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after midnight

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Seoul, 2120


It is this feeling like floating. This feeling like the road and the night sky are immaterial, floating in a sea of neon stars and raindrops. This feeling like the morning will never come, like these hours after midnight are frozen in suspended time. These are the hours when it feels like all it would take is a step too far, a word spoken too loudly, for the illusion to break and for the pieces to scatter, for the real word to zip itself back together and continue spinning like it always does.

So, Ten is careful with his breath. He saves his words and lets the night talk for him.

Above him, the neon signs of Seoul flash and warp through the visor of his monochrome black helmet. Giant holographic women projected onto buildings advertise nanotech implants and nutritional jelly to no one. Flashing letters in Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and English spell out names of products that pass too quickly for Ten to read or notice. The fog that settles over the city is illuminated in a nebula of artificial pink and blue lights.

During these early hours, he is almost always the only one on the urban streets. His motorcycle is nearly silent, its sleek design and magnetic wheels creating only a slight hum as he glides an inch off the wet, black pavement. Ten revels in the speed, whipping around corners as the cold night air and falling raindrops lick at the exposed skin on his neck above his jacket collar.

Approaching a tunnel, he leans down until he is almost parallel to the bike and accelerates into the near blackness. Even with his eyes open, he can hardly see a foot in front of him. Feeling giddy and reckless, he closes his eyes and lets the bike’s autopilot carry him through the tunnel. In here, the echo of the narrow tunnel amplifies the hum of the bike. He opens his eyes once he feels the glare of green and red streetlights through his eyelids and reflexively checks the GPS on the dash, even though he knows the route by heart.

In the neighborhood in which Ten now finds himself, the streets are more populated, although the figures seem fleeting, almost camouflaging into the urban mosaic. Clusters of people in muted black clothing and exposed legs huddle around each other, seemingly unaware of the chill and the rain; other figures linger in alleys and in the shadows of doorways, dark eyes following Ten as he glides past.

Ten instinctively slows as he feels a rumble coming up from the ground, through his handlebars, into his bones. He follows the rumbling until it gets stronger and stronger, until he hears the deep, heart-pounding bass of techno music. He pulls up to a full stop outside what looks like a large factory building, with massive metal doors and tinted windows that rise into the steamy night sky. Revelers in tight dresses and threadbare, chain-strung pants share glowing cigarettes outside the building, while a line of shivering youths stand under the narrow cement overhang.

This close to the nightclub, the music is almost unbearably loud, and Ten clenches his jaw to keep his teeth from vibrating together. He removes one glove with a swift movement and types quickly into the device set into the bike’s dash. Message sent, all there is to do is wait. He leans back in his seat and watches the rain collect and fall in rivulets down his visor.

A movement in his peripheral vision pulls Ten out of his reverie. He sits up and watches as a figure approaches him. Ten smiles inside his helmet where he knows it can’t be seen.

Even in the low light, Johnny is breathtaking. His long legs, clad in studded black pants, carry him in confident strides across the street to where Ten is parked. His leather jacket fits just tight enough to show off his broad shoulders and muscular chest, which shifts as he runs a pale, long-fingered hand through his wine-colored hair. Illuminated by the neon glow emanating from the nightclub, his face is almost alien in its beauty, with those sharp cheekbones, long-lashed eyes, and full lips pulled in a permanent smirk. Ten’s breath hitches in his chest. He doesn’t think he will ever get used to Johnny’s beauty.

Johnny stops, smiling down at Ten with a glint in his eye. “Hey.” His deep voice cuts through the din of the music. Ten is grateful that his visor is completely opaque; he doesn’t want Johnny to see the flush that creeps into his face upon hearing the familiar voice. Not wanting to break the spell, Ten stays silent, instead cocking his head slightly to the side. Johnny is still for a moment – probably admiring his own reflection in the visor – then flashes that dangerous smile of his before leaning over to reach into the case in back of the motorcycle. He pulls out a helmet, almost identical to Ten’s, then slips into the seat behind him. Ten sighs as Johnny’s long thighs slot into place around his hips and his strong arms wrap tight around Ten’s waist. Ten revs the engine, and they are off into the rainy, impossibly deep night.

Ten lives for moments like this, he thinks, feeling Johnny’s legs tighten around him as they round a particularly sharp corner. Johnny’s presence is overpowering. Even while focusing on the road ahead of him, Ten is acutely aware of every shift of the other man’s weight, the heat radiating from his chest that sets Ten’s heart thudding wildly.

They ride through the nightlife district, and here Ten must swerve to avoid hovercars and other motorbikes. Eventually making it through the maze of vehicles and strung-out partygoers, Ten leans the bike to its right, as far down as they can go without skidding out and swings them onto the ramp leading to the highway. The highway winds around the skyscrapers, industrial monoliths and smokestacks that mark the edge of the overgrown city. Ten turns his head quickly behind him and sees Johnny staring out at the sea of lights and buildings that span out below them. He knows Johnny loves the thrill of speed as much as he does, so he digs his heel into the throttle to urge the bike to its limit. Johnny reacts immediately to the sudden lurch, unwinding his arms from Ten’s waist to grip the tops of Ten’s thighs. Unable to help himself, Ten switches on the autopilot and leans back into Johnny, reveling in the new touch. They ride like this, precariously intertwined, following the curve of the empty road ahead of them.

Ten had first met Johnny on a night not unlike this one.

That night, Ten had been curled up in the window seat of his residence pod, forehead pressed against the cold glass as he stared out at the glittering city below him. In the reflection of the window, the red light of the alarm clock blinked once as the display flipped to 01:00, KST.

He didn’t know how long he had been sitting like that, but his legs were starting to cramp. And his liquor supply was running dangerously low, he noted, glaring at the empty bottles strewn out below him. His eyes had since dried up, but Ten could still see the puffiness in his dark reflection. A sudden surge of anger and loneliness swelled up in him, propelling him out of the seat and over to his closet. He threw on the tightest clothing he owned – a pair of black vinyl pants and a mesh black top set with silver chains –, smudged black shadow over his puffy, almond-shaped eyes, and left the flat, slamming the door behind him.

He had swung onto his bike and set off into the maze-like city, not caring where he went. He let the autopilot navigate down random side streets and alleys until he had no idea where he was or for how long he had been riding. He rode like that for a while, letting the chilled night air run through his skin until he felt numb and empty.

Ten had always loved riding his motorcycle like this, hearing the thrum of his heartbeat in his ears, amplified in the helmet. This night, his heartbeat felt unusually loud – until Ten realized the thudding sound wasn’t coming from his own body, but from somewhere deep in the city. He switched off the autopilot and guided the bike himself, following the rumbling feeling until the sound got louder. This was how he found himself in front of that massive, imposing converted factory building, with heavy music pumping out of its walls and a strobing light illuminating the tinted windows.

Leaving his bike parked in the shadow of an alley next to the building, Ten strode up to the door past the line of annoyed-looking patrons outside. The bouncer looked him up and down, eyes lingering on the exposed skin visible through Ten’s mesh shirt, then stepped back to let him into the club. Ten smirked to himself; he had never in his life had to pay or wait to get into a club, and he wasn’t about to start then.

If the music outside the club was loud, inside the club it was beyond deafening, pounding like a second heartbeat through Ten’s body. Swarms of sweaty dancers thrummed and pulsated in the cavernous space, which flashed between pitch black, neon green, and sultry red in the strobe lights. Although it had been a while since Ten had last been to a spot like this, he still felt that familiar, welcome jolt of adrenaline grip his body as the music drowned out any rational, human thoughts.

Starting to feel unpleasantly sober, Ten pushed his way through the writhing throng until he spotted the bar. It seemed that most people were busy dancing, as the area was almost empty save for the bartender and a few patrons at the far end. Ten leaned his back against the bar, elbows propped up as his eyes swept the dancing figures. A few caught his eye, but no one good enough to go out of his way to approach. He thought he heard a voice near him, but it was drowned out by the music, so he ignored it.

He started and spun around as he felt a gentle tap on his shoulder.

“I said, what can I get you!”

It was the bartender, now on Ten’s side of the bar. Ten turned around properly, facing the man. He was sure then that if he had been able to feel his heartbeat, it would have skipped a few beats. The bartender was tall – Ten was relatively short, but this man was obviously taller than most men – and exceptionally handsome, sensual lips curved up on one side as he regarded Ten. Playing it cool, Ten ordered a vodka highball and watched as the bartender prepared it, surreptitiously drinking in the man’s long limbs and wide back. The man slid the cocktail over to him, then leaned back against the mirror behind him, casually cleaning a glass as he continued to watch Ten.

Ten knew that bartenders got hit on all the time, and if any bartender attracted attention it would be this one, but he couldn’t help himself; he lifted the drink to his mouth and placed the straw on his tongue, suggestively stirring it around. His flirtatious gesture was rudely interrupted by a pair of neo-punks, who slammed stomach-first into the bar and demanded shots. Ten glared at their platinum mohawks and modded cheekbones, so sharp they almost resembled shark’s fins. One of them turned to Ten and smiled a fanged smile, eyes flicking to the tongue Ten still had wrapped around the straw. He rolled his eyes and settled into a barstool, letting the music overtake his senses once more.

Although he had the overwhelming desire to dance – Ten had always loved dancing, the way he could lose himself in the movement and the beat until his feet ached – he stayed at the bar instead, pulled by an even stronger desire. He exchanged small talk with the bartender – who had introduced himself as Johnny – shouting over the music, voice becoming hoarse but not really caring. Johnny had continued to drift back to Ten over the next while in between orders, leaning closer over the bar so they could hear each other better.

During one of these moments, Ten couldn’t help the way his lips flushed and his eyes dipped as Johnny breathed into his ear, telling him about something Ten wasn’t fully listening to. Hit with a sudden urge, he reached his hand off the counter and gripped the other man’s wrist. Johnny cut himself off, staring at Ten with wide eyes. Suddenly he pulled back, and Ten’s breath caught in confusion. Had he completely misread the other man’s intentions? He could usually tell when someone wanted him, and he was pretty sure Johnny wanted him.

Johnny had begun fumbling behind himself, and Ten realized he was untying his apron. Johnny leaned his head into a doorway to his left behind the shelves of liquor, and shouted, “my shift’s over!” He threw the apron somewhere behind the door, then turned around and levelled Ten with a gaze so intense that Ten’s breath caught in his throat.

Suddenly Johnny was on the other side of the bar, grabbing Ten’s hand and guiding him through the club with his other hand on the small of Ten’s back. Ten nearly tripped trying to keep up the pace of this long-legged man, who pulled them out a side door into an empty alleyway. The night air was mercifully cool after the club, whose hot and muggy interior had been starting to make Ten feel a little lightheaded.

And yet, faced with the sight of this beautiful man staring down at him, chest heaving, that lightheaded feeling didn’t go away.

Ten tightened Johnny’s grip on his hand, pulling the other man towards him until there was barely any space between their bodies. Johnny began to walk Ten backwards to the wall behind them, until Ten yelped as he bumped into something solid, about waist high. He spun around to look below him, then almost laughed out loud as he saw what it was. It was his motorcycle, sitting right where he had parked it earlier.

“Oh shit, I’m sorry,” Johnny said, laughing low and giving the bike a once-over.

“It’s cool,” Ten replied, “it’s actually my bike, so it’s fine.” Johnny had started at this, and Ten flushed at the impressed look Johnny had given him. “This is yours?” Ten nodded. “I never would have pegged you for a motorcycle kind of guy, but I guess that explains all the leather.” Ten giggled at this. Then, slipping his hand into the back pocket of Johnny’s leather pants, retorted, “you’re one to talk.” Johnny’s breath hitched at the sudden touch, but he was still looking at the bike.

“ … Can you take me for a ride, Ten?”

After an electric moment in which Ten had momentarily forgotten how to speak, Johnny had pulled himself onto the bike with Ten and snaked his arms around Ten’s waist. Head spinning, he set the autopilot and let the AI navigate them through neon Seoul, eyes half lidded and blood pumping as Johnny pressed gentle, open-mouth kisses into his neck.

Later that night, after how many hours Ten was not sure, he found himself back in his pod, gazing down at Johnny’s naked form sleeping next to him. The pre-dawn was beginning to creep into the industrial city, and the smoggy blue light made Johnny look almost unreal, muscular back rising and falling in time to rhythmic breaths. Ten felt something, then, looking down at this man in his bed. What that was, he wasn’t sure, but it was something that filled his chest with an unfamiliar feeling of lightness. He wished the morning would not come.

Ten peels himself away from Johnny’s wandering hands to steer the bike off the highway. They are now on a narrow road, winding and precarious. Ten carefully maneuvers around potholes, ancient-looking traffic cones, and a few loose tires, pulling to a stop on a flat stretch of concrete.

Johnny gets off first, holding out his hands to help Ten. He then removes his helmet and looks around them in awe. It is an abandoned construction site, with mounds of dirt, scaffolding, and construction vehicles sitting still and empty in the dark – nothing too notable in and of itself. But it is the location that catches Johnny’s breath. The site sits on a hill high above the city, rising well above the urban sprawl. Below them stretches the entirety of Seoul, blinking lights and massive structures spread out like a vast ocean full of artificial stars, just for them. A layer of smog rolls over the city like the tide, and it glows and flickers from the light beneath it.

“Ten …” Johnny breathes, eyes glittering in the reflected light, “this place … it’s … it’s …” “ – incredible,” Ten finishes for him. “I know.”

Ten leads Johnny to the edge of the hill, which drops steeply into a spidering network of factories and power plants below them. There is a small patch of grass here, and as Johnny sits beside Ten, legs dangling off the edge, he runs his fingers through it in amazement. “I can’t remember the last time I saw grass. Like, actual, live grass, and not that fake plastic kind,” he muses, as Ten catches his fingers and winds them together.

They sit like this for a while, shoulder to shoulder, in gentle, familiar silence. Ten absently runs his thumb over the back of Johnny’s hand. With the heat of Johnny next to him, and the city spread out below them, he feels that strange feeling he felt that first night with Johnny. But now, he realizes what it is.

Johnny breaks their reverie first, leaning his head down and hooking his fingers under Ten’s chin. He runs a hand through Ten’s short black hair, letting it come to a rest on the nape of his neck. They share a kiss, at first soft and delicate, then more fervent as Ten wraps his arms around Johnny’s neck and pulls him closer. Johnny pulls back, breathing heavy. He gazes at Ten with a feeling of such sudden endearment that Ten almost has the urge to pull away, but he pushes this urge down and meets Johnny’s eyes.

“Thank you, Ten. Thank you for bringing me here.”

Ten has no response to this. Johnny’s duality almost scares him, sometimes. How he can be so cool and dominant with Ten, so sharp and intense, making Ten flush under his firm grasp. And how he can be so earnest and observant, emotions pouring out of him with such purity that Ten wants to cradle him in his arms and rock him to sleep.

He knows what this feeling is, now. It is this feeling of floating, of floating in a sea of neon stars and raindrops, like the streets and the sky are immaterial. Like he hopes morning will never come, that he and Johnny are frozen in suspended time and one wrong word, one step too far, and the perfect illusion will shatter under his fingertips. He knows the real world will come back once the morning comes. But it is these moments, these few hours after midnight they share together, that his heart floats in his chest and his eyes sparkle with the reflection of this man gazing down at him.

Instead of responding, he just leans into Johnny’s chest and breathes in. Let us float away into the endless night, wrapped in each other’s arms.