There’s a woman at the bar who targets York, snagging the seat next to him and suggesting he buy her a drink. She’s talented in feeding his ego and making him feel like the center of the universe by leaning in to hear him over the crowd, hand on his arm. She’s lovely and older than him. A few glasses in and he’s showing off and she’s squeezing his biceps to see if they’re real. She asks if the carpet matches the drapes.
Her name is Melissa and he tells her his name is Dakota. She doesn’t seem suspicious - she’s a colony girl - or maybe she just doesn’t care. She urges him to go with her back to her place and he wonders if she’s got something on her mind that she’s trying to burn out. He wonders if he should ask. He doesn’t. He just tells her made-up stories about the places he’s passed through running from the Project as they walk, her hand in his back pocket.
It’s not far to her apartment, and Melissa wastes no time getting him onto her bed. She gets on her knees and unties his boots. She nibbles his toes and he wonders if she’s into feet before she moves her way up to his belt. He has almost let his eyes fall closed when he suddenly remembers Delta, like a breath on his neck and with a shudder like an electric shock to match.
Delta acknowledges York’s awareness with a silent ping and returns to his observations, canting with curiosity toward Melissa as she gazes back at them with sky blue eyes.
“Is something wrong?” She asks, the cute little clip of her local accent landing hard on the G’s and soft on the S’s.
York has to consider that. He’s already half-hard and turned on and he wants it, but he’s ashamed that he forgot about Delta. He’s ashamed that they got this far and exposed the AI to it.
Don’t stop on my account , Delta says, and York is surprised to hear that he’s not being sarcastic. Regard this as a chance for me to study the benefits of human intercourse.
York hasn’t jerked off in ages because he hates pulling Delta. Delta doesn’t like it either but he has always been easygoing, sharp jabs aside. If York were to stop and pull him now, there would be questions. His cover could be blown. It was either full stop or see things through to their conclusion.
York, if I might interject, Delta piped in. Regardless of whether or not you pull me before engaging in coitus, I often witness them in your thoughts after the fact. Your censorship is ultimately in vain.
That doesn’t make me feel better , York projects silently.
In addition , Delta goes on, your stress levels have been high and I believe your tension has been causing your headaches. If my research is correct, this could be good for you. I implore you to proceed.
Melissa tilts her head just a little bit, waiting for his okay to continue. He never expected a one-night stand could be so sweet.
Alright, on one condition , York says. Don’t say anything.
Acknowledged , Delta says, and falls into promised silence.
“Sorry,” York said, and shook his head for show. “It’s nothing.”
“Wanna talk about it?” She asks, running her hands over his thighs. She’s just as hungry for it as he is.
“I definitely don’t.”
Of course, York and Delta make a great team in this, too. It’s slower and sweeter than York anticipated, which heals as much as it hurts. Delta is silent, but draws York’s attention to her teeth clamped on her lip, the way her thigh trembles when his fingers draw in at that angle. He identifies the precise note in her voice that indicates something is not quite right and York realigns himself. He comes inside of her when she tells him to, one hand carding through his hair and the other running her nails down his back.
“Oh my god,” she sighs, falling boneless back onto the bed when he pulls out of her. “You’re incredible.”
He wants to lay down and say sweet things to her. He wants to pretend for an evening that they have something they don’t, but the repulsion to the lie snaps his heart in half. Despair comes onto him like someone drawing a plastic bag over his head. He pulls his clothes back on as fast as he can - tripping getting one leg into his pants - while following Delta’s calm directions to breathe.
Melissa props herself up on her elbows and watches him. She calls him the name he gave, “Dakota?”
“Thank you,” York says, and hopes his voice isn’t as strangled as it feels. He lets himself out. His head spins as he takes the stairs by twos and almost bursts out of a fire exit before Delta turns him around. He finds a real exit not attached to alarms and finally swallows fresh cold air and chokes on it. He coughs and turns to fold himself into the crevice behind the front stairs of Melissa’s condo. He leans his forehead against the cement step and sits there for a long time. He shudders. He breathes.
Delta is patient, but radiates concern. York can imagine him running diagnostics on his body to investigate the cause of his sudden episode. The intimacy is over and Delta stays quiet. York buries his face in his hands. He wipes the tears and the snot away.
“That was a terrible idea,” York groans as he climbs to his feet, his voice sounding like it’s coming through water.
Delta’s half-beat pause is telling, but York is too tired to be curious. I gathered valuable data.
York scoffs. “I knew I could always count on you.”
I live to serve, he says.
York has nothing in his pockets except his credit chit and the keycard to the safe house, so he wipes his hands clean on his shorts like an average slob. He unpacks his emotions in his head as he walks, and the process is precisely as miserable as the term ‘walk of shame’ implies.
“I guess it’s just that… it was all so normal,” York says, alone in the dark between lamp post lights. He talks to Delta, who listens. “Going to a bar, going back to her place, that’s stuff some normal Joe would do, but I can’t do normal anymore. I can pretend, but it’s a lie. Things can never go back to normal. And it felt so… disgusting, not just to lie to her - she didn’t care - but to lie for myself and pretend that I could be normal.”
Delta waits to respond. He’s not processing, he’s allowing York his own time to process. Do you wish things were normal?
York laughs and he wishes the grip of self-pity would loosen from his throat. “Sure, it would be nice,” he admits. “But it’s not going to happen.”
Delta descends into quiet consideration for the rest of the walk back. As soon as they enter the safehouse, York engages every deadbolt on the door and strips, leaving a trail of clothes on the way to the bathroom. He stands in the shower for an hour, but it doesn’t make him feel clean. There’s a thick layer of shame and lies over his skin that won’t slough away. He throws himself into bed with damp hair and eyes open, gazing at the spectre of a streetlight hinted through the blackout curtains over the windows.
York thinks about dating. He thinks about taking girls out to movies, about cuddles on a couch, about pickups after work in his truck. He thinks about pretty girls with strong jaws and tattoos who know what they want. He thinks about kissing and fingernails and coarse pubic hair. He thinks about Carolina, and the other things he’ll never get back.
Query , says Delta.
Do you have regrets?
York blinks into the dark. “Are you asking about you?”
Delta says nothing. York finds it endearing that his partner can keep him humble with sharp jabs and cutting sarcasm, but he falters when processing emotional responses. York is sure Delta has his own emotional baggage, but he is happy to kick it under the bed, never to be seen again, while the world of variables and statistics make sense to him.
York rolls onto his back and folds his hands over his stomach. “I regret not catching on and acting sooner. I regret how some things happened, but I couldn’t control all of it. I understand that.” York closes his eyes as Delta considers this. “But, I’m glad I was able to meet you, and help you, in spite of it all. I wouldn’t have done it differently.”
Thank you .
“I always wondered if you worried about that.”
Delta is silent and York knows that he won’t elaborate with words, so York reaches out with his mind. He opens his feelings to Delta, showing his unpacked sadness for what it is - grief - and the acceptance he has for that loss. He leaves it out like an open palm. York thinks he can feel Delta there, analyzing, accepting and processing the data clinically. He can sense Delta’s confusion.
“It’s complicated,” he says.
Yes , Delta says, and accepts it. He’s learned to accept emotional responses as complicated, contradictory things. It’s something Delta can’t always help with, except to apply logic and clarity to a situation.
Delta responds to York’s offering with his own, showing just what matters, carefully cut and delivered, as is his way. Delta’s emotional landscape is cool and uncomplicated. York feels like he could leave some of his problems with Delta for a while and come back for them later, but a few things live in there, textured like a pearl in the mouth of an oyster. He tries to make them smooth and easy, but he can’t.
If York had an open palm, Delta places one of those pearls in it, dense and uncomfortable. It’s made of everything that Delta feels he took from York, with memories of Carolina, Melissa and North. It’s a warm bed and a secure room, and boisterous lunch hours in the cafeteria with the rest of the freelancers.
“It’s not your fault.” York says, and Delta’s emotions drift away from him, back to where they would be hidden away and compartmentalized. “I still have you.” And he opens his mind to it and lets Delta see that, too. York lets him see how grateful he is to have Delta around, and how much Delta means to him. He lets Delta see York’s desire to protect him.
Delta approaches this offering with caution, but when he gets there he radiates the same feelings back, in spite of his regrets.
“See? It’s fine, right?”
Yes , Delta responds, and this time York can feel his relief and satisfaction.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s okay. We’ll be okay.”
Delta offers York an artificial nod of sorts and returns to his own quiet processing. York keeps his eyes closed. They never say goodnight.