fourcoldpaws: (cn)
[personal profile] fourcoldpaws
cnu/girl!cnu. r. 10,641 words. warnings: clonecest

dongwoo and woori are not orphans because they never had parents. they were born in a lab some twenty-five years ago, grown in test tubes and harvested from synthetic wombs.







He pauses in the hallway, after putting on his shoes, taking out his cellphone to hack into the tracking chip embedded at the back of his neck and set it to loop the coordinates of his apartment. It jolts and beeps. Dongwoo blinks. Then takes the elevator down to the basement, gets into his car and speeds out towards the Inner Ring Lane through the thick protective coat of night darkness.

On his right the city spreads out beneath him like a carpet of light, to his left, the suburbs, dotted bright in neat squares as far as his eye can see. His back presses deep into the seat padding, but already he can feel the tension melting off his shoulders and his hands growing softer around the wheel. One by one, thoughts of work – reports, results, unsolvable enigmas – and worries drop from his mind, tumble away with the air whirls stirred by his speeding vehicle and are left behind somewhere along the dark curving road. It’s strange, maybe it shouldn’t be like this, but something always lifts off him like this, already in the car, and he sinks down, like he can breathe again after days of holding his breath.

On the other side of the city he glides in under an apartment complex identical to his own, and rides up to the eighteenth floor. After he has pressed the door-bell, it takes a while. If he listens carefully, he can hear the light metallic sound of the peephole cover sliding back into place. Then the jingle of the door chain. He pulls his face mask down under his chin. The lock clicks and the door opens.

“Hey,” Woori says.

“Hey,” Dongwoo says, and slips quickly inside.

Her apartment is dark, lit mainly from the three big monitors set up on the dining table, streaming light in blue and green. Most of the floor and almost every surface are littered with technical miscellany – scrap metal, tools, stripped pieces of computers, naked chips and tangled wires. It’s a stark contrast to the smooth, grey, rounded walls and interior of her standard government apartment. The only spared area is the alcove on the far side of the room where the wide, grey band of a treadmill is lowered into the floor, handles and monitor rising above it.

“Just a minute,” she says, sinking cross-legged to the floor, back onto the empty spot in the middle of a heap of junk and gadgets that she seemingly just left. Woori has an innate ability to see patterns and structure, even in chaos. Her eyes move fast around, hands occasionally reaching for something. Then putting it back.

Dongwoo carefully makes his way between the little islands of naked floor, then stands watching her, waiting. After a minute he sinks down to his haunches and reaches out and hands her the piece she didn’t know she was looking for, filling in the connection he saw her trying to make.

“Ah,” she says, grinning shortly at him, “thanks.”

She stands up when she’s done, moves close to him, puts both arms around his neck and kisses him on the lips. “Hi.”

She’s nine days older than him. Tall, almost as tall as him, and, like him, awkwardly broad, but thin, like spread out too far, and a bit sunken down into herself, like curled in at the edges. Since she cut her hair off, they really are the spitting image of each other. The same small peering eyes, chunk of a nose, the same oddly angled face. But it’s more delicate on her, prettier, just like his hands and waist and shoulders are softer and slimmer on her body.

If he didn’t know her, he might have said that she’s fragile. But he does know her, and he knows that she can also unfold and stretch out into full height and lean strength, meet anyone’s eyes with a calm gaze, and run far and fast on long stable legs.

“How are you?”

“I have a deadline on Monday, I’ve been writing codes for three days straight. My brain’s pretty fried.” She looks into his eyes through the turquoise half-dark, her nose stretching a flickering shadow over her right cheek. Her nails slide softly over the skin of his neck. “You?”

She has a lingering, thoughtful voice, her words coming out slow, but always like she truly means them. Dongwoo can’t ask anyone because he hasn’t met anyone who knows both of them in many years, but he thinks – or likes to think, maybe – that they have a similar way of speaking. His friends and colleagues tend to tease him about talking slowly and pausing too often.

“A bit tired.” He catches some hair falling over her eyes and tucks it behind her ear. “But it’s good now.” His shoulders are sloped and his hands are soft, his breathing calm and easy. His head suddenly feels clear. She tends to have that effect on him.

“How’s work?”

“Let’s not talk about work.”

She eyes him, and he feels a little bit like he’s being scanned. He wonders if she sees anything in him. He often gets the feeling that she can see right through him, if she wants. Whatever she was looking for, she seems satisfied, and she relaxes, her gaze softening and drifting.

Perhaps by account of her gender, she always seems to be one step ahead of him. Especially when they were kids, painfully so during their teens, but even now, she seems to have something that he doesn’t have, doesn’t reach, and if he does get there, by that time she has already moved on to something different, something higher, deeper, older, darker.

“Do you want tea?” she mumbles, twirling a thread of his hair around her finger. Her bangs curve down over the left side of her face, his over his right. Her eyes are resting somewhere around his mouth, but look blank and empty, like she’s actually somewhere else, looking at something completely different.

“Yeah,” he says.

She nods. “Plain,” she says, already knowing the answer.

“Yeah.”

She nods again, gives his mouth a little smile. Then leaves him.

They were born in a lab some twenty-five years ago, by immaculate conception, grown in test tubes and harvested from synthetic wombs. Cloned for the good of the people from desirable DNA that had been tampered with; higher IQ, sharper senses, faster thinking – the usual. Less prone to diseases, better physique, perfect eyesight. Then split in two.

They’re not orphans because they never had parents, just a distant fore-father who was a good scientist and whose tissue sample is preserved in a tube in one of the storage fridges in the Institution basement. Dongwoo has seen it, walked past it several times while he was doing his internship. Jung Shinwoo, it says, and then a long row of digits. He opened the fridge and took it out once, held the cold cylinder in his hand, wondered if he could call this the closest he ever got to a father. Some people have a human being with a face and a body and strong arms to lift you with and warm hands to tuck you in at night. Dongwoo has a small transparent tube that is ice-cold against his fingers. The frozen content was clear like water and completely homogenous, no bits or chunks, nothing tangible. He held it for a minute, like to memorize the feeling of it, then put it back and never touched it again. (He wonders sometimes whether this man would ever have consented to what was done to his remains. Consented to them.)

It’s not weird to be curious, Dongwoo reasons. A couple of years later he looked up some papers their ancestor had written, found a picture of himself thirty years from now. Thinking it was funny, he wanted to show Woori. But Woori wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Woori never wants to talk about stuff like that.

They both grew up at the Institution, Dongwoo is the boy wing and Woori in the girl wing. Spent their entire childhoods within those thick walls; sat long hours in classrooms, long hours doing homework in the dormitories, and in-between played with their fellow little experiments, all destined to be great people and do great things. They were all like kids tend to be; afraid of the dark, picking their noses, unfond of vegetables, and touching their pubescent bodies in bathrooms and under bed sheets. It was not a bad upbringing. Each class had a nanny who made sure all children were fed and clean and had done their assignments, to whom you could go when you were sad and cried or ask for a glass of milk when you woke up in the middle of the night. But there’s only so much love you can squeeze out of a person who has to divide it equally between ten little boys, all lacking a fixed point in their lives, all feeling like something’s missing, despite not quite knowing what.

Dongwoo remembers, from around the age of six or so, looking across the dining hall or play room or school yard and seeing Woori there with the other girls. He was very soon drawn towards her, childishly fascinated by her, innocently, irresistibly curious, his eyes constantly sailing in her direction, jolting every time she looked back and their gazes met for a moment. He was already at that age fully aware of the way of things, the way children can knows things instinctively, already feeling an intense connection. Already knew that they belonged together – not necessarily on a psychological, emotional level, but simply knowing that they were of the same kind. A lot of other boys in his class also had copies of themselves in the other classes, and when Dongwoo looked at Woori he thought; “That one’s mine. I’m theirs.” Or, on his less articulate days, at least; “That kid looks just like me.” He would look at her, and look at himself, both in the unisex uniforms and standard haircuts, and wonder if they were actually the same person, and he just didn’t know.

Just when he had gotten old and bold enough to actually dare to walk up to her, and talk to her, and play with her, and get to know her, things changed. He didn’t realize it then, but the ominous, mysterious condition known as Puberty was washing over his other self. That gap, that he might have sensed sometimes, the little extra way she had on him, suddenly widened into an unbridgeable abyss. They were branching off, he realized in the back of his head. They were not the same person, they were to become different, two different humans, of two different kinds. She grew, on every end. Suddenly she started having thoughts he couldn’t identify with, and wanted to ask questions he couldn’t understand. An air came over her that reminded him of those older girls who would sit on the stone steps outside West Gate in the afternoons and converse quietly among themselves, those he never dared to go near. But she was also slowly sprouting a new, different body, alien and uninviting, while he was still short and silly and had a high pitched voice. She was drifting away from him, drawing so far ahead that it felt like he could never catch up with her. He felt inferior and lost interest.

A year or two later, Dongwoo entered his own pubescence on his own. He never thought about it as that he was following Woori, but rather that he was following the boys in his class who were changing alongside him, or were a bit ahead, and had already stretched up into the air and spurted hair at all kinds of places. He didn’t think much about Woori at all. He was busy suddenly having thoughts he hadn’t had before, wanting to ask questions he didn’t see the point in asking earlier. His mind felt different, simultaneously more chaotic and more calm. He was growing a new, different body, all baby fat translating to height and lean young muscles. He was still awkward in a way that was half teenaged boy and half his own special brand, but he was taller (taller than Woori now) and stronger and had a darker voice and carried the subtle, half sub-conscious sense of dignity that comes with feeling like you’re on your way somewhere. He might not have thought about it, but he was catching up.

That time, it was she who initiated contact. Still today he has a fleeting feeling that she waited for the right moment, waited for him to be ready.

One day at lunch when they were fifteen, she sat down across from him, grinning at him like they didn’t at all not talk for four years. She had her hair tucked behind one ear, and a small clip-on earring on the lobe. She had a way of fiddling with her fork while she ate, and gradually Dongwoo realized that he was doing the exact same thing himself, probably had for a long time. He looked at her, saw the amounts of himself in her, and wondered briefly if they were actually the same person after all. Just happened to branch off in different directions.

She kept doing that; walking up to him, talking to him, playing with him, getting to know him. She dragged him on long early morning runs over the grounds, she taught him how to disable the tracking chip so they could go into the woods and over the meadows, she talked him into ditching homework with her on sunny days, she laughed at him when he got nervous because the girl he had a crush on was in the room, and she answered all those questions he was mulling over and which she had already figured out. They spent long hours in the library where as long as you looked studious nobody would care much about you, half studying and half slowly digging deeper and deeper into each other’s heads. Their minds worked so much in the same way that he sometimes suspected that she knew exactly what he was thinking. She knew when he had secrets, and worked them out before he could tell her they were none of her business. Then she’d smile gently, and promise not to tell anyone. He could always tell when her smile was fake and when it was real, when she was honest and when she was just pretending. She never lied to him in words, but often tried to lie with her body, hide and mask and cover things up. It never really worked.

He wondered sometimes if this was what having a sister was like, but somehow doubted it. This was different. This was not like anything else in the world.

At this time, he had recently developed a deep sense of understanding of the differences between the male and female body, and the implications of them, like all biology classes and anatomy textbooks finally had sunk in, grown context and dimension, like when things you learnt by rote suddenly come together and make sense. At that age, he wished sometimes that he had been born a girl, or she had been born a boy. He felt, some days, acutely aware of their differences, of how their genderless child bodies had been separated by the impending adulthood, ripped apart and forcibly molded in different forms. Where she grew soft, he was to grow hard and muscular, where she was in, he was out, where she was out, he was in. He supposed they complemented each other in a way. Two of a kind, one of each kind. But he had rather been of the same kind altogether. Had rather been all the same.

They never touched each other back then.

Graduating at eighteen with a university degree each, their classmates dispersed for the mandatory training period. By Institution custom, most information, such as the whereabouts of the Subjects, is confidential. Dongwoo stayed to do his internship at the Institution, but still had to pack his things and get into a car to the station and take the train to West Sub-Capital the day after the ceremony, then take the train back again the same night after everybody had left.

Woori left. She was to specialize in software and computing. That was all she could tell him. They met in an empty corner of the garden after the last supper, both still in the black ceremonial robes and looking almost identical, except her hair was longer. She hugged him, and he wound his arms hard around her waist, his nose at her shoulder. For some reason, he hadn’t really expected it to feel this way, to feel this much. There was hard knot of something in his belly. I’ll find you again, he thought to himself, but didn’t want to say it out loud. She pulled away from him then, and grinned widely.

“I’ll find you again,” she said. “Somewhere, somehow.”

He thought of the big wide world about to swallow them both up, but forced himself to nod. “Yeah.” He knew that when he woke up in the morning, she would already be gone.

He lingered a couple of minutes the next evening in front of the digital board announcing arrivals and departures at the Wessub Central Station. It was gigantic, hung from the ceiling over the hundreds of people streaming through the waiting hall, maybe four meters tall, and double wide, with hundreds of time-stamps and destinations to choose between, constantly blinking updates. There were trains going to the airport and seaport, each probably offering another hundred different destinations.

He blankly scanned his eyes over the board, then fixed on a random line, and pretended that that was the train she had taken, that was where she was. His brain absently calculated the minutes and the distance to the platform. If he would make it.

Someone bumped into his shoulder and didn’t apologize. Dongwoo felt tired and dizzy. His neck was hurting from bending back so he left. He got on his train and went back home.

For five years, he didn’t see her, didn’t talk to her, didn’t even know where she was. He finished his training, got a job, was assigned an apartment, dated, made friends. Grew up.

Then one day, a colleague asked him if, perhaps, he has a sister. She saw someone on the street that looked just, eerily much, like him.








Woori’s kitchen is empty and clean, the light in there yellow and warm. They sit by the window, watching the city glitter below.

“You’re pale,” Dongwoo tells her. “You should get out more. See some people.”

“I see people.”

“Government people aren’t people.”

“I see you.”

He opens his mouth, but then closes it again. He watches the silhouette of her profile against the yellow-grey wall. She’s sunken deep in her chair, feet on the low windowsill, stirring her tea and not looking at him. She bites her lips together for a moment, and continues;

“You’re the only person I have a connection to in the whole world. Everybody else is just people. Blank faces. I can never remember any of them. They could be anyone. They pass by, come and go. They’ve got nothing to do with me. I’ve got nothing tying me to them.”

“You’re supposed to create those ties yourself,” Dongwoo reminds her, and himself. “You have to work for it. You have to try.”

“I have tried,” she says. “I can’t. I don’t want to. I don’t care.” She pinches the spoon to the mug edge with her thumb and takes a sip. “I’ve given that up.”

“You’re twenty-five. You can’t give up people.”

Her lips stretch back in a little smile, shoulders lifting in a little shrug.

It’s not like he walked around thinking about her for five years. He had his own life, his own problems, his own things to think about. At twenty, he left the Institution and was transferred to Norsub. This was the real world, with real people, bred from other real people. With real lives and real memories and real families. Dongwoo quickly grew painfully aware of that he had spent his entire life, all his first twenty years, in a single, isolated place, a micro-cosmos of its own, with a total population of a few hundred people, where everybody lived pretty uniform lives and where nobody asked about things like your hometown or parents or siblings. He never knew how to answer this new brand of questions. The Institution never thought to teach them things like that. The things that really mattered. (He could have told them about Woori, could have mentioned having a sister somewhere, but he never did. She was not that. She was not a sister.)

At first, he was petrified. He only left home when he absolutely had to, for work and for food, and spent the rest of his time alone in his room. Alone. He had nobody. He knew nobody. He was tied to nobody. He was a single separate organism floating in the immense darkness of the universe, and allegedly there were other organisms all around him, like him, but they were like invisible – he couldn’t see them, and they couldn’t see him. He saw the shadows, of people, but it was like they were of a different kind, or in a different dimension, separated from him with a thick veil. He couldn’t reach them. He didn’t know how.

It took almost a year before his brain started cracking the code. It was like slowly breaking through a surface of water, into air. He suddenly found how starved he was of human interaction, of mental and physical touch. For all his shyness, he was – is – a social being, he needed a pack. He had already known he was alone, had always felt the solitude, but it scared him now.

Frantically, Dongwoo threw himself into the project of creating a social network. Every former shadow had grown its own personal spotlight. Every human around him was an undiscovered acquaintance, a potential connection. Like a trawler he swept through the laboratory coffee rooms, the local public houses, the gym, the Food Courts, the streets and houses close to his own, and through the night, the sweeping strobe lights of the forbidden underground clubs.

He couldn’t keep that up for long, but enough to tie himself a web of connections (a safety net). There were the co-workers, the sport mates, the clerk ladies at his Ration Center, the nodding neighbors and the strangers he knew for one night only, and through it all grew the small buds of friendship, or something like it, popped up here and there for him to nurse and harvest. Every connection had its own net, which he could crawl into, speed along, jump from hub to hub, like a shortcut, connect through osmosis. A friend of a friend is a friend. The buds weren’t many, and the web wasn’t tight, but he had something, something to rest on, something to cling to in the width of the world.

Dongwoo knows what Woori means, he knows that feeling. It felt good, the nodding, the small-talk, the gatherings, the beers with the colleagues, the casual dates. But it was, in a lot of ways, like scraping on an impenetrable surface, trying to dive in and skidding off the shield. He had learnt how to reach people, but not how to get close, how to get deep, how to dig in under someone’s skin, how to actually get to know someone. It was all shallow, pleasant but puddle-deep, all various levels of acquaintance. For a while he thought that this was the way it was supposed to be, this was what relationships were like. People kind of boring, sex kind of dull.

He missed her sometimes; their talks, her company, her presence. But he didn’t realize that what he was missing was the exchange, the understanding, the having something to give and getting something in return. He didn’t realize that that empty spot, the something lacking that he couldn’t quite define, the feeling of something missing, despite not quite knowing what, was the space she had left behind when they parted. (Had been ripped apart.) No matter how hard he looked, how far he searched, how well he nursed his connections, he couldn’t find anyone who gave him what she had given him, whom he could give what he had given her. That was not like anything else in the world. Nobody could fill her spot.

It’s not like he walked around thinking about her for five years. But he didn’t forget her. He didn’t give up on her. He hates the thought that he gave up on her. Even for a minute, even for a day. Maybe he could have looked for her. Maybe he could, and he didn’t. Maybe he just didn’t know what he was looking for.

That day when he was given a clue, the sheer possibility that she might be near, caught a faint whiff of her scent, something awakened within him. The memory of something more, the memory of her.

He came home in a daze that evening, and went to lie down on his bed. It was like it took his brain a while to process it.

She’s here.

I have to find her.


He remembered her words, crystal clear, her voice and her mouth, in that garden, five years ago, on a lukewarm summer night; software and computing. That was all he knew. That was his only lead.

He combed through all the computing departments at the laboratories and Science Centers and universities in the city, finding excuses to go, needing this or that equipment or this or that person for his project, asking inconspicuously at front desks, running down corridors and reading the names on office doors, scanning crowds and staff pictures, the authors on articles in magazines, ultimately just walking vainly around and hoping someone would recognize his face, having seen it somewhere, one someone else, and come up to him and somehow tell him everything he wanted to know.

He was constantly looking for her, eyes always open, childishly entertaining the belief that he might just run into her on the street. Several times he caught sight of something from the corner of his eye, thought himself see something familiar in a stranger that had just swept by; a way of moving, a shape of the shoulders, the flutter of hair (even though he had no idea how her hair looked now), or just a feeling, fleeting and hard to place, like an aura. Several times he spun around, started taking quick steps, to follow, before seeing something that didn't fit, catching the whole image, and realizing it wasn't right. Too short, too straight, too fluid, too curvy, too much swaying of the hips when walking. A couple of times he ran, caught up, grabbed the arm of a startled unknown woman, jerking her around, and had to stare at her face for a moment, breathing harder than he should, before apologizing profusely and hurrying away.

He was constantly looking for her, eyes always open, knowing that it might all be completely futile, it might be too late. She might already be gone, she may never even have been there. For all he knew, she could be at the other end of the world.

I’ll find you again.

It wasn’t he who found her. It was she who found him.

She rang his doorbell one day, like they hadn’t at all not seen each other for five years. He opened without looking in the peephole first. There she stood, outside his door, in the cold white light of the hallway, on the floor tiles he walked every day, hands in her pockets. State jacket over sweats. Weird combo. She looked older. Her face slimmer, features more developed. There was something heavy over her face, like she had seen more than he had, lived more. (Higher, deeper, darker.) She looked adult. Maybe he did too. Her hair was long.

They stared at each other for a minute. Then she took a step forward and hugged him, arms around his waist, his nose at her shoulder. His hand shook faintly against her neck.








At first, it was just like back in the library. They hung out, at his apartment or hers, they talked, they played, they grew to know each other all over again. She would bring him puzzles, riddles, codes, things she had been thinking about, and they would solve them together. It was a good time. He felt alive.

But you don’t go five years apart, you don’t grow up in different parts of the world, without changing. Without things coming to change.

Something was different. Something had changed.

The realization was creeping and ice-cold, subconscious only at first, and he was denying it, suppressing it, pushing it away before he was even fully aware of it, before he had acknowledged it, before he had words for it, before it had even taken shape.

It came in the longing for her, which he had always done, he had always longed for her, and not felt bad about it, but this had a different taste. It sat in touching her, which he had always done, which she had done to him, easy things, a hug, at the door, a teasing shove, a pat, bumping in, brushing by. It was no different, in form. It was, somehow, different, in core. It seeped in his looks at her, which is a natural thing, looking at someone, whoever you’re talking to, but not stealing them, in secret, taking too many, without reason, hoarding them, stretching them, hungering for them. It screamed in his thoughts at night, when he was in bed, hands on his stomach, unable to sleep.

He knew the feeling it brought him. He was not old but he had been a child, he was no stranger to it. It was shame, the kind you can’t wrestle down, the kind you can’t come to term with, the kind you can’t stand and can’t bear, the kind that slithers inside you in tight painful knots and makes your whole body writhe, because this comes from inside of you, this is all you, all your own fault, all your own sin, and you can’t take it out of you, this ugly and sinful and revolting thing, you cannot make it go away. You have to stand there, and stare yourself in the face, watch the slitherings of the dirtiest side of you, the filthiest pit of your being.

It was creeping and ice-cold, the realization that he wanted her. In what way and to what extent, he was not sure, but certainly in ways and to extents that he shouldn’t.

His subconscious had been right. Deny and suppress, push it away, far away, crumple it into one single tight heavy little knot and bury it deep inside of you where no one will find it and you can go through your daily life without having to feel it burn. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you will even forget about it that way. And maybe it will wither. Maybe it will die.

She noticed. Not it, but something. She must have. He pulled away from her. He couldn’t help it. Not from her company. He couldn’t do that. He needed that. But from her immediacy, her easy presence, her mental and physical touch. It fucked them up. He knew that. The touch was what was important. The contact. If they didn’t have that, they were nothing. No more than two strangers on the street. But he had to. When she reached out to him, he had to pull further away.

Deny and ignore, ignore ignore. He took pride in one thing, and this was the fact that he never consummated his atrocity. He never acted on it. Not in front of her, of course, not towards her, but also never on his own, in the privacy of his solitude, with himself as the sole spectator, the only one to judge. He never touched himself to thoughts of her. He managed to keep those images far away, in the deep corners of his brain, when he immersed himself in his own or in someone else’s body.

It was close, at times. The mind is vulnerable, especially in that kind of situation. It’s hard to control what is supposed to control, when it slips away, and as always the idea of prohibition had the forbidden bubbling just under the surface, more tempting than ever. It skimmed over his mind sometimes, it did, soothing in a way, soft and delicious, pulling at him, so easy to sink into. But he didn’t. He never submitted to that. That was his only redemption.

She came over one afternoon, or early evening, around 6 p.m., after she had been out, to the officials, or the rare but inevitable round to the office, when she couldn’t postpone it anymore. She used to do that, come to him afterwards, a two birds with one stone kind of thing, or a way of cleansing herself perhaps. She only left her home for work and for food and for him.

“Hey,” she said, outside his door, tugging at the stiff state employee’s uniform. She didn’t like it, always said she felt so confined. He did too, but not as much. Barely had she got inside before she dug her regular soft shirt and sweatpants from her bag and excused herself in the direction of the bathroom. He nodded at her to go ahead.

He needed something in his bedroom – right now can’t remember what – and followed her after a minute, standing for a while looking at the closed bathroom door just opposite of his bedroom one in the small hallway leading away from the living area in all standard apartments. Then realized he was being creepy, and turned around and pushed through his bedroom door, which was already a bit open.

There she stood, on his bedroom floor, side to him, jacket and clothes thrown over the edge of his bed. Her shirt was off and her bra just about to follow, her hands just on the clasp.

Her head turned to him. Dongwoo was frozen.

“Oh. Sorry,” he said, automatically, hand still on the door handle, but not making any effort to look away because he couldn’t move and he could hardly breathe.

Woori hadn’t even startled.

“It’s okay,” she said, slowly, and her hands moved, equally slow, she was turned more towards him now, he couldn’t see her fingers on the clasp, just the elastic loosening around her, the straps falling down over her arms, and then the fabric from her chest.

She stood there, turned towards him, looking into his eyes, but he wasn’t looking into hers because he was looking at her breasts. Small, pointy, rounded at the bottom, resting just so against her chest, casting a thin shadow. Her nipples, contracted slightly in the coolness of the room. Her shoulders, the curve of her waist, the lines of bone under her skin. Her skin. He could feel it all etching itself into his brain, like scratching a painting of scars, slowly growing clearer.

Something came to mind, distantly, like under a layer, like separated from the rest of his brain with a folding screen; those differences between the male and female body. These breasts, that he doesn’t have. He is all flat, the soft mound of muscle, dot of nipple, that is all. They are not the same, they are different. Where she is out, he is in, and where she is in, he is out, like two pieces of a puzzle, fitting together, possibly. It had been so vain of his sixteen-year-old self to think that he had understood the implications, that he had understood any of it at all. But how could he have known? Yes, technically, the male will breed with the female, but that he would want to breed with her?

They stood there, she looking at him, arms along her sides, he looking at her, hand still at the handle, for probably not a very long time, but the seconds felt long, like minutes, felt still and stubbornly unmoving. He didn’t know what kind of look that was, that she had on him. He didn’t know why she didn’t move. They stood there, not long but for too long. Her nakedness seemed to grow between them, till it had filled the room completely, pressing on them, till it was setting, like permanent, like he’d never be able to get it out.

“I’m going to,” she said then, suddenly, putting a hand on her stomach, on the button of her fly. “The pants.”

That woke him up. He spun around, so quickly he almost lost his balance, found the handle again to steady himself, to grip something. The other hand came to his forehead, over his eyes, even though his back was already turned. “Oh,” he said again. “Oh. Yeah. Sure. I’m sorry. I’m just. Gonna.” He realized he should close the door, and did so.

It didn’t mean anything, this, he knew that. I knew that so hard in the core of his body that he didn’t even bring up the possibility of it meaning something. Because it didn’t. They both had a very relaxed relationship to bodies and nudity, had always had. When he thought about it, it had just been a matter of time before something like this happened. And it’s not a big deal. Not when you know each other. It’s just skin.

She didn’t comment on it when she came back out, didn’t comment on it for the rest of the evening. Didn’t seem weird. It was nothing.

He stood in the bedroom doorway after she had left, looking in. It took him a couple of minutes to step over the threshold.

The night after that, he slept on the couch.

The third night, he worked late. He dreaded having to come home. He sought any kind of distraction, from that room that haunted him. Ignore ignore ignore, think about other things, occupy yourself. He dragged himself in through his door, finally, just before midnight. He stepped into the shower, ran the water cold, stood there till the pain of the temperature had faded away and he was numbed all over, could barely feel a thing. He was exhausted, maybe he can blame that, that he could barely stand up, barely knew what he was doing. He fell down onto his bed with just the towel around him, sank down into the mattress like all his limbs were made of lead. It curved under his back, soft, protective.

The ghosts of her presence swirled all around him, he could almost see them, faint, transparent against his pale-grey ceiling. He could still feel it, her nakedness, like a faint hum through the room, just under his range of hearing, just a vibration through him, like picked up by a sixth sense, not sure if it was actually there. It had set. He was never going to get it out. His body was starting to thaw from the shower, he could feel the tips of his fingers again and the edge of his skin was growing warm.

He lay there, in that room, the same room whose air had touched her bare skin just three days ago. It was touching him now, flowing over his arms and legs and torso. They were both half-naked in that room, mere meters apart, separated only by time; her then and him now.

He pulled himself back to that day, painted the scene that had etched itself into him, mapped it out in his head, projected it before him. He saw her standing there, just like that day, arms along her sides, eyes unreadable on him, her skin and her body. But this time she didn’t just look at him. Now she moved towards him, slowly, over the carpet, her body coming up to his. She stood close, like he could feel her, even though they weren’t touching. Then she raised a hand and touched his face with it. Her fingers, light, on his cheek, his nose, his temple. His mouth. The corner of it, the line of his upper lip, the swell of the lower, short across the seam of them both. Dongwoo, in bed, felt his real mouth open.

He wanted to keep it slow but things quickened. Her mouth on his, her body on his. He could feel the shapes of her naked breasts pressing against him. He could feel a hand, his own hand, on his other body, travelling down over his stomach. Halting by the towel, momentarily, pulling back like a brain-dead slug, blindly waving its antennas. Then forward again, finding the way, finding what it wanted, what it was looking for.

He had never thought about her when touching himself, had never let fantasies of her fuel him. And it had also never been like this, never felt like this. He had never writhed like this, curling and twisting, never breathed like this, like the room around him was running out of air, never sounded like this, so ragged and helpless, and he had never come like this, like bursting, like exploding, leaving him so tired and empty and flat.

He breathed, mechanically, in and out, staring up into the swirls of the ceiling, slowly fading away.

He fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.








When he woke up he couldn’t at first remember why he was naked. He had overslept, by a good four hours, and was just scrambling out of bed and pulling on the nearest pair of pants when he saw the towel. He stared at it for a moment. The fibers were stiff with dried semen.

He sat back down then, on the edge of the bed, hands on his knees, arms and shoulders stiff. He sat and stared his shame in the face, nodding at it slightly, in greeting, or acknowledgement, because it was fully part of him and there was nothing he could do to remove it. He cleared his throat, tried his voice a couple of times to make sure it held, then dialed work and called in sick.

In the afternoon, his phone buzzed in announcement of a message. He considered ignoring it at first, didn’t want to get off the couch. Didn’t want to stand up. Didn’t want to move. But he needed to piss too, anyway, and had already postponed that for quite some time. He swept the screen unlocked with his left thumb while getting his pants down with the other hand, and was hit with a gush of aching nausea at the sight of the name of the sender; Woori. He swiftly pulled his pants up again. He didn’t want to touch his dick at the moment.

Can you come over tonight?

Can, not do you want to. He got paranoid for a moment. Did that mean something? Did she know something? How the fuck would she know?

Then worried. Was something wrong? For a split second he forgot all about himself and his personal qualms. Then they came back again.

He thought about saying no. Making some excuse. Would she buy it? Could he just refuse? Would it be weird, would it make her wonder? He didn’t want to refuse. He wanted to see her. More than ever.

He pressed her door-bell thinking to himself that it still wasn’t too late to run away. He thought it would take a while, as usual, but the door opened almost immediately. Now it was too late.

“Hey,” Woori said, with something strange in her face, over her eyes. He blinked, and then it was gone. “Come in.”

He followed her into her living room. It was cleaner than usual, he noted. All computers were shut off but one, one big monitor sending a steady, blood-red glow over the dark room.

“Is something wrong?” he asked her when she stopped and turned to him in the middle of the floor. He couldn’t see her face well, it was all dark red shadows, his eyes hadn’t yet adjusted. Thoughts raced through his head for a moment, that she had found out, somehow, that she was going to tell him they could never see each other again, that she never wanted to see him again. It made him want to reach for her, put his arms around her. If she’d let him.

“I wanted to tell you,” she began, looking into his eyes. That strangeness came over her again, but it might just have been the shadows. “I was lying awake in bed last night, after midnight.” Dongwoo’s muscles stiffened. “I was thinking about you. I thought about you, last time, at your apartment, a couple of days ago. You know? I thought about you there. I thought about you touching me. I touched myself, picturing it was you touching me. I made myself come, thinking about you.”

It wasn’t necessarily an invitation. It was honesty, sharing something, a thought, an event, a problem, maybe wanting advice on it, maybe just wanting it out there, clearing the air, being honest, so it doesn’t sit between them and chafe, fucking things up. Maybe wanting confirmation, acknowledgement, wanting someone to say that this is okay, you don’t have to be ashamed of this, and this doesn’t make me hate you. It was honesty, and it was so like her, not being afraid of the shame, not being afraid to say it, being more bothered by what it made her feel, that it bothered her, and the risk of fucking up a relationship, than by what the rest of the world might think of her.

But she was also trying him, challenging him. She was giving him a choice.

He could have said oh or okay or those things happen sometimes, and nothing would have happened, or he could have given her honesty back, could have told her. Could have told her everything. But he couldn’t say a word.

She took a step forward, closer. It was like he could feel her, even though they were not touching. Her eyes were firm on his, the left side of her face red, the right almost black. She said; “I want to fuck you.”

She did, on her smooth red-grey government couch, he deep against the cushions, she in his lap, his hands on her back.

It had never been like that, he had never felt like that, with another body. He had never lost himself like that, lost time and space and thought, like all he could see were the moving shadows over her blood-red skin, all he could feel the burning spaces on his body where they touched, were connected. No, that was not true – he could feel his body, his whole body, and hers, like that was his too, part of him, could feel them like a humming field of glow in nothingness, black vacuum, from the cores of their bodies to the edge of their skin, to the tips of their fingers, like confined fire, like they were buzzing, shining, radiant.

He had never clung to someone like that, never moved with someone like that, never looked at someone like that. He had been right, long ago, he had understood something. She was different, they were different, this was different. This was not like anything else in the world.

He knew, in the back of his head, that she knew, that she had known, all along, had probably known longer than he had. Of course she knew. She knew all his thoughts, she knew all his secrets. Still today he has a fleeting feeling that she waited for the right moment, waited for him to be ready.








They lie together in the cool sheets of her bedroom, grey and dark save from the pale white city lights reaching up through the window, playing over her ceiling, streaming, circling, fanning out, sweeping by.

“Do you ever wonder,” Woori asks against his chest, arm thrown over him, “if they made a mistake… if they fucked up somehow, when they made us?” Her fingers play slowly over his ribs, sliding back and forth, like waves. “Do you think we’re broken or something?”

“We’re not robots,” Dongwoo reminds her, and himself. He has his arm tucked under his head and he can feel the small bump of the chip on his neck against his wrist. He moves his other hand, slides his fingers up under Woori’s hair and finds hers too, like by heart, on the top knob of her spine. Inside of it, tiny wires run through the bone into the nerves of her marrow. Taking it out would be too risky. It’s most likely going to sit there for the rest of their lives, reminding them. That they are being watched. That they are valuable. That they are a commodity. That they are fabricated. That they are not their own.

He pulls her closer to him, lets his fingers move through her short hair. He remembers the day she cut it. She had asked him, out of the blue, a couple of days before, why he had grown his hair out. He had had to think for a moment. He had barely even thought about it, it had just happened. It was just after his transferal, out into the real world, when he was no longer subjected to the Institution’s mandatory bimonthly trimming appointments, or the chart of the six standard male hairstyles that he had had to choose between. It was part a freedom thing and part being terribly busy, and by the time he got around to it he had grown quite shaggy, and also grown used to it. He took it off by the neck, bangs long, and that’s where it has stayed since. But in retrospect, it was probably a subconscious thing. He was leaving it long for a reason.

She had grinned at him, after his explanation, fingering her long braid. “Maybe I’ll cut mine off then,” she had said. “Meet you half-ways.” So we’ll match.

When she had come over afterwards, they had stood side by side in front of his bathroom mirror, two carbon copies, like an extra print-out, just one a little smaller than the other.

“Did you actually bring a picture of me to the hairdresser?”

“Yeah. I said it was me last year. Nobody even looked twice.”

He likes it, more than he thought he would and more than he really wants to admit. It reminds him of when they were little, when all the kids had their hair cut the same way. She wasn’t even smaller then.

He remembers how some kids used to fuck around with the teachers, switch classes and say they were their other self. The most notorious ones got colored crosses drawn on their foreheads with permanent markers that didn’t come out for a whole week. Dongwoo, with a child’s vast but peculiar sagacity, sometimes wondered if the switchers themselves weren’t sure of who was who after a while. Aside from scanning the chip, there was no way to tell them apart. Did they ever wake up in their clone’s bed and wonder whether they were actually themselves, or the other one?

It was a scary thought, but also an appealing one. He liked the idea that, maybe, if you were close enough with someone, you might seep into them, while they seeped into you, so you were half you and half them, drifting back and forth. Maybe you would even shift sometimes, switch bodies for a little while. He liked to picture the gooey brain matter being the same color, or something like that, like a precocious manifestation of the soul. Didn’t matter which head it was in, it was all the same stuff anyway.

He has always liked the idea of being identical to her. It makes them feel closer. Him, to her. Blurs out their differences. When he sees her like this, in the short hair and one of his t-shirts, or the state jacket, he can pretend she is actually him, and that he is looking at himself from outside. He can watch his shoulders, the length of his back and shape of his arms and profile of his face, he can look into his own eyes and touch himself with other hands.

Maybe he is her, then. He can feel the shell of her body, around him. Her waist, the swell of her hips, the soft layer under her skin, the hollow of her womb within him. She is him, and he is her. They can switch, for a moment. Or share, maybe, halfway, be a little bit of both. (He likes it extra much when they have sex, when he can look at her and see himself, look at her and feel himself drift, can simultaneously feel the press of her, around him, and the press of her, inside him. He can feel her body, like it is his own.)

Or he is still himself. He exists, simultaneously, in two places, copied and pasted. Separate, but not different. There are two of him, like the world in the mirror. Except he can talk to this one, touch this one, kiss this one.

He has always liked the idea of being the same, of being one. Two parts of a thing. Connected. He never saw her as a twin, barely as a separate individual. She’s him, another version of him.

Maybe that is a bit fucked up.

“I don’t think we’re broken,” he murmurs, into her hair. “Maybe we’re just a bit narcissistic.”

She snorts at him. He can feel her smile against his skin.

"What happens if we're found out?” she asked him once, or maybe herself. It was at a time much like this, when they were lying together in bed and felt good and safe, and things like that felt distant and surreal. He didn’t like bringing that into this moment, but maybe this was the time and place for it.

“That we’re seeing each other or that we’re…”

“That we’re fucking.”

Dongwoo stared up into the ceiling. He thought back to his training period at the Institution, but he had only worked in the lab, not with administration. He didn’t remember having seen or heard about a case like this. But he knew how the authorities worked, and so did she.

They wouldn’t be killed, they’re far too valuable for that. They probably wouldn’t be put somewhere where they couldn’t work and contribute to society either. Possibly there would be some kind of punishment. A fine, withdrawal of privileges or liberties, isolation. The only thing sure was immediate separation.

“We’d be transferred. Maybe just one of us, but probably both. We’d be sent far away, in different directions, so we’d never be able to find each other again.”

She was quiet for a while, staring up into a spot next to his. “So what do we do. If we’re found out?”

They worked out a strategy.

If their meetings were discovered, if someone saw them in the hallway, or the tracking chip jammed, how far would they be able to take the act that this was just an innocent friendship, a brotherly, sisterly kind of thing? Friendships are encouraged, and even though their positions are supposed to be classified, nowhere does it say anything about continuing contact in the event of happening to find one another. Would the authorities buy it? Would they not really care? Or would there be investigations? Would they be watched more closely? Would they receive notifications that these encounters would have to stop, in accordance with this or that paragraph in this or that decree? They would have to be more careful. Look for bugs, maybe. Shorter meetings, or find other places. No more sleeping over.

Then there’s plan B.

If one of them is just gone one day, doesn’t answer the phone, apartment empty. Or if one of them has people coming knocking at their door one evening, tall men and women in black coats and eyeshades, telling them to pack two bags and come with them right away, and they have to get into a car with dark windows and sit there for hours and hours, or maybe get taken to the airport and have to get on a plane, and they’re taken far far away from there, taken to another place to start a new life and never see anyone they knew ever again.

Woori took our her phone and opened a map of the State. She flicked her fingers over the screen and zoomed in at random, stopping at a small city, a couple of hours from Sousub. Far from Norsub, far from the Institution and everyone they know.

“Here,” she said. “We meet here.” She zoomed in closer and found a square outside a big Ration Centre, with a statue in the middle. “Here, at noon, every Sunday. Till we find each other again. Or till we give up.”

His arms tightened around her waist as he memorized the position over her shoulder. He’ll never give up on her. Not this time. Not when he knows what he was missing. They'll find each other again. And then they'll go far away, together, and start a new life.

“What would you do?” she asked him once at one of these occasions, when they had been talking about things they didn’t want to have to talk about. She was leaned forward towards him, looking at him with a bright, delighted smile. It was a nice smile. He wished she’d smile like that all the time. “What would you do, if you could do anything you wanted? Nothing tying you down? No government people telling you how to spend your days and live your life?”

He grinned back at her. It was contagious, that excitement of hers. It faded the hard feeling of before, eased the pressure in the air. Maybe she was doing it on purpose, changing the direction, changing the mood.

“You know what I would do.”

He would find some rare, untouched piece of land somewhere, if there is such a thing anymore, far away from big cities and large crowds of people. He would build a house, (Woori rolls her eyes at him, “you don’t know how to build a house,”) by a river, unassuming but comfortable. Then he would find a profession for himself, whatever he thought felt right, something you do with your hands and your body, something leisurely and carefree, something where you take your life as it comes, day by day. Maybe he’d become a fisherman, or open an eating place, or breed chickens, or just plant things into the ground and reap whatever came out of it. Potatoes, rice, beans, vegetables. He’s usually sitting smiling at the wall or, lying, into the ceiling at this point, eyes twinkling, and this is where Woori tends to snort at him (affectionately so, he thinks).

“You should come with me,” he tells her at these times.

“Shouldn’t you have a wife or something, helping you dig up those potatoes,” she usually replies, like he knew she would, looking at him with her head tilted to the side, like wondering if he'll say it. Challenging him, trying him. It’s like a game, and they’re both pretty tired of playing it.

Sometimes he does say it, pulls her close and whispers it in her ear, so low it’s barely even there; you can be my wife.

She just laughs and disentangles herself from him then, says something like; “Right, and we’ll have four little copies of ourselves running around, and nobody will think that’s weird.”

It hurts that she goes for the kid thing, knowing that it's his weakness. But it also hurts because she's right.

She said another thing, though, another time. "I don't dare to," she said. "You know it's dangerous. That's why it's not allowed. They could be sick, or there could be something wrong with them. I don't want to be responsible for that.” She looked down and away from him, speaking in a low voice, like he didn’t understand. “They could die. I wouldn’t be able to bear that.”

Woori must have been thinking along the same lines, because suddenly her fingers stop moving over his ribs and she says; "I think it's common. That's why they spread us out, that's why we're not allowed to know each other. Because we're all longing for that connection, the only connection we have. They're bringing it on themselves, breeding lonely, rootless children. So they have to separate us, so we don’t go around producing bad offspring. I think we're all a bunch of narcissists."

Her voice drops, lower and darker, slower. “All yearning for each other, all drawn to each other, all seeking the contact. By nature. Might not even think about it.” Her hand presses against the skin on the side of his chest, palm flat and fingers spread, presses hard. “Wanna get so close, closer than skin. Wanna melt together, become one big blob.”

He pictures all the synthetic, rootless people, slithering through the immense darkness of the universe, creeping, fumbling blindly towards the sole point of light in the black, seeking the only visible thing. Their other half. He pictures her hand sinking into his skin, like warm wax, their bodies melting into one. Their identical cells, fusing. He thinks about the moment, some twenty-five years ago, when they were just a lump of cells in a tube, before they were split (ripped apart). The one moment they actually were one. Maybe that’s what they’re all longing for. Going back to the natural state.

They come from the same seed, the same spore. They are of the same matter. Just branched off.

“Maybe we’re the same person,” he whispers to her. “Maybe we just don’t know it.”

The hand stops pressing. “What do you mean?”

“We’re just variations,” he says, “of the same thing. Happen to exist simultaneously. Like alternate time-lines. But side by side. We share the same core. We are one, just split.” His voice drops too, lower and softer. “You are me, and I am you.”

She pushes away from him, rests on one elbow to scan him over. Her eyes are hard, then they soften, and she smiles. Fondly, he thinks. “Maybe. Or maybe you’re being ridiculous.”

It doesn’t hurt him. It’s contagious, he smiles too. “Maybe I am.”

He kisses her, letting her lean up over him, his fingers in her hair, the shape of his lips against the matching shape of hers. Then she lies down against him again, shifts herself comfortable. His arm curls over her shoulder.

“Sleep, silly-bear.”

Dongwoo lies awake for a while, looking out over the city lights and night darkness. When summer comes, they will get on a train and he will take her out to the countryside, maybe to a lake, or a big river, or just a spot that is green and quiet and warm. They will bring a picnic basket and sit in the grass and drink lemonade and feel the sun on their skin and the wind in their hair and the earth beneath their bodies. That will do her good.

Woori is breathing slow sleep-breaths against him. Dongwoo closes his eyes.








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