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better to burn out (than to rust)

Chapter Text

The autumn chill cut through Dongmin’s thin jacket, and he pulled it tighter as he hurried down the sidewalk toward the bus stop to catch the bus back to his little basement apartment. He’d been at the library late so he could finish his research paper, and if he missed this bus he’d have to walk home. He lived far from campus because housing close to campus was expensive, and he couldn’t afford a cab, and it was so, so cold. November was still technically autumn, but it felt like winter had come already, and Dongmin didn’t have a really good winter coat. Most days he layered a sweater under his old school uniform blazer, which he’d carefully picked the embroidered school insignia off of. His winter uniform blazer was made of decent wool, but he’d grown since high school, and the sleeves were just short enough to let the cold in.

The research paper was a third of his entire grade, and this class counted toward his major, and he needed to get a good score. 

If he had a computer of his own, he could head straight home after classes and hunker down in the relative warmth of his apartment and work there, but he had to rely on the computers in the library, the bland, plain-faced persocoms from three generations back who still looked sort of like crash-test dummies, as opposed to the persocoms who looked like idols and drama stars, like the ones he could see wandering the streets on the arms of their owners, smiling and laughing.

A bright banner caught Dongmin’s eye, and he paused.

“Celebrate Pepero Day with the Jinjin Pro: Now updated with the latest feature - Pepero Making!”

Dongmin turned and read the sign fully.

It was pink and purple and mint and other soft pastel colors, obviously aimed at young women and teen girls, and featured a sweet-faced persocom boy made to look about Dongmin’s age smiling and wearing an apron as he made pretty pepero.

Was it Pepero Day? Dongmin glanced at his watch, which had the date built into the watch face. His watch was analog and was light-powered. His cellphone was a flip phone, and besides making phone calls it only sent text messages. He’d been able to get into a very prestigious university on the power of his grades, but his parents had been in just that sector of the income bracket where he didn’t qualify for a scholarship but they also couldn’t afford to pay for his tuition, but he also didn’t qualify for much in the way of student loans, so everything he had was analog and cheap, and he was working himself to the bone and broke.

He didn’t have a computer, and there was no way he could afford a fancy persocom like the brand new Jinjin Pro, which was —

Dongmin saw the price in the bottom corner of the banner and nearly choked.

Just ₩99,990 a month for thirty-six months.

Dongmin pressed his face to the glass and saw an actual model of the Jinjin Pro sitting on a pedestal behind the wide glass window just beneath the manner, beaming and waving. He was wearing an oversized gray cable knit sweater and had sweater paws and wore blue jeans that were kind of ripped at the knees and had on white sneakers, and he looked like the kind of guy Dongmin would think was cute if he saw him on campus.

Beside the Jinjin Pro a monitor played a video of another Jinjin Pro (the same Jinjin Pro?) moving confidently around a brightly-lit kitchen, wielding an icing bag and decorating pepero sticks with chocolate and sprinkles and nuts and smiling at the camera. Belatedly, Dongmin noticed a cable trailing from the Jinjin Pro’s earport to the monitor. 

Making pepero with a cute boy on Pepero Day would be so much fun for a date. When had Dongmin ever gone on a date? Never. He’d promised his father he wouldn’t date when he was in high school, and now he was in his first year of university and he didn’t have time to date because he was working hard and studying harder, and it seemed like everyone else around him was having fun, either with their friends or boyfriends and girlfriends or even with their persocoms.

Dongmin took a deep breath and stepped back.

No. He didn’t have time to date. And Pepero Day was a scam anyway. It was just Lotte’s way of trying to make extra money off of a sentimental Korean public. Even if Dongmin were dating someone, he wouldn’t need pepero to prove it.

Although homemade pepero would be a very affectionate gesture, wouldn’t it?

The Jinjin Pro behind the window looked at Dongmin and smiled, waved.

Dongmin’s heart melted, and he pressed his face to the glass again.

Several girls crowded close to the glass beside Dongmin.

“Wow, look at him! He’s so handsome. I’d work two jobs to be able to buy him.”

“I know! I’d make pepero with him all the time.”

“He’s kind of short, though.”

“Yeah, but I’m not that tall.”

Dongmin scanned the specs on the standing cardboard sign beside the pedestal the Jinjin Pro was sitting on. Only 169 centimetres? That wasn’t so short. Dongmin wouldn’t mind being the tall one in a relationship if he were dating.

Not that he’d be one of those weirdos who dated his persocom.

His cousin, Myungjun, had a super fancy gaming persocom, and he seemed half in love with the thing, but then he’d customized it and upgraded it a lot, put a lot of love into it, so Dongmin supposed he could understand that.

Dongmin took another deep breath. Pepero Day wasn’t that big a day in the grand scheme of things. He’d spent a lot of time learning about Remembrance Day and Armistice Day and Veterans Day in history class earlier today. If he was going to do something for November Eleventh, he should learn how to make a paper poppy, or read some poetry from World War One to practice his English.

And he should catch his bus home.

Dongmin yanked his jacket shut to stave off another blast of icy air and turned to go.

And then he saw the shivering boy wearing a sandwich board standing near the doors of the Fantagio Computers outlet, handing out flyers.

“Enter to win your very own Jinjin Pro! No purchase necessary!”

Dongmin, as a law student, was an expert at finding loopholes. But he also looked up at the Jinjin Pro, who was posing on the pedestal and making heart signs at the girls who were crowded up against the window and waving at him, and he thought of how nice it would be, to have a computer of his own so he wouldn’t have to be out in the cold all winter after studying late at the library.

So he headed over to the boy, who looked crestfallen after the flyer he’d held out to someone fluttered sadly to the ground.

“When you say no purchase necessary,” Dongmin began.

The boy — his nametag read Yoon Sanha — beamed and showed off a smile laden with braces. He was probably still in high school, poor little part timer. Even though he was taller than Dongmin he was obviously younger, and Dongmin wanted to give the kid his jacket even though it wouldn’t fit.

“You don’t have to buy anything,” Sanha said. “All you have to do is fill out a form and you’ll automatically be entered into the sweepstakes.”

“What’s the catch?”

“You’ll be added to an email list with offers for sales and coupons, but you can always unsubscribe.” Sanha shrugged, but the shrug turned into a shiver.

“Okay,” Dongmin said. “I’ll sign up. But — a brand new Jinjin Pro? Just to get more people added to the mailing list? Seems like an expensive model to give away.”

“I think the one they’re giving away has some minor factory defect, one no one would notice but because of it they can’t sell the unit full price, so.” Sanha shrug-shivered again. 

“Well, where do I sign up?”

Sanha turned and called over his shoulder, “Dalkong, we have another customer signing up for the Jinjin Pro sweepstakes.”

For a moment, Dongmin was startled, because the persocom who stepped out of the shadow of the store’s doorway looked just like Cousin Myungjun’s beloved Bin, but it just must have been the same base model, tall and handsome and athletic-looking.

“Just answer a few questions and tell it your name and email address and phone number,” Sanha said, smiling.

Dongmin did, provided his age range and year in school and income.

The persocom — Dalkong — recited the information back. His voice sounded similar to Bin’s, but flat and lifeless; Myungjun had programmed his Bin to have sass and energy and a personality and a really cute little giggle. Myungjun liked cute things — and also vicious things, since he was pretty savage himself, and when he was gaming online and slaughtering his opponents while laughing all the way to the finish line, Bin was laughing there with him.

Sanha said, “You are entered into the sweepstakes! Results will be announced in the next week or so. Best of luck!”

“Thanks,” Dongmin said. He added, “Stay warm.”

Sanha smiled and shivered again. “Thank you. You too.”

Dongmin nodded and inclined his head, and then looked at his watch, and — dammit. He’d missed his bus. He had to walk back to his apartment. And it was only going to get colder.

Oh well. 

If he kept moving, he’d stay warm, right?

Sort of. 

By the time he made it back to his apartment almost an hour later, his thighs and arms were a little numb. He hurried down the stairs and into his apartment and locked the door, took a quick hot shower to wash away the grime of the day and warm up, and then ate some dinner before he fell into bed, exhausted.

Right before he fell asleep, he remembered to text his mother and father and little brother.

Happy Pepero Day.

He also texted Cousin Myungjun.

Happy Pepero Day.

Myungjun’s response was filled with kaomojis Dongmin’s ancient fliphone couldn’t quite handle and that read as blank boxes and also, Happy Pepero Day from me and my darling Binnie!

The accompanying selca was a bit grainy and pixelated and too big for Dongmin’s tiny screen to handle, but it was of Myungjun and Bin cuddled close together and winking at the camera. The way the picture was taken, Bin’s ear ports weren’t quite visible, and if Dongmin didn’t know better, he’d have thought they were a happy couple.

The selca was quickly followed up by another picture of the two of them facing each other, both nibbling on opposite ends of the same pepero stick.

Dongmin sighed and put his phone on its charger and rolled over, closed his eyes.

Tomorrow was just another day.

The next day, Dongmin rose, washed, threw on clean clothes, gathered up his books, snagged his phone off the charger, and ate a couple of pieces of triangle kimbap before he legged it to the bus stop.

He made it to his first class on time, and he plopped down at his usual desk and spread out his notebook and pens, prepared to do his best to keep up with his professor.

Professor Do had about five cups of coffee before his first lecture of the day, and he spoke very quickly, and he wasn’t all that forgiving about slowing down and repeating himself. Dongmin had always been known for having lovely handwriting, but in his efforts to keep up with the man, the legibility of his handwriting suffered, and with it the quality of his notes, and with them his grades.

Jung Sungmin sat a couple of seats down from Dongmin, his pretty female persocom Sooah beside him.

“Record as soon as lecture begins,” Sungmin said.

“Yes, oppa,” Sooah said, beaming and fluttering her eyelashes at him.

Sungmin ducked his head and blushed even though he’d picked Sooah himself and no doubt instructed her to call him oppa.

Lee Jihyo drifted into the lecture hall, her persocom walking beside her. Her persocom was also female and named Jungboon, and Jihyo was discussing weekend social plans with her.

“Do you think we should go to the party, or no? Is it going to be cold this weekend?”

“According to the forecast, it will be nineteen degrees this weekend,” Jungboon said politely.

Jihyo hummed thoughtfully.

Jungboon said, “If you wear your padded coat, you will be warm enough to attend a rooftop party for three and a half hours and remain comfortable.”

Jihyo smiled. “All right. Let’s go!”

Kwon Yoonbyul also had a persocom, a slightly older model male. He was always dressed neatly. Like his owner, however, he was not particularly animated. He sat beside her, very still, while she took notes by hand.

“Yeonggu, record the lecture,” she said.

“Yes, Yoonbyul-ssi,” he said.

“Are you ever going to give him a real name?” Jihyo asked.

Yoonbyul didn’t look up from her notebook. “He’s model Zero Nine, and his name is Yeonggu.”

Dongmin cleared his throat. “Do most people give their persocoms new names? Like — real names?”

“Most people,” Jihyo said, jutting her chin out at Yoonbyul. She petted Jungboon’s hair. 

“Persocoms are computers, not pets,” Yoonbyul said, unamused.

“Some people name their cars,” Song Taeil said. He had a laptop, which was tiny and doll-sized but still human-shaped. She was dancing on the desk beside him in screensaver mode. “And their musical instruments.”

“People don’t name their toasters,” Yoonbyul said.

“Doyeon is way more than a toaster,” Taeil said, and he reached out, cuddled her. She snuggled up to him, nuzzled under his chin like an affectionate kitten. “She reads me my emails and watches dramas with me and tells me jokes and helps me with my research and plays me music. Of course she deserves a name.”

“Does your smartphone have a name?” Yoonbyul asked, with a skeptical lift of her brow.

“Pikachu,” Taeil said.

Dongmin’s phone didn’t have a name, but his phone wasn’t smart either.

“Taeil’s a bad example,” Jihyo said.

“Yeah, but persocoms look like people,” Sungmin said. “And they act like people. Kind of like pets.”

“Pets are alive,” Yoonbyul said. “Yeonggu, are you alive?”

“I am not,” he said flatly. 

“Are you thinking of getting a persocom?” Jihyo asked Dongmin.

“I’d like one so I didn’t have to stay late in the library all the time,” Dongmin said, “but they’re really expensive.”

“You could get a refurbished one,” Yoonbyul said pragmatically. “Yeonggu is a refurbished model.”

Dongmin winced. “Like I said. They’re really expensive.” He winced when the others looked at him, taking in his analog watch, his weather-inappropriate jacket, his very old and beat-up leather bookbag that his father had used in university (but that had survived for all these years because it had been well taken care of).

“Maybe you’ll get lucky,” Taeil said. 

“I’m lucky to be at this university, so I should be grateful,” Dongmin said quietly. He turned back to his notebook just as Professor Do swept into the lecture hall.

More than one student, male and female, sighed dreamily. However pretty and handsome and perfect their persocoms were, Professor Do Minjoon was handsome and dreamy himself.

That didn’t stop him from being a rigorous instructor and a harsh grader.

Dongmin uncapped a pen with his teeth and poised to write.

After a full day of classes, Dongmin’s head ached, he was hungry, and his hand was cramped. He was pretty sure he would be able to decipher most of his notes. He considered, briefly, asking for copies of recordings of Professor Do’s lectures from Yoonbyul or maybe Jihyo, because they weren’t stingy about that sort of thing, but without a computer he had no way of playing them, and the thought of sitting in one of the library chairs for hours listening to them and taking more notes sounded exhausting.

Besides, he didn’t have time to do lectures over twice. He had to get to work.

Dongmin would be the first to admit that he had been blessed with good looks that he’d inherited from both of his parents. His mother was a beautiful woman. His father, while not exceptionally handsome, had gifted Dongmin with the right combination of genes so he was quite handsome, and so he’d managed to earn a job as a waiter at a nice restaurant downtown. Most waiting jobs these days were handled by persocoms, because they never got orders wrong, and they never dropped anything. They were never tired, and they never got upset at customers, and they were, in essence, the perfect wait staff. They were all also perfectly good-looking.

But some people still wanted the human touch, mostly older customers, and also some restaurants couldn’t afford to purchase a fleet of persocoms to use as wait staff (who could also process credit card payments on the spot). Dongmin had been lucky to be hired at this small family-owned restaurant.

Even though it wasn’t in a particularly trendy spot, Madam Jeon was a master chef, and her little hole-in-the-wall establishment had a Michelin Star. The only other waiter was her son, Minseok, and the other cook was her mother, who’d insisted Dongmin call her Granny just like Minseok. (Dongmin didn’t know what had happened to Minseok’s father, and he didn’t dare ask.)

Three days a week, on the busiest nights at the restaurant, Dongmin helped Minseok serve customers who came from all over the city and sometimes even far outside the city to enjoy Madam Jeon’s cooking. Dongmin wore a neat white button-down shirt, black slacks, black shoes he polished carefully before his shift, and a black apron, which he tied on tightly. He kept a pencil tucked behind his ear when he wasn’t taking orders, and he was always ready with a smile.

“How are you doing today, Dongmin-ah?” Granny asked.

“I am well, thank you, Granny.” Dongmin bowed and ducked into the little employee break room that was really a closet, where he and Minseok kept their bookbags while they worked.

Minseok had a little laptop, a small doll-sized unit that looked like a boy, whom Minseok had named Changkyun and was mostly used for video games. Changkyun was curled up, asleep on top of Minseok’s backpack like he always was when Minseok was working.

Where Minseok had just barely started high school and his grades were important, Dongmin did the majority of the serving so Minseok could hide in the back and focus on his studies.

“Heya, hyung,” Minseok said. “How are you?”

“I’m well. And you? How’s soccer?” Dongmin tied on his apron, smoothed out the creases. He checked his little leather folio, made sure it had enough pages in it to take orders that night, made sure his pencil was sharp.

“Soccer’s good! We won our match last Saturday.” Minseok beamed at him.

Dongmin smiled in return. “Congratulations. Did you get a cake to celebrate?”

Minseok nodded. “Mom baked it. It was amazing. She rarely bakes western stuff, but she’s really great at it. Maybe one day when you win something, she’ll bake for you.”

Dongmin had been a decent athlete in middle school and high school, on both the soccer and basketball teams, been a team captain in middle school before he’d had to focus more intently on academics in high school. 

“It’s been a long time since I’ve won anything,” he said quietly.

He checked himself in the tiny mirror that hung above the desk, made sure he was presentable, and then he pasted on a smile and headed out onto the dining floor to greet the first guests hovering inside the door.

It wasn’t a bad shift. It was just a long shift. Dongmin smiled. Dongmin took orders. Dongmin delivered orders. Dongmin accepted payments. Dongmin made change.

When he wasn’t tending to customers, he did his best to help Minseok with his homework.

Everything was going well until a customer, a fussy middle-aged man in an expensive suit, said, “The saengseonjeon is overdone. Take it back. I refuse to eat another bite.”

Dongmin, who’d just served the table, wheeled around and returned. “Pardon?”

“Are you malfunctioning? I said the saengseonjeon is overdone. I want a replacement,” the man said.

His dining companion, a teenage girl, looked embarrassed. “Uncle, he’s not a persocom. He has real ears.”

Dongmin lifted his hand to his ear, felt his cheeks flame. Then he reached out and scooped up the man’s platter. “Apologies, customer-nim. I’ll let the kitchen know right away.” He turned and fled for the kitchen.

“Dongmin-ah, is something wrong with the order?” Granny asked.

Dongmin set the platter on the counter. “The customer complained that the saengseonjeon is burnt and wants a replacement.”

Granny swept over to the counter and prodded the pan-fried fish with her chopsticks, turned them over with an expert flick of her wrist. Even though Madam Jeon had earned the Michelin Star with her culinary innovation and expertise, everything she’d learned about cooking she’d learned from her mother.

The batter on the fish was perfectly golden, not a burn mark in sight.

“He just doesn’t understand what a quality jeon batter is supposed to be like.” Granny clicked her tongue disapprovingly but also started battering some new pieces of fish. “Rudy-ah will be feasting well tonight.”

Rudy was Minseok’s massive pet German Shepherd.

Madam Jeon frowned at Dongmin. “Are you all right? Was the customer rude?”

“No, no more than I’ve handled before.” Dongmin managed a weak smile. “I’m sorry. Lectures were long today. I’ll go check on the other customers.”

Granny nodded. “I’ll call you when this is ready.”

“Give him half off the price of the dish and a free dessert,” Madam Jeon said, and Dongmin nodded.

He headed back out to the dining floor, where Minseok was taking an order at an adjacent table. 

“— Can’t believe you said something so rude,” the girl was saying.

“But I heard their son died and they replaced him with a persocom. People do weird things like that,” the man said. “Their sons wait tables here, remember?”

Dongmin cleared his throat and bowed.

The girl turned bright red.

“A replacement will be out soon, customer-nim,” Dongmin said. “Madam Jeon offers her apologies and a complimentary dessert, and half price on your entr󠂞ée this evening.”

The man also cleared his throat. “Thank you. I appreciate it.”

“Is there anything I can get for you while you wait?”

The man shook his head, and Dongmin returned to the kitchen to clean some of the silverware to restock the silverware drawer at an unoccupied table till another table called him or Granny told him the replacement dish was ready.

When he served the replacement platter of saengseonjeon, the girl wouldn’t even look him in the eye, and he could feel the man staring at his ears.

Finally, the man said, “You’re remarkably handsome, for a real human.”

“Uncle!” the girl hissed.

Dongmin bowed and said, “I have been blessed by good genes from my parents.”

“Have you considered being a face model for a persocom?” the man asked. “People would probably pay to be able to look at you all the time.”

Dongmin blinked. “I have never heard of such a thing, customer-nim,” he admitted.

“Most persocom faces are idealizations, though some designs are based on real people. Even those are still altered and made perfect. You, though,” the man said. “Your face wouldn’t need to be changed at all.”

Unease prickled along Dongmin’s skin. Finally he bowed and said, “Your words are too kind, customer-nim. I’m just an ordinary university student. There are far more handsome men than me, actors and idols who would be much better suited to such a thing.”

“No, a famous face would be all wrong — too invasive of a celebrity’s privacy,” the man said. “But a poor, lonely college kid like you would be perfect. You could use the money, right?” 

He looked Dongmin up and down and saw what Dongmin’s classmates had seen earlier in the day, the threadbare cuffs on the sleeves of Dongmin’s shirt, his cheap watch, how tired and worn out he was beneath his polite smile.

Dongmin could use the money. He thought of the adorable little Jinjin Pro, sitting on a pedestal behind a pane of glass and waving with his little sweater paws, of endless winter nights walking home from the library in the freezing darkness.

Then Dongmin thought of Myungjun and his darling Bin, and the blank-faced Dalkong working with Sanha, and all the girls who’d crowded around the window to giggle over the Jinjin Pro, and he straightened his spine and said,

“Thank you for the generous offer, customer-nim, but I am very happy with my job here. Madam Jeon is a very benevolent employer.”

The man arched an eyebrow and said, “Well, if you change your mind, let me know.” He placed a business card on the table and then dug into his dish.

Dongmin nodded and bowed and fled for the kitchen once more.

“Dongmin-ah, was the customer satisfied?” Granny asked.

Dongmin nodded. “Yes, he was.”

Granny huffed. “Good. Picky bastard.”

Dongmin set about polishing the steel chopsticks with vigor, heart pounding. He’d almost said yes. 

After the end of his shift, he helped Minseok clean up the dining room, and then he headed for the bus stop.

He slumped against the little shelter wall, shivering and exhausted. All of this hard work would be worth it. Once he was finished with school and had a good job, he wouldn’t have to work so hard, right? Cousin Myungjun had completed one year of university, done his enlistment, and was enrolled in his second year of university, and he barely seemed stressed out, but then his parents had a lot more money, and his older brother was much older, had moved out and started supporting himself before Myungjun even reached high school.

Maybe it was wishful thinking, but Dongmin was pretty sure his life would be exponentially easier if he had a computer of his own. He’d have entertainment, access to research resources, better study resources, and companionship. He couldn’t even have a goldfish in his apartment.

The bus pulled in to the stop, and there, on the side of it, was an ad for the new Jinjin Pro.

In the picture he looked so cute and sweet, but of course that was only one setting option. If Yoonbyul could afford a Jinjin Pro, he’d be just as boring and emotionless as Yeonggu, and he’d probably still be called Jinjin Pro.

Dongmin couldn’t help but smile and wave at the picture, remembering the sweet-faced persocom in the window at the big Fantagio Computers outlet close to campus.

He hoped Yoon Sanha wasn’t working too late tonight, was home and warm and safe.

Dongmin climbed onto the bus, counted out exchange change in coins for student fare, and slumped into a seat near the back.

At least tomorrow was a Saturday, and he could sleep in before he headed to the library for a marathon study session.

“Yeah,” he told his reflection, his persocom-worthy face. He could be a persocom, but he couldn’t own one. “It’s been a long time since I’ve won anything.”

Dongmin woke the next morning slowly, easily, without the shrill beep of the alarm on his phone. The autumn sunlight was thin and weak where it peeked around the edges of the blinds, but that meant he’d slept in a decent amount. He squinted at his watch, then rolled out of bed.

He did some push-ups and sit-ups and lunges and squats and pull-ups in the doorway to wake himself up, then showered. He ate the last of his triangle kimbap — tomorrow he’d have to make a new batch for next week — and gathered up his supplies so he could spend a day at the university library putting the finishing touches on his research paper and doing his chapter outlines for his reading. He liked to get ahead on his reading as much as possible so he could listen attentively in lectures, especially in Professor Do’s class, so if he had any questions on material he didn’t understand he could ask them, and also so if teachers assigned supplemental reading he didn’t feel like he was falling behind.

Dongmin stared at his bulging leather satchel and thought it probably needed a good polish this weekend, and then he went to find his jacket. He considered a nice sweater to layer with it, and also some gloves and a scarf, and maybe he ought to see about picking up a hat at a thrift store, though he’d never been much for hats before, and finally he opened the front door.


Dongmin backpedaled swiftly, clutching his chest in shock.

Yoon Sanha, the boy from the computer store, was on his doorstep, beaming.

He was accompanied by two older men in jumpsuits who were wheeling a tall crate between them.

“What are you doing here?” Dongmin asked.

“Didn’t you check your email?” Yoon Sanha tilted his head and looked puzzled.

“I don’t have a computer,” Dongmin said. “I use the computers at the university library. I was about to head there now. Why? What’s going on?”

“Hit it,” Sanha said to the older men, and they started opening the crate.

“You are the lucky winner of a brand new Jinjin Pro!” Sanha cheered and fired off a little confetti cannon.

The crate swung open.

Dongmin stared at the boy — no, the persocom inside. The Jinjin Pro looked like he was sleeping, hands folded on his chest, eyes closed, head tilted slightly. He wore a gray jumpsuit with the Fantagio logo on the pocket.

He was adorable.

Sanha waved his hands like a game show hostess displaying a prize. “The Jinjin Pro comes with a state-of-the-art 40cmx60cm OLED monitor for your home and a tablet for when you’re on the go. Of course, all the necessary charge cables are included.”

Dongmin blinked. “I won? Really?”

Sanha nodded and beamed. “Congratulations! If you’d be willing to pose for a picture for the website, that would be great, but obviously you don’t have to. Also, we’d need you to sign this waiver, since this unit has some minor factory defects that make it ineligible for the usual warranty.”

Dongmin peered at the sleeping persocom, but he looked flawless, with ice-blond hair and soft pale skin. “He looks fine to me.”

Dalkong stepped up from behind the two delivery men and held out a tablet.

Dongmin hesitated for only a moment before signing it. Myungjun was a computer genius; he could fix the persocom if there were any problems. No one in Dongmin’s or Myungjun’s families ever bothered with computer warranties.

“Will you pose for a picture, or no?” Sanha asked.

“Ah, sure,” Dongmin said. “Do I look all right?”

Sanha raised his eyebrows. “Have you ever looked in a mirror?”

“Um, should we wake him up? The Jinjin Pro. So he can be in the picture too,” Dongmin said.

“He’ll be in startup mode and won’t be customized, but he’ll respond to basic commands,” Sanha said. “But you’re right. That’ll make for a better picture. You want to do the honors?”

Dongmin nodded. “Sure.” He couldn’t quite believe it. He’d actually won. He had a persocom of his own now. He wouldn’t have to go to the library today. He could stay in his apartment, warm and cozy, and study and work hard and be comfortable.

He reached into the crate and opened one of the earports and found the on switch. He took a deep breath, and then he pressed it.

There was a faint humming noise, and then the Jinjin Pro opened his eyes. He stepped out of the crate and bowed politely and said,

“Hello, I’m Jinjin Pro. Enter setup mode or run display mode?”

His voice was surprisingly deep, for how small and cute he was, but his tone was as flat and lifeless as Yoonbyul’s Yeonggu.

“Run display mode for now,” Sanha said easily. “Come take a picture with us, okay?”

“Cute mode or flirty mode or friendly mode?” Jinjin Pro asked.

“Cute mode is fine,” Sanha said. “Dalkong, take a picture.”

Sanha stepped up on one side of Jinjin Pro, so Dongmin stepped up on the other and pasted on a smile.

Jinjin Pro framed his face with his hands and winked, and Dongmin’s heart stopped racing long enough to melt. He was just as adorable as Dongmin remembered, even more adorable up close.

Dalkong framed one eye with his thumbs and index fingers, like someone pretending to take a picture, and also winked, and there was a sound like a shutter click, and Dongmin realized — he really had taken a picture. His eye was a camera. 

“Congratulations,” Sanha said again, and bowed to Dongmin. “Enjoy your new persocom.”

The two delivery men carried two more boxes into Dongmin’s little apartment, set them on the coffee table, and then they departed with Sanha and Dalkong.

The large box was probably the monitor, and the smaller box was probably the tablet.

“Ah, hello, Jinjin Pro,” Dongmin said. He cast about. The only furniture he had was a couple of bean bag chairs Myungjun had insisted he purchase for when guests came over, though the only guest he’d ever had besides his parents and younger brother had been Myungjun. “Um. Have a seat.”

Jinjin Pro sat on the floor just inside the door.

Dongmin pushed the door shut. Right. He had to be careful what he said, because Jinjin Pro, for all that he looked quite human, was not. He was a machine, and they understood language differently.

“Um, do you want a new name? I can’t keep calling you Jinjin Pro.”

Jinjin Pro blinked at him. “Would you like to enter setup mode now?”

“Ah, yes.” Dongmin kicked off his shoes and nudged them into place beside the front door. 

Jinjin Pro, he noticed, was barefoot. Would Dongmin have to buy clothes for him? Jihyo always made sure Jungboon had cute outfits. Could Dongmin afford to buy a whole new wardrobe for his persocom? Jinjin Pro was noticeably shorter than him. Jinjin Pro could probably fit his shirts but not his jeans. Although he could just roll the jeans up, maybe. Jinjin Pro wouldn’t need winter clothes or anything. Although Dongmin shouldn’t let him get wet, should he? Persocoms shouldn’t get wet. And they shouldn’t get cold either, because that drained the battery faster.

“Primary language detected as Korean,” Jinjin Pro said. “To choose another language, enter commands in that language.”

“No, Korean is fine,” Dongmin said.

“To continue setup, please connect to internet or wifi,” Jinjin Pro said.

Dongmin sighed. He had neither, because up till this very moment, he’d had no computer. “Ah — can you just...hold? Go back to display mode? Friendly mode? While I make a quick phone call.”

“Display mode activated,” Jinjin Pro said. He tilted his head. “Am I your hyung or your dongsaeng?”

Dongmin blinked. “Ah - hyung. Jinjin-hyung.” He scrambled for his phone and hit the fourth number on speed dial.

It rang five times before Myungjun answered with an annoyed, “What?”

“Hey, I don’t have internet or wifi. Can I borrow yours?” Dongmin said.

“This early on a Saturday? What for? You don’t have a computer.”

“I do now.”


“You work for Fantagio Computers, right? One of them has an outlet near the campus,” Dongmin said.


“Check their website,” Dongmin said.

Myungjun grumbled and said, “Bin, check Fantagio’s homepage.”

There was a pause and then, “You won a brand new Jinjin Pro? Bring him over here. I want to see. He’s so cute!”

“As cute as me?” Bin demanded.

“You’re hot. It’s different,” Myungjun said.

“I need to connect him to the internet to set him up,” Dongmin said.

“Not a problem. Take all the time you need.”

“I need to study sometime today,” Dongmin said, “because I have work later.”

“You can leave your pretty little Jinjin Pro with me while you work. I want to see what makes him tick —”

“Under no circumstances will you fiddle with him. I need him for school. But thanks, hyung. We’ll be over there as soon as possible.”

“Look at you, all protective of your little Jinjin Pro already. Just like the rest of us experienced persocom daddies.”

“Don’t say daddy; that’s so creepy. See you in a bit.” Dongmin stood up. “Um. Jinjin-hyung. You can borrow some of my clothes and a pair of my shoes. We’re going to visit my cousin Myungjun. He has internet.” 

Jinjin rose up smoothly, with dancer-like grace, and followed Dongmin into the bedroom. Dongmin poked in his closet and found a pair of jeans, a shirt, and a sweater. He found a pair of socks and also some sneakers that he could lace up tightly and that Jinjin hopefully wouldn’t trip in.

“I’ll buy you a pair of shoes that fit as soon as I can, but I don’t have a lot of money. Maybe Myungjun-hyung has an old pair he can lend you. He’s about your size.” Dongmin held out the clothes. “You can change into these.”

“Thank you,” Jinjin said, and unzipped his jumpsuit.

Dongmin yelped and clapped his hands over his eyes.

“I’m sorry, did I make you anxious?” Jinjin asked. He sounded amused.

Right. He was in friendly mode. He knew how to joke. Dongmin had heard persocoms joking with their owners before. The first time Dongmin had heard Jihyo talking to Jungboon, he’d thought they were a pair of friends, and then he’d looked over and seen Jungboon’s ears.

Dongmin peeked through his fingers at Jinjin, who was stepping out of his jumpsuit.

Beneath the jumpsuit, Jinjin had more smooth golden skin and sleek muscles, was wearing boxer briefs, and he didn’t look cute, he looked hot

Dongmin felt his face flame.

But then Jinjin pulled on Dongmin’s clothes and rolled up the bottoms of the jeans to look like stylish cuffs. With the little sweater paws he looked very cute, just like the model in the window Dongmin had seen.

Jinjin pulled on the socks and followed Dongmin back out to the main room.

Dongmin put on his own shoes, then knelt and helped Jinjin with the sneakers.

“Be careful, because these are much too big for you,” Dongmin said, lacing them up extra tight. “Hold onto me if you need to. Are you ready?”

“I’m ready,” Jinjin said. He peered up at Dongmin. “What should I call my dongsaeng?”

“You can call me Dongmin. Dongmin is fine.”

“I’m ready, Dongmin,” Jinjin said, and smiled.

Dongmin grabbed his satchel, made sure he had his wallet, phone, and keys, and he led Jinjin to the bus stop. 

“So, even though you’re in display mode, will you remember things I tell you?” Dongmin asked. 

“My learning algorithm is very advanced,” Jinjin said. “I can find my way back to your apartment if necessary.”

Dongmin remembered how Yoonbyul had asked Yeonggu if he was alive, and he’d said no. Persocoms were very self-aware.  “Ah...Sanha-ssi said you had a factory defect. Do you know what it is?” Dongmin eyed Jinjin, but his face was flawless, and his ears looked fine, and from the brief glimpse Dongmin had had of the rest of Jinjin’s body, he was quite fine.

Jinjin said, “I’m unaware of any flaws or errors in my hardware or software. After setup, I can run a diagnostic and let you know what I find.”

“Great. Thanks.” Dongmin smiled tightly and fell silent when an old man shuffled into the bus shelter and perched on the edge of the bench.

Dongmin rose up and said, “Jinjin, make room.”

Jinjin scooted over obediently.

The old man squinted at Dongmin and inclined his head. “Thank you, young man. It’s nice to see that young people are polite these days.” Then he glanced at Jinjin. “Of course, you young people are so protective of your computers as well.”

“Oh. Well. It’s just — he’s brand new and I’ve never owned a computer before and I need him for school so I can do well and get a good job and take care of my parents,” Dongmin stammered, blushing.

The old man nodded and stroked his beard. “I remember when I got my first car. I took good care of her, and she took good care of me, was with me for many years.” Then the man reached out and patted Jinjin’s head. “You’re a cute little fellow.”

“Thank you, sir,” Jinjin said, bowing politely.

The old man laughed. “So polite. Of course your owner programmed you to be polite. They say pets and owners become alike. The same can be said for computers and owners as well, hm?”

The bus arrived then. Dongmin helped the old man onto the bus, then waved for Jinjin to go ahead of him.

“One student ticket, and one persocom ticket,” Dongmin said, counting out coins carefully. He really hadn’t considered the additional expense of having a persocom, had he? Clothes, shoes, bus tickets, wifi at his apartment, the increase in his electricity bill. At least he wouldn’t need to buy Jinjin food.

Persocom tickets were the same price as children’s tickets, which were cheaper than student tickets, thankfully. The driver barely paid Jinjin any heed, just nodded and pressed a couple of buttons on the fare machine, and Dongmin put the coins into the fare machine machine, and then led Jinjin to a pair of seats beside a window.

There was only one other persocom on the bus, an older model female accompanying a small boy, which was a fairly common sight. Some working parents used persocoms as babysitters if both parents worked. 

“Cousin Myungjun works at a Fantagio Computers store in his neighborhood,” Dongmin said to Jinjin. 

Even though Jinjin was a computer, he really did look like a person, was a warm and solid presence beside Dongmin on the seat, and Dongmin felt sort of compelled to make conversation.

“He’s majoring in architecture at university, but he really likes gaming and computers and has learned a lot about computers on his own,” Dongmin continued. “He has a persocom of his own, named Bin. Maybe you and Bin could be...friends…?”

Jinjin stared out the window as the bus pulled away from the stop.

In dramas, persocoms always made friends with Roombas, but never really with other persocoms, because they were loyal to their owners (or, perhaps, their programmers, if it was an espionage sort of drama).

“Bin was the same base model as Dalkong, from earlier today, so they’ll look really similar, but Myungjun customized him a lot to make him more powerful for gaming and gaming streams and stuff. I probably won’t customize you a lot because I’m not very good at that sort of thing. Mostly I’ll just use you for school and studying and maybe video calling my family a bit. They have an older-model persocom at home that they saved up a lot to buy when my dad got a nice work bonus about a month ago. Growing up I always used the computers at school too.” Dongmin felt like an idiot, babbling at a machine.

Jinjin was just a machine, not a person. He didn’t feel uncomfortable if no one was making conversation.

And yet Dongmin thought of Jinjin as he and not it, because that seemed terribly rude.

The bus ride to Myungjun’s house would take about an hour.

Dongmin hugged his satchel to his chest, nervous. “Listen, I don’t have a lot of money, so I can’t buy you lots of cute clothes and things, but if — if there’s something you really need so you can operate optimally, or if there’s something you really really want, tell me, and I’ll see if I can save up for it.”

Jinjin turned to look at him and smiled. “Don’t worry. This hyung doesn’t care if you have a lot of money or not. That’s not why I’m here.”

Right. Jinjin was in friendly mode. But the knot of anxiousness in Dongmin’s chest loosened a little.

“Thanks,” he said, a little helplessly.

“What are you studying in school?” Jinjin asked.

“Law,” Dongmin said. “I want to be a prosecutor, or maybe even a judge.”

Jinjin nodded. “Justice is important.” He looked out the window again.

Dongmin looked out as well. “Is this your first time seeing all this?”

“Yes,” Jinjin said. “I came from the factory a week ago and was mostly in storage at the store until they delivered me to you this morning.”

“Oh. Wow. That’s — do you like what you see, so far?” Dongmin asked.

“I’ve seen several puppies out on walks with their owners,” Jinjin said. “I have plenty of information about puppies and dogs and many kinds of animals stored in my internal database, but I’ve never encountered one for myself. Puppies are very cute.”

“Maybe one day, when I have some money saved up, we can go to a puppy café,” Dongmin said.

“Most animals dislike persocoms. They are aware we are not human even though we closely resemble them, for the most part.” Jinjin turned back to Dongmin. “Besides studying law, what else do you do?”

“I work,” Dongmin said. “I have to work so I can afford my rent and tuition. I worked a lot of jobs during the break between high school and university, and during breaks I take on extra work to get ahead, but it’s not easy.”

“If you wish to play video games or watch dramas or listen to music, I have the latest video cards and sound cards so you can have an optimal entertainment experience,” Jinjin said. “The monitor I came with has excellent built-in speakers, but some people prefer to purchase additional speakers for surround-sound.”

Dongmin blinked. “Ah, no, I’m sure the monitor is fine.”

“Don’t forget, I can make pepero, if you ever want to bake together.” Jinjin grinned at him.

“Right,” Dongmin said faintly. Pepero Day had only been two days ago. Had it really only been two days since he’d stood outside a window and stared longingly at a Jinjin Pro and known it was impossible for him to have one? And yet here he was, with an actual Jinjin Pro beside him.

“No, I was never much for video games. I do like listening to music. I used to play music. I learned to play piano, but I don’t have access to a piano anymore. I’ve probably forgotten how,” Dongmin said quietly. He’d spent so many hours in the practice room playing scales and memorizing music, learning music theory, about majors and minors, melodies and harmonies.

He stared down at his hands. He didn’t miss the stress of recitals.

But he did miss the freedom of being able to sit down at a piano and look at sheet music and play any song he wanted to play.

Jinjin said, “Don’t worry, I won’t forget anything unless you tell me to.”

Dongmin blinked at him again, unnerved.

The bus reached the stop nearest to Myungjun’s apartment, so Dongmin thanked the driver and led Jinjin off the bus.

Jinjin stumbled on the step, the toe of Dongmin’s oversized sneaker catching. His eyes went wide, and the expression of surprise on his face was utterly human. His arms windmilled.

Several people cried out in alarm.

Dongmin spun and caught Jinjin against his chest.

They both staggered onto the sidewalk, Dongmin with his arms tight around Jinjin. This close, Jinjin seemed quite compact and vulnerable, but also warm and human and alive. He looked up at Dongmin with his endlessly dark, bright eyes.

“Sorry, Dongmin. You warned me about the shoes. I wasn’t as careful as I should have been.”

“It’s fine. I’ll see if Myungjun-hyung has a better pair you can borrow. You’re about his size,” Dongmin said. “He lives nearby.”

Jinjin nodded, eyes wide. Then he said, “You’ll have to let me go.”

“Oh!” Dongmin released Jinjin and stepped back, blushing.

Jinjin straightened his clothes and smoothed down his hair. “Which way?”

“This way.” Dongmin headed up the hill from the bus stop about a hundred meters to a gate, behind which was a garden and a small apartment complex. Dongmin hit the buzzer.

“Hello?” Bin asked.

“It’s me, Dongmin.”

“You came!” Myungjun cried. “Hurry up. I want to see him.”

The gate swung open with a loud buzzing sound, and Dongmin gestured for Jinjin to go first, then followed him inside. They climbed the stairs to the second floor and barely had time to knock before Myungjun yanked open the door and tugged Jinjin inside, almost shutting the door in Dongmin’s face.

Bin caught the door before it closed on Dongmin and gestured for him to enter.

“Thanks,” Dongmin said.

Bin nodded and ducked his head politely, wearing an apologetic smile.

Dongmin toed off his shoes, then said, “Hey, do you have an old pair of shoes you’re willing to part with? All my shoes are too big for Jinjin-hyung. Really all my clothes are too big for him too.”

“Right. Shoes.” Myungjun was flitting around Jinjin, who was standing still and allowing the scrutiny with inhuman stillness and patience. “Ah! You’re so cute. Binnie, untie his shoes.”

Bin sighed but obeyed. Jinjin lifted his feet out of the shoes obediently, and Bin placed them beside the door next to Dongmin’s shoes.

“Oh, your hair is so soft. I like the platinum-blond look.” Myungjun petted Jinjin’s hair briefly, still circling him and inspecting him. Then he glanced at Dongmin. “Do you need any computer supplies?”

Dongmin considered. “He came with a monitor and a tablet, but I do need a keyboard and a mouse, now that you mention it.”

“I have some spares you can take,” Myungjun said.

“Thanks, hyung.”

Seeing Bin so soon after seeing Dalkong was a bit uncanny, now that Dongmin had the chance to appreciate it. Where Dalkong had had ordinary black hair and had been dressed in a button-down shirt and slacks and looked like a nice, neat computer store employee, Bin had pale pink hair and earrings like an idol, and he was wearing a tank top and cardigan and a pair of trendy skinny jeans. Myungjun was always changing Bin’s hair color, and Bin did often look like an idol with how Myungjun dressed him. Myungjun must have spent a fortune on Bin’s wardrobe.

“I have plenty of old clothes you can take to give to your cute little Jinjin,” Myungjun said. “But you can’t keep calling him Jinjin forever. That’s just boring. Don’t think I didn’t notice you calling him Jinjin-hyung.”

“He’s in display mode, and I picked friendly mode because cute mode and flirty mode just seemed too much, and he asked if he was my hyung or my dongsaeng, and I picked hyung randomly, okay?” Dongmin said, flustered by the way Myungjun was eyeing him and waggling his eyebrows. “It’s not like I called him oppa.”

“You can give him a different name once he’s all set up. Come on into my room and let’s get connected to the wifi and go from there,” Myungjun said. “While you’re getting him set up, I can sort through some clothes for you to give to him. I will teach you all the tricks to owning a persocom without going broke. Like buying all their clothes at a thrift store. Binnie is stylish but still economical.”

“Really?” Dongmin asked.

Jinjin followed Dongmin, Bin, and Myungjun into Myungjun’s bedroom, which was scrupulously neat compared to Dongmin’s. Dongmin was neat compared to a lot of young men his age, but Myungjun took his personal neatness to a whole new level.

Dongmin sat down on the floor, and Jinjin sat opposite him.

“Enter setup mode,” Dongmin said to Jinjin, who nodded and said, 

“Connect to wifi. Which network should I connect to: 777Paradise or MJDuckyHub?”

His voice had turned flat and lifeless again. He’d exited display mode and friendly mode with it.

Dongmin twisted around to look at Myungjun. “Which one? I don’t want to try to access your neighbor’s wifi by mistake.”

“777Paradise is just my regular network, so it should have the speed you need,” Myungjun said. “MJDuckyHub is for gaming and streaming.”

“You have two?” Dongmin asked.

Myungjun flung open his closet doors and put his hands on his hips. “It’s pretty common to have a fast one and a slow one, even if you’re not a gamer.”

Dongmin blinked. Would he have to do that at his apartment? Could he afford to do that?

“777Paradise,” Dongmin said.

Jinjin nodded. “Password?”

Myungjun turned and said, “Binnie, give him the password.”

It was disturbing to see Bin sit in front of Jinjin and reach out, place his hands on Jinjin’s, and hear Myungjun’s voice come out of his mouth, and for a brief moment, a hologram of Myungjun’s face to appear over  Bin’s.

“Myungjunnie has arrived!”

Most men probably couldn’t hit that note if they were paid to, but then Myungjun’s lovely tenor voice had often been a source of compliments for him growing up. On top of being a skilled artist and computer programmer, he was a naturally talented singer.

Jinjin said, “Connection established. Please enter your username.”

Dongmin looked at Myungjun. “Does my username have to be something fancy, with numbers and letters and special characters and stuff?”

“No, with modern biometrics it can be just your name in just your voice,” Myungjun said. 

Dongmin nodded. He felt a bit odd, sitting opposite Jinjin and looking right at him, like he was being interrogated or interviewed, or like the time he was signing up for classes at university for the very first time and the guidance counselor had stared fixedly at him the whole time, like he was a specimen under a microscope. “Lee Dongmin.”

Jinjin nodded and then parroted back Lee Dongmin in Dongmin’s own voice. Hearing it come out of Jinjin’s mouth when his own mouth wasn’t moving was a little disturbing.

“Please set your password,” Jinjin said.

“Oh. Do I need a keyboard?” Dongmin asked.

“You can just speak your password,” Myungjun said. “I recommend you use multiple biometrics for extra security, although you should set a pin and voice-only backup options so you can call into your persocom and activate it remotely.”

Even though Dongmin had seen that on dramas, he’d always thought that was made-up, if only because he’d never seen his classmates do it, but then his classmates always had their persocoms right beside them and unlocked and running even before class started. “Will that work for me? I just have a flip phone.”

Myungjun winced. “Right. I bet I have an old smartphone you could use.”

“But I don’t have a fancy data plan,” Dongmin said. “I probably can’t afford one anyway.”

“It would work with your flip phone,” Myungjun said, “but with a smartphone you could call in with a video call and use facial recognition as well to login. Didn’t you see how Binnie held hands with your Jinjin to log in to the internet? My password is voice and face and fingerprint recognition.”

“But if Bin has all of that stored in his system and someone hacks Bin —” Dongmin began.

“Yah! No one will ever hack my beautiful darling Binnie.” Myungjun humphed and turned back to his perusal of his closet.

Dongmin turned back to Jinjin. “Sorry, hyung. Um. Does my password have to be anything special?”

“Something you can say aloud in public that can’t be embarrassing,” Myungjun said.

“Right.” Not that Dongmin had ever heard his classmates say their passwords, because someone unscrupulous could record it and save it later. That was why there were other biometric authentication factors in a password.

“Binnie, get Dongmin one of the old Corsair keyboards,” Myungjun said. “So he can pick a PIN while he’s getting set up. I don’t have any old bluetooth keyboards, so you’ll have to use a wired one. Same with the mouse.”

Bin nodded and crossed the room, opened a cupboard. He returned with a heavy black full-sized keyboard, knelt beside Jinjin, opened one of his ear-ports, and plugged it in. He set the keyboard beside Dongmin.

“Please set your password,” Jinjin said again.

Dongmin thought quickly. Then he reached out, placed his hands in Jinjin’s, and faced him head-on, looking right into his eyes. Jinjin’s hands felt warm and soft. Real. Human. But then Dongmin thought he saw a laser-green gleam in Jinjin’s eyes, and he remembered. Jinjin was a persocom. 

Dongmin said, “I shattered into pieces as if I was sunlight.”

Myungjun snorted. “Poetry? Really?”

“Password set,” Jinjin said. “Please set your PIN.”

Dongmin reached out and typed a six-number PIN.

“Please confirm your PIN.”

Dongmin typed it in again. A mix of his mother, father, and brother’s birthdays seemed safe and easy to remember.

Jinjin said, “Please enter your contact information.”

Dongmin told Jinjin his email address, phone number, and mailing address. He agreed to register his new unit with Fantagio Computers.

“I don’t know why, though, since you don’t qualify for a warranty,” Dongmin said.

Myungjun frowned. He handed Bin an armful of clothes, which Bin ferried over to the bed and began folding neatly. “Why not?”

“Yoon Sanha, the boy who helped me enter the sweepstakes to win Jinjin, said he had some kind of defect, which was why they couldn’t sell him full price and why they were giving him away in the sweepstakes at all,” Dongmin said. 

“That’s odd.” Myungjun stepped away from the closet and knelt beside Jinjin, peering at him. “He looks flawless. It must be something internal. Have you inspected him?”

“Externally he’s fine,” Dongmin said.

Myungjun waggled his eyebrows. “So you have inspected him.”

Dongmin rolled his eyes. “Don’t be weird.”

Jinjin said, “Would you like to give your unit a new name?”

“Yes,” Dongmin said. 

“Please select a new name.”

“All of a sudden? I need a moment to think. Maybe more than a moment.” Dongmin was already used to calling him Jinjin, but Myungjun was right; calling him Jinjin was boring and really no better than Yoonbyul calling her unit Yeonggu. “How about Jinwoo?”

“Why Jinwoo?” Myungjun asked.

“Well, it’s kind of like Jinjin, and remember how I used to have that pipe dream of being an actor and my stage name was going to be Eunwoo? Well, combine it and you get Jinwoo,” Dongmin said.

Myungjun tilted his head and considered the persocom, who continued to look straight ahead at Dongmin. “I like it. And you could still call him Jinjin if you wanted. Or Jinie. Your cute little Jinie.” He ruffled Jinwoo’s hair again.

“Jinwoo,” Dongmin said.

“Would you like to further customize settings?” Jinwoo asked.

“What are my options?”

“You may select your default music player, browser, and movie player,” Jinwoo said. “You may also customize interactive modes, or select from the default options of cute, flirty, and friendly.”

Myungjun’s face lit up.

“Friendly,” Dongmin said quickly. “Let’s go back to friendly. I was getting used to friendly. And you can be my hyung again.”

Jinwoo nodded, and then he smiled. “All right. Do you want to be close friendly or not? Shall I drop formalities?”

“Ah, let’s not drop formalities yet,” Dongmin said. “Maybe later, when we know each other better. I guess the thing I should do now is sign up for internet service at my apartment so I can get it set up, but I don’t really have a default music or movie player since I don’t really have much time to listen to music or watch movies like I did when I was at home. Once internet service is set up, we should go to the library so I can study, and Myungjun can study in peace too.”

“Not yet,” Myungjun cried. “First pretty little Jinwoo has to try on some new clothes!”

“You’re not one to be calling anyone little,” Dongmin said. “Or pretty.”

“You’re not one to be calling anyone pretty,” Myungjun shot back. He clapped his hands. “Binnie, we need a soundtrack. It’s time for a fashion show.”

“Yes, hyung.” Bin tilted his head, and music started to play from the small but powerful speakers in all four corners of the room.

Jinwoo looked at Dongmin. “Is setup complete?”

“For now,” Dongmin said. “I guess.”

Myungjun flapped at hand at Dongmin and disconnected the keyboard from Jinwoo’s earport. “I’ll show you how to remote login to Jinwoo from your phone later, once internet at your place is set up. Use Binnie to sign up for internet service at your apartment. C’mon, Jinwoo. Let’s get you all dressed up. You are about my size. I’ve been meaning to donate a lot of these clothes anyway, so I’m glad they’re going to a good home.”

Jinwoo stood up. “If Dongmin-ah is sure.”

“It’s fine,” Dongmin said. “You do need clothes of your own, because all mine are too big.”

“That’s what he said,” Myungjun said sagely, and ignored Dongmin’s embarrassed splutter. He towed Jinwoo over to the bed and pointed to the two piles of clothes. “Start with this pair of jeans. I bet you’ll look really cute in these jeans.”

Dongmin scratched the side of his neck, a little overwhelmed. Then he looked at Bin, who wore an expression that Dongmin couldn’t read. Of all the persocoms Dongmin had met, Bin seemed the most human.

“Do you mind?” Dongmin asked Bin.

“Mind what?” Bin asked.

“That Myungjun is excited about my new persocom,” Dongmin said.

Bin said, “Myungjun always gets excited about new shiny things, but I’m always his favorite.” He sat on the floor opposite Dongmin and looked right at him in that unblinking, uncanny persocom way, and then his gaze went distant while he searched the internet. “The best internet service providers in your neighborhood are these three.” He reached up, opened his earport, and connected one of Myungjun’s many monitors so Dongmin could see their names, average customer ratings, connection speeds, and prices.

Dongmin winced. That would put quite the dent in his budget. “Let me see what I have in my bank account,” he said.

Bin nodded, and he connected the keyboard to the same earport.

Dongmin logged into his bank account. The numbers he saw made his chest tighten, but he did some math and figured he’d be able to sign up right away if he skipped lunch for a few days, so he picked a service, scheduled an installation visit, and paid the initial fee.

He watched his bank balance shrink and felt his stomach gurgle in anticipatory hunger. He’d have to skip lunch several days a week every week to make this work, but it’d be worth not being cold all winter, and if he was careful he could make leftovers from the restaurant stretch further. He’d be all right.

“Are you hungry? Did you eat breakfast?” Myungjun asked.

“I ate the last of this week’s kimbap this morning,” Dongmin said. “I was going to survive on restaurant leftovers till I did my shopping and meal prep tomorrow.”

“Well, now you have Jinwoo. He can cook while you study,” Myungjun said.

Dongmin blinked. He hadn’t even considered that. “Is that how your apartment stays so clean? Because Bin cleans it?” Only he knew Myungjun was a very neat person.

“Yah,” Myungjun said lightly. “What do you think? How does he look? Jinwoo, do a little catwalk and a twirl. Binnie, music cue.”

The music turned up louder.

Jinwoo was wearing skinny jeans, a button-down shirt, a tie, and a cardigan, and he looked classy. Handsome. He strode the length of Myungjun’s room just like a model, paused, posed, turned.

Dongmin swallowed hard. “Good. He looks really good.”

“I know. I have a great sense of style.” Myungjun preened. “All of these clothes are Jinwoo’s now. I just wanted to make sure they’d actually fit. He’s broader across the chest and shoulders than I am, because of course such a sweet-faced persocom is all buff underneath his clothes. If you decide down the road you want any customizations for streaming dramas or music or playing video games or, you know, aesthetics, if you want to get him tattoos or earrings or something, you let me know, okay? If I can’t install something myself, I know someone who can, either for free or for a reasonable price.”

“Thanks, hyung,” Dongmin said. “And now I really better get to the library to study.”

Myungjun nodded. “Of course.”

“Perhaps we should drop the clothes back at your apartment first,” Jinwoo said.

“Yes,” Dongmin said, darting another glance at Jinwoo, who still looked incredibly handsome. How could someone so adorable suddenly look so handsome?

“Don’t forget some shoes,” Bin said.

Dongmin nodded. “He almost tripped in my shoes on the way here. It could have been really bad. He could have hurt himself.”

Bin frowned and looked at Jinwoo, but Jinwoo’s expression remained impassive.

Myungjun poked through his closet some here. “Here. A pair of sneakers, a pair of dress shoes for fancy occasions, and a pair of slippers. Binnie, go get some bags for them to carry the clothes.”

Bin fetched some canvas shopping bags, and Jinwoo helped Bin load the clothes into the shopping bags, as well as the spare pairs of shoes, the keyboard, and the mouse.

“And here, take these old speakers. These are bluetooth at least.”

“I’d say you’re happy to unload a bunch of your old junk on me, but I am very grateful,” Dongmin said.

Myungjun preened. “Even though I am but a humble architecture major, my prowess as a pro-am gamer and as a persocom customizer is not without its perks or substantial financial remuneration, so I’m glad to help out my prettiest cousin when I can.” He reached out and pinched Dongmin’s cheek, and his smile dimmed. “You’ve lost weight. Are you eating enough?”

“Shouldn’t I be asking you that?” Dongmin asked.

“I’ve been working out. Binnie’s my fitness coach,” Myungjun said. “I know things are tight for you and that you’re working hard, and that the initial outlay of owning a persocom is pretty steep, but a Jinjin Pro is nothing to sneeze at, and you hit the jackpot with that pretty little boy out there, so you take good care of him, all right?”

Dongmin nodded. “I will.”

“Once your internet is set up, call me and I’ll walk you through activating him remotely so you don’t have to keep him with you at all times, which can be annoying sometimes, even when a persocom is as beautiful as my Binnie,” Myungjun said. “Plus in winter their batteries run down faster, so you might want to send him home to recharge sometimes if you don’t need him for a particular class, like a lab or something.”

Dongmin nodded again. “Okay. Thanks, hyung.”

“I’m right here,” Bin said sourly, but he was holding the bags obediently.

He followed Dongmin and Jinwoo to the door.

Jinwoo put on Myungjun’s old sneakers and put Dongmin’s spare sneakers into the one of the bags. Dongmin put on his shoes.

“Thanks again, hyung,” Dongmin said. “Sometime we should get a meal together. If you come to Madam Jeon’s I could get you an employee discount. Her food really is amazing. Michelin Star amazing.”

“I’d rather eat with you on a night you don’t have to work,” Myungjun said. “And on a night I don’t have to work.”

“We’ll figure it out sometime.” Dongmin grinned and said, “We’ll have Bin and Jinwoo connect, right?”

“Yes,” Myungjun said. “You can’t avoid me now.”

Bin handed Jinwoo all the bags.

“Here, let me take some,” Dongmin said, but Myungjun clicked his tongue.

“He may be smaller than you, but he’s much stronger than you.”

“Oh. Right. But his hands are still smaller than mine, and so many bags must be awkward even if they’re not heavy. Are you all right, Jinwoo?” Dongmin asked. He shrugged on his satchel and held out his hands, ready to take as many bags as necessary.

“I’m fine. I’ve got them,” Jinwoo said with a bob of his head.

“Are you sure?”

Jinwoo nodded again.

“Go! You have to study,” Myungjun said.

Dongmin glanced at his watch. “You’re right. Thanks again for everything, hyung. See you later!”

“It was nice to meet you both,” Jinwoo said with a bow, and he followed Dongmin out the gate and down the hill.

“Are you sure you’re okay carrying those by yourself?” Dongmin asked.

Jinwoo looked amused. “I’m sure.”

Because even though Jinwoo looked human, he was programmed to be in friendly mode, and Dongmin had seen how even though Bin had been amused and sarcastic and sour in turns, he’d still been subservient and helpful underneath it all.

“I won’t expire if I carry a few bags of clothes. I’m a man. I’m strong and capable,” Dongmin said. He and Jinwoo reached the bus stop.

The shelter was already quite crowded, and an old lady, a pregnant woman, and two children were occupying the bench.

The little girl looked up at Jinwoo and beamed and waved.

Jinwoo grinned and waved back.

“Look, Mama, he’s a brand new persocom, the kind who can make pepero,” the little girl said. “We saw him at the store.”

The pregnant woman smiled tiredly. “Yes, Suyeon.”

Suyeon peered at Dongmin. “Oppa must be very rich.”

“No,” Dongmin said. “I’m not. He — he was a gift.”

“Oppas friends are very rich,” Suyeon said.

Dongmin wilted. “Something like that.”

Jinwoo laughed. He held one of the bags out to Dongmin, the one with the computer supplies and shoes. “Here, take this one. It’s the heaviest one.” 

“Thank you,” Dongmin said.

Suyeon said, “Do you two play video games all the time?”

“I only got him this morning, so no,” Dongmin said. “And we’re going to study together, mostly. I need to do well in school so I can get good grades and get a good job and help my younger brother get through school and then take care of my parents.”

Suyeon eyed him suspiciously. “Did Mama tell you to say that?”

The old lady laughed.

Dongmin spluttered. “What? No. I just got here. I was visiting my cousin and now I’m waiting for the bus. I’ve never met your mother before.”

The pregnant woman sighed. “Suyeon, leave the poor student alone.”

“Fine,” Suyeon said. “But you’re a very boring person. If I had a Jinjin Pro we’d make pepero together all the time and play games and go on walks and watch cartoons on YouTube and dance to music.”

Dongmin sighed. “Yes, I admit, I am a very boring person.”

The old lady laughed some more.

The pregnant woman inclined her head at Dongmin. “I apologize. My children are very bold and very rude. Suyeon, apologize.”

“No, it’s fine,” Dongmin said. “Most university students are very boring. One day you’ll be boring too, Suyeon. Be fun while you still can.”

The bus arrived then, saving Dongmin from further humiliation. He helped the old lady and the pregnant woman onto the bus, and then he paid for himself and Jinwoo, and they rode back to his apartment.

“We should just drop the bags of clothes inside the door and head straight to the library,” Dongmin said.

“You should bring the keyboard with you,” Jinwoo said, “and also the tablet, unless you want to hook me up to one of the monitors in the library? There are cables to connect me to the tablet in the boxes that the monitor and tablet came in.”

Dongmin considered. “Right. I’ll unpack the monitor and tablet and cables. If you put the bags of clothes in my room, we can sort those out later. I’ll be fast.”

Jinwoo nodded. They toed off their shoes by the door and scrambled to complete their tasks.

The monitor Jinwoo had come with was massive. Dongmin had no stand for it, so he supposed he’d put it on the table to watch it. He put it up on the table carefully and sorted through the cables and wires that had come with it. The tablet in the smaller box came in a neat little leather folio that looked like a regular notebook folio when it was closed. Dongmin grabbed its charge cord and the cable that would connect it to Jinwoo and jammed those both into his leather satchel, then met Jinwoo at the door.

They dashed back to the bus stop, and Dongmin showed Jinwoo which bus would take them to the university.

When the bus arrived, Dongmin fished his coin wallet out of the front pocket of his satchel and counted out coins for a student ticket and a persocom ticket and tried not to think of his rapidly-dwindling finances, and together they rode to the library.

“What is your assignment about?” Jinwoo asked.

“Legal liability of harm to humans by persocoms if that harm was ordered by another human,” Dongmin said.

Jinwoo cocked his head. “Persocoms aren’t allowed to harm humans.”

“No,” Dongmin said, “but say I’m done with lectures for the day, and it’s cold, and I tell you go to back to my apartment —” it wasn’t an uncommon sight, persocoms out and about on their own doing errands for their owners — “and someone tries to steal and you and you shake them off, and because you’re much stronger than a regular human they get hurt. Who’s legally responsible for the harm to that human? You? But you’re a persocom and not a person and can’t be held liable under the law, so they can’t sue you, and police can’t arrest you. Me, because I told you to go back to my apartment and you shook them off because you were following my instructions? But I’m a law student, not a computer programmer, and I have no way of predicting all the possible things you might do to follow my instructions, and also I’m not an engineer and have no way of really understanding how much stronger you are than a regular human and how much damage you could do with a relatively minor action. Or are they responsible for what happened, since they were attempting to do something illegal, and they caused the situation in the first place by trying to grab you?”

Jinwoo stared at Dongmin. “I don’t understand.”

Dongmin patted his shoulder a little awkwardly. “It’s okay. I don’t think you’re meant to. It’s one of those issues only humans are supposed to think about, I suppose. Morals. Ethics. Cause and effect. Liability.”

“I understand cause and effect,” Jinwoo said. “If I push you, I cause you to fall over.”

“Well, yes,” Dongmin said.

“If you fall over, you may hurt yourself, and you may cry, and I will have caused you to cry,” Jinwoo continued.

Dongmin sat up straighter. “I don’t cry easily.”

Jinwoo nodded. “I don’t cry at all.”

With Jinwoo in friendly mode, it was so easy to forget that he wasn’t human, but here he was, puzzled by questions of morality and ethics.

Granted, there were some humans who didn’t cry, who wouldn’t or couldn’t either because they were physiologically unable, or because they were emotionally unable to.

Did that make them less human? Inhuman?

If Jinwoo did cry, would that make him more human-like?

Would that make him actually human? A person instead of just of a persocom?

Dongmin shook his head to clear it. Obviously his research paper was doing funny things to his head.

The bus reached campus, and they hopped off and headed to the library.

Jinwoo paused at the doors and tipped his head back to look at the massive glass-walled building that resembled a modern palace more than a library.

“It’s large,” he said, “and I am small.”

“I felt the same way when I first came,” Dongmin said. “I’d seen it in pictures on the website. I was excited for a big library, you know? So many books. Lots of space to stretch out and study comfortably. But it is very big.”

Jinwoo stared, unblinking. “I know the dimensions of this building. I accessed them when I learned you were a student here. But knowing the dimensions and understanding them are two different things.”

Dongmin looked at him, startled by the vulnerability in his voice. That was just an affectation. A programmed response. 

“Those are two different things,” he said finally. “Come on. I have to work on my paper.”

The library was split into different sections to accommodate students who were reading, students who were just browsing and surfing the internet, and students who were studying. Usually Dongmin worked in the computer lab, which took up half of the second floor and was a series of cubicles each with a double-wide desk, a monitor, and keyboard and mouse, and an old-fashioned persocom for student use.

This time Dongmin could bypass the computer lab and head for the private study rooms, which were much cheerier and more comfortable, like miniature student union hangouts, small rooms with big windows, desks, comfortable chairs, and whiteboards and blackboards for brainstorming.

As they passed the rows upon rows of old-fashioned persocoms, Dongmin wondered if Jinwoo was uncomfortable, looking at his predecessors. What would Dongmin do, if he came face-to-face with Neanderthals or Cro-magnons? 

But Jinwoo didn’t even look at them, just followed Dongmin up the escalator and into one of the study rooms.

“Here, pull up a chair, and I’ll get set up,” Dongmin said.

Jinwoo nodded and sat obediently in one of the chairs near the desk. Dongmin sorted his study supplies onto the desk. Then he set the tablet folio, keyboard, and mouse on the desk.

“ I just use the tablet as a monitor?” Dongmin asked.

Jinwoo held out his hand. “If you tell me your password to connect to the university wifi, I’ll get you set up.”

“It’s that simple?”

Jinwoo nodded.

Dongmin told him the password, then watched, feeling stupid and a little helpless, as Jinwoo calmly opened his own earport, pressed a button, and swiped at the tablet screen. He held it up so Dongmin could see.

“Don’t you need the cable?” Dongmin asked.

“I can connect to the tablet via bluetooth,” Jinwoo said calmly.

“Oh. Right. Let me plug the tablet in to charge at least.” Dongmin found the charge cable and then had to crawl around under the desk a bit before he resumed his seat.

“I’m configuring it so it’s basically a mirror of me, just on a smaller scale. There’s a stylus here on the side, so you can take notes by hand if you want, and it’ll transcribe them automatically and make them searchable, but also you can use it as a sort of miniature monitor,” Jinwoo said. “Also, if you want to log into your default browser, I can save all your email login settings.”

“Right. Let me just connect the keyboard and mouse,” Dongmin said, but Jinwoo reached out and connected them himself.

Dongmin stared. “Does it hurt? When you do that?”

“No,” Jinwoo said. “Not at all.”

“What does it feel like? If you can feel it. If it’s not too invasive to ask,” Dongmin said, eyes going wide when he realized how rude he was being.

Jinwoo tilted his head, humming thoughtfully. His deep voice was pleasant. “It just feels warm. A buzzing sensation. Now, you’re ready to work.”

Dongmin reached into his satchel. “My research paper is on this flash drive. I have to connect it too.” He held it out.

Jinwoo accepted it with a brush of his warm fingers, and he opened his other ear port and connected it, and it was so uncanny, to hear him speaking just like a real person but see that he was very much not.

“Okay. Well. I’ll just get to work now,” Dongmin said. “You have a word processor installed, right?”

Jinwoo said, “I am already loaded with all the standard software — word processor, spreadsheet maker, presentation maker, calculator, notepad, basic paint application, basic photo editor.”

“Oh. Good. Great.” Dongmin cleared his throat. He considered the tablet. “I’ll just...prop this up against my satchel, maybe.”

Jinwoo scooped it up. “I’ll hold it for you.” He held it up under his chin at just the right height so Dongmin wouldn’t have to hunch.

“Are you sure? Won’t our arms get tired?” Dongmin asked.

“I don’t get tired,” Jinwoo said, and of course he didn’t; he wasn’t human.

He tilted his head and smiled, and he did look awfully sweet and accommodating, like a helpful boyfriend, except for the part where he had cables coming out of his earports.

“That’s fine. Thanks.” Dongmin found the folder his paper was saved in easily. The brand new glass surface of the tablet was much nicer than the old LCD monitors the library persocoms were hooked up to, and the document looked bright and crisp.

Dongmin set to typing.

Beneath his hands, the keyboard Myungjun had given him glowed rainbow.

Of course it did, because Myungjun liked things that were bright and lively and pretty.

Dongmin hit his stride, reading and editing, checking his sources, making sure his citations were correct, ensuring that his footnotes and bibliography were updating properly.

Once his paper was finished, he went to send it to the printer, which took a bit of finagling, because the library persocoms were all assigned to certain library printers, and Dongmin did his best to print to the same couple of printers so he didn’t lose his printouts in the rush of other students printing things.

“Can you connect to one of the library printers?” Dongmin asked Jinwoo. “Or is that like hacking?”

Jinwoo said, “Connecting to a library printer is not like hacking. Which printer would you like to print to?”

Dongmin told Jinwoo the number of his preferred printer, and Jinwoo smiled. 

“Your paper is printing now.”

“Thank you,” Dongmin said. He always printed drafts of his papers, because it was easier to spot errors on a hard copy. 

With that task underway, he pushed the keyboard away and flipped open his history textbook and started on next week’s reading. 

“Your paper has finished printing.”

Dongmin started violently at the deep voice, and then he remembered. Jinwoo. All the library persocoms had the same generic tenor voice with no real inflections.

But Jinwoo had set the tablet on his lap and was smiling at Dongmin, gesturing to the open door behind him.

“Oh. Thank you!”

“You should have a drink and stretch as well,” Jinwoo said. “To maintain optimum performance while you study.”

Now that Dongmin thought about it, he was thirsty. “There is a water fountain near here.”

Food and drink, of course, was forbidden in the library. While plenty of students sneaked snacks and drinks into the library all the time, Dongmin had never dared, because he couldn’t afford to be banned. 

So he hurried to the printer, grabbed his paper — and counted the pages to make sure he had all of it — and then stopped by the water fountain for a good long drink before he returned to his study room. 

For a moment, Dongmin thought he had the wrong room, because a cluster of girls was blocking the doorway, giggling and cooing. They tried to hush each other, but then one of them said,

“Your owner is a very lucky girl.”

Jinwoo said, “My owner is a man.”

Another chorus of ooh rose up, and the girls immediately shushed each other. 

Dongmin cleared his throat. “Pardon me. I need to get through.”

The girls turned, and their eyes went wide. Dongmin resisted the urge to reach up and check if there was anything on his face or stuck in his teeth.

“Daebak,” another girl said. “It’s like something out of a BL webtoon.”

Dongmin felt himself blush as he ducked past the girls, careful not to touch any of them, his paper clutched to his chest as an ineffectual shield.

“Did you make sure to get a drink?” Jinwoo asked.

“I did, thank you,” Dongmin said. He resumed his seat and put his head down and deliberately did not look to see if the girls were still there or not, and he resumed reading. He’d do revisions on his paper once he’d worked on a couple of different subjects so he could look at the paper with fresh eyes.

It was easy to sink into the rhythm of reading and outlining, especially since the chairs in the study room were more comfortable, and the study room had a window that overlooked the quad. Dongmin much preferred studying with natural light, and that was one thing his basement apartment lacked, but the windows were old and had poor insulation, so if he wanted to stay warm he had to keep them covered; in the summer he’d had good light, though, and he missed that.

Everything was going well til Dongmin heard a whisper and a giggle.

He looked up and saw Jinwoo press a finger to his lips in the universal gesture for silence, his gaze serious. Dongmin frowned and twisted around to see what the matter was.

The crowd at the door had doubled in size.

Upon being noticed, the girls squeaked and scattered.

Dongmin watched them go, a little annoyed, but he understood, at least a little bit, because he’d stood at the Fantagio Computers shop window and stared at a cute Jinjin Pro too.

“You should take another break and get another drink,” Jinwoo said. “And also some food. It’s almost lunch time. Your brain requires one fifth of your body’s daily allotment of energy. You require energy input for optimal performance.”

Dongmin’s stomach clenched. He was hungry. Jinwoo was right; lunch time was right around the corner, but Dongmin couldn’t afford lunch. If he wanted to be able to study from the comfort of home with his own internet connection, lunch was a luxury, not a necessity. “I’ll eat at work.”

“Where do you work?” Jinwoo asked.

Dongmin told him the name of the restaurant.

“When do you work?”

“I work the dinner shift from four to ten Friday through Sunday every week.”

Jinwoo tilted his head. “You require sustenance before then.”

“‘Require’ is a strong word,” Dongmin said.

Jinwoo continued to look puzzled.

Dongmin waved a dismissive hand. “I’ll be fine. But I will get up and stretch my legs and get a drink and then I’ll be back, all right?”

For the rest of the afternoon, Dongmin managed to dodge Jinwoo’s inquiries into whether he needed sustenance and whether he was performing at suboptimal levels. Jinwoo looked concerned as the afternoon drew on. The time spent at Myungjun’s, while necessary, had cut into Dongmin’s study time, and he’d have to study hard tomorrow to catch up. 

But when two o’clock rolled around, Dongmin closed his books and started putting them into his book bag.

“Are we finished?” Jinwoo asked.

Dongmin nodded and paused, stretched. “I have to go home and get ready for work.”

“What will I do while you work?”

Dongmin considered. “You can come with me.” Was it safe for him to leave Jinwoo at his apartment? There hadn’t been any break-ins in his neighborhood before, and it wasn’t like he didn’t leave his other belongings in his apartment all the time, but all of his other belongings combined didn’t add up to Jinwoo’s base cost. “While I’m waiting tables, you can help Minseok with his homework.”

“Who is Minseok?”

“He’s Madam Jeon’s son. He helps wait tables too, but where he’s younger than me I do most of the work.”

Jinwoo nodded. “I will help Minseok with his homework.” 

He disconnected the keyboard and flash drive and tablet and tucked those into Dongmin’s satchel, and together they headed back to the bus stop.

On the way back to the apartment, Dongmin told Jinwoo about the restaurant, about how delicious the food was, and how it was working with Granny. 

“What happens when you have no internet connection?” Dongmin asked.

“Most people with smartphones have data plans for their persocoms,” Jinwoo said. “Or maintain a bluetooth connection between their smartphone and their persocom so information on their phone can be shared with their persocom. Any information I learn from you is stored until I reconnect to wifi or internet and then it’s backed up.”

“Backed up where?” Dongmin asked.

“I have a cloud storage backup,” Jinwoo said. “It’s standard with every model.”

“But I didn’t sign up for one or pay for one.” Dongmin bit his lip, thinking of his already much-dented bank balance.

Jinwoo said again, “It’s standard with every model.”

Dongmin sighed and fretted all the way home. 

Back at the apartment, he set his satchel in the bedroom and, as an afterthought, set the tablet to charging. Then he changed into his work clothes.

“Should I also change clothes?” Jinwoo asked.

Dongmin yelped and clutched his shirt to his chest.

Jinwoo stood in the doorway.

“Oh. No. I mean. You look fine.”

“I made you anxious again, didn’t I? It’s fine. We’re friends, and both men.” Jinwoo smiled.

Dongmin thought of the girls in the library who’d looked at him and thought his owning Jinwoo was like something out of a BL comic, and he thought of how he’d imagined making pepero with a cute boy like Jinwoo would be a fun date, and he felt himself blushing.

Jinwoo frowned. “Your face is flushed. Are you impaired because you didn’t eat lunch?”

“No, I’m fine.” Dongmin pulled on his shirt and buttoned it hastily, angling himself away from Jinwoo so Jinwoo wouldn’t see his chest. “We’d better get to the restaurant as soon as we can.”

“Yes, Dongmin-ssi.”

The bus ride to the restaurant was silent and awkward but thankfully short.

Dongmin thanked the driver and hopped off the bus, led Jinwoo around to the side entrance and let himself in. He headed for the little break room.

“Hyung! What are you doing? You’re supposed to be hiding!” Minseok hissed as soon as Dongmin stepped into the room.

Dongmin turned to him, puzzled. “Am I? Is someone having a surprise party?”

Minseok blinked, and then he peered at Jinwoo. “Oh! I thought you were Minhyuk-hyung for a moment, but your hair is the wrong color.” His smile turned sweet in an instant. “Sorry.”

Dongmin had no idea who Minhyuk was. Perhaps Minseok’s family’s persocom? No one had mentioned one before. “Minseok, this is Jinwoo, my new persocom. I just got him today. I probably won’t usually bring him to work with me, but right now there’s no internet at my apartment, and I thought he might be bored, so he came along. He can probably help you with your homework if I’m too busy.”

Minseok nodded. “Okay. Thanks, Dongmin-hyung. How much does Mom pay you? I’ve seen this model in stores. He’s brand new!”

“Ah, I won a contest,” Dongmin said. “There’s no way I could afford him on my own. School is very expensive, even though your mother is very generous.”

Minseok inclined his head politely at Jinwoo. “Nice to meet you, Jinwoo-ssi.”

Jinwoo bowed politely in return. “Nice to meet you, Minseok-ah. Do you know the wifi password?”

Minseok whistled. “Changkyun, show Jinwoo-ssi how to get set up.”

The little doll woke up and stretched, yawned. Then he opened one eye and eyed Jinwoo, unimpressed, before he hopped off of Minseok’s backpack and sauntered over with much swagger for being all of twenty centimeters tall.

Changkyun climbed up onto Jinwoo’s shoe and fisted his little hands on the knee of Jinwoo’s jeans. They looked into each other’s eyes and then both of them went utterly still. 

“What are they doing?” Dongmin leaned over to Minseok and lowered his voice.

“Connecting via bluetooth,” Minseok said. The duh was implied.

“Oh. Right.”

Dongmin wondered why Bin and Myungjun hadn’t done that at Myungjun’s apartment.

Changkyun’s eyes fell shut, and he toppled over, limp.

“Changkyunnie!” Minseok lunged and scooped him up. He glared at Jinwoo. “What did you do to him?”

Only Jinwoo didn’t respond either. His eyes were still open, but his gaze was blank.

He had some kind of factory flaw that made him unsaleable. Was this the result of his flaw?

Minseok popped open Changkyun’s earport and pressed a button. Changkyun’s eyes opened, and Dongmin heard the soft hum of reboot.

Jinwoo blinked, and he said, “Thank you for the password.”

Dongmin reached out, put a hand on Jinwoo’s shoulder. “Are you all right?”

“All right?”

“You blanked out for a second, and Changkyun —” Fainted was the wrong word. “Changkyun blue-screened.”

“Blue-screened?” Jinwoo tilted his head, puzzled.

“Changkyun malfunctioned.”

Changkyun squirmed out of Minseok’s grip and clawed his way up Jinwoo’s leg again, wrapped around his knee, and glared. “What are you?”

“My name is Jinwoo, and I am Dongmin’s personal unit. I am a Jinjin Pro,” he said.

Changkyun let go of Jinwoo’s leg and retreated to Minseok’s backpack. Minseok crouched beside him, hunched protectively over him.

“Run a diagnostic,” he said quietly.

Dongmin remembered Jinwoo saying something similar about that. “Jinwoo, run a self-diagnostic as well, check for any internal hardware or software errors, okay?”

Jinwoo nodded. Dongmin cast about and found a small stool for him to sit on.

“Stay here.”

“Is everything all right? I heard shouting.” Madam Jeon appeared in the doorway.

“Dongmin-hyung’s persocom connected with Changkyunnie and made him faint,” Minseok said.

Madam Jeon spotted Jinwoo. “You have a persocom?”

“Ah, yes. I entered a raffle and got lucky,” Dongmin said. “I couldn’t afford one on my own. I have no internet at my house yet, so I brought him with me so he wouldn’t be bored. If you don’t mind?”

Madam Jeon stared at Jinwoo for a long moment, and then she said, “That’s fine. Minseok brings Changkyun, after all.”

Dongmin couldn’t read her expression, and he fretted for a moment before he shrugged off his jacket and tucked it across Jinwoo’s knees. Then he pulled on his apron, tied it, and made sure he was ready to serve customers.

Saturday nights at the restaurant were very busy, and Dongmin flitted back and forth between the tables with his notepad and a ready smile, taking orders, serving and topping up drinks, and bringing plates out.

“I don’t know how you do it,” one woman said, “remembering everything. You’re like a persocom.”

“He’s as handsome as one,” her dining companion said.

Dongmin thought of the man who’d offered to pay Dongmin money to buy his likeness to reproduce it for persocoms and said, “Maybe one day persocoms will look like me, but I am all human.” He smiled brightly and swept back to the kitchen when Granny hollered that a platter was up.

Between customers, he poked his head into the break room and saw that Changkyun was curled up asleep on Minseok’s backpack like always. Jinwoo was leaning against the wall as well, eyes closed, also seemingly asleep. He was probably still running his self-diagnostic.

The shift ended without incident, and Dongmin and Minseok cleaned the dining room quickly. 

“Hey, are you ready to go?” Dongmin asked.

Jinwoo opened his eyes. “Yes, Dongmin-ah. I’m ready to go.” He smiled.

“Are you all right?” Dongmin asked, while they sat in the shelter at the bus stop.

“I am,” Jinwoo said.

“Did your diagnostic turn up anything?”

Jinwoo shook his head. “I am fine.”

“No errors or flaws or...anything?” Dongmin pressed.

Jinwoo shook his head again. 

It wasn’t like a computer could lie, but Changkyun fainting couldn’t have been normal.

“What happened when you connected with Changkyun?”

“I am a brand new model, and he is an older model, and our software was not compatible, and he was temporarily overwhelmed, but he is unharmed, as am I.” Jinwoo smiled reassuringly.

Dongmin supposed that made sense. “Fair enough.”

The bus ride back to the apartment was quick. Jinwoo asked Dongmin how his shift had been, if he was very tired. Jinwoo had looked up information about the restaurant and many reviews of it, and it was popular and held in high regard. Surely the restaurant must have been very busy, and Dongmin must have been very tired.

Back at the apartment, Dongmin washed up and brushed his teeth and readied himself for bed. He’d brought his pajamas into the bathroom with him so he wouldn’t have to change in front of Jinwoo. 

If Jinwoo’s eyes (both eyes? One eye? Did a persocom need both eyes for depth perception like a human?) were cameras, and all of Jinwoo’s data was backed up to a cloud server somewhere, would there be hours and hours of footage of Dongmin for someone to see? How secure was that backup file?

When Dongmin emerged from the bathroom and headed into the bedroom, he almost ran into Jinwoo, who was trotting back and forth, ferrying clothes from the bags in the den to the bedroom.

“What are you doing?”

“Putting the clothes away,” Jinwoo said.

Dongmin hadn’t instructed him to do it, but Jinwoo was programmed with a high-level learning AI, and he didn’t constantly need instruction from Dongmin to complete tasks. He could look around the apartment and figure out that there was only one bedroom and only one place to store clothes and decide that he should put his clothes in the place where all of the rest of the clothes were stored.

He probably didn’t realize how it might seem, that he and Dongmin were storing their clothes together.

“Thank you,” Dongmin said, helplessly, feeling his face heat. “That’s very helpful of you.”

Jinwoo paused. “Is this action incorrect?” He held up one of the folded shirts. “Do you prefer shirts to be folded differently? I examined your folded shirts, and these shirts appear to be folded the same way.” 

He’d folded his shirts much more precisely than Dongmin or even Dongmin’s mother had ever managed to do.

“No, that’s fine.”

Jinwoo stepped around Dongmin and padded into the bedroom. “My shirts are here, separate from your shirts.”

But their shirts were side-by-side. Together in the closet, they looked very domestic and cozy. And they wore about the same shirt size, and how easy would it be, for a tired Dongmin to accidentally grab one of Jinwoo’s shirts and wear it? But Jinwoo wouldn’t be angry or offended if Dongmin wore one of his shirts, and he wouldn’t think it was cute or sexy. And if Dongmin asked Jinwoo to wear one of his shirts, Jinwoo would probably just comply, because that was part of friendly mode.

Dongmin scrubbed his hand over his face. Why was he thinking of Jinwoo like this? Jinwoo was just a persocom, just like the bland-faced, bland-voiced ones in the library, only with a better face and voice.

Once Dongmin was finished drying his hair, he helped Jinwoo put the clothes away, resigned to the fact of them sharing a closet.

“Which side do you sleep on?” Jinwoo asked, standing beside the bed.

Dongmin blinked. “Pardon?”

“I wouldn’t want to sleep on your side,” Jinwoo said. “That wouldn’t be very friendly.”

Dongmin bit back a splutter. “What? No. You — you can sleep on the beanbags. While you recharge.”

“But don’t friends sleep together?” Jinwoo asked.

“We’re not close friends yet. We still haven’t dropped formalities,” Dongmin said quickly, heart racing. “Why don’t you go change into your pajamas and I’ll make up a nest for you.”

Jinwoo looked puzzled. “Why is your face red? Is it because you didn’t eat lunch? Or was your shower too hot? Do you need to take a cold shower?”

“I’m fine,” Dongmin said. He reached into the closet and grabbed some cute satin pajamas — they had the name Myungjun stitched on the pocket in English but beggars couldn’t be choosers — and shoved them at Jinwoo. “Go get changed.”

Jinwoo nodded and promptly stripped off his clothes.

Dongmin flinched, but rather than shout at Jinwoo to go change in the bathroom and have to answer a bunch of questions he wasn’t sure he knew the answer to, he reminded Jinwoo to put his dirty clothes in the appropriate baskets (lights, darks, whites) and then saw about pushing the bean bag chairs together and draping blankets over them.

He made sure the charge cord could reach the little nest he’d built, and then Jinwoo emerged from the bedroom.

“I’m ready,” he said.

Dongmin patted the bean bag chair nest. “Here. Feel free to make yourself comfortable.”

Jinwoo considered the nest for a moment, then curled up under the blankets.

Dongmin held out the charge cord. “Do you want me to plug it in? Or is that weird? Would you rather do it yourself?”

Jinwoo closed his eyes and tilted his head. “You can do it, Dongmin-ssi. Hyung is tired.”

“Tired? Is your battery running low?” Dongmin asked.

Jinwoo nodded. “I wasn’t fully charged when I came out of my box.”

“Oh no. Is there — can you give me some kind of warning when your battery runs low?”

“I can,” Jinwoo said.

“Please do. When it gets to ten percent or something, please tell me.” Dongmin would have to remember to carry Jinwoo’s charge cord with him at all times, and also get a spare to have at home in case Jinwoo went home and Dongmin was still out. 

Maybe Jinwoo should have a backpack of his own so he could carry a spare charge cord and some other supplies.

Dongmin mentally added that to the list of things he ought to buy for Jinwoo and deducted it from his bank account — but he could buy that at a thrift store to save money, as Myungjun had suggested — and then opened Jinwoo’s earport carefully.

“Here, have some energy,” Dongmin said. Did it feel like eating, when Jinwoo charged up? Did he feel hungry or just tired when his energy ran low? And did he feel full and happy as his energy increased?

Jinwoo hummed happily when the cord connected. Dongmin tucked a blanket around him.

“Stay warm,” he said, because being warm helped his battery stay charged more efficiently.

Dongmin turned the den light out, and then crept into his own room. He climbed into bed, plugged his phone in, and texted his parents and brother good night, and turned off the light.

He lay there in the darkness, thinking of how Jinwoo had just assumed that they would share a bed. Dongmin had shared a bed with his younger brother before, and Cousin Myungjun too. Sharing a bed was no big deal, right?

Except Jinwoo was neither his brother nor his cousin.

Jinwoo was his computer.

But Jinwoo had been with him all day today, and been concerned about whether not he’d been eating and drinking, and Jinwoo was handsome, but —

Dongmin well knew that a persocom’s face was artificial. The customer at the restaurant had told him so. 

Was there a human out there who looked like Jinwoo? Or some version of him?

Dongmin closed his eyes and snuggled down into his pillow. Now that he had Jinwoo, some things in his life would be much easier, but other things would be harder, and he would have to work very hard to keep his life together. He knew that winning Jinwoo was a one-in-a million chance, and he couldn’t bank on winning anything by chance like that again.

Dongmin woke the next morning when the sky was just barely light. He rolled out of bed and grabbed some clean clothes, stumbled for the bathroom.

And nearly tripped over a boy sleeping in his den.

For one moment, Dongmin was very confused. Why was there a stranger sleeping in his apartment? Had someone broken in, someone who’d gotten drunk at a party? Had Dongmin gotten drunk at a party and brought someone home with him?

And then he noticed the boy’s ears.

Not a boy. A persocom. Dongmin’s persocom. Jinwoo.

Dongmin sank against the door frame, one hand pressed to his racing heart.

In sleep, Jinwoo was adorable.

Jinwoo opened his eyes and looked right at Dongmin. “Is it time to get up now? I am fully charged.”

Dongmin’s pulse spiked again, and he rubbed at his chest nervously. “Yes. Let me wash up.” Did a persocom need to wash at all? Not take a full-on shower, obviously. “Why don’t you get dressed, and then we’ll go grocery shopping.”

Jinwoo sat up and grinned. “All right. I’ll get dressed. What should I wear?”

“Something casual and comfortable is fine,” Dongmin said. He hurried into the bathroom and brushed his teeth, washed his face, shaved, pulled on clean clothes, combed his hair.

When he emerged, Jinwoo was wearing skinny jeans again, a t-shirt, a zip-up hoodie, and a leather jacket over it. Since when had Myungjun worn a leather jacket? Jinwoo had done something to his hair to make it look artfully spiky, so instead of cute and adorable, he looked like a rebel, kind of badass and punk. Jinwoo remembered Myungjun’s offer to get Jinwoo customization like tattoos, and at the time Dongmin had dismissed them offhand, but now he wondered what Jinwoo would look like with a tattoo or two.

“How do I look?” Jinwoo asked. He hooked his thumb into his hip pocket and ducked his chin.

He was supposed to be in friendly mode, not flirty mode. Where had he learned to dress like this? He had no internet connection. But then how long had it taken him to run his diagnostic at the restaurant last night? He could have surfed the internet for hours. 

Dongmin swallowed hard. “Good. You look good. Let’s go.”

Dongmin grabbed his wallet, keys, and phone, his canvas shopping bags, and his notebook with his shopping list in it. Jinwoo came to stand beside Dongmin at the door and put on his shoes.

Side-by-side, Dongmin was hyperaware of the fact that Jinwoo was markedly shorter than him, and also how soft his hair was, and how warm he was.

“Here, let your hyung help you,” Jinwoo said. He knelt and tied Dongmin’s shoe for him.

Dongmin was perfectly capable of tying his shoelaces himself. He’d been doing it longer than he could remember, but before he could protest, Jinwoo tied his other shoe and then straightened up, smiling.

Together they headed down the street to the little supermarket which was, thankfully, within walking distance. The morning sunlight was weak and filtered through thin clouds, and the air was chilly enough that Dongmin’s breath steamed.

“Are you warm enough? Should you be wearing a scarf or hat or gloves? Do you need a thicker jacket?” Jinwoo asked.

“I’m fine,” Dongmin said. “Are you warm enough? Will your battery be all right?”

“I’m wearing layers. I’m fine,” Jinwoo said.

At the grocery store, Dongmin found a shopping basket. 

He held out his notebook to Jinwoo. “Here. This is my shopping list. I don’t buy exactly the same thing every week, but I buy a lot of the same staples over and over again. Maybe in future you can come shop for me? So I can study.”

Jinwoo nodded. “I have accessed the guest wifi network. Do you have a frequent shopper card so you can earn points for discounts and be sent coupons?”

“No,” Dongmin admitted.

“Would you like me to sign you up for one?” Jinwoo asked. “I can filter out the spam email but optimize your shopping experience by saving coupons for items you regularly purchase, as well as building a shopping list for you on the supermarket’s website so I can order groceries for pickup to save time in future.”

Dongmin blinked. “Sure. Go ahead. That sounds good.”

“Which email account should I use?” Jinwoo asked as Dongmin started down the dairy aisle.

“Not my school email,” Dongmin said. “My personal one is fine.”

Jinwoo nodded. While Dongmin bought supplies to make his weekly supply of kimbap for breakfast, Jinwoo asked Dongmin about his shopping preferences. Whenever Dongmin went to put an item into the basket, Jinwoo intercepted it, inspected it, asked whether it was considered a favorite item, and added it to the online list he was building. His earnestness and enthusiasm was endearing, but also Dongmin was a bit weirded out by the whole process. 

In order to afford the down-payment for the internet installation, Dongmin would have to skip lunch that week, so he bought only half his usual supply of meat, and he bought chicken instead of pork or beef, since it was cheaper, and he bought instant noodles. Fresh vegetables were cheaper than canned or frozen vegetables, and Dongmin had learned how to cook them as a necessity. The trick was to cook everything on Sunday, then separate it all into small portions and freeze it, and thaw each portion as he needed it. He had some leftovers from the restaurant he could use as breakfast and lunch today, and he’d get some more leftovers he could use as dinner tonight and tomorrow night. He’d have dinner covered on Friday and Saturday night again, which meant he’d only have to buy enough food to cover dinner for Tuesday through Thursday, which wasn’t so bad.

Jinwoo frowned as Dongmin loaded up his basket. “The total caloric value of this food is insufficient for a man your age and size.”

“Don’t forget that I have leftovers from the restaurant, and I’ll get more tonight,” Dongmin said. “Besides, sometimes I can get free food at school. They give it away at lunchtime lectures.”

Jinwoo nodded. “I understand.”

Dongmin wasn’t lying; there were free lunches on campus all the time if one knew where to look, but more often than not Dongmin had to study or had other lunchtime meetings he needed to get to. What was the morality on lying to a machine? Not that humans didn’t tell each other polite white lies all the time.

“When I get home, will you help me prep my meals for the week?”

Jinwoo smiled. “Of course. I’d be glad to help Dongmin-ah.”

“If we work fast, we can be done before the internet technician arrives.”

Dongmin was far from the only person at the supermarket accompanied by a persocom. Plenty of housewives had persocoms with them to help calculate their grocery totals or find good sales or keep an eye on the children. Some elderly people had persocoms along to help them read labels or find particular items.

Dongmin spotted one man, maybe in his late thirties or early forties, pushing a cart and laughing with his persocom, a model designed to look like a pretty young female as she hung off of his arm. But for her earports, she might have been his wife or girlfriend, and they looked happy together. Close. Affectionate. Dongmin glanced over at Jinwoo, who walked alongside the shopping cart, looking around and taking in details.

This was probably his first time in a supermarket. Did he have information about supermarkets before coming here today? Was it what he expected? Did it make him feel big or small?

Dongmin didn’t flinch too much when he saw his grocery total, simply bagged his groceries — with Jinwoo’s help — and paid and headed home. Jinwoo carried the majority of the grocery bags. Because Jinwoo was smaller, Dongmin felt bad that he was doing most of the work even though he was demonstrably stronger than Dongmin and didn’t look at all strained from the effort.

Back at the apartment, Dongmin showed Jinwoo where all the food was kept, and then it was time to teach him how to make kimbap.

“I’m not nearly as good at it as my mother is,” he said, “but my kimbap doesn’t fall apart, and that’s really all that matters when I’m headed off to school, so.”

Dongmin didn’t have a rice cooker, so he showed Jinwoo how to measure the rice and then rinse it, put it into a large pot on the stove and set it to cooking. Then he showed Jinwoo how to prepare the vinegar-salt-sugar mix to make the rice sticky. Then he showed Jinwoo how to make the kimchi filling.

Everything was going well until it was time to assemble everything. 

“I made an assembly station,” Dongmin said, “so it’s more efficient and less likely to make a mess. The gim goes here, the filling goes here, and the rice goes here. Could you go get the rice off the stove, please?”

“Of course,” Jinwoo said, and turned away.

Dongmin poked around in a drawer for the rice ladle.


Dongmin spun around. “What happened?”

“I burned my hand on the rice pot,” Jinwoo said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. It’s just that the pot was very hot.”

Dongmin didn’t think. He grabbed Jinwoo by the wrist and dragged him over to the sink, turned on cold water and shoved his hand under it. “Are you all right? Does it hurt badly? Do you need to go to the hospital? I — what am I saying? You’re a persocom. You don’t feel pain.”

He let go of Jinwoo’s wrist and stepped back.

Jinwoo looked at him, puzzled. “I do feel pain,” he said, and Dongmin remembered how Jinwoo had shouted ow! just like any human. “I don’t know if I feel it the same way you do, but all persocoms feel pain. We feel it for the same reason humans do, so we know that we have done something to cause ourselves damage, and so we know to cease that action immediately and also to avoid it in the future.”

“Oh. Of course. I’m sorry.” Dongmin reached out and turned off the water, scooped up a towel and patted Jinwoo’s hand dry carefully. “Does it — does it feel better now? Are you damaged badly? Do you need to be repaired?” He leaned in and peered at Jinwoo’s hand, which did look a little red, just like a human’s did after a minor burn.

“My body can self-repair to an extent, the same as a human’s,” Jinwoo said. “I am a persocom; I am a person and a computer, not just a personal computer.”

Dongmin had never heard that before. Persocoms were just computers who looked like people; they weren’t computers who were also people.

Were they?

Because Jinwoo had sounded genuinely pained by the burn.

“How do you avoid burning yourself when you take the rice off the stove?” Jinwoo asked.

“The rice! It’s probably overcooked now.” Dongmin lunged and switched off the burner, then yanked open a drawer next to the stove and found the oven mitts, used them to shift the pot of rice over to his assembly station. “I use these to protect my hands. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. It’s something I didn’t even think about. It’s something most humans don’t even think about, I guess.”

“I’ve learned something new,” Jinwoo said, “and I will not make the same mistake again.”

“I’m sorry you had to learn the hard way. I really am.” Dongmin bit his lip. “I’m responsible for you and I failed to teach you.”

But Jinwoo wouldn’t make the same mistake again. A human could have easily made that mistake — though out of absent-mindedness rather than sheer ignorance — and would easily make the mistake again. Once was enough for Jinwoo.

Was Jinwoo also a person? 

Or was he better than a person?

Dongmin thought of the man at the grocery store who’d been laughing with the female persocom like she was his wife or girlfriend, thought of Myungjun and how fond he was of Bin, and maybe it was no surprise that people cared more about persocoms than other people. Why settle for someone so flawed, who made the same mistakes over and over again, when someone beautiful and intelligent and constantly evolving and learning from their mistakes, who only made a mistake once, was available instead?

Only Jinwoo was looking at Dongmin with perfect trust in his eyes.

“Thank you for taking care of me,” Jinwoo said. “This hyung will take care of you too.”

Dongmin reached out and cradled Jinwoo’s hand in his. “How does it feel now?”

“Good,” Jinwoo said. “It feels good when you hold my hand like this.”

Dongmin snatched his hands back. “I mean the burn. Does it still hurt?”

“No, it doesn’t hurt anymore. As I stated previously, my body is capable of self-repair.” Jinwoo offered a sunny grin. “Show me how to make triangle kimbap.”

Dongmin nodded and guided Jinwoo over to the assembly station. The clever thing about triangle kimbap was that the gim came in plastic wrappers that had instructions on the plastic for how to fold the kimbap during assembly and how to unwrap it for consumption later, so it looked just like convenience store kimbap.

“Are you sure your hand doesn’t hurt anymore?” Dongmin asked.

Jinwoo nodded, and he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Dongmin and worked. Between the two of them, they finished the task quickly. Dongmin watched Jinwoo make the last two to ensure he knew how to do it on his own, but of course Jinwoo made them perfectly neatly, without a single mistake.

Jinwoo presented the two triangle kimbap with a flourish. “What do you think? Are they all right?”

“They’re perfect,” Dongmin said.

“Good. Eat them and think of me.” Jinwoo smiled and preened a little.

Dongmin, who’d reached for them to box them up with the others to put into his little fridge, paused. “Are you sure you’re in friendly mode and not flirty mode?”

“I’m sure,” Jinwoo said. “You want to see what flirty mode is like?”

“No, that’s fine. Just —” Dongmin cleared his throat. He felt flushed. “Let’s clean up, and then we can study until the internet tech gets here.”

“I’ll clean up. You go study.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.” Jinwoo rolled up his sleeves.

“You won’t get damaged if you get wet?”

“Says the man who put my hand under running water a few minutes ago.”

Dongmin considered. “True.”

“My skin is about as waterproof as a human’s, for the most part,” Jinwoo said. “I don’t need to study. I can clean up. Let me help my dongsaeng, hm? Being helpful helps me become closer to you, and then we can drop formalities. Soon you’ll be my Dongminnie.”

Dongmin’s heart skipped a beat. “Thank you for cleaning up. I’ll be in the den studying. Call me if you don’t know where something goes.”

“I can figure it out myself,” Jinwoo said. “I am capable of learning, after all.”

And he filled one of the sinks with water and soap.

Dongmin plopped down on one of the beanbag chairs and opened up his torts textbook and set to reading. Then he reached for his notebook and pens so he could make a chapter outline.

Eventually, Dongmin’s heart stopped pounding, and he lost himself in his studies. The sound of Jinwoo moving around the kitchen was comforting, familiar, almost like being home again while his mother cleaned and did housework, and Dongmin felt warm, almost happy. He snuggled down deeper into the beanbag chair and pulled his jacket closer around him, nibbling on the end of his pen while he read.

“I’m finished,” Jinwoo said. “Is there anything you need help with?”

Dongmin lifted his head.

Jinwoo stood in the doorway, still wearing his apron, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He looked adorably domestic. 

“I’m just doing my reading,” Dongmin said. “I don’t really need help with anything. You can sit and relax if you like.”

“Would you like some music while you study?” Jinwoo asked. “I come pre-programmed with the Billboard Top 100, the Melon Top 100, and the Seoul National University Top 100 Classical and Top 100 Traditional songs.”

Dongmin stared at him. “Really?”

“Even without internet, I am capable of many things.” Jinwoo sat down on one of the beanbag chairs beside Dongmin, angled toward him.

He tilted his head, and soft piano music started to play.

“I don’t know this song,” Dongmin admitted. “I don’t listen to the radio much.”

“This is called Someday the Boy by Feel Kim, from the OST of the popular drama Itaewon Class,” Jinwoo said. “Would you prefer classical music?”

“That’s easier to concentrate to,” Dongmin admitted.

Jinwoo tilted his head again, and another song began to play.

Dongmin recognized this one. “Scheherazade. Rimsky-Korsakov.” He nodded and turned back to his book. Then he turned back to Jinwoo. “Where is the music even coming from?”

“I have internal speakers.” Jinwoo pressed a hand to his chest. “That way when I speak, you hear my voice the same way you hear any other person’s. Do you want to feel?” He offered his hand.

Dongmin stared. “Do you mind?”

“I wouldn’t have offered if I minded,” Jinwoo said, which made sense, but he wasn’t really a person, he was a computer in friendly mode. Was he able to mind this sort of thing?

But Dongmin couldn’t help it. He reached out, curled his fingers against Jinwoo’s palm, let Jinwoo tug his hand close, let Jinwoo place Dongmin’s palm against his chest. And then he felt the vibrations in Jinwoo’s chest, as if Jinwoo were humming, except Jinwoo wasn’t saying anything. But Dongmin could still hear the familiar strains of the music, the dancing flute and violin representing the two voices of Scheherazade and the Sultan as they conversed, as she told him the stories and he asked her questions and begged for more, as he fell in love with her and she convinced him to keep her alive for one more night, one more night, for one thousand and one nights.

For one moment, Dongmin wondered if he’d feel Jinwoo’s heart beating if he shifted his hand. Jinwoo was warm, his t-shirt soft cotton beneath Dongmin’s hand, and Dongmin could feel, ever so faintly, the contours of Jinwoo’s muscles. They felt like real muscles, as if Dongmin were touching another man, and —

A sharp knock at the door made Dongmin snatch his hand back. 

He crossed the den in a couple of small steps and yanked open the door.


It was probably going to be a priest or something, there to smite him down with the wrath of God or Buddha or someone else for having insane and possibly impure thoughts about a persocom.

But it was a man in grey coveralls with the internet service provider logo on one pocket and his name — Nam Bowon — stitched on the other.

“Hello. I’m here to install internet for Lee Dongmin?” He consulted a tablet.

“Ah, yes, that’s me. Please come in.”

The man bowed and toed off his boots, then strode into the apartment.

A persocom in a matching uniform — AstroNet Unit 223 — followed him into the apartment, a bright orange toolbox in hand. The unit looked like Yoonbyul’s Yeonggu, only newer and fresh-faced.

“It looks like this apartment had had internet service previously, so setup should be quite fast,” Nam Bowon said. “Jingoo, scan for existing ports.”

“Yes, hyung,” the persocom said obediently. He stood in the middle of the apartment and looked around, then pointed. “There is a cable outlet there, and a fiber-optic outlet there. Which would you prefer I use?”

“Dongmin-ssi only signed up for basic cable, so let’s go with cable,” Nam Bowon said, looking at his tablet some more. He glanced at Dongmin. “Unless you’d like to upgrade?”

There was no way Dongmin could afford any kind of upgrade. “I’ll see how I like the basic service and go from there.” He smiled.

The persocom, apparently nicknamed Jingoo, knelt and did most of the installation himself. What was the point of sending a human along if the persocom could do it? Other than the fact that persocoms weren’t allowed to operate motor vehicles. They could take public transport alone — Dongmin would have to either get Jinwoo some kind of travel pass or get him a coin wallet of his own (one more thing to go into Jinwoo’s new used backpack) — but not drive, and driving to multiple service calls was probably faster and more efficient than taking public transport. Plus customers probably still preferred the personal touch from a human service tech.

Nam Bowon nodded, indifferent to Dongmin’s decision and uninterested in trying to upsell him. He eyed Jinwoo. 

“He’s a brand new model, right? The Jinjin Pro?”

Dongmin nodded.

Nam Bowon whistled. “Fancy. We’re lucky to have these Luna Units. Of course we keep them in top condition, but I’ve heard the Jinjin Pro comes in a construction edition, and those would be a dream. What edition is he?”

“Ah...the Pepero-making edition?” Dongmin offered. He hadn’t actually realized that there was more than one edition of the Jinjin Pro. On the banner at the Fantagio Computers outlet, it had listed Pepero Making as a new feature of the Jinjin Pro, but it hadn’t occurred to Dongmin that there were other special features available. Of course, persocoms were used in all industries and at all levels of industry.

Nam Bowon arched an eyebrow, glanced around Dongmin’s sparsely-furnished apartment. “Ah. I see.”

“I won him in a raffle,” Dongmin explained quickly, in case Nam Bowon got the wrong idea. “I need a computer for school, so. I live quite far from campus, and the university library doesn’t accommodate my study hours, especially since the bus from my apartment to campus doesn’t run as frequently as I need it.”

“Yes, I understand,” Nam Bowon said.

Dongmin didn’t know why he had to justify himself to a stranger, but he thought of those girls in the library and how it must look, a poor college student with a top-of-the-line persocom, and he had to defend himself. 

After several minutes, Jingoo-or-223 closed his toolbox and said, “Internet service is now available.” 

A small black modem was tucked against the wall near an outlet Dongmin had never really paid attention to before.

“If you want wifi, you’ll need a wireless router,” Nam Bowon said. “You can rent one from AstroNet, or —”

“No, thank you,” Dongmin said. Myungjun probably had a spare. He had spares of everything. If not, Dongmin could survive on having Jinwoo hard-wired to the modem until he saved up for a wireless router. “Thank you for working so quickly and efficiently.

Nam Bowon held out the tablet. “If you’ll just sign here for payment.”

“I have cash,” Dongmin said.

Nam Bowon blinked at him.

Dongmin fetched his wallet from the bedroom and counted out a gut-wrenching stack of bills and also some coins and handed it over. Nam Bowon stared at it for a moment, then handed it over to Jingoo, who rifled through it all with inhuman speed, confirmed the total was correct.

“You want to check to make sure the connection works before we go?” Nam Bowon asked.

Dongmin nodded. “That’s a good idea. Do we need a password?” He remembered what had happened with Changkyun the night before and didn’t want Jinwoo to make Jingoo malfunction or faint or something. The last thing he needed was the expense of repairing the internet service company’s persocom.

But Jingoo said, “Not if he makes a direct connection to the modem.”

Jinwoo knelt beside the modem and opened his earport, used one of his cables to connect to the modem.

“How much does the modem cost?” Dongmin asked, fretting a little.

“It’s included with the cost of the installation,” Nam Bowon said, waving a dismissive hand.

“Well?” Jingoo asked Jinwoo.

Jinwoo nodded and smiled up at Dongmin. “I have a strong connection.”

“Excellent.” Dongmin bowed to Nam Bowon and Jingoo out of politeness. “Thank you for your hard work.”

“Enjoy your Sunday. You have a free email account with AstroNet,” Nam Bowon said. “You can use it to receive emails from the company about your account, and also to configure your wifi if you get a wifi router.”

Dongmin nodded. “All right. Thank you.”

He showed Nam Bowon and Jingoo to the door, watched them trot up the stairs to street level, then closed the door behind them. He crossed the room and sat down opposite Jinwoo.

“The connection is solid? Strong? Stable?”

Jinwoo nodded. “I’m backing up my data now. Would you like to set up your AstroNet email account?”

Dongmin nodded. “That’s probably a good idea.”

They walked through the process together. Dongmin was more used to conversing with Jinwoo, answering his questions and providing information, and it felt more like a natural conversation and less like an interrogation. He could meet Jinwoo’s gaze and smile, and it felt like Jinwoo was a helpful sales clerk instead of a machine doing tasks for him.

“What next?” Jinwoo asked. “Now that that’s all set up.”

“I should contact Myungjun and ask if he has a spare wifi router. He probably does. And he said he’d teach me how to activate you remotely,” Dongmin said. “And also...also I should do a video call with my parents. I haven’t seen their faces in a while. The last time I did a video call with them was at Myungjun’s house. We should set up the big OLED monitor so I can see them. You can see them too!”

“Would you prefer to see them on the monitor, or would you prefer it if I project their images so you can interact with them face-to-face?” Jinwoo asked.

Dongmin blinked. “What do you mean?”

Jinwoo reached for the tablet and unplugged it from where it was charging and held it up, just like he’d held it in the library so Dongmin could see it. It winked on, and DOngmin realized Jinwoo must have connected to it via bluetooth. 

Usually when Jinwoo connected with something he tilted his head and his gaze went blank for a second; that was just an affectation, a signal so Dongmin knew what he was doing. Connections between devices were instantaneous and intuitive for Jinwoo. Bluetooth devices were extensions of him, essentially. Like additional limbs for him.

A pleasant, deeper woman’s voice narrated over a video of Jinwoo sitting on a pedestal just like the in the window display of the Fantagio Computers outlet near campus.

Welcome to the future of video chat. Now even your farthest loved ones are right there with you, with holographic video chat.

A pretty teen girl said, “Jinjin Pro, call Cousin Hongseok.”

Jinjin Pro said, “Calling Cousin Hongseok.”

A cute ringtone trilled, and then Jinjin Pro’s face was overshadowed by a hologram, just like Bin’s face had been covered by a hologram of Myungjun’s face for the facial recognition portion of his security login, an attractive young man who must have been Cousin Hongseok.

He said, “Cousin Minah! Hello!”

The girl smiled and waved. “Cousin Hongseok, Hi! How are you?”

Make eye contact and see each other in real time. Interact like you’re together.

It was uncanny, seeing the Jinjin Pro’s body but seeing someone else’s face and hearing their voice, especially because the Jinjin Pro’s head moved but the rest of the body did not.

The girl smiled and chatted and laughed like she was having the time of her life talking to her beloved cousin. They made plans to meet up and have a meal together, and the call ended.

Never lose touch. Share love no matter the distance. All with the new Jinjin Pro. Only from Fantagio Computers.

The video ended.

Dongmin looked up at Jinwoo, who seemed completely unbothered by the notion of wearing someone else’s face and speaking with someone else’s voice. He called himself a persocom, a person who was also a computer; where was his sense of self?

“I’m fine with the regular kind of video calling,” Dongmin said. He was used to the odd disjunct of looking at the screen instead of at the camera during video chats so it looked like no one was ever looking at each other; it was how he’d always done video chats. “If you hold the tablet just like that, it’ll be fine. Unless you want to also see my parents?”

“I’ll be processing images of them before I transmit them to the tablet via bluetooth, so I’ll know what they look like,” Jinwoo said. “Do they look like you?”

“I’ve been told I look more like my mother than my father,” Dongmin said. “My brother looks more like my father. He’s better-looking than me, has a smaller face.”

“Is your brother younger or older?” Jinwoo asked.

“Younger. He still lives at home. He has two more years of high school left.” Dongmin went to get his phone. “Let me text my mother to let her know I’m calling. Feel free to make yourself comfortable. After we’ll talk to Myungjun about how I’ll remotely activate you.”

When he returned, Jinwoo was perched on one of the beanbag chairs, tablet framed neatly in his hands. He wore a sweet, friendly smile.

“I look forward to meeting your family. What’s your family’s persocom like?’

“Ah, my family isn’t very wealthy and they only have an older persocom. Her name is Hyerin, and she’s old enough that she can’t do a lot of physical tasks, so she stays in the office and people really only use her to surf the internet and so my younger brother can study and so people can watch dramas as far as I know,” Dongmin said. “You’ll like her, though. She was always very helpful when I studied.”

Dongmin sent his mother a message.

Do you have time for a video call, or is someone busy on the computer?

Her response was immediate. We always have time for you! Are you visiting Myungjunnie again? I’m glad you’re able to spend time together. You both deserve to get out and have fun, or at least see each other.

I’ll be calling now.

Dongmin told Jinwoo to call his mother’s email address.

“It’s ringing,” Jinwoo said.

Dongmin listened to the trill, and then his mother appeared on the tablet screen.

She looked beautiful on the glass screen in high definition, her hair glossy and straight, her clothes stylish, her face glowing. Suddenly Dongmin missed her fiercely, the way she smelled faintly of baby powder when he hugged her, the softness of her knit sweaters, the sound of her cooking while he studied.

“Dongminnie! How are you? Where’s Myungjunnie?”

“I’m in my apartment,” Dongmin said. “Myungjunnie’s at home in his own apartment, I’m assuming.”

His mother blinked. “How are you calling?”

“Ah, I’m calling with my new persocom. Jinwoo, say hello to my Eomma.”

Jinwoo obediently turned the tablet around. “Hello, Dongmin’s Eomma.”

Eomma exclaimed. “Omo! I’ve seen advertisements for this persocom on television. They’re brand new and very expensive. Dongmin, how do you have one?”

Jinwoo turned the tablet back to face Dongmin so he could see Eomma’s wide-eyed expression.

“It’s luck. I entered a random drawing and won.” Dongmin shrugged. “Pure luck. I rearranged my budget a bit so I could have internet at my apartment. This way I can study at home and not have to stay at the library so late when it gets colder this winter.”

Eomma nodded. “That’s good. I’m glad to hear that. And I’m glad we can video call each other! This is very exciting. But persocoms are so expensive. You have to buy so many accessories to go with them.”

“I was very fortunate — he came with a tablet and a monitor and all the cords and cables I needed to get him charged and connected to the internet and whatnot. Cousin Myungjun was kind enough to give me a keyboard and mouse and some bluetooth speakers and also some clothes for him. He’s about the same size as Myungjun-hyung. I’m going to be shameless and see if cousin Myungjun has an old wireless router too. You know he never throws anything away, which is a good thing for me.” Dongmin smiled. “I’m so lucky though. This will help with my studies so much. It’ll save me a lot of time traveling on the bus.”

It wouldn’t really save him on bus fares, but it would save him trips to the library to research.

Eomma smiled at him. “You have been very fortunate. The gods have smiled on you. I’m so happy for you, my Dongminnie.” She turned and called over her shoulder. “Honey! Donghyunnie! Come talk to Dongminnie!” Then she turned back to Dongmin. “So you named him Jinwoo? That’s a cute name. How did you come up with that?”

“Well, his model is Jinjin, but I couldn’t just leave him named that, and then remember how you always said you were going to name me Eunwoo if I was a girl? So I named him Jinwoo.”

Eomma nodded. “It’s a lovely name. I trust you to give your children good names when you become a father.”

Donghyun ambled into the office, gnawing on a candy stick. “Hyung is calling? Is he visiting Cousin Myungjun?” He leaned in and peered over his mother’s shoulder. “Did Cousin Myungjun lose all his furniture?”

“Yah,” Dongmin said lightly. “I don’t have a lot of furniture because being a student is expensive. One day you’ll have to live like this too if you get into a good university.”

Eomma said, “You remember the ads we’ve seen for that new persocom? The one that makes pepero and builds things. Dongminnie won one and is using it for school.”

Donghyun dropped down into the chair beside Eomma. “You have a Jinjin Pro? For real? Pics or it didn’t happen.”

Dongmin said, “Jinwoo, this is Donghyun, my little brother. Donghyun, meet Jinwoo.”

Once again, Jinwoo turned the tablet around and waved, offered a greeting.

“Wow! Jinin Pros have epic video and sound cards. You can play all the latest games on them. Can I borrow him to play Call of Duty with my friends?”

Eomma swatted Donghyun on the arm lightly. “What did I just say? Dongmin needs him to study for school.”

Dongmin laughed. “If you ever come visit me, we can play video games for a bit if you like.”

Donghyun pumped a fist in the air. “Yes! My classmates will be so jealous. They’ll never believe me.”

“Yes, that’s exactly why I put in to win him. How is school going?”

“It’s going well, right Hyerin?”

“Yes, Donghyun-ah,” Hyerin said. Her voice was older and a little more mechanical-sounding, but warmly familiar to Dongmin all the same.

Donghyun grinned. “I’m getting good grades and I’m in the top ten percent of my class.”

“Excellent,” Dongmin said. He leaned in. “I’ll tell you what. If you make it into the top five percent, I’ll let you borrow Jinwoo for a day so you can play video games to your heart’s content.”

Donghyun lit up. “Really?”

“Really. After final exams at the end of the semester, when you get results and I’m home for Christmas, I’ll bring him with me.” Dongmin smiled.

Donghyun said, “Promise?” He extended a pinkie.

Dongmin extended his pinkie as well. “Promise.”

“I’ll hold you to it,” Donghyun said.

Dongmin’s father strode into the office then. “What’s this? I hear my son’s voice?”

“Hello, Appa.” Dongmin smiled.

“Dongmin-ah. How are your studies going?”

“Well,” Dongmin said. “Better, now that I have a persocom.”

Appa raised his eyebrows.

Eomma said, “He was very lucky and won a brand new one.”

“What’s the catch?” Appa asked.

“No catch,” Dongmin said. Despite what Sanha said, what had happened with Changkyun, Jinwoo was totally fine. “It was a promotional thing. I entered just because it couldn’t hurt to try. I didn’t think I’d win, but I did.”

“Well, congratulations. Take good care of your persocom, and he’ll be with you for a long time, like our Hyerin.” Appa reached out and patted Hyerin fondly.

Jinwoo beamed at Dongmin and made a heart sign with one hand.

Dongmin said, “I’ll take good care of Jinwoo.”

Jinwoo peeked over the edge of the tablet and said, “I’ll take good care of Dongmin-ah too.”

Appa looked startled, but then he said, “Thank you. He’s our precious son, and we love him.”

Jinwoo said, “He’s precious to me too.”

Dongmin’s heart thumped oddly at the declaration even though he knew it was just Jinwoo’s friendly mode running its programming.

Eomma asked about how cousin Myungjun was doing, and Madam Jeon’s restaurant, and Dongmin asked about how Appa and Eomma’s work was going, and Donghyun’s extra-curricular activities, and the neighbors, but then Donghyun had to study and Eomma had to do chores and Appa had to run some errands, and they bade each other farewell, but they agreed to video call regularly, and Dongmin was glad, and so grateful that having Jinwoo made this possible.

Dongmin waved goodbye to his family, and Eomma reluctantly ended the call.

The tablet screen went dark, and Dongmin flopped back on the bean bag with a sigh.

“Your family is very kind,” Jinwoo said. 

“I miss them,” Dongmin admitted.

Jinwoo said, “You look like your mother.”

Dongmin sat up and smiled fondly. “She is very beautiful.” Then he said, “I should call Myungjun-hyung.” He patted himself down in search of his phone, only then he heard the familiar trill of a video call, and Myungjun’s face appeared on the tablet screen.

“Hey, you finally got internet at your place. Look at you, joining the twenty-first century, no longer living like a caveman.”

“Hyung, hello. I was about to call you on my phone but I guess Jinwoo called you.” Dongmin smoothed a hand over his hair self-consciously. “How are you?”

“Binnie and I are fine,” Myungjun said. His hair was rumpled and he was still wearing pajamas, a newer set of the kind he’d given to Jinwoo with his name stitched on the pocket in English cursive. “Let me guess, you called me to ask about how to remotely access your darling little Jinwoo with your cellphone?”

Dongmin nodded. “And to also shamelessly beg to have one of your old wireless routers if you have a spare lying around.”

“I do, now that you mention it,” Myungjun said. “They didn’t give you one when they installed your internet?”

“Just the cable modem,” Dongmin said.

Myungjun eyed him. “You really are broke, aren’t you?”

“I’m getting by just fine, thank you,” Dongmin said, avoiding Jinwoo’s gaze and keeping a smile pasted on his face. “So, what do I need to do to remotely access Jinwoo?”

“Hang up this video chat and call me from your phone. Jinwoo needs to stay in your apartment,” Myungjun said.

“All right. I need to find my phone first.” Dongmin patted himself again. “Thanks again, hyung.”

“I really am just glad you’re escaping the hell-pit of the luddites,” Myungjun said. “And also now Binnie and I have another couple we can go on double-dates with.”

Dongmin felt himself turn bright red. “It’s not like that! You know I just needed a persocom for school.”

“And The Nile is just a river in Egypt,” Myungjun said.

Dongmin gaped at him. “Did you just make an English pun?”

“Hang up already,” Myungjun said, and the tablet went blank.

Dongmin jumped to his feet. “Where’s my phone?”

Jinwoo tilted his head, and a moment later Dongmin heard it ring in the bedroom. He stared at Jinwoo.

“Did you just —?”

“Your phone is in the bedroom,” Jinwoo said.

Dongmin hurried into the bedroom and found it on the bed. He wasn’t sure how it had ended up there, but he scooped it up, then ran to the door and toed on his shoes, called Myungjun on his way out the door.

“All right, how complicated is this process?” Dongmin asked.

“Not complicated at all,” Myungjun said. “Basically you call Jinwoo, and you login with the pin you set last time as well as your spoken password, and you can issue voice commands remotely, so if you’ve sent him far away, you can still operate him. If you had a smartphone you could just message him, but since you don’t, this is an option.”

“How do I call Jinwoo?”

“Don’t you know what his IP address is?”

“Not off the top of my head, no.”

“Then you’ll have to go back and get it from him. There’s a number you call, and then you type in the IP address, and then you have to enter your password. You can put the number and IP address on speed dial, though, so that’ll save you a lot of time,” Myungjun said. “Really, though, are you sure you don’t want one of my old smartphones? Even if you don’t have a data plan, you can use wifi when you’re on campus or at work. You can pick up the phone when you come to get the wifi router. You’d still have to remote activate him like with your flip phone anyway.”

Dongmin hummed, hesitant, as he headed back down the stairs to his apartment.

“And what’s this about you not getting a wireless router with your internet installation? Dongmin, how hard up are you? I know you’re thrifty and a brand new Jinjin Pro is out of just about everyone’s price range unless they buy one on a payment plan, but how bad is it?”

“It’s not that bad,” Dongmin said. “But SKKU is a private university, and they’re a bit more expensive than most, and Donghyun needs to go to a math hagwon for a bit of help this year, even with Hyerin at home, so —”

“You’re not going without food, are you?” Myungjun asked.”

“Of course not,” Dongmin said. “I work at a restaurant.”

“You mean you are going without food and making up for it with restaurant leftovers,” Myungjun said.

“I’m fine,” Dongmin said, pushing open the door. “I’ll call you back.”

Jinwoo was sitting on the bean bag chair beside the modem. “You didn’t call me.” He looked concerned.

“Ah, yes. I don’t know your IP address, or the number I’m supposed to call for remote access.”

Jinwoo held out his hand. “Let me give you my number.” 

Dongmin handed over his phone, and it occurred to Dongmin that besides getting phone numbers from classmates to make working on group projects more efficient, he’d never gotten a phone number from anyone, not someone he thought was attractive or someone he wanted to make friends with. People had asked Dongmin for his phone number before, but in high school he’d never given it out, citing his promise to his parents that he would not date.

And now, in university, he had neither the time nor the energy.

Jinwoo, with his head bowed over Dongmin’s phone, tapping away, was as close as Dongmin had ever been to getting a number from a cute boy.

Dongmin was several different kinds of pathetic, but before he could dwell on it further, Jinwoo smiled and handed the phone back.

“Thanks,” Dongmin said. “Hopefully this will work.”

He hurried out of the apartment and up the stairs and halfway down the block before he called.

The line rang three times and then a voice that sounded exactly like Jinwoo’s but was probably just a recording said, 

“Please enter your password.”

Dongmin said, “I shattered into pieces as if I was sunlight.”

“Please enter your pin followed by the pound sign.”

Dongmin typed it in quickly.

“Hello, Dongmin-ah,” Jinwoo said.

“Jinwoo-hyung, I’m just down the street from the apartment. Come find me,” Dongmin said. “I’ll be waiting for you.”

“I’ll be right there,” Jinwoo said.

“See you soon.” Dongmin hung up. He crossed his arms over his chest and deeply regretted not putting on a jacket or even a light sweater, because it was freezing. He’d been tricked by the bright cheery sunlight and the pale blue sky overhead.

A moment later, Jinwoo came trotting up the steps from the apartment. He strode down the sidewalk toward Dongmin. It had worked. Excellent.

Although did persocoms have superhuman hearing?

Also, if Jinwoo didn’t have a mobile data plan, how would Dongmin be able to call him if he wasn’t connected to wifi? Not that there weren’t wifi connections just about everywhere in South Korea. And it wasn’t like Dongmin would be constantly sending Jinwoo on errands. If Jinwoo wasn’t with Dongmin, he’d be back at the apartment, or maybe somewhere else on campus.

Jinwoo saw Dongmin and smiled, waved, trotted over to him.

“I’m here,” Jinwoo said.

Dongmin couldn’t help but smile back. “You came.”

“What shall we do now?” Jinwoo asked.

“I need to study a bit more, and then we should go visit Cousin Myungjun and pick up those supplies, and then I’ll have to go to work,” Dongmin said.

Jinwoo nodded. “All right. Let’s go study.” He frowned. “You’re shivering.”

“I forgot a jacket. It’s fine.”

Jinwoo caught Dongmin by the wrist and tugged him toward the stairs. “Hurry, before you catch a cold. I’ll make you some hot chocolate.”

“I’ll be fine,” Dongmin said. “Also I don’t think I even own any hot chocolate.”

But Jinwoo hustled Dongmin down the stairs and steered him over to a bean bag, pushed him gently down onto it and tucked a blanket across his knees — just as Dongmin had done at the restaurant the night before — and then went into the kitchen.

Dongmin reached for his civil procedure textbook, but his phone rang.

“Did it work?” Myungjun asked.

“It did,” Dongmin said. 

“Good. You want a router and a smartphone?”

“If it’s not too much of a bother,” Dongmin said meekly.

“Yah, what happened to you asking shamelessly?”

“I can’t be that shameless.”

“Come over here and get them yourself.”

“Of course. I plan on coming by before work. I need to study a bit more first though.”

“You study so hard,” Myungjun said.

Dongmin shook his head. “Don’t take that tone with me, hyung. You study hard too. You pretend to be loud and frivolous and lazy, but I know you. You graduated from high school at the top of your class and —”

“Shh! What if Binnie hears you? Or Jinwoo?” Myungjun hissed.

Dongmin couldn’t help but laugh. “Fine. Your secret is safe with me. See you later.” 

He ended the call and set his phone aside and picked up his textbook to study in earnest, but Jinwoo appeared in front of him holding a mug.

“Have some hot chocolate,” he said.

Dongmin blinked. “Where did you get that?”

“I found it in the cupboard when I was putting the dishes away.” Jinwoo knelt and blew on the surface of the hot chocolate before he held it out. “Be warm and have some energy before you study.”

“Thank you,” Dongmin said, his heart pounding. Blowing on hot chocolate was something straight out of a romance drama, but also persocoms didn’t breathe, so how did Jinwoo even do that?

But the hot chocolate was delicious, and Dongmin cradled the warm mug in his hands for a few moments before he drank some more.

Jinwoo remained kneeling beside him, smiling at him, till he was finished, and then he took the mug into the kitchen to wash up.

After that, he sat beside Dongmin on the bean bag chair, turned on some quiet piano music — some Liebstraum — and stayed with him while he studied.

The trip to Myungjun’s to pick up the router and smartphone was quick. Bin had everything in a bag for them — Dongmin returned the bags the clothes had been in — and Dongmin and Myungjun chatted briefly before Dongmin and Jinwoo headed on to the restaurant.

Minseok and Changkyun eyed Jinwoo with matching wary expressions when he followed Dongmin into the break room, but Jinwoo was tasked with setting up the new smartphone, so he kept to himself while Dongmin worked.

The restaurant was plenty busy, people having their last hurrah before a new work week started, and Dongmin was almost run off his feet.

That strange man was back at the restaurant, this time dining by himself.

“Did you think about my offer?” He held out another business card.

Dongmin pocketed it, determined to throw it away later. “I thought about it, thank you, but I’m not interested. Would you like a refill on your drink?”

The man eyed him but nodded and nudged his drink closer.

Dongmin filled it with a deft tip of the water pitcher. 

“If you ever change your mind, let me know,” the man said.

“I will,” Dongmin said, but he’d ever change his mind. He smiled sweetly and swept back into the kitchen.

The shift ended without further incident, and while the customer kept eyeing Dongmin warily, he didn’t pester Dongmin about being a model for a persocom face, and he left peacefully after his meal, so Dongmin and Minseok cleaned up.

When Dongmin headed back to the break room to take off his apron and surrender it to Granny for laundering, he found Minseok and Madam Jeon eyeing Jinwoo warily.

Changkyun, perched on Minseok’s shoulder and clinging to his hair, was also eyeing Jinwoo warily.

“Is everything all right?” Dongmin asked, untying his apron slowly.

“Your persocom is weird,” Minseok said.

“Did Jinwoo do something?”

“I finished setting up your new phone, Dongmin-ah.” Jinwoo held it out.

“Thank you. I’ll be just a moment.” Dongmin tucked his notepad into his little locker, then folded his apron and set it aside for Granny.

“He didn’t do anything except fiddle with your phone all night,” Minseok said. “But he’s weird. Changkyun thinks so too. Right, Changkyunnie?”

Dongmin still hadn’t gotten to the bottom of Yoon Sanha’s comment about Jinwoo having some kind of factory defect that made him unsaleable. “Weird how, Changkyun-ah?”

“He feels weird,” Changkyun said, huddling closer to Minseok and pulling on his hair accidentally.

Minseok winced.

“I’m sorry if I made you feel weird, Changkyun-sunbae,” Jinwoo said.

“I didn’t say you made me feel weird,” Changkyun said. “I’m not weird. You feel weird.”

“Well, you two don’t ever have to connect again, so it should be fine.” Dongmin inclined his head to Madam Jeon. “Come on, Jinwoo. Let’s go home.”

Jinwoo bowed to Madam Jeon and Minseok, and he followed Dongmin to the bus stop.

“What do you think Changkyun meant, that you feel weird?”

“I don’t know,” Jinwoo said. “I don’t feel weird. I just feel like me.”

Dongmin looked at Jinwoo as he sat on the bus shelter bench, taking in the sounds of traffic and the city lights, and wondered if a persocom should be able to say such a thing at all.

“I’ve never had a smartphone before. How hard will it be to use one?”

“You’ve used a tablet before, haven’t you?” Jinwoo asked.

“At school, they had tablets for us to use,” Dongmin said.

“It’s just like a tablet, except smaller.” Jinwoo held out the phone. The back was scratched, but the surface was pristine, and for all that it was a used device, it wasn’t nearly as old as Dongmin’s phone, was a recent enough model, and Dongmin was really grateful to Myungjun and how kind he’d been. “I set it up with your birthday as the PIN, but you can change that. You can add face unlock and fingerprint unlock as well, if you like. I connected to it via bluetooth and set it up so it’s configured for your wifi at home and at Myungjun’s apartment and at the restaurant, and I set up your email and video chatting with Myungjun and your family, and also put some study music on there for you in case you want to study and I’m not around, and also I imported over all your contacts from your old phone, and all your text messages and photos.”

“Thank you,” Dongmin said. “That must have taken a long time.”

“You were working, and I was working too.” Jinwoo smiled.

“I should text Myungjun and let him know the phone works,” Dongmin said.

“Would you like to take a picture and send it to him, so he can see?” Jinwoo asked. “I’m an excellent photographer.”

Dongmin went to hand Jinwoo the phone, then said, “Let’s take a selca together. Myungjun would like that.”

Myungjun sent plenty of pictures together with Bin, at any rate.

Jinwoo nodded obediently and scooted closer, smiled and flashed a peace sign.

Dongmin went to lean in, then paused. “Listen, I know you’re in friendly mode right now, but do you have an...honest mode? Like, I know I said you could be my hyung and all, but if you don’t actually like me, we don’t have to be close. I put in to win you because I need help with school. If you don’t like me, we can just be roommates. Not everyone likes their roommate in college. We can come up with some kind of beneficial side of the arrangement for you, if you prefer.”

Jinwoo frowned. “You don’t want me to be in friendly mode?”

“Earlier you said you didn’t feel weird, you just felt like you. Do you have some kind of just-Jinwoo mode? If you don’t like the name Jinwoo, you can pick a new name too.”

Jinwoo looked at him. “What mode do you want me to be in?”

“It’s not about what I want,” Dongmin said. “I mean, obviously I need your help with school. But besides that, you’re free to do what you want.”

“I like the name Jinwoo,” he said slowly. “I could be in default mode, which is polite mode, if you prefer.”

Dongmin sighed. “What do you prefer? You said you like the name Jinwoo, so clearly you have preferences.”

Jinwoo tilted his head, his gaze going blank while he processed. “I don’t know.”

“Well, think about it on the way home, or however long you need.”

Jinwoo nodded and said nothing. The bus arrived, Dongmin paid for tickets, and they sat together near a window in the back. Dongmin wondered if he was being crazy, telling Jinwoo to ignore his preset modes, but then Jinwoo had mentioned that Dongmin could customize his modes, right? Cute, friendly, and flirty weren’t the only mode options, just the preset ones. This was Dongmin customizing Jinwoo’s main operating mode. He was just letting Jinwoo choose the customizations.

Jinwoo was capable of choosing. AIs engaged in high-level decision-making all the time.

Back at the apartment, Dongmin showered and dressed for bed. He polished his work shoes, and while he had the leather polish out, he polished his book bag and set it out overnight to dry.

“I have decided I like being your Jinwoo-hyung,” Jinwoo said finally, while Dongmin was buffing the last of the polish off of the strap of his book bag.

Dongmin had done his best not to press Jinwoo for an answer. The silence had weighed on him, heavy and awkward, but the awkwardness had been one-sided for sure. Jinwoo was taking his time deciding, as Dongmin had told him he could, so why would he feel any guilt or awkwardness in the ensuing silence while he made his decision?

“And I will wait till you’re comfortable enough to drop formalities,” Jinwoo continued. 

“So you’re going to stay in friendly mode?” Dongmin asked. It was hard to trust that Jinwoo choosing something that Dongmin had previously chosen was a real decision at all.

“No, it’s different from friendly mode,” Jinwoo said. “It’s...what did you call it? Just Jinwoo. Next time I’ll polish your shoes and book bag.” Jinwoo plucked the rag and book bag from Dongmin’s hands.

Dongmin blinked, startled. “But —”

“You need to sleep,” Jinwoo said. “I don’t need to sleep.”

“You need to charge,” Dongmin protested.

Jinwoo sank down on the other bean bag chair and set to work. “I can plug myself in and keep on working. This isn’t a difficult task.”

Dongmin watched Jinwoo buff the leather strap with confident strokes of his hand, then finally heaved himself to his feet. He found Jinwoo’s charge cable and carefully opened his earport, plugged him in without disturbing him. Then he tucked a blanket around Jinwoo’s shoulders.

“Don’t stay up too late. Thank you, and good night.”

“Good night, Dongmin-ah. Your hyung will take good care of you.”

Dongmin retreated to the bedroom. He lay there in the darkness and wondered. How would he be able to tell if Jinwoo really was choosing things for himself? And what kinds of things could he do to make sure this arrangement was beneficial for Jinwoo too?

And how would he ever figure out what was wrong with Jinwoo, that Fantagio had just given him away?

The next day, Dongmin was startled out of sleep by an unfamiliar sound. 

“Wha —?”

It took him a moment to realize it was the sound of the alarm on his new phone, the used smartphone Myungjun had given him.

Dongmin stumbled through his workout on autopilot, flung himself into the shower, threw on clothes, and then ran around the apartment, gathering up his gear so he could head for campus.

“Where’s my book bag?”

“Your book bag is here,” Jinwoo said. He stood in the kitchenette, holding Dongmin’s book bag and also a paper towel with several pieces of triangle kimbap wrapped in it. “Don’t forget to have some breakfast.”

Dongmin came up short. Jinwoo wore another pair of skinny jeans, a button-down shirt, a sweater, and that leather jacket again.

“Oh. Right. You polished it. Thank you.”

“I put the tablet in there, as well as your textbooks for today’s classes, and your binder, your pencil case, your phone, and the charge cords for your phone, tablet, and me.” Jinwoo smiled.

He looked perfect.

“Right,” Dongmin said, and was reminded of how, when he was younger, his mother would hand him his backpack before he headed out the door. He’d always made sure it was packed the night before so he wouldn’t be missing anything. “I’m not usually this disorganized.”

“You had a lot of surprises this weekend,” Jinwoo said. “Here, I’ll carry your book bag while you eat. Come on. I was looking in your closet while I put away my clothes the other day. You don’t have a real winter coat, but you do have plenty of winter accessories, so here’s a scarf and some gloves. It’s going to be very cold today.”

“Ah, thank you.” Dongmin accepted the scarf and draped it around his neck, tucked the gloves into his blazer pocket. “Will you be warm enough?”

Jinwoo nodded. “I’ll be fine.”

“Will your battery be okay?”

“It will be fine,” Jinwoo said.

Dongmin glanced at his watch. “Okay. We have to catch the bus. Let’s go.”

“Eat up,” Jinwoo said, and together they headed for the bus stop.

Jinwoo knew which bus to hail, so Dongmin had just enough time to wolf down his kimbap before the bus arrived. Dongmin paid the fare for both of them. Because the bus was crowded, they both had to stay standing.

Dongmin was taller, so he hung onto one of the standing rings, and he put a hand on Jinwoo’s shoulder to keep him steady, protect him from the people around them and the swaying of the bus as it accelerated and slowed. 

There were more persocoms on the bus on a weekday, some digital assistants who accompanied salarymen to the office, some domestic units accompanying younger children to school. More than one head turned when Jinwoo stepped onto the bus.

“Is that a brand new Jinjin Pro?” a high school girl asked.

“Ah, yes,” Dongmin said.

The girl giggled and waved at Jinwoo. “He’s so cute!”

Jinwoo inclined his head politely. “Hello. My name is Jinwoo. I am Dongmin’s hyung.”

The girl blinked. “Wow, his voice is really deep and sexy! He never talks in any of the advertisements. Did you pick that voice setting for him, or is that the default?”

It hadn’t occurred to Dongmin that he could change the sound of Jinwoo’s voice. He looked at Jinwoo.

“Are you happy with how your voice sounds?”

Jinwoo said, “This is my voice. I like how it sounds.”

The girl giggled. “That’s so cute. You talk to him like he’s a real person.”

“He’s a persocom,” Dongmin said. “A person who is also a computer.”

The girl paused and blinked, puzzled. “Oh. Is that what that means? I thought it meant a computer that just looked like a person.”

Dongmin looked at Jinwoo. “Are you a person?” He thought of how Yoonbyul had asked Yeonggu if he was alive.

Jinwoo just laughed and said, “Are you?”

Dongmin’s heart melted at the sound of Jinwoo’s laughter.

The girl giggled too. “You two are so cute together.”

Jinwoo reached up and ruffled Dongmin’s hair. “We’re hyung and dongsaeng. We take care of each other.”

Dongmin looked at Jinwoo, at his smile that seemed so warm and genuine, and knew he’d have to do his very best to take care of Jinwoo.

Once the bus reached campus, Dongmin led Jinwoo to his first class.

“Only you probably know your way around campus, don’t you? You probably saw my class schedule in my email inbox and looked up a map of campus and know where all of my classes are,” Dongmin said, pushing the door of the lecture hall open.

“Knowing and understanding aren’t the same thing,” Jinwoo said. “Thank you for showing me the way. It was easier to find with you showing me.”

“Good morning, Dongmin-ah,” Jihyo said. “Did you have a good weekend?”

“Yes, thank you,” Dongmin said. “Jinwoo, you can sit there. I usually sit here.”

Jihyo, walking with Jungboon beside her, came up short. “Omo! Is that a persocom? Did you actually get a persocom? Is that a Jinjin Pro? You said a refurbished persocom like Yeonggu was too expensive. How on earth did you get your hands on a Jinjin Pro? He’s so cute! Isn’t he cute, Jungboonie?”

Jungboon smiled and waved. “He’s very cute.”

Jinwoo inclined his head politely. “Hello. I’m Dongmin’s Jinwoo-hyung.”

“Ah, I was very lucky and won a drawing,” Dongmin said.

“How? With your face?” Taeil asked. “If it were anyone else I’d have guessed you robbed a bank.” He plopped down on the other side of Dongmin and set his backpack on the desk. A moment later, it unzipped, and Doyeon climbed out.

She scampered along the desk to Jinwoo and put her hands on his shoulders, peered at him.

“You’re strange,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Doyeon tossed her head and scampered back to Taeil, who cuddled her and eyed Jinwoo warily.

“Sungmin,” Taeil called out when the other boy arrived, the lovely Sooah trailing behind him. “Look who finally joined the twenty-first century.”

Jinwoon was showing Dongmin how to use the note-taking app on the tablet with the stylus. “I’ve already connected to the campus wifi,” he said. “If you take notes here, I can back them up to the cloud straight away, and also transcribe them for you to make them searchable for you later. I can also send them to the library to be printed so you can pick them up before your next class, so that way you can have a hard copy to add to your binder.”

“You’re connected to the tablet?” Dongmin asked, ignoring Taeil.

“Via bluetooth,” Jinwoo said.

Dongmin nodded. “Okay. Thank you. Also, would you please record Professor Do’s lecture? He goes very fast and sometimes it’s hard to keep up.”

“Of course. If you like, I can transcribe his lecture and compare it to the transcription of your notes and fill in any gaps.” Jinwoo smiled.

Dongmin stared at him. “You can do that?”

“Anything to be helpful to my dongsaeng.” Jinwoo reached out and patted Dongmin’s hair.

Dongmin felt himself blush. “Ah — that would be very helpful. Thank you so much, hyung.”

“Congratulations on your new persocom,” Sungmin said.

“Thank you,” Dongmin said. “Jinwoo, this is Jung Sungmin and Sooah. Jungmin-ssi, Sooah-ssi, this is Jinwoo-hyung.”

Jinwoo greeted them politely.

Taeil hooted. “Your hyung? You didn’t want to be hyung? Sooah calls Sungmin oppa.”

“I don’t need anyone to call me oppa,” Dongmin said.

And then Yoonbyul arrived with Yeonggu. He sat beside her at her desk, and she issued the standard instruction to record the lecture as soon as it began.

“Hey Yoonbyul,” Taeil called out, “Dongmin finally got a persocom, and he gave it a real name, and he even calls it hyung.”

Dongmin sighed. “It’s not that big a deal. Jinwoo, this is my classmate Kwon Yoonbyul and her persocom Yeonggu.”

Jinwoo greeted her politely.

Yoonbyul eyed Dongmin. “I thought a law student would be more rational about owning a computer and less sentimental. The law is reason free from passion, isn’t that the famous quote? And yet you gave your computer a human name.”

Dongmin shrugged. “You’re a chemistry major. You believe in science and rationality, right? Yeonggu is just a toaster to you. Do you believe in souls?”

“No,” Yoonbyul said. “There’s no such thing.”

“Then what separates persocoms from humans? Not souls.” Dongmin eyed Yoonbyul, but he was warming up to the debate, feeling the gears in his head turn.

“Emotions,” Jihyo said. “Humans have emotions, but persocoms don’t.”

“How do you know?” Dongmin asked. “Jungboon, when Jihyo goes to a party without you, do you feel sad?”

Jungboon ducked her head and pouted. “I do feel sad. And lonely.”

Jihyo said, “But that’s not a real emotion, that’s a programmed response.”

“How are our emotions any different than a programmed response?” Dongmin asked. “Someone says something rude to you, and you feel hurt. Why is something rude? Because you’ve been taught it’s rude. Why is Jungboon hurt when you leave her behind? Because she’s been taught that you leaving her alone should hurt.”

Jihyo frowned. “But she doesn’t really feel it.”

Dongmin tilted his head. “How do you know that? She says she feels it.”

“But she’s just saying it.”

“How do you know anyone feels anything other than they say they feel it?” Dongmin pressed.

Jihyo squirmed. “Stop using your lawyer tricks on me!”

Taeil said, “Persocoms are machines made in factories, and people are...people.”

“People make people too,” Dongmin said, “unless you skipped that class in biology?”

Sungmin snickered, tried to hide it when Taeil glared at him.

“But persocoms are made in a few days or weeks or however and humans take years to, you know, grow up,” Taeil said.

“So persocoms have a more efficient growth and development cycle,” Dongmin said. 

“Humans have DNA and persocoms don’t,” Taeil said.

“Are humans with strictly human DNA the only organisms capable of sentience?” Dongmin asked.

“Of course not,” Sungmin said. He was a biology major.

“So if persocoms can do everything we can do, and feel like we feel, and think like we think, and at their core are made from the same elements as us — as a chemist, you, Yoonbyul, know better than anyone that at the core we’re all made from the same stardust — why are we people and they’re not?” Dongmin asked. “Why do we deserve real names and they don’t?”

Yoonbyul stared at him.

Taeil stared at him.

Jihyo stared at him.

“Do you actually believe that, or are you just playing devil’s advocate because you’re a law student?” Professor Do asked.

Dongmin started violently and twisted around in his chair.

Professor Do stood at the top of the aisle just inside the door. Usually he entered the lecture hall from the lower door, strode straight to the lectern, flipped open his folio, fired up the projector, and launched straight into his lecture.

The other students winced and ducked, but it was no use; Professor Do was in their midst and he had seen all of them.

“Well, I do believe people have souls,” Dongmin said, “but also I don’t think persocoms are precluded from having souls, so I don’t think the existence of souls precludes persocoms from being considered as beings equal to humans. But I do think anyone who doesn’t believe in souls cannot also believe in the inherent subordinate status of persocoms.”

“You don’t think persocoms are precluded from having souls?” Professor Do asked.

“Well, I know at least some Christian denominations believe non-human organisms can have souls, and my mother used to always say if I was bad I’d be incarnated as a rock, and if a rock can have a soul, why not a persocom?” Dongmin said.

Professor Do looked at him for a very long time. Then he beckoned to his own persocom, a teenage boy model named Jaehyun, and headed for the lectern. It was Jaehyun who always ran the slideshow for the lectures.

“I thought I was going to have a heart attack,” Taeil said, clutching his chest.

“He was like a ninja. A terrifying but hot ninja,” Jihyo said.

Yoonbyul said nothing, merely poised her pen to take notes.

She said nothing for the rest of the lecture.

After the lecture, Jinwoo informed Dongmin that he’d saved the recording and uploaded it to the cloud, and the transcription process was underway.

“How do I save the notes?” Dongmin asked. Writing on the tablet with the stylus had been odd at first, because the texture was different from paper, and Dongmin kept trying to turn the page when he reached the end, only there was none.

Jinwoo reached out and curled his hand around Dongmin’s wrist. “You press this button here to save the notes, and this button to upload a PDF to the cloud, and this button to transcribe the notes into searchable text and upload the text document to the cloud.”

His hand was warm and soft and felt real. Human.

“Would you like me to send your notes to the library printer for you to pick up on our way to your next class?” Jinwoo asked.

Dongmin considered. “You know, I’ll be fine in the rest of my lectures by myself. Professor Do is the one who goes really fast. I’ll take notes with the tablet and print them all at the end of the day and grab them on the way home. You, though. You can go home if you like. Stay warm. Recharge.”

He smiled tentatively. He didn’t want to be one of those weirdos who had his persocom with him all the time, like some kind of possessive boyfriend. Not even Myungjun had Bin with him all the time, only had him around for the classes where a computer was absolutely necessary.

Sungmin took Sooah everywhere with him, though. Ate lunch with her. Talked to her. He didn’t have any human friends.

Dongmin didn’t really have any human friends, and while he had made an impassioned argument for why Jinwoo and other persocoms could legitimately be considered real people, Jinwoo was a real person with a life of his own. So. When he wasn’t helping Dongmin in class, he should be able to live his life, right?

Only Jinwoo looked shocked and a little hurt. “You want me to leave you?”

“You can go home,” Dongmin said. “You don’t have to stay with me. You’re not in friendly mode anymore, right? We talked about how our arrangement should be mutually beneficial. You’ve helped me out in lecture. Now this is me helping you out. You can go do your thing. Just, you know, try to stick near a wifi connection as much as possible in case I need to reach you. Up until today I’ve been managing pretty well in my classes without a laptop. It was really just Professor Do’s class where I was struggling. That and having to stay late at the library. You don’t have to be stuck with me all the time.”

Jinwoo studied Dongmin for a long moment. “So I can go home and do what I want?”

Dongmin nodded. “Just — take care of yourself, yes? Be safe. I don’t want you to get hurt. And not just because you’re expensive and new. But because I know you can feel pain.”

“You really don’t need me to stay with you?”

“I’ve been fine without you for this long. I think I’ll survive,” Dongmin said. “Oh. Wait.” He reached into his book bag for his wallet, counted out some money carefully. “Go to a thrift store and buy yourself a book bag or backpack you like, for your charge cord and other supplies you might need as time goes on, okay? I don’t have a lot of money, so it’ll have to be used, but thrift stores often have really cute or trendy items, and sturdy items, too. This book bag was my father’s, but he and I have taken good care of it, so it’s very sturdy.” Dongmin patted it fondly.

“Get myself a backpack. Okay.” Jinwoo nodded.

Dongmin fished Jinwoo’s charge cord out of his backpack and tucked it into Jinwoo’s jacket pocket. “When I’ve saved up a bit I’ll buy a spare charge cord so we both always have one.”

“All right. Don’t forget to eat lunch,” Jinwoo said. “Stay warm.”

“You too,” Dongmin said, dodging the issue of lunch entirely, because it wasn’t like he’d forget to eat lunch. He just planned on skipping it, because he had to.

Jinwoo headed for the bus stop, and Dongmin headed for his next class. After having Jinwoo as a constant companion for most of the weekend, it felt a bit odd, being by himself. Even when Dongmin had been working at the restaurant, while he’d been out on the restaurant floor, he’d known Jinwoo was in the break room, was there even if they weren’t shoulder-to-shoulder.

Missing Jinwoo was silly. He’d only been in Dongmin’s life for two days. Dongmin had lived his entire life without Jinwoo. He had a routine, a good routine, one that worked. For the most part, he got good grades and he studied well and he was a successful student and employee. He didn’t really have time to be missing Jinwoo. He had to concentrate on his classes.

But he was suddenly even more aware than ever before of the other students — seemingly all of them — who had persocoms and laptops with them in lectures. Not every student used their persocoms in every lecture to record the professor or take notes; plenty of students still took notes by hand, as Dongmin did. But he noticed how the others sat beside their persocoms, smiled at them, interacted with them. Some students had their persocoms hold little tablets to use as screens while they typed notes, as Jinwoo had done for him. Some persocoms acted as more regular assistants, holding a multitude of colored pens for some kind of complicated color-coded note-taking scheme. Yoonbyul, it seemed, was in the minority for seeing Yeonggu as little more than a toaster.

While plenty of students seemed fond of their persocoms, though, Sungmin was also in the minority in treating Sooah like she was his best friend, his only friend. Most persocoms occupied a position somewhere between favored servant and adored pet.

No. Dongmin had to focus on his lectures, then head on back to his apartment and have supper and study some more.

He swung by the library and printed off his lecture notes, tucked them into his binder, and then headed for the bus stop. He hoped Jinwoo was all right, that he’d made it around all right, that he’d been able to buy a backpack and make it back to the apartment. There were a few rare establishments that refused to do business with a persocom if it was unaccompanied by a human, and some people refused to do business with persocoms, insisting on dealing with a human employee.

There were a few cases of people stealing a persocom while it was out and about with its owner, but those cases were quite rare, as expensive persocoms were outfitted with GPS trackers, as they used those for GPS map functions to help their owners with directions.

But Jinwoo was a brand new model, and a quite recognizable one.

Should Dongmin have kept Jinwoo by his side? So many people had commented on him.

By the time the bus pulled into the stop for Dongmin’s apartment, he was fretting and anxious.

He hopped off the bus, ready to break into a sprint.

Jinwoo stood on the sidewalk, grinning.

“Welcome back,” he said.

Relief flooded Dongmin’s limbs. “You’re here.”

“I wanted to greet you,” Jinwoo said. He turned and posed. “Also, I purchased a backpack. Is it to your liking?”

The backpack he’d found was a sturdy black canvas number with purple accents, not a brand Dongmin recognized but it looked serviceable and also trendy. 

“It looks good,” Dongmin offered, “but what really matters is that you like it.”

Jinwoo smiled. “I do like it.” He patted the strap at his shoulder. “I like the color. I also had enough change to buy a small wallet.”

“Good! That’s good. Excellent choice.” Dongmin smiled, pleased that Jinwoo had taken the initiative for himself. “Let’s head on home.”

“Supper’s ready and waiting,” Jinwoo said.

“What? But I was going to cook.” Dongmin blinked.

“I tracked your journey home and started cooking so it would be warm when you arrived. When we went grocery shopping together you explained the weekly menu to me, and I was able to find the appropriate recipes online.” Jinwoo looked pleased with himself.

Dongmin slowed. “Jinwoo, you didn’t have to.”

“But you have to study, and I like being your hyung, and that means taking care of you. Now hurry, before it gets cold,” Jinwoo said.

Jinwoo wasn’t wearing a warm coat, Dongmin noticed, so he picked up his pace.

Inside the apartment, Jinwoo took his coat and hung it up. While Dongmin was in the bedroom setting down his book bag, Jinwoo was setting the table.

They sat together.

“How were your classes?” Jinwoo asked.

Dongmin told him about the things he’d learned, interesting bits of trivia he’d picked up.

“And you? How was shopping? You were safe? Shop owners weren’t rude to you because you were an unaccompanied persocom? You were warm?”

“Shopping was fine,” Jinwoo said. “I was safe. Shop owners weren’t rude to me because I was an unaccompanied persocom. I was warm.” He looked amused. Then he said, “How is the food?”

“It’s delicious,” Dongmi said. He almost said, Try some yourself, but of course persocoms didn’t eat.

Jinwoo smiled and rested his chin in his hand. “Watching you eat well makes me happy.”

“You sound like my mother.”

“Well, I can’t be your mother because I’m a man. But you could call me daddy.”

Dongmin choked on a mouthful of kimchi fried rice. Jinwoo reached out and pounded him on the back, then handed him a glass of water.

“Are you all right?” Jinwoo asked.

“Ah — I think I’ll stick to calling you hyung,” Dongmin said, once he could breathe again.

“I was just kidding,” Jinwoo said. “Don’t I have to be rich for you to call me daddy? Or is that sugar daddy? I was researching slang while I cooked.”

Dongmin nearly choked again, drank some more water quickly. “Really, can we stick to hyung and dongsaeng? That’s much more comfortable.”

Jinwoo looked amused, but then the amusement faded. “This morning, in your first class, what you said to your classmates. Do you really think I’m a person?”

Dongmin sobered. “The answer has to be yes. I thought about it a lot. I regret treating Hyerin like she wasn’t a person, so I’m going to do my best to treat you as a person.”

“If you really believe I’m a person, will you believe what I say, then?”

“What do you mean?”

“When I say I like something, or choose something, or feel something. You believe most other people when they say how they feel or what they like or what they’ve chosen, right?” Jinwoo caught Dongmin’s gaze and held it.

Dongmin shivered under the intensity of it. “I do.”

“Absent some obvious indicator that I’m deceiving you, you’ll believe me?” Jinwoo pressed.

Dongmin straightened up. “Can persocoms lie? I thought you couldn’t lie.”

“And yet you never seem to believe me when I say I want something or choose something.” Jinwoo raised his eyebrows.

“It’s just — I know you’ve been programmed. And I can’t help but feel like your programming robs you of choice, and I want you to be able to choose freely.”

“How are the choices you make any less the result of how you’ve been programmed by the things you’ve experienced?” Jinwoo asked.

Dongmin stared at him. Then he nodded ruefully. “All right. Point taken. Thank you for this delicious meal, and I will do my best to respect your decisions and feelings in the future.”

“Good. Now, eat up, and you can study while I wash up.”

“You have to appreciate how it seems from my perspective, though,” Dongmin said. “That your enjoyment of servitude seems unnatural and perhaps the result of humans programming you to be subservient.”

Jinwoo nudged a dish of peanut sauce chicken toward Dongmin. “Try to appreciate things from my perspective. I used to be kept in a box. Now I get to move around and do new things and try new things. Everything I cook is new. Doing dishes is new.”

“It’ll get old fast.”

“Let me be the one to decide that. You’ve been doing dishes for how many years?”

“Your memory is much more perfect than mine.”

“Which is why you need to study and I don’t.”

Dongmin stared at Jinwoo. Jinwoo stared right back at him.

“Besides, I can’t enjoy things like food and sleep. You should enjoy them for me. You should tell me about your dreams. Persocoms don’t dream, not like you do.” Jinwoo rested his chin in his hand again and looked fond.

“So robots don’t dream of electric sheep?” Dongmin asked.

Jinwoo’s gaze went blank for a moment, and then he laughed. “No, we don’t, but the concept is clever.”

“Do you have dreams in the aspirational sense?” Dongmin asked. “If you didn’t have to live with me and help me with my studies, if you could move freely in this world, what would you do?”

“How do you know that my goal isn’t to move freely in this world, and that’s why I’m living with you and helping you with your studies? You’re going to be a lawyer one day. Plenty of lawyers go on to become lawmakers.” Jinwoo smiled.

Dongmin stared at him. Were persocoms capable of playing that kind of long game? He pushed the thought aside. “You didn’t answer my question, though. If you could move freely in this world, what would you do?”

“I don’t know yet,” Jinwoo admitted. “Right now, I like being with you.”

Dongmin finished off the rice and chicken. “This is why I’m not making you stay with me through every lecture. First of all, I don’t need you, so having you hanging around is a waste of resources. Second of all, you have the freedom to figure out what you want to do.”

“Thank you,” Jinwoo said slowly.

“I’m sure you’ll figure something out. Besides pepero making, are there other skills you have?” Dongmin asked.

“My model comes with many upgrades and unlockable options — construction, engine mechanicing, other professional packages — but I can’t access those skills on my own.”

Dongmin eyed him and wondered if Myungjun could jailbreak him and just unlock those for his benefit. “Do any of those options sound fun for you? If so, I could save up and we could purchase one of them.”

“How many things are you saving up for?” Jinwoo asked.

Dongmin thought of the series of envelopes tucked into the kitchen drawer, each filled with little wads of cash that he’d been slowly accumulating over time as funds for different people and projects. “A lot of things,” he admitted.

Jinwoo eyed him. “You work very hard.” He cast an eye around Dongmin’s apartment. “You don’t have a lot.”

“Well, I don’t have a lot now, but if I work hard now I’ll have more later,” Dongmin said, “and also I can help my family and Donghyun. Also Myungjun has been very generous. And I’ve been incredibly lucky. You’re in my life.”

Jinwoo said, “You didn’t buy me, so technically you don’t own me. I could just leave.”

Fear curled low in Dongmin’s gut. “You could,” he said. “If you really wanted to, I wouldn’t stop you. But if there’s anything I could do to convince you to stay, to make this a mutually beneficial arrangement, I will.”

“I already told you,” Jinwoo said. “I like being your hyung.”

“But why? You barely know me. It usually takes most people a while to reach the hyung-dongsaeng part of their relationship.”

“Most people would have insisted on making me dongsaeng,” Jinwoo said. 

“I already have a dongsaeng.”

“Most people wouldn’t care what I think or feel.”

“Just because someone treats you with baseline courtesy doesn’t mean they’re anything special,” Dongmin said, a little unnerved by the intensity in Jinwoo’s gaze.

“You said you’d trust that I know my own feelings,” Jinwoo said.

Dongmin sucked in a deep breath. “You’re right. I apologize. Thank you for the lovely meal. I’ll study now.”

Jinwoo said, “Relax for a bit. You’ve been studying all day. Do you want to watch a drama? Or maybe just a short comedic video? While I do the dishes.”

That actually didn’t sound like a bad idea. 

“I wonder if FTIsland has had a comeback lately. I sort of lost track of them at the beginning of senior year.” Dongmin went and fished his tablet out of his book bag. He went to settle on the couch with it, but the battery was low, so he plugged it in to charge. 

Jinwoo ferried dishes into the kitchen.

“Look, I respect that you want to take care of me, but at least respect that I can’t just watch someone else do all the chores,” Dongmin said. He rolled up his sleeves.

“Fine,” Jinwoo said. “But at least enjoy this.”

The OLED monitor in the corner came to life. Jinwoo had stood it up in the corner while Dongmin was in class, angled it so it could be seen from anywhere in the den.

Dongmin watched YouTube come up on the screen, watched FTIsland’s most recent comeback stage pop up. Right. Jinwoo could connect to the monitor via bluetooth even while he was doing other tasks.

Soft piano music wasn’t what Dongmin was expecting from the powerhouse rock band, even though they’d produced powerful ballads before. 

“C sharp major,” Dongmin said.

“You can tell by hearing?” Jinwoo asked.

“I used to play piano.”

“You must have played well.”

“I played for at least an hour every day, but I don’t have access to a piano anymore,” Dongmin said. “It’s a pretty song.”

It was a beautiful song, a sweeping emotional ballad, with soaring vocals. Dongmin was entranced.

“Thank you,” Dongmin said when the video finished. “That was lovely.”

He turned to Jinwoo, who had washed all the dishes and was halfway through drying them.

“You — you tricked me!”

“Did you enjoy the song?” Jinwoo asked.

“Yes, but —”

“I’m glad. You can help me now.” Jinwoo smiled and held out a dish towel.

Dongmin accepted it from him and helped finish drying the dishes and put them away. Once the kitchen was clean, he settled onto one of the bean bag chairs with his textbooks to study.

Jinwoo sat beside him. “Would you like some music?” 

“Some classical music would be pleasant, if you don’t mind,” Dongmin said.

“I wouldn’t have offered if I minded. I like music.” Jinwoo smiled.

“Do you get bored, when I study?”

“I like watching you study, but I can play video games or read books or watch dramas if I do get bored,” Jinwoo said.

“Persocoms probably get bored faster than humans, because you think faster, right?” Dongmin studied Jinwoo, who was perched cutely on the bean bag, gazing at him earnestly.

“Experiencing is interesting. It’s not boring. Everything is new, and I like it.”

“...So you’re basically like a child. Everything is new.” Dongmin swallowed hard.

Jinwoo laughed and shook his head. “No, not like a child. Like a visitor. This is a new place, and I’m learning and experiencing new things.”

Dongmin wasn’t sure he bought that explanation, but he remembered Jinwoo’s request, that Dongmin treat him like a human and trust his assertions about how he felt and thought, so he said, “Okay. You’re an exchange student and I’m part of your host family.”

“Yeah. Like that.” Jinwoo’s smile was crinkle-eyed and bright, and Dongmin’s heart fluttered.

“I hope you can enjoy and experience many things when you’re not with me in class,” Dongmin said. “One day, when I have a good job, I’ll repay you for all your help and let you experience all kinds of fun things, all right?”

“Thanks to you I’m no longer in a box in storage. Maybe I need to repay you,” Jinwoo said. He patted Dongmin’s hand and said, “Study well. I’ll bring you a snack later.”

Dongmin nodded. Strains from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet hovered just above the threshold of hearing, and Dongmin lost himself in his reading. He surfaced when Jinwoo touched his arm gently, brought him some chamomile tea and cookies, and he paused to drink and eat. Jinwoo asked him about what he learned, and Dongmin explained while he nibbled on the cookies, and then he continued studying.

He finished around eleven, and by then he was yawning and blinking sleepily, so he washed up, and he helped tuck Jinwoo into a blanket nest on the bean bag chairs, plugged him in to charge, and slept.

The next day, he didn’t need Jinwoo to come to class with him, so after he washed up and dressed he grabbed some kimbap and headed for the door.

“Are you sure?” Jinwoo asked.

Dongmin nodded. “I’m sure. I’ll be fine. I’m doing well in these classes. Go do something fun, something for yourself.”

“Like what?’

“You could go window-shopping.” Dongin considered. “You like dogs and puppies, right?”

“But animals don’t like persocoms.”

“You could go window-shopping at a pet store, though. You could see the animals but you wouldn’t have to interact with them. It’d be better than just looking at a video,” Dongmin said. “Probably you couldn’t go to a zoo, but a pet store could be nice. And you could maybe go to a mall and look at other things as well. Experience new things.” Dongmin smiled reassuringly, then waved and headed out the door to catch the bus.

It was just his imagination. Jinwoo didn’t really look disappointed that Dongmin had left without him. Jinwoo said he liked being Dongmin’s hyung, but that didn’t mean hanging around him all the time. Dongmin didn’t hang around Donghyun all the time when he was at home, after all.

Dongmin had school to focus on, and Jinwoo had a life to live.

“You came.” Jinwoo stood on the sidewalk, smiling, when Dongmin stepped off of the bus.

“You’re here.” Relief washed over Dongmin. All day, Dongmin had, stupidly, missed Jinwoo. He’d spent his lunch break studying alone in the library, wishing he could be sitting with Jinwoo and listening to music. If he saved up for a pair of bluetooth headphones, they could sit anywhere together during breaks between classes and listen to music and study.

Except Jinwoo wasn’t supposed to follow Dongmin around to all of his classes like other persocoms. Jinwoo was supposed to live his own life.

“I made dinner.” Jinwoo turned and headed for the apartment, so Dongmin fell into step beside him.

“Thank you.”

“How were classes today?” Jinwoo asked.

“They were good.” For the most part, Dongmin wasn’t fond of small talk, but having someone to come home to, to talk to was very pleasant. He hadn’t realized how lonely he was, living alone all these months. “How was your day?”

“I went to the mall, like you suggested. I went to the pet store.”

“I’m not allowed to have pets in my apartment,” Dongmin said quickly.

“I know,” Jinwoo said, looking wistful. But then he lit up. “The puppies liked me.”

Dongmin, halfway out of his shoes, paused. “Really?”

Jinwoo nodded, and the monitor turned on. YouTube turned on, and then a video fired up.

Puppies love this persocom! was the title of the video. The image in the thumbnail was of a Jinjin Pro — no, Jinwoo cuddling a puppy.

The video started, clearly shot by an amateur, probably on a camera phone. Jinwoo stood inside a pet store just beside a glass-walled puppy enclosure, cradling a squirming chocolate lab puppy, crooning to it.

“Hello! What’s your name?”

 Someone off-screen said, “Her name is Danbi.”

Jinwoo cuddled the puppy, who nuzzled him affectionately. “Hello, Danbi. You’re so cute!”

Other people murmured off-screen. 

“Are you really a persocom?” the girl filming Jinwoo asked. 

“Yes, my name is Jinwoo. I’m a Jinjin Pro.” Jinwoo scratched behind Danbi’s ears, and she panted happily. 

“Animals don’t like persocoms,” someone else said off-screen. 

“Danbi likes me, don’t you, pretty girl?” Jinwoo held her up, and she nuzzled his nose with hers. 

Then she started licking his face, and he gave a startled gasp.

“What’s this? My face isn’t dirty, and my face isn’t tasty. You can’t eat a persocom.”

“She’s giving you kisses,” the girl filming him said. “Because she likes you.”

“Oh. Jinwoo-oppa likes you too.” And Jinwoo pressed a kiss to the top of her head.

There was a murmured but still audible conversation offscreen.

“Do you think other animals will like him, or that one dog is a fluke?”

“Should we find out? For science.”

“What if he gets bitten or damaged?”

“His owner can repair him.”

“His owner could get mad and sue us.”

“His owner shouldn’t have let him out alone.”

Dongming curled his hands into fists, but then someone handed Jinwoo another puppy, and it immediately nuzzled under his chin, and soon he was sitting on the floor as half a dozen puppies crawled all over him, vying for his attention. He was delighted. One of the shop employees gave him some treats to feed to the puppies, showed him how to offer it on a flat open palm.

“Are you really a persocom?” the girl holding the camera asked.

Jinwoo looked at her and said, “I really am. Why would someone pretend to be a persocom?”

“True,” someone off-screen said, and there were other murmurs of assent.

The video ended then, badly edited, probably on the girl’s phone.

Dongmin turned to Jinwoo. “Are you okay? Did you get scratched or bitten?”

“I’m fine. The puppies were really adorable, and they liked me.” Jinwoo was grinning, delighted.

“I’m glad. So you had a good time at the mall?” Dongmin relaxed enough to uncurl his fists, finish taking off his shoes and hang up his jacket, put his book bag in his bedroom.

“Come have dinner and I’ll tell you about it.”

It should have felt odd, being the only one eating, but the look on Jinwoo’s face while Dongmin ate was familiar, like the one Dongmin’s mother wore when she watched him eat, fond, so Dongmin made sure to compliment Jinwoo’s cooking. The compliments were honest, because he was a very good cook for someone who couldn’t taste the food while he worked.

Jinwoo talked delightedly about the puppies and the bunnies and the kittens and the ferrets and hedgehogs and the chinchillas at the pet store, but mostly the puppies. He also talked about wandering around the mall in general, and seeing all the bright colors and all the people and all the different things for sale.

He could see what was for sale online, and he knew of different online stores, but seeing what was sold in physical stores was different, and he could see colors digitally, but some colors existed in the real world that he’d never experienced before, that he had no names for.

“Colors on a screen are all discrete. Different. On a webpage a blue blanket is not a blue blanket — it’s a bunch of different shades of blue coded together. But in the real world, one tree is green, but it’s also so many greens, you know?” Jinwoo’s expression was earnest.

Dongmin nodded. “Yeah. I guess I never thought of the world the way you must see it inside your head. I’ve never had a chance to see the world that way.”

“Was your day all right?” Jinwoo asked.

Dongmin shrugged. “It was just another day at school. I’m glad you had a good day. Hearing you had a good day makes me feel better. I think I understand my father a bit more, when he’d come home from work and ask us how our day was and feel glad that we’d had good days.”

“You need me for Professor Do’s lecture tomorrow morning, right?” Jinwoo asked.

Dongmin nodded, and together they cleared away the dishes, washed up.

Jinwoo turned on some more FTIsland for Dongmin.

“If you don’t mind,” Dongmin said.

“I don’t mind,” Jinwoo said. “Your notes from last lecture were pretty good. There weren’t too many holes. I think you were more relaxed, knowing that you had a backup recording, so your handwriting was better and more legible.”

Dongmin smiled at him. “I really appreciate the help.”

Once the dishes were finished, Dongmin settled in to study, and Jinwoo sat beside him, playing more classical music but also playing some kind of video game on mute on the monitor. It was some kind of cute little racing game.

“Won’t you always win, though?” Dongmin asked.

It was odd to watch Jinwoo play, because he didn’t need a controller, could use his own internal controls, and he leaned and swayed with his little car as it went around curves on the screen, seemingly controlled by nothing but Jinwoo’s mind.

“Not always. Haven’t you ever beat a CPU in a race in a game?” Jinwoo asked.

“Only if it was set to easy,” Dongmin said. “But I’m bad at games. Do the other players know you’re a persocom?”

“No,” Jinwoo said. “I signed in using your account.”

Indeed, the little cart Jinwoo was racing with had the username DingDongMin.

“But then how do I know if any of them are human either? We could all be persocoms.”

Dongmin thought of the girl on the video who kept asking if Jinwoo was really a persocom, and how he’d asked why anyone would pretend to be a persocom; but online, plenty of persocoms might pretend to be humans. Animals loved Jinwoo, which was weird. Doyeon and Changkyun thought Jinwoo was weird, too.

Was it part of the factory defect that that high school student Yoon Sanha had mentioned, that no one seemed to know about or be able to detect?

What kind of defect made a persocom weird to other persocoms but likeable to puppies?

When bedtime arrived, Dongmin was still puzzling over the issue. He plugged Jinwoo in and tucked him into his bean bag nest, and then he lay in bed and wondered, and he hoped Jinwoo was all right.

The next day, they headed off to class together, Dongmin munching on triangle kimbap, Jinwoo quietly by his side. After Professor Do’s lecture, Dongmin said,

“Is there any way I can message you throughout the day? Just to make sure you’re all right. I know you have plans to go out and do things on your own. But Just in case.”

Jinwoo turned to him and smiled. “Yes, I do have an internal message system. That number you call to activate me remotely — you can text it. It’s like my phone number. Although I do have an email address, too. You could use it to video call me on your phone, or email me, or send me instant messages. I wouldn’t receive them or answer them till I connected to wifi, but there’s wifi everywhere, so I can check frequently.”

“Obviously you don’t have to check on me,” Dongmin said. “But if the dogs hadn’t liked you and had bitten you, would you have been able to reach me?”

“I would have let you know,” Jinwoo said. “I just didn’t want to bother you while you were in class.”

“I always turn my phone to silent when I’m in class, but if it’s a real emergency, if you’re really hurt, the kind of thing you can’t self-repair, it doesn’t matter if I’m in class. Contact me.” Dongmin caught Jinwoo’s gaze and held it. “Okay?”

Only if Jinwoo were really injured, would he be able to contact Dongmin?

Jinwoo nodded. “Okay. Study well in the rest of your classes. Have a good lunch.”

Dongmin said, “Have a fun day. Stay safe,” and avoided discussion of lunch altogether. He’d brought a couple of packets of hot cocoa from home. He could get hot water from the cafeteria, and that would tide him over till his afternoon lectures. The sugar would give him a boost and the hot water would fill his belly. Everything would be fine.

He waved and watched Jinwoo head for the bus stop. With his little backpack and his cute clothes and sneakers, he could almost pass for a student, but for his distinctive earports. Not even a cute winter hat would disguise those. And it was getting colder.

With Jinwoo traveling around, the cost of his bus fare was putting a dent in Dongmin’s careful budget, plus the new cost of internet, and maybe the cost of getting a mobile data plan so Dongmin could stay in contact with Jinwoo for his own safety would be a lot.

But most people ate much more in a day than they needed to. Dongmin could get by on two meals, especially if he rationed out the leftovers from the restaurant very carefully, he might even get three meals sometimes.

But he could study extra on his lunch breaks, and then he could spend time with Jinwoo in the evenings — if Jinwoo wanted — or relax, and that would be better for him mentally.

So he headed to his next class.

Halfway there, his phone buzzed.

A selca, from Jinwoo-hyung, of him sitting at the bus stop, smiling. Have a good day!

He looked adorable, and Dongmin felt warm, pleased. And then he wondered. How had Jinwoo taken a picture of himself? Dongmin puzzled over it for a moment. It was his reflection in the glass of the advertisement. Jinwoo’s eyes were cameras.

Dongmin paused and took a selca, sent it back to Jinwoo-hyung. You too! Stay safe and warm!

And then he headed off to his next class with a spring in his step.

Throughout the rest of the day, Dongmin and Jinwoo exchanged text messages and selcas. Jinwoo had decided to go visit Olympic Park, because he’d looked it up and heard it was pretty this time of year. Jinwoo posed in front of some of the statues, and with colorful spills of autumn leaves. There was even a picture of him kneeling and petting a pedestrian’s dog, beaming as it licked his face.

Where are you even getting these pictures from? Dongmin asked on his lunch break, while he sat in the law student cafeteria with his hot cocoa.

People take them for me and send them to me because I’m so cute, was his response.

Dongmin wasn’t sure how he felt about strangers having Jinwoo’s email address or phone number, but then his phone buzzed with another incoming text.

Is this your Jinwoo? It was a message from Myungjun with a link to the video Jinwoo had showed him last night.

Yes, he went to a pet store while he was window-shopping while I was in class, Dongmin replied.

First of all, that’s so cute I can’t even. Second of all, have you seen how many hits that video has? Third of all, that’s impossible — animals know persocoms aren’t real humans, was Myungjun’s response. You and Jinwoo need to come hang out with me and Bin this weekend. 

If I get enough studying done, we will, if Jinwoo wants to, Dongmin replied. 

Out of curiosity, he clicked on the link to the video — and stared at the five million hits it had. He scrolled through the comments out of curiosity, even though he was well aware that the YouTube comment section on any given video was where civility went to die, but most of them were about how cute Jinwoo was and how adorable the puppies were. A few were skeptical about Jinwoo actually being a persocom, although plenty of people pointed out that he looked just like an actual Jinjin Pro. Other people pointed out that he could be the face model for the Jinjin Pro, and then some people piled on and insisted that no real human could be that handsome.

YouTube suggested several other videos of unique persocoms who seemed like humans. Dongmin was curious, but he had to keep studying. He downed the rest of his hot cocoa and kept on studying. Once he was done with classes, he could head home and see Jinwoo, and all would be well.

Even though Jinwoo had been sending messages all day and Dongmin knew he was safe, Dongmin had missed him, and when he stepped off the bus and Jinwoo was there, Dongmin was happy, not just relieved that Jinwoo was all in one piece.

“Did you miss me?” Jinwoo asked, grinning. He was wearing his backpack and looked like he’d just made it back himself.

“I did,” Dongmin said, because he saw no reason to lie to Jinwoo; after all, Jinwoo never lied to him.

“I haven’t started dinner yet, but you can relax and study while I cook. Unless you want to help?” Jinwoo fell into step beside Dongmin.

“You’re a much better cook than me,” Dongmin admitted. “Do you want me to help?”

“You should study. If you study lots during the week you can have more free time on the weekend, and besides, you always help me clean up.” Jinwoo pushed the door open, and they took off their shoes.

Seeing Jinwoo’s smaller shoes beside Dongmin’s made him feel absurdly pleased. Dongmin nudged his shoes neatly into place — at home, he’d liked lining up his family’s shoes from biggest to smallest, just to see all of them, even though eventually he and Donghyun and their father all had about the same shoe size — and then shrugged off his jacket and scarf before going to build himself a little study nest among the bean bags.

He liked that the den and kitchenette were all one open space; that way he could still see and hear Jinwoo even while he studied, could smell the food as he cooked, and it was like being at home again, with his family. Dongmin could have had a roommate in this tiny apartment, and his landlord was still technically looking for a roommate for him to bring in some extra money, but so far no one wanted to live in the cramped little basement apartment with the bare walls.

Dongmin settled in with some reading, and Jinwoo bustled around in the kitchen. After about an hour, food was ready.

“That smells amazing.” Dongmin set his books aside and joined Jinwoo at the table. 

Jinwoo beamed. “Eat lots.”

“I’ll eat well.” Dongmin dug into some jjamppong and rice and steamed vegetables. “Tell me about your day.”

Jinwoo nodded, and he fired up the monitor to better show off the pictures he’d sent, give Dongmin more context about them. He’d ridden the bus and enjoyed looking out the windows, hiked around the park by himself. Even though he knew much about The 1988 Summer Olympics, which countries had participated and had earned how many medals, seeing the park in person and reading about past events and achievements had been enlightening to him.

“Humans are so amazing,” Jinwoo said. “You’re so fragile, but you can do such feats of strength and flexibility and speed and grace.”

Dongmin had never thought of himself as fragile before. He wasn’t about to throw himself off of a cliff or in front of a moving car, but he wasn’t exactly fragile. “Thank you? I guess.” Then he eyed Jinwoo. “What about persocoms? I know you’re all stronger than us. Are you also faster and more flexible?”

Jinwoo nodded.

Dongmin eyed Jinwoo. “Are you more graceful, though? If someone put on music, could one of you get ten points in rhythmic gymnastics?”

“That’s not one of my specialties,” Jinwoo said. “I can make pepero.”

“Are there persocoms who could do that kind of thing?”

Jinwoo shrugged. “I don’t see why not. We could be programmed to do anything, the same way humans can learn to do anything, right?”

Except not every human could learn to do anything. Individual humans had limits. But not persocoms. Any persocom literally could learn to do anything, given the right programming. Sure, a taller persocom than Jinwoo might be better suited to, say, playing basketball, but Jinwoo could learn to play basketball if it was programmed into him, couldn’t he?

“Well, what else did you see at the park?”

Jinwoo told Dongmin about how beautiful the park was. Multiple websites had listed it as one of the prettiest places to visit in autumn. “I caught a beautiful red maple leaf as it fell, and I made a wish.” He reached into his backpack, and he drew out a carefully preserved red leaf from a Japanese maple, which had been pressed between a couple of napkins.

“It’s lovely,” Dongmin said. “I wonder if there’s a better way to keep it?”

“I researched some plant preservation techniques online, but we’d have to save up for supplies,” Jinwoo said.

Of course they would.

Dongmin said, “What did you wish for?”

Jinwoo’s lips curved in a faint smile. “That’s a secret.”

Persocoms could make wishes and keep secrets?

But Jinwoo was a person. Dongmin had to remember that.

After supper, they washed up together, and then Jinwoo curled up beside Dongmin and played another racing game with some teenagers online while Dongmin studied, and when bedtime arrived, Dongmin went into the bathroom to brush his teeth and wash up and change and give Jinwoo privacy to change for bed as well.

Myungjun had included a bunch of cute but old pajamas for Jinwoo, but they all had Myungjun’s name on them. Dongmin wondered what it would take, to get Jinwoo’s name on them. That kind of thing was probably terribly expensive, though.

“Good night,” Dongmin said, plugging the power cord into Jinwoo’s ear port and tucking some blankets around him. “Sleep well.” He paused. “Do you sleep?”

“No,” Jinwoo said.

“...So you just lie here all night?”

“I watch a lot of dramas and music videos,” Jinwoo admitted. “And videos about cooking, so I can cook for you better. And videos of puppies.”

“Oh. If this is boring for you, you don’t have to —”

“I do have to recharge, and this is comfortable. It’s kind of like dreaming,” Jinwoo said. He smiled and reached up, brushed a strand of hair out of Dongmin’s eyes. “Don’t worry. Go sleep.”

Dongmin nodded, though he was still a bit unsure. He padded into the bedroom, put his phone on the charger, texted his family to check in, and then turned off the light.

And he closed his eyes.

Dongmin woke in the middle of the night, shivering, teeth chattering. He dragged the blankets up over him, but it was no use. He considered getting up and going to put on some socks and a sweater, but that would mean leaving the warmth of the bed.

He eased a hand out of the blankets and hissed at the cold, fumbled for his phone. The screen lit up, and he could see his own breath on the air. He checked the weather and saw that the temperature outside was below freezing. The air inside the apartment felt like it was freezing.

Had the power gone out? He squinted at his phone some more. It was still charging. 

The heater must have been broken. Should he try to call his landlord?

Dongmin forced himself to sit up, and he wrapped the blankets around himself tightly. Everyone in the building shared a single heating system. Heaters were usually in the basement, right? It should be somewhere in his apartment. Maybe he could fix it. He was pretty smart.

Dongmin, teeth still chattering, shuffled for the door, flipped on the light.

“Is everything all right?” Jinwoo sat up.

“I think the heater is broken. The heater’s probably in my apartment somewhere, right? Because we’re in the basement? We should try to fix it.” Dongmin rubbed his eyes and realized he wasn’t wearing his glasses or his contacts, and he doubled back to the bedroom to grab his glasses off the nightstand, fumbled them on. 

Jinwoo cast aside the blankets. “The air in here is below freezing. You must be very uncomfortable.” He tugged free of his charge cable and went to the door, grabbed Dongmin’s jacket and scarf off the pegs. “Here, put these on. Do you have gloves? Go get some socks. Let’s look for the heater. It’s probably in your utility closet. I haven’t swept or mopped or done any extensive cleaning yet.”

“Thursday is my cleaning day,” Dongmin stammered. It was so cold. His teeth were chattering so hard. He couldn’t feel his fingers. How long had the heat been out? Surely someone else would have noticed and called the landlord, right? “Cleaning and laundry. Cleaning closet is over there.”

He yanked on the jacket and knotted on the scarf and tried to remember where he’d stored his hats. He went to find a pair of socks, could only find a mismatched pair, pulled them on with shaking hands.

Immediately his toes were struck with pins and needles. Where were his gloves?

Jinwoo had turned on the den light and opened the cleaning cupboard by the time Dongmin had bundled up. 

“I’ve accessed this model’s repair manual, but I can’t immediately tell what’s wrong with the unit. I have a couple of preliminary guesses, but without pulling the unit apart, I can’t determine more, and we don’t have the tools to pull it apart anyway.” Jinwoo stood up. “You should notify your landlord.”

Dongmin nodded. He shuffled back into the bedroom and called his landlord, but since it was two in the morning the call went to voicemail. He left as polite a message as he could muster, and then he went to turn off all the lights.

“I should try to go back to sleep,” he said. “You should keep on charging. Good night, Jinwoo.” 

He went back into the bedroom and rearranged the blankets on the bed, fetched the other extra blanket from the closet and spread it on the bed, and then crawled under the covers. He squirmed out of his extra clothes and set them on the nightstand so they’d be in easy reach. He kept the socks on, but it wasn’t enough, and soon he was shivering again.

A moment later, the covers shifted, and cold air flooded his lukewarm nest.

“What —?”

“Here, I’ll keep you warm.” Jinwoo’s voice was a deep rumble against Dongmin’s side, but then he was drawing the covers down over both of them and gathering Dongmin into his arms. He tucked himself under Dongmin’s chin and snuggled close.

“But you have to charge,” Dongmin protested.

“I can charge tomorrow while you’re in class, before I go on an adventure,” Jinwoo said. “I’m fine. You need to sleep. You’ll sleep better if you’re warm. Push me away if you get too warm.”

Jinwoo didn’t feel too warm. He felt nice. His hair was soft, and his clothes were soft, and he felt solid and warm. Dongmin had shared a bed with Myungjun, with Donghyun, didn’t mind sharing a bed, but this was different. Neither Myungjun nor Donghyun were clingy sleepers. 

The odd part was that Jinwoo wasn’t breathing. But he nuzzled close and made a little wordless sound that almost sounded happy.

“I can hear your heartbeat,” he murmured. “I’ll keep you warm and safe.”

He really was warm, comforting.

Dongmin wasn’t sure what to do with himself, but Jinwoo just snuggled closer, tangled their legs, so Dongmin gave in and wrapped his arms around Jinwoo and enjoyed his warmth, and he closed his eyes.

But he couldn’t fall asleep.

“Do you need me to count sheep for you?” Jinwoo asked.


“Your heart is beating too fast. You can’t fall asleep if it’s beating that fast,” Jinwoo said. “I can count sheep for you.”

Pressed close like this, his deep voice was a pleasant rumble.

Dongmin couldn’t help but hum happily. “That would be nice, actually.”

“All right. One sheep, two sheep…”

Dongmin fell asleep before Jinwoo hit thirty.