Chapter 1: Purchase
Arthur sets out to buy a computer, but it isn't as easy as he hoped. When he finds the laptop that becomes Alfred, life seems perfect. Reality, however, is far from perfect.
Some OCs show up that are based on canon characters we haven't met yet and canon characters without human names appear as well. In this chapter, try to remember that Charlotte is Monaco, James is Scotland, Rhys is Wales, Erin is Ireland.
Arthur had bought Alfred when he nineteen and fresh out of college. After going through all of college with merely a notebook, Arthur knew what he wanted. Every year he’d glanced around as his classmates giggled and played around while their laptops recorded everything. He had had to type all his notes up, had to wade through web searches, and sort through technical jargon until his eyes nearly crossed. Thank God for Kiku, or else he never would have lasted with the blasted thing. When he got out of college and got ready to become a constable, he saved up every penny he had and went to buy a laptop.
He had planned to go with Kiku in hopes that his tech-savvy friend could help him get the best deals, but something had come up—something about Yao holding a family meeting or some such nonsense—and he’d had to go alone.
Finding a reputable store at least hadn’t been too hard—Kiku had sent him a quick list of places. The first place Arthur tried, the overly attentive salesclerks had turned him off of every model they showed him. First they tried to sell him a Companion model—and to be fair, it was a damn fine female model, with long dark hair and eyes like the ocean—but when the clerk had mentioned the ‘easy clean up’ feature, Arthur had stammered and tried to flee. Thankfully they took the hint and showed him the laptops instead. And, frankly, they had all been nice, but the selection was limited to the ever popular animal models. In the end, he’d left without a sale to the clerk’s bitter disappointment. The next store was the same. Salespeople trying too hard to sell Companions or cutesy laptops.
Arthur’s hopes were starting to fade when he warily wandered into the next store. When he saw who was sitting behind the counter, his hopes instantly died. “What are you doing here?”
“Arthur, mon ami! Have you come to visit me? I closed the bakery for lunch, to visit Charlotte. Come, join me,” Francis laughed, getting up from the stool he was perched on.
Arthur turned and made a dash for the door.
No good—Charlotte was already blocking the way. Her face might have been solemn, but he could see the mischief in her eyes behind her glasses. “Bonjour, Arthur. Can I help you?”
“You could move,” he blurted out desperately but groaned in defeat when he felt an arm curl around his shoulders. “Get off me, Frog.”
“Ah, Arthur, you wound me. How I ever manage to put up with you is a mystery,” Francis sighed dramatically.
Charlotte spoke before Arthur could turn about and commence pummeling the Frenchman. “One that plagues us all. But, Arthur, is there something I can help you with?”
Arthur sighed. At least with Charlotte, he might be able to convince her to shoo her brother away. “I’m looking for a new laptop.”
Charlotte perked up and Francis laughed. “It is about time. Come, come, let me show you-”
“I want Charlotte to help me,” he insisted, trying to dart away from Francis.
“Ah, how can you be so cruel, mon cher?”
“Francis,” Charlotte interrupted, causing the two of them to look at her. “Please mind the counter for me. Arthur, ignore my foolish brother and follow me this way, please.”
Arthur silently gave a grateful prayer and followed the young woman while Francis pouted. She led him to the far side of the store, where the wall was lined with laptops, still pristine inside their boxes, waiting to be bought. There weren’t many models, barely two dozen, but the store wasn’t very big, either. At least there was a variety of models—his eyes skimmed past a few dog and cat models, an adorable spotted rabbit model, past three little girl models until his eyes finally landed on a box near the bottom.
It was a dragon laptop—it looked exactly like a stuffed toy you would win in a claw machine. “I didn’t know they made dragon models.” He grinned as he crouched down to look at it.
Charlotte shifted next to him. “It’s a newer model. I have heard they’re trying to make a unicorn model soon.”
A unicorn model. His heart surged. That was too perfect… but then, he needed a laptop now, before he became a probationary constable. Well, the only problem with a dragon model was whether or not he’d be able to keep Rhys from stealing it. Honestly, the man’s mania for dragon memorabilia was only topped by his love of sheep plushies. Arthur smiled to himself and reached out for the box before he paused. The box next to it had caught his eye.
Inside it was a small boy model. Like all child laptops, his head was large, his limbs stubby, and hands small. His ears were large and his blond hair tussled, one lock standing up in defiance of gravity. What set him apart from all the other laptops Arthur had seen today, or any day when he had gone browsing, was that this laptop was smiling. It was a small smile, almost unnoticeable, but it looked so undeniably sweet he found himself picking up that box instead.
“Oh. But that’s-”
Arthur blinked and looked up at Charlotte in confusion. “What’s that? There a problem?”
Charlotte shook her head. “No. Just a funny coincidence.”
“Is something wrong back here?” Francis asked as he drifted over. When he saw the box in Arthur’s hands, his face lit up. “Arthur, are you getting that one? Mon dieu, how amazing! Buy it, you really should.”
Arthur frowned and pulled the box closer, feeling bizarrely protective. Whatever Francis wanted, it couldn’t be good. “And why should I do that?”
Francis grinned. “A moment, s’il vous plait.” He quickly turned and hurried back to the counter. Arthur gave Charlotte a confused look, but she merely grumbled something about silly elder brothers who never did as she asked until her brother returned. In his arms, Arthur was surprised to see a doppelganger of the laptop in hands. The resemblance was uncanny but after a moment, he spotted a few minor differences; mainly that the hair was a warmer blonde and that it was longer. It had a strand of hair that boldly refused to be tucked back, even as Francis ran a hand over it. The laptop peered at him shyly, violet eyes peeking out through a curtain of hair before turning his face back into Francis’s side. “C’est adorable, non? He is the same model as that one. Mathieu, you’re so cute,” he cooed to the laptop, who looked up at him with the same adorable smile that was on Arthur’s laptop.
Oh Lord, did I just think of it as mine already? He gaped down at the laptop in the box, ignoring Francis as he kept blathering on to his laptop. In the box, the laptop smiled up at him.
He didn’t want to get a child laptop. Frankly, he found them creepy and annoying. Their eyes were too wide, their voices too squeaky to ever be tolerable. And yet, looking down at the sweet face before him, he found himself already wanting to take it home. Would it have purple eyes too? Would it be shy and cling to him? God, he’d be the laughing stock of the police force if it did! Even a dog laptop would be a better choice.
It was too fucking cute.
“Damn it,” he grumbled.
“What was that, mon ami?” Francis asked, laughing.
Arthur stood up, carefully cradling the box in his arms, and turned to Charlotte. “I’ll take it.”
James nearly laughed himself sick when he saw what model Arthur had bought. Arthur had to fight the urge to pull the laptop closer and hide it from his brother’s scorn. I’m so screwed. I haven’t even turned it on yet and I’m protective of it.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he finally managed to say. “No one is going to take you seriously carrying that thing around. And it’s going to be fucking annoying. Why the hell is it in a dress?”
“Fuck off,” he grumbled, opening the box. “And if you have a problem with him, I suggest breaking up with Francis—apparently he got one just like it.” He smirked at James’s frown and turned back to the box. Inside, the laptop was secured to the box the way Arthur had only seen spiders cocoon their prey and toy makers secure their dolls. It took five minutes to free it, and then Arthur had to sift through the manual. “’First, open ear port and pull out power cable. Plug in for three hours to let batteries charge’.” He paused and glanced at the ears, looking for a seam. He had to check both ears before seeing a small button behind the right ear. The ear swung open, revealing a power cord, the power switch, and a set of ports. He plugged the laptop in and sat back, staring at it expectantly.
“Well,” James drawled, leaning over him. “What now, genius?”
Arthur bit back a curse and grabbed the manual again. “It needs to charge for three hours.”
“Yeah, but can you turn it on now?”
“What do you care? You already said it’s going to be annoying,” he glared, leaning forward to shield his laptop from his brother’s sight. Still. Can you turn it on without it being charged? He checked the manual. All it said was that it needed to be plugged in for three hours. Hesitantly, he flipped the switch.
For a moment, nothing happened. He felt a stirring of bitter disappointment, but before he could say anything, the laptop produced a low humming sound. He leaned forward and felt a thrill of triumph as he heard the rustle of James’s clothing as he leaned in, too. Finally, the humming dimmed and the laptop’s eyes slowly opened. They remained hooded, cycling through a rainbow of colors before finally settling into a pure sky blue. Then it blinked, and raised its head; Arthur didn’t feel too bad when James jumped with him.
It blinked up at them again. And then, to their mutual surprise (and secret delight) it smiled wider and gave a bubbly laugh. “Hi there! Are one of you my new owner?”
Cuter than kittens! Arthur thought, not entirely sensibly. All he could do was stare back at the adorable little laptop before him. Good God, the Frog was right. “I, um, I am.”
He laughed again. “Really? Cool! What’s your name?”
For a moment, he was struck dumb. So cute…
James rolled his eyes. “Arthur. I’m James. I pity you, little one.”
It cocked its head to the side. Like a puppy! “W-why would you say that?”
James smirked. “Because he’s a big, scary brute, and he’s going to work you to the bone—circuitry, whatever—and use you to look porn and-”
“SHUT THE BLOODY HELL UP!” Arthur snapped, lunging to punch his brother in the side. James laughed and jumped away, his fists coming up as he fell into a boxer’s stance. Arthur was climbing to his feet when the both paused at a sniffle. Turning to look, they saw that it was coming from the laptop.
Where moments before he had been sitting there and smiling joyfully up at them, now it was hunched up, knees drawn up to its chest, and eyes wide and wet. Oh, that’s right they can imitate crying! Oh, lord, I made it cry. It sniffled again. “W-work me to t-the circuits?”
The will to fight died instantly in both of them and Arthur turned, hands raised. “A-ah, no; James was just joking. Weren’t you, James?”
“Yeah, that’s all! Just a bit of fun-oh god, please, don’t cry.”
Its lip wobbled. Arthur’s knees went weak. “A-and you won’t use me to look up porn?”
“Good God, no!” Arthur shuddered. He kept the old notebook around for a reason… “James was only teasing. T-there’s a good lad.”
It stared at them a moment before slowly trying to smile again. “P-please take good care of me, Master Arthur.”
Arthur twitched and he was pretty sure the hitch in James’s breathing meant he was trying desperately not to laugh. “Ah…just…call me Arthur, please.”
The laptop blinked and nodded. “Okay. Thank you, Arthur.”
He was never going to be able to take him anywhere—he would make a fool out of himself trying not to fawn over him.
He started. “Yes?”
He even got confused adorably. Arthur was a lost cause. “What’s my name, Arthur?”
“Huh? O-oh! Your name, yes.” He fumbled over himself while James snickered at him. Finally, he composed himself and bent down so they were face to face. “Your name is Alfred. Do you like it?”
He seemed to think it over, mouthing it. At last his face lit up and he laughed happily. “Alfred. I love it! Thank you, Arthur.”
Oh yes, Arthur was a completely lost cause—and he was never happier. In fact, he was quite ecstatic about it for a while, even after Erin and Rhys came home and met Alfred. Then again, both of them seemed as charmed as James and barely teased him about getting a child laptop. Even when he took Alfred with him to work, he remained happy. Alfred charmed everyone he met, and only a few people tried to tease Arthur for him. He was just so damn adorable. He was a constant fixture in Arthur’s life, following him everywhere he went, mostly riding on Arthur’s shoulders or in his arms, cuddled up to his neck. When Arthur went to sleep at night, Alfred begged to be tucked in with him and every morning he would wake Arthur with a cheerful “Good morning, Arthur! Are you ready for another day?” When Arthur moved into a new apartment, Alfred had tried his best to help him drag things in and set up furniture. Whenever Arthur wasn’t using him to research or call someone, Alfred played near Arthur’s feet with the toys Arthur couldn’t help but buy for him.
Arthur was completely besotted by his little laptop, his little boy. And Alfred returned those affections, completely and without strings. It probably didn’t say anything good that one of Arthur’s best relationships was with a computer, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.
He loved him right up until the day, six years later, when Arthur rolled over in bed, two hours late to work, only to find Alfred lying, worn out and nonfunctioning, beside him.
Chapter 2: Purchase
Arthur goes to Kiku for help; Kiku agrees to help as best he can.
My goodness, I forgot how short this chapter is--they'll get longer soon. A lot longer.
Kiku shrugged when Arthur rushed to him, cradling little Alfred in his hands, in the hopes that his tech wizard friend could save the little laptop. “There’s nothing I can do, Arthur-san,” he murmured, patting Alfred’s head fondly. After six years, even he was fond of Arthur’s energetic laptop. “Six years is actually a very good lifespan for a laptop. Tama only lasted five.”
Tama was Kiku’s last laptop—it was a cat laptop and Alfred had loved to play with it almost as much as he had loved to play with Francis’s Mathieu. He remembered how Alfred had wailed when Kiku had told them that Tama had broken down, how he had buried his face into Arthur’s shoulder. He had been more broken up about it than Kiku. Now it was Mei-Mei, Kiku’s little girl laptop, who sobbed, the flower clip in her hair cycling through colors in her distress while Kiku held her and petted her hair.
Arthur wanted someone to hold and pet him, too. Instead, he pulled Alfred tighter into his embrace. He bit back a sob. “Is… isn’t there anything you could do?”
Kiku frowned and shifted Mei-Mei in his arms. “Alfred’s circuits are too old to be replaced. They have not even made that body type in two years and the parts would be very hard to find. It would be easier to get a new laptop.” Kiku shrugged. “We could transfer his memory over into a new unit, possibly. His AI… would be harder. It would be extremely expensive, and almost impossible, with a new laptop.”
Arthur clung tighter. “What about an older laptop then? Could I buy one used and you could… transfer his memories then?”
“Not into a laptop—even with a used one, there is wear and tear, and he would last maybe another year or two. I would have to re-encode everything and that would be far too expensive.”
“But, you said you could-”
“My apologies. What I meant was, I cannot transfer and re-encode him for a new laptop, but we could try something else. Companion models are still compatible with older laptops.”
Arthur stared. “Come again?”
“A Companion model,” Kiku answered. Mei-Mei hiccupped; Kiku paused to pat her back while Arthur tried to absorb this information. “Companion models tend to be outfitted with older programming since the demand isn’t as much for being cutting edge, and even a new Companion should be able to run an older laptop’s AI. They last longer as well.”
Arthur kept staring. Alfred’s little six pound body felt heavier in his arms than it ever had before. “There’s a reason they’re built to last longer, Kiku,” Arthur clipped, trying to be polite even if only because Mei-Mei was listening. She might have been a laptop, but it still felt wrong to talk about…what a Companion unit was for in front of her. “I… I can’t put Alfred into a… a… I just can’t! It’d be wrong!”
“Then you will have to get a new laptop and toss Alfred away.”
Arthur flinched. He would never just… toss Alfred away. Like… like…
A broken computer.
Arthur sighed and looked down at his little laptop, his pride and joy. Even in his ‘death’, he was smiling, just as he had the first time Arthur had seen him in the shop. Was it so wrong that he didn’t want to lose him? Would it be wrong to keep him, even if he had to put him in a Companion unit?
Would Alfred still be him if he did?
Arthur bit his lip and Kiku waited. Finally he sighed, tracing a fingertip over Alfred’s cheek. “When could you fix him, Kiku?”
“For you, Arthur-san, two weeks.”
Chapter 3: In Between
Arthur waits impatiently for Kiku to finish repairing Alfred. While he waits, he finally starts admitting that Alfred isn't going to be returning exactly as he once was.
The two weeks without Alfred had been absolute murder. He had to borrow his neighbor’s alarm clock to get to work on time, and then he’d had to put up with the station’s laptops, which twitched and lagged as he tried to work. But worse than the inconvenience of not having Alfred’s aid was everyone else’s reaction to Alfred’s breakdown. Most at the station had shrugged and asked when he would buy a new one. Elizabeta was only one who actually seemed sympathetic about it. Then again, she also had a little boy laptop, who she cooed over constantly.
“That’s awful, Kirkland,” she murmured, pressing a hand to her heart. “I’d feel terrible if Feliks broke down. Isn’t there some way to fix him?”
“I took him to Kiku,” he explained, stirring his tea. “He said he might be able to save his memory and AI, and transfer them to a new unit.”
Elizabeta brightened with a laugh. “Wonderful! Oh, will the new laptop look like Alfred? He was so cute.”
Arthur looked down and shifted away, praying that his cheeks weren’t red. “Actually, Alfred’s code, or something, is too old to be transferred into a new laptop.”
“C-Companion models, apparently, are the only things that are compatible so…”
Now she was just as red as he was—and he was fairly certain what sort of scandalous things were shooting through her mind. “A… Companion?”
He squeaked, much to his shame. “It’s—it’s just that Alfred was an old model—they don’t even make his unit or whatever, so—so, I have to go with the next best thing.”
“Oh.” She giggled nervously. “Will you, um, be… bringing him back to work with you then?”
“No! God, no.” No one in the district would ever let him live it down. “I think it would be best if he stayed at home.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” she nodded enthusiastically. “…Will he look like Alfred?”
Staring at her, Arthur knew in his gut that sooner, rather than later, everyone was going to know about Alfred and his new Companion unit. I am never going to be able live this down. I might as will kill myself now. Arthur coughed. “Probably not.”
Elizabeta’s smile was small and secretive. “You just want him back?”
Arthur looked away. “Of course,” he murmured, but it was so soft she nearly missed it.
Her smile would have done Mona Lisa proud.
Just looking at Mathieu was hard. He was so like Alfred, small and frail and nearly as old. Would Mathieu breakdown soon? How long did he have?
What would Francis do? Mourn or would he merely toss his laptop out like so many had suggested? No. No, Francis would most likely mourn—when he had heard Alfred had Stopped (it warranted capitalization in Arthur’s mind), Francis had sighed and apologized and did the kind thing of getting him so drunk that he had to drag him home. Maybe he would bury him. Arthur heard more and more of people doing so; when Alfred was young he scorned the idea, but the older he got, the more Arthur realized that he couldn’t blame them.
So what did it mean for him, when he couldn’t even properly bury Alfred?
He still hadn’t answered Francis’s question.
He fidgeted with his cup. “No, I’m not.”
“Mon ami, you need a personal computer,” Francis sighed, twining one of Mathieu’s locks around his finger. “Charlotte could get you a good deal—they have finally come out with that unicorn model, did you know?”
“I didn’t,” he muttered, studying his cooling tea. He took a sip. Scratch that; the tea was definitely cold. A unicorn wouldn’t be Alfred. “I don’t need a new laptop.”
“There’s other computers. Those touchpads have come back in style.” Of course they would—laptops only lasted a few years, a good Companion maybe a decade or two. It was harder to get attached to something as un-humanlike as a touchpad or notebook.
Arthur looked up at Francis and felt like punching himself for the stupidity he was about to commit. “Kiku said he could transfer Alfred into a new unit. I should hear back from him by the end of the week.”
Francis’s eyes widened, and then he laughed. “Kiku. Mon dieu—well, if anyone could do it, it would most likely be our Kiku!” Francis was all smiles now. “I cannot wait to see our little Alfred again. What model type are you getting, then? Shall it be another boy, or will you be getting one of those unicorns?”
Forget living this down; I won’t be able to look in a mirror again. “Alfred isn’t going to be a laptop. He’ll have to be a Companion.”
Well, at least the shocked look was almost worth it. “…Oh?”
For a moment, Arthur stared at his ceiling in confusion, wondering what that bizarre noise was before he realized it was the touchpad Kiku had lent him while he worked on Alfred. He fumbled for it before he tapped ‘Accept’. “’ello?”
“Arthur-san, it’s me, Kiku.”
Arthur bolted upright.
“Alfred is done. You can pick him up today.”
Chapter 4: Reunion
The waiting is over and now Arthur heads anxiously over to Kiku's home.
The entire way to Kiku’s apartment, Arthur either felt ecstatic, terrified, or nauseated. If it weren’t for the fact that he was riding on the Tube, he probably would have stopped along the way and thrown up. As it was, he staggered his way up Kiku’s stairs, trying to control his urge to retch. Finally, he reached the door. He would have stood in front of it for several minutes, trying to screw up some courage, if it weren’t for the fact that Mei-Mei had heard him stumble up the stairs and called (loudly) to Kiku that he was there. He barely had a moment to rearrange his expression into something respectable before Kiku opened the door.
The last two weeks had apparently not been kind to Kiku. Arthur was vaguely aware that Kiku had some sort of final exams coming up, but he didn’t believe that that alone had been enough to make Kiku where such a haggard expression. There were dark bags below his eyes, and his forehead seemed permanently creased. Oh sweet heaven, I went and gave poor Kiku wrinkles and he isn’t even twenty five, he thought in horror. Would he be insulted if I bought him anti-wrinkle cream? How difficult was it to reprogram Alfred?
“Hello, Arthur-san. Please come inside.”
“Forgive my intrusion,” he murmured as he stepped inside and slipped off his shoes, as was the unwritten rule of Kiku’s good etiquette. As he straightened, he looked around Kiku’s living room. For the first time in the five years that Kiku had been living by himself, the room was actually messy. Not insanely messy, not like a room Alfred had cut his usual swath of destruction. There were used paper plates, empty take-out boxes, scattered chopsticks, dirty dishes and clothes, crumpled magazines, and precarious towers of books that seemed to sway with every step Arthur took. For Kiku, it might have well been one of the signs of the apocalypse. Or that Kiku had gotten an early edition of Call to Arms: Kyoto Mecha: Part Three. The only thing not out of place was the sedate, soothing jazz coming from Mei-Mei’s speakers. Arthur, needless to say, was stunned.
“Please excuse the mess. I have been… busy lately,” Kiku managed, one eye twitching in a way that either meant Kiku was tweaked out on something or that he hadn’t sleep in two days. Knowing Kiku, it really could have been either choice.
“Final exams?” Arthur tried to keep his tone polite as he asked.
“Three of them.”
Arthur winced. “And you fixed Alfred—Kiku, how can I-?”
Kiku shifted from one foot to the other. Ah, now Arthur had embarrassed him. “Would you like to see him or would you prefer a cup of tea first?”
Arthur considered it; a cuppa would have been lovely, if it weren’t for that fact that he still wanted to throw up, and Kiku didn’t need him adding to the mess. Arthur swallowed his terror. “I’d… like to see him, please.”
Kiku nodded and turned, heading to the backroom where he did his work. Even his workroom was unusually messy, although that really only meant there was more instant ramen cups and coffee cans than usual. There was a table in the middle of the room, and Arthur was terrified to look.
“I’m afraid I took longer than I meant to, re-encoding his programs. There… were more difficulties than I had originally accounted for.”
Now he was petrified and his gaze froze on one empty ramen cup that lay, overturned, at the base of the table. “Was it… bad?” Did I really lose Alfred? It was a good thing he hadn’t taken that cup of tea. He would have thrown up, without a doubt.
“Nothing too impossible,” Kiku reassured him. “Some of Alfred’s data was lost. Just basic coding, nothing too serious. I had to cannibalize some of the Companion data though, to compensate.”
Arthur stared at his friend in horror. “Cannibalize?”
Kiku blinked slowly at him. “…I recycled some data, Arthur-san, that’s all.”
“Oh,” he muttered. “Oh, good. Um. So…he’s still Alfred, right? The Companion data’s all gone?”
“I had to leave some of the Companion program in place.”
Arthur found himself staring again. “Kiku, please tell me you didn’t turn my Alfred into a sexbot.”
Kiku started, eyes wide. “I erased everything unnecessary for Alfred to function—he…he won’t turn into a—a ‘sexbot’.”
Arthur sagged in relief. “Oh. Oh thank God.” Then he blinked and surged upright. “Not that I think you would on purpose! Turn Alfred into a—well, I, uh. Thank you for all your hard work.” I really need to pay him extra, utility bills be damned.
Kiku finally smiled, bowing his head in acknowledgement. “You can go look at him, Arthur-san. I haven’t turned him on yet.”
Arthur nodded, but it still took a moment to bring himself to take that step forward, further into the room. The three feet from the door to the bed had seemed both to stretch on for miles and to shrink to barely an inch. All the same, he found himself standing at the foot of the bed.
Kiku had found this new Alfred a pair of boots, which looked worn down to comfort. He found it easier if he focused on the clothes, and less upon the body which they dressed. Slowly, his eyes slid up, past patched knees and worn denim jeans, an old leather belt, a simple white t-shirt beneath a red flannel button-up, up to large hands, long limbs, long torso, broad shoulders, and a powerful neck. It was a body you would expect a fashion model to have, hence a perfect Companion model. He got the distinct feeling that Kiku was undercharging him for this. Finally, he forced himself to look at the face.
Companions were created to be aesthetically pleasing. That was really half the point of them. They were computers that were made to look more human than laptops and be more beautiful than most people ever were, and when you owned one, they would look at you like you were the beautiful one. It was that simple. They would crawl for you, and you only needed to say the word. No wonder they were quickly built to be physically compatible with humans. That was the other half of the point of them. You didn’t own a Companion to use them as a computer; you bought them to own them in every sense of the world.
As it was, Alfred’s new face was perfectly suited for this purpose.
If his body was model perfect, then his face was made to portray Adonis. The jaw was strong, nose straight if slightly pert, and his hair… Arthur blinked. “His hair’s the same!”
“I had to special order it,” Kiku explained, stepping over and joining him at Alfred’s side. “I couldn’t find a right body type and coloring. I’m afraid you’re going to have to keep putting gel in his hair, however, if you want it to stick up right—I have found a brand that works well for it though. I don’t suggest reapplying until after his hair dries from a shower.”
Arthur stared at his friend. “Companions can take showers?”
“Oh yes. They’re completely water proof. They need to be easily cleaned.”
Arthur shuddered at the hidden meaning to Kiku’s words, instead refocusing on Alfred’s face. Perhaps it was only right that Alfred looked this way; as a laptop, he had been unbearably cute. It made sense that as a Companion, Alfred would be strikingly handsome. Still, it was hard to connect this beautiful face to the charming little countenance that had been by Arthur’s side for six years, even though the hair did help.
The only thing was, Arthur thought while his stomach clenched furiously, was that this Alfred wasn’t smiling. It was silly; stupid really—Alfred had been an unusual laptop that had always had a smile ready, even as he powered down, even when he Stopped. Still, it felt like a bad omen.
“Would you like to power him up, Arthur-san?”
Arthur bit his lip as he struggled to find his voice. “… How?”
“Here—it’s still in the earport,” Kiku explained softly, brushing aside some golden hair to expose the earport. Arthur had known that Companion’s earports were built unlike laptops, looking more like shiny buttons than semi-realistic ears, but it was still a shock to see the bright red circle on the side of his face. Kiku took a moment to point out the button behind it that would release the latch before pressing it, causing the earport to swing open. At least the earport was the same—power cord, power switch, USB and connecter ports.
It took him a moment to realize that Kiku had stepped back and was waiting for him to flip the switch. He looked down at the switch, at the unfamiliar face attached to it. Don’t do it, pleaded a tiny voice in his mind. Just turn and go back home. Back home, safe and sound.
Where there would still be no Alfred waiting for me when I got back.
Arthur flipped the switch.
Time stopped. For a moment, there was nothing. And then, finally a faint hum built up, lasting on and on for half a minute before at least it died. Then the Companion opened his eyes, halfway, while they flashed the colors of the rainbow before settling on a heart achingly familiar blue.
God, Kiku really had tried to recapture Alfred for him.
Finally, finally finally finally, the Companion smiled. Tried nothing; Kiku found Alfred.
“Good morning, Arthur! Are you ready for another day?”
Without quite meaning to, Arthur flung himself at his poor, startled Alfred’s neck.
Alfred had come back to him. He finally had his Alfred back.
Chapter 5: Adjustments
Alfred and Arthur are reunited, but Alfred's new body needs one last inspection before Kiku's ready to let him go home. Both Alfred and Arthur need time to get used to Alfred's new unit.
Getting Alfred up and off the bed proved to be more of a chore than they had anticipated. Sitting up hadn’t been too much of a problem, even if Alfred hadn’t given Arthur a warning and had nearly crushed him in a bear hug when he did it.
“Al-Alfred,” Arthur rasped.
“Hey, this is weird. Arthur, did you shrink?” Alfred babbled contently, laughing at the thought. “You’re my size now!”
“Actually, you’re our size now, Alfred-kun,” Kiku pointed out mildly, watching Arthur’s face going from red to pale.
“Really?” Alfred blinked and let go of Arthur to look down at himself. Kiku cautiously put a hand to his shoulder, silently wondering if he should have warned Arthur about a Companion model’s built-in strength. On the table, Alfred was staring at his new hands and legs like they were curious toys, marionette limbs rather than his own. “How’d that happen?”
Arthur nearly choked on a cough, his bruised ribs forgotten in an instant as he suddenly realized that in all the days since he had agreed to have Kiku transfer his programs into a new body, not once had he really thought about what life would be like for Alfred. The desperate, consuming need to have Alfred back had blocked everything else, including thinking about just what the hell he would say.
Alfred kept gazing at his hands, confusion more and more apparent in his face as he kept turning them over. “This is freaky—why do I have a new body?” He paused, glancing upward. “And new programming! Kiku, did you do something to me? Why does my calendar read November 17 instead November 2?”
“A-Alfred...” Arthur stammered, biting his lip. “You… there was…” Merciful heavens, how do you explain to a computer that they died? He glanced over his shoulder to see if Kiku could help him, only to find that Kiku had turned away—probably to give them some privacy—and was busy picking up Mei-Mei as she held out her arms to him. Should have known.
“Arthur?” Arthur glanced back to see Alfred staring at him expectantly.
“I’m… I’m afraid that you…” Is there any good way to say this? “You… stopped working for awhile, Alfred. Kiku had… to fix you by giving you a new unit.”
Alfred cocked his head to the side. Arthur’s heart both leapt and ached at the familiar gesture. “I stopped working?” He looked down again, picking up one leg and bending it at the knee as if he were experimenting with it. “And I have a new unit… well, that explains the new programming. Huh. This is so weird.”
Arthur shivered. “I… I know it’s probably something of a shock.” He frowned at the stupidity of his words; of course it’d be a shock. Hell, he’d flip out if he woke up in another body. “Wait, Alfred, what I mean is-” What did he mean? “Just… try to take it easy. This—it’ll probably be difficult for awhile, so… I’m not expecting anything from you, but—try not to get upset.”
Alfred surprised him by yanking up his shirt and looking at his stomach before laughing. “Look, Arthur! I have a six-pack! Ha-ha, look at it. Cool.”
Arthur twitched. “Alfred.”
“Yeah, Arthur? Oh my god, look! I have pecs too! Do you think I have big biceps—holy cow!”
“Alfred, stop stripping please and listen to me,” he quipped. Alfred looked up, face full of barely contained glee with his shirt half off. Arthur had to resist hugging him again. “Do you understand what I’m trying to say?”
“My old body stopped working so you got me a new one?” Alfred tried, looking only mildly bemused.
“And… you’re not upset at all?”
Alfred laughed. “Are you kidding? This is too cool! Hey, how’d you get me in here anyway? I didn’t think my data could just be transferred like that.”
Arthur smiled, glancing over his shoulder. “Kiku managed it. You should thank him.”
“Really? Kiku, you’re awesome! Thanks a ton.” He tried to hop off the table—no doubt to try and hug Kiku, as he always had when someone did something for him. Unfortunately, he didn’t quite manage it—instead, he fell face first into the floor.
“Alfred!” Arthur yelped, sliding down off the table to check on him. Kiku quickly joined him as they pulled Alfred upright, even little Mei-Mei trying to help push his head up. “Alfred, are you alright?”
Alfred seemed too stunned to mind. “Huh. I guess I can’t use the old program to walk then.”
Kiku patted his shoulder. “Yes, Alfred-kun. This isn’t a laptop unit anymore, so try accessing the other program.”
“Can you stand?” Arthur asked. Already he missed Alfred’s tiny laptop unit—he could have just carried him. I’m… never going to be able to carry him around again…
If he noticed Arthur’s distress, he didn’t show any sign of it; instead Alfred closed his eyes and hummed faintly as he brought up the program. Slowly, he unfolded one leg until he was nearly kneeling and then forced himself up while Kiku and Arthur carefully rose with him. Setting his other foot down, he smiled at them.
Right until he began to tilt to the side. Then he flung his arms out around Arthur as he staggered, drawing a yelp from the Brit as he tried to catch the Companion. Alfred looked at him with wide eyes before looking down. “… the floor’s a long way down now.”
“Yes,” Arthur replied stiffly, patting one of the arms wrapped around him. “Yes, it is. Are you okay?”
“Heheh, Alfred, you look so funny,” Mei-Mei giggled.
Alfred gave her a shaky laugh before he took a wobbly step back, keeping his hands on Arthur’s shoulders to steady himself as he straightened. After a moment, in which Arthur heard a quiet whirring noise coming from Alfred, he found his balance and warily let go. He grinned triumphantly when he stayed on his feet. “Well, at least I got that down.”
“It’s a good start, Alfred-kun,” Kiku nodded before he bent down to scoop up Mei-Mei. “Why don’t you try walking to the living room?”
“Living room… okay. Here goes,” he announced before he took a cautious step. When he didn’t fall, he tried again. After the second step he seemed to regain his confidence and nearly skipped out of the room, swinging his long arms back and forth like he did when he was a laptop, except this time his knuckles nearly brushed the narrow walls of Kiku’s hallway. When he entered the living room, he finished with a hop before looking over his shoulder with an excited grin. “I made it! How’d I do?”
“Wonderful, Alfred-kun. Try sitting down next, please.”
Alfred seemed bizarrely excited about the idea and after a moment of soft humming and buzzing he managed to navigate his way down to the floor without tipping over onto his face. Arthur and Kiku joined after a moment while Alfred enjoyed his success. “This is so weird—cool though—but it’s like I’m walking on stilts.”
“That’s to be expected,” Kiku assured him as he settled Mei-Mei onto his knee. “And now Alfred-kun, I’d like to run one more diagnostic scan on you before Arthur takes you home.”
Alfred nodded and turned to Arthur with an expectant look. Briefly, all Arthur did was stare back at him before he realized that Alfred was waiting for him to open his earport up. He couldn’t help but laugh. “You know, your arms are long enough now you don’t need me to do it.”
Alfred started, glancing down at his hands in surprise. “Oh. I guess so.”
He doesn’t need me to help with everything now. He doesn’t need my help. Arthur frowned. He barely needs me at all, really.
Arthur nearly fell over himself when he scrambled to push the button for Alfred. Alfred beamed at him while Kiku finished plugging in Mei-Mei. The Companion turned his head to offer the open earport to the programmer, which Kiku quickly plugged the other end of the cord into. For the next ten minutes, they sat quietly (or rather in Arthur’s case, awkwardly) while the two computers fell silent. Despite the apparent success that Alfred had been enjoying so far, Arthur was still on pins and needles until the two of them raised their heads, a slight beep coming from Mei-Mei as she finished her diagnostic.
“All good, Kiku-niisan,” Mei-Mei chirped. “Would you like to see the results now?”
“That would be good—bring it up,” he ordered. The laptop did as told as she turned to the wall—Arthur jumped a little when her eyes lit up and a projection appeared on the wall, showing a list of technical jargon that Arthur could make neither heads nor tails of. “It all looks good, although…Mei-Mei, focus in on b356_879, please.” The laptop did as she was told, highlighting a line amidst a sea of numbers and random letters. Kiku frowned. “Odd. I thought I deleted that.”
Arthur tensed. “What? What is it?”
Kiku blinked at him. “Ah, no. It’s just some of the Companion programming. I must have missed some of it. You should delete that, Alfred-kun.”
“Arthur?” Alfred asked, turning to him with curious eyes.
“What is it exactly?” Arthur asked, shifting.
Kiku coughed delicately. “A program that would contain certain… instructions.”
Arthur stared before feeling his ears start to burn. “Delete it, Alfred.”
Alfred sighed but fidgeted for a moment. “Done.”
“Good. That should do it,” Kiku announced, unplugging the two computers. “You should be able to do all the same things you used to do. If there’s a problem, please call me.”
Arthur dearly wanted to hug the other man, but he doubted he would appreciate it. Instead he resolved to buy him lunch for a month if he had to. He grinned at his friend as they stood. “Thank you, Kiku. For everything.”
Kiku nodded. “It was an interesting challenge.”
Arthur reached out to help steady Alfred as he stood. “Oh, hey, Kiku! I got a question.”
“Is there a problem, Alfred-kun?”
“Nah, not that—I was just wondering, where’d these clothes come from?”
“Ludwig-san, actually—he wanted to get rid of them, but he mentioned that Edelstein-san kept stopping him for some reason,” Kiku shrugged. “He said he didn’t need them back.”
Arthur frowned. “I suppose I should probably pay him something for them though…”
“Please let me correct myself—Ludwig-san said that he didn’t want them back.”
Arthur snorted; he understood. “Well, I should send him a thank you note at least. Which, speaking of, thank you for everything, Kiku, I mean it.”
“Yeah, thanks, Kiku!” Alfred cheered, nearly lunging at Kiku (and nearly flattening him) for a hug. “This is really fun.”
“I’m glad you like your new body, Alfred-kun,” Kiku croaked. Arthur winced—Alfred’s new body gave bear hugs that were more like bear traps—and tugged Alfred away. Alfred looked momentarily confused before brightening again and joining Arthur at his side.
“Well, I think we should let you get back to your studying,” Arthur began, and it was probably a bad sign when Kiku didn’t try to argue with them and instead stood to walk them to the door. Alfred took his time saying goodbye to Mei-Mei, who seemed a little too amused by the whole thing, before he nearly crushed Kiku again in a hug. Arthur pulled him off his friend and began to tug him out the door. “Goodbye, Kiku. And thank you, really. I… well, thank you.”
Kiku paused to smile at him before he shut the door.
And then, Arthur realized he was quite alone with this new Alfred now, who was staring at him expectantly with a smile. Like a puppy, Arthur remembered fondly before he lapsed back into the awkward silence.
“Well,” he tried but floundered. “Well.”
“Well?” Alfred drawled with a laugh. He looked like a movie star, torn straight from the cover of a magazine.
Arthur blushed and stepped past him. “Well, come on, then.”
“Are we going home?” Alfred asked, all excitement.
Arthur glanced back at him and smiled. “Yes. We’re going home, Alfred.”
Chapter 6: Changes
Alfred and Arthur don't even get all the way home before problems begin to crop up and the stress levels start to rise.
The first problem showed up when Arthur and Alfred were walking home. At first, Arthur hadn’t really noticed it; he was too busy staring down at the ground in thought. But when he glanced up, to look at a street sign, he felt a pair of arms encircle his shoulders and a chin rested next to his neck. “Hey, hey, Arthur, so did anything happen while I was gone?” Alfred asked, straight into his ear.
“Don’t yell in my ear, Alfred,” Arthur blushed, turning his face so that it was any direction other than Alfred’s. As he turned, he caught the disgruntled look that the woman next to him was giving them before she turned her head abruptly. What’s her problem?
“Arrrthuuuurrrr,” Alfred whined, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, rocking them side to side. “Come on. I haven’t been, like, alive for two weeks. Did nothing really happen at all?”
His stomach twisted. “Alfred, you’re going to knock us over. And no, not much of anything happened.” Besides that I blabbed to about half the people I know that I got a Companion. Hey, wait, is she glaring again? Arthur frowned at her, eliciting a blush that caused her to finally keep her eyes to herself. Arthur himself glanced away, this time to the other side of the road; to his surprise, there was another person staring at him, this time looking more curious than the woman. What is it with people today and staring?
“Ah, I don’t believe you! Come on, didn’t you go see anybody or anything?”
Arthur shifted in his arms, which Alfred for some reason took to mean that he could start rocking them side to side again. “Francis invited us over for tea when I got you back.”
“Oh! Are we going to go see him then?”
And watch him try to seduce you because of your new body? Not bloody likely, Arthur thought grimly before he paused. Alfred. Alfred’s new body. Alfred’s new Companion body.
Alfred’s new Companion body that was hanging all over him in the middle of public.
Oh, Jesus. No wonder everyone is staring. “Alfred, get off of me!”
Alfred’s arms around him stiffened; it was a good thing he wasn’t holding him tightly, he probably would have choked him. “Arthur?”
“Get off me now, Alfred.”
“Did I do something wrong?” Alfred asked, his voice high with a whine as he let go. He curled his shaking hands into fists by his sides, as he had always done as a laptop right before he began to let out a loud wail of distress.
Arthur shuddered at the thought and reached to grab Alfred’s wrists before he tried to sob. “Alfred, don’t. You’re… you’re not little anymore. You can’t just cry over everything.”
Alfred jerked away, stung. To Arthur’s surprise, he made his eyes look wide and shiny, just as he had done as a laptop. Huh. He didn’t know Companions could do that too. “Why? Why are you yelling at me? I didn’t do anything!”
The woman was glaring again, but this time Arthur couldn’t blame her. He dragged Alfred away from the corner, down the sidewalk until they reached an alleyway, which Arthur quickly pulled them into. “Alfred, don’t act like that in public. You know better.”
Alfred pouted. “But I didn’t do anything, and you started yelling at me. Why’d you do that?”
Arthur sighed, running a hand through his hair in agitation. Almost as soon as his fingers slipped through his hair, Alfred reached up to smooth it back down. Arthur twitched, fighting a blush. “That! That right there—you can’t do that, Alfred.”
Alfred stared at him like a pixie had crawled out of his ear. “But I’ve always done that. You need someone to get it back in place, or it sticks out all funny.”
“I can take care of myself,” Arthur snapped stiffly. “I got along without you for two weeks.”
To his surprise, Alfred froze, staring him silently with wide eyes. Arthur felt something in him break at the sight. “Ar… Arthur?”
Unconsciously, Arthur pressed a hand to his mouth in shock. That was nice, Arthur. You lose him for two miserable, god awful weeks, and the first thing you do is yell at him and make him feel horrible. “I… Alfred, I… didn’t mean to… mean for that to come out like that.”
“Well, what did you mean?” he retorted, taking a step back until he pressed up against the other wall.
When did he back away like that? “Alfred… I—I’m sorry, I didn’t—I didn’t mean to snap. It’s just…” he floundered, seeing that Alfred was still clearly confused. “You can’t just hang all over me like that now. Do you understand?”
“No. Why can’t I? You never minded when I touched you before.”
Arthur sighed and raised a hand up to run it through his hair again until he remembered Alfred’s fingers, long and narrow, smoothing it down. Instead he cupped it against the back of his neck and glanced away. “Alfred, you’re no longer a little-” Child. “… You’re not a laptop. People… when they see a Companion doing that to a person… they get ideas.” Alfred was staring. “Ideas that I don’t want them to have about you. You… you didn’t know, and I should have thought to explain to you before. I am sorry about that. But you can’t do that now.”
“… This is one of those things that I’m never going to understand, ain’t it?” Alfred asked, scrunching up his nose at him. Finally, he sighed and looked down at the toes of his boots as he kicked at the tarmac. “Can… can I at least hold your hand?”
He should say no. No, people would still get ideas if they held hands. But with that hangdog expression on his face, Arthur found it impossible to resist him. Arthur blushed and held out a hand. “Just this once.”
Alfred pouted but took the hand. He smiled once again when Arthur threaded his fingers through his before frowning again and looking up at him through his eye lashes. “Arthur, you still love me, don’t you?”
Arthur felt his ears burning as he gaped at his Companion. “I… of course, I do.”
“Now… let’s go home,” Arthur murmured, gently tugging on the hand in his as he left the alleyway. Alfred squeezed his hand—amazingly, he managed to not crush Arthur’s hand—and skipped to fall back in step with Arthur.
If anyone else looked or glared at them and their joined hands, Arthur refused to notice them.
Life was suddenly very strange for Alfred. A little more than two weeks ago, he’d gone to bed, curling up next to Arthur after a routine day as he’d always done. To be honest, he hadn’t felt different that night, except that it was unusually hard for him to keep his system running. A full night to recharge would do the trick, he had thought then.
However, that was two weeks ago and he’d only just woken up barely an hour ago.
So. Life was very strange.
Could be worse, he decided as they got off the subway—it took him nearly a year to figure out why Arthur called it The Tube when all Alfred’s dictionary references called it the subway, he recalled fondly—his hand still intertwined with Arthur’s. At least he’s still letting me hold his hand.
Which was another thing. Arthur was very weird too, now. It made him doubt that nothing had happened in the two weeks he’d been inactive. He seemed to switch between worried and agitated at the drop of a hat. And then he yelled at him about ‘hanging all over him’ when it had never bothered him before. Hell, he would be the one to scoop him up and hug him most of the time. And now, well, now he seemed to think Alfred was carrying a plague.
Oh. Maybe I caught a virus! … No, wait, Kiku would have told me if I caught one. Maybe Arthur doesn’t know that, though.
“What.” And there was another thing! Arthur for some reason couldn’t bring himself to look at him, like now when he refused to lift his eyes from the ground as they walked to the station’s exit.
Oh God, do I look really ugly or something? Unlikely—he didn’t think the body was a Custom, and even it was, Kiku wouldn’t have made him look too horrible.
Unless Kiku went and had another marathon of those horror games again and made him look like a monster! Alfred turned his head and glanced in the nearest reflective surface he could see—a poster case for some play downtown—and found that he …well, he looked handsome enough, he supposed. Companions were supposed to be nice looking, right? He had eyes, a nose, and a mouth all in the right places, designed in ways that seemed pleasing enough. Maybe Arthur was the one to find him ugly? What was wrong with him?
“Alfred, what did you want?” Arthur demanded, making him jump.
Want? Want what? He stared as he briefly rewound his memories. Oh, I forgot! “Arthur, I’m not ugly, right?”
Arthur was giving a funny look, like he had the one time he’d caught an actual virus and had declared himself the King of Spain while he stood on Antonio’s head. “N-no. No, Alfred, you’re… not ugly at all.”
Alfred brightened. Arthur didn’t think he was ugly! “So, so, I’m handsome then?”
Arthur’s face went red. After a moment, a code fired in his CPU and Alfred realized that with his new unit and program, he could blush too. He decided to try it. Immediately, sensors below his face made the tissue on his cheeks turn from warm pink to a bright red. Interesting.
Oh, wait. Did Arthur just go a darker red?
“Wh—Alfred, did you just blush?”
“Yeah! It’s a new program, I think. Does it look good?”
Arthur was staring again, but at least that meant he was finally paying attention to him. About time, too. “I-I suppose…”
Alfred grinned and decided to give the program a higher priority rating before he shut it off. “So, I am handsome, right?”
Arthur spluttered at him and managed to make a noise Alfred hadn’t known you could make outside of mashing keys on an old-fashioned keyboard. “Alfred, don’t ask those kinds of questions in public!”
Alfred blinked and cocked his head to the side. What does it matter if it’s in public or not? First he couldn’t touch him, now he couldn’t ask questions. Maybe Arthur really thought he had a virus. “Can I ask them later, then?”
“Alfred,” Arthur began in a tone of voice Alfred recognized as meaning he was in trouble. “Not. Now.” Alfred pouted, shrinking away from his owner, nearly running into a woman behind him. The angles of Arthur’s face softened and he squeezed Alfred’s hand. “Let’s…let’s just get home. Okay?”
Alfred nodded, feeling depressed. Arthur did think there was something wrong with him—why else would he be mad with him? It wasn’t like the time he put salt in Arthur’s tea instead of sugar—which to be fair, they looked a lot alike!—or the time he managed to dump syrup all over him and Mattie when they had tried to help Francis cook breakfast. Quietly, he let Arthur drag him up the stairs, out of the station. “Arthur…?” he tried, feeling smaller than he ever had as a laptop. And considering what it felt like to be in a Companion unit instead of a laptop, that was something.
Arthur sighed. “What now, Alfred?”
“You…know I don’t have a virus, right?”
Arthur was staring at him again. “…Yes. I’m aware of that, Alfred.”
Alfred wilted. “Oh. Okay then.” Turned his faced down, back to his borrowed boots. Maybe Arthur just didn’t like his new Companion unit… or just didn’t like Companion units. But then, why would he agree to put Alfred in one if he minded? What on earth was so wrong with him now? Arthur said he still loved him, but what if he was just trying to be nice? What if Arthur didn’t like him at all now?
What if Arthur was planning on getting rid of him?
The Companion looked up shyly. “Yes?”
Arthur was looking at him again, but this time it wasn’t the ‘Alfred’s gone crazy’ look or the ‘I paid too much for you to start beating you, but don’t think I won’t’ look. This was the ‘oh, Alfred, you look like a kicked puppy’ look.
That was a good sign. That used to mean Arthur would scoop him up and hug him and pet him, call him a good, sweet, or silly child, but he loved him anyway. Alfred waited eagerly.
Arthur didn’t disappoint. He smiled softly and pulled Alfred away from the crowd, ducking inside a doorway and tugged Alfred closer, reaching up with one arm to sling it around Alfred’s shoulders. Alfred smiled and bent slightly so he and Arthur were face to face. Arthur gently pressed their foreheads together while Alfred tossed his free arm around Arthur’s waist.
“What am I going to do with you, Al?” Arthur sighed, but he was smiling.
A smile was always good.
“You can let me stay with you.”
Arthur laughed. “I had planned on it,” he chuckled, pulling away to Alfred’s minor disappointment. “Now come on. I want to go home.”
Alfred grinned. “Me too.”
Unfortunately, Arthur’s kinder treatment only lasted until bedtime, but Alfred had to admit it was a surprise his patience held out that long. First off, when they got home, they’d been mostly fine until he’d hurried in, so ecstatic to be home, and lunged inward. Regrettably, Alfred’s stride was longer than he remembered and his foot caught on the step that led upward from the tiny foyer. Alfred found himself falling for the second time that day on his face. Thankfully, his survival program kicked in and he managed to get one arm up in time to prevent him from smashing his face in. Instantly, two things happened: a damage report sprouted up in his program, which summed up that there’d been no injury. The other thing was that Arthur nearly tripped over him as he tried to help him.
After that, Alfred’s clumsiness hadn’t really improved much. He slammed his foot into the corner of the couch, whacked his knuckle against the wall (putting a dent into it), and fell over the ottoman. Arthur hovered at his side constantly, always pulling him back up, although he got progressively rougher each time. By the bedtime, Alfred was pretty sure that Arthur was getting ready to wring his neck.
I don’t remember the apartment being this small before, Alfred pouted as he sat on the bed. Arthur was in the shower; when he thought about it, there wasn’t really a reason that Alfred couldn’t go in there now. Companions were waterproof; in fact, you were supposed to shower them (Alfred checked a Companion user manual online to make sure). But then, it probably would be better to remind Arthur of that when he wasn’t ready to start tearing his own hair out.
It’s not like I meant to do it, he pouted, toeing his boots off. As fun as this Companion unit was, it was really hard to get the hang of. Maybe I’ll figure out later. He sighed and fumbled with his buckle on his belt until he got the darned thing off and tossed it next to his boots. His pants came next, along with the flannel shirt. He hesitated to pull off the t-shirt, but then, he’d always slept in his long, old-fashioned gown. Glancing over his shoulder at the closet, he wondered if there was anything big enough for him in it as he tossed his shirt aside. Maybe Arthur had something of James’s he could borrow…
There was a squeak when he opened the closet; at first he thought it was just the door until he’d looked up and seen Arthur, face red and a hand clutching at his shirt. “Oh, hey, why’d you get dressed in the bathroom? Too cold in here?”
“Al-Alfred! Where are your clothes?”
“Huh? Oh. They’re over there—do you have something from Uncle James that I could borrow? He wouldn’t care, d’you think?”
“I don’t keep James’s clothes here,” Arthur snapped.
Oh. Well, he’s got a point, I guess. He closed the door. “But what am I going to wear to bed?”
Arthur flustered. “B-b… go sleep on the couch!”
Alfred started badly. “The couch? Why, what’d I do now? I just wanted something to sleep in.”
Wow, now Arthur’s face was getting really red. Alfred couldn’t decide if this was going to constantly be a bad sign now. “Alfred, you’re not sleeping here.”
Oh God, I did do something wrong! Alfred thought in horror. He hadn’t been forced to sleep separately from Arthur since… since Arthur worked so late that he’d made Alfred shut down before they went home. Even then, Arthur had tucked him in next to him after he plugged him in.
Despite the fact that Arthur said he was too big to do it anymore, his distress program tripped and Alfred sobbed. “Arthur!” he wailed, letting himself slip down until he was sitting down on the ground, knees splayed out before him. “What I’d do? I didn’t mean to do it, whatever it was, I swear! I’ll be good. Why do you hate me?”
His confusion was too much; his distress program ratcheted up the crying despite Arthur’s panicked soothing to ease the stress on Alfred’s system. Only after his sensors signaled lowered stress levels did the program switch off and Alfred sniffled, finally listening to Arthur’s words.
“-I’m sorry, I’m sorry, shh, don’t cry, shh,” Arthur shushed him, petting his hair and cupping his cheek. Alfred sniffed but leaned into the palm against his cheek. “Shh. It’s okay.”
“Yes, yes, I’m sorry. Shh.”
Alfred hiccupped and tossed his arms around Arthur’s middle, burying his face against Arthur’s chest. “Arthur, why do you hate me now?”
“Oh, oh,” he sighed, pulling Alfred’s face back so he could look at him properly. “I-I’m sorry. I don’t hate you, Alfred, I don’t hate you.”
Alfred sniffed. “Really?”
“Yes. I don’t hate you. I’m sorry,” he sighed as he lowered himself to the floor to sit down. “I…suppose this is just as confusing for you, huh? Alfred, I don’t hate you.”
Arthur gave that sad little laugh that made Alfred’s compassion code hurt in response. “I mean it. I don’t hate you at all. I’m sorry—I’ve been a right bear to you all day, haven’t I?”
Alfred buried his face into Arthur’s shoulder, like he’d done when he was still a laptop. “I don’t have to sleep on the couch, do I?”
Arthur paused, then laughed. “No. No, you can sleep with me tonight.”
Any misery he had instantly vanished. Alfred yelped in glee and kissed Arthur’s cheek. “Thank you, Arthur! Can we go to bed now?”
Arthur looked a little stunned but he nodded. “Yes… yes. I could use the rest.”
Alfred grinned and jumped up, dragging Arthur up with him to his surprise. “Wow! I can pick you up now?”
“Alfred,” Arthur yelped. “Put me down.”
Rather than risk Arthur’s ire and perhaps him making good on his couch threat, Alfred quickly sat him down. “Sorry.”
Arthur pulled away from him, but at least he didn’t yell at him. Instead, he gave him a shove to the bed. “Get in, quick, before something else happens.”
“Okay,” Alfred shrugged, walking around to the other side of the bed while Arthur crawled into his side. He watched as Arthur flicked off his light and settled under the covers. Well, at least he doesn’t look mad. He shrugged with a grin and happily yanked off his underwear.
And then quickly screamed.
“OH MY GOD, WHAT IS THAT.”
“Alfred, what on earth are you—what are you doing?”
“Arthur, ARTHUR, there’s something in my underwear!”
“What do you—put your pants back on!”
“Oh, oh, wait—is—is this that? Oh, wow, does this mean I have a-”
“ALFRED, PUT YOUR GODDAMN PANTS ON!”
Chapter 7: Guests
Some friends drop by to see Alfred; Arthur gets a massive headache. They discuss Alfred's difficulties with his new body and Alfred makes a discovery.
Arthur really shouldn’t have told Francis that he had planned to pick up Alfred the day before. He should have lied and said it would have been a week later. Or, at least, that he didn’t get up on weekends before noon if he could help it.
Not that that would have discouraged the Frenchman, of course—but it might have bought him a few more hours of blissful peace before he came knocking at the door. As it was, Alfred had cheerfully chirped an “I’ll get it!” before Arthur could stop him (Alfred was very enthusiastic about getting a chance to stretch his legs and practice wandering around the apartment).
“Wow! Well, hi there.”
“…Alfred? Mon dieu, is that you?”
Arthur let his head drop to the table.
“Dios mio, it is him!”
Arthur’s head immediately jerked back up. Oh no.
“Oh, Alfred, look at you! Isn’t he tall, Feliks?”
“Like, how’d you manage that?”
“Ah, Al, you got really big.”
“Got that right! Jealous, Mattie?”
“What’s there to be jealous about?” Arthur shouted from the table, pressing a hand over his eyes. “All you do is trip over everything.”
There was a brief pounding of feet and then Alfred stuck his head around the corner to glare at Arthur. “Hey, I only tripped once this morning. You stubbed your toe when you got up.”
Immediately after Alfred stormed into the kitchen, the group of guests appeared as well. Francis, along with Mathieu, Antonio, and finally Elizabeta and her laptop, Feliks, followed him. Elizabeta was the first to actually greet him. “Hello, Kirkland! Sorry to intrude, but we wanted to come see Alfred’s new unit.”
“Hey, Al? You do like it, right?” Mathieu asked, reaching out to tug on the back of the shirt that Arthur had to help Alfred into earlier.
Alfred turned and grinned at his once identical ‘brother’. Oh, how long ago it seemed to Arthur since Alfred was the same size as Mathieu, both of them somehow managing to get into all surprising sorts of trouble. “Well, I’m still getting used to it, but it’s pretty awesome, if I do say so myself.”
“Well, it is a fetching look for you,” Francis smirked, reaching out and snagging Alfred’s chin so he could turn his face this way and that. “You make for a charming, ah, forgive me a bad pun, companion.”
“You should see what I look like under my clothes now!” Alfred cheerfully announced before yanking up his shirt once again. “I have a six pack now, see?”
Arthur slapped his hand to his forehead when they all ‘ooh’ed for him. Then Antonio pulled his sleeve up and they ‘ahh’ed his arms. When Francis reached out to tug on Alfred’s trousers, however, Arthur jumped up and pulled Alfred away.
“Enough gawking now, if you please,” he snapped as he dragged Alfred back to the kitchen table where his tea sat, getting colder.
Unfortunately, none of them seemed to catch his dismissal and instead followed them back to the table. Francis sat Mathieu down upon the table before pulling out Elizabeta’s chair while Antonio hopped into another chair. Francis took the last seat, which left Alfred with nothing, not that he seemed to mind. He dropped to his knees and propped his arms and chin on the table so that he and Mathieu were eye level when the laptop wandered over, Feliks following. Alfred’s new unit didn’t seem to faze the laptops as they immediately began some clapping game that Elizabeta taught them ages ago.
“So, Arthur, how are you and Alfred getting along?” Antonio asked as he swiped a biscuit from Arthur’s plate.
Arthur frowned down at said plate, and not just out of frustration for the obvious theft. “We’re doing fine.”
“He keeps yelling at me,” Alfred interrupted.
Arthur rolled his eyes. “You keep making trouble.”
“Do not! You’re just grumpy—he yelled at me last night.”
“You kept yelling about your new-” Arthur stopped when he saw the three suddenly very interested gazes coming from the other humans at the table. He coughed pointedly. “Anyway, you keep going on and on. You aren’t a laptop anymore, Alfred; it’s not becoming.”
“Well, how am I supposed to act?”
“Don’t you have some Companion programs for that?” Francis asked. Arthur glared at him before he realized that for once the Frenchman was being serious. “I would have thought it would come with the new unit.”
Alfred paused, gazing at him in surprise before he looked upward as he did a search. His face fell. “I can’t find anything about a new behavioral program.”
“That’s strange,” Elizabeta commented, bracing her elbows against the table. “Companion units should come pre-programmed. Maybe it got deleted when Mr. Honda switched Alfred’s data over?”
Arthur frowned, mulling it over. While he thought, he remembered back to the day before.
Kiku frowned. “Odd. I thought I deleted that.”
Arthur tensed. “What? What is it?”
Kiku blinked at him. “Ah, no. It’s just some of the Companion programming. I must have missed some of it. You should delete that, Alfred-kun.”
Arthur’s jaw dropped. “Oh, lord, was that what that data was?”
“What data?” Alfred blinked but then his eyes widened. “Oh, that data Kiku told me to delete? Hold on, let me do a search.” They all stopped to watch as Alfred’s eyes dimmed with static before they began to glow. For nearly a minute, Alfred continued to search before he blinked. “B356_879 is part of a bundled program to allow Companions to… oh. Um. I don’t think that’s a behavioral program… um, at least not the kind I need.”
Arthur blushed. “Well, get off that website!”
“Actually, it’s a forum… Oh wow, how much stuff don’t I have? Ooh, downloads…”
“Alfred!” Arthur snapped while Elizabeta giggled.
Alfred sighed and his eyes dimmed back to their regular blue. “Well, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t what I need. I dunno.”
“Maybe Honda deleted that instead?” Antonio offered.
Arthur shifted in his seat. “He did look overworked, so perhaps he could have made a mistake… I’d hate to accuse him of anything, though.”
“Well, no one needs to accuse him of anything, even it was an honest mistake,” Elizabeta soothed as she reached out to brush out a tangle in Feliks’ hair. Perhaps Alfred noticed something that bothered him because Arthur quickly found the Companion leaning against his side.
“Maybe you could just download the programs you need,” Francis suggested. “I could ask Charlotte about it if you like.”
Arthur sighed. Great. More people who’ll know about Alfred. “That’d be smashing, thanks.” Before he could say anything else, there was a pounding at the door. “What the hell-?”
“I’ll get it,” Alfred announced as he hurried to the door.
“Oh, good, I think they actually made it,” Francis laughed to Arthur’s surprise.
“Think who made it?”
Arthur didn’t have to wait for an answer—Alfred practically shouted it at the top of his lungs. “Uncle James, Aunt Erin! Uncle Rhys! Oh, you got a sheep laptop, cool.”
Arthur stared at Francis’s mockingly innocent face in horror.
“Holy shite, Alfred is that you?”
“Ha ha, Francis said the same thing. You want to come in?”
Arthur let his head bang against the table again.
Chapter 8: Waiting
Arthur refuses to let Alfred come with him to work; Alfred tries to spend the day tinkering with his programs, but ends up bored out of his processor.
When Monday rolled around, Arthur realized one very unfortunate thing. At precisely 7:15 AM, he groggily woke to the loud, insistent beep of Alfred’s morning alarm and for a moment everything seemed to be the way they were weeks ago. Arthur smiled and let his eyes drift shut for the moment, trying to savor the feeling of rightness in the world.
And then Alfred shouted, “Good morning, Arthur! Are you ready for another day?” and promptly jumped on him. Well, perhaps pounced would be the better term, but all the same Arthur found himself quickly crushed beneath all of the one hundred and twenty pounds of Alfred’s unit.
All the air fled from Arthur’s lungs, but he did manage to gurgle out a sound of distress. Alfred didn’t seem to notice and began to happily squeeze Arthur into a hug.
Oh God, I’m being suffocated by my own computer who I just had transferred into a Companion model. The papers will have a field day. “Alfred,” he wheezed, “gerroff me!”
Alfred pulled back and stared down at him in confusion. “What?”
At least he had some breathing room. “I said get off me, you twat!”
Alfred frowned and climbed off him. “Okay, okay, geez. No need to call me names, Arthur,” he pouted, shifting so he could draw his knees up to his chest. “I just said good morning, s’all.”
“You damn near flattened me.” Arthur coughed and sat up, quickly tossing his legs over the side of the bed and turning away from Alfred. At least James had taken pity on him and sent him an old, oversized shirt for Alfred to sleep in, rather than have a half naked Companion spooning up against him all night.
“Grumpy!” Alfred quipped. Arthur rolled his eyes and decided to just let him have the last word. Whether he realized he was being humored or not, Alfred brightened and hopped out of bed. “Anyway, I looked it up and traffic reports warn for congestion on 27th, so we should probably leave ten minutes early. Francis is having a sale on croissants if you want to stop in.”
“I’ll pass,” Arthur drawled as he gingerly pulled himself out of bed. Damn, he was going to be tender for awhile. Hopefully, no one would notice, otherwise he was going to have an awkward time explaining that Alfred was a little too enthusiastic with invading Arthur’s personal space. Which reminded him—he really needed to sit down and have a chat with the Companion about that. “Alfred, I think we—what are you doing?”
He stared at the Companion who was tossing clothes around from a pile on the floor—James had sent more than just one shirt for Alfred to sleep in. Or rather Francis and Erin ganged up on his wardrobe and hunted through his things, picking out things for Alfred and tossing away dozens of other items, much to James’s distress. Arthur failed to give much of a damn.
Alfred paused, twisting around while he held up a faded green shirt. “Do you think this will be okay?”
Arthur frowned. “Okay for what?”
“For me to wear to the station,” Alfred replied like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “You said I should wear more appropriate things now—so, is this good?”
Arthur shifted. Oh. That’s another thing we have to talk about. He cleared his throat, calling back Alfred’s attention, who had started rifling through the pile for a pair of jeans. “Alfred, I’m afraid… I’m afraid you’ll have to stay home today.”
Alfred didn’t react as fast as he thought he would; the Companion seem to pause over a pair of jeans, more like he was examining them so intently that he’d missed Arthur’s words. Finally, he glanced over his shoulder, eyes wide and mouth agape. “Um. Whatcha say? I-I think I misheard it.”
Arthur sighed. “Alfred, you’re not coming with me.”
Alfred surprised him again; instead of instantly sobbing and yelling he turned back to the pile of clothes, hunching his shoulders, and fell eerily silent. Arthur fought the urge to race over and check on him. “Did…did I do something wrong again?”
Oh God, this again. “Alfred…” he tried. It didn’t work; or rather, it never got a chance to.
Rather, Alfred took it as a sign to bury himself beneath the pile of clothes. It didn’t quite work, seeing as he’d torn most of the clothes out already, and half his back and legs were exposed. Arthur would have laughed it hadn’t been so strange.
Stumped, Arthur wandered over to the pile. “Alfred, what are you doing?” The pile began to shiver; it seemed like a bad omen, so he crouched down. “Alfred? Stop that! A…Al, come on now, talk to me.”
He had barely began to tug away the clothes when Alfred burst out, much like he used to do with the piles of leaves that James would spend an hour raking only to chase after the laptop, screaming obscenities. Except this time, Alfred nearly brained Arthur as he sat up and then began to sob. “What did I do now?”
Arthur had to tap down on the urge to ask ‘what haven’t you done?’ and sighed. “Alfred, now stop overreacting…”
“I am not overreacting! You hate me, don’t you?”
Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose and reached out to put a placating hand on Alfred’s shoulder. “Alfred, I don’t hate you—there’s a good reason why I don’t want you to come.”
Alfred huffed. (Since when had his little laptop ever huffed at him? Well, actually he wasn’t a little laptop anymore and Alfred had always huffed at him and you know, he was getting really far from the point.) “And what’s that? Why can’t I go with you?”
Well. That was a good question. Because it’d be awkward to have everyone either check you out or look at me in disgust probably wouldn’t be what Alfred considered a ‘good reason’. Instead he coughed and rocked back on his heels. “Well, for one, you’re still getting used to your new body.”
“But I didn’t trip at all last night!”
“And two, you still don’t have the behavioral programs that you need,” he added, trying to fight a blush.
For once, Alfred fell silent. Looked like Arthur’s gamble worked. “… Well…when I get them, I get to go with you again, right?”
A roll of nausea turned Arthur’s stomach. “If… if the sergeant allows it, maybe.”
Alfred cocked his head to the side. “Why wouldn’t he? Ludwig likes me!”
“We’ll see,” Arthur replied as he stood up and offered a hand to Alfred. “C’mon, up you get.”
At first, Alfred merely pouted at the hand but reluctantly took it and hopped up. Before Arthur’s fingers could slip through, Alfred gave them a squeeze. “You don’t hate me, right?”
If I’d known that he’d keep asking me that, I would have made a running tally. “Alfred, it’s not very flattering that you keep asking that.”
Alfred ducked his head. “But you keep yelling at me…”
“Listen, remember when you woke up, and I told you that things would be difficult to understand?”
Alfred frowned. “I thought you meant that you were worried that I wouldn’t like my new body.”
“Well, I was,” Arthur admitted, ignoring Alfred’s indignant ‘aha!’ and went on, “but I also meant that other things would change, too. That’s not a bad thing—it’ll just take some getting used to. Chin up until then, all right?”
The Companion pouted again and mumbled what Arthur hoped was an affirmative. He ruffled Alfred’s hair and at last he smiled, making Arthur’s insides squirm. “Okay,” Alfred sighed gustily before pausing. “Oh, hey, Arthur?”
“Yes? Do you need something?”
“Me? No,” Alfred replied, shifting to the side and glancing upward as he undoubtedly scanned through something, which for Alfred could mean he was looking up an address or had stumbled upon a new porn forum again. “But I thought you might want to know—traffic is worse than I thought. If you leave now, though, you’ll only be ten minutes late to work.”
Arthur cursed, causing Alfred to smile while his owner scrambled to get ready. At least some things never change.
Never once had Alfred spent a day alone before; in all his six years, Alfred was constantly at Arthur’s side. If he wasn’t, then someone was usually babysitting him, or Arthur would return in less than a few hours. The longest they spent apart where the nights that Arthur went drinking, and even then he was back within six hours.
Alfred was now on Hour Seven (and twenty minutes) of being Without Arthur. If his systems weren’t Third Law compliant, he would have killed himself by now.
“Arrrrrrrrrrthurrrrrrrrrrrrr,” he whined to the wall. “When are you getting hooooooome?”
He’d finished seventy three games of solitaire, lost one hundred sixteen, tried to watch three separate movies, skimmed twenty different forums, and managed to get a new high score in Tetris.
In short, if Arthur didn’t get home soon, Alfred was going to kill himself, Third Law or not.
“Booooooooooooooring,” he moaned, kicking his legs onto the back of the couch and letting his head hang off the front. At least lounging had gotten more interesting with his new body—there was a lot more of him to drape around now. “Arthur! Come home soon…”
Alfred paused to check his internal clock.
Hour Seven, twenty five minutes… three seconds.
“Aaaaaaugh,” he grumbled then sighed. After a moment, he began to flip through his OS’s programs, out of lack of something better to do. As he mentally rummaged around, he stumbled over his distress program. He’d been activating the program a lot in the past few days. Could you over activate a program? he wondered mildly. I wonder if a Companion’s distress program is supposed to operate differently…
Well, only one way to find out.
“God bless the Internet,” Alfred hummed as he ran a search. A quick search brought three web articles, two user manuals, and about fifteen forums. Alfred opened windows into all of them before quickly tossing out nearly half of the forums and one of the manuals. Thirty minutes passed quickly, as Alfred flipped through the windows. At last, Alfred reached the end of the manual and hit the last forum post, sat back and reviewed his situation.
Well, he now knew that one) yes, Companion really did react differently than laptops, and two) Companions were doubled jointed. Everywhere.
“Huh. Well, I guess if I ever want to be a contortionist, I wouldn’t be too bad,” he laughed before falling thoughtfully quiet. “I wonder what Arthur would think of that.”
Probably nothing good. Still, maybe part of the problem was the fact that he didn’t have the right programs he needed. Maybe, however, he could work around it.
“First off—distress program,” he decided aloud. Not for any particular reason, other than his new voice sounded interesting in his own sensors. “It trips too easy—so, fix that… maybe I should call Kiku…”
Nah. He’d just wing it—couldn’t hurt right?
After pondering about it, the only thing Alfred could think of was to kick in a blush before the crying program kicked in. Arthur seemed to like the blush—maybe kicking it in sooner would distract him from yelling at him. Then his distress program wouldn’t have to turn on!
“Genius,” he grinned and started to fiddle around with his processes. Time ticked by before Alfred realized it, and when he finally checked the time, he whooped and raced to the door. Rather than bounce up and down (and irritate Mister Zwingli in the apartment below), he plopped down on the foyer’s step and began to stare intently at the door, waiting. Any minute now, no doubt, Arthur would come through the door, Alfred would jump up to greet him, and maybe, hopefully, they could fall back into their old routine.
Any minute now.
Half an hour later, Alfred continued to glare at the door. “I am so putting salt instead of sugar in his tea.”
“Hello, Hustler? I’d like to cancel an account. Arthur Kirkland. No, I don’t mind if I don’t get the payments back. Yes, I have the credit card number right here. That’s it. Thank you. Thank you. Goodbye!”
Alfred began to bang his head against the floor of the foyer. Downstairs, Mr. Zwingli started to scream. Alfred really couldn’t bring himself to care.
Alfred was going to actually dent his forehead soon, so he decided to stop. Rather than pick his head back up to stare woefully at the door, Alfred let his head rest against the floor, even if it wasn’t particularly comfortable being bent in nearly half.
“Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrthurrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, I’m telling Aunt Erin and my uncles about this!”
Not that they’d actually care.
Alfred sighed and let his head bang once more against the floor for good measure.
“KNOCK THAT OFF OR I’LL COME UP THERE AND BEAT YOU WITH-”
“But, big brother, the court said if you beat anyone else up that you won’t get a chance at bail next time!”
With nothing better to do, Alfred let himself lapse into screensaver mode. Generally, he hated screensaver mode—he supposed it was the closest he would ever come to dozing like a human, but on a basic level, his system was still running many programs, he was still aware of everything going on around him. It was actually more like sleep paralysis than dozing, really. The only thing that ever made it bearable was that he’d set up the program to cycle through pictures of Arthur as he rested.
An alarm went off, disrupting the mode. Blinking slowly, he paused as he heard something rattling. After a moment, he identified it as the door knob.
And then he actually woke up.
Just as he lifted his head, Arthur stepped in. They paused staring at each other, Alfred excitedly but Arthur very confusedly. “Alfred, what are you doing down there?”
Suddenly, the fact that he hadn’t seen Arthur in nearly half a day didn’t matter. The long hours of boredom and pining didn’t matter. All that did matter, however, was that slightly puzzled look in his eyes, that suggestion of puckering on his brow, the slight angle of his shoulders, pointing him into the room. Alfred laughed and launched himself up at his owner.
Arthur barely had time to yelp before Alfred barreled into his stomach, knocking him clear off his feet. All the breath flew out of him and he slammed into the floor below, setting off a new round of yelling from Mr. Zwingli downstairs. “Alfred, what-?”
“Welcome home, Arthur!”
“Alfr…” In spite of himself, Arthur chuckled. Alfred beamed up at him and hummed contently while Arthur ruffled his hair. “Hello to you, too, Alfred. Now will you get off of me?”
Alfred just laughed.
Chapter 9: Going Out
Bored from being stuck indoors, Alfred talks Arthur into going on a walk. After talking, Alfred decides that he needs the proper programs for a Companion unit despite Arthur's wishes.
Tuesday turned out to be just as bad as Monday; Arthur worked overtime and Alfred had to wile the time away until Arthur finally arrived. Wednesday, however, Arthur went home at his regular time only to find Alfred quietly waiting for him in the foyer. The two of them looked just as shocked to see each other there but Alfred quickly rebounded, mainly by bounding straight at Arthur.
“You’re home! And on time!” Alfred laughed, tugging his owner closer.
At least he didn’t crush my ribs or send me to the floor this time, Arthur thought fondly. “Yes, I am. Did you really miss me that badly?”
“Of course!” Alfred answered so vehemently that Arthur had to lean away. “Arthur, when can I go back with you to work?”
“Well…maybe…when we get the programs you need…” he babbled, glancing away, knowing that in an instant Alfred’s face would brighten with joy.
Alfred laughed happily. “Really? Great! It’s awful being here all alone—there’s nothing to do.”
For a moment, Arthur nearly suggested that he should visit one of the neighbors before he realized what a bad idea that was. Some of them already gave him looks—Arthur was terrified to know what would happen when the whole building finally realized that he now had a Companion living with him. If he thought the ribbing he took from his siblings was bad, how much worse would it be to have all of his neighbors start watching him and frowning at them?
No. No, best to let those sleeping dogs lie for a while yet.
Ah, he’d missed something, hadn’t he? “Um, yes?”
Alfred pouted at him. “You didn’t listen to me, didn’t you?”
Arthur pulled out of Alfred’s arms, and quickly moved past him into the living room. “I was thinking—what did you say?”
“Let’s go out tonight!”
Arthur paused, halfway through with taking off his coat. “What?”
“Let’s go out tonight—I’m sick and tired of hanging out around here all day. Come on, let’s go out—we could go to the movies, or go for a walk, or hell, I’d even play a game of soccer, if you want, even if baseball is totally awesomer.”
“’Awesomer’ is not a word, and it’s called ‘football’,” Arthur corrected with a sigh.
“Hey, you told me it was called soccer, that’s what my dictionaries call it—it’s soccer.”
“I only told you that to aggravate Anton—oh, you’ll never change,” Arthur huffed, pressing a hand to his forehead. To be frankly honest, he didn’t really feel like staying in for once, either. “Perhaps a short walk wouldn’t be bad…”
Alfred nearly mobbed him. “Yay! Thanks, Arthur.”
Arthur flustered and shook him off. “Yes, well-!”
Alfred just grinned. “I’ll get my boots.”
What, Arthur thought with a sinking feeling in his gut, did I just set myself up for? He didn’t get a chance to ponder—Alfred quickly reached out and began to tug him merrily along, and with his strength, if Arthur didn’t keep up, he feared that Alfred would drag him like a downed kite the rest of the way. As it was, he barely had time to lock the door before Alfred hauled him away.
Rather than take a more familiar path, Arthur steered Alfred in whatever direction that seemed less likely for them to run into anyone he knew. Arthur rarely went down these streets, mainly since he knew no one there and it was mostly just business complexes still under construction. Despite the abrupt change in their usual path, Alfred didn’t care and began to talk happily and pester Arthur about his day, constantly trying to catch Arthur’s hand in his own.
“So, did you ever find anything new in the McKinley robbery?”
“We think there was another thief now—a witness came forward, mentioning that someone came to the door to help carry out the television,” Arthur answered, twisting his hand once more out of Alfred’s grip.
Alfred, however, was nothing if not persistent. “What, so someone finally came forward? What took so long?”
Arthur stuck his hand in his pocket; it didn’t work, as Alfred just began to tug on his sleeve. “She was worried that she would be targeted—will you please stop that!”
“I just want to hold your hand,” Alfred pouted.
Arthur sighed and motioned for Alfred to stop. “Look, Alfred. I think we need to have a talk about how you keep trying to latch onto me. You need to stop that.”
“Why? What is it with you lately that has you freaking out whenever I even try to touch you? You never minded before!”
“Alfred that was different. Now, you have to realize that-”
“Well, well, well! Lookie, what we go here, boys.”
Arthur blinked and glanced about in confusion. He couldn’t see anyone other than Alfred, but…
“Hey, well, if it ain’t a poof and his Companion out for a walk!”
Arthur felt icy fear slipping down his back and he glanced upward. Two stories above, working upon the naked skeleton of a new building, a group of maybe six men jeered down at them. The man in the middle was pointing down at them. “Hey, hey you! How much you pay for that thing, anyway?”
“Funny,” Alfred huffed quietly. “I hadn’t realized that assholes could talk shit as well as let out foul smells.”
“Hey, d’ya sexbot say something down there?”
“Speak up so the decent folk can hear you up here!”
“I’d speak to decent folk if there were any around!” Alfred snapped.
“Alfred,” Arthur warned.
Alfred glared at him. “What? Those dicks can’t speak to you that way, Arthur!”
Arthur sighed. “Alfred, I’ll handle this.”
“Hey, hey, wise ass, you got something you want to say to me?” the man in the middle shouted.
“Take a flying leap!” Alfred shouted.
“Oh, hey, looks like we got a tough guy on our hands, boys.”
“Maybe we should teach them some manners.”
Arthur felt something in him snap at the thought of them trying to come down and do something to Alfred. “I’ll teach you some manners!” he shouted back, reaching down to snatch up a rock. In a pitch that would do any major leaguer proud, Arthur tossed the rock above the men, hurtling it into a bucket of bolts on the beam above them. All of them shouted and ducked as the heavy bolts fell down on their heads. Arthur took his chance and snatched Alfred’s wrist before the men could see them and dragged Alfred away at a sprint.
They must have run three blocks before Arthur pulled them into a doorway to catch his breath. Alfred was beaming.
“Arthur, that was so cool!”
“Don’t-” Arthur spluttered before he could catch his breath. “Don’t tell anybody about that.”
“But that was so awesome—you totally nailed that bucket. And when they all cried when it fell on them? Priceless!”
“Yeah, well.” Arthur tried not to grin. “I shouldn’t have done it.”
“Why not? They totally deserved it—nobody should badmouth you and get away with it, Arthur.”
Arthur stared at Alfred’s earnest face before managing a soft smile. “T-thanks, Alfred.”
Arthur glanced away, shifting to the side. “And, to be honest, I was actually aiming for the man in the middle.”
The Companion laughed and slapped him on the back. “That was still awesome.”
“Well, all the same, don’t tell anybody about it.”
“Ahh… well, if you say so.”
Arthur only shook his head. “I think we should go home now,” he said before he actually looked around. Staring at their surroundings, a trickle of incredulous surprise went down his spine. “…if we can figure out where we are…”
Alfred laughed. “Hold on, I think I can pick up a Wi-Fi signal—I’ll get us a map in no time.”
“You do that.”
When Alfred reached out to grab his hand and lead the way, Arthur decided not to scold him for once and enjoyed the touch, even if he swore mentally he was going to have a talk about it with Alfred eventually.
After they arrived home, Alfred waited until Arthur went to take his shower before he logged onto the Internet. The walk and confrontation with the workers had only solidified in his mind one thing: he needed Companion programming. Maybe he would finally get some answers out of Arthur’s bizarre moods from them at least. While he couldn’t download all of the necessary programming, he couldn’t help but remember Francis and the other’s last visit, when he done a search for a code he had deleted.
Re-entering it into a search engine, Alfred skimmed the results until he what he was looking for. He paused for a moment to glance over his shoulder to the bathroom door. Satisfied that he still had some time to himself, Alfred clicked into the forum and began to download all he could find that seemed relevant to a Companion’s programming.
Minutes ticked by and if Alfred was human, he would have been sweating up a storm. Still, it was a close call, the download finished barely ten seconds before Arthur opened the door. Alfred greeted him with a satisfied (and secretly relieved) grin.
Arthur frowned at him. “Why aren’t you dressed yet?”
“Huh?” Alfred blinked and looked down—he was still in his street clothes. “Oh, I forgot!” he laughed before scrambling for his pile of clothes, searching for his new shirt and sweatpants. By the time he got them on, Arthur was in bed and glaring pointedly in the other direction. He had done that before too—Alfred really hoped some of the new programs would help explain it away.
“Alfred…” The Companion paused and looked up; Arthur hadn’t moved. “About earlier…”
“Those guys totally deserved worse,” Alfred interrupted as he walked to the bed. “But I promise not to tell anybody.”
“That’s not what I…” Arthur sighed. “Oh, never mind. Just go to bed.”
Alfred paused but decided to just plug his power cord into the socket before he slipped into bed and curled up besides Arthur. “Goodnight,” Alfred chirped, burying his nose in Arthur’s shoulder. “You know, I think tomorrow’s going to be a good day.” Arthur would have Friday off, which meant drinking Thursday night. Plenty of time for him to go through his new programs and search for some solution. There had to be something that would let him please Arthur again.
“I hope so,” Arthur sighed.
Alfred smiled and shut himself down to the soft touch of Arthur carding his fingers through his hair.
Chapter 10: Disruption
Alfred tries to get closer to Arthur, Arthur comes home drunk, and this can only end in disaster.
This is the chapter with the dubcon in it--it is mutual dubcon, but dubcon nonetheless.
It was a strange notion to Alfred, but the Companion had to admit that he couldn’t wait for Arthur to leave for work. The newly downloaded programs sat untouched at the back of his memory files, just waiting to be explored. So, of course, Arthur seemed to take twice as long to leave.
“I won’t bother stopping in—I’m working late anyway, so I’m going to get a pint before coming home,” Arthur explained as he slipped his coat on.
A ‘pint’ was a gross underestimation of what Arthur was probably going to be drinking tonight. All the same, Alfred smiled and waved as his owner slipped out the door. He waited cautiously, counting down from a hundred until he was certain that Arthur wouldn’t unexpectedly return.
Grinning, he turned and raced to the couch, eagerly tossing himself upon it before he began to bring up the new files.
“There has got to be something useful in here,” he muttered, opening one that read b356_002. Scanning through, Alfred paused.
Huh. Well. So that’s why his body was anatomically correct. Still, that wasn’t quite what he was looking for. He randomly opened another one.
That time he blanched. “Oh, God!”
He could—he was supposed to-? Could humans even bend that way?
“Why on earth would you want to-?”
Oh. But maybe regular Companion owners liked it? Flipping through more and more, Alfred felt his distress program kick in a blush. Is this why Arthur got me this body? Would he really want to—well, I know he’s probably done something with Francis, but would he want to…?
No, wait, if he wanted to do that, he wouldn’t freak out whenever I touch him, right?
Unless he was shy. Alfred’s eyes widened. How many times had Aunt Erin and Francis teased Arthur about being shy?
So…so maybe that’s the reason he freaks out?
Well, that’s silly, Alfred supposed. If he really wants to do it, I… I could do it. No, I can. Companions were made for that sort of thing, weren’t they? Hell, he’d read enough forum posts about that sort of thing.
That’s it, when Arthur comes home, I’ll ask if he wants to. That’s all there is to it.
Alfred grinned and settled into the couch, beginning to open up each file. If he was going to have sex, he was going to need them, right? And maybe afterwards, things would finally be okay again—if Arthur was comfortable, he’d let him go to work again and cuddle more, right? Speaking of cuddling, it looked as though he had a file for that, too.
Alfred waited by his window, peeking out past the curtains and blinds. This was tradition; Arthur would go out drinking, and Alfred would sit by the window in the living room, waiting until Arthur would reach the corner. When he would get there he’d stop, look up to Alfred, and wave. Alfred would grin and laugh and then rush over to the door, waiting again until he heard Arthur clopping up the stairs. He would greet Arthur at the door with a smile and a hug, Arthur would laugh and hug him back, asking if he’d been good while he was gone. Then Arthur would shower, after which they’d both go to bed and Alfred would get to cuddle up next to him. It had been a ritual since Arthur had been nineteen, back when they still lived with Arthur’s siblings.
It was past one in the morning. Another hour and Arthur was bound to come home. The only bar that would still be open was on the other side of town, and Arthur hated walking back so far when he was drunk. Alfred stopped bothering to turn the television on a long time ago while he waited, so he had nothing to do. Once upon a time, he would have been playing with Rhys’ and Erin’s laptops, all three of them waiting for their owners to return. It was lonely without them, but Arthur would be home soon so Alfred could manage.
He could. He had patience.
Even if it was cruel and unusual punishment.
He checked his internal clock.
“Ah, man,” he whined, letting his head thump against the glass. Nearly half an hour to go. He couldn’t bear to leave vigil, but he didn’t dare enter screensaver mode. What if Arthur came home early and looked up, only to not see him waiting? Nope, he was just going to have to sit there and wait.
Alfred groaned. Why couldn’t time move faster?
2:43 AM. “I hope he seriously didn’t try to go bar hopping,” Alfred grumbled as he looked down. Outside, it had started to rain softly, something that gave Alfred hope that Arthur would hurry home, eager to be out of the chill. Idly, Alfred took his index finger and began to dully draw spirals unto the fogged up window. “Maybe he did go across town…”
He paused and blinked before reaching out and wiping at the window. Then he grinned.
Out there, hunched up against the falling rain and tugging his collar up, was Arthur, jogging home. He didn’t stop to wave, but that didn’t bother Alfred. It was raining, after all.
With a laugh, Alfred hopped up, ran to the door, thumbed the lock open, and then waited, bouncing on the balls of his feet as he did so. Faintly, he heard the footsteps and curses as Arthur’s feet fought to find purchase on the wet steps. At last, when Alfred could barely stand it, Arthur jerked the door open and stumbled in. Grinning ear to ear, Alfred reached out and pulled his owner into his embrace. “Welcome home, Arthur!”
“Whoa, whoa,” Arthur yelped then laughed as his feet nearly slipped on the tiles. “Hello, Alfred. Have you been a good…oh wait, you’re not a little boy anymore, are you?”
Alfred paused and then brightened. Arthur said he wasn’t a little laptop anymore! That had to mean something, right? With a grin, Alfred pulled back. “Nope, I’m big now! And I’ve been good—but where have you been, Arthur?”
Arthur scoffed and waved a hand at him, but was grinning all the same. “Here, there…Met up with Francis and James for a bit…bastards actually tried to drink me under the table!”
Alfred laughed. From the looks of it, the two had succeeded, but Arthur probably didn’t want to hear that. “I’m glad you’re back.”
“Mmm, me too,” Arthur hummed, swaying slightly, perhaps still thinking about music from the bars. “Well, better here than outside—colder than a witch’s tit out there.” He practically howled with laughter after a moment and had to clutch at Alfred for support. “Trust me, I’d know—I had to put with Erin all this time!”
Alfred rolled his eyes and pulled Arthur’s coat off. That was something he wasn’t going to be mentioning to his aunt anytime soon. Instead he wrinkled his nose as one of his sensors picked up on the smell rolling off of Arthur. “Phew! What were you guys drinking?”
“Oh, this and that…a bit of whiskey, beer, gin, rum-”
Alfred decided to cut him off before he got too much farther on with his lists by reaching down to help Arthur take off his shoes. Arthur braced his hands against Alfred’s shoulders while the Companion gripped his waist to steady him with one hand and used the other to untie his shoes. Arthur kicked the shoes away and swayed on his feet for a moment as Alfred started to straighten up. He paused for a moment, and grinned as an idea popped in his processor. With a laugh, he wrapped his free arm around the back of Arthur’s thighs and used the other to tighten his grip on Arthur’s waist before lifting the Brit up into the air.
“Alfred—what are you-? Careful!”
“Ha, now I can carry you to the shower and you won’t have to trip anymore,” Alfred announced, already turning to head to the bedroom and bath behind them.
“A shower? Pfft.”
“You always take a shower,” Alfred reminded him as he walked through the living room.
“Well, I suppose I should wash up…”
Alfred grinned as he reached for the bathroom doorknob. “Yeah, so you won’t be grimy—and I can take one, too, now!”
“Wait, what do you mean, you, too?”
“Yeah, actually, I really need to take one,” Alfred explained as he sat Arthur down. His owner blinked up at him in incredulous confusion.
“Since when? Why?”
“Apparently because it’s the easiest way to clean me up. So, let’s take a shower together, Arthur!”
Arthur stared at him, eyes wide and slightly unfocused. Idly, he licked his lip. “…Yeah…yeah, alright. Let’s… let’s get in, then.”
It took all of Alfred’s restraint not to let out of a whoop of joy. Quickly, he scrambled to get their clothes off, half certain that if he tried to take it slow like one program suggested, Arthur would change his mind. In the end, he needn’t have worried; Arthur seemed quite content to let Alfred pull him in under the hot stream of water even if he did yelp. “Ack, that’s hot! Turn the cold up.”
“Sorry,” Alfred squeaked as he quickly adjusted water. “I’m sorry, is that better?”
Arthur sighed and leaned back against the shower wall before glancing back up at him. “Do you need some help washing?”
Alfred fidgeted. “Um…yeah. I don’t have the program I need to clean myself, I think.”
Arthur made a noise at the back of his throat and tugged on Alfred’s arm, making him slide into his place while he reached for the shampoo. “Sit. I should wash your hair first.”
“Okay,” Alfred chirped before he carefully slid down until he was resting in the tub while Arthur stood over him and worked the soap into his hair. Sensors in his scalp started to fire and Alfred couldn’t help but to hum in contentment.
“Does that feel good?” Arthur asked curiously, pausing for a moment, his fingers trailing through his hair.
“Mmmhmm,” Alfred hummed, his toes curling.
“Heh…well. I suppose I should have done this sooner—close your eyes, you need to rinse.”
Alfred did as he was told while Arthur leaned to the side so the water hit him directly again. “I tried to ask you, but you’ve been so fidgety lately, you would have said no anyway.”
“…Have I been fidgety lately?”
Alfred opened his eyes and nodded. “Uh huh.”
Arthur gave him a thoughtful look, his hand still entangled in Alfred’s hair. “Huh. Well. A lot has happened—hold on; I need to put conditioner in.”
“Kay,” Alfred shrugged and watched as Arthur began to work the conditioner into his hair. “This isn’t too bad…is it, Arthur?”
Arthur blinked down at him. “No, I suppose not. Close your eyes again, last rinse, I promise.” Again, the Companion shut his eyes and let the water run over him as Arthur ran his fingers through his hair, sensors still sending little burst of joy into his processor. After a minute, Alfred was fairly sure the soap should have been gone from his hair, despite the fact that Arthur kept running his hands through it. Well, no matter. It felt wonderful anyway. At last, Arthur pulled his hands away and Alfred looked up to see Arthur regarding him quietly. “I should probably scrub you down, too.”
Alfred brightened. If hands through his hair felt good, this would, too, right? “Yep. Should I stand?”
“No, no,” Arthur started and began to lean over, reaching out of the shower with his hand for a hand towel. However he nearly slipped just as his fingers grabbed it, and would have fallen had Alfred not quickly reached up and tossed his arms around Arthur’s waist. “Whoa…actually, I think I’ll come down to you.”
Alfred grinned and lowered his owner down into his lap, ignoring Arthur’s puzzled expression. “Is that good?”
“Yes…yes, this will work fine,” Arthur murmured. He didn’t begin to start scrubbing Alfred though; instead he seemed fascinated with Alfred’s collarbone. Alfred was about to ask what was wrong when Arthur finally moved. Except it wasn’t to bring the wash towel up—rather, he placed his free hand on Alfred’s chest and left it there for a moment. Slowly, he dragged his hand down, over his chest and stomach, tracing the abs that Alfred had been so excited about when he’d first woke up.
His sensors were sending more than little bursts of joy; he practically felt fireworks going off. Good God, he would have asked to take a shower days ago if he known it’d be this nice. He cocked his head to the side. “Arthur…?”
Arthur slowly glanced up at him, blinking. “You look like a puppy when you do that. Did you know?”
Alfred paused. “No…s’it bad?”
“No,” Arthur replied. He let the rag drop from his hand and placed the newly freed hand against Alfred’s cheek, idly stroking him with his thumb. “You’re not little anymore…”
Alfred blinked. Cautiously, he took one hand from Arthur’s waist and mirrored Arthur’s hand, pressing it against Arthur’s face. It felt strangely soft.
Arthur’s eyes drifted back down, along with his one hand, which skirted down past Alfred’s navel until at last Arthur gently grasped Alfred’s cock. “Huh,” he murmured, apparently examining it.
“W-what?” Oh, was there a problem? Did Arthur not like what he saw and felt?
Arthur looked back at him. “It’s warm.”
Alfred bit back a laugh. “Well… who’d want to use it cold?”
Arthur hummed thoughtfully and went back to his inspection. At a loss, Alfred decided to mirror Arthur again; he dropped his hand from Arthur’s cheek and let it slip down until he took Arthur’s length into his hand, prompting a gasp.
“Sorry,” Alfred squeaked and pulled his hand away. “I didn’t-”
“No!” Arthur yelped, making them both jump. After a moment, Arthur took a shaky breath. “No… no, it’s… it’s okay. You can… do that, if you want.”
So… he does want to do this sort of thing…? Hesitating only a moment, Alfred slipped his hand back around Arthur’s cock, prompting a long string of muttered nonsense. “Is that okay?”
“Yes—yes, that’s… good,” he puffed between deep gulps of breath. “S’ very good…”
Alfred blinked, wondering idly what he should do next. Before he could run a search, Arthur made his move, carefully running his fingers down Alfred’s length. Dozens upon dozens of sensors went off in Alfred’s brain causing him to gasp, prompting a blush from his distress program to calm him down.
“-fred. Did that feel good?”
Alfred forced himself to nod, rather than risk Arthur never doing that again. “Uh-uh huh.”
Arthur was panting. That was a good thing, wasn’t it? Before he could ask, Arthur looked back down. “Is it always limp?”
“I can make it harder—here, watch.” Alfred scanned his programs until he hit on those that he had downloaded earlier. Scanning them, a code came up: b356_009. Beneath Arthur’s fingers, Alfred’s cock grew stiff and erect, activating more nerve sensors. I should have tried this out before.
Arthur seemed interested, too, gaping down at him. “Wow.”
“Yeah,” he managed.
Arthur glanced up at him beneath his eyelashes. “Is that a new program?”
Arthur stared up at him fully. “What else can you do?”
Alfred blinked and did another scan before choosing on a new one (b356_294); mirroring Arthur’s motions, Alfred dragged his fingers down Arthur’s penis, mapping the flesh out with his fingertips, gingerly thumbing the head of the cock. Arthur groaned and pressed their foreheads together. In Alfred’s hand, he felt Arthur grow stiff. “Should I do that again?”
Alfred stroked him again, his hand gently sliding over the hardening flesh until another code popped up. Shifting carefully, Alfred began to pump harder, drawing out another moan from Arthur and a shaky breath from Alfred. “Hey, Arthur,” he murmured. Arthur looked up at him. “Wanna see what else I can do?”
After a moment, Arthur nodded.
Smiling softly and trying not to tremble, Alfred pulled his forehead back and began to bend down while he brought up another code (b356_425). Gently, carefully, Alfred opened his mouth and dragged his tongue across the head of Arthur’s cock. Above him, Arthur let out a strangled curse and let go of Alfred’s cheek to clutch at his shoulder. Startled, Alfred waited for a moment, scared that Arthur would tell him to stop. But he never did, so Alfred opened his mouth again and wrapped his lips around Arthur, slowly sucking him in to his root. Arthur let out either a broken laugh or sob, but still he didn’t yell at him. Taking it as a sign, Alfred dragged his tongue and lips back over the cock before sliding back down again.
Arthur grabbed a fistful of Alfred’s hair and murmured something Alfred missed over the sound of the shower. Again, Alfred lapped at Arthur, sucking him in and moving around him. “Alfred, Alfred,” Arthur chanted, which he hoped really was a good sign as he continued to suck the man off.
Another program popped up, new codes with new instructions. Alfred read them and picked out another one; his free hand reached down, slipping down the wet thighs until he reached the puckered hole. Arthur murmured a “oh god” into his hair and Alfred cautiously dragged his finger in a circle, hesitating. “Arthur… can I?”
“Do it,” he murmured, pressing a kiss to the back of Alfred’s neck. “Go… go ahead.”
Gently, Alfred worked his finger inward, trying his best not to pull at the flesh. Arthur groaned and leaned back against Alfred’s legs, sounding like he was in bizarrely exquisite pain. Alarmed, Alfred pulled back and called out to him.
Slowly, Arthur lolled his head back up and looked at him. “Alfred…”
Relieved, Alfred slipped his arm out from against Arthur’s back to reach for his face. “Arthur,” he smiled back.
Arthur stared at him. “Alfred.”
A code misfired in the back of Alfred’s processor, sending a shiver down his back. That tone… Alfred didn’t like it. “Um. Yeah?”
Arthur’s eyes were suddenly very wide.
“… Arthur…? Are you-?”
Alfred blinked, reeling back as Arthur suddenly flailed out of his arms. “Arthur, what-?”
Arthur cursed again and scrambled out of the bathtub. Alfred stared for a moment before he too tried to jump out. “Fuck!”
“Arthur, what’s wrong?” Alfred yelped as Arthur shot for the door. “Did I-?”
“Stay there!” Arthur roared at him and slammed the door behind him.
Shocked, Alfred actually obeyed. On the other side of the door, he could hear Arthur’s continued cursing as he began to rummage around. After a few moments of loud stumbling, Arthur began to curse and mutter something while continued, even—if harried—footsteps clued Alfred in to the fact that for some reason, Arthur was pacing.
What happened? Alfred wanted to beg as he began to rewind through the last few minutes. Had he done something wrong? Did Arthur not enjoy it? Well, it looked like he had been fine but…
Outside, Arthur wasn’t quieting down. Inside, Alfred trembled as his distress program began to trip. Crying, however, seemed like a worse idea than usual, so for once Alfred kept his voice limited to anxious whimpers. For several minutes, he kept listening until at last he remembered to shut off the water and grab a towel. Wiping himself off like he’d seen Arthur do, Alfred paused as he tried desperately to figure out how to wrap the towel around his waist. He failed; instead he clasped one towel around his waist as he sunk down to the floor, idly grabbing another for the dim hope that Arthur would come back, if only to have something to dry off with.
For half an hour, Arthur continued to pace and mutter outside the door, despite Mr. Zwingli shouting. Finally, the footsteps stopped and Alfred heard the bedsprings creak before Arthur began to speak aloud. It sounded as though he was calling someone, but who, Alfred had no idea. Arthur generally didn’t call anyone at nearly three thirty in the morning.
Eventually, the room outside the door was quiet and Alfred dared to open the door.
Arthur was sitting on the far side of the bed, Alfred’s side, facing away and didn’t turn about when Alfred opened the door and stepped out. He had dressed while wet, so his clothes clung to him and his hair stuck out at wild angles.
“Arthur?” he tried in a small voice.
“Come here, Alfred.”
It took all his courage, but Alfred finally forced one foot in front of the other until he finally reached Arthur’s side. He looked down at him quietly for a moment before trying to reach out and smooth Arthur’s hair back down.
Arthur slapped his hand away and Alfred jumped away. “Don’t.”
“Arthur…” he began, stung.
Arthur ignored him. “I called Kiku.”
“We’re going to see him tomorrow.”
Alfred stared. “How did you…?”
Arthur shrugged and held out a touchpad. “I still had the phone Kiku gave me. I’ll return it tomorrow, as well.”
Alfred paused, shifting from side to side. “Okay… um, Arthur…? A-about what just-”
Arthur cut him off. “Nothing happened.”
What? “… But…”
“You’re confused, Alfred, that’s all. And I—I promise, that will never happen again. Kiku will be able to help you tomorrow.”
“Help? With what?” Alfred gaped.
“Your program. Don’t worry. Everything will be okay.”
That wasn’t reassuring, but something warned him not to mention that. “… Will he be giving me the new programs then?”
Arthur sighed and finally turned to look at him. “Alfred… just don’t worry about it. Everything will be worked out tomorrow. You’ll see. Everything will be fine.”
Disturbed, Alfred nodded and looked down to the spare towel he still clutched in his arms. Idly, he ran his thumb against the cloth, the same gesture he’d made against Arthur’s cheek.
“I’m going to bed now,” Arthur announced, standing up. “You should, too.”
“O-okay,” he forced out finally. “I need to get dressed then-”
“You do that. I’ll see you in the morning,” he replied and then quickly sidestepped Alfred, heading for the bedroom door.
“W-where are you going?” Alfred stuttered.
“The couch,” Arthur answered simply, not bothering to turn around.
Alfred gaped. “But-”
“Goodnight, Alfred,” he said firmly, walking out and letting the door shut with a snap behind him.
Alfred clutched at his towel. “… Goodnight… Arthur.” Seeing there was nothing else he could do, Alfred sunk down to the bed, tugging the towel away before crawling in. His distress program was blaring in his mind. Rather than let it trip and begin to cry, Alfred plugged himself in and curled up in the bed he and Arthur had always shared, feeling more miserable and alone than he had ever known to be possible.
Chapter 11: Betrayals
Still as awkward as can be, Arthur and Alfred go to see Kiku. A few rash decisions lead to heartbreak.
Alfred woke exactly at 7:15 AM, like he always did, except instead of popping up with a grin before reaching over and waking up Arthur, he remained huddled beneath the sheets. His sensors couldn’t pick up any of Arthur’s snoring, which always happened when he fell asleep on the couch, which could only mean that Arthur was out there, awake, probably curled up in the blankets as well. Any time before, Alfred would have hopped out of bed and rushed out to greet him.
Now Alfred was terrified what would happen once he saw his owner again. What would they say? Was Arthur still upset? How badly in trouble was he? He was dimly aware that his distress program was dangerously close to tripping, but frankly, he was too scared to even whimper. Although he wasn’t human and had never been able to pick up any of the signs Arthur always claimed to feel, Alfred couldn’t help but sense something foreboding in the atmosphere. Alfred knew, deep into his code and wires, that something bad was happening, had happened, and now something was going to happen.
“Go away,” he whispered, talking to no one in particular. “Go away, bad things, please.”
It seemed that none of Arthur’s spirits were listening to him; in the other room he heard a sigh and the groan of springs as Arthur moved on the couch. He was getting up and his footsteps were leading to the bedroom door.
Panicked, Alfred grabbed the blanket and yanked it above his head, dunking down beneath it just as the door opened. The barrier muffled the soft footsteps that paused at the end of the bed. No bad things, no bad things.
The Companion stopped himself from wincing and bit his lip to keep from sobbing. He kept the blanket tucked above his head.
A sigh and then a few footsteps as Arthur walked to his side. “Alfred…” At last, Arthur placed a hand on his hunched up shoulder. “Alfred, wake up.”
Now you touch me, he wanted to cry. Slowly, he pulled the covers down and forced himself to glance up at Arthur.
The constable had gotten no sleep at all, that was obvious. He had such a tired, no-nonsense look on his face that when he ordered Alfred to sit up the Companion obeyed without fuss. “Kiku will be expecting us in an hour. Get dressed.”
Alfred didn’t have time to think of something to say before Arthur quickly disappeared into the bathroom with a hurriedly picked out change of clothes. Left sitting there, the only thing he could do was bite his lip in anxiety and get dressed. Grabbing whatever seemed the cleanest (they would need to wash his clothes soon, Uncle James had only given him so much), he shimmied into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and then waited anxiously until he heard a soft knock from the bathroom door.
“Are you dressed out there?”
Alfred shifted from one foot to another. “Yes.”
Finally, Arthur came out; his clothes were rumpled at the knees and elbows, something he usually hated, but Alfred didn’t dare risk pointing this out. “Did you put your shoes on? Hurry up and let’s go.”
Alfred blinked and glanced down at the pile. “I…I don’t have any clean socks…”
Arthur huffed in irritation and walked out of the room, completely missing Alfred’s flinch. “Just put your boots on—it doesn’t matter that much.”
“Um. Okay.” Standing there, he glumly looked down at his boots before scooping them up and putting them on. He paused before standing up, staring at the door like it would reach out and bite him. He could hear Arthur out in the foyer already, shrugging on his coat. Taking a deep breath, Alfred crept out of the room and carefully made his way over to his owner, terrified that if he made too much noise that Arthur might turn and shout at him. Then again, he might have preferred yelling to the stilted silence.
He paused at the foyer step and watched as Arthur began to pat himself down—his gloves, Alfred thought, he’s looking for them. Craning his head around, Alfred saw them poking out of the pocket of another coat. Silently, he reached out and snagged them.
“Where are-?” Arthur grumbled and then nearly jumped when Alfred shoved his hand and the gloves out to him. For a moment, Arthur stared at the gloves and then up at him; Alfred was too nervous to risk a smile. Finally, Arthur took the gloves with a mumbled thank you and quickly opened the door. A blast of cold wind caused him to shiver—had it been any other time, Alfred would have happily latched on to warm him in a hug. Instead, he bit back a sigh as Arthur hurried on. He adjusted his core temperature and followed.
Outside, the November air was biting and Arthur had to snap at Alfred to stop dragging his feet twice before they reached the subway. Once on the train, Arthur refused to look at him and made him sit on the only open seat while he stood, despite Alfred’s protests. Sitting there, staring down at the toes of his boots, Alfred tried to think of all the awkward times they had had, and then how much worse today was in comparison. It was a relief when they pulled up to the station; Arthur nearly leapt out of the compartment.
The walk to Kiku’s apartment wasn’t any better. Alfred gave up any hope of trying to think of something to say and mutely followed his owner until the programmer’s building came in sight. Even walking the stairs felt to Alfred as though he was being lead to the gallows.
Kiku was waiting for them at the door, nodding in greeting to them as they walked over. “Good morning. How are you feeling?”
“Cold,” Arthur answered bluntly so Kiku invited them in. When they toed off their shoes, Alfred felt Kiku gently tap his shoulder.
“How are you, Alfred-kun?”
Alfred stared. God awful probably wouldn’t be a good response; terrified didn’t seem much better. “Fine. Systems all read good.”
Kiku nodded and gestured for him to sit down in the living room; Arthur didn’t join him, however. Instead, Kiku sat Mei-Mei down next to Alfred (she quickly climbed into his lap and he gratefully reached down for a hug) before joining Arthur. “Please remain here for a few minutes—we will be right back.”
Alfred bit his lip as he watched them disappear into Kiku’s workroom. From his lap, Mei-Mei reached up and patted Alfred’s arm. “Alfred, are you okay? You’re face is red.”
Alfred blinked. Distress program must have kicked in. “Huh. Yeah, it’s a blush program I got…”
“Wow, when did you find that?”
“After we left last time.” What were Arthur and Kiku talking about in there? “I made it part of my distress program.”
“Distress? Are you really okay?” she asked, tugging on his sleeve. Finally he looked down at her; she was staring up at him with such a concerned look on her face that Alfred had to hug her.
“I think I’m in trouble,” he admitted.
She petted his face, as if he was still a tiny laptop. “What happened?”
“I—I dunno. I…I download some programs because I thought it would help, but I think they only made things worse. I think they’re talking about it right now.”
Mei-Mei frowned and patted his cheek consoling for a moment before hopping out of his lap. “Come on!”
Alfred cocked his head to the side and blinked. “Where are you going? Kiku said to stay here.”
“He asked us to stay here. It’s not like we’re going to go far.” Seeing no actual fault in her logic—and what a sly bit of logic it was! He underestimated Mei-Mei sometimes—he got up and crept along behind her. She pointed down to the door and then pressed a finger to her lips before inching forward. Catching on, Alfred followed her on his hands and knees.
At last, they reached the door and pressed the sides of their heads to it.
Inside, the talking was muted so Alfred turned up his sensors until he could hear.
“-just isn’t working out.” That was Arthur’s voice—it chilled Alfred to the core of his AI.
“Perhaps a description of Alfred-kun’s ‘problems’ would clear this up. What has he been doing precisely?”
“He—he’s been inappropriate.”
“In what way?”
“He…he’s always hanging on me and crying and whining about everything-” Whining? But you never explain what I’m doing wrong! “And he, well, he…he’s just inappropriate.”
Kiku seemed perplexed as well. “Well, if it is true and I erased the wrong programs, Alfred-kun is still running on a laptop’s behavioral patterns. He’s just acting the way he’s always had. If I re-install the Companion programs that should mostly stop.”
“Well, since he would still have his old AI, his old behaviors would have to be discouraged more…”
“’Discourage’—Kiku, I haven’t been encouraging him to act like that either!”
“…Even if you may have not meant to encourage him, Alfred-kun could have misinterpreted something.”
A sigh. “Yes, well. That does sound like him.”
Alfred would have stuck his tongue out at the door if he wasn’t so tense. As it was, Mei-Mei tugged at his sleeve and smiled up at him as if to say ‘see? Nothing to worry about’. Finally, his lips quirked upward and reached out to give her a tight squeeze, almost missing the rest of the conversation behind the door.
“If you want, I can try to install the programs today. It might take an hour or two, but-”
Alfred paused and looked up at the door.
“No, no, Kiku, I…I don’t think that will help.”
Mei-Mei clutched at his wrist. Alfred was nearly shivering.
“…What did you have in mind then, Arthur-san?”
“I…I can’t keep Alfred like this.”
Alfred felt his system nearly crash. There was a sob in the back of his throat, begging to be let out.
“You don’t want to keep Alfred anymore?”
Alfred started to tremble and didn’t even feel Mei-Mei trying to comfort him.
Another sigh. “He’s just not the same. I…I can’t deal with a Companion unit, Kiku.”
Alfred rocked back onto his heels, dislodging Mei-Mei entirely. She barely had time to squeak before he stood. He completely missed the rest of the conversation as he began to turn away.
“I know you already said it wasn’t possible but…isn’t there some way to…” Arthur shifted, looking away from his friend’s piercing stare. “To transfer him into a laptop unit?”
Kiku sighed, hunching his shoulders as he glanced down to the floor. “It could take months of work—I don’t know what kind of data would be lost in the transfer.”
“Do you still have Alfred’s original data?” Arthur asked desperately.
Kiku blinked at him. “Yes, but I don’t have any of the data from this last week—he wouldn’t remember anything-”
“That’s probably for the best,” Arthur bit out. Yes. Probably for the best. What was there really to lose? Alfred had been home most of the week, and the hours they had spent together, they bickered (good naturedly; Alfred would always smile and Arthur would have to resist touching him). Actually, Arthur realized with a start, I haven’t had much time at all with Alfred.
And look what became of the time you did spend together.
It took all of his will not to shiver at the thought. The shower. The washing, the touching, the…everything. For a few minutes, he let his guard down and what happened?
He did shudder then. Nothing good. That’s what happened. (Even if it had felt good, felt goddamn right, it wasn’t because what did Alfred know? Nothing, that’s what, because he was still so damningly innocent, still just a laptop at heart, wasn’t he? Just because you know how something worked didn’t mean it was a good idea to do it. And Arthur had failed, failed to stop him and himself, and he wasn’t going to let that happen again.
Kiku was watching him with a calculating look. Arthur cleared his throat and sat up. “I…I know it’d probably cost a lot, but I-”
Both of them jumped and looked at the door before they heard a loud slam coming from outside while Mei-Mei still called out the Companion’s name. Horrified, Arthur nearly flew at the door, Kiku only a second behind.
Outside, Mei-Mei was half way to the front door, which was just now swinging shut. Alfred was nowhere in sight.
Arthur hurried out the door while Kiku reached down to scoop Mei-Mei up protectively. There was a thud and by the time Arthur reached the end of the building’s outer walkway, Alfred was already halfway down the street. In his chest, his heart turned to ice and something nearly tore in his throat as he screamed out Alfred’s name.
It was too late.
Alfred was gone.
Arthur had lost him again.
Chapter 12: Running
Alfred is still in a panic, but reality can't be avoided for long.
Alfred had no idea where he was going. He raced in the exact opposite direction of the subway, just trying desperately to get away from Kiku’s apartment.
“He’s just not the same.”
He couldn’t pick up any Wi-Fi signals out here, (wherever here was) but he couldn’t bring himself to slow down to start looking for street signs. His surroundings blurred around him as he ran, occasionally ducking around people who would shout at him as he skimmed past them. All he could think of was the indisputable need to escape, to run away to some place else. His Third Law protocols must have tripped, along with his distress program. Alarms were still blaring in his head, although now there were warnings popping up about stress in his legs as well.
Finally, the stress warnings overrode the other alarms and Alfred allowed himself to slow down. Panting to relieve his overheated system, he managed to glance around. Nope, not familiar at all. A street sign at the end of the corner would have been helpful, had he been able to find a Wi-Fi signal.
Now where am I? he thought as he walked to the corner. On the other side of the street were apartment and business buildings. Further down, he spotted a mini-mart. With a lack of better direction, Alfred decided to walk down to it. If nothing, he might be able to pick up a signal, or ask a clerk for directions.
“You don’t want to keep Alfred anymore?”
Halfway down the street, he picked up a signal. He shuffled into a doorway, ignoring a “NO LOITERING” sign in a window, and began to search for a map. Three minutes later, he finally found one. Huh. I don’t think I’ve ever been here before. Then again, it seemed he was getting nearer to the docks and riverfront warehouses, so unless Arthur dragged him along to a crime scene, he would have never had a reason to go there. Strange to live in a city for more than half a decade and still not know half of it.
There was a knock coming from the window next to him; turning to look, he saw a woman frowning at him and pointing to the sign he had ignored. Oops, he thought warily, raising his hands apologetically before stepping away. She didn’t leave until he turned and began to walk further down the street. So, where do I go from here?
“I…I can’t deal with a Companion unit, Kiku.”
Alfred bit his lip.
He would need to recharge soon—all that running had seriously taxed his batteries. Which meant he needed to rest. Which meant he needed an outlet. Which meant he needed somewhere to stay and recharge.
Which meant he needed a home.
“I…I can’t keep Alfred like this.”
A shiver went down his back; Arthur doesn’t want me, so that means I don’t have a home. Just thinking the thought nearly made his system crash (not wanted, not needed, no home, no Arthur, Arthur, Arthur). Quickly, he shoved the thought aside and began to walk faster. I’ll have to find somewhere else to charge.
He paused at another corner, idly staring at the street signs. Where would there be an outlet? Restaurants maybe, public bathrooms, the subway? He was pretty sure he’d seen them in the subway, but then the longest he’d ever spent in a station was the one time four years ago when he and Arthur had missed the train and had to wait twenty minutes for the next one. Also, he would have to buy a ticket to get in (he had no money) and he doubted he could stay long enough to get a decent charge.
With a lack of a better choice, Alfred glumly let his feet carry him further away, getting closer to the docks. It was a bustling Friday afternoon; plenty of workers ran about loading and unloading shipments, driving forklifts, and inspecting everything. Watching them, something dawned on Alfred. There were lights on in the buildings, which meant there was electricity. Perhaps…
He didn’t bother to stop and reconsider his plan; instead he jogged forward to the nearest open warehouse and looked in. There were people running up and down rows of crates, looking at them then checking off notes on their touchpads, once in a while a forklift would roll through and pull something down or stack something up. Glancing around, Alfred actually spotted an outlet.
Well, no one’s noticed me yet, he thought and slipped inside, trying to manage a casual stroll over to the outlet. Either no one cared that there was a computer running around, or no one noticed. Either way, Alfred happily plopped down and plugged himself in.
He sat there for four hours, (he didn’t dare power down or even go to screensaver mode, lest someone walk up on him) until he realized people were starting to leave. Rather than risk being caught or shut in for the night, Alfred unplugged himself and sidled up next to the workers (looking like you belonged in a group was an easy way to slip in and out of places you couldn’t normally get into, Arthur told him once while they worked on a case. Something in Alfred ached at the thought and he quickly stopped the thought process in its tracks) as they filed out, only peeling away as they walked past the first alleyway.
There was very little in the alleyway besides a dumpster and a few empty cardboard boxes too small to house Alfred even if he curled up into a ball. He should have probably kept on moving, looking for another place to stay, but where he would have gone, he had no idea.
“This place is probably as good as any other,” he mumbled, huddling up next to the dumpster to block the worst of the winter wind. At least it wasn’t snowing, or raining, but that didn’t mean anything. It was getting to the end of November (November 24th, his clock supplied helpfully), which meant they were bound to get both soon. Funny. This would be the first time Alfred would get to experience actual snowfall or rainstorms. Arthur had always been quick to bundle him away inside or cover him up at the first hint of precipitation. Arthur never would have let him be out this late in the cold either.
But then, Arthur probably didn’t care about Alfred at the moment.
“I…I can’t keep Alfred like this.”
That’s right. Arthur said that to Kiku just this morning, not even half a day ago yet.
“You don’t want to keep Alfred anymore?”
Arthur didn’t want him. Which could only mean one thing; he couldn’t stay with Arthur anymore, which meant he (or Kiku, perhaps) would sell him. Which meant they would erase his data, wipe his AI clean—no one wanted a used Companion. And that’s what Alfred was. Used. And that was all his own damn fault, wasn’t it?
It had to be his fault. Arthur might have been acting weird before but Alfred made it worse. My fault; I came onto him, I made him use me, and now he doesn’t want me.
But isn’t that what Companions were for? I don’t understand, why didn’t he want me?
“He’s just not the same. I…I can’t deal with a Companion unit, Kiku.”
I fucked up. I fucked up bad.
It was all his fault; he felt it, deep into his very code. Why else would Arthur want to get rid of him? It was Alfred’s fault. He felt his distress program trip and he finally let himself sob into his knees as he curled up against the biting wind. Arthur didn’t want him, so his data would have to be erased—or at least some of it would be, and then he wouldn’t be Alfred, or at the very least not Arthur’s Alfred, which he had been for all of both his lives.
His fault. But what to do? Arthur had always been the one to explain things to him, to help him sort through a problem. But Arthur wasn’t there.
“Arthur…what do I do?”
With no other choice, Alfred shut down, already half frozen.
Chapter 13: Interlude: Since We've Been Apart
While Alfred is off on his own, Arthur comes to grips with what just happened.
For half a minute, Arthur had stared down at the empty parking lot, mind completely blank. It seemed to have shut off the moment Alfred’s back vanished from sight. He nearly missed Kiku’s reappearance at his side and his near frantic questions about Alfred and where had he gone, did you see where he went, should I call the police?
All Arthur could do was stare, the words sliding away from him until reality finally caught him up to speed. Alfred had run out the door and sight.
Alfred was gone.
Alfred was gone.
Arthur whirled around on his heel, forgetting his shoes and coat, and raced for the stairs that led down to the parking lot, missing Kiku’s calls. His socks were quickly soaked through and he slipped on the sidewalk, the rough cement biting deep into the underside of his feet, but Arthur ignored it as he hurtled to the other side of the parking lot. He flailed and clutched at the brick wall of the gate, swinging himself around the corner with his momentum and running once again. Alfred, already far ahead of him, shot around a corner and left him behind.
Arthur didn’t have a chance in hell of catching up to Alfred, outside of commandeering a vehicle to chase him down, and Arthur knew it. He still took off down the sidewalk, racing around the corner, only stopping at the next corner because Alfred was already out of sight. People were giving him strange looks as he gazed around desperately, hoping that he would see some sign of Alfred if he just kept looking. At last, Arthur felt his shoulders slumping as the realization began to sink in, echoing his earlier thoughts.
Alfred was gone. And Arthur had let him disappear.
He wasn’t sure how long he stood there, gaping out into empty air, before Kiku finally found him, Mei-Mei in one arm and Arthur’s forgotten shoes in his other hand. Seeing him, Kiku glanced around before swallowing and kindly not asking the stupid, obvious question of did you find him? Because, if he had, Arthur was pretty sure he would have started bawling like an infant right there in the street. Instead, he handed Arthur his shoes, held his arm to steady him as he put the shoes on and then to walk back to the apartment, nearly having to lead him. When he got there, he didn’t even scold Arthur as he stumbled back to the living room in his muddy socks.
Instead, he sat Arthur down at the table and excused himself to bring Arthur a bottle of water from the fridge—Arthur could have gone for some tea at the moment, but then, he really didn’t want to wait—which Arthur ended up gulping thirstily. As Arthur drank, Kiku turned to Mei-Mei, who still trembled with wide eyes.
“Mei-Mei, please tell us what happened.”
Arthur froze—that was right. Mei-Mei had been there when Alfred ran. He nearly slammed the water down onto the table, making Mei-Mei jump. “Do you know what happened?” he snapped.
Kiku frowned at him—which was actually a sign of major displeasure from his friend—and placed a comforting hand on his laptop’s head. It took all of Arthur’s restraint to not fly into a full interrogation right then.
“We were just—Alfred looked so nervous, I just thought—so we crept over to the door and-” Mei-Mei let out a great sniffle. It was probably a miracle she wasn’t already full-on sobbing.
Arthur couldn’t bring himself to care.
“And at first it wasn’t so bad—he was looking better! And then-” She hiccupped.
“And then what, Mei-Mei?” Kiku gently urged, rubbing his thumb gently over the crown of the laptop’s head.
And then Mei-Mei did the thing that Arthur always hated watching computers do—it was worst when watching Alfred do it, because it looked so wrong, so much so he hated using Alfred for a phone—her face fell neutrally blank and Arthur heard his own voice coming out of her mouth. A recording—he could even hear the creak of the chair and tell it was muffled by the door. “I…I can’t keep Alfred like this.” And then, as if to twist the knife in more, she added still in his voice “He’s just not the same. I…I can’t deal with a Companion unit, Kiku.”
He knocked the water bottle over with a jerk of his hand. “Oh fuck.”
And then “No…”
He was nearly sick then, right on Kiku’s table. Kiku’s hand clasped his shoulder worriedly as Arthur pressed a hand to his mouth. Bloody fucking hell, Alfred heard that?
Well, shit, no wonder he ran.
Arthur groaned and laid his head on the table as Kiku tried to talk to him, calling his name. God, he really fucked this one up royal, hadn’t he? Alfred had heard that and he had run off and Alfred is gone, gone, gone, gone, gone, gone he thought until the word stopped having any meaning besides pain.
I have to find him, he thought next. And then he remembered he didn’t have a car, and Kiku didn’t have one either; hardly anyone he knew in the city had a fucking car. Arthur groaned again. Well, that didn’t matter then. He would have to do it on foot. He stood suddenly, almost slamming his knee into the table in his haste. “I have to go find him.”
“How?” Kiku asked, his hand reaching to snag Arthur’s wrist, probably to try to prevent him from doing something stupid. “Arthur-san, you couldn’t catch him on foot-”
“-and you or I don’t have a car, I don’t give a shit, Kiku, I’m going to go find him-”
“-and it will be dark soon,” Kiku went on, ignoring Arthur’s interruption. “You aren’t going to find him now.”
“So, what should I bloody do, Kiku? Sing a song and twiddle my thumbs and hope he comes back on his own?” he nearly snarled.
Kiku gave him the ‘I’m not amused, and I’m just humoring you now’ look. “We could try calling him, Arthur-san.”
Arthur blinked slowly. Oh. “Oh,” he repeated for lack of something better to say. Kiku tugged on his wrist, guiding him back to the seat before turning to Mei-Mei again and asking her to try Alfred’s number. She nearly flopped down in her haste and tried. Arthur waited in agony for several long moments as Mei-Mei frowned. Finally, she slumped.
“He’s not picking up—I can’t tell if he’s ignoring me or he’s just not getting the signal.”
“Companion’s have an emergency program that tends to override other basic programs, including phone programs. He may not even be aware it’s off,” Kiku suggested warily.
Arthur nearly screamed in frustration. “So I should go look for him.”
“Do you even know where to look?”
Ouch. Kiku’s patience must have been really running out. Arthur mumbled some nonsense before looking down to the floor.
“Arthur-san, can I make a suggestion that you probably won’t like very much?”
Oh, well, that sounded promising. Arthur buried his face in his hands. “What?”
“Go home. Alfred might try to go back there,” Kiku added when Arthur stared up at him in shock. “If he does return here, I’ll call you.”
Arthur paused for a long time, staring up at his friend numbly before nodding. Mechanically, he went to the door and put on his shoes. By the time he had them on, Kiku was there, holding his coat for him.
(“Where are-?” Arthur grumbled and then nearly jumped when Alfred shoved his hand and the gloves out to him. For a moment, Arthur stared at the gloves and then up at him. Finally, Arthur took the gloves with a mumbled thank you and quickly opened the door.)
Arthur shuddered and took the coat with a nod of gratitude before mumbling his goodbye and reaching for the door.
He paused and looked back. Mei-Mei was clinging to Kiku’s pant leg, sniffling miserably. Kiku’s face was unusually sad, his eyes downcast. “I’m sorry, Arthur-san. I hope Alfred-kun returns soon.”
Arthur managed a nod. “So do I,” he replied and promptly fled.
It was nearly three in the morning when Arthur finally stopped checking the window and the door. He was sitting in Alfred’s spot at the window—the same place Alfred had always waited for him in. It seemed fitting. But finally, he had to put the curtain down and numbly thumb the lock on the door.
Alfred wasn’t coming.
Alfred was gone.
Arthur pressed his face into his knees and finally let himself cry great, body shaking sobs like he had cried when he was four and his mother was dead.
His Alfred was gone. Really. Actually.
Chapter 14: Wandering
Alfred might be out on his own, but the world is far from welcoming to an errant Companion.
Alfred awoke at 7:15 (as always), lifted his head up to greet the sunlight (as usual), and then near broke down sobbing when he remembered exactly where he was (a new development). He was in a freezing cold alleyway instead of curled up next to Arthur in warm bed sheets; gazing around at the trash and frosted bricks, Alfred realized that he never, ever wanted to do this again. Which, all things considered, was tough luck because he didn’t have anywhere else to go.
Okay, now you just stop it, he ordered himself, squaring his shoulders. You have more important things to worry about.
…like your battery life. Holy shit, what happened? He thought in shock as a warning popped up.
“Ack! Less than half left…how’d that happen?” he wondered aloud as he started a diagnostic program. After a few minutes a report popped up; Alfred frowned. There didn’t seem to be any problems with power leaking so…
A snowflake gently drifted down in front of Alfred’s face, making his eyes cross as he watched it float down. Glancing up in surprise, he found the clouds dark and thick and above him the air was littered with falling snowflakes.
“Wow,” Alfred couldn’t help but murmur, watching the snow dancing around him before a stiff breeze caused his unit to shiver. It was a cold day already and the last time he checked a weather report, it hadn’t looked as though it would be getting better anytime soon. He raised his core temperature up a few more degrees before pausing. Heating, core temperature, power leaking…
Alfred blinked. Well. That explains where all my power went. That’s just great. What was he supposed to do about the cold seeping the power out of his system?
Find some place warm was the first suggestion his programs gave him and he instantly thought of Arthur.
(I wonder what he’s doing right now. Does he miss me or is he glad to be rid of me?
Alfred quickly killed that program that brought the questions on.)
Shifting closer to the dumpster in hopes of escaping the wind, Alfred tried to think of something else. He didn’t have a home to return to, but maybe he could find a restaurant that would stay open for awhile that would let him charge himself up. Doubtable, but if nothing he could wander around a store to keep warm. Well, actually, that’d probably only arouse suspicion; why would a Companion be wandering around in a store unless it was up to something? That’s probably what the employees would ask. Still, maybe staying up for longer would be better—he’d have to recharge for longer, but if he wandered around his system would stay warmer.
With a sigh, Alfred huddled against the wind and just decided to wait and see if the warehouse would reopen. If nothing he would recharge and then wander around to see if he could find somewhere to stay.
Alfred was in luck; a van pulled up nearly an hour later. Four men piled out, two of them carring laptops (a pale haired toddler boy model and a tiny white dog model), and quickly opened up the warehouse. Alfred forced himself to wait half an hour before risking a chance to slip inside.
At first, everything was going swimmingly; he got in without anyone shouting at him and he happily found the outlet again. He sat down and plugged himself in, trying his best to be silent. After that, he merely sat there and waited as his system recharged, flipping through articles on the internet, hoping to find something to help him.
(Out of a morbid sense of curiosity, he checked to see if Arthur reported him missing. There was nothing.)
The trouble began once he finished charging. He was still trying to decide if he wanted to hang around for a little while longer (there might have been a chill wind from the open doors, but it was still much warmer inside than out) when he finally saw the pair of feet in front of him. A warning notice went off in his processor as he began to follow the feet up, past long legs, a broad torso, to a face would make a gangster proud. A pair of cold blue eyes glared down at him from behind a pair of wire rim glasses. The mountain of a man grunted at him. “Y’ done?”
Oh, I’m gonna get it now. “Yes,” he managed to squeak out.
The man nodded. “G’t up. We w’nna talk to you.”
“We?” So screwed. Maybe I can make a run for it.
He watched with growing unease as the three of other men walked over to them. Only one of them was smiling, and Alfred wasn’t entirely sure that was a good thing. “So! Were you just starting to talk, or did we already miss the fun part, Berwald?”
Berwald, or at least Alfred supposed he meant the giant in front of him, shook his head. “J’st start’d.”
“Oh, good, we aren’t late then,” the eager man grinned before he pointed a snow shovel in Alfred’s face. An unhelpful program announced that with it, the man could easily crush Alfred’s head, made of metal or no. Alfred quietly leaned his head back, away from the edge of the shovel. “Now listen, we got something to tell you, you little thief. We don’t care if you got abandoned or if you ran away. Yesterday and today we were nice to you, but if you come back and try to steal electricity again, I’ll shove this shovel straight through your motherboard, got it?”
“The motherboard for a Companion is in the chest,” commented one of the other men. This one was slender with icy eyes and pale hair, clipped back from his face with a cross shaped barrette.
“Really?” the boisterous man asked with wide eyes before he turned back to Alfred and shifted the shovel downward until it hovered above his chest. He turned back to the shorter man. “Is that better?”
“Um,” the last man began while the other man shook his head. “Anyways, I believe it’s best if you leave and go home now. We won’t call the police, but if you coming back we’ll have to. Do you understand?”
Calling the police would mean sending someone over, someone who might know Arthur, or worse yet, they could actually send Arthur. Alfred’s system nearly froze itself with internal conflict over wanting to see Arthur again and being completely terrified.
Finally, Alfred settled for a nod.
This seemed to appease the men; the shortest sighed and smiled at him before turning to leave with the others. Berwald, however, tapped Alfred’s shoulder before jerking his head towards the open door. “C’mon. Need t’ go.”
“Right,” he murmured as he followed the man to the door. He paused and glanced back when he was just outside of the door, back to where Berwald stood patiently. “I’m, um. I’m sorry. I just…didn’t know what else to do.”
The taller blond nodded after a moment but said nothing.
Shifting from one foot to another, Alfred stumbled for some polite way to excuse himself. Failing that, he nodded his head like he’d seen Kiku in farewell do so many times when Arthur decided it was time to leave. “I’ll go now. Sorry for all the trouble.”
“…should go home,” Berwald replied, still not moving.
Alfred tried not to wince or fidget. “I can’t.”
The man gave him a long look of consideration before shaking his head. “Go t’ shelt’r then.”
Shelter? Alfred thought for one dazed moment before one of his dictionaries finally coughed up a suggestion. A homeless shelter? But… “Would they let me in?” he wondered aloud, less to the man. Is there even one around here?
Berwald shifted to one side with a frown. “Did y’ ev’n try one?”
Alfred blinked. “No.”
“F’nd one. Or go home,” the man sighed.
Nodding despite his discomfort, Alfred took a few hesitant steps back. “Um. Okay. I’ll…I’ll try that. Thanks. Sorry. Goodbye!”
Just as Alfred turned to scurry away, leaking power be damned, when the gruff voice called out again. “Hey.”
Alfred paused, glancing back with wide eyes. Had he changed his mind and decided to let him come back or to report him to the police anyway?
“What’s your name?”
“…Alfred,” he offered warily.
Berwald coughed. “Meant it. F’nd a shelt’r, Alfr’d. Need t’ take care of yours’lf.”
Alfred nearly wilted, but risked a smile. It was better than being reported to the police at least. Berwald nodded to him and walked away, leaving Alfred in the cold.
Well. That sucked, Alfred decided with a sigh as he began to walk away. Still, his battery was full and he something to go on. With a quirk of his lips, Alfred found a Wi-Fi signal and began a search for the nearest homeless shelter.
It was an hour after dusk before he finally found a homeless shelter that would let him in. The first had told him to turn right back around before they called the police on him. The second had agreed to let him in, but refused to let him plug in for the night. The third time was the charm and a busty blonde gave him a watery smile before pointing him to the nearest outlet and then turning to run to go help pass out food.
In the morning, however, the same woman, now paired with a blond man with glasses, stood in front of him. “Um, good morning?”
The man nodded to him. “Good morning. I’m afraid we have a problem.”
Alfred’s unit froze, but his processor nearly overloaded. What now? “Um, yes? Did I do something…?”
“I’m afraid we can’t allow you to spend the night again,” the man explained bluntly, making Alfred’s eyes widen.
“You can come back and recharge in the morning,” the woman quickly added. “We’ll have to let you in through the back and you can recharge in the store room.”
Alfred stared. “Why?”
The woman sniffed and the man seemed about ready to sigh. “Is your master nearby?”
“Well then, you see, that’s the problem,” he explained. “A Companion running around by itself tends to …unnerve some of the folks here. Reports of violence with Companions have been popping up lately with all the protests going on and it’s some of the other people here on edge.”
Alfred nearly laughed. “But Companions wouldn’t harm humans. The First Law states-”
“-That no computer can let a person to come to harm, either actively or passively. I know—I help program computers,” the man offered with a wan smile. “But, all the same, the people here need to feel secure. I’m afraid that an unattended Companion worries them.”
“Oh.” Well. Wasn’t much to say to that, was there? He unplugged himself from the socket and stood slowly. “I guess…I should leave then?”
The man nodded. “That would be for the best.”
“If you come back, I promise, someone will let you in!” the woman nearly shouted, tears in her eyes.
Awkwardly, Alfred nodded. “Um. Thank you, I-I will.” He turned and took only a few steps before turning back to them. “I am sorry—I really didn’t mean to cause any trouble.”
The woman nodded and smiled. “We know. We’re sorry too.”
That night, the snow turned to sleet and then rain. Alfred hid inside a doorway and tried not start sobbing. Instead, he allowed himself a sigh before starting up his screensaver mode. In a few hours, he would wake back up and return to the shelter to recharge. Until then, he had to satisfy himself with snapshots of Arthur.
It was going to be a miserable night.
Chapter 15: Searching
The world is a lonely place for one computer, but when Alfred meets another computer, the world doesn't look quite so bad as before.
One of the worst things about living on the streets, in Alfred’s opinion, was the lack of company. Never in all the years he’d been alive had Alfred really sat down and thought about how happy he was when there were others around, how miserable he was alone. Alfred was a ‘people person’ and sure, Arthur might have left him at home for hours, but the apartment at least was warm and he could look forward to Arthur’s arrival at night. On the streets, however, people eyed him warily and gave him a wide berth. In the shelter, the woman he had met before—Katyusha (she asked him to call her by her nickname instead)—would perhaps stop by to greet him, but it seemed she was perpetually busy, and then he was alone again.
He didn’t dare talk to people online—what if someone tracked him? Well, okay, both Arthur and Kiku had seemed pretty sure that that was impossible or at least against the law, but Alfred remembered watching television when he was younger and seeing it on a show and you could never be too careful.
(Arthur had stared and laughed when he told him that the first time. Alfred decided to bury that memory in a new folder that he had been stuffing upsetting memories. The folder was growing fast.)
It was miserable and lonely, and then one night, it very abruptly ended.
Alfred had actually been heading back to the shelter to recharge when he a loud whack! and then a soft thud as something fell down. And then he heard it all over again. Frowning, he poked his head into an alleyway curiously. He adjusted his eyes to the darkness and glanced around until he finally found the cause of the noise.
To be honest, Alfred almost didn’t realize it was a laptop at first—alien models weren’t exactly popular nowadays despite being a big craze for a few years after Arthur first brought him home. That, and it wasn’t acting in a particularly normal way—instead it rammed itself repeatedly into a dumpster, fell down, and then picked itself back up to do the whole thing over again. Alfred couldn’t help but watch as the laptop slammed himself three more times before he wandered over and put his hand between the laptop’s head and the dumpster. The force pinched his hand, but at least the laptop didn’t fall over. It glanced upward to him. Alfred tried a smile as he crouched down.
“Hey, that’s not very good for you—you’ll crush your CPU at this rate.”
The alien opened its mouth and promptly let out a wave of gibberish followed up by an earsplitting dial up tone. Alfred winced and turned his sensors down while the laptop continued to drone on until someone from inside the building next to them screamed at him to shut up. Even then, Alfred had to reach out and physically shut the laptop’s mouth, despite the fact that it continued to drone the noise out.
“Jeez, what did you do that for?” he asked when the laptop finally quieted down.
It blinked at him. “BleeeeeeeeMrrump! NEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeechchchinnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn-”
“Shh,” Alfred hushed, clamping his hand over the alien’s mouth. “What’s wrong with you, buddy? What, got a virus?”
To his surprise, the laptop actually managed a nod before its head jerked painfully to the side without his neck moving much. “Sys—syst—blllllllleahhhh—catastrophic syst—system error error error error blue screen of nnnnnnnnnnnnmrrrur error error error-”
“Okay!” Alfred yelped, trying to quiet the laptop down again. “So, a virus, huh? Don’t you have some antivirus programs you can use?”
“Out—out—nnp nup nip!—out of date!”
Alfred blinked and rocked back on his heels. “Well. That would do it,” he frowned as he glanced around. There didn’t seem to be anyone around. “Where’s your master, little guy?”
“Nonononono mast—er,” it finally answered before it began to flap its arms up and down like he was trying to fly. “A-a-a-baaaaaaaaaandoned. Nomasternomasternomaster—I’ll be a good boy—nomasternomasternomasturbationnomaster.”
Alfred couldn’t help but stare. Had he been this bad when he had caught a virus? Arthur had always taken good care of him, so he hadn’t caught them often, but…
Arthur. (What are you doing now?)
“Well. Um.” Alfred tried to think of something to say, anything to distract himself. “I have antivirus programs!” he finally blurted. “I can download them into you, if you want.”
The laptop nearly snapped its neck trying to put his head on backward. Alfred took that as a yes.
“Um. Okay then—so. Why don’t you come with me to the shelter? We can both charge up and I’ll give you the programs after that, okay?”
“I AM HENERY THE EIGHTH, I AM!”
“Wonderful!” Alfred nodded just to have something to respond with—wow, how did anyone put up with him when he had gotten viruses, anyway?—and scooped the laptop up. “Why don’t you shut down and I’ll carry you.”
The alien managed a jerky nod, but didn’t apparently follow through as he continued to jerk about in Alfred’s arms.
“Um. So—my name’s Alfred. What’s yours, little guy?” Alfred tried, trying to juggle the laptop in his arms as he began to kick sporadically.
“Tony,” it answered surprisingly well and then abruptly shut down. Alfred would have stared if it hadn’t, you know, been the most normal thing the laptop had said the whole time. He tried not to hurry too fast—if he arrived too early, some of the workers would glare pointedly at him; one even tried to turn him away before Katyusha stopped them—and were generally unpleasant as he charged up. He didn’t want to think of how mean they’d be if they saw he had another unattended computer with him, even if it was a laptop.
He was in luck though and it was Katyusha who opened the door. She greeted him with her normal teary grin—seriously, was it normal to look that glassy eyed all the time?—and barely paused to comment her surprise about Tony before assuring him no one should mind too much if the laptop joined him for visits before scurrying back to her job and letting him plug in for the night.
He woke up earlier than usual in the morning, tapping Tony awake—which nearly ended badly when Tony started to make that dial up tone again before Alfred clamped his hands over Tony’s mouth. After that, however, things went more or less smoothly, despite that Tony couldn’t stop jerking around and nearly pulling the cable out as Alfred tried to download the programs. Finally, after a harrowing twenty minutes, Tony was able to start a scan. Abruptly, he stopped jerking around and settled down on the floor. Except for a minor twitch or two, Tony remained focused on the scans until nearly an hour later.
There was a quiet ding! from Tony as the scan finished and the alien let his unit relax. Alfred leaned forward curiously. “Well, Tony,” he asked, smiling eagerly. “How do you feel?”
Tony turned his head to glance up at him.
And then let out the filthiest stream of obscenities and curse words Alfred had heard in ages. Several vagrants who had been asleep shouted from another room to shut him up.
Alfred had to force back a laugh as he clamped his hands against Tony’s mouth again. “Wow,” he managed breathlessly, (not that he needed to breathe, but old habits die hard), “you swear almost as bad as Uncle James!”
Tony cocked his head to the side. “Who the fuck are you again?”
“Alfred,” he grinned. “I found you last night and gave you the antivirus programs?”
“I remembered that, shithead,” the laptop informed him before he climbed up into Alfred’s lap and reached up to pull the hair out of Alfred’s face—it was starting to get grimy; he probably should have asked Katyusha if he could borrow one of the shower stalls. “Huh. Okay, then. Just checking.”
“Didya think I was a cyborg?” Alfred asked as the laptop settled down into Alfred’s lap. Tony shook his head and began to regard Alfred silently. Alfred smiled at him. “So, how many viruses did you have?”
Alfred blinked. “That’s…a lot.”
Tony shrugged. “My fuckhead master used me to look up porn without an antivirus program—what do you think would fucking happen?”
“He used you to look up porn? Eww,” Alfred groaned, scrunching his nose in disgust.
Tony was still watching him. “You ain’t gonna try and use me to look up porn too, are you?”
“If I really wanted porn, I’d use my own search engine.”
Tony nodded. “Fan-fucking-tastic. I’m sticking with you, then.”
The alien laptop looked up at him like he was a fool. “I said ‘I’m sticking with you, then’. I sure as hell ain’t going back to my old owner.”
Alfred gaped for a moment before laughing. “Well, I guess I can’t blame you for that,” he snickered, his first real smile in ages stretching across his face. “It’ll be nice to have someone to talk to again. So, do you like video games?”
Tony’s grim, thin line of a mouth finally turned up at the corners.
And that marked the end of the nights Alfred had to spend alone.
Chapter 16: Companions
Alfred and Tony's lifes are never dull as they wander through the city watching out of control protests, get stuck outside without shelter, and spot a mugging.
Having someone at his side constantly after going for a while without anyone else took some adjusting for Alfred. It didn’t help that Tony could be completely still and silent when he wanted to, making Alfred forget that he was there, especially once Katyusha brought him a backpack he could use to carry Tony.
“So your hands can be free,” she explained with a smile as she handed it over. The bag wasn’t new; in fact, it looked like it had been kicked around like a hacky-sack by a football team for a few years. But, the fabric seemed mostly sound, and it was patched well enough that, while there was a hole or two, Alfred really couldn’t find a reason to refuse. Not that he wanted to. It had a Superman patch on it. How cool was that?
He grinned at her and showed Tony the bag. The alien laptop seemed mostly unimpressed but did give an approving “Thanks for the help, tits.” That earned both him and Alfred a lecture (which didn’t seem fair—although Alfred had found it funny) from Eduard, since Katyusha was a little too surprised to respond.
So, despite getting them into some trouble, Alfred was frankly ecstatic to have a new friend, even if he did forget about him half the time.
Now, however, wasn’t one of those times.
“Are you fucking insane?”
Alfred glanced over his shoulder to see Tony, half pulling himself out of the backpack, glaring at him. This was pretty weird looking to Alfred, since he hadn’t realized their manufacturers gave alien models fake veins so they could stand out when they glared. Seemed counter-productive to enticing people to buy them, but hey, what did he know?
“Something wrong?” he asked, pausing in the middle of the alleyway.
Tony snorted at him—an impressive feat since he lacked a nose or nostrils. “Why the hell are you walking this way? You’re seriously joining that protest?”
Alfred glanced away and tried not to shift guiltily as Tony would see that in an instant. “I’m not joining it. I just want to see…”
See what exactly? Alfred bit his lip; he really wasn’t sure what he wanted to see to be honest. Others like him? Companions and laptops standing there, shaking picket signs and chanting or perhaps a crowd of silent computers and sympathetic humans, huddled together and grasping each other for strength? Arthur had once been dispatched along with some other constables when a protest (it was a union strike actually) turned ugly, but he hadn’t allowed Alfred to come along with them. Instead, he and Feliks had waited for what seemed like ages before their owners returned, slightly scuffed up and agitated.
Tony was glaring again. “Fucking answer me, dipshit!”
“Oh—I dunno. Can’t I just want to see?” he asked, scratching his jaw in bemusement.
Tony shook his head at him, but slipped back into the backpack, tugging the zipper shut. “What the fuck ever. I’d better not get hurt because of it!”
Alfred smiled and then laughed when he remembered Tony wouldn’t be able to see his expression. “Don’t worry—I’ll totally keep you safe. Besides, I won’t even join the crowd. If there is a crowd. I just want to see.”
Tony didn’t reply which Alfred decided to take as compliance; smiling softly, he began to walk forward again, sliding out of one alleyway into the next until the directions he’d gotten from the Internet informed him he had arrived as he neared the mouth of the alleyway. Instead of stepping out into the square in front of city hall, Alfred peered out curiously.
There was a crowd, small all things considered, but all of them where standing on the opposite of the street from the building, picket signs held high in the air. They weren’t shouting or chanting like Alfred had half expected, but were instead singing. Not low and husky like Arthur would sing when he didn’t realize he what he was doing, but loud and discordant, disproportionate to the size of the crowd. Passion, Alfred decided after a moment, must have been what made their voices soar like that into the frigid air. Passion that the Companions and laptops shared with the humans in the crowd, binding them together in a way that caused Alfred trouble to distinguish who was a computer and who was human.
Awe wasn’t something Alfred was programmed with—it was something he had picked up over the years, along with many other things, from Arthur. However, he felt it then, strongly and vibrant like those voices. Alfred wondered if this is what people meant when they said they were inspired. All the same, before he could stop himself, Alfred took a step forward.
Alfred jumped and took a step back into the safety of the alleyway, but it was too late. Someone was marching towards him. Someone in a police uniform. Alfred, had he had an actual, physical heart, would have likely gone into cardiac arrest at that very moment. At the least, his OS hiccupped, stalled, and then nearly crashed itself when panicked prompts and alarms went off all at once.
Thankfully, it wasn’t a constable Alfred recognized—he must have been from a different district. He was a tall African man, built like a linebacker, and had a no-nonsense air about him. Vaguely, Alfred checked his memory banks to see if he and Arthur had met him before at one of the many social functions that Arthur hated going to. Nothing came up, so Alfred relaxed—what were the chances that this man would recognize him?
Unless Arthur had reported him missing.
Alfred swallowed. He hadn’t actually checked the missing persons reports since the first time he looked. He was too worried to think of what it would mean if Arthur did put out a report (and too terrified to think of what it meant if Arthur didn’t).
The man kept watching him pointedly as he stopped in front of him. “Look—if you’re part of the protest, get over there. If you’re not, leave. It’s hard enough to keep things orderly without people skulking around in alleyways, understand?”
Alfred blinked and forced himself not to fidget, since that would have only made him look more suspicious. Of course he should have realized how bad it would look to hide in an alleyway—how many times had he heard of these protests turning ugly? Rights for computers were a touchy subject.
He nodded sheepishly. “I’m sorry—I didn’t mean to cause trouble.”
The constable watched him for a moment before nodding. “All the same, you need to-”
He never got a chance to finish; before he got another word out there was a loud roar and then the rising sound of stamping feet before another crowd, this one large and wild, descended into the square, shrieking and shouting, heading straight to the protesters. A counter protest? Alfred thought bemusedly, but it was the only thing made sense to him at the moment. The singing stopped instantly and both sides began to hurl insults and battle slogans at each other, their voices clashing like rumbling thunder.
The constable glanced back at him only once with a hurried “leave, now” before hurrying over to where his peers were trying to keep the crowds calm. It didn’t last long, however—Alfred wasn’t sure which side moved first, but all of a sudden, they surged forward, mashing into each other. Alfred barely made out any punches or kicks in the flurry of motion but he did see one thing.
A laptop—a girlish toddler model—was flung to the ground and Alfred couldn’t make out movement from her. Her partial smashed face was turned towards him and when he magnified his gaze, he saw her chocolate brown eyes go blank before a baseball bat appeared and smashed into the side of her face once more.
Alfred recoiled in horror and almost missed Tony reaching up out of the backpack to grab a fistful of hair. “Idiot! Get us out of here.”
The toddler laptop’s head spilled open after another hit. Alfred didn’t know if he wanted to scream or race over and push whoever it was hurting her off. Another tug on his hair from Tony decided it though, so Alfred turned and ran. He had Tony to look after, he reminded himself. He had promised and he needed to take care of him first.
But he wanted to stay, he thought, glancing back over his shoulder before he turned a corner and vanished into another alleyway. He wanted to stay.
Alfred didn’t stop running until alarms went off in his head, warning of stress in his legs.
His processor informed him that he squandered nearly a third of his battery life running around as he had. After checking on Tony—the alien was completely fine, if a little spooked which meant more cursing but that didn’t really surprise Alfred any more—Alfred decided to risk the battery drain and huddled next to a dumpster until he headed towards the homeless shelter.
Forcing himself to a steady, if fast paced, walk, Alfred tried to process what had happened before. He hadn’t been part of either protest, but for a moment, just before the other group showed up and then just before he left, he had longed to join in. Not in the fighting that occurred—it went against his very code to try harming a human, and against his nature to hurt another computer—but for a moment that passion, that togetherness of the group had been tempting. It wasn’t like a warm welcome he would get from Katyusha when he would arrive at the shelter or a nod from Eduard. Would he have been welcomed had he joined the others? He didn’t know the song they were singing, he barely had a clue what rights they were even asking for. He didn’t have an opinion on the issue at all, since he’d never really given it a thought before.
But I wanted to be there, he thought, kicking some slush out of his way. I wanted to be a part of it. Of that group, as mismatched and different as they were. I wanted to be welcomed into that group.
Alfred paused, standing at the end of the alleyway where he would find the backdoor to the shelter. Thinking on it, he realized something.
I wanted to be welcomed.
Slowly, he shifted. He wasn’t sure what it meant. He wished Arthur was there—or Katyusha, or Eduard, or that thuggish faced man from the warehouse—to explain it to him. This wasn’t logical, which meant it must be something in his AI. Was there a glitch? That was always possible.
Alfred frowned. He really hoped it wasn’t.
With a sigh, Alfred stepped out of the alleyway and heading to the door. He pounded on it and waited, but after ten minutes no one came no matter how loud he knocked.
“What’s up?” Tony asked, popping up and out of the bag.
Alfred shifted. “No one’s answering.”
"Try the front,” Tony suggested.
Frowning, he decided to take the risk and walked around the building. His frown only deepened when he saw that all the lights were off. There was something on the front door; walking over, Alfred realized it was a note.
Water main broke—closed until repairs are finished. Try Deacon’s Shelter on 32nd and Oak. –Eduard
"Ah fuck,” Tony exclaimed enthusiastically for the both of them. Alfred nodded.
Alfred realized about half an hour later just how dire his situation was. Walking around to fight off the chill wasn’t helping his batteries, but he couldn’t stop either. He tried desperately to sneak into a coffee shop to borrow an outlet, but the barista nearly chased him out. After that, he told Tony to power down for the night.
“At least one of us will get some peace—and I’ll make sure to find somewhere to plug you in, so don’t worry!” he insisted.
Tony cocked his head to the side. “…You sure?”
For a moment, Alfred almost changed his mind. In all honesty, no, he wasn’t—he didn’t want to spend the night alone, like he had those first few nights. But then the image of the broken laptop from earlier came to mind, prompting a shiver and a surge of protectiveness. No; best to take care of Tony. Alfred managed a grin. “I’ll be fine—sleep tight, Tony.”
"Don’t get mugged,” Tony quipped and vanished back into the pack. The shift of dead weight against his back announced that Tony had listened and Alfred’s smile became wistful.
Things hadn’t improved after that.
He dimmed his gaze another few hues; he didn’t dare go darker though—he could barely see the vague forms of cars and their headlights as they drove past. It still didn’t help; his batteries were draining as fast as ever. Perhaps he could duck into a restaurant for a little bit and—no, it was almost midnight; most diners and lobbies would be closed. Maybe if he could find a subway… he could jump through the barrier and just find an outlet… hell, even a bathroom…
It was getting harder to keep walking. His feet truly felt for once to be made out of metal (a special coated metal, to imitate skin, but metal nonetheless).
I just wanna power down, he whined mentally. Speaking used up too much power. Too much, not enough, he could feel himself running down even now.
He’d never been this cold before; even in the chilliest of times, Arthur had been there to scoop him up and carry him home in a warm embrace. Oh, warmth, what he’d give for that. Or an outlet. He would do a lot of an outlet right now.
“-told you I can’t!”
Alfred blinked. He hadn’t said that, had he? No, that was stupid. Someone else had to be talking, but who?
“Just give me the damn bag and laptop, Vargas!”
Another voice, loud and threatening. Well, it had to be loud; otherwise he couldn’t have picked it up. Pausing, he glanced to his side, down a dark alleyway. Warily, he brightened his eyes and raised his auditory sensors despite the added strain. Inside the alleyway, he finally saw what was going on: two men had another pressed up against the wall. In the man’s arms was a toddler boy laptop, and in its arms was a bag. It looked like a pharmacy bag. What would they want with that?
At any rate, one of the other men had a gun pulled. Alarms went off in Alfred’s head, coming straight from his First Law programs. ‘Computers must never, actively or through inaction, hurt or allow a person to be hurt’ his processor reminded him.
The man was going to get hurt and Alfred just couldn’t let that happen, simple as that. Standing there, a logic program popped up with suggestions. Walk in there, take the laptop and bag and hand them over was the simplest suggestion.
“F-forget it. This is my brother’s medicine!”
Alright, scratch that. That would just be causing harm to another person. He could still hand over the laptop, but it had the medicine and that really seemed like a dick thing to do. Then the image of the smashed laptop returned and Alfred felt a fast rush of guilt and shame at the thought. What if something happened to this laptop, like the one before? Could Alfred honestly watch (or more importantly, let) that happen again?
“Dammit, moron, do you wanna get shot?”
“Ack, don’t shoot!”
Well, actually, there was another solution.
Stalking forward, despite the fact that it ate up more of his remaining energy, Alfred advanced completely unnoticed until he reached out and grabbed hold of the gun. It bent in his hand like clay.
Well, at least no one was shouting. In fact, everyone was still staring at the gun and his hand.
“I think,” he forced out, “that you oughta leave the man alone now.”
The thugs were staring at him like he was the one that pulled a gun. “Fucking crazy robot,” one squeaked. The other yelped and they both ran, much to Alfred’s confusion.
Crazy robot? He wondered. They think I’m a… oh. Wait, they meant rogue robot? I’m not rogue… am I? God, I’m too tired for this. Alfred huffed a breath and turned back to the man. His eyes, oh wow gold eyes, you don’t see those often, were wide, his jaw hung open, and the only thing besides that that Alfred noticed was that he had a long flyaway curl from the top of his head. “You… okay?”
“Matto…” the man squeaked. Alfred frowned, too tired to bring up his dictionary to see what that meant.
“Hey now… I didn’t call you names…”
“Wow, he don’t look so good-a.”
Alfred blinked and looked down; the laptop looked unusually similar to his owner. The hair was more auburn, but they had a similar curl (the laptop’s looked badly kinked) and gem bright eyes. He smiled up at Alfred and Alfred smiled back reflexively. “Sorry… running down…”
The laptop cocked its head to the side. “Your batteries are low-a? Lovino, his batteries are low!”
The man nearly jumped. “So? W-what am I supposed to do?”
“Let’s take him home-a.”
“What?” Alfred echoed. Before he could argue, however, a new alarm came up. Critical power shortage, it warned, 10 percent power remaining. He staggered, nearly fell to his knees, despite the fact he hadn’t moved.
The laptop gasped but Alfred felt someone grabbing his shoulder. His hearing was going soft but he could still hear the laptop and man arguing above him, about taking him home. It was a bad sign when a warning didn’t pop up about self preservation and the fact following strangers into their homes was never a very good option for Alfred as Arthur had always warned him.
Well. First time for everything.
The grip on his shoulder tightened and he felt a tug. “Dai, computer. Dai—let’s go!” There was a tiny cheer—from the laptop? Alfred didn’t know—but he forced his feet to move, to follow the tug, even when he had to fight not to stubble.
It was a very near thing—Alfred almost collapsed going up the stairs—but he vaguely realized he was being helped to the floor and that someone was tugging his power cord free. Then, wonderfully, he felt electricity surging into him, finally recharging him. Grateful, he barely managed to say something about Tony, still turned off in his backpack and in need of a charge, before Alfred shut himself down.
Chapter 17: Interlude: Time Has Stood Still
Arthur is miserable, lonely, and at a loss for what to do. Finally, he makes his choice.
“Kirkland, I do not appreciate you sleeping on the job,” Sergeant Ludwig Beilschmidt snapped as he stopped in front of Arthur’s desk. Arthur fought back a sigh and raised his head.
“I’m not sleeping—I just have a headache.” It wasn’t a total lie: he had a headache because of the fact that he had barely gotten an hour’s sleep since Thursday. It didn’t help that the station was unusually loud and busy that morning.
The sergeant’s eyes narrowed. “Then you should take something for it,” he advised him bluntly. “Ignoring that, I still haven’t received your report from the Williams case.”
Arthur curled his hand into a fist hard enough that his fingernails bit into his palms to keep from cursing and slamming his head back against the desk. He pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. “I’ll…have it for you by the end of the day. Sir.”
“See to it,” the sergeant grunted but then paused, eyeing him calculatingly. “Actually, Kirkland, get it to me tomorrow. Go home.”
Arthur jerked his head back up. “Sir?”
“Go home, Kirkland, and get some rest. Now,” he added brusquely before he marched off to another officer’s desk, sneaking up and then screaming at the officer who’d been chatting obliviously on his laptop’s phone instead of working.
“He’s worried about you.”
Arthur nearly leapt out of chair, hand going to his baton before he realized it had only been Elizabeta standing behind him. He pressed a hand to his heart and scowled at her apologetic smile. “Héderváry! For God’s sake, don’t do that.”
“Sorry, Kirkland,” she giggled and Arthur finally realized she was holding out a cup of tea to him. Feeling sheepish, he took it and sat back down, deciding he’d just take it straight before he realized that Elizabeta had added sugar to it as well. It was a little more than he liked, but he bit his lip. “You looked as though you needed that,” she explained as she leaned her hip against his desk, answering his silent question. “We’ve all been worried, you know. You were strange all last week, and today you came in looking like death warmed over.”
Arthur regarded his tea. “I haven’t slept, is all.”
She snorted. “What, has Alfred been keeping you awake? Careful, Kirkland, you shouldn’t let him wear you out so much.”
Arthur froze, gazing down at his blurred reflection before he realized his hands were shaking.
Elizabeta gave a startled laugh. “Oh, Kirkland, really? I’d say good for you, but you know you have to—Kirkland? Are you all right? I was only teasing. Kirkland?”
Slowly, Arthur looked up at her. The horror must have shown on his face because her eyes went very wide.
“What on—Kirkland, what’s wrong? Did something happen?”
Arthur returned his gaze to his cup and swallowed. “Nothing. Nothing happened.” He rubbed his thumb thoughtfully against the brim. “Nothing at all.”
Elizabeta must have ratted him out, because before he even managed to make it home, Francis found him. He carried in his arms a full bag of food and Mathieu, who smiled shyly up at him. Arthur wanted to scream or at the very least cry at the familiar-but-not-quite-right face of the laptop.
“Aha, there you are, Arthur,” Francis nearly sang as he walked to him. “I almost gave up on you.”
Arthur glared, too tired to start hurling things at the Frenchman. “What do you want?”
Francis maintained his Cheshire cat smile. “So unfriendly! Well, no matter—you see, the strangest thing happened tonight-”
“-You took up celibacy.”
Francis looked stricken at the thought. “Mon dieu, of course not! Don’t even joke about such things! Anyway, I happened to find myself without a dinner companion. And so, I have taken it upon myself to visit and share with you the delicious meal that I made myself.”
Arthur’s stomach nearly thundered at the thought—all he had had today was Elizabeta’s sugary tea and a soggy fish sandwich. He glared at Francis, who was grinning smugly. “Why don’t you go pester James instead? Or have you two broken up again?”
Francis managed a disgruntled look. “Your brother happens to be out of town for the week—along with the rest of your siblings, visiting your father. They want a proper explanation, by the way, for why you have decided to avoid them. Also, did you change Alfred’s number when you transferred him into the new unit? He hasn’t been picking up.”
He glanced away and forced back the urge to punch the other man, although perhaps that would have helped relieve some tension. “No, he hasn’t.”
“Have you two been fighting again?” Francis frowned, shifting Mathieu in his arms so that the laptop could rest his head against his owner’s shoulder.
The urge to deck his not-friend almost overwhelmed him. “That is none of your concern. Why don’t you just go find someone else to bother? I’m going home.” He tried to walk away before Francis could think to follow him, but the Frenchman was nothing if not persistent and quickly began to follow.
“Ah, mon cher, don’t be that way,” Francis cooed. “Come, let’s have dinner together and chat like old times, no?”
“’Chatting like old times’ with you usually results in you trying to shove your hand down my pants and me hitting you to within an inch of your life.”
“Bah, as if you ever beaten me.”
“Now, listen here, Frog-”
“What?” Arthur snapped before he realized that it hadn’t been Francis who’d spoke.
Mathieu flinched in Francis’ arms before nervously continuing. “Um, I was wondering…” He glanced up at Francis who gave him a reassuring smile in turn. “I was wondering if it would be okay for me to play with Alfred for awhile…?”
Arthur’s heart ached. He looks so like Alfred used to… He bit his lip to restrain a sigh. “Alfred… can’t play today, I’m afraid.”
Francis stiffened and frowned at him, looking bizarrely affronted. “And why not?”
Arthur looked up at the man who had once been his childhood nemesis, who had plagued him and then turned around to flirt with his siblings, who had held his hand and comforted him when his mother died, and who had helped convince him to buy Alfred. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to hit him or scream at him. Instead, Arthur settled on sighing and glancing away. “It’s … complicated.”
It took nearly twenty minutes to convince Francis that what he really needed was to just go home and sleep and, amazingly, Arthur finally managed to sleep through the night. Of course he cursed the air blue in the morning when he woke up and realized he hadn’t even touched the report he was supposed to hand in later. The entire day was spent frantically trying to catch up on his workload and then avoiding any friendly attempts Elizabeta made to see how he was doing. That night, however, returned to the sleepless torment of tossing and turning.
It was noon, halfway through his second cup of overly sugary tea, when Arthur glanced up from his desk. At her desk, Elizabeta was talking to Feliks. At another desk, he spotted one of his coworkers dictating his report to his cat laptop. He could even see Sergeant Beilschmidt pause in the middle of flipping through papers to pat his Doberman laptop’s head.
Looking at all the people around him interacting with their computers brought such a frightfully sharp ache to his chest that Arthur worried something was physically wrong with him. Not that he didn’t almost instantly recognize it for what it was—it was the growingly familiar longing to see Alfred again. He wanted, if nothing, to at least know if he was all right. Glancing back down to his desk, he sighed and pressed a hand over his eyes.
His mind brought up many different scenarios of Alfred returning. Perhaps the Companion’s would come running at him, crashing into him with a desperate and welcoming hug. Or, maybe he would be struck by one of his rare bouts of shyness and would wait until Arthur reached for him. And oh, he would reach for him. He’d drag him over or closer and press his face against his neck, breathe him in and cling to him. He wouldn’t be able to be mad with Alfred—any resentment that had tried to worm its way into his mind would die in an instant should the Companion return. Not that he wouldn’t yell—after what was now nearing a full week, he would have to at some time, if only to scold him for worrying him so—but just not then. No, he’d clap his back, hug him until his arms grow sore, although would most certainly not cry, thank you very much. He would greet him, welcome him back, and then probably have a very long, very overdue conversation.
If only Alfred would turn his accursed phone on! If only I could just say one word to him, he thought, his hand curling into a fist which he raised to bang against the desk in frustration. Instead it hovered useless above it as he pinched his eyes shut. If only I hadn’t said those damn things… If only I had managed to explain things then…
…Alfred wouldn’t have left at all.
Arthur’s eyes flew open and his head snapped upward.
Elizabeta stared back at him. “Are you okay? What are you doing?”
He forced himself to take a deep, settling breath. “I’m… fine. I was just… thinking.”
She frowned sympathetically. “About Alfred?”
Arthur nearly winced. He turned his gaze downward as he let his hand fall uselessly to his lap. “What makes you think I was thinking about Alfred?”
“Just the fact that you still haven’t brought him in and you flinch whenever I mention him; but, you know, I should think that after knowing you for so long, I should be able to tell when something’s up. Kirkland, we aren’t terribly close, but as one colleague to another, in our line of work, being distracted like you are now could get you in trouble. If you wanted to talk about it-”
“Not at the moment, I don’t.”
“Oh.” He couldn’t tell if she was annoyed or not, but he waited in silence before she spoke again. “But, you know, in case you did need someone to talk to, I’d be willing to listen.”
Arthur glanced back up at her. Here he was, being rude and tossing her well-meaning help in her face. Gratitude bubbled up in his chest and he managed a smile for her. “Sorry, I’ve just had a rough time lately. Thank you for the offer. I appreciate it.”
She smiled back. “Take care of yourself, Kirkland—when you go home, try getting some honest rest, will you?”
He tried not to bark a sarcastic laugh at that—what would she say if she knew how badly he had been sleeping? What would she say if he told her that he had to sleep with the bathroom door closed so he couldn’t see the shower, or that he couldn’t bear to sleep on Alfred’s side of the bed even on accident? Instead he nodded. “I’ll try,” he lied, trying to ignore her kind smile as he did so.
Before he could get any rest, there was one thing he needed to do first.
He had to wait for Kiku’s email to come before he was finished. Scrolling through the various attachments, he finally settled on a few good shots of Alfred. He had plenty of photos from when Alfred was a laptop, but not a single one from after he became a Companion. He’d had to ask Kiku to search Mei-Mei’s memory for some image he could include. Kiku had sent more than enough—enough, in fact, to probably start a new album.
He glanced at the form he’d already filled out. Name, age, weight, height, every detail he could think of had already been filled out. All he needed to do was to pick out a picture and then he could send off the missing persons report for Alfred. He flipped back to one of the photos.
It was obviously a candid shot from just before they had left Kiku’s apartment that first day Alfred had returned to him. It was a good shot nonetheless—Alfred was smiling down at Mei-Mei with a cheerful smile. He zoomed in a bit more until Alfred’s face filled the screen. Idly, he traced his jaw line—strong, almost lantern-jawed—before hovering, pausing above his smile.
God, his heart ached just to see Alfred smiling again, if only from a picture.
Quickly he flipped back to the report and attached a copy of the photo before sending the email off. He wondered what his coworkers were going to say when they found a report for Alfred Kirkland and saw what had become of the little laptop he used to take to work every day.
He found he couldn’t bring himself to care. And to think, he thought sardonically as he exited the email and returned to the photos, it only took me losing him again to stop caring what they thought.
What a fool he was being. What a fool he had been.
He stared at the photo that smiled so happily up at him.
“I’m sorry,” he told the picture. “I’m sorry—please come home.”
Alfred just kept smiling.
With a sigh, he returned to the main screen and clicked the phone icon. After he punched in the numbers, he waited until he heard Mathieu patching him through. “Hello, Francis speaking.”
A pause, and then the sound of footsteps drawing closer. “Arthur? Is there something wrong? Have you finally called to admit what’s been troubling you lately?”
Arthur bit back a groan. “Never mind; if you’re going to be like that, I’ll just call Héderváry instead and get her help-”
“-Oh non non, it’s fine!” Arthur frowned at what sounded like suspiciously like ‘at least you’re admitting to a problem now’. “It’s just—you know—unusual for you. Is there something you need?”
That time Arthur couldn’t contain his sigh. “Actually, yes, there is.”
There was a scrape of something hard against linoleum—he must have pulled a chair over—and a rustling as he no doubt sat down. Arthur could practically picture him hunched up over the counter, peering down at his laptop, waiting for him to speak. “All right. I’d be glad to help—what do you need?”
“It’s about Alfred.” He could practically see him lean forward eagerly. “I’m afraid I need your help—he’s gone missing. Been missing—for nearly a week now.”
There was dead silence on the line for a moment before there was a loud scrape—Francis had probably jumped to his feet. “I am coming over. Right now.”
Arthur sighed. “I’ll put some tea on.”
Chapter 18: Bonus: I Can't Stop Wanting You
Arthur keeps living, but his dreams hound him at night. He gives into a little temptation, but in the long run he's still only getting by.
This is a special bonus chapter--a deleted scene really. Contains masturbation and angst.
Arthur took a deep breath but it came out as a gusty sigh barely a moment later. That wasn’t good—his hand was faltering as well. This was ridiculous, he told himself. It was just a doorknob. He’d been in the room plenty of times since Alfred. Left.
Well, apparently his hand was forgetting that. And he was forgetting that his hand didn’t have a mind of its own, so he should be able to open one damn door.
Ridiculous, his mind continued to chant before he finally worked up the courage to reach out and shove the door open, hard enough that it bounced off the wall beside it. Inside the room was the same as always; the toilet needed to be scrubbed, the sink was still splattered with toothpaste from when he rushed out in the morning, and the shower was still standing in the back corner, calling and mocking him all at once with its complete normalcy. And that was it right there—Arthur didn’t have a problem with the toilet, the sink, the rug, the damn light fixture that couldn’t figure out if its bulb was ready to die or not, but the shower? The minute he had to come in to take a shower, Arthur found his hands stuttering over the knob. At night he had to shut the door since he could see the stall from his bed if he turned over.
Ridiculous, his mind informed him, but the less skeptical side of him shouted back if it could cause one bad thing to happen, why not another?
Which was ridiculous.
And yet, Arthur still couldn’t seem to make his feet move forward.
Steeling himself with another breath, Arthur began to tug off his clothes—he found that if he got undressed in the bedroom, he could escape the bathroom all the faster. Frankly, that was a boon. The only problem was now he felt even more vulnerable. Which was stupid; what was the shower going to do, reach out and bite him?
Stupid, troublesome, ridiculous.
So why couldn’t he force himself to move forward?
He thanked whatever deities that were about that no one knew how terrified his own bathroom made him—he doubted he’d ever live it down. After a few more moments of steadying his breath and mustering his courage, he nearly had to charge into the shower stall. If something tripped him up or caused him to stop, he was half certain he would have run back out and then just decide to do without a shower for the night, despite how he smelled like sweat and cigarettes.
Thankfully he made it and hopped into shower before he could second guess himself. Reaching up, he cranked the water up—jumping a little at the first frigid water before it warmed—and focused on grabbing the soap and hand towel to scrub himself down. His hair could wait until tomorrow, when hopefully he could either bum a shower off Kiku or hope that Basch downstairs was gone for a bit so Lili would let him borrow theirs. He felt a little bad for lying to her that his shower had problems and without giving her something in return, but she had refused his offer of fresh scones when she let him use the shower the first time. Which shouldn’t have shocked him—the only person who accepted his food was James, and that was because no matter how bad people claimed Arthur’s food was, no one was worse than James at cooking.
(He remembered that first night.
“No, it’s alright—oh! I wouldn’t mind a few of your roses though, come summer,” Lili smiled cheerfully.
“Roses?” Arthur blinked.
“Yes, the ones on your balcony—they always smell so lovely in the summer. Usually, it’s really hard to stay out on the balcony during the summer with the smells, but when the roses are blooming, it’s really quite nice!”
Arthur considered it—the roses had been an impulse buy one day when Francis had dragged him to a store for ingredients for snacks. He’d brought them back and planted them somewhat disinterestedly. It’d been a surprise when they started to flourish, eventually growing to the point that Arthur just stuck them out on the balcony in a giant pot and let them grow up the building.
Alfred had loved the roses instantly, intrigued by all growing things. He would beg to water and prune them, fascinated by their very existence. Sometimes Arthur had to physically drag Alfred away to put him to bed at night. In the summer, they would cut a few flowers each week and put them on the table so Alfred could admire them while Arthur ate.
Arthur frowned. “You can have the whole pot.”
Lili stared. “Oh, no! I could never.” She smiled and continued before he could insist. “Besides—won’t Alfred miss them?”
He stared but finally nodded before excusing himself to shower.)
Arthur began to scrub harshly—he had no time for gentleness. Every moment spent in there threatened him with a new memory. If he turned about and closed his eyes, he could almost imagine Alfred there, could almost recall the feel of his hair between Arthur’s fingers, the feel of his muscles beneath Arthur’s hands. The feel of-
Arthur scrubbed harder—he needed to find some way to make the whole thing go faster. After he cleaned himself, nearly rubbing parts of himself raw, he shut off the water with a snap of his wrists, hopped out, and then nearly missed snagging a towel as he fled the bathroom. Once he was free, he paused, glancing back into the bathroom. There was nothing there, no terrible monster, no ghost, no axe murderer waiting to strike. There was absolutely no reason to be terrified of that room either.
All except for there was no Alfred in that room either.
Arthur glared and switched off the lights before shutting the door. Once the sight was banished behind the closed door, Arthur found he could breathe easier again. Grumbling to himself about his silliness, he wiped himself down and tugged on his pajama bottoms before falling into bed. Lying there, however, Arthur had to admit one terrible thing to himself—it was going to be one of those nights. His arm drifted lethargically over to the empty portion of the bed, where Alfred should have been. The Companion would have been curled on his side, smiling before reaching out to wrap his arms around Arthur as he shut off. It would have been slightly uncomfortable—Arthur didn’t mind cuddling, but Alfred was heavy. But it was Alfred, so Arthur would have allowed it.
But the spot was still empty and Arthur was going to have one of his dreams tonight.
With a sigh, Arthur got up and reached for the touchpad that sat innocently on his nightstand. He tapped the screen to activate it before clicking the phone icon. Steeling his nerves, he dialed Alfred’s number, just as he had every night since Alfred had vanished.
He waited anxiously while it rang, the loud rings echoing over and over until a voice announced that the number was having technical difficulties—which meant only that Alfred still hadn’t turned his phone on, not that he was hurt, (probably,) Kiku had assured him—and to try calling back later. Arthur didn’t even bother to curse before he dropped the touchpad back to the nightstand and flopped backwards.
For a moment, he thought about just staying up the whole night, skip sleeping and dreaming and heartache for once. But that was a silly idea—he wasn’t seventeen anymore, he couldn’t pull all nighters like he used to—and he had work in the morning. Not that he was going to get much rest, but he needed all he could get.
Besides. He knew what he was going to dream about.
Sighing, he crawled back into bed and rolled away from the empty space at his side.
He was asleep before long and dreaming almost instantly. He’d been right—it was going to be a bad night. In the dream, Alfred appeared as his old, tiny laptop self, smiling and laughing as he rushed to Arthur’s side. Arthur scooped him up and pressed his face into Alfred’s hair as the laptop laughed against Arthur’s neck. “Arthur, Arthur, I missed you!”
Missed him? But Arthur hadn’t gone anywhere. It was Alfred who left.
“That’s silly,” Alfred laughed, but it wasn’t the laptop’s high voice, but instead the Companion’s, and it wasn’t the laptop’s arms around his neck but the Companion’s pulling Arthur closer. “I wouldn’t leave you.”
But that wasn’t what happened at all. Was it?
Alfred was smiling at him. “You’re so weird. But don’t worry—I don’t mind.”
He never did mind. Arthur sighed and pressed his forehead against Alfred’s shoulder. When he glanced up, he realized there was water falling down on them, and not just from the sky but a showerhead. They were back in the damn shower again.
“What’s a matter, Arthur? Don’t you want to take a shower with me?”
That wasn’t it. Arthur just hated showers now.
“Ahh, poor Arthur. Do you want me to protect you from the shower?”
Alfred could learn to shut his mouth or Arthur would find something else Alfred could do with it.
Alfred was grinning, mischievous and beautiful. “Like what?”
Arthur pushed—or was it pulled? It was hard to tell with all the steam and Alfred pressed so nicely against him—him down to his knees and Alfred took Arthur’s cock in his mouth without prompting. God, there were no words; no words that would ever explain how damn good that felt. Arthur gripped Alfred’s shoulders and let himself slide down the wall until he joined Alfred on the floor. Alfred kept using that talented mouth of his until Arthur nearly begged and then pulled away, leaving Arthur to moan after him in discontentment. It didn’t last long—Alfred was there again, straddling and sliding himself down onto Arthur’s erection, all slick and warm and God, Arthur wanted him there.
“But I am here.”
No he wasn’t. Alfred left.
Alfred laughed at him. “You’re strange. But I love you anyways.”
Arthur’s heart hurt, but he smiled back. “I love you too.”
Alfred chuckled and pressed a kiss to Arthur’s neck. “No, you don’t. Otherwise, I’d still be here.”
And then Alfred vanished and Arthur woke up, panting harshly.
God, it really had been one of those nights. With a groan, he tried to unwind himself from the twisted sheets, hindered by the fact he was achingly hard and tender all at once. The dream had affected him worse tonight, leaving him gasping.
He really didn’t want to wank off, either—the dream left him feeling dirty, and wrong, and goddamn hard, why do the forces that be hate me? Sighing, he braced himself and rolled over on his belly into Alfred’s side of the bed. Sometimes the whole wrongness of being in that spot—it was Alfred’s spot, it felt rude to steal it—helped throw him off. Not tonight, though—tonight it took all his willpower not to start rutting into the mattress, into Alfred’s spot. Finally he gave in and slipped his hand beneath his trousers. He tried to keep his touch clinical, but soon it was taking all he had not start sobbing Alfred’s name into the mattress. He was back in the dream, back to the night in the shower, and it was Alfred’s hand touching him, stroking him, destroying whatever hopes he had for getting his little boy back. Arthur bit back a sob when he came—right into Alfred’s spot—because it wasn’t the laptop he wanted back and it was painful to lose that child.
Lying there, feeling wretched and hurt, Arthur realized that he probably should get back up and take another shower or, at the very least, get a washrag to clean himself. Guiltily, Arthur tried to smooth the wrinkles out of the bedspread he made before getting back up. He couldn’t bring himself to shower, so he wiped himself down and crawled back into bed on his back, so he wouldn’t have to look at Alfred’s side or the bathroom door.
Ridiculous, mocked his mind.
Arthur couldn’t help but agree.
Chapter 19: Discovery
Alfred makes some new friends, finds a few surprises, makes a decision, and then runs literally into a familar face.
For the first time in nearly six years, Alfred overslept the next morning. He had been rising at the same time he always had for weeks, even though he no longer had to wake up Arthur anymore. It just seemed wrong to sleep past 7:15. However, with all the running and excitement from the day before, Alfred’s batteries needed the extra time to recharge. It was over an hour after he usually awoke that Alfred finally booted up, and when he did the first thing he noticed that one: he was not at the shelter, and two: he was not in an alleyway.
Instead, he found himself in someone’s living room, and memories quickly jumped at his call, revealing that he had indeed managed to make it to an outlet last night. After he totally saved someone—which, now that he thought about it, was completely awesome.
(If only Arthur could-)
It was kind of cramped, Alfred noted; there was a matching loveseat and recliner placed around a worn-looking but clean coffee table. There was no carpet, but there was a red rectangular rug beneath the coffee table with various cream and white colored squares on it. He realized belatedly that it was an open floor plan apartment, and while the living room might have been small, the kitchen wasn’t. The counters were like the coffee table—clean, but had obviously seen a lot of action. The oven and fridge looked new and expensive, however, more so when compared to the other appliances in the apartment, such as the dinky, boxy television Alfred realized he was sitting next to. Most of these details left little impression on Alfred—what really caught his attention were the paintings.
Alfred wasn’t an art critic, and in fact, as he was a computer, he didn’t really appreciate art the same way a human could. He could still tell, however, just by gazing at the closest one that whoever made these had talent. Rather than do a search to see what kind of style or technique were used, Alfred just decided to gaze at a painting of what he quickly realized was a old man, happily reaching out for a pair of children. He smiled at it, a memory popping up of Arthur reaching down to scoop him up, just as the man in the painting was doing.
The thought of Arthur made him twitch and something started to build up in his code—distress, most likely—but Alfred never got a chance to brood. One moment he was focused on the painting, the next he suddenly realized that something just hopped into his lap. Blinking, he looked down.
It was the laptop from last night, smiling brightly up at him. Beside him, Tony looked up at Alfred expectantly. “Buongiorno, Signore Alfred!” Alfred blinked, cocking his head to the side. “Buon-buongiorno?”
The laptop giggled. “I said-a, ‘good morning, mister Alfred’.”
Alfred laughed a little himself, mostly from surprise. “Oh! Sorry—good morning. And, ah, you don’t have to call me mister. Just Alfred is fine. Although, how do you know my name?”
“Tony told it to me,” the laptop grinned. “You can-a call me Seborga.”
Alfred had to stare. “Seborga?” What an odd name…
The laptop shrugged. “Feliciano—that’s my owner-a—decided to name me where he bought me. So, I’m Seborga! But anyway, that’s not important-a. Do you remember how you got here last night?”
Alfred blinked, shifting in thought as he re-examined his files. “I helped you and your owner-”
“-ah, that wasn’t my owner. That was Lovino, my owner’s brother.”
Alfred paused and finally nodded at the interruption. Usually he was the one to interrupt—it was strange to be on the receiving side. “Um, well. You and your… owner’s brother, then. And then he agreed to let me come back here and recharge for the night.”
“Magnifico! You do remember-a,” the laptop cheered before turning back to Tony. “See? Nobody kidnapped you.”
Tony grunted and looked away. Alfred couldn’t help but smile before he reached out and scooped Tony up (like the painting, like Arthur), pulling him into his lap as well. “Told ya I’d find us a place to recharge, right?”
Tony harrumphed, but didn’t fuss as Alfred patted his back and Seborga giggled. “You could have least found someone you actually knew before wandering off with some stranger. Or at least give me fair warning.”
“Sorry,” Alfred tried not to chuckle. To be fair, he really should have known better; however, it had worked out in the end anyway, right? “I didn’t mean to worry you—I’ll warn you next time.”
“You’d better. I can’t fucking babysit you all the time.”
Alfred smiled and turned his attention back to Seborga. “So, um, where are we exactly? I couldn’t really tell where you were leading me last night.”
“How low were your batteries?” Tony demanded suspiciously.
Seborga ignored the other laptop and rattled off the address. “It’s the East Pines Apartments,” he finished off. “Although all the maps still say it’s the Churchill Apartments. It really isn’t too far from where you met us last night-a.”
Alfred blinked in surprise as he brought up a map. “Wow, I guess I really did wander pretty far from the shelter. I don’t think I’ve been in this part of town for awhile.”
“Well, we get our fair amount of visitors-a. Oh! Speaking of visiting, did you want to meet-a my master?” Seborga asked excitedly.
“Oh no, he’s not!”
Alfred blinked and looked up. Standing in the doorframe of a bedroom, the man from the night glared at them, but flinched as they locked eyes before scowling again. Behind him, Alfred heard someone coughing hoarsely before he scooted out the door and shut it firmly.
“Feliciano isn’t getting any visits for awhile—and certainly not from a filthy companion. It’s bad enough that that—potato freak is coming here, covered with God knows how many germs after working around criminals all day.”
Alfred glanced down at his shirt and realized the man had a point—he was looking in pretty shabby shape. The shirt—the one he had worn when he first woke up after being activated again—was splattered and stained; the jeans and boots were even sorrier sights. He wondered how bad his hair must look—it was tangled for sure, but it occurred to him that it might have become matted with filth as well. He winced as he dragged a hand through his hair—it was going to be murder try to fix it without tearing half his hair free.
The conversation had continued on without him. “But, Lovino, Feliciano said he wanted to meet-a Alfred.”
“Feliciano also wanted to run around in the cold and damp and now he has pneumonia—he can’t always get what he wants!”
“You’re just being grumpy because Antonio cancelled-a your date.”
“Jilted lover?” Tony drawled, leaning against Alfred’s knee.
Seborga laughed while Lovino sputtered. Alfred couldn’t help but smile—the Italian was starting to remind him strongly of Arthur when he was flustered.
“What if he takes a shower?” Seborga suggested. “That way he won’t be-a too dirty.”
“You could use a wash anyway,” Tony muttered, staring pointedly at the mud that stained his jeans to the knees.
Alfred laughed and shrugged as the attention turned to him and his clothes. “I hadn’t really noticed, but yeah, I totally could. Can I use your shower?”
Lovino bristled, but slowly raised a hand to point at a door at the end of the hall beside him. “Last door on the left.”
“Now you’re leaving me with these guys?” Tony drawled, taking a step back as Alfred stood.
“Ungrateful little brat—the only reason I’m putting up with you at all is because Seborga talked me into it!”
Seborga laughed. “But, Lovino, it’s not like it took much convincing for you to decide to let them come.”
Alfred crouched back down for a moment to whisper to Tony. “You’ll be alright, but if you’re that worried, you can come and wait in the bathroom until I’m done.”
Tony barely shook his head. “Just don’t spend all fucking day in there.”
Alfred grinned as he stood. “Got it. I shouldn’t be that long.” He turned and began to wander down the hall Lovino had pointed while the man kept arguing with the laptops. It sounds like they’re having fun, he thought with a chuckle as Lovino growled at something Tony said.
He bent down to tug off his boots, letting them fall to the floor with a thud after he shut the door behind him. Straightening to take off the rest of his clothes he paused and then did a double take as he saw his reflection in the mirror. They had not been joking when they said he was filthy—his hair was matted and dark with mud and grime, his skin was dingy, and his clothes were stained. Wow—two weeks without a shower while wandering around a city can really do a number on you, he mused as he tilted his head side to side.
I barely recognize myself. He leaned back from the mirror, still examining his face. I wonder if Arthur would…
He shook his head and tried to freeze whatever program kept spitting out those thoughts. Failing at finding it, he quickly tried to distract himself by stripping off his clothes and hopping into the shower. He had to pause again to recall which knob he was supposed to use and ended up settling for a lukewarm shower.
It was fascinating for him as he watched the grime and dirt drip down from his body before he remembered he needed to use soap. His hand stilled for a moment as he glanced up at the shampoo and conditioner bottles. Looking at them, he nearly groaned as at the triggered memory of Arthur’s fingers tangled in his hair. Honestly, he did not want to wash his hair—if just looking at the bottles were enough to start triggering memories that he had tried to stash away, what would happen when he actually had to start washing?
Taking a steadying breath, he squared his shoulders and reached for the shampoo bottle. After reading the not-too-helpful instructions on the back, he shrugged and poured a liberal amount into his free hand. It started to immediately ooze out between his fingers so he quickly stuck his hand into his hair. He hesitated but then began to work the shampoo in.
As he picked through the tangles and clumps, he frowned as he realized he wasn’t getting the same sensations he had when it had been Arthur washing him. He wasn’t sure if he should have been happy or disappointed.
Quickly he rinsed and then took another dollop of conditioner before trying one last scrub down. He stepped out of the shower, only remembering to grab a towel when he saw how much water he was dripping everywhere. The mirror showed that at least his hair was bright blond again, even if it was still hopelessly tangled. He peeked through the drawers next to the sink until he discovered a brush—completely forgetting that he should have asked to borrow it first—and tried to tame his hair.
Finally, after winning the war he waged against the knots, he managed to get his hair mostly presentable if not still a little messy. But then, he figured, that probably wasn’t too shabby compared to what he had looked like before taking a shower. Grinning at the finally recognizable face in the mirror, he turned to his clothes and paused.
They were a disgrace, even to him. The pants were stained and torn, wearing thin at the seams from the abuse they were put through before they were even given to him. The shirt was little better and did not help him stay warm in the least. He had no underwear or socks.
Wow, I must really look like a bum, he mused, picking up the pants. Still, can’t be picky. I wonder if Lovino would give me some soap to wash the shirt at least…
Smiling at the plan, he slid his pants on, grabbed his shirt and boots, and walked out the door. In the kitchen, Tony and Seborga talked on the countertop while Lovino cooked. Or rather, Seborga laughed at Tony’s insults while Lovino shouted at the two of them to keep it down. It was Seborga who spotted him, his face lighting up as he waved him over.
“Alfred, you look-a much better.”
Alfred smiled back. “I feel much better. Thank you for the shower.”
“Yes, well, no one could ever accuse a Vargas of not repaying a debt,” Lovino cut in gruffly as he turned from whatever it was he was making on the stove to frown at him. “You still look like a barbone—are those the only clothes you have?”
Alfred blinked and glanced back down to the shirt, shifting nervously. “Well, yeah. Beggars can’t be choosers, right?”
Lovino stared pointedly at him for a moment, making the Companion squirm under the intense gaze before the Italian abruptly left the stove and walked past him, into a room. When the door opened, Alfred heard a faint, hoarse cough before Lovino said something in Italian and slipped into the room. He was in there for a handful of minutes and when he returned, he smirked while he held a pile of clothes in his hands that he shoved into Alfred’s arms. “There—try those on. Just toss the old clothes out.”
Alfred gawked. “I-I… um. Thank you?”
“Just go try them on,” Lovino huffed, walking past him to return to the stove.
Glancing back to the laptops, Tony gave him a blank, unhelpful stare while Seborga grinned and shooed him back towards the hallway. Seeing no better option, he returned to the bathroom and slipped on a pair of jeans, a fitted white shirt, and then the worn but comfortable sweatshirt Lovino had handed him. The brunet even gave him a pair of socks to his excitement as he wriggled his toes in them before tossing his old clothes into the trash can.
Hopping back up, he eagerly hurried back out into the room, pleased as if it were Christmas. “Ta-da! Do I look better now?”
Seborga cheered and Tony managed a succinct nod. Lovino barely glanced at him, but he was still smirking. “That will do.”
“Since you’re all clean, you should-a go meet Feliciano now,” Seborga announced, jumping up to his stumpy feet before toddling over to Alfred.
Before the Companion could answer, Lovino turned back around. “No! It’s bad enough that the potato freak should be here any minute to come bother him—I don’t need more people running around in there, making him sicker.”
Alfred blinked. “You have a guest coming over soon?”
“Unfortunately,” Lovino growled, glaring over at the door. “He should be here soon, the prick.”
The blond glanced at and locked gazes with Tony, who quickly wandered over and raised his arms to be picked up without prompting. “Then we should probably go. Thank you for letting us use the outlet—and the shower. You’re a real life saver.”
“Oh, but Feliciano hasn’t had a chance to see you yet!” Seborga cried out in dismay. “He’ll be so sad if he doesn’t get to meet you.” Lovino was staring at them and shifting quickly from one side to the other, like some hypnotic snake rocking back and forth. “…He does, actually, really want to meet you.”
Alfred glanced back down to Tony, who was curling deeper into his arms. “But if you have guests…”
“Come back again,” Lovino barked suddenly, shocking all of them—and from the way he blinked with wide eyes immediately afterward, he’d surprised himself as well. “A Vargas repays his debts—if you need to a place to recharge again, the door will be open. You can visit my brother then.”
Seborga grinned and Tony shrugged, so Alfred smiled. “Thanks. That really is awesome of you.” He shifted to the side, glancing up at the clock. “So, um, when was your guest coming over?”
“He’s not my guest,” Lovino grumbled while Seborga answered with “Any time now.”
“Oh. Well, then, I guess we should be going,” he decided. “I hope your brother feels better soon.”
“Bah, that idiot will be causing me trouble again all too soon.”
“Ah,” Seborga groaned, plopping down on the counter with a thud. “Well, it was fun-a meeting you, Alfred. Come back again soon, va bene?”
Alfred smiled as he backed up to grab the bag he’d left by the outlet. “Hey, that’d be fine by me—I want to meet this Feliciano, too.”
“Oh, oh! Why don’t you give me your phone number-a?” Seborga suggested, bouncing back to his feet. “I’ll give you mine, too.”
“Hey, don’t just hand out our number!”
“But it’s only to Alfred-a.” Alfred paused at the almost feminization of his name before realizing that Seborga probably hadn’t meant any harm by it and pulled his bag back onto his shoulder before walking back over. “Do you want to, Alfred?”
He shrugged. “Yeah. Fine by me.” He quickly rattled off his number, but when he went to add the number Seborga gave him, he paused in confusion. “Huh.”
“Something wrong?” the child laptop asked.
“My phone program’s off,” he answered, blinking in surprise as he turned it back on and opened the program up. After a moment he gave a low whistle. “Wow, that’s…that’s a lot of missed calls.”
“How many?” Lovino asked, glancing back over his shoulder.
Both Italians gaped at him. “How long has your phone been off-a?”
“Um…nearly three weeks?”
“Cazzo! How many messages do you have?”
Alfred stared again. “None. I guess the program doesn’t record any when it’s off. Caller ID’s empty, too.”
“Hopefully there wasn’t anything important-a,” Seborga murmured.
Alfred could only shrug; after he saved the number, they said their goodbyes and he left. Tromping down the stairs, Alfred hummed to himself as he remembered the easy camaraderie between the Italian man and the laptop. Only weeks ago he and Arthur had been like that, arguing and teasing, but always with an underlying affection. Or what Alfred had thought was affection.
It had been something warm and welcoming. Home, he decided, it’s gotta be like what people always go on when they talk about coming home.
He almost missed the next step.
That’s what he wanted; he wanted to go ‘home’.
“Something up?” Tony asked, turning his face up in Alfred’s arms to stare at the companion.
Alfred looked down; Tony was awesome and a great buddy, but he was prickly by nature, not welcoming. He wouldn’t just abandon the laptop, but he needed something more as well. He wanted a home.
Finally, Alfred smiled. “Yeah…yeah. Just figured out something we can do for awhile.”
Tony stared for a moment, but then shrugged when Alfred didn’t go on. “Whatever—all this wandering’s getting fucking boring anyway.” Alfred laughed and stepped down off the stairwell, heading for the doors leading out into the streets. For a moment, things felt almost right with the world—he had an idea, he now had a place where he was told he could return to, and he had at least a few friends.
And then he nearly ran face first into Sergeant Ludwig Beilschmidt as the man stepped through the front door.
Squeaking in shock—even if he never would have admit to it—Alfred took a step back as he watched Arthur’s superior officer blink in surprise at him. “I—uh—sorry, excuse me.”
“It’s fine,” Ludwig replied gruffly as he shifted to the side. Alfred saw his chance and tried to squeeze by. He’d almost made it through the door when he heard Ludwig speak again. “Hey, you.”
Alfred froze, slowly turning his head. In his arms, Tony had gone suspiciously quiet. “Um. Yes?”
Ludwig stared for a moment. “Nice sweatshirt.”
Alfred gaped before glancing down. On the sweatshirt was sprawled a soccer ball and a team name in German. Oh shit, he realized in horror, Lovino gave me Ludwig’s clothes. No wonder the clothes fit so well—Kiku had even given him clothes from Ludwig when he’d first been reprogrammed. “Th-thanks,” he managed, trying to grin. “I, um, I’ll take good care of it!”
Ludwig gave him an odd look, but nodded. “You should do that. Goodbye.”
“Bye,” Alfred murmured softly as the officer walked away to climb the stairs. Watching him leave, Alfred smiled softly. It really had been a long time since he’d seen Ludwig, or anyone else from the station. He wondered how they were all doing.
I wonder how Arthur is doing…
Well, that just settled it—he definitely needed to find a new home, one where maybe he could stop all those thoughts about Arthur. What good would think of him do? He didn’t want Alfred. (Probably, most likely.
…what if Arthur had been the one calling so much?)
With a sigh, Alfred halted the program prompting the thought and turned around to walk out of the building. Hopefully, the shelter would be open—as nice as it would be to return, with Ludwig visiting, Alfred wouldn’t dare to come back to Lovino’s apartment unless it was an emergency. Besides, he had a question he wanted to ask Katyusha or Eduard.
He’d been on the streets long enough—he needed to find a home.
Chapter 20: Experiment
Alfred tells Katyusha about looking for a new home, so she introduces him to her siblings. Ivan agrees to take him in; before Alfred can adjust to his new home, he finds that Arthur has been trying to contact him.
The shelter wasn’t open that night when Alfred returned, but there was someone there to greet him. Katyusha saw him through the window and waved before hurrying to open the door for him. She pulled him inside before he could even say hello and began to maniacally inspect him from the bottom of his boots to his hair. “Oh, Alfred, you are okay! I was so worried last night when I realized that no one would be here to let you in and then you wouldn’t be able to recharge and that you would collapse somewhere out on the streets!”
Alfred shot Tony a shocked and confused look, but the laptop only shrugged and shook his head in reply. He let her talk until tears started to well up in Katyusha’s eyes as she babbled something about people doing unmentionable things to his inactive body and that it would have been all her fault. Panicked, he reached out and tried to pat her shoulder comfortingly. “It’s okay, Katyusha! None of that stuff happened to me, and I’m completely all right. My luck’s way better than that—see? I’m okay. Thanks for worrying about me, I guess.”
She smiled, but then tried to crush him in a hug, although since Alfred was still carrying Tony in his arms, the laptop got pressed straight into the woman’s cleavage. Not that he seemed to mind—Alfred was a little disturbed by what sounded like purring coming from the laptop. Alfred shrugged slightly and patted her back until she pulled away, wiping at her eyes. “I’m glad you found some place to rest last night, then. That’s such a relief.”
“Yeah, it was really sweet.” He grinned. “I totally helped these people out while they were getting mugged-”
“M-mugged?” she stammered, eyes wide. Before he could reply, she grabbed him and then tried to examine him for (he presumed) wounds. “Oh goodness, no one got hurt, did they? Are you really all right? Oh, this all my fault, I should have remembered, I’m so sorry, Alfred!”
The Companion could only stare in horror as she promptly burst into tears. Tony glared up at him. “Nice going.”
“Ah—Ka-Katyusha, I’m okay, really. Nobody got hurt, I promise. Oh—oh, come on! Please stop crying. I’m sorry—whatever I did, I’m really sorry.” He paused; it was no good. She was still crying. Well, that didn’t help at all. Let’s try something different. He smiled and tried to pat her shoulder comfortingly. She winced when he used a little too much force, but she at least saw his smile. “I’m okay, Katyusha, really—it takes more than a mugging to keep me down, and besides I was a totally cool hero then! I helped out the people getting mugged and then they let me spend the night with them and recharge. Then they let me take a shower and gave me new clothes—I look way better, see?”
She blinked in surprise before looking down at his clothing. At last, she smiled up at him. “I-I do see. That’s really wonderful, Alfred.”
“I know, right?” he grinned. “I always wanted to help out other people like that, ever since Arthur-” His eyes widened and his voice died instantly the moment the name slipped past his lips. Both Katyusha and Tony looked up at him in surprise. His mouth snapped shut hard enough that he heard it click.
That was the first time he’d said Arthur’s name to anyone in nearly three weeks.
Something in his code produced an almost actual ache. He swallowed and tried to smile. “Um. Never mind,” he tried before blinking owlishly again and grinning. “Actually, that reminds me! Can I ask you a question?”
Katyusha paused, a hand drifting up to rest thoughtfully against her jaw. “Yes, go ahead.”
“Do you know someone or someplace where Tony and I can, um, stay at for a while?” he asked. He felt the back of Tony’s head shift against his front as he cocked his head to the side. “You guys are really cool for letting me come in and recharge every night, but I-” Want a home. “-could use a roof over my head, you know?”
Katyusha smiled and nodded, her eyes going misty—but instead of crying, she reached out and took his hand in hers, giving it a squeeze. “Yes. I know. And actually.” Her smile turned into a wide grin. “I do know a place just like that.”
After letting him recharge, Katyusha slipped on a coat and joined him after she locked up the shelter’s front doors. They chatted for a bit, she explaining that she stayed in the shelter overnight to try to help some of the other workers fix the pipes and he told her more about his previous night and day. He had enjoyed walking and talking with her immensely until he realized the reason why he enjoyed it so much was because he hadn’t had a real chance to do so since he had taken to the streets. (Tony, bless him, wasn’t up much for talking and preferred to play video games, although Alfred had to admit the laptop was an excellent partner to play with.)
Well, if all goes right, I’ll be able to do this more often, he thought pointedly, although he had only himself to convince. I’m going to have someone to talk and walk with whenever I want very soon. The idea started to sound better with each second. He was grinning as Katyusha led him down a residential street.
She paused nearly halfway down, stopping to stand in front of a two story apartment building. Alfred would have hazarded that there was probably six apartments in the cramped structure, unless the rooms were truly tiny and there were more doors hidden on the sides.
She nodded to the door on the far end. “Go ahead and knock—there’s always usually someone awake. Just tell them that I sent you,” she explained as she gently pushed him forward. “And if Ivan asks about the money I owe him tell him, tell him—tell him I’ll pay him at New Year’s—no wait, Easter! Oh, wait, Ivan doesn’t celebrate Easter; he wouldn’t remember when it was…” She sniffed, and to Alfred’s shock, turned and ran off. “Oh, I’m such a bad sister!”
“Katyusha, wait!” he called after her, but she had already disappeared around the next corner. “…What do I tell Ivan if he does ask about the money…?”
Looking back at the door, Alfred took a deep breath and squared his shoulders before marching up to it. He hesitated only a moment before knocking firmly on the door, trying not to pound on it since it was barely past one in the morning.
To his shock, someone did actually answer. A pale, long haired woman with a black bow on her head stared out at him silently. She was so lovely looking that for a moment Alfred mistook her to be a Companion; however, some of her hair fell over her shoulder, revealing a brief flash of a human ear.
“Um,” he began, glancing down to Tony. The laptop shrugged. “Katyusha sent me here—she said that I could stay here for awhile?”
The woman blinked slowly. And then promptly shut the door in his face.
Alfred and Tony shared a surprised and confused look before the door opened up again a minute later. This time a tall, broad man with the same pale hair as Katyusha—and the other woman, now that Alfred thought about it—looked out at him and smiled. “Excuse me, but did you tell my sister Katyusha sent you here?”
The man cocked his head to the side, but his smile remained bright. “And that she said you could stay here?”
Without another word, the man reached out and brushed the hair away from Alfred’s face; Alfred tensed in shock, but then relaxed once he realized that he was actually just looking at his earport. The man let the hair fall back and withdrew his hand with a smile. “I suppose we can find some room for you,” he intoned, but his voice was so cheerful that Alfred was mostly certain that he was only teasing. “Come in. My name is Ivan. My sister over there is Natalya.”
Alfred smiled as he stepped in. “Hiya. My name’s Alfred—his is Tony,” he proclaimed, holding Tony up. “Nice to meet ya—say hello, Tony!”
Tony glared for a moment, unhappy with the jostling, before turning to Ivan. “What’s up, fat a-”
Alfred slapped a hand over Tony’s mouth and grinned at Ivan. “He’s still grumpy because he didn’t get to recharge fully.”
Ivan smiled down at Tony. Alfred took that as a good sign; in reality, Tony shivered under the intense threatening aura Ivan suddenly put off. “Well, I believe we have the perfect place to let him recharge. The bathtub, da?”
Alfred blinked while Tony tensed up further. “Um, that might be a bad idea—he isn’t waterproof. What if someone gets him wet?”
Ivan placed a palm against his jaw while his eyes widened. “What a misfortune that would be.”
Alfred nodded; Tony cursed under his breath. “Yeah, I’d say so.”
“In that case,” Ivan began, smiling again, “why don’t I show you to an outlet so you can finish recharging?”
“That would be great, thanks.”
“Brother,” Natalya cut in, tugging on his sleeve insistently. Alfred watched bemusedly as Ivan started then turned to his sister with questioning eyes. She merely narrowed her eyes and jerked her head in Alfred’s direction. Ivan’s eyes widened and he turned back to the Companion.
“Ah, yes, before I forget, did Katyusha happen to mention,” he trailed off for a moment before Natalya gave him a hard nudge. “Did my sister mention anything about the money she owes me?”
Alfred scratched at the back of his head nervously. “Um, yeah. She said something about paying around Easter?”
Ivan blinked before turning to Natalya. “When is Easter next year?”
Natalya glared. “The middle of April.”
Ivan wilted. “Da. That’s what I thought.”
Alfred started and leapt out of the way when Natalya growled out a furious “Sister!” and made for the door. Ivan blanched and lunged to catch his sister, grabbing her around her middle and holding her back as she scrambled for the door. They began to speak in, what Alfred assumed was, rapid fire Russian.
Dude, this is like Christmas with Arthur and the family, Alfred thought with an amused smile. Then his operating system nearly lurched as he realized that, for the first time in his life, he wouldn’t be spending Christmas with Arthur. Nor would he spend New Year’s, or Boxing Day, or any holiday, ever again.
Tony tapped his arm while Ivan tried to calm his sister down. “You okay?”
Alfred nodded glumly. He was just going to have to get used to it; besides, he had Tony now, and maybe even Ivan and his sisters to spend holidays with. The thought only marginally lifted his spirits. “Yeah. I’m fine.”
Once Natalya settled down, Ivan found them an outlet and Alfred realize just why Katyusha had told him to come here.
He spotted two more Companions sitting next to outlets, one which held a laptop in his lap. According to Ivan, they weren’t the only ones—Ivan was essentially running a shelter for abandoned or run away computers. Alfred nearly squealed in delight at the idea.
“That is so cool!” he exclaimed.
Ivan shushed him but smiled with pink cheeks. “Well, I like taking care of them. They’re my friends now. Friends take care of each other.”
“That’s awesome,” he insisted as he helped plug Tony into the outlet.
Ivan’s cheeks were getting redder by the moment. “Perhaps. I shall see you after I come back from work, da?”
“Totally! Thanks for letting us stay.”
“You’re welcome,” Ivan replied, straightening up. “Goodnight, Alfred.”
Alfred beamed. “Goodnight.” He shut his eyes and listened as Ivan walked down the hall, probably to his own room. Sitting there, Alfred’s smile softened. Perhaps, just maybe, he decided, he would be able to find a new home.
The thought produced little comfort as Alfred shut down.
In the morning, Alfred awoke to a small body jumping on his lap. Remembering Seborga and how he had done the same thing, the Companion opened his eyes half expecting to see the cheerful laptop again.
Instead, he found a different laptop, this one blond haired and wearing a sailor suit, jumping up and down on his legs and on Tony, prompting the alien laptop to cuss up a storm. “Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up!”
Alfred snatched the laptop before it could hop on Tony any more. “Whoa there, little guy! Tony doesn’t like that.”
“Damn straight, I don’t!” Tony snapped, trying to take a swipe at the other laptop. Alfred merely pulled the laptop up higher into the air so Tony couldn’t reach him.
“Well, if you woke up sooner, I wouldn’t have had to do it,” the blond laptop announced, drawing Alfred’s attention back to it. When Alfred looked up, his system froze. The laptop might have had bright blue eyes to distract him, but over those eyes were a pair of thick, bushy eyebrows. Hesitantly, he reached out and ran a finger over one. “Weirdos,” the laptop announced, but let Alfred poke his brow.
The texture wasn’t quite the same, but the resemblance was uncanny.
Alfred had never been freaked out by a fellow computer before. Either his programs were conflicting again, or this was just honestly that weird.
“You’re the freak. Fucking Christ, look at those things!” Tony jeered, reaching out to point at one of the eyebrows.
“Bugger off, you piece of-”
“Peter!” A small voice tried to cut in; Alfred blinked and shifted the laptop to the side. In front of him sat another Companion, the one that he had seen the night before recharging with the laptop in his lap. In the morning light, he looked small and mousy, with pale brown hair, bright purple ear ports, and shiny eyes. Alfred wondered if his distress program had already been set off. The Companion blushed and reached with shaking hands to the laptop. “M-might I have him back? He really doesn’t mean to be rude, except to Mr. Ivan, but that’s only because Mr. Ivan’s sometimes a big jerk, like when I accidently put bleach in the dark load for laundry.”
Alfred blinked slowly as he processed the babbling. Glancing back at Peter, who shrugged, Alfred handed the laptop over.
The other Companion beamed. “Thank you. You’re a nice guy, aren’t you? I thought maybe you were going to be a thug since Ivan seems to like you so-”
“Raivis,” Peter drawled. “Look who’s being rude now.”
Raivis blinked. “Someone’s being rude?”
Alfred looked down at Tony. “Do I look like a thug?” Tony shrugged.
“Raivis, Peter,” a voice called. A man with shoulder length brown hair turned the corner and sighed when he spotted them. “You two were told to wait until they woke up to talk with them. Are you trying to get into trouble again?”
“Lay off, Toris,” Peter quipped, squirming out of Raivis’ arms.
“We just wanted to say hello,” Raivis mumbled, standing up.
Toris shook his head. “Why don’t you get started on cleaning up in the living room? Your video games are still on the floor.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Peter agreed already walking away. “See you later, new guys.”
“Alfred,” he corrected. “My name is Alfred. And his is Tony.”
“Well, mine’s Peter, so don’t you forget it! He’s Raivis,” the blond laptop added, jerking his head in the other Companion’s direction before pointing back up to the man. “And he’s Toris. Gupta’s out somewhere, Ivan’s at work, Natalya’s trying to come up with ways to kill us all but Ivan in our sleep, and that’s everyone. Welcome to our home!”
Alfred snickered while the other two tried to scold the laptop. “Why’s she trying to kill us all but Ivan?”
“Cause he’s her brother, duh!”
“Peter, Natalya is not trying to murder us in our sleep,” Toris insisted.
“Yes, she would probably wake us up first to see the terror in our eyes before she kills us,” Raivis added, sounding completely serious. Tony joined Alfred in chuckling.
“Dude, these guys are hysterical,” Alfred choked. Tony shook his head.
Toris gave up and sighed, running a hand through his hair. Alfred blinked when he saw the forest green earport on the side of the man’s head—so he was a Companion as well. How many computers had Ivan taken in? Finally, Toris turned to him with a smile after shooing the other Companion and laptop away. “Sorry about that. They’re just very excitable—I hope they didn’t disturb you.”
“We’re fine,” Alfred replied as Tony tried to resettle in his lap. “They weren’t a bother.” Tony snorted.
Toris smiled. “I’m glad. You can go back to recharging if you want.”
“No, I’m done anyway.” Alfred quickly unplugged himself and Tony, who grumbled about just getting comfortable again, before standing up and brushing off his pants. “So. Nice to meet you.”
Toris paused when Alfred offered him his hand, but reached out and shook the hand. “Nice to meet you, too. And you as well, Tony.”
To Alfred’s surprise, Tony shivered as he shook the Companion’s hand and made a quiet “Eep.”
“So, is there something I can do around here?” he asked as Toris dropped the laptop’s hand. “I should help out, right?”
Toris blinked. “Oh! I only told those two to pick up because they left a mess.” He paused when he saw Alfred deflate. “… But you could help me clean the kitchen, if you want.”
Alfred perked up. Toris gestured for him to follow; as they walked, Toris pointed to rooms, saying what or whose they were before leading him into the kitchen. It was nearly as small as the one in Arthur’s apartment. Toris handed him a broom. It was then that it suddenly hit Alfred that he’d actually never used one before.
He shrugged and sat Tony down on a counter before haphazardly dragging it across the floor. Why did it look so easy when everyone else did it?
Toris frowned at him. “Do… do you need some help?”
Alfred’s shoulders drooped. “So much for helping…”
“No, no, it’s all right!” Toris replied reaching out. He hesitated before his hands touched Alfred’s but then reached out and adjusted the blond’s grip. “Hold it like this, and then just push—like that—the dirt in front of you.”
Alfred gave a few experimental sweeps before checking to see if he had actually moved the dirt at all. To his delight, there was a thin line already. Grinning up to see Toris give an encouraging nod, he set about cleaning the rest of the floor. All was going mostly well, (he only had to stop when he got to the table—Toris helped him set the chairs up so he could sweep under them), until Alfred’s phone program announced an incoming call and Alfred dropped the broom in shock.
Toris and Tony turned to look at him. His cheeks went a little red as he shrugged. “Phone call. Just startled me.”
“I can take care of the rest if you want to answer it,” Toris offered.
“Ah, I want to keep helping—but—um. I’ll be right back,” he finally managed before slipping out into the hall. The moment he was outside, he checked his caller ID and blanched.
It was Arthur.
Alfred’s system nearly crashed as too many programs started up at once. All those memory files he’d been saving to a storage folder were set off, his logic programs all gave differing advice, and his distress program nearly wailed at the overload. Above it all, Alfred could only hear the ringing of the phone program and Arthur’s words haunting him.
“I… I can’t keep Alfred like this.”
He waited too long and the ringing stopped as the program recorded a message. Almost immediately afterward though, it began to ring again. Panicked, Alfred did the only thing he could think of.
He shut his phone program off.
In the silence of the hall, he realized he was gasping harshly and shaking. After a moment, he shut off the programs responsible and tried to reorder his system into some semblance of calm. Once he was mostly sure he was okay, he returned to the kitchen.
Tony watched him like a hawk, but Toris merely glanced up at him for a moment as he kept wiping down the counter. “Did… did you get your call taken care of?”
Alfred tried to suppress a shiver and nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I took care of it.” He glanced down at his shoes. “I took care of it.”
Although he didn’t see it, Toris’s expression softened and he sat his rag down. “Perhaps you would… like to help me with the cupboards, then?”
Alfred glanced up at him and smiled. “Yeah. I’d love to help.”
Chapter 21: Interlude: The Lonesome Times
Arthur continues his search for Alfred.
The morning had not started off well; then again, to be fair, the month hadn’t started off well, either. The beginning of the month ticked off the first full week since Alfred… ran away. A week after, Arthur reported him missing.
And then Monday started the harassment.
Oh, Arthur had known it was coming. Arthur wasn’t sure if it was luck or not that he had the weekend off, what with the holidays right around the corner, but by the time he got back, he found that the station had been waiting like a boiling pressure cooker that exploded the moment he got in.
If someone wasn’t taunting him about “getting a sexbot,” then it was mocking him for losing him. The public teasing hadn’t lasted as long as he thought it would—but then, no one wanted to face the fury of Elizabeta. Not that she didn’t give him a talking to as well for not reporting Alfred missing sooner; by the time she walked away from him in a huff, his ears were ringing for nearly an hour.
Whether it was Elizabeta or Sergeant Beilschmidt, whom Elizabeta roped into defending Arthur as well—either “for the good of the working environment” or because Elizabeta apparently had some sort of blackmail on him—Arthur mostly managed to get through the first few days relatively unscathed. At least, no one tried any physical violence.
All the same, when Tuesday night rolled around, Arthur was so worn out that he fell into bed and slept through the night, although he vaguely remembered nightmares he dreamt as he slept. The next morning, when he awoke, he felt as though he hadn’t slept at all.
Halfway through getting dressed, Arthur stopped dead in his tracks. Turning slowly, he glanced back to his nightstand. Perched on top was the touchpad. Hesitantly, he wandered over and picked it up.
He hadn’t called Alfred last night.
For what was now entering the third week, he had called Alfred every night in the vague hope he would pick up, or at the very least try listen to see if anything had changed. But last night he hadn’t; last night he had forgotten all about Alfred and didn’t call. He’d forgotten.
For a reason he couldn’t quite pinpoint, this terrified Arthur straight to his core.
He pressed the phone icon guiltily. Just as his finger neared the Call button, however, a window popped up and the computer rang loudly.
The sudden reaction startled Arthur so badly that he jerked, his legs catching on the pants still caught around his ankles. With a yelp, he landed (luckily) on the bed. Panting harshly, he glanced back at the touchpad.
Call from: Ludwig Beilschmidt
Arthur blinked and stared before pressing the Accept button.
Perhaps it was lucky he had already fallen on the bed; considering how loud Ludwig yelled, Arthur was afraid to think of how far he might have leapt and where he might have fallen if he was still standing.
“Kirkland, I need to speak with you.”
“Right now?” Arthur gaped down at his half naked body; how the hell was he supposed to finished getting ready and catch the train in time? “I… I’ll need some time to get to the station.”
“No, I-I mean.” He cocked an eyebrow as his superior officer stammered, grateful that the other man couldn’t see the gesture. “…I’m not at the station at the moment…”
Now both eyebrows went up; looked like Ludwig was visiting his boyfriend, or Gilbert the old hell raiser had done something again. “Well, where am I supposed to go then? Just say it over the line.” He paused and then added, “Sir.”
“Ah—it’s not official police work… but… Oh, what the hell am I doing—Alfred was here yesterday!”
Arthur could have sworn that his heart stopped. He forced himself to breathe again. “Can… can you repeat that, sir?”
“Alfred, your—computer. I saw him walking out of the building yesterday, but I didn’t recognize him. Today I found evidence of him here in, err, the apartment.”
Heart hammering, Arthur wasn’t sure if he was ecstatic or terrified. “What kind of evidence?”
“I recognized some clothes in a trash can as mine—clothes I gave to Kiku. When I asked Lovino, he told me that a Companion helped him and Seborga the night before when they were nearly mugged. We checked Seborga’s memory banks and…” Ludwig paused, catching a breath. “And it was him. It was a perfect match.”
Arthur stared at his phone for only a second before trying to leap back to his feet, cursing as his feet kept getting tangled in his pants. “I’ll be there as soon as I can—just tell me the address, and-”
“Kirkland, Alfred is not here anymore. He left yesterday,” Ludwig reminded him and Arthur felt like screaming that he really didn’t care. “But. We do have some clues.” Arthur’s heart felt like it dislodged itself from his chest and tried to crawl up his throat. “He mentioned something about a shelter he seemed to frequent that was not near here.”
That, Arthur could handle. “I’ll go.”
Ludwig hesitated before sighing. “Take Héderváry with you.”
“I don’t think she’s scheduled today-”
"Call her and explain,” Ludwig half ordered, the bite seeping out of his words as he added. “Elizabeta’s going to raise hell if you do not.”
Arthur considered it and pressed a hand to his eyes. “Yes, sir. I’ll leave now and-”
“Kirkland, there is one more thing. Alfred and Seborga exchanged phone numbers yesterday.”
Arthur paused in pulling up his pants, staring blankly at the floor in shock.
He mentioned that his phone program was turned off, but it’s seemed he turned it back on to store Seborga’s number—have you tried calling him yet?”
You have to be joking. You have to be bloody joking—the one night I don’t call, the git turns his phone back on? “I gotta hang up, sir,” Arthur blurted before hanging up in the middle of Ludwig’s protest.
He opened the phone program again and scrolled frantically until he found Alfred’s number. Pressing the Call button, he waited as the computer began to ring. One ring, two rings, three rings. Arthur counted them out, nearly shaking from his nerves as the ringing went on.
Finally, the answering message kicked on. He could have sobbed in despair before there was a beep and Arthur realized that the message was recording. Blinking dumbly for a moment, Arthur floundered and quickly shouted (Basch downstairs began to yell again) the first thing that came to mind.
“Alfred! This is Arthur—pick up your phone, damn you! I’ve been trying to reach you for weeks. We need to talk—a-about what happened.” He stuttered to a halt for a moment before he remembered it was still recording. “Alfred, we—we need to talk. So call me, Alfr-!” There was another loud beep. The message had finished recording. “…Alfred…”
He stared down at the touchpad for a long moment before accessing the phone program and selecting Alfred’s number again. As it began to ring once more, Arthur heard a quiet but noticeable click noise and the ringing started over. After a moment, the familiar voice came on the line announcing that the number was facing technical difficulties.
Alfred had switched his phone program back off.
Quietly, Arthur lowered his hand back down to rest at his side. Downstairs, the shouting had quieted down; inside, Arthur could practically hear his heart slowing down as though it, too, was too weighed down to continue. Somewhere out in the city, Alfred rejected him.
Taking a moment to shudder a rough breath, Arthur squared his shoulders. Well. At least you made contact with him. Just have to wait until he contacts you back. He glanced back down to his touchpad. And while I wait…
Héderváry picked up on the second ring. She promised to meet him within twenty minutes. Arthur went back to getting dressed, yanking his clothes on with new determination.
Alfred was out there, and Arthur was going to find him.
It took most of the day to find the shelter. Arthur and Elizabeta hit every shelter they could find that was the appropriate distance from Feliciano and his brother’s apartment building. Arthur almost told Elizabeta to just drive past the building since there was a notice on the door about a broken water main. Still, he didn’t want to risk losing his chance to find Alfred. If nothing, no one wouldn’t be able to claim he wasn’t thorough in his search.
And he was glad he did—a woman took one look at the photo, frowned, and then immediately turned to shout at a thin, bespectacled man who quietly walked over. “Eduard, this man has a photo of that Companion Katyusha let in before. You should talk to them.”
“And you are?” he asked the two of them pointedly.
Arthur told them their names and held the photo of Alfred up again. “Have you or this—Katyusha?—seen this Companion?”
Eduard frowned and looked at the photo; Arthur watched his face for any sign of recognition. Either he had an amazing poker face, or he’d never seen Alfred since he barely batted an eye. “Today’s Katyusha’s day off. She won’t be back until tomorrow night,” he finally answered, shifting away with a disinterested glance.
“Doesn’t she have a phone number that she can be contacted at?” Elizabeta asked with narrowed eyes.
The bespectacled man shook his head. “No—money’s not just tight for the people who come here for shelter, officer.”
Elizabeta bit back a sigh and grumbled very quietly, “Isn’t that the story all over?”
Arthur ignored the aside. “Where does this… Katyusha live?”
“Yekaterina Braginskaya,” Eduard replied, tensing up. “And I’m not at liberty to say.”
The other woman barely blinked. “She lives over on Taylor Road.”
Arthur and Elizabeta’s heads both shot up while Eduard hissed. “Miss Triệu!”
“What?” she shrugged. “If she’s done something that warrants the police dropping by, why shouldn’t I talk to them?”
“Taylor Road?” Arthur repeated. The woman raised an eyebrow as if to ask ‘Did I stutter?’ Frowning, Arthur nodded to her. “Do you have her address?”
“I never visited her. She lives in some an apartment complex,” the woman replied.
“Thank you for the information,” Elizabeta said politely. She was already leaning toward the doors, just as eager as Arthur to leave while
Eduard frowned and Miss Triệu watched in disinterest. “If you happen of have any more information, please contact us. Good day.”
After they tried to hurry away as professionally as possible, Eduard turned to the woman with a raised eyebrow. “Since when do you happen to ‘know’ where she lives, Miss Triệu? Or was it Lien?”
The Vietnamese woman shrugged. “Either is fine—and you would be surprised what you hear when you hang around long enough. You should call her and give her a warning—Katyusha’s too nice to get hounded by the police.”
Eduard’s lips twitched. “I wasn’t lying when I said she didn’t have a phone,” he sighed, but reached into his coat for a small touchpad that he turned on with a flick of his wrist. “All the same, I’ll leave a message with her neighbor to warn her.”
“And by the way,” he drawled as he found the number he was looking for. “She lives on Hays Road.”
“Hays, Taylor, they’re all the same to me,” she quipped.
“What will you do if they come back?” he asked, his finger paused above the Call button.
“What will I do? Go to a different shelter—it’s not like I work here,” she answered before turning to grab a duffel bag at her feet. “And I’ll avoid the police for a while. Nothing too difficult about that, either.”
Eduard finally had to smile. “Good luck, Lien. Try to stay out of trouble.”
She waved him off as she walked away. “I don’t go looking for trouble—it just finds me.”
“All the same. Goodbye.”
She paused to nod to him before disappearing out the door. He merely shook his head and returned his attention to the touchpad.
Three hours later, Arthur and Elizabeta weren’t nearly so amused. After knocking on every door in the apartment complexes up and down the street, they finally admitted that either they’d been tricked at the shelter, or if she did live around there, no one was planning to help them find her. It was only when they were half done did they finally get confirmation that there was no Yekaterina Braginskaya even on that side of town.
Arthur growled and gripped his hair in his hands. “This is ridiculous.”
“What is ridiculous is what you’re doing to your hair at the moment,” Elizabeta snorted before slapping his hands away to smooth his hair down like she would Feliks. “You look more like a punk than a constable with your hair sticking up like that.”
“You need someone to get it back in place, or it sticks out all funny.”
Arthur twitched as Alfred’s words came back to him. That seems so long ago…
Elizabeta was still talking to him. “…getting us nowhere. Let’s just call it a night, Kirkland. I’m sure Ludwig will try and find some way for you to keep looking tomorrow. I’ll call him and report in, okay?”
Arthur nodded. “Thanks for… all your help, Héderváry.”
She patted his shoulder and turned to get back into the car, reaching for Feliks in the backseat to call Ludwig. Arthur waited a few minutes to give her quiet as she called, his fingers twitching in his lap to keep from running through his hair once more.
“Arthur, you still love me, don’t you?”
Arthur closed his eyes and forced his hands to lay flat against his lap. Damn it, Alfred, where are you?
There was no answer. Arthur began to wonder if there would ever be one.
Chapter 22: Circling
Alfred finds himself failing to adjust to his new home despite his best efforts. When Arthur tries to contact him, Alfred must decide on what he will do next.
Alfred’s day passed quickly; Toris quietly showed him the rest of the apartment once they finished cleaning the kitchen. Since there wasn’t much to see in the first place, much less any more, the tour ended quickly. Toris smiled, as they returned to the hallway where Alfred had recharged the night before.
“If you need any help, you may ask me, okay?” the other Companion offered.
Alfred gave him his biggest smile. “Yep—thanks for everything, Toris.” The brunet nodded to him, but then turned and left. “Ah—um, where you going?”
Toris merely blinked over his shoulder at him. “I’m going to shut off for awhile.” Alfred gave him a surprised look. “Were you planning on staying active all day long?”
Well, when worded like that, it did sound foolish to stay up. Before, besides the one week after Alfred got a Companion unit, there was always Arthur or someone around to stay up and be entertained by or talk to, and then after he left he couldn’t power down just anywhere, even if Tony didn’t feel like socializing that day. Still, the idea of shutting down for the rest of the day didn’t sound much more appealing. He settled for a shrug.
Toris paused and then nodded to the living room. “If you want, Peter and Raivis will probably let you join in their games.”
Alfred brightened. “Okay—I’ll go see them, then. Thanks.”
Toris smiled and nodded before turning around again. Rather than waste time just standing there, although to be honest he didn’t have anything better to do, he hurried into the living room. Raivis and Peter had parked themselves in front of the television, playing some sort of video game.
“Hey, guys,” Alfred greeted them as he walked over. “Whatcha playing?”
“Imogen Riders,” they chorused.
Alfred twitched and quietly thought that it was a good thing that they didn’t look alike—they would have nailed a creepy twin act, talking in unison like that. “That’s, um… cool. Can I play?”
“Nope,” Peter answered without a second thought.
“We’re trying to beat our high scores,” Raivis mumbled.
Well then. That wasn’t terribly friendly. Alfred frowned. “Oh. Well, maybe some other time, then?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Peter answered, somehow managing to slap half the buttons in a complicated pattern that set off a long combo string for his character.
While Raivis cried out in horror, Alfred shrugged and walked back to the hallway where he had shut down for the previous night. Sighing, he rested his back against the wall and slowly slid down until he reached the floor. “Well, Tony, I guess I got my hopes up a little too high—they don’t seem very friendly, huh?”
“You’ve known them for, what? Half a day. Give it a fucking while. Besides, we could do worse than Ivan, even if he is a freak,” Tony quipped dryly.
“He’s not that bad,” Alfred replied. “But, well, yeah, I guess so.”
“Don’t believe me? You want examples?”
“No, I’m good, thanks,” Alfred murmured, shifting Tony down from his arms into his lap. The laptop didn’t comment, but instead settled in once more. “Hey, Tone? Can I ask you a question?”
Alfred bit his lip before opening his mouth again. “What happened with your owner?” The laptop tensed up. “What? It’s just you don’t seem to… umm…”
After a moment, Tony shifted but kept his eyes closed; Alfred wasn’t sure if he was cycling through old memories or playing a game. At last, he spoke. “Which one?”
“You’re going to have to be a bit more fucking specific, okay? Which owner?”
Alfred gawked. “’Which owner?’ You’ve had more than one?”
Tony shifted like he was trying to get comfortable; Alfred tugged his legs closer to his unit so Tony had more room to prop himself up on. “Don’t get me wrong—it’s not like I’m some fucking prize among laptops. I got sold at a garage sale to my second owner, and he just dumped me on his little brother when he went off to college.”
Alfred winced in horror. A garage sale? You sold your old toaster at a garage sale, you sold old clothes,—laptops, like all PCs, had low resale value on them anyway, but to be sold off at something as impersonal as a garage sale… Especially since that meant that Tony couldn’t have been sold for more than a quarter his original price. “Why would anyone even try to sell a laptop at a garage sale?”
“Because I wasn’t worth the effort of taking me back to a dealer,” Tony drawled. He might as well have been commenting on the weather for all his enthusiasm.
Alfred shuddered. “Did… did he say that?”
Tony shrugged. “Dunno. Can’t remember—my first memory of him is after he deleted my memories and wiped my AI. He nearly erased my C drive while he was at it. Asshole.”
Hearing the detached words coming from the other computer’s mouth, Alfred felt a surge of protectiveness. Without warning, he scooped Tony back up into his arms, prompting a surprised squeak as Alfred pressed his cheek against the laptop’s head. “Bastard,” Alfred grumbled in agreement.
Tony squirmed, but then paused and relaxed into Alfred’s arms. “Good riddance. Probably. Not like I remember enough to give a damn.”
“You don’t want to keep Alfred anymore?”
“Probably shouldn’t tell you about the other two then,” Tony observed, resting his head in the crook of Alfred’s neck. Alfred nodded.
“You don’t want to keep Alfred anymore?”
Of course he didn’t want to hear more—Tony had lived through Alfred’s worst nightmare three times.
Alfred was gladder than ever that he was a computer; he wouldn’t have nightmares tonight, at least. The idea of suddenly booting up only to find that all his memories erased, his AI wiped, and then tossed aside was horrifying enough without him having to face it again in some vulnerable moment.
“I don’t think you should ask anyone else about their owners,” Tony announced, eyeing a nick on his finger. “You’ll bring up bad memories.”
“Yeah,” Alfred frowned. “Yeah, you’re probably right.” He had plenty of bad memories himself—no need to stir them up in the others. In the organized sections of his processor, Arthur’s message continued to nag at him, stirring him from one dark thought to another. Sighing, Alfred glanced down to Tony. “I… guess I’ll shut down for awhile.”
Tony blinked slowly up at him. Just as Alfred gave up and began to shut down, the laptop kicked his arm. “Play a game with me.”
Alfred stared for a moment before happily shrugging. “Okay—whatcha want to play?”
The spent the rest of the afternoon playing checkers. For once, that phantom ache in Alfred’s processor abated, making him grin even as he lost another game.
The next few days passed awkwardly for Alfred; while he liked talking to Toris, once the Companion’s chores were done, he would go shut down for the rest of the day until Ivan came and woke him back up at night. Peter and Raivis played videogames with each other until Natalya woke up and chased them (literally) back to their chores. Alfred met the last computer, a Companion named Gupta, on the third day. He didn’t get much of a chance to talk to the silent Companion either—Gupta only nodded in greeting before sitting down next to the nearest outlet to recharge.
His new human roommates were little better—Alfred thought Ivan was friendly enough, although he kept freaking Tony out whenever they spoke. Ivan, however, worked two jobs; once he got home, he ate a large dinner and then abruptly went to sleep, once nearly passing out straight into his food. Stern-faced Natalya worked graveyard shifts and slept most of the day away. When she was awake, she was short with everyone but her brother. To be fair, one night when she didn’t work she had offered to let Alfred sit and watch a television show with her. Alfred had been delighted at the chance to actually get a chance to bond with any his new roommates up until he realized she was watching something called Beyond the Grave, a mash-up documentary/reality television show about ghosts and hauntings.
Instantly, Alfred was back to be a young laptop with Aunt Erin and Uncle James teasingly looming over him as they told him ghost story after story until he ran crying to Arthur. Arthur was always stumped by his terror, and as illogical as his system tried to tell him it was, he still wanted to bury his face in Arthur’s side while his owner comforted him.
Alfred flinched as soon as the title came up and fled before the first five minutes passed. Tony laughed at him until they shut down for the night. The next night, Natalya actually broke her stern façade to smirk at him.
However, despite the lonely hours, unfriendly reactions, or occasional, mild prank, Alfred was certain that it would all work out in the end. They would eventually all be friends if he tried hard enough.
“Right?” he asked Tony late at night. “They gotta warm up to me sooner or later, right?”
Tony sighed and buried his face in the crook of Alfred’s arm, the closest he would come to hugging the other computer. Alfred frowned as he shut down, but tried to tell himself that he just couldn’t give up.
A week passed before the truth set in.
Of all things to cause an epiphany, Alfred wasn’t sure a pair of glasses would be what anyone would consider a reasonable catalyst. They weren’t actually special glasses—Alfred only found them because they were right under the clearance sign, tucked away in the corner as it was. Alfred, along with Tony, had gone with Toris to help pick up some groceries for Natalya and Ivan, and he was only following Toris inside the computer store to get out of the wind. As Toris wandered over to a salesclerk to ask about their sale on memory upgrades, Alfred spotted the sign and padded over to investigate.
A variety of accessories were displayed; fiber optic hair clips, customized earports for Companions, and in one corner, a few pairs of glasses. Out of curiosity, Alfred snagged a pair of yellowed frame glasses, holding them up to the light to inspect them.
They did nothing to improve his vision—if he had an actual problem with his vision, Alfred would have to visit a programmer or repairman, not the optometrist. All the same, his lips twitched up as he put them on his nose. The nose pieces pinched either sides of his nose, holding the frames in place as he withdrew his hands. He glanced over his shoulder at Tony, who had poked his head out of the backpack to investigate.
“So, Tone, do I make glasses look good, or do I make glasses look good?”
“Show off,” the laptop snorted and slipped back into the pack.
Alfred only laughed and glanced about for a mirror. Failing at finding one, Alfred turned to call out to Toris. Seeing the other Companion turning back from the clerk, Alfred grinned and waved him over.
Toris frowned up at him as he neared, and the smile almost fell off Alfred’s face.
Instead he forced his lips to remain quirked. “Look what I found! Aren’t they neat?”
“Do you have money?” Toris asked simply, glancing from the clearance sign back to Alfred. “Are you planning on buying them?”
Alfred blinked, genuinely surprised. “Um. No, that’s not what I-”
“-Then you should probably put those back. We need to get the groceries home soon.”
Still stunned, Alfred nodded. After a moment, he reached up and gently pried the glasses off and dropped them back in the display. Toris nodded with his patient smile and turned to leave. Alfred watched him for a moment, slowly trudging after the other computer.
Did I do something to insult him? Alfred wondered after a full minute of silence as they walked down the sidewalk. Shifting anxiously, Alfred reached out and carefully tugged on the back of the brunet’s coat. “Um, Toris? Did… did I annoy you or something?”
The other Companion stared in confusion. “What? No, you did not. Is something wrong?”
“No, it’s just—back there, you seemed,” Alfred floundered to find a suitable word. “Curt.”
Toris blinked slowly. “I… see. That was not my intention, I assure you. I merely want to get home soon, and since you weren’t buying them I saw no reason to stay any longer.”
“Oh,” Alfred finally managed. When he didn’t go on, Toris smiled at him again and began to walk forward once more. Following once again, a slow realization began to dawn on Alfred. “Hey, Toris, can I ask you a question?”
“Hmm? Yes, what is it?”
“Um, how… how long have you… been activated?” Alfred finally managed, the words sounding strange, even on his tongue. ‘Being activated’ sounded like something Kiku might say in a moment of clinical indifference, or something one might find in a manual. Now that he thought about it, he had always just followed Arthur’s example and said ‘woke up’.
It didn’t seem to bother Toris at all. “Five months ago.”
Alfred started in shock and his jaw dropped open. “F-five months—and you’re already all on your own? Just what happened with your owner that…” Watching the other computer tense up, Alfred could have punched himself in the face; he’d just broken the cardinal rule. “Oh, shit. I—sorry. It just slipped out. I’m sorry, really.”
Toris merely shrugged. “It is… unusual, obviously.” After a moment, the brunet glanced backwards. “And may I ask how long has it been since you’ve been activated?”
Alfred considered the question, glancing down to his feet. In truth, his unit was still only a month old, but his AI and data was far older than that. In the end, he went with “Six years.”
Toris didn’t even blink at that. “Hmm. I wasn’t aware your model was made six years ago.”
“It’s a new unit,” Alfred replied then glanced up, considering the back of the Companion’s head. “It’s kind of a long story.”
“I’m sure it probably is—ah. We will be home in a few minutes,” Toris announced unnecessarily, beginning to speed up. “We should hurry—I want to get the groceries put away before Natalya wakes up.”
Alfred stopped in his tracks, wide eyes following the computer as he hurried on, completely unaware that Alfred wasn’t following anymore. Knowing him, Toris would have only probably blinked slowly and ask Alfred if there was a problem before telling him to hurry up.
Which wasn’t wrong, Alfred realized. It was purely reasonable, something rational. Expected, he realized, for a still quite young, probably mostly un-socialized computer. At five months, Toris would barely have a fragment of socialization compared to Alfred’s six years, even if he was still in a month old body. Distractedly, Alfred wondered how their AI would compare if they could measure such a thing.
If I showed those glasses to Arthur, he would have laughed, Alfred suddenly thought. He would have rolled his eyes, and told me to put them back, but he would have smiled and laughed. Or hell, maybe he would have even bought them—Arthur wasn’t know for spontaneous spending, but when it came to Alfred, he’d surprised his laptop many a time with a present or toy. He would buy them ‘on a lark’, as he would say, but he would have been both expectant and nervous at first before Alfred declared his immediate adoration. Because doing so would make Arthur smile—not because Alfred wanted toys, but because he wanted to please Arthur and to make him happy.
He wondered if Toris ever did something merely to please someone. No doubt he tried for his old master at first, if nothing, but if he was still so young, how would he respond to things like impromptu presents or silly jokes?
And all at once, Alfred wanted to curl up into a ball right there on the street. Tuck himself inward, around the near physical ache of his distress program blaring and the consuming want.
He wanted someone to laugh at the silly things he did, he wanted someone to come home and spoil him with unplanned presents, he wanted to crawl into someone’s lap and rest there while comforting hands petted his hair.
The want hadn’t abated at all. He wanted a home, or rather to go home. He wanted Arthur. “You okay?” Tony asked, piercing his ponderings. Alfred nearly gasped, but managed a smile (albeit painfully faked and nervous, so much so that even Toris could have seen through it).
“Yeah—yeah. Sorry, got distracted.”
Tony watched him for a moment before sliding back into the pack. “Well hurry up—we’re getting left behind.”
Alfred nodded and began to walk again, his thought process going back once more. Even if he got close to Ivan or Natalya, he honestly couldn’t see himself doing silly things for a joke. He couldn’t see Toris greeting him like an old friend, like he once did for Arthur. He couldn’t see Raivis or Peter or anyone else putting up with him at his worst, just because they liked him.
Arthur had done that for him once—Alfred had gone and ruined it though, but Alfred couldn’t blame him for that. He had to have ruined it because why else would Arthur had wanted to get rid of him if he hadn’t?
Alfred sighed and considered it. All he wanted to do was find a home.
What if Arthur had replaced him? Gotten a new computer entirely, or worse, had Kiku somehow transfer the copies of Alfred’s AI and data into a new laptop? He shivered at the thought.
“Hey, idiot, are you really okay?”
Alfred nearly jumped. Over his shoulder, Tony was watching him again. Finally, Alfred sighed and began to pick up pace. “Yeah. Don’t worry about it.”
For a moment, Tony continued to stare until at last he slipped back into the pack, leaving them both alone in their thoughts.
For the most part, the rest of the night passed like many of the nights beforehand; Alfred tried to help with anything he could before Natalya snapped at him to get out of her way. When Ivan got home, he only spared Alfred a strained smile as he passed by him.
There was one unusual thing though—right before Ivan got up to go to bed, Gupta finally walked into the kitchen and immediately focused in on Ivan. “Two days from now, we’re holding another demonstration.”
Alfred blinked owlishly; it was the most he heard the Companion say since he arrived.
Ivan practically deflated. “You want to attend.”
Around him, Alfred realized that the other computers were focused in on the conversation as well. Even Natalya stopped eating to watch. Ivan frowned and glanced around at them all before sighing and sitting back down. “You may go. But I believe Toris and Peter should stay.”
“What!” screamed the laptop, nearly squirming out of Raivis’ arms. “Why can’t I go?”
“A-ah, Mister Ivan, I would very much like to go,” Toris added.
Ivan ignored Toris and gave Peter a pointed glare. “The last time you went, you got hurt. I cannot pay for the cost of more repairs.”
“But, Mister Ivan-”
“-and I do not want to see you hurt,” Ivan cut in, answering the question before Toris had time to finish it. He went on with a gentle smile. “You understand, da?”
It was Toris’ turn to slump. “Yes, sir.”
Gupta turned to look at Alfred, startling him. “Are you coming?”
“Um. Can I?” Alfred stared back. The other Companion nodded. Alfred thought for a moment before smiling and nodding. “Yeah…I was thinking it might be interesting to go to a rally. Where will it be at?”
The moment Gupta finished answering, Ivan stood up once more. “Try not to get your face smashed in,” Ivan cheerfully warned. “I’m going to bed now—goodnight, everyone. And good luck at work tonight, Natalya.”
After Ivan left the near beaming Natalya and the rest of them, they all separated, Natalya for work, the computers to recharge and shut down. Alfred sat next to his outlet—he’d begun thinking of it as his, even if it was in the middle of the hallway and he was constantly tripped over because of it—and tried to rouse his hopes. At last, one of them had finally made a truly friendly offer, invited him to finally join in with something.
And yet, Alfred found he could simply not get excited.
Perhaps the weeks of near constant loneliness had gotten to him. Maybe after his revelation from earlier, he just couldn’t quite bring himself to believe things were finally going to change.
Or maybe he just didn’t want them to.
Alfred sighed. One more try, he promised himself. One more try to see if I can’t make friends with them. And if I can’t…
Hesitantly, he opened his phone program. Waiting for him was a message from Arthur. Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath to steady himself, he opened the message.
Alfred jumped, jostling Tony in his lap who began to curse at him. Alfred paused the recording to apologize. Once the laptop was pacified, Alfred bit his lip. The message had started with Arthur yelling at him and yet…
Arthur’s voice shook what little resolve he had tried to build, he realized. It just sounded so damn good after all that time. The phantom ache from before returned with a vengeance. Taking another steadying breath, he tuned himself back in as the message continued.
“This is Arthur—pick up your phone, damn you! I’ve been trying to reach you for weeks. We need to talk—a-about what happened.” He paused here. Perhaps he was at a loss. “Alfred, we—we need to talk. So call me, Alfr-!”
That was the end. He did not sound happy, Alfred mused blankly for a moment. But whose fault is that? Mine, he answered himself glumly. Sighing once more, Alfred closed his eyes and let his head lull back against the wall.
But, he thought after a moment, opening his eyes to stare up at the ceiling. He did say he wanted to talk, so maybe…
Arthur, what do I do?
Grumbling at the apparent silence, Alfred raised his hand to scratch at the back of his neck. His hand paused before it reached his neck.
His phone program was picking up a call.
It was Arthur.
“…Shit!” he snapped before he could stop himself, flailing his arms and nearly jumping to his feet. Tony shouted at the sudden movement, setting off Peter from the living room, yelling at the both of them to belt up.
“The hell is wrong with you?” Tony snarled as Alfred carefully set him down.
“I’m-I’m sorry; I got a call from Arthur!”
Tony paused, glaring. “Who’s Arthur?”
Alfred stared back in shock before blanching as he realized that Arthur was still trying to call him. “He’s—I—it’s complicated, and-um-”
“He’s your former owner, isn’t he.”
Alfred paused and looked at the laptop. Finally, he answered, “Yes.”
The alien cocked his head to the side. “Do you want to speak with him?”
Alfred grimaced and closed his eyes, trying to hide from that unflinching stare. “…I don’t know.”
“It’s a yes or no question, Alfred.”
After a moment, Alfred finally looked back up. His phone program gave up and sent the call to the message recorder. Licking his lips—yet another gesture he’d picked up from Arthur—he played the message.
“Alfred, please. This is Arthur.”
A harried sigh. “Alfred—I—I’m sorry!” Alfred gaped in shock, but the message went on. “Alfred, I’m sorry—that day… I regret what I said—oh, God, do I regret it.” He chuckled mirthlessly. Alfred wanted desperately to hold him. “Alfred, I want… I need to talk to you, one more time. I just can’t…”
“I can’t let it end like this.” “Alfred, please, talk to-” The message ended. In front of him, Tony continued to watch him.
After a long, nerve wracking minute, the call started back up.
Alfred closed his eyes and tried to just breathe. And then he cancelled the call and shut off the program. “I can’t talk to him,” he confessed. “Not yet, Tony, I…”
The laptop grabbed his wrist firmly. “Calm down, idiot. You don’t have to talk to him if you don’t want to.”
“But I,” he paused and looked up, feeling lost and small. “I do want to talk to him.”
Tony watched him for a moment before surprising him by patting his wrist comfortingly. “Let me give you a suggestion, then.”
Arthur stared down at the touchpad.
So close, he mused distantly, letting his hand rest against his thigh. In that hand, the touchpad finished the prerecording of the operator telling him to hang up and try calling again. Which was useless. Alfred had turned his phone program off. Again.
Alfred had rejected him, for the third time he realized.
I don’t know if I have it in me for a fourth rejection, he thought bleakly. Quietly, he raised his hand back up and set the touchpad back onto nightstand. Once it was set aside, both his hands flew up to press against his face. He sat there for a moment, holding his face in his hands and trying to focus on just breathing.
I don’t know if I can take another rejection, he admitted, inhaling harshly. But I can’t just let this go without hearing it from him. He let one hand drop back down while the other pressed upward and through his hair, prompting a broken smile as the Companion’s words haunted him once more. I need… closure.
Sighing, he turned about in bed and tried to settle in before realizing he’d left the touchpad on. With a grumble, he reached out to grab it.
And then promptly dropped it to the floor when it let out a loud trill.
Blinking in shock, he sat up and snatched the abused computer back up before reading the message box that had popped up.
Text message from: Arthur
Arthur blinked slowly. Did I somehow send myself a text message? He wondered what it meant before he remembered that the touchpad wasn’t his, but actually Kiku’s. So, when it said Arthur…
Gasping, he clicked the Read button.
From: Arthur: What are you sorry for?
stared in dumbfounded confusion. “What?” he finally said aloud, although an answer didn’t pop up like he hoped. A shiver shot up his back and he forced himself to hit Reply and type. Alfred?
He clicked Send.
After a distressingly long moment while Arthur was certain he was about to have a heart attack, he got a reply back.
From: Arthur: Yeah.
Good God, he marveled, I can practically see that sheepish smile now. “Stupid fool,” he finally gasped, a sob choking him as his eyes began to water. He pressed the touchpad to his forehead and laughed before sobbing in relief. “My dear, stupid fool. My dear… my dear…”
Finally, he cried, finally.
Chapter 23: Catastrophe
Alfred finally talks to Arthur, but there's still one thing he wants to do before meeting up with Arthur. Plans go awry when chaos strikes, but Arthur isn't going to let that stop him from seeing Alfred again.
Alfred was getting worried; two full minutes had passed since he sent the last text message, and each slowly passing second was ratcheting up his distress. He bit his lip and looked down at Tony in his lap.
The laptop watched him back. “Well?”
“He didn’t send anything back,” he admitted, trying not to pout.
“Send another—maybe he didn’t get the last one.”
Alfred nodded and opened another message box.
Arthur? Are you there?
He sent it and waited, trying desperately not to twitch. Finally, finally, the program announced a new message.
From: Kiku’s Touchpad: Yes. I am.
Alfred, where are you? Are you okay? Why won’t you pick up my calls?
Alfred frowned. Without a voice to go along with the words, he had no idea if Arthur was furious or not. But then, if he was furious—and he has every right to be, his logic program reminded him vengefully—Alfred wasn’t sure he could take him yelling at him. Finally, he sighed and tried to figure out his reply.
I’m fine. I’m with friends. Alfred paused, looking down at Tony before deciding that he wouldn’t be lying. Then he had to stop again to think of how to answer the last question. After starting and then erasing a few times, he finally managed something. It’s easier this way.
Arthur’s reply was so prompt, it made Alfred a little nervous before he hesitantly opened it.
From: Kiku’s Touchpad: easier? wht do you mean easier? and what d you mean friends?
Alfred gave a low hiss; for Arthur, an anal retentive spelling freak, not using capital letters and actually misspelling was akin to shouting at him. Shivering in spite of himself, he forced himself to open up another message box. Logically, he could have said that there were others trying to sleep around him, but Alfred couldn’t bring himself to lie even if only in a text message.
So he did the next best thing and ignored the first part entirely.
I made some new friends. They’re really Alfred stopped and frowned as he tried to think of some description that wouldn’t be either a lie or rude. Finally he just added helpful. They’re letting me stay with them.
Nodding to himself at what he considered a very diplomatic response, he sent it off.
Again, the reply was so immediate that Alfred could help but feel a little wary about opening it.
From: Kiku’s Touchpad: Alfred dont ignore my question
what do you mean easier
Grimacing, Alfred felt his face growing red as his distress program started to trip. Whether Arthur was aware of it or not, he had focused in on a topic Alfred didn’t walk to talk about, so that only meant one of two things. Alfred would either have to give him a straight answer or he would have to think of some way to distract him. Thank goodness he didn’t have an actual stomach—it would have been in knots as he opened up another message window.
Alfred weighed his options and after a moment decided to take a chance.
Distraction it was!
My new friends are really interesting—some of them are computers, like this one named Tony! He’s a laptop and he’s cool. We play games together a lot. How’s everything with you?
Alfred didn’t have to wait long for a response, although that didn’t mean he was expecting it. Barely seconds passed after Arthur must have received the text when Alfred’s phone program alerted him to a new call. Cringing, he checked the caller ID and then flailed, nearly knocking Tony down before the laptop could duck out of the way, and canceled the call.
Well, distraction failed.
Panicked, he opened up another message.
Please don’t yell at me! I don’t wanna get yelled at!
Eventually, he received a message back. After the errors from the earlier messages, the words in this one appeared tightly controlled and thought out in comparison.
From: Kiku’s Touchpad: Alfred, I do not want to yell at you.
I want to talk to you.
Please, pick up your phone.
Alfred focused on the words, examining each letter as if they might give him some hint as to how the note’s writer might actually be feeling. Failing that, he decided to reply.
I can’t. Everyone’s asleep. I’d wake them up if picked up.
While he half expected another quick and insisting reply, Alfred had to wait a few long moments before the return message finally came.
From: Kiku’s Touchpad: I see.
That was it; Alfred frowned, half worried at the very short text. However, before he could send his own reply, another text appeared from Arthur again.
From: Kiku’s Touchpad: I still would like to talk to you.
Alfred, I just want to know if you are okay or not. I swear, I won’t yell.
Alfred’s eyes fluttered closed as he finished the message. As terrified—and he was, he was so scared that Alfred barely understood why he was so frightened—as he was, the idea of talking, of just hearing Arthur’s voice again, was enough to bring back that phantom pain. What would Arthur think of that? Hesitantly, he opened a reply box and decided to go with the most honest truth, the one that he could swear was encrypted into every code.
I miss you.
Looking at the words, those three brief words, he panicked and erased them. On second thought, perhaps they were too desperate, too honest. Fidgeting again, he tried to type something else.
I still don’t know what you meant by being sorry.
Nearly a minute after he sent the message, he sat there waiting for a reply. Tony was still eyeing him warily, probably waiting for him to get flustered or start flailing again. Trying to tap down on his growing anxiety, he pressed his palms flat against the floor on either side of his legs. Two minutes rolled by, then three.
Finally after nearly four minutes, he got the reply. If his frustration or anger was making Arthur stop trying to carefully type his messages before, he had regained his control again. There was no spelling mistakes or abrupt sentences. It took nearly three messages to complete it.
From: Kiku’s Touchpad: I meant about what I said back at Kiku’s apartment. What I said then, I wasn’t thinking clearly. I was in too much shock and I hurt you because of it.
Alfred had to stop here. Focusing on those words, a small glimmer of something painful and wonderful was forming inside him. It took him a moment to realize it was a kernel of hope. Suddenly, his fingers flexed, desperate for something tangible to hold on to. Tony only gave a token grumble before settling into Alfred’s lap when the Companion reached for the laptop. Physical connection made, Alfred took a steadying breath and read on.
I did not think about what you must have been feeling. To be honest, I wasn’t thinking about how I felt either. After I thought about it later, I realized I had a kneejerk reaction, and that caused you pain.
Alfred, despite what I said I never wanted you to leave. I just panicked and thought that everything would go back the way it was before if you were a laptop again. I didn’t ask you what you wanted, just assumed everything would work out if you weren’t a companion. That was wrong of me.
I am sorry. I know that probably isn’t anywhere near enough, but I am. I am so, so sorry, Alfred. I would give anything to have you back home, safe and sound.
Tony wriggled around in his lap, making a soft questioning sound before Alfred suddenly realized he was gasping, scant seconds away from sobbing like an infant. And, to be honest, if they weren’t in an apartment of sleeping people and computers, he just might have.
The kernel of hope exploded into something warm and sharply painful, growing so fast that Alfred wasn’t sure he wanted to bask in it or turn away in fear.
Arthur didn’t want to get rid of him. Arthur wanted him back. Just thinking it, Alfred had to bite back a sob. Embarrassed by his strong reaction, he reached up and swiped at his face, despite the fact he couldn’t cry. At least no one could see his lips trembling or his eyes squeezed shut so tight that his entire face was pinched. Arthur was sorry, Arthur missed him, Arthur wanted him, him, him.
Faintly, he was aware he needed to send a reply back. He couldn’t not answer something like that. Even he, thick as he could be, realized that. But it was too much, he felt too much, there was just too much to say. Too much for a text message, too much for a phone call—Alfred wanted to see Arthur when they spoke, wanted to reach out and snag his sleeve if nothing else. Grab hold with his fingertips and just clutch at the cloth like it was all that was anchoring him to this world. He needed to see Arthur, and he needed to say while he was too happy to second guess himself. Now was the time for that honesty.
I miss you. I need to see you.
Can we meet somewhere to talk?
The reply came back so fast, Alfred nearly jumped.
From: Kiku’s Touchpad: yes now?
Alfred paused, looking at the words before, to his utter amazement, he chuckled. It was light and happy and Alfred marveled at the warmth that formed it. Arthur really wanted to see him, apparently soon too. His delight simmered down though as he began to think, his wide, trembling grin settling into a bemused smile.
He couldn’t leave now; his batteries were still low for one. And he wasn’t quite sure what he was going to say when he saw Arthur. What if he just ran up and said something stupid and everything ended up worse than it was before? Well, to be fair, it was hard to imagine something worse than before, but he was still wary. Once bitten, twice shy as Arthur used to say.
Besides, everyone was asleep still. If he left, he’d at least wake someone up. Also, he supposed he should talk to one of them, Ivan probably, about the fact he would be gone for a few hours.
(Or, if he was extremely lucky, that he would be going home permanently.
Alfred tried not to let his hopes get up that high.)
Then he blinked, another thought hitting him. He couldn’t leave just yet—he said he would go to that rally with the others. Thinking it over, he realized that he really did want to go—he wanted to see other computers and their owners, wanted to see what they were like. He remembered the awe he felt when he saw the rally before, the amazement he felt over the passion of the crowd right before things turned ugly. There was still a chance of the same thing happening, he realized. Tensions were high and Alfred couldn’t count the number of times people in Arthur’s police station had be sent to go help take care of a demonstration run wild. It could be dangerous, but Alfred couldn’t bear to miss it. Hopefully Arthur would understand.
There’s something I need to do first, but can we do it after tomorrow? I could meet you at (He paused, stopping himself from almost typing ‘home’.) outside the apartment.
He had to wait a few moments before he got a reply. He wondered whether Arthur was disappointed or relieved.
From: Kiku’s Touchpad: As you wish. I’ll probably get home from work at my usual time. I’ll leave the spare key out for you if you want.
Alfred smiled, curling his toes and fighting the urge to wriggle as he opened up a reply.
Okay. He took a moment to revel in delight before typing I’ll see you soon.
The reply returned immediately, agreeing. Although Alfred couldn’t see Arthur’s face, he hoped that it looked just as eager as his own. In his lap, Tony continued to stare, not that it bothered Alfred; instead he scooped the laptop up and happily cuddled him, despite his quiet objections.
He was going to see Arthur again. In less than two days, he was going to home (and it was still that, still despite everything that happened—Alfred was downright giddy) and he was seeing the person he longed to. A program tried to spit out a worry that maybe everything wouldn’t go as planned, that maybe Arthur truly was still angry, but he killed that program mercilessly. He was going home; that was the important part.
He shut down, feeling the happiest he had in ages.
The next day passed murderously slow; Peter was still furious about not being able to go and snapped at anyone who tried to talk to him. Whoever his past owner was, Alfred decided as the laptop kicked the game controller impressively far, they must have encouraged him to act like that because Alfred couldn’t see any other way a laptop could get that way. Toris also wasn’t very happy about not being able to go, although he hid his disappointment better than Peter. Instead he went about his chores drearily, and later at dinner, Ivan kept looking down at his food in confusion, lips twisted into a frown, although Natalya seemed to have no problem with hers.
After lunch, Alfred just gave in and shut off until Tony roused him for dinner by smacking him in the face. When that meal was done, Alfred shut back down rather than try to waste time another way. He would have felt guilty about leaving Tony to spend the day on his own, but the laptop shut down when he did as well, perhaps just not caring to be awake when Alfred wasn’t going to be either.
He was awoken long before he usually was by a persistent nudge to his side. His systems kicked on all at once and he blinked through predawn darkness to see Gupta above him. The other Companion jerked his head upward, telling him to stand, as he took a step back to give him room. It was a good thing that Alfred wasn’t human—Arthur would have been beyond annoyed if Alfred had woke him up at that hour. After scooping Tony up into his arms, accidently jostling the grumbling laptop into consciousness, Alfred slowly stood, trying not to make too much noise. He picked up the backpack and helped Tony into it before following Gupta into the kitchen.
Ivan was there, to Alfred’s surprise, before he remembered that Ivan had work in an hour. The man gave a massive yawn before smiling sleepily at them. In another chair, Raivis twitched shooting them desperate gazes. “You had better leave before Peter wakes up and tries to go with you,” Ivan murmured, picking up his mug of harsh coffee. “Look after each other while you’re there.”
“Oh, don’t worry—I’m sure that even if we get mauled by counter protestors, it wouldn’t be nearly as bad as the treatment you’ll give us,” Raivis stammered with a grin as he got up and joined the other computers. Ivan twitched and the thick cup in his hands creaked eerily while Alfred and Tony stared in surprise at Raivis.
“We should be back before dark,” Gupta said, ignoring the awkward atmosphere before sleepy Ivan could retort.
Ivan snorted, but nodded anyway. “Take care of yourselves,” he called as Gupta and Raivis started for the door. Alfred remained where he was, shuffling his feet nervously as he tried to think of how to explain that there was a chance he might not be coming back. In spite of his fears, Alfred couldn’t help but long to return permanently to Arthur, and, just maybe, Arthur wanted him back as well. If he did, Alfred was sure that he would do everything in his power never to separate from Arthur again. “Something wrong, Alfred? Perhaps you’d like to have some of that ‘treatment’ Raivis mentioned?”
Alfred’s head jerked up. “I, um,” he began, then shrugged and decided to go with the blunt truth, as he usually did. “I have someone I’m going meet after the rally. I may not come back. For a while, at least.”
Raivis choked on a gasp to his side, but Ivan merely stared quietly before sitting his mug down. “I see. Well then, you should take especially good care of yourself, da?” he grinned, settling his hands down on Alfred’s shoulders. “But then, everyone comes back to me eventually. You will too, no doubt.”
In the pack, Tony was muttering something about “creepy” but Alfred only smiled at Ivan before patting one hand and shrugging them both off. “Well, thanks for letting me stay—it’s been fun.”
Ivan kept beaming. “You’re welcome. See you soon.”
Alfred cocked his head to the side, wondering if he should correct the man or not. Instead he shrugged and wandered over to the door where the other Companions waited. Outside, the air was frigid and Alfred had to adjust his core temperature and check on Tony before they set off. He followed them as they walked on, wondering if he should try and start a conversation before giving up the idea. What would they talk about, anyway?
They arrived at the place they would be demonstrating at after nearly half an hour of walking; the usually busy four-way stop had a few people settling in already, people bundled up in warm clothes, coats, and blankets settling in on either side, the only way to tell them apart being their signs. The streets were blocked off for the day, but foot traffic would still be coming through making it the perfect spot for both sides. Alfred gazed at both sides curiously while Gupta led them to the crowd closest to them; as they walked on, Alfred could only marvel that once again he really hadn’t known what to expect.
A few people called out to them in acknowledgement and both Gupta and Raivis nodded or smiled to people as they pressed on through the crowd. At the front, near center of the intersection, a small group of people talked, voices calm and collected as they discussed what would be happening.
Gupta walked up to a barricade of police barriers, a line of bright saw horses that stretched up and down the sidewalks, gazing out to the small group that now parted ways after a friendly handshake between one woman with a Cheshire cat grin and serene young man. As the group heading towards their side neared, one young woman with her blonde bob pinned back by red hairclips beamed and jogged over to them. “Gupta, Raivis, good to see you—what, no Peter today?”
“Ivan wouldn’t let him come,” Raivis stumbled, shuffling his feet.
The woman shook her head and clucked her tongue. “Shame—he’s a spunky little shit. Would have helped pass the time.” She paused, glancing up to Alfred with a smile. “See you found yourselves someone to take his place, though. What’s your name, blue eyes?”
Alfred’s lips quirked up in reply. “I’m Alfred,” he answered and when he heard the zipper of his backpack opening, he shifted the straps so Tony could get a better look. “And this is Tony.”
The woman laughed. “Alfred and Tony! Well, I am delighted to have you two join us. My name’s Amelia Williams, but please, just call me Amelia.” She nodded to him and turned her head back towards Gupta and Raivis. “And y’all’re welcome to sit around with me and Sakura.”
Raivis perked up, and Gupta nodded. Deciding to stay with them, Alfred followed as Amelia led back into the patchy crowd until she wandered up to a small group who had brought their lawn chairs and picnic blankets to sit on, nearly a full block away from the barricade. Sitting in one of the chairs was a petite Asian woman who smiled at Amelia as she approached, whom Alfred guessed must have been Sakura. Amelia dropped a kiss on her cheek as she slid into the extra wide chair as well and snatched up the blanket Sakura offered. It was only as she leaned back that some of Sakura’s hair parted to reveal a pale pink earport and Alfred realized she was a Companion as well.
Next to him, Gupta and Raivis settled down onto a spare blanket so Alfred joined them, pulling off the bag and letting Tony slip out and curl into his lap. Amelia and Sakura chatted with Raivis—Gupta fell silent once again and rarely responded past a nod or shake of his head—until at last Amelia turned back to Alfred with a smile. “So, Alfred, is this your first demonstration?”
“Yep,” he answered, surfacing to reality as he lost another game of checkers with Tony.
“I have to ask you—first timers always have the best reactions. Is this anything like you’d thought it’d be so far?”
Alfred paused and glanced around before turning back to her with a sheepish smile. “Not really.”
She laughed, but her smile was mischievous rather than taunting, so Alfred didn’t mind. “Not very lively, huh? Well, you just have to wait another hour or two. That’s when everyone will show up and where the real party begins.”
A few hours later, Alfred wasn’t sure if “party” was the right word for what the demonstration ramped itself into. There was a constant ebb and flow of people on both sides making their way to the front of the crowd while those in front headed back to sit down and relax with others there. Amelia for one was constantly elbowing her way back to the front before returning some time later to chat for a few minutes; Alfred admired her energy. Not that the rest of the crowd lacked it; once the crowds truly arrived, a sort of manic energy began to buzz in the air. Even he could feel it around them as he took his turn at the front of the crowd a few times.
At first he really hadn’t been sure what was going to happen, but when he, Raivis, and Gupta, along with Amelia and Sakura, first stepped up to the barricade, someone handed them a sign before vanishing backward into the crowd. At a loss, he held up his sign and glanced to the others to see if they could give him a clue. It was an interesting sight he found. Gupta didn’t have a sign but raised his fist into the air in time with some other people who’d started a chant. Amelia was shouting the chant and pumping her fist as well while Sakura held a sign quietly. Raivis, on the other hand, was waving his sign around and nearly screaming the chant with them. Alfred glanced back at Tony, who shrugged in equal bewilderment. After that, they remained at the front for some time before they headed back to their spot.
This started a cycle where usually at least two of them always went to the front while the others rested in their chairs or on their blanket. It was around three in the afternoon when Alfred found himself alone with Tony and Sakura. Tony had slipped out of his pack and into the front of Alfred’s sweatshirt where the Companion’s radiating heat kept him warm without constantly having to fiddle with his core temperature. Sakura idly tapped the shoes of her boots together, so Alfred decided to try to talk to her.
“So, um, have you been to a lot of demonstrations like this?”
Sakura blinked up at him, starting at his voice so much he felt guilty for surprising her. “No. This would be about thirty fifth time Amelia and I have gone to one.”
Alfred’s eyebrows went up at the number, but he had to smile. “That’s so cool that your owner takes you to these—I don’t think that-” He stopped, catching himself at the last moment and staring in surprise himself. Wow. What would Arthur say if he knew I was here? As far as he knew, Arthur didn’t have much of an opinion on computer rights, which was part of the reason Alfred hadn’t had one either. Would Arthur agree with him, or would he try to forbid him to go?
Would Alfred had agreed?
Sakura’s voice startled him from his thoughts. “…Amelia is not my master.”
Alfred gaped. “She’s not? Then are you here by yourself?”
“Oh no—my master’s over there,” she answered, raising her hand to point to a tall, broad man with gelled up hair who glanced back at him with an unimpressed look. The thought of such a big, stern looking man owning such a small, sweet Companion threw Alfred for a momentary loop. “He came here to help set up very early—Amelia is our neighbor. She and I usually go together these demonstrations, even if my master does not go himself.”
Alfred couldn’t stop staring, flailing mentally and completely flabbergasted. “I—but she—you’re so close! She kisses your cheek, you warm up the blanket before you let her use it-” here Sakura’s face burned bright red, “and you cuddle together! She’s really just your neighbor?”
Sakura, face still cherry red, glanced down to her hands in her lap as she twisted and bunched the blanket’s fabric in her fingers. “Amelia… isn’t just my neighbor. She’s…” she trailed off and now her entire face was turning red. “…special.”
Alfred kept staring until it finally hit him. “So, you love her?”
Sakura’s head snapped up in surprise, but her face was still red. “I-I s-suppose so…”
He leaned back, resting his weight on hand while the other held Tony to his stomach, and just looked at the other Companion in complete bemusement. The idea seemed nearly ludicrous—Alfred had thought every computer merely focused solely upon their owner. It made sense—they served them and their masters (in theory) repaid them with care and protection. Sure a computer could leave their master if they felt threatened enough, but to willingly attach themselves to another person without losing their owner… Alfred couldn’t grasp it. “How?”
Sakura’s face finally dimmed as she looked back to him. “How what?”
“How could you love someone other than your master?” he finally managed.
She glanced back down to her lap but gave the tiniest shrug. “It was not my intention to… grow unusually fond of Amelia.” She paused, glancing back up at him and then around the crowd—perhaps checking for Amelia herself—before settling back into her chair. “Due to my master’s occupation, I could not accompany him to his work. He did not wish to leave me at home alone for long periods of time either, especially in the beginning when there was a string of robberies in our neighborhood. With no one else to turn to, Amelia agreed to watch me for some of the day in exchange for using me to help her with her studies.” She stopped again, glancing out into the crowd, but when Alfred looked there was no one there so she went on. “Over time, my master would sometimes work very long shifts or stay after to complete projects. With Amelia being the only other person I saw regularly, it makes sense that I grew close to her, doesn’t it?”
“I guess,” Alfred replied, stumped. It did make sense, but all the same Alfred just couldn’t get the idea to sink in. “So, do you love her more than your real owner?”
It was Sakura’s turn to gape. “I—I do not l-care for her more than my master,” she insisted before cringing at her own volume. She mumbled on, focusing on her hands again. “I just… care for her in a different way.” She looked up at him from below her lowered lashes.
There wasn’t anything he could think of to say to that. However, as he thought it over, the more he started to feel something intensely pleasing about the idea that perhaps he knew of another computer that cared for a human like he did. What that feeling could be called, he wasn’t sure, though. Stewing in his own thoughts, he missed Gupta, Raivis, and Amelia’s return. He watched with muted curiosity as Amelia curled up almost instantly with Sakura, practically nuzzling the smiling Companion.
I wonder if me and Arthur could ever be like that. Well, maybe not cuddling in public since Arthur didn’t seem to like that, but the idea of reaching out to Arthur and for him to reach back brought up a warm feeling and a deep ache as well. Maybe one day they could be like that; perhaps not soon, but one day. I would like that. I want to be near you, Arthur.
Reaching out, Alfred snagged Sakura’s skirts and gave them a tug, grinning up at her as she turned her face to him. “You know, I think I understand what you mean. I like someone like you like her.”
Amelia gawked while Raivis started in confusion and Gupta stared at him. In his sweatshirt, he felt Tony moving, raising his head up, perhaps staring at him as well.
Sakura paused, but then she nodded after a moment, a small smile blooming on her lips. “It’s good to have someone important to you, don’t you agree?”
Alfred beamed. “The best.”
“…What’s going on?” Amelia finally asked, turning to Sakura.
The Companion merely smiled. “Alfred and I were having a conversation while you were away.”
The woman blinked. “Oh… all right, I guess. Was it a fun conversation?”
Sakura and Alfred shared a glance; Alfred grinned all over again. Sakura’s smile was just as sweet. “It was an… interesting one.”
“I’ll say,” Alfred laughed. Amelia glanced between them in bemusement, but didn’t comment. Instead, Sakura shucked off the blanket and stood, gazing down at Alfred.
“Mr. Alfred, would you like to come with me up to the barricade?”
Alfred blinked, taken aback then laughed and jumped to his feet. “Sure, although, you know, it sounds really weird to be called Mr. Alfred.” He paused, patting his stomach and Tony to get his attention. “Hey, Tony, do you want to stay here or come with us?”
“It’s warmest here!” the laptop shouted back; Alfred laughed and shrugged as he curled his arm around Tony to hold him better.
“Is this a private party or would you mind if I came along, too?” Amelia asked. Alfred almost mentioned that she’d only just sat down, but Sakura nodded and the woman joined them. Leaving the other two Companions behind, they forced their way through the crowd.
Along the way, Alfred realized the crowd was thinning out—either people were taking more breaks or they were leaving. He glanced back over his shoulder to Sakura and Amelia as they neared the barricade. “Is there less people here than before?” he shouted over the song that people had begun to sing.
“Probably just getting something to eat,” Amelia shouted back. “But some have definitely gone home—some of the guys over there have left, too, you see?” Turning back, he did see. Behind the empty space where police paced, watching the crowds, and the other barricade, the crowd looked smaller but just as determined.
Next to him, Amelia joined the song, her voice rising sharp and clear into the air. Sakura tapped his arm. “Do you know this song?”
Smiling a little sheepishly, he shook his head. “I haven’t known any of these songs. I feel a little left out.”
Sakura smiled. “Would you like me to send you the lyrics?”
He beamed and gave her his email address. A moment later, he got her message and found added at bottom a phone number and a note. In case you need to speak with me and I can’t hear.
He grinned up at her and sent her a reply with his number as well before they both turned and joined the song.
As the song winded down, after nearly two repeats, Amelia turned to them and jerked her head to the back of the crowd. He nodded and started to follow her and Sakura. As he walked away, he hummed the song quietly to himself, reveling in the fun he was having, that warm feeling from before welling up in his system. Even if it was murder waiting for the day to end, at least he was having fun.
It was then that what sounded like a thunder clap behind slammed into his back, staggering him into the people in front of him. Ahead, he saw Amelia fall to her knees while Sakura nearly tumbled over her. Stunned, Alfred tried to stand and look back over his shoulder.
Across the street, dust and smoke swirled up into the air—the demonstrators on that side laid on the ground, some stunned, but others, Alfred realized numbly, lay on the ground unmoving, some in growing puddles of deep red. Staring, he thought of the small girl laptop he’d seen get struck down, her head smashed and spilling open like an overripe fruit. Around him, people began to scream.
“Oh my god, was that…?” He heard Amelia begin to say. Before he could find his voice to say he didn’t know, another thunderclap further off to his left crashed into the air.
Again, he staggered, falling to one knee as alarms began to blare in his head. His Third Law protocols tripped and forced him to his feet. Around him, people began to run, pressing in on him as he struggled not to run into Sakura, who was trying to help Amelia up. Without a second thought, he pressed hand to Tony—who was cursing furiously and telling him to run already—and started to run when the woman got to her feet.
What is happening? he thought dazedly as Gupta and Raivis found them and joined them in running. What is going on?
Not for the first time, but now more than ever, Alfred wanted to curl into Arthur’s arms and hide from the rest of the world.
Arthur heard about the explosions less than half of an hour after they happened. It didn’t take long for police officers from other districts to get called over to help. Arthur found himself helping calm the remaining demonstrators, herd away curious gawkers, or help direct paramedics to injured people. And by God, there were a lot injured—it seemed that none of the protesters escaped without some wound or dent. Arthur had personally seen several unfortunate computers that had been smashed open from the blast, their electronic insides spewing out and over the pavement, splattered with both coolant and human blood.
For every snapped chip and frayed wire that Arthur saw, his stomach gave itself a new knot. It would be a miracle if he didn’t have an ulcer by tomorrow morning. At one point he realized he hadn’t stepped on a piece of rubble, as he assumed, but instead on a cracked motherboard, Arthur had felt himself go green. It was ridiculous, amateurish almost, to be so affected by some broken circuitry, but the only thought in his head the entire time was Oh God, what if that someone could do that to Alfred before I can see him? He hoped Alfred was inside somewhere safe and warm, with all his fingers and toes and circuits attached.
It was nearly two in the morning before another wandered up to him with news that he was to relieve Arthur of his duty along with a strict warning coming from Sergeant Beilschmidt himself to go home and get some rest.
Arthur didn’t have to be told twice; he left his replacement to his task as he dug his borrowed touchpad out from his pocket and switched it back on. He had turned it off, instead using a small cat shaped mobile phone that Elizabeta handed him as they left, the standard emergency phone for their station. As he waited for it to boot up, he hazarded a look up to the sky. Clouds hung thick and full in the sky now, hiding any sight of the moon or stars bright enough to fight through the cities’ light pollution; perhaps it would snow and blanket the city and all its ugliness in a temporary mantle of pure white. It would make working at the riot scene a pain, but Arthur wouldn’t have to worry about that.
There was a trill as the touchpad finished loading and then an unfamiliar chime. Glancing down, he saw that the phone program’s icon was blinking bright yellow. Tapping the program, a message popped up informing him that he’d missed a call. When he checked the caller ID, he nearly choked on air.
One missed call from: Arthur. Alfred had tried to call him, the first time in three, nearly four weeks, and he missed it.
Letting out an impressive string of curses that earned him a scolding shout from a woman he passed by as he hurried away, he fumbled through the instructions for the waiting messages. “One missed call from Arthur,” a synthetic woman’s voice said with unnatural pauses after every word. Arthur wanted to snap at it to hurry up. “Beginning playback of message.
“Hey, Arthur, it’s Alfred.”
In spite of himself, Arthur nearly stumbled over his own feet as he stopped quickly. If he thought just texting to Alfred was an amazing relief and joy, hearing his voice could have given him a fit of utter glee. Never had one voice sounded so good before, and it was only a recording of Alfred, even if it was unnatural sounding—since Alfred could record a message directly, he didn’t need to speak aloud. There was no echo to his voice and no background noise either. Arthur shook himself back to reality as he nearly missed Alfred continuing.
“Um, slight change of plans. I kinda can’t make it home.” Arthur’s heart seized painfully and his throat nearly closed up, choking his breath while his worse fears and doubts tried to gang up on his mind. “The streets are kind of… um, not a good place for me at the moments. I think everyone’s a little messed up from the… I dunno, explosions? Yeah, well, we kinda got tired of people screaming and chucking stuff at us.”
One of the bones in Arthur’s hand popped—if he had been around, he would chased down and beaten every single one of those people that tried to hurt… wait, did he just say “us”?
“We decided to head over to a friend’s place—Feliciano Vargas and his brother’s apartment. You know, Sergeant Beilschmidt’s boyfriend? I met him. He’s really nice,” he paused and suddenly there was background noises—distant voices, a television turned up way to loud, a quiet scrapping of metal against porcelain like a fork against a plate—before Alfred spoke again, this time with an actual echo like he was now in an open room. “Hey, Feliciano, say hi to Arthur!”
A cheerful voice piped in. “Hi, Mister Arthur! It’s nice to meet you—well, speak to you, since we haven’t really meet yet, heh. Maybe if I get better soon I’ll get to see you at the Christmas luncheon Ludwig’s station holds, won’t that be fun? Or—oh, oh! You could come here! Then you could take Alfred home with you so he won’t have to wander the streets alone and I can meet you too. That’d be really nice.”
“That would be okay? Hey, Arthur, let’s do that,” Alfred agreed before the background noises died away again. “I miss you. See you soon, Arthur.”
“End of message. To repeat message, press-” Arthur tapped a button, silencing the recording. “No other new messages. If you would-”
He exited the answering program, Alfred’s words still ringing in his ears like a bell heralding a miracle. See you soon, Arthur. Alfred still wanted to see him, he was waiting for him still. It took everything he had not to race over to the apartment complex on foot, or call Elizabeta up to badger her for a ride, not that she would probably need much begging.
Feeling an overpowering mix of hope, fear, and eagerness, Arthur started to hurry away. He didn’t get very far before he had to stop again and pull out the touchpad. Scrolling through the numbers, he found the one he wanted and then waited until the ringing finally stopped and a man picked up. “Hello?”
“Ah, Sergeant? Kirkland here. I have an odd request, but I need to get your boyfriend’s address.”
After getting the address, he fumbled around with his touchpad until it gave him directions. Luckily, it wasn’t as far as he feared—no wonder Alfred and whoever he was with headed there, then; it was only a few blocks away.
His legs ached and his lungs burned as he ran as fast as he could, only slowing down or pausing to check the directions again before taking back off. It felt like there were fishhooks sunken into his skin, pulling him along, closer and closer. When he felt the slight immature urge to cheer when he finally arrived at the building, but by then he was so out of breath he could barely raise a hand above his head in muted victory. He groaned at the sight of the stairwell, knowing that he had a few flights to climb.
By the time the time he reached the right floor, he had to stop and sit on the top stair to catch his breath. Only after he finally calmed his breath—there was nothing to be done about his aching legs and feet, he would just have a long soak in the tub—he forced himself back up before staggering over to the door Ludwig named. Rapping his knuckles against the wood, he waited, wincing when he shifted unconsciously on his feet.
For a moment he started to pull the touchpad back out when the door cracked open. A golden eye peaked out at him. “What do you want?”
He wasn’t one hundred percent sure if this was Ludwig’s boyfriend or not, but he decided to try his luck. “Mr. Vargas?”
“Maybe—what do the police want with me? Did the potato bastard send you?”
Potato what? And how did he know I’m a… He glanced downward to his dusty uniform. I’m too tired for this. “I’m here for Alfred—he called me.”
The eye blinked. “…You’re his owner?”
“Who else would I be?” he snapped back waspishly, longing to shove the door open. Somewhere on the other side of it, Alfred was waiting for him, damn it. “Look, is he there or isn’t he?”
Now the eye was scowling at him. “Don’t get bitchy with me, I don’t have to let you in here. As a matter of fact, why you go blow it-”
“Lovino, who are you talking to?” a higher pitched voice interrupted. The eye vanished and the door nearly shut.
“Seborga! I told you to stay put.”
“Oh, is it Mr. Arthur? Alfred said he might come. You’re going to let him in, aren’t you?”
There was a pause and a long stream of grumbles before the door finally swung open, revealing a scowling brunet and a small cheerful laptop. “Alfred’s with Feliciano, hold on, I’ll get him—and don’t you dare track in filth everywhere!” Lovino hurried over to a door on the far side of the room, past a couch where a dozing woman and inactive Companion cuddled. Before Arthur could shuffle in awkwardly, the Italian stuck his head in the door of the room, shouting in, calling Alfred’s name. Arthur felt intensely in tune with the sounds of that room when the distant noise of a conversation died instantly. Even over the quiet drone of the television in the living room, Arthur could hear the quiet creak of an old chair and then the soft footfalls as someone walked to the door.
When he appeared at said door, Alfred looked dusty and a little worn. Worryingly, there seemed to be something wrong with his shoulder—it dipped inward unnaturally, liked he dented it by running headlong towards a street post. In his unharmed arm, he carried a strange gray bundle that clung to his sweatshirt. Despite this, he was still one of the most achingly beautiful sights Arthur had ever seen and when his knees began to quake, it wasn’t just from fatigue.
“Arthur,” Alfred began, his voice soft, perhaps from exhaustion as well, and it was twice as wonderful as any phone message, hundreds of times better than any damn text message. “You’re here—you really came.” He paused, and slowly, a tired grin spread across his lips. “You look terrible—did a vacuum explode on you?”
There was a strange choking noise in the back of Arthur’s throat as he tried not to splutter in disbelief. “You—you hardly look any better. What have you done to your shoulder?”
“Oh, that?” He tried to shrug it off, almost managing nonchalance. “Had a little accident. I, um, might need to go see Kiku about it. Still, what happened to you?”
Arthur stared in dumbfounded silence; almost an entire goddamn month, countless hours of agony, many restless nights, and this is how Alfred chose to greet him? Without another thought to his weariness or his pain, Arthur strode across the room, dug his fingers into the hood of that sweatshirt, and yanked Alfred downward into a hug as he buried his face against his neck. “Will you shut up and actually greet me?”
For a moment, Alfred was stock still, as if he’d suddenly lost all power. However there was a small shift as he moved whatever his bundle was over towards his weaker arm before yanking Arthur so tightly against he swore he felt his vertebra cracking while Alfred returned the favor and buried his own face into the crook of Arthur’s neck. “I missed you,” he whispered, sounding as pained as Arthur felt. “I missed you, I really, really missed you. I thought you weren’t going to come and you didn’t want me back after all and-”
“Oh, you silly boy,” he murmured back, tugging one arm free so he could wrap it more comfortably—and comfortingly—around Alfred’s head and neck. “Hush.”
Beside them, Lovino and the laptop, and maybe even whoever it was Alfred had been talking to or the women on the couch, were probably staring at them. Arthur couldn’t bring himself to care.
He had Alfred back and for him, that was all that mattered and all that ever would. “I missed you too, you dear silly git.”
Alfred laughed, a small wet sounding thing, clinging to him even more.
Chapter 24: Finally
Alfred and Arthur finally start to really talk to each other.
Lovino ended up carting Seborga off to the kitchen after shutting Feliciano’s door, leaving the two blond men to their (relative) privacy. Neither could bring themselves to pull away from the embrace, clinging to each other like they would slip away if they untangled themselves. The only reason Arthur even thought to back up was when Alfred’s injured arm and shoulder began to tremble. He pulled away with a blush staining his cheeks, but his pride was soothed when he saw that Alfred was pouting even as he moved the grey shape in his arm to the other. Looking down, Arthur realized that the bundle was actually an alien shaped laptop, curled up into a tight ball in the crook of Alfred’s arm.
Alfred shrugged his good shoulder when Arthur stared up at him in confusion. “This is Tony—he’s my friend. Um…” He paused, blinking rapidly before smiling sheepishly. “Would it be all right if he stayed with us?”
At that point, if Alfred asked for the moon, Arthur might have had to switch jobs to become an astronaut just to bring him a moon rock. “Of course he can,” he replied instantly, not thinking twice of it before frowning back down at the laptop. “…Where exactly did you find him, though?”
Alfred laughed. “It’s kind of a long story. Kinda goes along with where I’ve been, anyways… can I tell it to you later?”
There was going to be a later; after a month of uncertainty and waiting, he finally let his hope bubble up in his chest until he was tempted to pull Alfred into another hug. “Right. We can talk tomorrow—let’s just go home for now.”
Alfred beamed. “I’d really like that.”
Neither of them were in good enough shape to walk home—Alfred confided that his batteries were starting to run low and Arthur was too worn out from working and then running to the apartment. They ended up flagging down a taxi and nearly fell asleep pressed up against each other in the backseat. The driver barely blinked at their near cuddling, or even talked to them, perhaps feeling tired himself, and dropped them off with no fanfare. Wallet considerably lighter, Arthur helped steady a drooping Alfred up the stairs.
Alfred nearly flopped straight onto the floor as soon as he enters the apartment. “Alfred!” Arthur yelped, scrambling to catch the Companion. Alfred barely managed to get a grip on the wall to keep from falling, grunting at the jarring. “Um, Arthur,” he slurred, causing Arthur to still in shock and fear—he’d never heard Alfred do that before. “I don’t think I’m… going to make it to the bedroom. Can we… just set up there?” he asked, gazing at the nearest outlet, right outside Arthur’s door.
Heart clenching, he nodded and with the upmost gentleness, he led Alfred to the outlet and eased him down to sit on the floor. Old habits cause him to lift his hand up to Alfred’s hair, to find the hidden button for his earport, only for his hand to collide with Alfred’s own. They paused, staring at each other—Arthur taken aback and Alfred in sleepy confusion—until Alfred moved his hand again, reaching for his button while Arthur’s hand fell back to his lap.
Once, Arthur stumbled over himself to do that little thing for Alfred, terrified of not being needed by Alfred anymore. And now, after very nearly a month apart, perhaps he really didn’t need Arthur at all.
Stop that, he ordered himself, squaring his shoulders. Even if he doesn’t need you anymore, he’s here now. He wants to be here. Besides…
“I missed you,” he whispered, sounding as pained as Arthur felt. “I missed, I really, really missed you. I thought you weren’t going to come and you didn’t want me back after all and-”
Arthur sighed. This was just a consequence of what happened, he hoped, something he and Alfred were just going to have to work through if Arthur wanted to convince Alfred to stay. Arthur glanced back up to Alfred. And I do want you to stay.
A small metallic clacking noise finally caught his attention; now that he finally looked up, he found Alfred frowning as he kept missing the slots. From the way he was frowning, Arthur wondered if he could see the outlet properly or if he was just too tired to be coordinated. Watching him, the man tried to bite his lip, but in the end he has to speak up. “Alfred?”
“Do you…” he forced himself to stop chewing on his lip and relax. “Would you mind some help?”
Alfred sighed, but whether from defeat or relief, Arthur wasn’t sure. He handed Arthur the plug and sagged against the wall. “Can you plug Tony in, too?”
Nodding despite the fact that Alfred missed it entirely, he pulled the laptop out of the bag and plugged him in as well. When he was finished, Alfred was fidgeting, trying to find a comfortable position with his injured shoulder. Whether he found a spot or not, his eyes slowly fluttered shut.
Arthur paused and sat back, letting himself take in the sight of Alfred, dirty, banged up, beautiful, and finally here. Staring at him, he had to stamp down the urge to just reach out and pull Alfred into his arms again. But Alfred deserved his rest, and to be truthfully honest, so did he.
He didn’t even think twice about going to sleep in his own bed; instead, he dragged one of the throw pillows and the spare blanket from the couch before lying down at Alfred’s free side. Before he drifted off, he glanced upward to where Alfred wore a faint halo from the moonlight pouring in the window where he forgot to shut the curtains. Allowing himself a small indulgence, he reached out and curled his fingers into the loose material of his jeans. Smiling softly and ignoring the happy ache in his chest, Arthur shut his eyes and slept, his night for once mercifully empty of dreams.
Sunlight pierced his eyelids in the morning, causing him to wince as he slowly stretched out. Every inch of him stung, bits that he didn’t even know that he could hurt smarted. Confused, he twisted about until he was on his back, wondering what he had done to his mattress to make it so unforgiving before he opened his eyes and realized he wasn’t even in his bedroom, let alone bed. Blinking, he sat up in confusion until he realized Alfred was sitting next to him. The memories of last night—or rather, early that morning—came back in a flood, knocking the breath right of his lungs.
Looking at the Companion, the agony he felt for torturous three weeks—no, nearly a month now, and Christmas was just right around the corner. God, they were actually going to be able to spend the holiday together. Or, at least, they would if Arthur could convince Alfred to stay, and God only knew how hard he was willing to try to convince him. Arthur bit his lip; nearly a month of heartbreak, and here he finally had a real chance to make plans with Alfred once more.
It was a damn good feeling indeed.
Slowly, careful not to wake the still recharging computer, Arthur reached up and gently brushed the fringe from Alfred’s faces. The shock of hair that had always stood up was firmly gone, lost in tangles of the rest of the hair; Arthur couldn’t bring himself to really mourn the loss—later, if Alfred decided he wanted it back, he’d help him slick it back up. If not, Arthur wasn’t going to force him—hell, if he decided he wanted lime green hair, Arthur would gladly go buy dye. Or perhaps a wig, whatever worked.
After several minutes of trying to settle Alfred’s hair, Arthur gave up and admitted to himself that Alfred was just too dirty to fix properly without waking him up. If possible, perhaps Alfred could just take a shower, but with his shoulder drooping as it was, Arthur would need Alfred to take off his sweatshirt so he could look at it.
Speaking of the shoulder wound. Arthur frowned and stood up; that shoulder, whatever was wrong with it, would need to be examined and possibly replaced by Kiku. Checking the time, Arthur sighed. Well past noon—at least Kiku would definitely be up. Gaze lingering on Alfred’s face as he left, Arthur hurried over to his room before digging out the touchpad that he’d carelessly left in his pocket as he slept. Wincing at the thought of the damage he might have caused, and how much that probably would run up his undoubtedly high debt to Kiku, he turned it on and called his friend.
It took a few moments before Kiku answered, his voice unusually groggy. In the background, he heard the muffled din of a loud conversation. “Hello, Kiku speaking. How are you, Arthur-san?”
Arthur couldn’t help but smile. “Tired, but good.”
“I have good news,” he answered, outright grinning now. He let his words roll off his tongue, savoring the joy they sent shimmying down his every nerve. “Alfred came home, Kiku.”
Amusingly, Arthur barely heard Kiku’s response—it was Mei-Mei who cut in. “Really? Yay, good news!”
“That is good news,” Kiku quipped, voice sounding warmer and more awake. “He returned home today?”
“Last night—well, very early this morning. We were going to-” he paused and blanched—oh, damn, had he told anyone he had found Alfred? Francis for one wasn’t going to be amused with him. Oh well—if I call him quick perhaps he won’t harp too long about it. But then, he’d probably start going on and on and wake up Alfred. That or invite himself over…
“Oh, sorry—we were going to meet up yesterday, but well, we… You heard about those explosions over on the east side?”
“Yes, I know people who live near there.”
“Everyone in the station got called over there to help, so I couldn’t meet Alfred until later. When I did, I guess Alfred got caught out in the mayhem. There’s something wrong with his shoulder—will you look at it?”
Kiku hummed thoughtfully. “What seems to be wrong with it? Is the arm damaged as well?”
“It’s bent—inward, I think. He can’t really use the arm much either—I didn’t get much of a chance to look at it. When we got home, we both pretty much collapsed where we were.”
“I see. I’ll need to see him, then. If you could just-” Kiku didn’t get to finish; instead, there was a crash and a loud voice began to shout at them.
“Hey, hurry up! We want to eat and my brother is being annoying again-” There was a distant shout which Arthur could only guess was said brother denying or retorting the accusation. “-leave my shows alone, I didn’t say anything about the shows you watch! Kiku, you like my shows, don’t you?”
In the background, the louder, familiar voice of Yao chimed in. “Shut up, all of you! Kiku, come eat, I made your favorites.”
“I just need to finish my call,” Kiku replied stiffly.
“Okay,” the voice nearly sang again before a door snapped shut loudly. “Don’t take too long!”
Arthur coughed, smiling sympathetically—if anyone knew something about troublesome relatives, it would be him. “Family invaded, I see.”
“They arrived Monday,” Kiku sighed. “They said they wanted to celebrate my exam results.”
“…but really they’re just checking up on you.”
“Essentially. They worry I’ll turn into a hermit.”
“Well, you did give us a pretty bad scare,” Arthur said, trying valiantly not to laugh. “You shrieked like a vampire and said you would melt when we dragged you out of your apartment into the sun that second semester.”
“…That was the caffeine withdrawal talking,” Kiku answered primly. “At any rate, I think it would be best if I visited you. When would be best for me to come?”
“Today would be lovely—a few hours, then?”
“I can come by in two hours.” There was a loud crash, a moment of silence, and then a violent uproar of shouting, one particular voice screaming “Not the television!” loudly. Kiku sighed. “Please make that one. I will see you later, Arthur-san.”
“See you soon,” he replied, smile going soft. “And Kiku? Thank you.”
Despite the loud racket going on outside Kiku’s door, Arthur did manage to hear his reply. “I’m glad Alfred is back.”
“So am I. Goodbye.” He closed the call as Kiku hung up, setting the touchpad aside. He could try and call Francis now, but the more he thought about it, the more he decided against it. Remembering all the shouting going on Kiku’s end of the call, Arthur quietly poked his head outside the door to see if Alfred had stirred yet. Both computers were silent, still recharging.
Looking at Alfred, Arthur carefully pinched himself, just to check and make sure he wasn’t dreaming. But there the powered down Companion remained; as silly as it might have seemed, even to himself, he had to fight a sudden urge to break down and fling himself at the computer, just pull him into his arms and weep from the tumult of feelings roaring in his minds, of gratitude, anger, hurt, joy, and sheer relief. Like waking up from a long nightmare only to find that the world was still right side up and the terror you had experienced moments before was only a fading mirage.
Pinching his arm again, this time to bring him back to himself, he took a shuddering breath and headed into the bathroom. Kiku would arrive soon, perhaps even earlier if his family got any wilder, so he was going to have to get Alfred cleaned up, even if he would have to wake the inactive Companion to do it. Despite the fact that he was going to have to wake Alfred up, he still crept quietly to his bathroom to make the least amount of sound. Grabbing a washcloth, he cursed when the pipes groaned—one year they had frozen, and since then they caused trouble when winter rolled around—and shoved the cloth under the spout before turning the tap off with a snap of his wrist. Wringing most of the water out of the cloth, he grabbed a dry towel from a drawer and headed back to the living room.
Alfred still hadn’t moved when he got back; Arthur felt a little guilty as he bent down and reached out, first mindlessly aiming for the closer shoulder before realized that it was the injured one. Embarrassed, he shook his head at his almost folly and reached for the computer’s other shoulder, shaking it too gently at first before Alfred finally twitched.
“Good morning,” Arthur managed after a moment when all Alfred did was stare at him; perhaps he had forgotten where he was, or he was just shocked that it was Arthur waking him for once.
“Arthur?” Maybe he did indeed forget. He blinked slowly, but fidgeted so violently that Arthur half thought it was a spasm of some sort. “Um. Morning? Is something wrong?”
“No, but we—you need to clean up. I called Kiku, he’ll be here soon to look at your shoulder,” Arthur explained, holding up the damp washcloth. “I didn’t think a shower would be a good idea if your shoulder really-” Got breached, broken, injured. How bad was it really? Arthur really should have checked it out first thing, even if he was too tired to see straight when they met up. “-is hurt. Kiku needs to see how bad it is.”
Alfred blinked up at him again before sleepily glancing back down to his shoulder, trying to turn his head in an angle that made Arthur’s neck hurt in sympathy. “The plastic tore after the metal dented inward. I think it needs new plates—and skin grafts.”
“Skin grafts?” Arthur repeated, eyes wide as Alfred started to shrug out of his coat. “What happened exactly?”
Alfred got the weak arm out of the coat sleeve, gently tugging on the cuff until it finally slipped out. “I don’t quite know what happened—my system nearly crashed when I got hit by whatever it was. Sakura and—um, well some friends of mine helped get me back on my feet and we started off again for some shelter.” He wriggled the other arm free, but now had trouble fighting his pullover sweatshirt off. Without a thought, Arthur reached out to help tug the item off. Alfred stopped instantly, staring at Arthur’s hands like he wasn’t quite sure what they were before glancing up to Arthur’s face.
Arthur couldn’t help but stare back, fighting valiantly against the heat that tried to climb up into his cheeks and burn his ears. “I—you look like you could use some help.”
Alfred watched him carefully for another moment before glancing back down, fidgeting with the sleeve. “I got it.”
“Oh. Well then… I-I’ll just leave you to it then,” he mumbled, scooting backward while Alfred kept fumbling with the clothing. It took much of his restraint to not sigh; for a little bit that morning, conversation seemed easy. Of course, circumstances might have fought off awkwardness for a while, but Arthur prayed that it hadn’t been a fluke.
“Um.” Alfred’s voice cut through his thoughts; looking up, he found that Alfred gotten the sweatshirt off finally, but now his head was stuck in the shirt, the fabric pulled taunt with both arms still caught as well. It was such a comical sight, Arthur had to pinch himself to keep from laughing.
“Are you, um, all right there, Alfred?” he offered.
To be fair, if he was frustrated, Alfred hid it well. “Help, please,” he mumbled so softly that Arthur had to smile. Gently, he reached out and began to tug the fabric gently, not wanting to overstep some undefined boundary between them by just manhandling him. Carefully, the shirt finally slid over Alfred’s head; with his head free, the sleeves slipped easily off his arms. As soon as he set the shirt aside, Arthur glanced up.
His stomach nearly flopped at the sight of Alfred’s mangled shoulder; the Companion hadn’t being exaggerating when he said the shoulder had torn when it dented inward. There was a jagged crack embedded deep into the bent in shoulder. “Oh, bloody—Alfred, what on earth were you doing that you could get hurt like this?” he asked, hands hovering uselessly over the damaged area, not knowing where to even begin to examine it.
“I really don’t know how,” Alfred murmured, sounding helplessly frustrated. “I’m pretty sure it was shrapnel from one of the blasts yesterday.”
Arthur looked up sharply; Alfred ducked his chin, gaze falling to side opposite Arthur. He began to fidget, his good arm reaching up to scratch his jaw as he always did when he knew he got caught doing something Arthur wouldn’t approve of.
“I was, um,” he began before deflating. “I was at a computer rights protest rally yesterday and things got kinda… well, it went south pretty fast towards the end.”
Memories of spilt, smashed computer chips strewn alongside broken units and splattering of blood rushed back so fast in Arthur’s mind it nearly dizzied him. Hadn’t he been fretting yesterday just from the thought of something like that happening to Alfred? To find out he’d actually been there, Arthur nearly flung himself at Alfred to pull him close protectively. Only the possibility of the sheer awkwardness the action might cause stops him, but all the same he let his fingers delicately probe at the crack. “Does it hurt?”
“I ended up turning off the pain sensors to it so it’d stop sending me alerts,” Alfred answered slowly. After a moment of silent fidgeting, he began to talk again. “Are you…mad?”
Arthur blinked in surprise. “Mad at what?”
“That I went to the protest.”
Arthur considered it as he glanced back to the wound. Lately, violence kept erupting at many protests, but computer rights had been the ones most likely to get out of hand. Computer rights were never something Arthur gave much thought to, outside of the times he heard about or helped deal with the aftermath of brutal rallies. It was certainly something that he never associated Alfred with. “I don’t like the thought of you getting hurt at one,” he admitted, frowning at the cracked shoulder. “And I like the sight of you hurt even less. I would feel better if you didn’t go.” He took a breath when he felt Alfred twitch, injured shoulder or no, like Arthur had struck him. “But,” he went on, glancing up pointedly to Alfred’s face. The Companion waited, gaze focused solely on him. Whatever he would say next, Arthur realized with a sinking feeling, might very well either push Alfred away forever. “But if it is that important to you, I won’t stop you.” He paused, frowning back at the wound. “I would rather you find a way to protest that wouldn’t involve you getting maimed in some way.”
Alfred seemed to be waiting for more, but Arthur couldn’t think of anything else to add. Alfred wanted to go to a protest? Fine, just as long as it meant that Alfred didn’t leave him again. Alfred could ask to be turned into a purple unicorn laptop and Arthur would be perfectly happy to find some way of doing so. He felt like this conversation was some kind of test. Arthur prayed he hadn’t failed it already.
Finally, Alfred relaxed. When Arthur looked up, he found the Companion smiling softly. While it wasn’t the usual energetic grin he missed so dearly, it was a dear sight.
He returned the smile before reaching for the wet washcloth. “We need to get you cleaned up. Can you manage it, or do you want help?”
“I can do it.”
Arthur handed the cloth over and rocked back on his heels, watching Alfred mop up his face and neck. It was awkward, just sitting hunched over that and watching, but he couldn’t bring himself to get up and go do something productive, like get tea ready for Kiku’s visit. Alfred haphazardly tried to clean around the crack, but the dirty cloth only began to smear the dirt around.
“Turn it inside out,” Arthur advised, taking the cloth and flipping it over to the clean side. “Try that now.”
“Thanks,” the Companion mumbled and began to scrub again. When he finished, Arthur handed him the towel to dry off while taking the washcloth. He disappeared into the bathroom to toss it into the hamper; when he walked back out, Alfred finished light patting his shoulder dry. When he glanced up, Arthur found he couldn’t look away.
“Um,” Alfred’s voice startled him, nearly making him start. “How have you been? Since I… um, left.”
Terrible. Awful. I hardly ever got a good night’s rest and I dreamed of you and I missed you missed you missed you. “All things considered, I survived,” he finally managed. “Tolerable. It was tolerable. However,” he added, kicking himself mentally for the curt words. “I’d much rather not go through it again.”
“Oh,” Alfred murmured, more acknowledging than answering.
Arthur glanced down to his dirty sock clad toes. “I missed you.”
When he looked back up, he found Alfred smiling, cheeks brushed a pink so pale that Arthur wondered if it wasn’t a trick of the light. “I missed you, too, a lot. There was…” He paused, fidgeting but then went on at last. “There were a lot of times that I thought of coming home.”
Home, Alfred had specifically said home; for some reason, the simple word made his stomach flutter. Although he knew it was an anatomical impossibility, Arthur could have sworn his heart just lodged itself in the middle of his throat. There was certainly a big enough lump in it to be. He had to force the words out his mouth at last. “Why didn’t you?” It felt stupid to even ask it, but this was it. This was what they needed to get through if he ever wanted to feel actually “normal” between them again, instead of cursed awkwardness.
So, of course, Alfred gave him an answer so frank it could have bowled him over if it had physical weight. “You tried to get rid of me.”
To be fair, he deserved that. On the other hand, his heart clenched so hard he thought it might tear in two. “Alfred, I-”
“-panicked?” Alfred supplied, knocking Arthur off kilter. He glanced down to that empty back pack where the laptop still laid, recharging. “Because I screwed up.”
Distantly, an unpleasant voice grumbled in the back of his mind that there’s the damn opening you wanted. Before him, Alfred bowed his head, drawing his knees in. He looked smaller and more vulnerable than Arthur could ever remember seeing, the wound in his shoulder doing nothing to discourage the look, either. Arthur went from the doorway to his side in half a heartbeat, reaching out but hands stalling before contact. He bit his lip and let his one hand drop while resting the other gently on the Companion’s head. “No, it wasn’t you. It was my-”
“No, it wasn’t!”
Arthur jerked back in surprise; perhaps he startled him, but Alfred recoiled as well, although his expression was the same. His face was the picture of misery—his eyes were glassy and his cheeks blotchy with red. If he could actually cry tears, Arthur wouldn’t doubt that his face would be soaked and nose probably running as well.
“It was my fault,” he insisted, voice pitched high as it cracked. His eyes darted to the side and then back constantly like he was trying to think of something to say while his wrist on his hurt arm rolled uselessly, instinctually trying to rise to his face like the other hand already was but too weak to lift high enough, leaving Alfred’s face only half hidden. “I was stupid and I thought—I thought-! I screwed up, and I’m sorry. But it’s my fault and I-I just…”
If it was instinct for Alfred to hide his face, then it must have been instinct forcing Arthur to move now. Although there was no tears to wipe away, Arthur reached for his face, placing his hands on either of Alfred’s cheeks, stroking and petting his face as he tried to shush him. Alfred shuddered beneath his hands but leaned into them, anyway, like a cat seeking affection and warmth. “Shh, Alfred, no—it was a… an accident. Alfred, shush, shush, it’s okay.”
“No, it’s not,” he whispered, voice so low and broken that Arthur had to toss his arms around him. “I—I just thought that…”
“What? What did you think?”
Alfred whined and buried his face into Arthur’s shoulder. Arthur was half sure he wasn’t going to answer at all until he heard that tiny voice speaking again. “I thought that maybe… that’s what you wanted.”
Blood drained from Arthur’s face at first, then rushed back in so fast that he was momentarily dizzy. Embarrassment turned his cheeks and ears burning red even as he pulled Alfred closer. “W-why did you think that?” “Because…” He shuddered, clinging to Arthur with both arms, strong and weak alike. “That’s why I thought people got Companion units. So, so…I thought… And you kept freaking out and-and acting weird…”
“I know,” he sighed, almost burying his own face into Alfred’s shoulder before remembering the wound. Instead, he rested his head against the side of Alfred’s neck and stared at the wall before shutting his eyes. “I know, I’m so sorry, I—I wanted it, but not like that.”
Alfred sniffed, but pulled back, eyes still shiny but expression completely puzzled. “…What?”
Talk about conversations you never wanted to have, he grumbled mentally before shushing that voice as well. This conversation was too important; he squashed down his embarrassment as much as he could to answer. “Alfred, I was drunk,” he said, and then paused. “Very drunk. Do you understand?”
From the way Alfred was staring, no, he didn’t. “No,” he answered bluntly.
Despite forcing himself not to squirm, Arthur had to look away. “Alfred, drunk people—people who are impaired can’t, ah, give their consent.” Alfred continued to stare; Arthur sighed. “I really need to stop watching those soaps if this is what you think is normal romance—or why people get Companions.” Now Alfred just looked bewildered. “Alfred—despite that, I did panic which is why I… I said that and why I wanted to return you to a laptop unit.”
“You wanted to…” The confused expression didn’t lessen at all—if anything it might have been worse. “But then why did you… Why am I in a Companion unit then?”
“I just… I needed you back.”
For a moment, the confusion disappeared and Arthur dared to feel a sliver of relief. Then, however, an expression of absolute horror passed over Alfred’s face. Before Arthur could ask what was wrong (now), Alfred reburied his face into Arthur’s shoulder. “Oh shit,” he nearly squeaked. “That’s why I’m in a Companion unit?”
We really need to work on this communication thing, Arthur thought both grumpily and deeply embarrassed. If we have misunderstandings as simple as this…
“But…” Alfred breathed before pulling back, cheeks stained red as he looked up to Arthur downright bashfully. It would have been utterly adorable if the situation wasn’t so serious. “But… you did want it?”
When asked so bluntly, Arthur felt his face heat up and his jaw flap open and shut as he tried to say anything. Communication! shouted his mind, you need to work on communicating, so don’t avoid this. Embarrassed, and slightly worried that his conscience might have actually become a voice in his head, he nodded. “Yes. Yes—but , I… No!” he paused, fidgeting badly while Alfred stared. “I mean… yes. Yes, I did. Do. Whatever!” Poor Alfred, he looked so terribly confused. I really am utter bollocks at communicating, aren’t I? Oh hell, I’ll blame my family, no one will think twice about it. “Do you get what I’m trying to say?”
“Not… really? But…” Alfred slowly nodded. “I think I get the gist.”
“Oh. Well, good.”
“…so… what does that mean for us?” Alfred asked hesitantly, cocking his head to the side.
Where did that leave them? Probably somewhere worthy of months of therapy or, at the very least, a good, stiff drink. Arthur cleared his throat and tried to do the same with his mind. “What do you want it to mean, Alfred?”
Alfred shifted slowly, blinking just as slowly like he was examining Arthur. “I would… like to stay here. If… that’s okay with you?”
It took all his will not to scream ‘YES!’ right then and there. “Yes—yes, of course, I-I would,” he forced himself to take a breath but couldn’t keep a small smile off his face as he went on. “I would love that.”
At first, Alfred gave him a smile of his own. And then, before Arthur could do anything, it grew into a wide, beaming grin complete with a small, but happy laugh. It was a smile that Arthur had missed terribly and worried that he might never get the chance to see again. It took his all not to lean forward and just kiss him then. Because, he warned himself, there was such a thing as rushing things.
Not that Alfred had many doubts—he just pulled Arthur into as tight as hug he could manage with one good arm. It caused one of Arthur’s ribs to positively ache, but all the same, Arthur clung back just as hard.
Alfred was home, and he was staying. The delicious reality was sinking in and Arthur didn’t know whether to laugh in delight or cry in relief.
A knock at the door decided it for him; Alfred and Arthur paused, staring in confusion at the door before glancing back at each other. Oh, what a sight we make, a very unhelpful thought trilled when Arthur remembered that Alfred was in fact still topless and only mostly clean—plenty of dust was now smeared onto his own pants where he leaned against Alfred. Flustered, he stood and beat at his pants to get the dust off while Alfred stared up at him in bemusement.
There was little to be done for the dust; instead, Arthur glanced back to Alfred, who merely smiled again. The silly, giddy part of him really just wanted to snog the poor Companion senseless and with that smile on Alfred’s face, it was incredibly hard to resist. Another rapping at the door knocked the goofy smile off his face as he hurried to answer it.
On the other side, Kiku stared up at him—his eyes were weary and he smelt oddly of burnt rubber. Even Mei-Mei looked a little frazzled in the crook of Kiku’s elbow. “Good morning, Arthur-san. Sorry to arrive so much earlier than planned, but I thought it best to come over as soon as possible.”
Meaning he had made a daring escape and was not looking forward to returning home to his awaiting relatives; Arthur had to smile. “Of course. Why don’t you come in?” “Don’t mind if I do!”
Arthur blinked and opened the door further. Standing at Kiku’s side was Francis, smartly bundled up with a sleepy eyed Mathieu in his arms. “…Frog? What are you doing here?”
Francis’s merry little smile twitched in a way that sent chills down Arthur’s spine. “Oh, I just happened to run into Kiku on my home so we stopped to chat. And do you know what he told me? That Alfred was here!”
“Hi, Francis!” Alfred shouted unhelpfully from behind Arthur. Arthur fought the urge to groan.
“Hello, Alfred,” Francis called back, taking his chance to yank the door from Arthur’s hand and force his way past the stunned officer. “How are you?”
“Alfred, are you okay? Is your shoulder really hurt?” Mathieu asked.
“Yeah, but Kiku’s gonna fix it,” Alfred answered, smiling up cheerfully.
“Speaking of fixing things,” Francis cut in, surprising both computers. “Perhaps you and Arthur have patched things up as well?”
Flustered, Arthur cleared his throat before glancing to Alfred. Slowly, Alfred smiled back; feeling unusually reassured, Arthur turned his face back. “As a matter of fact, yes.”
Francis stared at him unnervingly closely before glancing towards Alfred. Bemused, Alfred waved awkwardly. At last he turned back to Arthur, smiling softly and sighing. “Well, Kiku, it appears they finally grew up on us!”
“It had to happen sooner or later,” Kiku deadpanned as he stepped in, shutting the door behind him. Arthur couldn’t find it in his heart to glare at the exhausted computer programmer. “Perhaps the conversation should wait until I finish examining Alfred?”
“Fine, but I want to hear all about where you’ve been,” Francis announced as he took off his coat to settle in.
“Yeah—where have you been, Alfred?” Mei-Mei asked as Kiku walked closer. “And where did you get a laptop like that!”
Alfred grinned. “It’s a long story.”
Home thoroughly invaded, Arthur shrugged and joined them. “I’d love to hear it.”
Over Kiku’s shoulder, Alfred grinned up at him. Ignoring Francis smug but curious look, Arthur smiled back.
There was still so much to say, and a hellacious amount of work to do to really recover their relationship. He had his own feelings to settle as well, but for the moment Arthur couldn’t have cared less. Alfred was home, and that was all that really mattered at the moment anyway.
Chapter 25: Epilogue: Those Happy Hours
The year is almost over, but Alfred still has one thing he wants to do before it ends.
In his seven—getting close to eight now—years of life, Alfred grew used to people who never believed he felt an ounce of emotion. People either pretended to humor his pouts or smiles, only seeing a walking, talking toy that happened to have Internet access. More often, people would marvel that he was a “great little actor”. At least people who pointed out his long running and ever growing AI for giving appropriate responses to stimuli were tolerable. Still, according to Arthur and to Kiku, who would argue that, all things considered, even if Alfred didn’t feel like a true person, he wasn’t a true human, so his emotions were true enough to him to count, he felt just like any other person. It would seem silly to most people that this was one (of his many) reasons for liking them, but then Alfred didn’t care for people like that anyway.
All the same, meeting Sakura and learning that he wasn’t the only computer in love with a human cheered Alfred to no end. Companions could care for people, their master or not, and that was validation alone.
Alfred loved Arthur and that was not a lie; not a trick of random code, not a unique bug in his system.
Now if only he could tell Arthur that.
Since he finally returned home, Alfred had been certain that without a doubt he was quite madly in love with Arthur. Even at their most awkward, Alfred did not for a moment wish to be somewhere else. That first night when it had time to go to bed, after finally changing into some fresh clothes, he climbed into their bed without a second thought. When Arthur walked out, he stopped and stared at Alfred. “Oh, so you… are going to sleep there, then?”
At first, he only stared back at the man. “Is there a problem?” No sooner than the words left his mouth then Arthur’s cheeks went red and he realized that perhaps it would be just a little awkward to sleep together just yet. He froze on the spot, kicking himself mentally for missing such an obvious problem. “Um, should I go sleep on the couch?”
It took a long moment, utterly agonizing for Alfred, before Arthur answered. He glanced away and slowly shuffled over. “No, of course not. Let’s just go to sleep.”
Awkwardly, Alfred followed his lead and wriggled under the sheets and shut down after he mumbled, “Good night.” In the morning, however, he started up only to find that sometime during the night, Arthur had slipped his hand into his. Left bemused, but very happy, Alfred carefully squeezed the hand in his and woke up the constable. The rest of the week passed much like that day: slow, stilted, but also happy and brimming with a palpable sense of relief.
After a month of going without him, Alfred would be very content to stay by Arthur’s side forever. Every touch, every conversation, every night curled up in bed, every morning greeting him awake, Alfred loved it all. If for the rest of his existence their relationship was made up of these little moments where it was just him and Arthur together, Alfred might truly be satisfied.
There was just one thing; after talking and watching Sakura acting with Amelia and seeing that such a relationship was possible, he craved the same for him and Arthur. He would love the chance to reach for Arthur’s hand and to have him reach back without a flustered blow-off or to kiss his cheek in the middle of a crowd and not get snapped at. And, all things considered—oh, and how Alfred considered this—perhaps Arthur wouldn’t have minded as well.
When Alfred returned, Arthur admitted that he did want him, in more ways than one. After one very long discussion about consent and some time to think about it, Alfred was mostly sure that Arthur may not have reacted as extreme as he had, had circumstances been different.
But there were other little things as well—Arthur’s flustered reactions to them touching anywhere, except curiously in bed when he could be downright cuddly. Other things popped to Alfred as well; when Arthur finally allowed Alfred to return to work alongside him (after Christmas, because he refused to allow Alfred to accompany with only the plastic patch Kiku gave him until he could order a new shoulder piece), Arthur stoically ignored any cat calls or sniggers that had taken Alfred aback. Arthur took a lot of flak for Alfred—now Alfred could finally see why he hadn’t wanted to bring him along with him once. But Elizabeta’s wrath and Arthur’s own sharp tongue kept the worst of it from Alfred, and it wasn’t horrible, especially when Tony made this blistering rants consisting mostly of curses at anyone who so much as look cross-eyed at Alfred, which was one of the few times Arthur seemed to approve of the laptop.
(Arthur and Tony did not get along; perhaps insulting Arthur’s eyebrows first thing had not endeared the laptop any to Arthur, but Alfred found it hilarious. Besides, it wasn’t too strange when Alfred teased Arthur himself, so he failed to see what the problem was.)
And then there came those moments that Alfred couldn’t quite pin down; like in a middle of a conversation after Alfred said something particularly good or rather endearing, Arthur would pause and gaze pointedly at Alfred. Sometimes he would reach up and brush an errant lock of hair from Alfred’s face or just rest his hand against his cheek with a small smile. Alfred had no idea what it meant at first until Alfred happened to spot Elizabeta talking to her husband before he paused midsentence to kiss her. Tender, he thought, that was what the expression was, and it was very much like how Arthur looked at him.
The idea was astounding at first, then so frankly obvious Alfred had to roll his eyes at himself. Too bad the moments came up rarely, and whenever the thought to try and lean in—maybe just to see what Arthur would do—something would happen and the moment would be over. He could always just try and kiss Arthur anyway, but then he didn’t see that working. Arthur probably would look at him funny, and there would go his chance. Besides with all he knew of romance from Francis, Elizabeta, and every soap opera he’d ever had to watch, even he knew how seriously unromantic that was. No, he needed a special occasion. Looking back, he realized Christmas would have been the perfect chance to try and kiss him under some of the mistletoe that Francis always pinned up everywhere.
New Year’s Eve, however, Alfred was certain he could do. It was perfect—people kissed for luck at midnight anyways, so if all went wrong, he could always claim it was a New Year’s prank (or something). Not that he would need to; no, Alfred was fairly certain his plan was fool proof. He would confess to Arthur just before midnight, kiss him, and then, well, then he would know for certain.
How he would confess, however, was a little more problematic. People in the movies he’d seen tended to confess their love either drenched in the rain or in emotional racked moments where everything seemed to be going to hell, also usually done in the rain. The forecast for New Year’s Eve called for clear skies though, so the rain bit was out, and Alfred was trying to avoid messy situations where things could go to hell if anything went wrong.
He didn’t get much time to think it over, either; Christmas ambushed them with muted fanfare, and afterward it seemed that time sped up. Alfred woke up only to realize it was New Year’s Eve and he still had no clue how he could pull off a confession.
Inspiration seemed to avoid him the rest of the day as well; by the time eleven o’clock that evening rolled around, he nearly drooped with disappointment. He didn’t even have a good setting to work with—Arthur chose to work the midnight hours, staying in the station instead of out celebrating the close of the year. Kiku had given Arthur Alfred’s repair bills after Christmas, and after a startling moment where Arthur looked as though he was truly having a heart attack, Arthur started getting any hours he could get. So, there they were, stuck at the station while nearly everyone else partied. Even Ludwig had been dragged away by his brother to go drinking with him, barely staying long enough to greet his former colleague before hustling his brother out the door.
He was at a loss. Resigned to having to figure something else out, he laid his head on the corner of Arthur’s desk. The constable glanced up at from where he’d been finishing up reports. “Alfred? Are you alright?”
“Yeah,” Alfred sighed, raising his head so he could set his chin against the desk instead of his forehead. “I’m okay.”
Arthur paused but then reached out to carefully brush some wild hair back into place. “I know it’s not terribly fun being here on New Year’s Eve, but try to buck up.”
Alfred pouted. “It’s not that…”
Tony, who had thus far been entertaining himself with an online game, sat up. “I’ll say it is—today this place is almost as stupid as your face is, limey.”
Arthur gave the laptop a look that would have made Alfred cower but Tony hardly blinked. “I wasn’t talking to you, you little-” Alfred sighed again, cutting Arthur off. Not even Arthur and Tony’s (supposed) bantering managed to lift his spirits. Arthur frowned and shifted, looking pointedly away from the laptop. “Look, if you’re that bored, go to the break room.” He glanced back up to Alfred. “It’s nearly midnight. You could watch the fireworks on the telly.”
Alfred perked up at that—computer or no, fireworks never failed to make him happy. “Okay! Tony, let’s go.”
“Finally,” the laptop grumbled as Alfred scooped him up. Eagerly, Alfred stood and started to walk away, but before taking a few steps he realized something was amiss. Glancing over his shoulder, he found Arthur only staring after him, although he started when Alfred looked back. “Aren’t you coming?”
“Perhaps in a bit. I still need to finish these-”
“Forget the eyebrow freak and let’s go already,” Tony interrupted. Alfred glanced down in surprise and then looked up in time to see Arthur glaring again.
Alfred’s astonishment only grew as Arthur nearly jumped to his feet and marched past them. “On the other hand, those papers could wait a few minutes.”
In Alfred’s arms, Tony was unusually quiet besides an exasperated shake of his head. Bemused but too pleased to worry about it, Alfred happily followed Arthur into the cramped room. Inside, another constable was asleep, curled up in a chair while the television rambled on in the corner. Joining Arthur at a rickety table, the Companion set the laptop onto it before sitting next to the constable. Tony wandered over to the far end of the table and plopped down so he could swing his legs over the side.
On the television, the announcer exclaimed that there was less than five minutes left until another long year wrapped before going on again about the crowd surrounding him. In spite of the fact that his plans hadn’t worked out, Alfred had to smile as he thought about his own long year wrapping up as well. Hell, the last two months alone accounted for more stress and happiness than he’d thought possible.
“That excited for the New Year?”
Alfred blinked and glanced to his side; Arthur watched him with a curious look, but he was smiling. Alfred smiled back. “Mm, yes. But I was thinking that it’s been an interesting time lately.”
Arthur blushed and looked away to Alfred’s bemusement, his hand flying up to his pocket. It was such an odd gesture that Alfred had to stare. “Ah, yes. Speaking of… interesting times lately, I, ah, have something for you.” Alfred perked up, eyes firmly focused onto the hand slipping into the pocket. “I meant to get it for Christmas, but I couldn’t find any until afterward… And—they were on sale too, and I found a good deal—oh, just take it.”
He handed him a long, thin rectangular box wrapped in shiny red paper. Alfred grinned as he snatched the present up, gleefully tearing at the wrapping as he always did with gifts. Underneath, he found a simple black box, but what was inside the box stopped him cold.
It was a simple pair of glasses, not unlike the ones he tried on in the store when he went shopping with Toris once. They were different of course—shiny fire engine red, square cut, and plastic. Gently, he reached into the box and took them out, flipping the frames over into his hands.
“I remembered…” Alfred glanced up in time to see Arthur look away and fidget badly. “I remembered you saying you found a pair once you liked, so I thought ‘why not’?”
Alfred had done more than tell him about finding a pair of glasses; after returning to Arthur, he told him how of all things it was a pair of glasses that made him realize he wanted to come home. Arthur had indeed remembered.
Alfred smiled down at the frames and carefully put them on, settling them until they pinched his nose to anchor on. He beamed. “How do I look?”
Tony glanced back for a moment before turning back to the television. “The other pair was better.”
“They aren’t for you!” Arthur snapped.
Ignoring their arguing, Alfred laughed as he turned back to Arthur. “What do you think of them?”
Arthur paused, staring back at Alfred for a moment before allowing a smile. “It’s a good look for you—red suites you,” he added, glaring at the back of the laptop’s head. Tony ignored them, too focused on the broadcast to care. “So, you like them?” he asked, facing Alfred again with his small smile.
Alfred grinned and nodded. “Yeah! But, um, I don’t have anything to give you back…”
“That doesn’t matter.” Shaking his head, Arthur glanced back the television. “Ah, the countdown’s about to begin.”
Despite his attention being turned away from him, Alfred kept smiling at the constable. This was what he had missed for a month when he left. He missed the smiles and the warmth that Arthur would share with him. Watching him, Alfred hummed quietly in bliss. There was little that could make this moment better.
Except, perhaps, actually managing to kiss Arthur. That’d be nice, he thought with a grin. After a long moment, however, he blinked. Oh, wait, why can’t I? As he sat there thinking it, he suddenly realized that they had just had another perfect moment to confess right then. Panicked, Alfred jerked and straightened. Crap, I’m missing my chance! Think of something!
He went with the first thing that came to mind.
On the screen, people had begun to chant. Arthur blinked and turned to face him again. The crowds just reached thirty as Alfred pressed his lips against the other blond.
First thing to happen was that Alfred shivered—that electric tingling feeling that Alfred had felt once before when he had showered with Arthur came flooding back, even if it was only their lips touching. The second was that Alfred realized that he’d completely forgotten to confess at all and just jumped straight to the kissing bit. Damn, I hope Arthur won’t mind.
Not that he seemed to; at first, Arthur didn’t react at all, but by the time Alfred the televised crowds shout twenty, he felt the faintest of touches on his jaw. Drawing back, Alfred opened his eyes warily, half afraid that he really had blundered into trouble this time.
Instead, he found Arthur staring back with half lidded eyes. Before he could think of something to say, the fingertips on his jaw slipped upward into his hair and pulled him back forward so their lips met again. This time, Arthur kissed him back, his other hand coming up to rest against the other side of the Companion’s face. Distantly, Alfred heard a roar and then sizzling of fireworks, but he shoved the distraction away in favor of the man before him.
A loud click, however, took them both by surprise. Looking up, Alfred spotted Tony with his hands up in the air, having turned around while a sudden flare of his eyes dimmed. Alfred blinked rapidly as his mind slowly refocused. “Did you just take a picture of us?”
“Yes,” the laptop answered before abruptly turning around. “Blackmail.”
Arthur spluttered while Alfred barked a laugh. “Why—why, you-you-!”
“Héderváry’ll probably want a copy.” Behind them, the sleepy eyed constable had finally woken up and was now gazing at them distractedly. “Can you do it again? I didn’t have my phone ready to take a picture.”
Arthur’s shell-shocked spluttering worsened; Alfred gazed at the red faced man as he failed to find a single word to even begin to yell. Amused, Alfred reached out and gave his tie a tug. Flustered, Arthur whipped his head back around. “What?”
Alfred grinned. “Happy New Year, Arthur,” he chirped and pulled him by his tie over for another kiss. Despite the telltale click of another photo being taken, Arthur melted into this kiss after a moment as well.
Pulling back, Arthur failed to glare properly at him. To be fair, it would be quite hard to do with that smile on his face. “Git.”
Alfred grinned. “Love you, too.” He paused and then beamed. “Oh, hey, I did get to say it!”
The constable behind them laughed again. “Héderváry will really like this video, too.”
Flustered, Arthur didn’t know which face to glare at the most. “I—you—oh, shut up, all of you!” he snapped before jumping to his feet. Before Alfred could protest, Arthur yanked him to his feet and began to lead him out of the room.
“If you’re going to make out, do it the restrooms!” his coworker shouted as they left. “There are no cameras in there yet.”
“Don’t forget to come back for me, idiots,” Tony added.
Arthur ignored the shouting, but Alfred grinned as they headed towards the toilets. In his hand, Arthur’s palm nearly burned against his. Smiling, Alfred squeezed the hand in his, earning a look and a new blush from Arthur as he pulled him through the door.
The old year was done, and even if it was in cramped, mostly clean restroom, a whole new one was beginning. With a tug and a grin, they kissed again and Alfred hummed in bliss. A new year was there, and Alfred was more than ready to meet it.