. But 'destiny' is never uncontested. The same bloody colonial wars and petty struggles for territory from Earth's history played out again in a new arena.
There is one key difference. In this era, the war is enacted using the bodies of proxy soldiers, built for this sole purpose. They are made to be faster, stronger, more resilient. Renewable. Expendable.
Some of them refuse their fate. Some of them make their way to Earth.
"He's going to be fine," Hyunjae says again, when he's laid Juyeon down on the sofa in the living room - stitched up, cleaned up, and changed into fresh clothes. He seems much more relaxed now that Juyeon's been taken care of. "We've both seen worse than this."
Jacob tucks a blanket around Juyeon, silently thinking through the implications of that and the scars he's glimpsed on Juyeon's body. Although right now Juyeon doesn't look anything like a soldier, sleeping all wrapped up in one of Jacob's sweaters and his socked feet peeking out at the end of the blanket because his legs are too long.
"But what about you?" Jacob says. He reaches out, stopping before he touches. "What about your back?"
"Oh," Hyunjae says, looking faintly surprised. "I forgot about that."
Back in the bathroom, Hyunjae strips off his top. Jacob blinks at the sight of his exposed left arm - covered in metal armour, shoulder to wrist - though when he looks closer he sees the metal plates are not so much covering Hyunjae's arm as fused into it. Everyone these days is enhanced in some way, whether it's through neural implants or medical interventions, but Hyunjae is more cyborg than most.
The rest of Hyunjae, however, seems more ordinary flesh and bone and blood, with its own fair share of faded scars. The nasty gash in his right shoulder blade will eventually become just one more. "I can't reach it," Hyunjae says, annoyed. Then he bites his lip. "Can you -"
"I will," Jacob says.
It's an act of trust, he realises, for Hyunjae to turn his back on Jacob like this as he cleans and bandages the wound. He keeps his touches light, tries to be as professional and clinical as possible. Jacob stays as focused as he can, but it's hard not to think about how warm Hyunjae's skin is under his hands, or how perfectly he's built. Broad at the shoulder and narrow at the waist; even his hands are pretty.
They were made to be soldiers, nothing more. Jacob wonders who thought it was a bright idea to make them good-looking too. Maybe it was just another weapon in their arsenal along with enhanced strength and healing. Distract the enemy with their enhanced visuals before taking them out with a bullet to the head.
Jacob finishes taping on the bandage and looks up, meeting Hyunjae's dark eyes in the mirror. He takes a sharp breath. It feels almost as though Hyunjae was looking at Jacob the way Jacob was looking at Hyunjae. But no, Jacob thinks, he must be imagining things...
"All done," Jacob says aloud, and swallows as he steps back.
Back in the living room, he hesitates. Juyeon is on the sofa, and aside from that there's only his own bed or the floor.
"I won't sleep," Hyunjae says, pre-empting Jacob's offer of a blanket and pillows. "I'll watch Juyeon."
"Are you sure?" Jacob says doubtfully.
He shakes his head. "I don't need to sleep as often as you do." Then he tilts his head, looking at Jacob consideringly. "Besides, where would I sleep? In your bed? Although, if you're offering..."
Jacob glitches like a bad hologram feed, thinking oh no, Hyunjae must have caught him looking in the bathroom. Hyunjae bursts out laughing. Great, Jacob realises between his blushes, so this is what Hyunjae is like when he's not running for his life or snarling defensively over Juyeon.
"Go to sleep," Hyunjae says, waving him away. "Hey," he adds, when Jacob's at his bedroom door, "thank you."
Hyunjae smiles. It's a good smile. Distractingly so.
Jacob half-expects them to leave in the night. But when he wakes up and pads out into the living room the next morning, Juyeon's on the sofa eating a bowl of cereal, looking much better than he did before, and Hyunjae is making coffee.
Juyeon introduces himself to Jacob, his awkward manner at odds with his saturnine looks. "Thank you for taking care of us," he says, with a shy little bow.
"It's fine," Jacob says. "You're welcome." He almost says 'it's what anyone would do' but he realises most people would not, in fact, do what he did last night.
As though hearing his thoughts, Hyunjae snorts even as he slides a mug of coffee across the kitchen bench. "You're too good and you're too reckless," he says bluntly.
"Thanks," Jacob says, accepting the coffee and the comment both. "But are you sorry I did it?"
"Not at all," Hyunjae says. He props his chin up on his hand as he leans across the benchtop. He smiles again, that eye-crinkling, distracting smile that Jacob glimpsed last night. "Not when it gave me the chance to meet you."
From the other side of the room, Juyeon starts coughing. "Sorry," he says, when they both turn around. "Cereal went down the wrong way."
Jacob is glad of the distraction. Clearly Hyunjae figured that yelling hadn't had any effect on Jacob so he's switched to trying to fluster him instead. Unfortunately, it's working.
But it's not as though he'll see them around for much longer. Jacob expects they're eager to move on. He says goodbye to them before heading off to the day shift at the park, in the full expectation that it's the last time he'll see them.
Yet when he comes back in the late afternoon, both of them are still there, taking over his living room. "You're still here," Jacob says redundantly, taking his shoes off at the door.
"Oh," Hyunjae says. He has Jacob's tablet in his hands - which Jacob is sure he locked using an encrypted password, but okay, moving on - but he puts it down on the coffee table and stands up. "We can leave, if you want."
"That's not what I meant, I'm not asking you to go," Jacob says hastily. "I just thought. You know. I thought you'd have a plan?"
"We had a plan," Juyeon says, curled up on the sofa like a big cat. "But, uh. Things went wrong." He gestures at himself as though to indicate his four healing bullet wounds.
"Our contact was going to rendezvous with us at the spaceport," Hyunjae says, sitting down again. Jacob takes the spot beside him, looking over his shoulder at the screen. "But he never showed up. Then we found this on the feeds."
He plays a brief news item about a warehouse fire in an industrial part of the city.
"That was our back-up contact point," Juyeon says. "But we can't go there now. The military is all over it."
"So what will you do?" Jacob says.
"Tonight I'll try finding the back-up to the back-up," Hyunjae says. He glances at Juyeon and adds pointedly, "On my own."
"You can't go alone," Juyeon says. Clearly it's an argument they've been over already.
Hyunjae makes a scoffing sound. "And you think you're coming with me? Yeah, right." He pokes Juyeon in the stomach for emphasis, raising his eyebrows when Juyeon flinches. "You're staying."
"You need someone to watch your back," Juyeon says stubbornly.
"Um, I could go with him?" Jacob says tentatively. They both look at him in surprise. He clears his throat. "I'm not, you know, combat trained or anything. But I know my way around the city. And I want to help."
He expects Hyunjae to refuse, maybe call him a trusting fool again or words to that effect. Instead Hyunjae nods slowly and says, "Okay."
"Okay." Hyunjae grins and slaps him on the shoulder. "Alright, Jacob. Let's go undercover."
Juyeon still looks unhappy but he doesn't say anything aloud, only telling them both to be careful when they leave later that nights.
"He cares about you a lot," Jacob says, cautiously, as he drives them towards the city centre. "You care for him too."
Hyunjae shrugs. "We were in the same unit. You get to trust a guy after he saves your life a few times." He shoots Jacob a sideways glance, and his tone turns a little mocking. "Why? Does it surprise you to learn that killer bots can have friends too?"
"I don't think you're a killer bot," Jacob says evenly. "I think you know that."
After a moment Hyunjae sighs. "Sorry," he mutters. "Reflex. Been called names plenty worse than that up in the colonies. Still. Shouldn't take it out on you."
They pass through the city, a haze of lights and traffic, the streets teeming with people.
"Tell me more about them," Jacob says, when the silence grows too long.
"About the names?"
"No! No. About the colonies, I mean. About space. Tell me more about you and Juyeon, if you want." Jacob shrugs. "I'll probably never leave Earth. I'm just curious."
"Space is..." Hyunjae exhales slowly. "I don't know. It's all I ever knew. I don't know what to compare it to." He turns to look out the window, all the buildings passing by. "You'd be better off asking Juyeon this kind of thing. He's good with words."
Jacob glances sideways. Waits for him to keep going.
"He's really good at them. That was one of his problems. They want us smart, but not too smart, you know? The first time they caught Juyeon writing a diary, they put him in solitary for a week." Hyunjae traces the streaks of rain against the glass with his fingers. "Said it was a breach of protocol, a security risk. If his diary fell into the wrong hands, blah blah blah. I think they just didn't like Juyeon having thoughts they hadn't pre-approved."
Hyunjae's lead is nothing more than a location deep in the nightlife district. They park the car a few blocks away and walk the rest of the distance. The coordinates lead them to a bar, seemingly no different to the others, bright with neon lights outside and dark, dim, and noisy inside.
"Remember, we're looking for something or someone called Q," Hyunjae says quietly into his ear as they go down the stairs. "If anything happens, just leave without me. I'll make my own way back." Jacob has no intention of leaving without Hyunjae, but he doesn't say anything as they make their way through the crowded room.
Jacob is dressed the part as is Hyunjae, with items scrounged out of the very back of Jacob's closet, but he still feels out of place. It's not the sort of bar he'd normally frequent. The people are overdressed, the drinks too expensively priced, and the music is just making his head hurt. Hyunjae on the other hand confidently cuts through the mass of people, like a hot knife through butter, pulling Jacob along by the hand until they reach the bar where he orders beers and shots.
"Are you really gonna drink that?" Jacob says in slight disbelief, nodding at the shots. Hyunjae grins and tosses one back in response.
"Takes a lot to get our kind drunk," Hyunjae explains, grinning. "If you're not having yours..."
Jacob shakes his head and watches Hyunjae down the second one too, following the line of his throat as he swallows.
"Let's see what we can see," Hyunjae says, metal arm around his shoulder as they find a less crowded spot by the side of the room. "Don't want to be too obvious."
They don't do anything to draw attention to themselves, but Jacob feels dozens of eyes rake over them anyway. Most of them seem to pass over him quickly enough but some latch onto Hyunjae, and a few do more than just look, approaching Hyunjae to ask him to dance or to buy him a drink. It's too loud to hear for Jacob to hear what Hyunjae says in reply, but he manages to send most of them off with a word and a smile.
"What are you saying to them?" Jacob finally asks, after another one walks away.
"I told them I'm here with my boyfriend and we're not looking for a third tonight," Hyunjae says with an annoying smirk.
Jacob almost chokes on his drink. Hyunjae just laughs and tightens his grip around Jacob's shoulders.
After a moment Hyunjae leans in close to whisper to Jacob again, but his words are anything but flirtatious this time. "There's a woman in the far right corner - don't look - she's carrying a concealed weapon. And that couple on the dance floor who need to get a room? Both of them have illegal implants, probably gang related. There's some surveillance devices in this room too that I'm pretty sure aren't legal. The club owners are probably data harvesting their clients."
"But?" Jacob says, because he can sense it coming.
Hyunjae sighs. "But I don't see anything connected to what I'm looking for. We can ask around, I guess, but I'm starting to think this is a dead end..." He trails off as he stares across the room and Jacob turns to see what he's looking at.
The DJ who's just finished his set has climbed on top of the speakers at the far end of the club, slim and charismatic, his body silhouetted against green lasers as he rides the beat. He looks completely absorbed in the music. He looks beautiful.
"Follow me," Hyunjae says, grabbing Jacob's hand again to pull him into the crowd.
By the time they make their way across to the other side of the dance floor, the DJ has climbed down from the speakers. He's dancing in the crowd instead, lost in his own world, eyes half-closed. But as Hyunjae approaches, the boy's eyes snap open, and he smiles at Hyunjae as though he knows him.
Jacob lets go of Hyunjae's hand. He stands aside and watches as the boy loops his arms around Hyunjae's neck, whispering in his ear, throwing his head back and laughing at whatever Hyunjae says back to him. Jacob turns away.
Hyunjae catches up to him when he's struggling along through the crowd, halfway back to their previous spot. "Wait up!" he says, catching Jacob by the wrist. There's a smudge of glitter on his cheek. "That was Q," he says, "I found him."
He explains as they emerge from the bar and head back into the busy streets, still teeming with people even at this late hour.
"He's one of us," Hyunjae says, swinging Jacob's hand as they walk - he hasn't let go since the bar, as though he's worried Jacob is going to leave him behind again. "I could tell as soon as I saw him. Even if I hadn't, I would've recognised his batch."
"His what?" Jacob says, still trying to ignore the sense of relief he felt when Hyunjae said the dancer was their contact. There is no reason to feel relieved. It has nothing to do with him.
"We're like eggs, we come by the dozen," Hyunjae says drily. "We're not clones but once they come up with a good set of genes they tend to put a whole batch into incubation. I hadn't met Q before but I've definitely met some of his genetic siblings."
Jacob has a sudden image of a dozen Hyunjaes, a dozen Juyeons, like a set of terracotta warriors all pressed from the same mould, each figure unique but just a little bit different from the next.
"He'll be in contact with us soon," Hyunjae says, "though it might be a while, they're still working through what happened with their safe house being compromised and all. But the important thing is that we found them. Oh thank god, it's such a relief."
Unexpectedly Hyunjae grabs Jacob by the waist and lifts him up, twirls him around, puts him down again.
"What was that for?" Jacob says, laughing, as they stumble against one another, Jacob backing up until he's leaning against a closed storefront in the busy street. He's aware, acutely so, of Hyunjae's body against his, Hyunjae's hands still resting on his waist.
He tilts his head up and Hyunjae smiles down at him, that smile that makes Jacob blush. "I'm just really glad," Hyunjae says. "Ever since you found us, you've brought good luck. Listen," he says, very directly, "Jacob, I want to kiss you."
"Oh," Jacob says in a daze, "me too. I mean, you too. I mean -"
Jacob is making a fool of himself but Hyunjae just looks endeared; he leans in, and Jacob meets him halfway. So Jacob wasn't imagining Hyunjae looking at him. Huh.
Kissing in the street with a stranger on the run isn't the most reckless thing he's ever done. (That would probably be picking up said stranger in the first place.) But it's close. And it feels good.
"How far away is the car?" Hyunjae says, resting his forehead against Jacob's, smiling.
"One more block," Jacob says, grabbing Hyunjae's hand where it's starting to creep under his shirt. "Just wait, the drive isn't that long."
"Ohhhh, so you're gonna take me home," Hyunjae says. "So forward, Jacob!"
But he's the one who pulls Jacob aside to kiss him twice more on the way back to the car, then presses him up against the car door until Jacob says, "Calm down, you need to let me drive."
"It's okay, I'll drive," Hyunjae says, and does, pushing the speed limit the entire way.
There's an awkward moment when they get back to the apartment. "Did you find Q?" Juyeon says when they walk in the door, before he notices Hyunjae's arm around Jacob's waist, Jacob's reddened mouth and dishevelled shirt after Hyunjae kissed him in the elevator. "Oh," he says lamely. "Okay. Um. Tell me tomorrow."
"We did and it went well," Hyunjae says brightly, pulling Jacob towards the bedroom. "Goodnight, Juyeon!"
"Oh my god, that was so embarrassing," Jacob says, but Hyunjae just shrugs and starts unbuttoning Jacob's shirt.
"He's used to it," Hyunjae says casually, "barracks living and all."
Oh, Jacob thinks, and files it away to think about later, Hyunjae and a string of past hook-ups. Makes sense.
But he doesn't dwell on that for long. It's hard to concentrate on anything except Hyunjae down on his knees, looking up with bright eyes as he unzips Jacob's jeans. "Oh," Jacob says when Hyunjae takes him into his mouth, "Hyunjae..."
Hyunjae pulls off to say with sweet, false concern, "Remember, you have to be quiet, Juyeon's sleeping."
"Hyunjae," Jacob says, in a warning voice, trying not to laugh.
"Are you getting mad?" Hyunjae says, batting his eyelashes. "Oh, that's hot."
"Hyunjae!" Jacob says again, but then Hyunjae stops teasing and goes to work in earnest and Jacob doesn't have any coherent thoughts for a while.
"Do you think Juyeon heard us?" Jacob says later when they're cuddling, nearly asleep, thoroughly satiated. He's embarrassed now, thinking of how far from quiet he'd been. Not that Hyunjae had been any better when Jacob was riding him.
"We have sharper hearing than you, so he definitely did," Hyunjae says with a yawn, eyes closed. He pats Jacob's chest when he makes a mortified squeak. "Please. It's fine. Go to sleep."
Jacob's worn out enough that all he has to do is close his eyes, and he does.
He's alone in his bed when he wakes up close to noon, but the door is ajar and he can hear Hyunjae and Juyeon talking.
"... compromised the safe house, so they're being extra cautious."
"Makes sense," Juyeon says. "So now we wait."
There's silence for a bit, the sound of running water and the rice cooker, the coffee machine turning on, the clink of kitchenware and cutlery.
"So," Juyeon says, clearing his throat, painfully awkward, "About you and Jacob. Are you -"
"Well," Hyunjae says, sounding insufferably smug. "What did last night sound like to you? Ow, don't hit me."
"Just be careful," Juyeon says, extremely exasperated. "That's all. We're still in danger. No point dragging a civilian into this any more than we already have."
"I'm always careful," Hyunjae says and that's all Jacob needs to hear, thanks.
He deliberately turns over in bed, yawning loudly, and the conversation in the kitchen ceases. He puts on some clothes and shuffles out of the bedroom, waving at them briefly before going to the bathroom.
He stares into the mirror and sighs, touching the bruises on his collarbone, resigning himself to wearing his shirt buttoned all the way up today.
Juyeon is too shy to meet his eyes over the meal and Jacob feels the same way. But Hyunjae is cheerful and touchy, pressing his leg against Jacob's under the table, chin propped up on his hand as he watches Jacob eat. It makes him a little giddy and a little nervous.
He has another shift today so he gets ready for work; when he comes out of his room again, Hyunjae's waiting. "I'll drive you," he says, springing to his feet.
"Um, that's nice but there's no need," Jacob says.
"But I want to," Hyunjae says.
"Better just agree," Juyeon says, not looking up from the tablet where he's writing something. "Or he'll sulk all day."
Hyunjae beams as Jacob gives in and gestures him to the door.
"We're not sure how long it'll be before Q gets in touch again," Hyunjae says, glancing over, driving easily with one hand on the wheel. It's embarrassing that Jacob finds that attractive, but he does. "So I hope it's okay that we're gonna be hanging around for a while."
"No, it's fine," Jacob says. He sees Hyunjae's shoulders relax.
"Juyeon and I have some credits, enough for us to buy necessities and new clothes," Hyunjae says. He and Juyeon are still wearing the plainer parts of the uniforms they came in, paired with a few of Jacob's things. "But today I'm going to start looking for a job. Cash in hand, that kind of thing."
He assumes Hyunjae doesn't mean literal cash, but the kind of job that pays in unrecorded credit transfers, similar to how he'd paid for drinks the night before. There's plenty of those to go around; it's not like the colonies, all shiny and new where people follow the regulations. This is Earth, where anything goes.
"I want to pay you back for board and everything else," Hyunjae says. "We must be eating you out of house and home." His free hand squeezes Jacob's thigh. "Though that's not the only thing I want to be eating -"
"Hyunjae!" Jacob says for what feels like the hundredth time, laughing as he grabs Hyunjae's hand and intertwines their fingers.
It's only been a couple of days since they met, but he does like Hyunjae. He likes him a lot. It's not going to last - this is all incredibly fleeting and temporary, and the conversation in the kitchen was just a sharp reminder of that - but Jacob decides he'll stop worrying, as much as he can. He might as well enjoy this for now.
Hyunjae drops him off at the amusement park, but not before they make out like teenagers in the parking lot for five minutes. "I've got to go," Jacob says finally, tearing himself away from Hyunjae.
Juyeon was right. Hyunjae did pout when he didn't get what he wanted.
"I'll pick you up at the end of your shift!" Hyunjae calls. He waves back in acknowledgement.
He manages to put Hyunjae out of his mind for the next eight hours, until it's time to clock off. As promised, Hyunjae's waiting in the parking lot, arms crossed, leaning against Jacob's beat-up old car and looking like an advertisement for something expensive. His expression is so cold... at least until he catches sight of Jacob. Then he smiles and he just looks like Hyunjae again, the one who makes stupid jokes and can't keep his hands off Jacob.
"You have new clothes," Jacob says, looking up and down from Hyunjae's sneakers and jeans to his loose t-shirt and bucket hat. "You look good."
It's just a fling, Jacob reminds himself severely. But when Hyunjae gives him a pleased little smile and draws him in for a kiss, he doesn't resist.
Hyunjae's found a job already; he tells Jacob about it as he drives. "Nothing too exciting, just working at a garage. It's this young guy and his best friend - maybe his boyfriend, I don't know - they run a garage and a carwash. Not far from your place. Eric and Sunwoo. Good kids."
"That sounds great. We should have a drink to celebrate when we get home," Jacob suggests.
Hyunjae asks Jacob about his day (nothing much to report except a popcorn disaster with a kid on his ride, and his manager screwing up his roster for next week but it's been sorted out now) and then Hyunjae complains about Jacob's music choices so they have a tussle over the playlist. The drive goes by so quickly. They're still bickering about each other's taste in music as they get out of the elevator and head to Jacob's door, until Hyunjae's eyes narrow and he shushes Jacob hastily.
"Someone's inside," he whispers. "Talking to Juyeon." He frowns a little. "But Juyeon sounds okay..." He still insists on entering the apartment first, with Jacob a step behind him.
"Hyunjae, you're back," Juyeon says, at the same time Kevin says, "Jacob?"
Jacob peers around Hyunjae's broad shoulders. "Kevin!"
They do a quick round of introductions, then Jacob says, "We should have that drink, for Hyunjae's new job."
"Why don't I help you with that?" Kevin says, grabbing him by the elbow and steering him away. As soon as they're in the tiny kitchen, he's whispering, "What is this? Who are they? I swear to god, Jacob, you'd better tell me everything. I just came over to bring you a new houseplant like I promised, and there's this, like, hot guy reading a book in your living room? What the fuck?"
"There's not much to tell," Jacob says, looking in his cupboard for wine glasses. He finds two from one set, and two from another. Oh well. It's not as though anyone cares if they match. "They're just friends."
"Super hot friends from out of town that you never told me about?" Kevin says skeptically as Jacob starts opening the bottle of wine he's been saving for a nice occasion.
Jacob just smiles innocently and pulls the cork out of the wine bottle with a pop. "I can have hot friends."
"Fine, don't tell me," Kevin says. He folds his arms. "I'll just get it out of Juyeon."
Juyeon and Kevin do get along well. Jacob and Hyunjae end up watching them in bemusement, Kevin talking nineteen to the dozen while Juyeon mostly smiles and nods, but they seem to understand each other. Kevin's heavily into the art scene and Juyeon has an interest in drawing, so when Kevin starts talking excitedly about a new exhibition at a local gallery, Juyeon quietly admits, "I've never been to an art exhibition."
"Then we should go together!" Kevin says, not missing a beat.
"Oh," Juyeon says, going a little pink. "I'd really like that."
"Think they'd notice if we left the room?" Hyunjae says quietly, putting his arm around Jacob's shoulders. He nuzzles at Jacob's ear, before catching his lobe between his teeth -
Of course that's the exact moment Kevin and Juyeon stop talking and look over in their direction. Juyeon facepalms slightly.
"Jacob," Kevin says, shaking his head, smiling in a way that Jacob knows means trouble. "You and me, buddy, we're gonna have so much to talk about later."
Jacob's not sure whether to be surprised at how quickly they all adjust to the new normal.
Hyunjae goes to work at Eric's garage most days, but when their schedules line up he still drives Jacob to and from his shifts at the park. Juyeon and Kevin become fast friends, and Kevin finds Juyeon a job at Miya's arts and crafts supplies store. Jacob gets used to the sight of Juyeon in a neat apron, carefully measuring out tins of paint and earnestly discussing the merits of one type of canvas over another.
Eric and Sunwoo from the garage barge into their lives and refuse to go away. Jacob looks over his apartment one evening, both of them sprawled over the couch as they play a VR racing game against an inept Juyeon, and asks Hyunjae with faint confusion, "Did we adopt them or did they adopt us?"
Hyunjae just snorts, before pushing Juyeon aside and taking his place in the game. "Watch and learn, kids," he says, and goes on to school them all.
On their days off Jacob plays pickup basketball with Juyeon and Eric, while Hyunjae watches from the shade. "It's so sexy when you get all sweaty like that," Hyunjae says to Jacob between games, absolutely shameless. Eric pretends to gag, as though he's not just as gross about Sunwoo when he thinks no one is listening.
Hyunjae, to Jacob's faint and continual surprise, hasn't tired yet of whatever it is that they have together. With one of his first pay cheques, Juyeon bought a futon that now sits permanently in the tiny study that Jacob never used anyway - though more and more often he's staying over at Kevin's place, which Jacob is going to have to ask Kevin about later. But Hyunjae has continued to sleep in Jacob's bed, and it seems he hasn't found any other hook-ups.
It's odd because Hyunjae, like Juyeon, craves new experiences. Up in the colonies and on the front lines, they lived such narrow, drab lives. It's not just the novelty of living on Earth that stuns them sometimes - it's all the little choices that are suddenly available, all the doors that used to be shut.
Juyeon comes home one day with a bag of new clothes and is so tentative about showing them his purchases: a soft white sweater, cutoff jeans, shirts in pastel colours, a tiny crossbody bag that serves almost no practical purpose.
"You're cute, Juyeon," Jacob says, when Juyeon finally tries on one of his new outfits. "Really cute. I mean it."
Juyeon looks down as he mutters thanks, but it's easy to see how pleased he is.
"He was an elite soldier," Hyunjae explains later that night, when Juyeon has gone off to meet Kevin for some drawing-and-drinking art class where they serve up wine while the customers sketch life models. "Best of the best. When they really wanted to fuck things up - they sent Juyeon." He smiles crookedly, the expression not reaching his eyes.
"And he hated it," Jacob says. He holds Hyunjae tightly, wishing he had more than just a few words and a hug for these invisible wounds.
"I was the one who suggested we escape," Hyunjae says. "But I think he was just waiting for me to ask."
Hyunjae's new pleasures are varied and simple. He loves movies, especially superhero movies, telling Jacob they'd mostly just been shown propaganda films in the military. "These ones are also propaganda films, really," Jacob points out.
"But it's a different and new-to-me type of propaganda!" Hyunjae says happily, chewing his way through a bag of popcorn.
They go to the cinema - going to the theatre in person is another novelty for Hyunjae, who's only ever watched movies on devices and VR headsets, and even for Jacob it's a rare treat - but it's not the most exciting of flicks, so halfway through Hyunjae leans over and asks Jacob if he's ever been sucked off in a movie theatre and if not, does he want to try?
"No and absolutely not," Jacob whispers back, slapping Hyunjae's hand where it's crept onto his leg. Hyunjae settles for blowing him in the car afterwards instead.
Hyunjae is enamoured with the pets of Earth. Up in space only the rich and elite can afford pet licences, so most people make do with holograms and robot animals. Soldiers, naturally, get nothing. But animals are plentiful on earth, and if Hyunjae sees a dog, any dog, he will cross the street in order to pet it. Jacob can already see where this will end. Hyunjae hasn't brought a dog home yet, but it's just a matter of time. One day...
When he has a proper home, Jacob assumes, and a permanent address. When he's not living with Jacob. At some point Hyunjae will move on, in one way or another. It'll happen, even if it hasn't happened yet.
Sometimes Hyunjae surprises him at the end of his shift with an ice cream, or they go on the ferris wheel (discounted rates for employees) and spend the entire ride kissing, and Jacob lets himself fantasise that this can somehow last. That they can shut out the wider world and live in the moment forever.
Of course, it doesn't. It never does.
They go out one night to see a live band, a group Kevin loves. Afterwards Juyeon and Kevin head off with Eric and Sunwoo to some club while Eric loudly calls Jacob and Hyunjae 'old' and 'boring' for choosing to go home.
When they get there, Hyunjae sees immediately there's something wrong: the door to Jacob's apartment is already open. Just a sliver. Hyunjae puts himself between Jacob and the door immediately.
"Stay back," he whispers. "Be ready to run."
Just as Hyunjae pushes open the door with his foot, a voice from inside the apartment says, "Jaehyun. You're back."
Hyunjae stands up very straight. "Captain," he says, opening the door wider. "Sir."
"We're not in the military anymore, Jaehyun, you can dispense with the titles," the man says, amused. "Come in and shut the door, would you? And introduce me to your friend."
Hyunjae holds Jacob's hand tightly as he leads him inside, where he sees a man sitting by the table, one leg crossed over the other, perfectly relaxed as though it's his house rather than Jacob's.
Hyunjae says tightly, "This is Jacob, sir - I mean, Sangyeon. Sangyeon, this is Jacob."
Sangyeon stands to bow and shake Jacob's hand. He's not as tall as Hyunjae but he's just as handsome, like all their kind, and he has an air of command - the untouchable confidence of a prize fighter. His handshake is warm and firm and his eyes look like he could be kind, if he chose.
"You keep a nice home, Jacob," Sangyeon says, which Jacob knows is merely a politeness. It's shabby and small and the walls are too thin and someone like Hyunjae, or Jaehyun, or whatever he's truly called, was never meant to stay in a place like this for long. Jacob murmurs a thanks before Sangyeon's attention turns back to Hyunjae.
"I need your help, Jaehyun," Sangyeon says. "A ship is arriving. We're expecting at least eight people, but we're concerned their arrival may be compromised, like yours. They need us."
"When?" Hyunjae says. He's still holding Jacob's hand, though he hasn't looked at him again since the introductions.
"We leave tonight. Q is contacting Juyeon as we speak." Sangyeon looks steadily at Hyunjae. "If you're coming, then we need you ready right now."
"Of course I'm coming," Hyunjae says.
There it is. It's over. Jacob looks away, feeling sick. Well, at least he had these few months with Hyunjae. It's more than he ever expected to get.
He tries to let go of Hyunjae's hand but Hyunjae doesn't let him pull away. "I'll get ready," Hyunjae says to Sangyeon, "just give us a moment. Please."
Hyunjae tugs Jacob into the bedroom and closes the door. Finally, he releases Jacob's hand, and Jacob watches as Hyunjae reaches under the bed and pulls out a bag. Jacob realises with a dull ache that Hyunjae is clearly so familiar with it that he only makes a cursory check of the contents.
So he's been packed and ready all this time, just waiting for the call to come. Hyunjae could have left him at any time without any warning whatsoever, and it just happened that Jacob was lucky enough, or unlucky enough, to witness this moment.
At least he gets a goodbye.
"Stay safe," Hyunjae says, hugging him tightly. Jacob stands stiff and unresponsive in Hyunjae's arms, too frozen to even hug back. Hyunjae kisses him on his forehead, his cheek, his mouth. "I love you, Jacob."
Then he's gone.
It's left to Jacob to break the news to Eric and Sunwoo. He tells them Hyunjae and Juyeon have been called away on urgent personal business.
"But when are they coming back?" Eric says, sounding bewildered. "Hyunjae and I were working on a car together, like a special project. Literally, we just ordered some parts for it, they're gonna come in next week."
"I don't know if he's coming back at all," Jacob says, glad the video is turned off on this call. He rubs his forehead tiredly. "Sorry, Eric, I know this puts you and Sunwoo in an awkward position at the garage, not giving you any notice and -"
"I don't care about that," Eric says, interrupting him. "Jacob, are you at home right now? Okay, then stay put."
About half an hour later Eric lets himself through the door with Sunwoo trailing behind him, carrying cartons of food and a six pack of beer.
"You didn't have to do that," Jacob says, although it's true he hasn't eaten all day. They ignore him as they set everything out on the table, Sunwoo hip checking Eric out of the way when he moves too slow.
"Yeah, but we wanted to," Sunwoo says, gently pushing Jacob towards a chair. "Eat, drink, we didn't buy all this for nothing." He shoves a beer into Jacob's hand. "No arguing, just do it!"
Eric and Sunwoo take his mind off things for the duration of the meal at least, bickering fondly between themselves and appealing to Jacob to settle their arguments as usual. At the end of the night, Eric hugs Jacob tightly and says, "They're gonna be back. I know it. Trust me, please."
Jacob hugs him back, wishing he had that same certainty.
Later that week Jacob goes to Kevin's place and they get drunk, lying on the floor amidst all of Kevin's houseplants while playing Kevin's saddest, mopiest playlist. "I miss them already," Kevin says, "and I miss him. I miss Juyeon."
"Did he tell you about..." Jacob hesitates. He knew they'd been sleeping together, that they'd been extremely close, but if Juyeon hadn't told him the truth then he's not sure how much he can reveal. He settles on, "Did he tell you where they came from?"
"I guessed it and he admitted it," Kevin says with a sigh. "Like, how many reasons are there for a super hot super ex-soldier to show up on your doorstep like that? The things he would say about art, and poetry, like it was completely new to him." He places one hand flat against his own abdomen. "And he had all those scars."
Hyunjae and Juyeon were relatively lucky. They'd smuggled aboard a merchant ship and their plans had only gone awry on arrival. Juyeon had borne the brunt of the bullets but they'd still managed to make their escape. Then they'd run into Jacob and changed his life. For a little while, anyway.
Jacob wonders if they succeeded in their latest mission, if they're out there changing someone else's life now. He supposes he'll never know. He checks the newsfeeds for word of any military operations or unexpected spacecraft landings or space colony defections. But there's nothing. They cover up these things too well.
Life is duller and slower without Hyunjae and Juyeon around. Jacob goes to work, he comes home, he goes to work...
Jacob tells himself he's sad because life is just so much more boring now. No more game nights that end in Jacob swearing a blue streak while Hyunjae cackles, no more Juyeon shyly showing his tentative ventures into making art, no more trying out every chicken restaurant in a ten block radius just because Hyunjae wants to know which is the best best chicken. No more waking up to whatever experiment they've cooked up in the kitchen. No more waking up next to Hyunjae.
A month passes and there's no word. Six weeks and the same.
Jacob hopes the mission was successful. He hopes they're all okay, somewhere out there. He takes out a box and starts packing up all of Hyunjae's things. His clothes and his shoes and his toothbrush, a few magazines, novelty toys won from arcade games, a soccer ball, a mug with a silly cartoon on the side.
There's a few odds and ends, like a book Jacob printed from one of those instant vending machines and gave to Hyunjae because it was about superheroes. That was before he realised Hyunjae, unlike Juyeon, didn't really care for reading. He hadn't known Hyunjae had even kept it, assumed he'd given it away or recycled it.
Jacob leafs through the book and a few items fall out. One is the ticket stub from the time they'd gone to the cinema. They bought the tickets digitally, but Hyunjae had insisted on getting the souvenir paper version though he hadn't even liked the movie.
Another is a strip of photos from an old school photobooth Hyunjae dragged him into at the amusement park, both of them pulling stupid expressions, trying to outdo each other. In the last photo, Jacob's still mugging for the camera, and Hyunjae... Hyunjae is looking at him.
Jacob shoves the ticket stub and the photos back into the book, drops the book into the box, and keeps on packing.
He packs up a box of Juyeon's things too (books, a set of pencils, a half-filled notebook that Jacob carefully does not read) and then puts both boxes in the back of his closet. He'll get rid of them later.
Eight weeks after Hyunjae and Juyeon leave, Jacob comes home from a long shift, tired and footsore and in no mood to deal with anybody.
He's glancing down at his device as he unlocks the door with his palm print, wondering why there's five missed calls from Kevin - you never knew with Kevin, it could be something genuinely urgent or it could be his latest brainwave for a performance art piece - so it's a moment before he realises he's not alone. There's someone in the bedroom.
"Hyunjae?" Jacob says, faintly, dropping his bag to the floor with a thump.
Hyunjae turns around from where he's sorting through his box of belongings, looking a little confused, a furrow between his brows. "Jacob, babe, why did you pack away all my things?"
Jacob bursts into tears.
In an instant Hyunjae's by his side. "I'm sorry," Hyunjae says, wiping away his tears with his thumbs, cupping Jacob's face in his hands. "I'm sorry, I wanted to let you know we were safe, but it was too risky to send messages."
"I thought you weren't coming back," Jacob says.
"It's okay, I'm fine, the mission went fine, I'm not hurt at all -"
"No, I mean, I thought you weren't coming back. At all." Jacob buries his face in Hyunjae's chest so he doesn't have to look at him. "I thought you left me..."
"Left you?" Hyunjae repeats. He sounds genuinely confused. "I love you. Jacob, I love you, I told you, remember? I don't want to ever leave you."
Jacob can't seem to make the tears stop. Hyunjae sits down on the bed and pulls Jacob to sit beside him, arm wrapped around his waist.
"I thought it was just," Jacob says, wiping his eyes, "just a thing we were doing, until they called you back and then you'd leave for good. I was so happy being with you, but I knew it wouldn't last. Every day - every day with you was like borrowed time."
"It's not," Hyunjae says firmly, "it wasn't, it was never was. Jacob, you're stuck with me. The only way you're getting rid of me is if you ask."
Jacob laughs through his tears. He can't imagine ever wanting Hyunjae to go.
"I missed you," Hyunjae says. "Every day."
He kisses Jacob softly, over and over. Jacob feels as though they're learning each other again. He's kissing Hyunjae for the first time without the thought, however subconscious, that it could all end tomorrow.
Hyunjae's kisses and touches grow more urgent, pushing Jacob down on the mattress. He strips Jacob and then himself, and then whispers into Jacob's ear, "I want you to fuck me." Jacob must look surprised because Hyunjae says again, "Please, I want this, I want you."
Jacob takes it slow even though Hyunjae keeps asking him to go faster. "Come on, damn it," he says, "I've been waiting for this for two months. It's not like you're going to hurt me."
"Hyunjae, I swear, if you don't stop complaining -" Jacob starts saying.
"Oh, I love how sexy you get when you're mad," Hyunjae says. They look at each other and start laughing.
"Come on, baby," Hyunjae says, when Jacob's fully inside him, "let's make the neighbours complain."
"Oh, I missed you," Jacob says, and does his best to make it happen.
"You lied," Jacob says afterwards accusingly, tracing a new scar on Hyunjae's chest. "You said the mission went fine and you weren't hurt at all."
Hyunjae catches his hand and kisses his fingertips apologetically. "It was barely anything. We got into a firefight. Caught a bullet. These things happen."
"Caught a bullet -" Jacob is speechless. He punches Hyunjae in the shoulder.
"What was that for?" Hyunjae says, looking wounded.
"That's not 'barely anything'," Jacob says. "That's terrifying!"
Hyunjae opens his mouth, about to say something defensively, when Jacob's device buzzes. Jacob looks at Hyunjae as though to say 'this is not over' before checking his messages.
There's a message from Kevin, sent hours ago, saying Juyeon is back??! He says Hyunjae is heading over to your place heads up!!!!!
Then a more recent one, saying Haha still haven't heard from you so I guess everything is all good?
Jacob texts back a quick acknowledgement and says he's happy for Kevin and Juyeon, then turns his device off.
"Still angry at me?" Hyunjae says hopefully, snuggling closer, trying to make himself smaller beneath Jacob's arm.
Hyunjae beams at him, and then tells him about the mission. The incoming ship had a crew of eight, all women.
"They weren't like me and Juyeon, smuggling on board a civilian flight. They were a whole crew who'd mutinied together. They took over the ship and left their human commander stranded on some nothing asteroid. Then they stripped the ship of all its tracking devices and headed for Earth."
They landed the ship safely in an obscure location, far outside the city, and Sangyeon and his team had been there to greet them. But the landing hadn't gone unnoticed, and with the military in hot pursuit they'd had to split up. That's when Hyunjae met his bullet.
Hyunjae and Q, or Changmin, got safely away with Doyeon and Lua. They went underground, living as far off the grid as possible. Juyeon, Sangyeon and the other six crew members made their own separate escapes.
"I was living in a tent in the forest for seven weeks," Hyunjae says pitifully. "No movies, no games, nothing. Just trees and nature. Horrible."
"What were they like?" Jacob says. "Changmin and the others?" He remembers that night in the club, charismatic Changmin all over Hyunjae, and tries not to be pettily jealous that he'd had two months of Hyunjae while Jacob was alone.
"Changmin was like me," Hyunjae says. "Moping. Lovelorn. He and Sangyeon," he explains in response to Jacob's questioning look. "They're cute. They have a dog together and everything. Babe, can we get a dog?"
"Ask me later," Jacob says, hedging, knowing full well he's going to cave.
Hyunjae pouts a little but keeps talking. "Anyway, Doyeon and Lua kicked our asses. Doyeon was stationed on some other planet for years where they had to hunt their own food, so she kept us fed. And Lua was fit as fuck, you turned away for two seconds and she was halfway up a tree. They're great. I hope you can meet them someday."
"Where are they now?" Jacob says. "Did they all get away okay?"
Hyunjae nods. "Everyone got away fine. We waited until Sangyeon got back in touch with us - we didn't have any devices or anything, just the one transmitter. He managed to arrange cover and new identities for everyone. We met up with him in this one little town and got our new cover stories straight, then went our separate ways."
He breaks away from Jacob briefly to lean over the edge of the bed, fumbling around for his jacket. He reaches into the pocket and finds what he's looking for, holding it up with a little crow of triumph. "Check it out, Jacob, I'm finally legit! Got a proper ID card and everything."
"Lee Jaehyun," Jacob says, reading off the card. "Well, I guess he couldn't have chosen a more generic name. And what's with this photo, why are you smiling like that? You look like a potato."
Jacob laughs but Hyunjae looks like he's about to sulk so he has to spend the next five minutes kissing him back into a good temper. It's not a hardship. Not at all.
Things start to get back to normal. Juyeon takes up his job at Miya's store again and Hyunjae goes back to the garage. Eric and Sunwoo welcome Hyunjae and Juyeon back with almost as much enthusiasm as Jacob and Kevin.
"I'm nearly done with our project, you owe me bigtime," Eric says to Hyunjae when they all come over for chicken and beer, glancing over at Jacob for some reason. "You wanna go have a look tonight?"
Hyunjae makes a shushing gesture with his finger and says, too loudly, "Later!"
Two weeks later Hyunjae pulls him down to the car park, insisting that he cover his eyes until Hyunjae says it's okay to open them. "Okay, open them now," Hyunjae says, standing behind him with his hands on Jacob's shoulders.
It's a new car - or more accurately a restored one, lovingly rebuilt. It's perfect. His old car is so beat-up and although it's served him well he'd been pretty worried about what he would do when it finally gave up the ghost.
"Hyunjae," Jacob says, feeling so helplessly fond. "You didn't..."
Hyunjae kisses the side of his neck, wrapping his arms around Jacob's waist. "Surprise."
The seasons turn and summer comes, oppressive and humid and hot. When Sunwoo and Eric suggest a road trip to the coast, Jacob and Hyunjae accept gladly. They leave Kevin and Juyeon behind - Juyeon's moved in with Kevin by that point, and they're deep in the honeymoon phase of their relationship - and each couple drives down in their separate cars, meeting up at a little house in a little town that hibernates for three quarters of the year and only wakes up in the remaining quarter when visitors flood its beaches.
On the first night they arrive too late to go to the beach. The four of them have dinner together and then go back to their respective rooms. Hyunjae chooses something mindless for them to watch as they curl up on the bed together, Jacob idly scrolling through a book.
"Hey," Hyunjae says softly, when Jacob is half asleep. "Just so you know... I'm not sure if I'll go into the water tomorrow."
"Why?" Jacob says, yawning. "Is it because of your arm?"
"Oh, no, that's fine." Hyunjae sighs. "I just. I don't like the water." The unusual note in his voice makes Jacob wake up properly.
"What's wrong?" Jacob says, stroking his arm. "You know you can tell me anything."
Both Hyunjae and Juyeon will let stories slip from time to time, tales of casual cruelties and degradations they recount matter of factly while he and Kevin look on in horror. All they can do is listen. The least they can do is listen.
This time Hyunjae tells him about the underwater training program. Being strapped into containers and submerged in the water, to simulate escapes from sunken vehicles. Deep dives without any equipment, pushing their bodies to go further every time, beyond the limits of what any human could possibly endure. He tells Jacob, in a quiet voice, about a soldier that died during training, whose body was taken away and his name never spoken again.
When he's finished talking, Jacob just holds him tight. Hyunjae's meant to be the strong one, the super powered one. Jacob thinks he'd do anything to protect him. Anything at all.
The next day dawns bright and hot. They head to the beach after breakfast, the sand already crowded, and stake out their spot. Sunwoo and Eric run into the water immediately, splashing each other like kids.
But Hyunjae hangs back. "You go ahead," he says to Jacob. "I'll stay here with our stuff."
"I can stay with you," Jacob says immediately. "I don't want to leave you alone."
Hyunjae shakes his head. "I'll be fine." He looks Jacob up and down lasciviously over the top of his sunglasses. "Besides, the view is better from here."
Jacob rolls his eyes, but he goes into the water feeling a bit better about Hyunjae's state of mind.
They stay at the beach for two more days and nights - good days and very good nights. On the last day, they decide to go to the beach one last time before they pack up, check out of their rental, and head home. It's early enough that there's only a few scattered individuals around.
This time, as Jacob's about to head into the water, Hyunjae catches his hand. "Hey," he says, a little bashful. "Wait for me. I'm going in too."
"Hyunjae, are you sure?" Jacob says, squeezing his hand. "You don't have to, you know."
"I know," Hyunjae says simply, "but I want to. I want to go with you."
They go in slowly, up to their knees at first, and then higher, up to their waists, holding hands the whole time. Jacob looks over at Hyunjae to check he's okay as they go in even further, and sees him smiling back at him with so much fondness that it almost hurts.
Jacob leans in and kisses him, just because. Then he glances back out to the sea. "Oh, here it comes," he says, as the next wave gathers strength. "Get ready -"
The wave breaks over them both, entirely submerging them for a moment, clear and refreshing and very cold. For a moment, Jacob's whole world is water, and the sight of Hyunjae reaching out for him.
Then the water recedes, leaving them in each other's arms, clinging to each other to stay upright. The water recedes, and they are still standing.
A year passes.
They get a dog, a tiny white thing called Darong that Hyunjae loves entirely. Jacob decides to start studying for his pilot's license again, with Hyunjae's encouragement, so he cuts down on his hours at the park; while Hyunjae continues working at the garage which is successful enough now to take on a few more employees. Juyeon submits a poem to a local journal, and it's selected for publication.
Hyunjae and Juyeon go on two more missions and are absent each time for weeks. Both times they manage to send back messages confirming they're safe, thankfully, but Jacob and Kevin still spend those weeks in suspended agony.
"I told you," Hyunjae says, after the second mission when they're reunited and Jacob is trying not to cry again. "I'm not leaving you. That's a promise."
A year passes. Life is good, until it is not.
Two police officers accost him as he leaves class one day, one on either side of him, and they hustle him into a van before he can realise what's happening.
"Where are you taking me?" he says, terrified, trying not to show it. "Am I under arrest? What's going on?"
They ignore him.
He is taken to a detention facility where the guards take away all his things, give him a prison uniform, and lock him in a cell.
Jacob lies down on the narrow pallet and tries to sleep but before he can truly get any rest the door clangs open and he's being roughly shaken awake. The guards take him to an interrogation room, where two hard-faced men are waiting.
The questions are relentless. They ask him over and over again what he knows about Lee Jaehyun, Lee Juyeon, Ji Changmin. They ask him where he was at particular dates and times, and when he doesn't answer they ask him again, louder. They question his political beliefs, his allegiance to his country, his courage, his pride. They imply he's been duped, then simply say he's been duped, tell him he's been aiding and abetting terrorism, that he's a coward and an enemy of the state, that if he just gives in now -
Jacob says nothing. He flinches and looks away and says nothing. Not a single word. He once told himself he'd do anything to protect Hyunjae. His silence is all that he has.
This pattern repeats for the next two days. He'll try to sleep but before he can truly get any rest they are at his cell again, pushing him out of bed and into the interrogation room. Underneath the bright lights, they repeat the same questions, over and over and over.
Jacob is just so tired and exhausted and afraid. He clings to his silence and takes a little consolation from the fact they never ask him about Sangyeon, presumably because they don't know who he is, and that their repeated questioning about the others suggests that they're still at large. But he doesn't know how much longer he can go on.
On the third day, something different happens. The guards come again, but this time they take him to a different room. Instead of the two men who have tormented his every waking hour for the past two days, a sleekly suited young woman is waiting instead.
She says her name is Bibi and that she is his lawyer.
Jacob stares at her. "I don't have a lawyer." He doesn't know who sent her and who or what will be owed. Nothing ever comes for free.
Bibi smiles, knife sharp. "I can be your lawyer, or you can stay locked up here. What will it be?"
An hour later Jacob's dressed in his civilian clothes, wrinkled but otherwise fine, and he has both his wallet and his bag back. The contents have clearly been rifled through, but they are intact. He wishes desperately he could check his device for messages, if he could just see something from Hyunjae and know that he's okay, but it's out of batteries and he has no way to recharge it.
Bibi is waiting in the lobby when he comes out. She leads him out the door, heels clicking, and hands him over to a young handsome man. So here comes the price.
"My name is Haknyeon," says the young man, with great formality, showing Jacob to a waiting car. "My employer would like to meet you, Jacob." Clearly, it's not a request. Haknyeon opens the door and Jacob numbly gets inside.
The car is automated and Haknyeon spends the entire drive on his device, ignoring Jacob. He doesn't offer any information so Jacob doesn't ask for any in return. He turns to the window and watches the city passing by, as they go from the detention facility through the suburbs full of high rise apartment blocks all stacked in a row, then to the city centre. Then they go beyond that to a part of the city that Jacob has never visited, a place of gated mansions and properties patrolled by what amount to private militia, a world of money and power and excess that ordinary people can never hope to touch.
The car drives to a mansion that is all glass and steel, dark and forbidding beneath the clouded skies. There are no visible guards or attendants but the whole area is clearly under AI surveillance. Haknyeon takes him inside, the doors sliding open although he uses no identification, no palm print door code.
Inside the hallways are vast and echoing. The place is more a museum or a display showcase than a home - they pass room after room, some completely empty, some filled with what appear to be mannequins and others still with hologram dioramas that play on endless, silent repeat.
Jacob stumbles when they pass a hologram display that makes the room into a chapel, stained glass windows framing two figures surrounded by flickering candlelight. Haknyeon abruptly stops. He looks over at Jacob carefully and says, with a smile playing around his lips, "Yes. They're both from my batch. Does it shock you?"
Both figures in the tableau have Haknyeon's handsome face, his flawless skin, though one is veiled and the other not. They sit together on a white satin bed, hands intertwined, eyes closed. They're kissing. Tenderly and softly kissing, over and over again.
Jacob watches for a long frozen moment and then he looks away. Haknyeon laughs, light and soft and mocking, and then starts walking again.
He stops at last by a closed door that looks much like the others in the long corridor. "Here," Haknyeon says, as the door slides open. "My employer is expecting you." With that he gestures Jacob inside.
The room is large and stark and bare, white walls and floor with a few pieces of furniture in black leather and steel. A thin man is reclining in one of the chairs. He too is all in austere black, complete with a pair of severe glasses which only serve to make him look even more frail. He doesn't look up at Jacob's entry, as he is busy watching another hologram.
This one shows a beautiful man in historical dress, seated with his knees drawn up in what appears to be a manhwa cafe. The man doesn't seem to be aware of the camera at all. He laughs to himself as he pages through a book with one hand, munching on snacks with the other.
"He is handsome, isn't he?" the man says, turning to Jacob at last as the hologram flickers off. "My name is Chanhee. The man in the hologram is Younghoon. My newest design. Please, take a seat."
"Design?" Jacob says. He takes the seat warily.
Chanhee nods. "I designed him, just as I designed Haknyeon and Bibi. What do you think of them?"
Jacob blinks. "I don't think it particularly matters what I think of them," he says at last. "You might as well ask them what they think of me. We're all just people, aren't we?"
Chanhee laughs softly. "True enough." He stands up abruptly and gestures Jacob to walk with him. They leave the room by a different door to the one he entered, taking them into a part of the mansion that is more intimate, more like a house that people might live in though this part, too, is empty and echoing and cold.
"It's one of the great regrets of my life that my work has contributed to the wars in the colonies, however tangentially," Chanhee says. "I thought we were creating a new form of life. I thought we could study them to know more about ourselves, and for us to learn more about them. They could be our friends, companions, colleagues. Our equals. Instead..." He sighs and shakes his head.
"Maybe you helped design them," Jacob says, rankling at the thought of Hyunjae or Juyeon being 'created' by anyone, "but they weren't born for you and they don't live for you, or me, or anyone, except themselves."
"A poor choice of words, perhaps," Chanhee concedes, looking downwards briefly, blinking. "I've made many mistakes. But I am trying to make amends."
Jacob bites his tongue and says nothing.
"Here," Chanhee says, gesturing Jacob to go ahead of him into the next room. "I think this is who you've been waiting for."
Hyunjae is standing by the windows, shoulders tight and taut, hands shoved in his pockets. At the sound of Chanhee's voice he turns around, and when he sees Jacob, his entire expression changes.
"Hyunjae!" Jacob says, running into his arms. And this time it's Hyunjae who is crying, who can't stop touching Jacob as though to make sure he's real, as though he's terrified Jacob might disappear if he looks away for even one second.
"I was so scared," Hyunjae says brokenly, "I thought I'd lost you."
"I'm here," Jacob says, over and over, kissing away his tears, "I'm here, you have me."
Hyunjae tells him later that Juyeon and Kevin are safe, as is Changmin, though all three of them are now deep underground and difficult to contact. Sangyeon's wider web of contacts appears to be intact too, though the integrity of their network has been shaken. It will take time to repair and strengthen before they can be sure they're safe again.
"We can't go back," Hyunjae says. "They'll always be watching us. We'll never be free." He bites his lip. "I'm sorry, Jacob. If it weren't for me you could still be living like a normal person and none of this would've happened to you."
"I don't care," Jacob says, "I don't want that. I don't regret anything to do with you."
They can't go back, so they can only go forwards. Or... upwards.
Juyeon wants to stay and Kevin won't leave him, so in time they'll resurface under new names and identities. Together with Sangyeon and Changmin and the rest of their allies, they'll continue their work on Earth.
But for Hyunjae and Jacob, there is another option. Sangyeon has the connections and Chanhee has the resources to send them into space and to the colonies, to go to places where they can do some good.
Hyunjae already changed his life. Together, they can help change some more.
They go back only once - to collect Darong from Eric and Sunwoo, and to say their goodbyes. Eric cries and clings to them both and Sunwoo, usually more stoic, can barely speak.
"Will we ever see you again?" Eric says.
"I want to," Jacob says, hugging him tightly. "I hope so." He kisses the side of his head, then Sunwoo's too. "Look after each other, okay?"
They take a private ship to the stars, all expenses paid thanks to Chanhee. Darong is wild with curiosity, running up and down and around the ship sniffing everything and endearing himself to the crew, until he finally settles down in Jacob's lap.
"Why does he always go to you and not me?" Hyunjae says, outraged. Jacob laughs and holds his hand consolingly.
Jacob takes the seat by the window during lift off. As the ship rumbles and roars its way upwards, before finally reaching the velocity to escape the pull of Earth, he looks down with wonder. Even as damaged as it is, as corrupt as it may be, Earth still looks beautiful from a distance. It's still been his home up till now, the place where all the best and worst events of his life have happened so far.
Then Hyunjae nudges him gently and says, "Jacob, look."
Jacob turns his head in the other direction and sees the stars - the great dark vastness of space and the pinpricks of pure light within it. The place where Hyunjae was born, and where he's now returning and bringing Jacob with him.
"It's so beautiful," Jacob says. Then he laughs, a thought occurring to him. Quickly, before Hyunjae can say it, he jumps in and says it first. "Just like you."
"Babe, that was terrible," Hyunjae says, slouching down in his seat, looking away, his ears getting redder and redder.
"Yeah." Jacob kisses his red ear, his perfect jaw, his soft mouth. "But I mean it."