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The Wires That Connect Me To You

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Gavin finds the shop less than two blocks from his apartment. It’s a little thing, at least from the outside, squished away between a Starbucks and an oversized gym. The bricks it’s constructed from are chipped, the paint on the sign peeling, and the glass door doesn’t look like it’s seen a bottle of Windex since the Great Depression. Quite frankly, he wouldn’t be surprised if the whole thing just caved in on itself at any second. He tilts his head slightly as he observes all this, debating the pros and cons of entering the crusty little shop. It’s odd, he thinks absently as he takes a hesitant step forward, that he’s never noticed the place before, especially since it’s along the path he usually takes to work. Then again, it’s possible he just overlooked it, as it is very small, and the faded sign isn’t much of an eye catcher. Hell, it doesn’t even have a creative name or logo, dull and peeling paint aside. 

Video Games. Clearly someone wasn’t innovative enough to think of what to say about the establishment other than what it held in wares. 

The door is only just barely taller than him, and Gavin can’t help but duck when he pulls it open and steps over the threshold, the tiny bell tinkling mere centimeters above his head. Surprisingly, the inside is much more well kept than the out, the shelves and counters almost eerily pristine in comparison. By the poster collection on the walls alone he can tell the shop is rather Indy, since he’s never heard of any of the game titles gracing their glossy surfaces. And that’s saying a lot, considering he works for a company that pays him to play video games for a living. “Ferris Wheel Conundrum,” he reads off the one closest to him, eyes fixed on the creepy little pixilated beings splashed across it that, from what he can tell, have nothing to do with Ferris Wheels whatsoever. 

“You looking for anything in particular?” 

Gavin nearly jumps out of his skin, and whirls around to see a bristle-stashed old man hunched behind the counter that’s tucked away in the corner near the door. “Uh, ah . . . No? Just poppin’ in for a bit to take a quick peek around, is that alright?”

The man waves a wrinkled hand at him, “Fine, fine.”

Gavin nods and quickly maneuvers his way into a skinny, short-shelved row of games. “I’ve never noticed this shop before,” he admits aloud, unwilling to let silence settle again now that he knows the old guy is watching him browse the selection. “Did you just set up?”

“Been here for near fifty years,” the man replies.

“Mmm,” Gavin hums, only semi-interested as he picks through the games on the shelf. It takes a second for his brain to catch up to what he’s acknowledged. “Wait . . . Fifty?” His eyes widen and flicker up to where the old man is smiling at him from behind the counter, “Fifty years?” Mentally, he counts back, trying to figure out if that’s even possible. Even assuming the man had been selling games since the days of Pong, that number is still ridiculous. “Fifty,” he repeats to himself, and decides to stop thinking about it in lieu of the odd menagerie of games on display. The majority of them, unsurprisingly, appear to be homemade, the little covers pinned under the plastic windows in the cases no more than printer ink and copy paper. Gavin flips one of them over to examine the price and whistles appreciatively. “Fiver, that’s a bargain!” He turns it around again to study the front, thoroughly interested now that he knows it’s not a complete rip off. “Wires,” he reads aloud. It seems to be some sort of Animal Crossing or Harvest Moon type rip off, one of those lazy RPGs where you just dick around in a little community and raise pigs or something. And it’s clearly some goob’s after-school project, between the dodgy graphics and misspellings in the summary. Though what it has to do with wires, he has no clue. Gavin shrugs and carries it over to the counter, figuring it’ll be amusing for its homemade glitches and idiocy, if nothing else.

The old man rings it up and bags it for him in a mildly awkward moment of silence while Gavin rocks back on his heels and pretends to be interested in the bizarre posters that he now notices extend onto the ceiling. “You, ah, get a lot of business here?” he inquires while the man threads a new roll of receipt paper into the machine. 

“You’re my second customer this month."

Gavin does a double take and stares at him, stunned yet again by both the strange reply and the cheery way in which it’s delivered. He pulls out his cell and gives it a quick glance to confirm that it is in fact the 21st of the month, which makes the revelation that much more befuddling. “That’s unfortunate,” he says as mildly as possible. How does a place like this stay in business for so long with so few customers? Not to mention the out of the way collection of games. 

“It’s the busiest I’ve been awhile,” the old man practically chirps, and now Gavin’s beginning to become seriously unnerved. “Only people who need this store can find it, so twice in the same month is quite a gift!”

“ . . . Right . . .” Gavin says, and he warily accepts the bag and receipt that are being extended towards him. “Well, I’m running a bit late for work, so I’ll just be going . . .”

The man waves as Gavin trips over himself in his haste to exit the weird shop with a stuttered, “G-goodbye!” tossed over his shoulder before he races out onto the street. He doesn’t look back until he’s bolted past the gym and around the corner, hands on his knees and his heart rabbiting in his chest. “I think I just exited the Twilight Zone!” he gasps to himself once he finds his breath again. 

He lifts the bagged game up to eyelevel and squints at it, “This is going to lead me into some creepypasta-type madness, isn’t it.” 

The game sits in a drawer of his work desk for a few days, untouched and still wrapped in its thin bag. A few times, Gavin reaches in there to grab something else and his fingers brush against it, just light enough of a touch that it sends nervous, involuntary shivers up his arm. Part of him regrets buying it, even if it was only five dollars, the conversation with the old man had creeped him out too much to even think about playing it. He’d half expected to find that the shop had disappeared the next time he’d passed the space between the Starbucks and gym, but it was still sitting there, further proving that Gavin’s suspicions are completely unfounded. 

Eventually, though, the thing begins to call to him. Not literally, obviously, because that would have sent Gavin screaming in two seconds flat, just . . . Metaphorically. It gathers dust in his drawer for a week and a half, looking pathetic and lonely, and Gavin has to admit there isn’t much that’s sadder than an unopened, unplayed video game. But he’s still loathe to let it into his house, just in case it is some glitchy piece of creepypasta bait. Better to let it mess up the work computers than one of his own. 

He waits until the rest of the crew have left the Achievement Hunter office, the vacant chairs and desks setting a nice, eerie mood when he finally pops open the case. The disk inside is just as shoddy as he expected, the picture on its surface no better quality than a cheap Kinkos’ print. Sighing, he spins it into the computer’s open drive and props his feet up on the ownerless chair to his left. “At least if I get murdered by a game they’ll find my body since I’m at the office,” he decides while the loading bar hums into life on the screen. Pulling the other chair closer so he can properly stretch out between them, he takes a moment to glance about the office and contemplate who would be the most likely to find his body should Slender Man or something devour him through the game. “I hope it’s not messy. There’d be complaints.”  He pulls the chair closer with his heels hooked into the armrests, rolling it away from the empty desk to nudge against his own for a proper lazy stretch.  They should really just give him this chair permanently, it got more use as a footstool than it got for a seat for the occasional and varied guest sixth member of the team. For awhile Gavin had thought they’d stick some other poor soul in the cramped room with Geoff, Jack, Ray, Ryan (who for some god unknown reason preferred his setup halfway across the building, something about the rest of them being too noisy), and himself, but the desk remained a vacant eyesore. 

The computer gives a little chime and Gavin switches his attention back to it, one eyebrow rising as he notices the start menu is covered in flowers and crisscrossed wires that have zigzagging blue bolts of electricity spiking out from them. “Okay then . . . At least that sort of has to do with the title?” He waves his curser over the flashing NEW GAME icon a few times before giving in and clicking on it. 

ENTER NAME _

GAVINOFREE he types in without pause, letting it blink on the screen for a moment before hitting the backspace a few times. GAVIN. No need to get fancy, he supposes, especially since it’s very likely he’ll quit not long after he starts. Thus far, the game isn’t very impressive.

It takes far too long for the terrible 8-bit background music to start up, and even longer for the screen to go from black to overly-vibrant color. And once again, it seems to be flower covered. Gavin moves the mouse around, examining the posy-speckled world on his monitor. Unlike the start menu, there are no title-referenced wires to be seen anywhere. It appears, at least thus far, to be fairly ordinary. Ordinary grass, ordinary trees, ordinary flowers,  ordinary little virtual suburb. “What am I supposed to do with this?” he muses as no tutorial or directions of any kind appears. “Just faff about? What’s the point of that?”

He taps at the arrow keys and moves his little player character down the street and lets his headphones slide from over his head to around the back of his neck so the music plays on, muffled and distant while he lazily explores. There’s an  NPC mowing his lawn in front of one of the little whitewashed houses, and Gavin lets out a sigh of relief when he spots him before moving on. It would have been extremely creepy if he was the only character in the game. The suburbs apparently consist of only one street, and at the end of them Gavin finds himself blinking at an open field. He pans the view around with his mouse and takes note of the blurred wooden fence in the distance, most likely a bumper for the edge of the game world’s parameters. Between there and where he stands, though, is an assortment of playground equipment and park benches. He eyes the little pixel-encrusted children on one of the swingsets for a moment before noticing the NPC sitting on the nearest bench with what appears to be some sort of dog at its feet. Or a dingo. Gavin’s gonna go with dingo, because there’s nothing resembling Man’s Best Friend in those soulless square eyes. 

He approaches the bench from behind, smashing the enter key as he goes, unsure of how close he has to be to a NPC to engage in conversation. After standing over the NPC’s shoulder for nearly thirty seconds of enter key abuse, it finally turns to look at him. Gavin thanks the bored college kids who probably made this game that the graphics don’t make the NPC’s head do a complete 180, because that would just be too much for him.

A little dialogue window appears at the bottom of the screen, the name MICHAEL flashing in the right corner for a moment before the text starts to appear.

MICHAEL: No one’s ever just walked up to me before_

An empty box appears shortly afterwards, the cursor waiting impatiently until Gavin realizes he’s supposed to type a reply. “Weird,” he mumbles to himself as he types out his response. “I thought it would just give me an answer options list.”

GAVIN: That’s not a surprise_

“You live in a video game,” Gavin tells the NPC on the screen, “Course no one is gonna walk up to you. You’re all on preprogrammed loops.”

MICHAEL: Wow you’re fucking rude_

Gavin gapes at the screen for a stunned heartbeat before he types again.

GAVIN: That’s an impressive vocabulary you’ve got there_

MICHAEL: Obviously. Now what do you want?_

“A tutorial,” Gavin mutters. “Directions. Something to while the time away. Aren’t you supposed to give me a mission or something’?”

GAVIN: What am I supposed to be doing here?_

MICHAEL: The fuck? Why are you asking me? You want me to play god or some shit for you? Go pick some fucking flowers, I don’t care_

The NPC, Michael, gets up from the bench and starts to walk away, much to Gavin’s bemusement. He follows without hesitation.

GAVIN: No, I mean, what’s the point of this place? Do I build a house? Make a family? Farm some land?_

Michael doesn’t reply, his pace picking up so that the NPC is all but racing away from him now. 

GAVIN: Oi! You pleb! I’m trying to sort this thing out here!_

They’re back in the suburbs by this time with quite a bit of ground between them as Gavin struggles to make his PC pick up the pace. “Space? No, that’s jump. How the hell do you run in this game? I’m just doing a lazy jog at this rate.” He punches furiously at the arrow keys as Michael darts up a lawn, still a ways ahead of him, and disappears inside one of the dozen or so houses on the street. Gavin crashes into the door when it shuts behind the NPC. “Didn’t anyone ever teach your pixilated bum any manners!” he snaps at the screen. He directs his character around the side of the house towards the back door, only a little shocked when he finds the Michael NPC looking out at him through the window above the doorknob. 

GAVIN: You’re terribly rude_

MICHAEL: This isn’t some Zelda shit, asshole, I’m not letting you in here to smash my pots and stuff. I worked hard for those_

Gavin barks out a laugh, “That’s some meta right there, that is.”

GAVIN: You know what Zelda is?_

If it was possible for a minimalized lump of pixels to have proper facial expressions, Gavin would swear Michael looked annoyed by the question.

MICHAEL: Do I look like a fucking idiot? Ever three year old and their grandma knows what Legend of Zelda is_

GAVIN: Well I’m not going to mess up your pots, if you even have any. So let me in, I’m bored_

MICHAEL: Oh, yeah, okay. I’m really gonna let some STRANGER into my house because he’s bored. Think again, numbnuts. And of course I have pots, two of them. One for flowers and one for smashing against the heads of fucktard idiots who won’t leave me alone_

GAVIN: I’m sure your pots are top. If I pick you flowers for your pots will you let me in?

MICHAEL: No. Go to your own fucking house_

GAVIN: Don’t have one_

That seems to surprise the NPC somehow, if the long pause before he replies is anything to go by. Or perhaps the game is just lagging.

MICHAEL: Go help the old man with his lawn mowing and he’ll give you some cash, use the cash to buy a house_

GAVIN: That must be some fantastic lawn mowing to make enough to buy a house_

If Michael were a real person, Gavin is sure he’d be rolling his eyes.

MICHAEL: Get the fuck off my property before I get my head-smashing pot_

While this doesn’t seem like the sort of game where you can die, which Gavin assumes by the lack of any sort of health bar, he’s not quite willing to test that theory. Getting killed by your virtual neighbors during your first hour of playing doesn’t seem like the best way to start out. “Right, mow the lawn, buy a house . . . Is there a realtor I have to go to for that? Oh, and flowers. Pick some flowers and throw them on Michael’s stoop for his pots.” He decides that last bit is absolutely essential, if only to test out what will happen if he pisses an NPC off within the game. 

Mowing the old man’s lawn doesn’t pay as well as Michael made it out to, Gavin discovers, and it takes him three days of after-shift playing to get enough money to purchase the smallest house on the street. He supposes if he took the game home he could have gotten it all done a lot faster, but that would take effort, something which he’s currently lacking. Plus, there doesn’t seem to be much of a point to the game, so why bother?

It turns out there is a realtor, and like everyone else in the game she conveniently lives right down the street. “Only two jobs in this town,” Gavin says to himself  in the empty silence of the office after he pays her for the house. “Lawn care, and real estate.” He wonders how the rest of his virtual neighbors make a living, let alone feed the squawking children that seem to permanently live at the playground. “Feral children,” he surmises as he passes the field to get to his new, conveniently already furnished house.

He wanders around the lifeless rooms for awhile before meandering outside again, making a beeline for  playground. Even from a distance, he can spot the blurry figure of Michael sitting on the bench again, exactly where he’s been every time Gavin pops the disk into the computer. 

MICHAEL: Ugh, you again_

Gavin lifts his hand from the arrow keys, startled to be spoken to first. The NPC’s head tilts towards him, once again managing to look annoyed with the cluster of pixels it uses for a face. 

MICHAEL: Don’t you have something better to do?_

GAVIN: Clearly not. I bought a house, now I’m bored again_

MICHAEL: That’s really not my problem_

“It really is,” Gavin says aloud, “NPCs are supposed to help direct players. I’ve got a house, now what?”

GAVIN: Well what do you do around here?_

MICHAEL: Be bored and sleep deprived. Watch the playground kids glitch the fuck out every three minutes_

Gavin turns his viewpoint with the mouse towards where the children are climbing up and down the blocky playground equipment. And sure enough, after a moment or two they started glitching, entire sections of pixels in their limbs shorting out and reappearing as dismembered arms and legs on other parts of the equipment. He turns his view back to Michael, suddenly wary.

GAVIN: You don’t glitch too, do you?_

MICHAEL: It’s a game, you dingus, and a cheap-ass one at that. Everything here glitches at some point, that’s half the fun. Lost half my face for a day once, that was cool_

Gaping at the screen, Gavin types.

GAVIN: You have no concept of the fourth wall_

MICHAEL: Why should I? Fuck the fourth wall_

GAVIN: You’re breaking the game-space continuum!_

MICHAEL: And you’re not? Way to be a fucking hypocrite_

Gavin puts his head in his hands, breathing out slowly through his nose. This is ridiculous, an NPC acknowledging what he is? It’s unheard of! “I don’t know whether I should be amazed or just plain scared,” he says into his palms. Peeking out between his fingers, he sees that Michael is still talking.

MICHAEL: You gonna hang around here like a useless piece of cheese all day or what? You have the house, now go live in it and quit bothering me. I was having a peaceful time watching kids lose their limbs_

He turns away from Gavin, the dialogue window fading from the screen as he does so. Gavin stares at the monitor from between his fingers, unsure of how to react. The lack of action on his part seems to trigger another string of curses from the NPC, however.

MICHAEL: Jesus fuck, don’t just stand there! Do you know how creepy that is? It’s seriously fucking creepy. What, am I supposed to help you or some bullshit like that? Guide you to find your purpose in life?_

“That would be good,” Gavin says, though he makes no move to reply in the game.

MICHAEL: I fucking hate mentoring plots, do you know that? Hate them_

“Too bad, you’re probably programmed to follow them.” Gavin finally returns his hands to the keyboard, tapping out a stiff reply.

GAVIN: If you don’t show me what to do I’ll just keep bothering you_

“Or give up on the game,” he adds to himself. “Waste of a fiver.” There’s something interesting about the cheap disk, though, he has to admit. The gameplay is complete rubbish, and the graphics are shoddy, but the characters, at least this one, are intriguing. Gavin hasn’t conversed much with anyone else in the game so far, keeping his interactions with them short and to the point because they don’t respond the way Michael does, they don’t get riled up, even if he plugs in the occasional insult. The realtor did patronize him for foul language once, however he’s fairly sure that calling someone a donut isn’t traditionally considered to be a very distasteful insult. 

MICHAEL: So if I help, you’ll fuck off?_

“No,” Gavin says.

GAVIN: Maybe_

What a NPC doesn’t know won’t hurt him. Besides, Michael is, quite literally, the only interesting feature of the game thus far. In a kind of scary, slightly intriguing sort of way. When Michael tips his head back to look at Gavin’s PC just then, he once more manages to look pissed off. Must be the default expression, Gavin decides, because there’s no way the shoddy coding in this game could manage something as complex as reflecting real emotion on a game character’s face. “NPC,” Gavin reminds himself, “Nothing real about them.”

MICHAEL: You are completely incapable of providing a straight-up answer, aren’t you, dickweed_

GAVIN: And you’re incapable of being articulate without being rude_

Michael raises a hand at him.

MICHAEL: If I had opposable fingers I’d be flipping you off right now_

GAVIN: Flipping . . . What’s it called? Flipping the bird? Flicking the bean?_

MICHAEL: Flicking the - NO! Those have completely different meanings! God, where the fuck did you grow up? You’re like the god damn town fool! People should be lining up in the streets to throw tomatoes at you! Look, here is the line, I’m forming it right now, first in line, step right the fuck up to brain Gavin with tomatoes.

GAVIN: You don’t got any tomatoes on you_

MICHAEL: No, but I have fists_

Letting out a dismayed little sound, Gavin jams his fingers into the arrow keys and books his character across the screen and away, sprinting for his newly purchased house. 

GAVIN: Michael! No! I don’t know what happens if you die in this game, you can’t hit me!_

MICHAEL: Don’t be a pussy, you can’t die_

And then Michael clocks him one upside the head, knocking Gavin’s player character over into what, even with shit graphics, is a pretty epic display of eating the ground face first. He whines at the screen, “Death aside, that’s still mean! Lookit! My little guy’s clothes are all mucked up now!” 

GAVIN: You know what, I’ll ask someone else for help! You’re too much of a dick!

MICHAEL: Yeah, okay, good fucking luck with that, the rest of this town is just as useless as you are_

Getting mad at a video game is stupid, Gavin knows this. It’s completely and utterly pointless. But he does it anyways, pressing the escape key and saving his progress before jamming a finger into the power button of is computer. “Sod off,” he mutters to the now black screen. He should be used to it, really, his coworkers tease him like that all the time. There’s something different about having it come from a conglomerate of pixels though. The words don’t come off with the same light, rib-elbowing tone they would in real life, and instead glare at him where they’re typed out across the screen, cold and lifeless and entirely, intentionally hurtful.

Because little pixilated bits of code aren’t conscious of emotions, let alone how to wield their words in a way that won’t bruise.

Gavin sighs and rests his head in his hands, slowly drawing his palms up his face until he can curl his fingers into his hair, tight and frustrated. He sucks in a shaky, soothing breath, reminding himself that it’s just a game before he pops the disk out, places it back in the case, and packs up for the night.

OoOoOoOoOoO

It’s nearly three whole days before Gavin touches Wires again, only doing so when Ray picks it out of the stack of games next to his computer with a confused frown. “This some Indy sort of crap, Vav?” he asks, spinning around in his chair when Gavin makes a half-hearted attempt to get it back. “Looks boring.” He flips it over to examine the back, “Also, why the hell are there flowers all over it when it’s called Wires? Not that I’m complaining about flowers, I just don’t understand.”

“I’ve yet to figure that out,” Gavin says after another weak attempt to snag the game from Ray, who simply but effectively tilts back in his seat and holds it over his head. “And I probably never will because I’m done with it.”

Ray flips the game case over again to study the cover of it, “Why? Is it boring? I’ll take it off your hands if it is.”

Gavin opens his mouth to tell him to go right ahead and stops before the words can form. No, something needles at his brain, you can’t give up on it before you even figure out what the point of the thing is. “Uh . . . No, that’s . . . I might pick it up again later, you know? Just . . . Not right now . . .” 

“Got something interesting in it?” Ray asks, one eyebrow raised. “Cool glitches or nakedness?”

“Yeah, the nude scenes look fantastic with those little blocky pixel bodies,” Gavin snorts. This time when he reaches for it, he actually manages to snatch the game back. He tosses it into the pile on his desk before Ray can protest. “Don’t you have some work to do?”

“Don’t you have some work to do?” Ray parrots. 

A gruff cough sounds behind them informs the pair that they both have some work to do, and they hastily return to staring at their screens, wary of Geoff’s wrath. That hardly stops Ray from trying to sneak his arm across the empty desk between them and steal the game back, but Gavin’s pretty adept by now at hitting the straying hand before it can get too close without even looking up from his monitor. 

The game is still sitting on the top of the stack when everyone begins to clock out for the night, slightly askew from Ray’s persistent attempts at taking it. Gavin eyes it while he waits for his video to render, apprehensive about giving it another go. “S’just a stupid game,” he says to the vacant chairs around him. “And if I don’t at least try to play it it’d sorta be a waste of money now wouldn’t it.” And that’s that. His project now fully rendered and ready to go for the next morning, he shuts down the rest of the programs, flicks the disk into the drive, and fires it up. 

As usual, Michael is in the same spot he always is when the game starts, sitting on the bench in front of the playground. Gavin spots him from a distance and immediately directs his character the other way. The game, he figures, will probably be a lot more pleasant to play if he doesn’t interact with the Michael NPC at all. And if he doesn’t talk to Michael, Michael won’t talk to him, and he can go about his merry way and mow lawns or whatever the hell he’s supposed to be doing. 

Oh, wait, yeah. He has no idea what he’s supposed to be doing. He turns his PC around and scans the area for any other signs of digital life before spotting the NPC he bought the house from. “Perfect,” he crows, holding the forward arrow key down until he’s standing right in front of her.

GAVIN: What am I supposed to do now that I’ve got a house?_

MRS. NANCY RELATOR: Would you like to buy some property?_

GAVIN: No, I just said I already got some_

MRS. NANCY RELATOR: We have some great homes for sale on the other end of the street_

GAVIN: Yes, I know, I live there_

MRS. NANCY RELATOR: They’re quaint little houses with enough room for a growing family_

GAVIN: That’s a bit of an oxymoron_

MRS. NANCY RELATOR: There’s no need for that sort of language, sir_

Gavin blows out heavily through his nose, “You’re completely daft, aren’t you? Is this some sort of trigger word game? Do I have to know the right way to ask?”

GAVIN: What is the point of this game?_

MRS. NANCY RELATOR: Yes, I can point you in the right direction_

GAVIN: What is the point of Wires?_

MRS. NANCY RELATOR: No, the house comes with all utilities intact. Will that be cash or card?_

“Oh my god.” He steers his character away from her without bothering to wrap up the nonsensical conversation. The old man with the lawn mower isn’t any help either, his replies the same as Nancy’s, only a little gruffer and ruder when Gavin types in anything even slightly resembling a swear, which for some reason includes the word donut. “No wonder Michael hangs out at the park,” he gripes when the old man tosses out another answer that doesn’t quite match up to Gavin’s question. “The rest of you are very basically programmed in comparison, and have the vocabulary and mentality of an elderly, church-going grandmother.” He’s fully prepared to give up at this point, put off by the resistance and his own stubbornness. Clearly, he’s supposed to be interacting with Michael, who is the only NPC in the area who can at least attempt to explain what the game is about, not to mention is apparently much more lovingly programmed than the others.

Gavin digs his heels into the carpet at the thought of approaching Michael again. Something about it niggles at him more than it should, begging him to pay attention, but he waves it aside. He won’t go to Michael, he’d rather quit the game. 

His hand hovers near the eject button, and he plans to pop the game out before saving, just so he can deny Michael the satisfaction of knowing he’d been playing and had been chickening out. If he doesn’t save, Michael won’t remember, and-

No, wait, that’s not right at all. “NPC,” he reprimands himself aloud yet again. The data might get wiped, but either way Michael won’t actually remember anything, he’ll just have a set of codes to indicate what Gavin had or hadn’t done, and command prompts with which to access various responses. Various rude responses. And Gavin will get chewed out regardless of whether or not he saves. 

One exasperated roll of the eyes later, Gavin directs his character towards the park, swearing to himself that he won’t get worked up and/or offended by some NPC’s backtalk. 

Michael’s still on the bench when he approaches, the odd dingo-dog sitting at his feet where it had been during their first meeting. It wanders off when Gavin stops just a few feet shy of the bench. 

GAVIN: Is that your dog?_

MICHAEL: No, he just bums around here now and then. Probably on a loop_

GAVIN: Sorry I disappeared on you before_

MICHAEL: No biggie, just figured you glitched out of existence like the rest of them_

Something about that nonchalant statement makes Gavin’s blood run cold.

GAVIN: The rest of the neighborhood?_

MICHAEL: Yep, anyone who didn’t have a plot-given purpose. That’s why most of the other stuff around here is on a fucking loop. The kids, the dog, etc. Without the other NPCs to interact with they got stuck_

He waves a hand towards where the children climb over the playground, back and forth, back and forth over and over again. Well that’s creepy.

MICHAEL: Why else would I hang around here so often? I didn’t wanna quit the place yet_

“No, it’s because the bench is your programmed wait spot” Deciding to switch tactics before he loses his thin veil of self control and says something dumb, Gavin changes the subject.

GAVIN: Are you still going to help me?

Michael turns away from where he’s watching the children, and for the first time Gavin manages to get a full look at his character design. Usually, he keeps his gaze slightly to the side, allowing for only a half or three-quarters perspective from Gavin’s standpoint. The NPC has a sock cap, one of those awful ones with the a bill, pulled down over his forehead, covering most of his auburn, possibly curly hair (he really can’t tell since, again, it’s covered with a hat), and a pair of glasses perched on his nose that appear to be lacking temples. “Game physics,” Gavin says under his breath. 

MICHAEL: Well first we’ll have to customize you, you’ve got the same default look all the other dumbasses here used to_

Gavin squints at his own character who’s currently sporting a plain white shirt and pair of jeans. “It’s a bit late in the game for customizing, in’it?” Plus, after he takes a closer look at the mop-ish hair the character is sporting, he has to admit it’s oddly accurate.

MICHAEL: We’ll just go steal shit from the other houses that the NPCs left behind when they fucked off. Can’t do much about the hair though, since the hairstylist isn’t here anymore_

GAVIN: I like the hair, it’s top_

He spins his avatar around the center of the screen so Michael can admire the pixeled mess on his head. 

MICHAEL: Top? What the fuck does that even mean? Top of what? Top of your head? Of course it’s on the top of your head dingus!_

Aaaannddd there we go. The rage and the cussing. Gavin rests his chin his hand as Michael continues to rant, lazily reading the words that tick out on the screen. “I’ll go get a coke while you’re at it,” he tells the little NPC, “let you cool down for a bit.” Except when he comes back Michael is still screaming, still spewing out elaborate, admittedly creative curses that Gavin can’t help but quirk a smile at. He picks out “Swiss fucking cheese” from amidst lot of them and jots it down on a sticky note next to his keyboard for future reference. 

GAVIN: You know, I’m starting to find you amusing_

MICHAEL: Oh, that’s fucking great. Just what I need, a rogue nincompoop following me around_

GAVIN: Let’s skip the customizing for now, yeah? I really don’t care, especially if it’s not necessary_

MICHAEL: Your face isn’t necessary_

Gavin actually snorts aloud at that one.

GAVIN: What else is there to do around here? Mining? Farming? Killing zombies?

MICHAEL: This isn’t Minecraft, idiot_

GAVIN: Clearly. It’s Wires, and yet there are no wires to be seen_

It’s still feels weird to mention the game to an NPC, and to acknowledge that said NPC knows they’re a part of the game. “Maybe he’s a companion character?” Gavin wonders. “Though I don’t see the point if there are no adventures to be had.” He stalls as he realizes Michael has yet to reply to the previous remark. 

GAVIN: You okay there, mate? Do you need the red pill?

MICHAEL: Is that a Matrix reference? And no, I don’t. It’s just a bit weird to talk about the game, I guess_

GAVIN: Well we could . . . Not do that_

MICHAEL: Fine by me_ 

“Yeah, must be a bit wonky to have to talk about how your whole world and life is a lie,” Gavin says aloud. “Then again . . .” He leans in close to the screen, “You’re an NPC and you’re not supposed to have emotions or feel wonky at all.”

MICHAEL: Anyways, we got shit to do. If you won’t customize the next thing to do is go into the town_

“Like figure out if you’re an AI system and will one day evolve into Skynet?” Gavin taps the monitor. “Seriously, you’re starting to freak me out a tad. But at least you have some semblance of properly coded character personality, unlike the rest of the NPCs in here.” Spinning his seat to the left, he hooks and ankle into the handle of the unused rollaway chair and pulls it close to prop his feet up on, pulling the keyboard down into his lap. Might as well be comfortable since he has the room.

GAVIN: There’s a town? A different town from the one we’re in?_

MICHAEL: No you stupid fuck, this is the neighborhood. The town starts after you pass the street corner on the other side. Why the hell don’t you know this shit? You live here_

GAVIN: Only for a bit though, haven’t I. I’m the new kid, be nice and show me around_

Michael waves a hand at him in what Gavin assumes is now a gesture for flipping him off, despite the lack of opposable fingers. With barely a pause, Michael lowers the hand and begins to make his way down the street, Gavin directing his character to trail obnoxiously close behind.

MICHAEL: Quit riding me, asshole, walk beside. Walk beside! Do you have some sort of weird mission in life just to fuck with me!?_

“Yes,” Gavin smirks. “If there were lava in this game I would have already burnt your house down.”

GAVIN: Is there a way to vandalize things in this game? Break windows, light things on fire?

MICHAEL: No. And if you even try to light anything of mine on fire I’m going to shove you into a toilet and attempt to flush you back to the fucking alien planet from whence you came_

Grinning, Gavin whispers to himself, “Didn’t say no to the window breaking.”

MICHAEL: Don’t break my god damn windows either_

Immediately, Gavin sits up a little straighter, head whipping around as if he expects to see some sort of real-life Michael listening in. He taps his mic and double checks that it’s still unplugged. “How did he . . . I’m not hooked up to anything that should transfer sound, was that just a coincidence? That’s really scary.” He turns back to the game, slowly sinking into his chair again and balancing the keyboard a little further up on his chest, knees tucked up more than they were previously. “You’re freakin’ me out, Michael. You’re seriously freaking me out.”

The town, it turns out, is exactly where Michael says it is, just past end of the street, and once he goes through the seemingly infinite horizon line he’d been deceived by before, it materializes in front of them. Unsurprisingly, it’s about the same size as the neighborhood, running perpendicular to it and consisting of a handful of little shops on either side. 

MICHAEL: Not much, but it does the job_

GAVIN: If there are shops here, why did you want to knick other people’s stuff?_

MICHAEL: Because it makes life more interesting_

Something about that statement makes Gavin’s stomach sink, and he’s torn between unease and sympathy. A NPC referring to its existence as life is definitely bizarre, but on the other hand it’s equally depressing. “S’not much of a life you’ve got there, is it,” Gavin says to the screen, unwilling to correct Michael flat out. Lack of feelings or not, it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that should be said, and right now he has no reason to be that cruel. “That’s pretty sad.”

Michael’s been gesturing around while Gavin talks to himself, pointing out the sights as he goes. 

MICHAEL: We’ve got an ice cream parlor, some sort of Old Navy type crapola with clothes and shit, bookstore, even though you can’t read the books, groceries, vehicular devices_

GAVIN: What are vehicular devices?_

MICHAEL: Bikes and cars and junk, things you use to get places. Now shut the hell up and let me finish. Furniture and other decorative whatevers, shady pet shop that has a lot of snakes in it, toy store, and some Italian looking restaurant thing, that’s about it. Sorry it’s boring, but you get what you get_

Again, something tugs at Gavin. The more Michael talks, the more Gavin wonders if it’s possible for NPCs to become sentient. Then again, it’s highly possible he’s just reading into it too much, taking pity on Michael just because the words, when he reads them in his head, sound almost sad. “No way,” he says, attempting to kick himself back into reality before his mind dwells on that thought for too long. “It’s just his programmed dialogue.” Even so, he thinks, unable to stop himself, it’s not like he has anything better to do right now, might as well shed a little light into this not-actually-sad NPC’s life for awhile.

But when he looks up, Michael is gone, and the little street-turned town is empty aside from himself. “Well that’s creepy,” Gavin says. He quickly saves and pops the game out, placing it back on top of the stack before gathering up his things. There’s really not much of a point of playing it if Michael’s not going to walk him through it, he can shop at dreary old corner stores anywhere, so wasting time doing it in a video game is rather silly. Especially since it’s a game that seems to specialize in misleading titles and incoherent plotlines.

That night, Gavin takes a moment to google Wires, completely unsurprised when nothing comes up. It’s a little disappointing all the same.

OoOoOoOoOoO

Ray has the game in his hands by the time Gavin arrives at work. “I swear to god,” he says, looking up at Gavin when he strolls in, “I have seen this thing before somewhere, or heard about, or something. And it’s bugging the hell out of me that I can’t remember where.”

Gavin rolls his eyes, “You saw it on my desk last week.”

“No, I mean before that. I’ve seen it. Maybe on Youtube or something. What store did you find it at?”

“Video Games store,” Gavin yawns as he flops down into his chair. He glances over when he notices Ray giving him a quizzical look. “That’s what it was called. Video Games. I’m not making things up.”

Ray narrows his eyes at the game, “Well that’s suspicious.”

“Obviously. Now give it back.”

Gavin lazily reaches for it and Ray snaps his hand back, too fast for Gavin to compete with. “I just want to test run it, dude. Indy games are sweet.”

Leaning over the side of his chair as far as he can, Gavin replies with a flat, unamused “No.” Ray holds it over his head, forcing Gavin to stretch even further in his efforts to get the game back. Which is exactly the moment Jack walks in, assesses the situation, and shoves a toe under Gavin’s already precariously tilting chair, and sends Gavin tumbling to the ground with a crash.

Ray chokes on a laugh, game forgotten as Gavin sputters from his new position on the floor. “Oh - oh my god,” Ray wheezes, “Your face right before you ate carpet was just - it was pure terror, man. It was awesome.” 

Gavin pushes himself into a sitting position and rubs at his nose that he, of course, basically landed on. “That hurt!”

“No shit,” Ray cackles. He wheels his chair back when Gavin scrambles up, prepared for whatever retaliation  the other man will throw out, only realizing Gavin’s reaching for the game when it’s too late. “Hey! Hey! I was looking at that!”

“Too bad, it’s mine,” Gavin sticks out his tongue. When Ray makes as if to try and take it back he promptly and, without giving it more than a second’s thought, stuffs it down his pants.

Ray growls, “Don’t test me.”

“Don’t mess with my game.” He thinks Ray might actually go for it, but after a pause he seems to think better of it, and spins himself back around to face his monitor again. 

Later, the game is safely returned to its proper place on top of the stack, and remains untouched, fortified with Ray’s wariness of anything that has come into that close of contact with his friend’s junk. “I can’t believe you pulled that,” he says later at lunch. “Stuffing it down your pants? It’s like you’re five.”

“Kept your grubby mitts off it, didn’t it?” Gavin laughs. 

Ray snorts in agreement. “That aside, didn’t you say earlier that it was a piece of crap? Why are you so protective of it if it’s worthless?”

The way he cocks his head and pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose is a little too serious for Gavin’s liking. “Er, no reason. I just want to play it without interference and stuff, I guess.”

“I won’t overwrite your saves, dude.”

“No, like . . . Like I don’t want anyone else to play it. Period.”

“Oh?” Ray folds his hands under his chin. “Go on.”

Gavin rubs a hand over the back of his neck, “I can’t really . . . Explain.” Mostly because it would make him come off more than a little mental. If he was to explain that he’s scared the game will glitch if someone else plays it, that it might somehow wipe away whatever faulty coding has given a NPC a realistic personality and a possible, not entirely improbable amount of sentience would definitely land him in the loony bin. Or worse, seeing someone else play it and interact with Michael, only to discover that he could fail to respond in the same way scares the ever loving fuck out of him, honestly. Thus far, Wires is well on its way to being creepypasta fodder, and while it freaks Gavin out to no end, it also fascinates him.

Ray studies him over the rim of his glasses, “I had a hacked Pokemon game once.” Gavin blinks, bewildered by the very sudden change of subject. “It was pretty awesome, not quite Lost Silver level hacking and stuff, but cool all the same with its weird typos and glitch blob messes. Shout out good ol’ MissingNo. I never let anyone else touch the thing, ever, and when it eventually stopped working I was devastated. If this Wires is anything like that, I get it man. Some glitches you want to keep to yourself, it makes them seem more magical.”

“Not so sure if it’s magical,” Gavin says, “More like borderline freaky with a dose of vague amusement.”

“But it is an experience,” Ray points out. “Though it’s annoying to get a glitcher game, it’s also amazing, because there’s no guarantee the glitches you witness will ever occur again, and so it ends up being sort of private, something to witness once before it’s over, and you covet that because you’re lucky enough to be the only one who will ever see it.” 

The speech sticks in Gavin’s head long after lunchtime, pinned there by Ray’s understanding smile and the slowly growing pit of fear in his chest when he remembers how he’d ended the game the night before, with Michael having disappeared from the area. He taps his foot for the rest of the afternoon, impatient as he finishes his work and waits for the rest of the Achievement Hunter team to leave for the night. Ray’s the last one out, Gavin only noticing his departure when he ruffles his hair on his way to the door. As soon as it shuts behind him, Gavin pops the disk into his computer.

The sigh of relief he lets out when the game loads and he spots Michael sitting on the park bench, right where he always is, releases all the tension from his muscles. He sinks down into his seat, one leg moving to catch the always-empty chair to his left to rest his feet in. Before he can make his way over to Michael, however, the NPC gets up and begins to approach him. “That’s new,” Gavin remarks, and by then Michael’s already firing out his creative mess of insults even before they’re face to face.

MICHAEL: What the hell happened to you yesterday, you little assholey-creep_

“Assholey-creep . . .” Gavin mouths, unsure whether to laugh or be offended.

GAVIN: What do you mean? You’re the one that up and vanished on me and left me all alone_

MICHAEL: No. You were right next to me and YOU vanished. I thought you glitch ditched for sure_

GAVIN: Well I didn’t_

MICHAEL: That hardly excuses the fucking stress having a guy dick out on me caused_

GAVIN: . . . Worried about me, Michael?_

MICHAEL: Fuck no. I was just concerned that I’d be bored again if you left. But now that I see you still exist, I’m good. You can continue to fuck off into the sunset if you want, kiss my ass and goodbye_

GAVIN: There is no sunset here_

MICHAEL: YOU FUCKING KNOW WHAT I MEAN ASSHAT_

Putting a hand to his mouth, Gavin can’t help but snicker. “Made ya capslock,” he grins to himself, “I’m going to count that as an achievement.” He brushes a finger over the arrow keys, directing his character to face in the general direction of the town. 

GAVIN: Are we gonna go explore the sights today or what?_

MICHAEL: You can go, I’m staying here, I’ve done my job. You know where the shit is now you can get out of my hair_

GAVIN: Aw, Michael, I thought we were pals. I thought we were having fun_

MICHAEL: Oh yes, the epitome of fun right here, running around like chickens with our heads cut off doing jack diddly shit with our time_

GAVIN: Better than sitting on a bench all day_

MICHAEL: I don’t sit there all day, buttmunch_

Gavin frowns at the monitor, “Yes you do, you just don’t know you do. Quite sad, really.”

For a moment, he contemplates what that must be like, what it must feel like to exist in the same place every day and every hour, moving only on pre-prescribed routes and doing your daily activities in loops. That’s probably what happened yesterday, Gavin realizes, Michael walked out of his assigned loop and vanished. “You can only stay in the neighborhood,” he breathes, almost too quiet for his own ears. 

GAVIN: We can just faff about here, if you want_

MICHAEL: Faff a . . . What? That’s not even a word! THAT’S NOT EVEN A FUCKING WORD, GAVIN. WHAT THE HELL LANGUAGE ARE YOU SPEAKING?!

GAVIN: English. And it means to horse around. Mess about. You know_

MICHAEL: I actually don’t know, but sure, fine_

How it became so easy to get lost in such a simple little world, Gavin has yet to understand. And not like lost lost, as in bumbling around without a sense of direction, but lost as in immersed, captivated to the point where you haven’t looked at the clock in ages and by the time you finally glance away from the computer screen the first streaks of dawn are peaking in through the curtains. They get lost, or at least, technically, Gavin does, caught up in the bickering and the antics until he notices that there’s a patch of sunlight hitting him right in the eye.

GAVIN: Christ, we’ve been up late_

MICHAEL: No day and night here, stupid_

GAVIN: Well I mean, you know, hour wise. I think we’ve clocked like eight or so straight hours_

Currently, the two of them are in Michael’s house, moving the furniture around in an attempt to recreate a scene from Poltergeist. Gavin’s having trouble with making the chairs stack properly in the center of the kitchen, especially since Michael keeps purposefully shoving him into said stack and sending the whole thing, Gavin and all, toppling to the ground every time it nears completion. “It’s never going to get done if you keep doing that, you daft git!” 

“I can’t tell if you’re pissed off or amused,” a voice says from the door.

Gavin tilts back in his chair, just far enough to catch sight of Ray entering the room. “You’re early.”

“As are you,” Ray contests. He starts to make his way to his desk and stops short halfway there, turning back to stare at Gavin, “Or, uh, late? Did you even leave? You’re wearing the same clothes you were yesterday.”

Sheepishly, Gavin mutters a muffled, “No,” into the Creeper scarf he wrapped around his neck sometime during the night. 

Ray rolls his eyes and leans over to catch a quick peek at Gavin’s screen, “Those are some shit graphics.”

“Yep.”

He jabs a finger to the little figure of Michael running about around their still incomplete stack of kitchen furnishings. “Who’s this?”

“Glitch NPC. He’s pretty top.” Ray’s eyebrows climb towards his hairline, eyes widening at the nonchalant, almost fond way Gavin replies. His eyes never stray from the screen, and when Michael pushes him over and into the stack of chairs again he lets out a quiet huff of a laugh. “But he’s kinda a knob though,” Gavin adds while he dutifully restacks the chairs as Michael’s laughter filled dialogue box appears.

Ray purses his lips, “Gav . . .”

“Mmm,” Gavin still doesn’t shift his gaze from the game, fingers now flying across the keyboard.

GAVIN: Quit knocking me over!_

MICHAEL: What? Knocking someone over? Wasn’t me. Must have been the poltergeist, he doesn’t want you to stack the chairs_

GAVIN: I SAW you do it!_

MICHAEL: You can’t prove anything_

“Gavin.”

“What?”

Ray pushes the monitor away from the center of the desk, forcing the screen to move just enough that Gavin lets out a whine of protest and finally looks up. “Did you play this game all night?”

“Wha - Yeah, ‘course I did. It was fun.”

“But we have work today,” Ray reminds gently. “If you didn’t sleep, you won’t be much fun to be around during the Let’s Play.”

“I’ll be fine.”

Shaking his head, Ray edges the screen away a little more, enough so that it’s no longer in Gavin’s direct line of sight. “When I said glitches could be an experience, I didn’t mean for you to get so wrapped up in it you forgot that human beings need sleep and food to function.” As if on cue, Gavin’s stomach releases a pitiful gurgle. “Shut down the game, get some food, and take a nap before Geoff gets here and kills you.”

Gavin attempts to sink down further into his chair, the movement aborted when Ray hooks his hands under his arms and hauls him to his feet, sending the keyboard clattering to the floor. “Oi! Oi!” Gavin yelps, reaching for the fallen keyboard, “At least let me save and explain to Michael that I’m gonna pop out for a bit! Hey!”

“I’ll do it for you,” Ray says, and promptly shoves Gavin out of the office, locking the door swiftly behind him.

“Ray!” Gavin screeches, fists pounding on the door.

“Eat a muffin and take a siesta, Gav!” Ray calls back before picking up the keyboard from the floor and saving and exiting the game. He pops the disk out while Gavin is still yelling his protests and examines it in the early morning light that’s leaking in through the curtains. “Just a regular, Walmart-bought CD with a label,” he says, “Not enough memory on this thing for a full blown AI system, definitely enough for a passably sentient NPC, though.” He fits it back into its case and tosses the game onto Gavin’s haphazard stack. 

At some point, Ray knows, every gamer meets their fair share of glitches. There’s your standard ones, the every day type where one graphic or another wigs the hell out unexpectedly, good for a laugh or two before it’s gone. There’s the creepier ones, the type that you usually only hear about second or sixth hand, glitches that are known only in story because they’re too weird and too unbelievable to be real. And then there’s the long term ones, the ones that happen over and over again, ones that cast semblances of life into the game you never even thought possible, that mislead and fool you into thinking it’s real. Like the Matrix, or Inception, but less ridiculous and a more mentally toxic.

If Gavin can spend an entire night wrapped up in a game that, from what Ray can see, is pretty freaking dull, all for the sake of a NPC, whose to say he wont waste away entire days if he keeps it up.

Sighing, Ray takes off his glasses and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Overreacting,” he mutters. “Gav’s not as much of an idiot as he pretends to be.”

Then again, when Ray walks out to the kitchen and finds Gavin asleep at the table with half a muffin still in his mouth, he very well might be.

OoOoOoOoOoO

Somehow, it turns into a habit. Not like an extreme one like Ray was thinking it might, but a habit all the same. Gavin finishes his work, waits for everyone to leave, and pops the game into the computer to play until he looks at the clock and notices the time. He goes home, usually, eventually, and catches a few winks before returning the next morning. But he still refuses to take the game home and attempt to run it on a different computer. “It could be any number of factors,” he says when Ray asks him why, “The glitch might only show up on this system, or at a certain time of day, or in specific areas of the game, one wrong move and I might wipe it out.”

It’s worrying, really, that that’s an actual issue for Gavin, and Gavin himself recognizes that quite well. Being concerned over a save file or the wear and tear on a disk is one thing, being concerned over the well being of a digital squash of pixels and code is another. 

“What if I drop it, or get it wet, or scratch it or something and poof, he’s just not there anymore?” Gavin asks. “That would just be bloody awful! I’d have basically killed him!”

Ray puts a tired hand over his eyes and refrains from listing all the ways it already is awful, starting with Gavin’s unfortunate attachment to an NPC on a poorly made videogame. “Can’t kill something that was never really alive,” he says quietly. Gavin ignores him.

It’s stupid, Gavin knows, to think of a fictional being as a friend, especially one who wails on him and berates him more often than he participates in actual, decent conversation. “If you hit me in real life, it wouldn’t be so fun,” he tells the screen one night while Michael’s ranting about how it should be impossible for someone to flood an entire house just by leaving on a sink, even in a game. “Or, well,” he frowns, “actually . . . If it was like a friendly tussle . . .” On the monitor, Michael has launched into full capslock mode, and Gavin’s attention returns to the game.

MICHAEL: IS THIS SOME KINDA FOOLS RUSH IN SORT OF BULLSHIT?! OH I’M GAVIN I’M GONNA GO OVER TO MICHAEL’S PLACE AND LEAVE THE SINK ON HAHAHA THAT’LL BE GREAT FUN, SUPER TOP! IT’S NOT LIKE HIS HOUSE MIGHT FUCKING FLOOD AND MAKE A HUGE FUCKING MESS ALL OVER THE PLACE!_

GAVIN: Oops_

MICHAEL: I’m going to kill you. I am literally going to kill you. I will beat you over the head with a pot and I will murder you dead_

GAVIN: Aw, but I thought we were pals_

MICHAEL: PALS DON’T FLOOD THEIR PALS HOUSES, MORON_

GAVIN: I could have set it on fire instead_

MICHAEL: You’re mentally deranged, aren’t you. You’re a sick fuck and you’ve been hiding it from me all this time. Get the fuck out_

GAVIN: Aw, Mi-cool_

MICHAEL: What the fuck is that? Don’t fucking do that again_

GAVIN: Mi-cool, you’re my boy_

MICHAEL: I’m going to drown you right here in this fucking house-turned-lake and I will laugh manically as your body sinks_

GAVIN: Only live bodies sink. Dead ones float_

MICHAEL: Well you’re going to sink, because I’m going to stand on top of your head until you do, you god damn bloated buffoon_

And he proceeds to do just that, jumping on and pushing Gavin over until his character is flailing about with his head held under the water. Gavin makes no move to stop him, too busy laughing aloud to do anything. 

GAVIN: Michael, Michael_

MICHAEL: Dead people don’t talk_

GAVIN: Michael, we’re friends right?_

And then, just like that, Michael stops. He backs away from Gavin’s character and goes completely still on the screen, a good few inches of distance between them now. “Something I said?” Gavin whispers, thoroughly confused by the suddenness of it all. It had been a honest question. A dumb one, admittedly, but an honest one. He just wanted to know if Michael was capable of making friends, seeing as he’s an NPC and all.

MICHAEL: You can’t really be friends with videogame characters_

GAVIN: That’s a bit harsh. You said we were pals_

MICHAEL: Yeah, pals who punch the pixels out of each other and banter in a digital house because they can’t connect irl or go out for drinks like normal people_

GAVIN: In real life, people do that too, you know. Just without the pixels and stuff. And that usually means they’re friends_

MICHAEL: Gav . . . We’re not actual friends_

GAVIN: That’s like saying you can’t be friends with a dog just because it’s not exactly the same as you, and dogs are man’s best friend_

MICHAEL: You are completely missing the point here_

GAVIN: No I’m not, I just want to know if you think of me as a friend_

MICHAEL: I’d be pretty fucking pathetic if I did_

“Ouch,” Gavin hisses, “That’s a bit low.”

GAVIN: Are you?_

MICHAEL: Am I what?_

GAVIN: Pathetic?_

MICHAEL:  . . . A little_

Unable to help himself, Gavin grins, the expression spreading across his face before he can stop it. He stifles a relieved, grateful laugh into a hand. “I knew it,” he says between breathless giggles. “I knew it.”

GAVIN: Well we can be pathetic together. If I knew you wouldn’t use the opportunity to punch me in the face, I would try and fist bump you right now_

MICHAEL: Good to see you know me well enough not to even bother_

To Gavin’s mild surprise, he raises a fist anyways, and for once doesn’t go in for a right hook when Gavin’s character responds with a brief tap of the knuckles. “Softie,” Gavin whispers, more fond than he’d ever like to admit. 

And then Michael kicks him in the shins.

OoOoOoOoOoOoOoO

Habits are just a precursor, the larva form of the final stage. That’s exactly why most habits are referred to as bad habits, such as Gavin’s penchant for dumping lava on things when he gets bored during the Minecraft Let’s Plays. But this isn’t the sort of teasing, fun sort of habit, at least not from where Ray’s currently standing. From what he can see, Gavin’s attachment to Wires is forming into a full blown addiction. 

“Explain to me again,” he says one afternoon, “Slowly, like I’m five years old, why you can’t come to the bar tonight with the rest of us.”

“Previous arrangement,” Gavin dismisses with a wave of his hand in Ray’s general direction. “Got plans.”

“Plans to play that Indy game?”

Gavin glares at him, “Plans with Michael. We’re gonna convince the realtor lady to let us sell our houses and buy the mansion on the other end of the street together.”

Ray makes a face, “That’s why? That’s why you’re dicking out on us? Because you want to go play house with a freakin’ NPC?”

“Mansion,” Gavin corrects. “It’s white and has a bunch of those plantation pillar things on the sides. Like the place where the president lives.”

“Which is called the White House.” Ray rubs at his temples, eyes closed as he struggles to think of a way to knock some sense into Gavin. “Look, I know your glitchy little game is fun and all, but if you’re at the point where you’re skipping out on your friends to play it-”

“Michael’s my friend.”

Ray’s train of thought comes to a screeching halt. “Excuse me?”

“Me and Michael, we’re friends.” Gavin ducks his head a little when he says this, and Ray narrows his eyes. “It’s, uh, we decided that a little while ago, when I flooded Michael’s house. That’s why we need a new one, see.”

“You can’t be friends with a videogame character, Vav,” Ray says carefully, warily. “It’s . . . That’s like saying that I’m best friends with Harry Potter just because I read the books. Or Tuxedo Mask, we’re totally bros.” His bites down any further sarcastic remarks. “Look, you’re going to drinks with us tonight-”

“I can’t, I have to-”

“- And you’re going to take a break from that game, or I’m going to interfere.”

“Don’t be such a prick!”

“I’m not-” Ray cuts himself off, inhaling sharply and breathing out slowly through his nose. “I’m trying to help you. It’s, Gav, it’s honestly kinda scary to me if say you’re friends with a character in a game. And you’re clearly not joking around, either, Michael isn’t the Frienderman. You meant it. You looked away like you were fucking embarrassed by it, which you should be.” He sighs and slumps back in his chair, “Don’t become one of those guys, Gavin.”

Gavin raises an eyebrow, “What guys?”

“Guys who hole themselves up and do nothing but play games, pretending that that’s all the connection they need, that wires and circuits are an acceptable substitute for human contact.”

“Isn’t that the story of how this company was formed?”

Ray can’t help but crack a smile at that, “Sort of, but that’s besides the point. The point is you’re going out for drinks, you can have your digi-date later.” He pauses, “And now the DigiRap is stuck in my head, fan freakin’ tastic.”

“I have no idea what that is.”

“Then count yourself lucky.”

When Ray drags him out to the bar with the rest of the Achievement Hunter crew that night, Gavin lets him, tagging along without much of a fuss.

If he nurses his drink a little tighter, or feels guilty about not playing the game, he doesn’t tell anyone. It’s best, he sees now, to keep the glitch that is Michael to himself.

OoOoOoOoOoO

The next time Gavin pops the disk into the computer, Michael doesn’t say a word to him for nearly an hour, no matter how much he pesters. At first, Gavin freaks out, thinking that finally, finally Michael has de-glitched and become just like all the other NPCs, perfectly programmed and lifeless, but after Michael punches him away when Gavin attempts to invade his space, he knows that’s not the case. “Mopey little dick!” Gavin exclaims, a little louder than he intended. “I’m sorry, okay? Wait, gotta type it.”

GAVIN: I’m sorry about yesterday, you know_

Michael still doesn’t reply, and barely even spares him a glance. “Stubborn,” Gavin mutters. “Don’t be such a pleb, Michael.”

GAVIN: I was an idiot, I ditched our plans, and I’m sorry_

A blank dialogue box appears on the screen, cursor flashing. “Come on.” Gavin taps the monitor, “Talk to me, Michael.”

MICHAEL: I thought you glitched out_

GAVIN: Never, mate, you’re stuck with me_

MICHAEL: You’re seriously confused if you think this is permanent, Gavin. It’s a god damn game, one wrong move and it’s all gonna get fucked up. Yesterday could have been that move. Today could be that move. Every fucking step we take could be that move_

GAVIN: Every step you take, every move you make_

MICHAEL: Stop_

GAVIN: I’ll be watching you_

MICHAEL: Fuck you, I’m trying to be serious here_

Because of Michael’s stubborn refusal to speak to him or acknowledge him for more than a second, they’re still in the park, standing on opposite sides of the bench Michael always sits on. Gavin maneuvers his character to sit on it now, and pats the empty space beside him.

GAVIN: Sit_

MICHAEL: Why the hell would I do that_

GAVIN: Sit down, Michael_

“Look, git, I can’t make this little guy get down on his knees and beg so sit down,” he says with another impatient poke at the screen. With a few more coaxing motions, Michael finally sits, pointedly leaving quite a bit of space between himself and Gavin. “Close enough,” Gavin sighs. 

GAVIN: I won’t ditch you again, I promise_

MICHAEL: That’s a hell of a fucking hollow-ass promise, Gavin_

GAVIN: We losers got to stick together_

MICHAEL: Excuse you, I have a life, you know, one that’s away from you_

His eyebrow arches slightly, “Pretty sure you don’t, but whatever makes you feel better.” Gavin side-eyes the closed panel on the computer the game is currently whirring inside. “Then again, I did watch Wreck-It Ralph, so you never know.”

GAVIN: As do I_

MICHAEL: Bullshit_

GAVIN: I do! I have a job and friends, that’s why I was absent yesterday_

MICHAEL: Oh yeah, mowing lawns and shit and hanging with the realtor all day, sounds fucking fantastic, Gavin_

GAVIN: Whatever gets us by, Michael_

MICHAEL: That’s the lamest excuse for skipping out on me, you know. Really bad_

GAVIN: I know, I won’t do it again, we’re friends and I-_

MICHAEL: You keep saying that. I’m starting to think you seriously don’t understand what’s going on here_

“Ah,” Gavin breathes, “Michael, don’t-”

MICHAEL: This is a game, Gavin_

“Christ.”

MICHAEL: A fucking game, okay, it’s not real, none of it, not even . . ._

“Michael!” Gavin bites down on his lip to stop himself from yelling anything else aloud, fingers fly across the keyboard.

GAVIN: I know that! You don’t need to point it out anymore, okay? Can’t we just pretend-_

MICHAEL: Pretend what, Gav? Pretend that it’s not? Because That’s a little fucking hard to do_

GAVIN: Pretend it doesn’t matter, you pion! I don’t care that it’s a game, you’re still my friend!_

MICHAEL: You’re a god damn fool_ 

GAVIN: Then so be it! I honestly couldn’t care less what the rest of the world thinks of me!_

MICHAEL: Go home, Gavin_

GAVIN: I can’t! We sold the houses and haven’t bought the new one yet!

It’s then that Gavin realizes he’s shaking slightly, whether from anger or some sort of panic, he doesn’t quite know, but his fingers jitter on the keys when he types, his breath coming in short, uneven gasps. “Fuck,” he gasps, eyes squeezing shut as he attempts to calm himself down. “Getting worked up over . . . Over something so stupid.” Except it’s not, really, is it. Not to him. Not anymore. And Ray was right, he means every word he says. Michael is his friend, and he’ll be damned if something as dumb as the difference of a single letter between PC and  NPC, or a barrier of a computer screen, is going to ruin that. 

GAVIN: It’s like Star Trek_

MICHAEL: They have that in your country?_

GAVIN: No, we’ve got The Doctor, but that’s besides the point. You know the movie where Spock dies?_

MICHAEL: Vaguely_

GAVIN: Your pop culture knowledge will never cease to impress me. Anyways, it’s like the glass, right?_

MICHAEL: Um_

GAVIN: When Spock’s dying, and he has to stay inside the glass doohickey for some reason or another, and he and the Kirk put their hands together on either side of the glass and say they’re friends_

MICHAEL: Sounds kinda gay_

GAVIN: A bit, yeah. But it’s mostly friendship. We’re like that, Michael. Don’t let the game/glass come between us_

MICHAEL: You’re a fucking crazy person, I want you to know that_

Grinning, Gavin sinks into his chair and lest the tenseness seep out of his limbs. “I know.”

GAVIN: Thank you_

MICHAEL: That wasn’t a compliment, dickweed_

OoOoOoOoOoOoO

For awhile, things settle down. Gavin stops playing the game while Ray’s still in the office, and makes sure he’s home at a decent time so as to get a halfway decent night’s sleep. He and Michael, after a few scuffles and the usual bickering, purchase the mansion on the other side of the street. Shortly after, Michael draws a line through what he claims is the middle of it (Gavin knows it’s more like two-thirds), an incident which coincidentally follows a previous one wherein Gavin may or may not have purposefully set one of the trashcans on fire by placing it on the kitchen stove. 

They fall into a rhythm, Gavin inserting the game to find Michael waiting on the park bench, walking back to the mansion together, and trashing the place in the midst of multiple rounds of childish antics. Gavin’s favorite is “The Floor Is Lava,” and Michael prefers “Punchies,” which Gavin is suspicious isn’t a real game, but he lets it slide for now, because for some reason knocking Gavin’s PC to the ground is Michael’s favorite hobby.

And sometimes, sometimes they talk.

To be honest, Gavin’s not really sure how that one started. It might have spawned from the way the air between them was slowly becoming lighter, or it could be the product of the mutual agreement of friendship. Regardless of the source, Gavin was pleased to discover that Michael was capable of holding an actual, meaningful conversation that wasn’t entirely centered around a point of rage. 

GAVIN: It’s like drinks_

MICHAEL: Huh?_

GAVIN: Like when mates go out for some fish and chips and a pint or two and just jabber on about their lives to each other_

MICHAEL: This side of the pond we refer to that as some fucking fish and fries, Grabbin_

A soft smile quirks its way onto Gavin’s face at the purposeful flub of his name, “Too bad I’m complete bollocks at nicknames,” he relents. “Can’t really return the favor.”

GAVIN: Fish and chips and a couple of pints, Michael, you and me_

MICHAEL: You make me feel physically ill sometimes, I hope you know that_

GAVIN: We swap stories over the bar_

MICHAEL: Ugh_

GAVIN: And help each other to the loo when we need to toss it all_

MICHAEL: No_

GAVIN: That’s what friends do_

MICHAEL: I have never accompanied another dude into the bathroom, that’s just weird_

GAVIN: Not even for a romp with a glory hole?_

MICHAEL: GAVIN! 

GAVIN: Never stuck it in a-

MICHAEL: I’m going to hit you so hard you’ll break the earth’s crust, pass right through the fucking lava core, and bust out into fucking China_

Obviously, this isn’t one of those talks. Or at least it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be until Michael interrupts one of their frequent chase-catch-punch matches by skidding to a halt.

GAVIN: Are you giving up? Do I win?_

MICHAEL: No, hold on, I have to _

He breaks off, going completely still, and Gavin’s stomach gives an uncomfortable, fearful jolt. “Michael?”

GAVIN: Michael?_

MICHAEL: Sorry, I’ll be back in five. Got a call_

GAVIN: A call? To where? The mothership? I mean motherboard? MICHAEL?”

But the NPC is still again, unmoving on the screen, and with every passing second Gavin’s breath hitches a little more, heart jumping in his chest. “Don’t glitch out on me now, Michael,” he pleads. When Michael still fails to respond, or even so much as twitch, Gavin rests his head in his hands, peeking out at the screen between his fingers while he tries his best not to hyperventilate. 

It was a matter of time, he knows that, has known that since the second he started playing. These sorts of cheap, basement manufactured games never hold up well, and with the amount he’s been playing it wouldn’t be surprising if the whole thing gave out. But that would have been easier, wouldn’t it, popping the disk in one day and finding that it just didn’t run anymore, because the he wouldn’t have to see it. He wouldn’t have to witness what happened to Michael when the game was on its last legs. “Please,” he whispers against his palms. “Not yet, Michael. Please.”

The NPC gives a twitch and the dialogue box appears on the screen again. Gavin lets out a shaky, thankful whoop and leans forward to read it.

MICHAEL: Argh, fuck, I gotta go, Gav. Sorry_

“What?” And just like that, the fear is back again, clawing its way into his chest with every thud of his heart.

GAVIN: Go where, Michael?_

MICHAEL: Don’t worry about it, I’ll be back tomorrow_

GAVIN: But-_

MICHAEL: If I say I’ll be back, I’ll be back, okay?_

GAVIN: What if-_

Without warning, Michael vanishes from the screen. Gavin yelps in alarm, jamming his fingers into the arrow keys as he forces his character in a sprint around the area, desperately searching for a trace of the NPC that was standing there just seconds before. “Michael!” He types it out too, frantic despite Michael’s promises.

GAVIN: Michael! MICHAEL!

He urges his character out of the mansion and into the street, tacking out Michael’s name over and over with his free hand. “No, no, no.” And truth be told, Gavin can’t breath. He gasps and chokes in air, but it doesn’t seem to make it to his lungs, burning with pure panic on the way down and catching hard in his throat. It can’t end like this, it just can’t. It’s too sudden, too soon, too . . . Empty. The second chair slips out from under Gavin’s legs as he jerks to the right to grab the game case from the other side of the desk, and sends him crashing spectacularly to the floor. If Michael disappears, the game is nothing to him anymore, it’ll be empty, vacant, just like the spare seat in the Achievement Hunter office that now spins away from him as he struggles to his knees. Empty, and it will tear an equally empty hole in him, rip him asunder until he’s broken on the ground, knowing what he lost and being all the worse for having known it than he ever would have been never knowing it at all.

“Please,” he begs, back in his chair again, legs pulled up against his chest as he jabs at the keys furiously, tacking out Michael’s name as he makes his character run down the road and towards the park. “Please, no.”

Gavin doesn’t know what he was expecting to find when he gets to the bench, but it’s certainly not there. Michael isn’t there.

He isn’t anywhere.

OoOoOoOoOoO

Ray knows something is horribly wrong when he walks into the office to find the Achievement Hunter door unlocked. Gavin should have been the last one out, and despite his scatterbrained antics in video games he’s not that much of a putz as to leave a door, behind which thousands of dollars worth of games, systems, and tech are stored, unlocked. And since the only reason Gavin has been staying so late recently is to play that stupid game, Ray knows he must have pulled another all nighter with it. “I told him,” he says under his breath, head already shaking as he pushes the door open to confront Gavin.

Except Gavin is not in the state Ray expects him to be in, which would be tired and a little dazed. In fact, Gavin’s current state is nothing short of alarming, and Ray drops his bag in the doorway before taking the few steps towards Gavin’s desk. “Oh god, Gav,” he whispers as he fully takes in the rumpled, desolate appearance of his friend. “What happened?”

Gavin’s head is in his arms, his eyes glued to the screen, wide and unfocused and very noticeably red. He’s silent for a long moment, and Ray sees that one of his hands is pressed against the still closed and whirring disk slot on the computer. “He’s gone,” Gavin says eventually, voice hoarse. “He’s just . . . Gone.”

Ray looks to the screen briefly, long enough to glimpse Gavin’s PC standing alone in the center of a playground-looking area. “The glitch NPC?”

“He just blipped out of existence.”

“You knew that would happen eventually, though, didn’t you?”

There’s a small, choking sound before Gavin turns his head to the side to glare at him, eyebrows furrowed together. “That doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it!”

Tentatively, Ray reaches out a hand to smooth his friend’s ruffled hair, vaguely wondering if he had been pulling on it, tearing it in his frustration and grief. “Gavin . . . He wasn’t real, you-”

“He was to me!” Gavin shakes him off, huddling a little close to the monitor until his forehead is pressed against the screen, his shoulders shaking. “He was my . . . My friend, Ray. I know you don’t understand but can’t you just . . . Just pretend that you do?”

Ray looks away, “I can do that. You want me to keep the guys out of the office until you compose yourself? Because that’s going to be kinda hard, we’re interviewing people for the next two weeks and with tours and all that jazz . . .”

“I’ll be okay in a few,” Gavin mumbles against his arm. “Just . . . Five minutes, okay? And then I’ll go home, catch a couple hours of sleep and come in after lunch.” He rubs a hand over his eyes, finally drawing it away from where it rested against the disk slot. “And don’t,” he adds with a wavering smile, “let Geoff hire Caleb as a full timer, I swear to god.”

“ ‘Course not,” Ray grins. “Like any of us would let a screen-looker on the team.” He moves towards the door and retrieves his bag with one last look over his shoulder. “Are you sure you’ll be okay?”

This time, Gavin’s smile is a little brighter, no less false, but more passable as being genuine than the last one. “Yeah. Thanks, mate.”

Ray nods and closes the door without another word.

Five minutes isn’t enough time, Gavin thinks, but it’s going to have to be. If he turns the game off he knows it will most likely be absolute, that it will seal Michael away as the glitch that never was. If he turns it off, he’ll probably never turn it back on again. The goodbye he wants to bid the screen, still empty save for his own little PC, doesn’t make it out of his mouth, stuttering short against his tongue until he swallows it down again. 

“I’m sorry,” he says instead, and reaches for the button that will eject the disk.

A light ping sounds from the speakers, so quiet Gavin almost doesn’t catch it in time. Thank god he does. Every inch of him freezes when he hears it, fingers hovering just centimeters from the eject. “Look up,” he tells himself sharply, almost too scared to do so in case he’s lost it so completely that he’s beginning to hear things.

A heartbeat later, he forces his head up, eyes locking on the screen where a lone dialogue box without an owner has appeared.

MICHAEL: Meet you around 9PM? Sorry about last night, I’m a dick, I know_

The sob of utter relief that escapes him is more than a little embarrassing, especially as it’s loud enough to bring Ray charging back into the office. “What? What? Did you fall off the chair again? Did you fuck something up? What happened?” Ray shouts, eyes wide when Gavin starts to hastily scrub at his face. “I know no one punched you because I’ve been standing guard, so what the hell!”

“He’s . . . He’s alive,” Gavin laughs, the sound reverberating around the room, high and elated. “Michael’s still in the game!”

Ray leans over him to peer suspiciously at the screen, “Tell him he’s a fucker for making you cry.”

“I didn’t cry!”

“You totally cried. I didn’t see it, but you did. I know things.” He studies the text displayed in the dialogue box and frowns, “Gav, that’s an absent message. The NPC isn’t even on the screen.”

Gavin nods, “He will be, he promised.” He saves and pops the disk out without a hint of hesitation. “I’m still going to take that nap, though.”

“You’re completely batshit, just an FYI.”

“I know.”

OoOoOoOoOoOoO

As usual, they meet at the bench, a place which Gavin has long assumed to be Michael’s spawn spot, though he’d never refer to it as that aloud or in any in-game dialogue. The idea, no, the knowledge that Michael’s very existence revolves around such a small area in such a small universe makes him feel a little ill when he thinks about it too hard. Even if it is the truth.

For awhile, he’s content to just sit beside the NPC and watch the glitch-ridden children clamber all over the playground equipment, limbs and heads periodically disappearing and reappearing. It’s an eerie sight, to say the least, and one that’s definitely made even more unnerving after the previous night’s events. Gavin thanks whatever cruel digital deity runs this world that when Michael had vanished, it had been all at once. If he had gone like the children, in bits and pieces, Gavin probably would have thrown up.

He wonders, distantly, if it hurts. 

GAVIN: Are you alright?_

MICHAEL: Dandy. You?_

GAVIN: I might have panicked a little_

When he first started playing, Gavin would have never dared to steer their conversations in this direction, towards a discussion of more personal matters. Hell, he doesn’t even talk to people in real life about that sort of stuff very much. It’s easier, though, with Michael. Easier because he doesn’t have to see his facial expression (although he still swears the NPC manages to look annoyed despite the lack of programming that should allow for such things), doesn’t have to hear his tone and pick up on any disappointment or pity that might be in it, and doesn’t have to cringe at the way his own voice might crack a little around the words. 

MICHAEL: Why? I told you I’d be back_

GAVIN: But you disappeared_

MICHAEL: Uh, yeah, duh. Good fucking observation there, Grabbin_

GAVIN: That’s never happened before, I thought you glitched_

MICHAEL: If I did, you’d know. The whole fucking world would probably start falling apart if I glitched_

GAVIN: That’s comforting_

MICHAEL: Do I detect a hint of sarcasm?_

GAVIN: Why did you leave_

MICHAEL: Things to do, people to talk to, etc_

That makes Gavin raise an incredulous eyebrow, “Fairly certain I’m the only one you talk to around here, mate.”

GAVIN: What sort of things?

MICHAEL: Nothing, it’s not a big deal_

GAVIN: I want to know_

MICHAEL: . . . Why?_

GAVIN: Because I’m your friend and I want to know what you get up to when you’re not messing about with me?_

MICHAEL: It’s not that exciting, I swear. I’m not some sort of superhero or whatever the fuck you’re hoping to hear_

GAVIN: No, I know that, you donut. You’re you. I want to know what you do_

For some reason, Michael’s attempts at putting Gavin off the subject make him uneasy. His replies are clearly evasive, shifty almost, and they feel . . . Off, somehow. A little like a lie and a lot like a defense. Though for whose sake such defenses are suddenly being raised, Gavin isn’t sure. It’s not like Michael could possibly get up to much within the world of the game whenever Gavin isn’t playing it, hell, the thing probably doesn’t even exist once it’s been popped out of the computer. Is that why he’s uncomfortable discussing it? Because he ceases to exist whenever Gavin ejects the game? That would make the most sense, but still . . .

Something is off. If it were just a matter of the game’s, and his own internal workings, Michael would just nonchalantly brush it off as he usually does with some curse-laden sarcastic comment, and they wouldn’t bring it up again. 

MICHAEL: I don’t do anything, Gav. Work, eat, sleep, you know, shit people do to get through the day_

GAVIN: You’re being a knob. I’m just trying to lend an ear_

MICHAEL: You’re prying into things that are none of your business_

GAVIN: It’s my business if we’re mates, you bloody idiot_

MICHAEL: Except it’s not. Being friends doesn’t give you a free fucking pass into my life, asshole_

GAVIN: I’m already in your life_

MICHAEL: HA! There you go! Once again you prove that you are severely fucking delusional! We only interact here, Gavin! Here in this stupid fucking nonsensical game! It’s not life!_

Gavin tenses in his seat, a hot wave of guilt washing over him “Michael . . . I didn’t mean . . .”

GAVIN: It’s just as much of a life as the rest of it all_

MICHAEL: You mean the rest of the world? The world that doesn’t know about this game let alone give a god damn flying fuck about it? The world who wouldn’t really give two shits if there was a sentient NPC in here and would openly laugh if someone told them about it? That world? Is that the fucking world you’re talking about, Gavin?_

GAVIN: Michael. . ._

MICHAEL: You know how much easier this would be if I’d never . . . Ugh, fuck it all. FUCK IT ALL. Never mind, I’m done_

His breath hitches. “Done? Done with what?” Gavin whispers, the endless number of answers rolling over in his mind, each one worse than the last. Done arguing? Done with the discussion? Done being friends? Done with existing in the game?

GAVIN: Done? What do you-_

MICHAEL: I’m tired of ignoring it. The situation_

GAVIN: What?

MICHAEL: Let’s get some shit straight right here and now, Gavin. Some things we both already know. This is a game_

GAVIN: I know_

MICHAEL: Don’t fucking interrupt me. This is a game, one that was probably made in some geek wad’s basement and most likely has a very limited lifespan. It’s also infested with a fuckall of glitches, some good and some bad, and regardless of whether said glitches are good or bad eventually they will stop. Stop glitching, or stop all together and just vanish like half the fucking NPCs around here already have. So we need to stop ignoring that shit right now_

GAVIN: Stop ignoring the . . . The possibility of game death?_

MICHAEL: Got it in one_

Gavin swallows hard. Last night had been close, something which Michael seems to be realizing. But acknowledging that, directing themselves with that thought constantly in mind would be like sitting at a loved one’s bedside during their last hours, helpless to do anything. Gavin prefers to remain ignorant, like the small child who has to be told that their family member is in a better place rather than six feet under the ground. If they agree to stop ignoring the problem, it’s as good as setting up a chair next to Michael’s deathbed.

Then again, while such things are endlessly painful for those who live on, they must be terrifying for the one in the bed. To know one’s own fate and be forced to face it . . . 

A shudder wracks through Gavin’s frame as he realizes what Michael is doing, what he’s asking of him. He’s a man on his deathbed extending a hand, asking for company in his final hours. And there’s no point in ignoring the inevitable at that point.

GAVIN: I’ll be here as long as you need me_

MICHAEL: Don’t be so fucking morbid. I’m not saying we should dig the grave yet, I’m just saying it’s stupid as dicks to keep feigning ignorance and dodging around the issue whenever it comes up_

GAVIN: So, what, you want to talk about it?_

MICHAEL: Whatever floats your crazy boat_

GAVIN: What do you think happens when games stop working? Some sort of Wreck-It Ralph sort of stuff?_

MICHAEL: Never seen that_

GAVIN: Ah, right. I’ll try and summarize it for you_

MICHAEL: Oh, this will be good_

OoOoOoOoOoOoO

Every once in awhile, Michael isn’t on the bench. It happens more and more frequently as the days pass, and it never ceases to cause a spark of fear to flare to life in Gavin’s chest. “Not yet,” he says each time it happens, a quiet plea to who knows what. If he waits, most times Michael eventually shows, standoffish apologies already prepared. He acts indifferent to it, though Gavin can tell by the way he launches readily into conversation that he’s relieved. And at first, Gavin thinks he might eventually become indifferent to it, like the townsfolk in The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Each time it happens and Michael returns  he thinks that the next time will be easier, that his heart won’t skip a beat in panic, that his palms won’t sweat when he scans the surrounding area for an NPC who isn’t there. In fact, he almost wishes it were like that, that he could become desensitized to it all. 

For the remainder of the week, Michael appears and reappears and shrugs it off like it’s nothing. Gavin leaves the game running underneath all his other programs for the majority of the day, checking it between recordings and the occasional potential new team member Geoff drags around through the room for a tour. It’s a sufficient distraction from the game and his growing fear of Michael’s disappearance, especially when Ray disapproves of the candidates. Which is every time.

“I’ve never even heard of most of these peanuts,” Ray complains to Gavin one afternoon, purposefully and pointedly taking up the spare chair that usually sits between them. “I thought Geoff and Burnie picked them all based on Youtube views or something like that.”

Gavin shrugs, “Who knows.”

“I know they’re a bunch of annoying losers,” Ray huffs. Gavin gives him a deadpan stare and he shrugs, “Well, a different brand of annoying losers than us. And thus they won’t mesh well with the rest of the team.”

To be honest, Gavin hasn’t much liked any of the candidates they’ve met so far either. They’re too nervous, or too quiet, or too obnoxious. What they need is balance, a member of character who won’t set the rest of them off and can fill in any holes in the group. And thus far, no one has seemed to suit the position. “Who’ve we got left to do next week?” he asks.

Ray reaches for the list sitting on Geoff’s desk, “Buncha morons, I’m sure. Uh, let’s see . . .” He runs a finger down the list of names and dates, “He wrote them down by their Youtube handles. Why. I can’t even pronounce half of these, they’re just letter jumbles. What is this shit on Friday? Lt . . . Lieutenant? Is that some sort of . . . Lieutenant Mk . . . I can’t.” He tosses it back onto the desk with a drawn-out sigh. “We should just let it alone, you know? The team’s fine as it is.” He scoots the chair around in the spare space between his and Gavin’s desks. “If someone sat here it would roadblock my straight line to you, and then I couldn’t throw things at your head during Let’s Plays.”

Gavin shakes his head and turns back to his computer, minimizing everything to take a quick peak at the game before going back to work. Ray doesn’t miss the action, still seated in the spare chair near Gavin’s desk. 

“Your little NPC boyfriend glitching out again?”

“Friend,” Gavin corrects without pause. “And yeah, he . . . We think that it’s going to stop soon.”

“The glitching?”

“Mmm, yeah. He’s gone most of the time now, says he’s busy with things, but that’s not it.”

Ray eyes him, a small frown on his face, “And you’re okay with that? You completely flipped when you just thought he was gone. What are you going to do when he really is?”

Taking a slow breath, Gavin replies, “Don’t know. Mope. Eventually move on. I’d rather not think about it.”

Ray turns his attention to the screen where Gavin’s reopened his work tabs, “You’re just going to suck it up? That seems unhealthy.”

“Probably,” Gavin agrees, “But there’s not really much else I can do about it, is there? We’re stuck, Ray. Stuck with the shitty situation we’ve been thrown into. I might as well stay with it to the bitter end, right? He gets it easy, too. One little blip and that’s it, it’ll be over. He won’t remember anything about me because he simply won’t exist anymore and I . . .” He threads a hand through his hair, pushing it out of his eyes with a shaky sigh, “I’ll be left here. I’ll be shafted with remembering all of it and being the only one who ever knew him and . . . And it’s not fair.”

“Do you wish you’d never bought the game?” Ray asks, genuinely curious.

“No,” Gavin whispers immediately. “What’s the phrase? It’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all, and all that?” Ray raises an eyebrow and Gavin flushes, backtracking, “Er, but with friends, and stuff. You know what I mean.”

Ray grins, “Sure I do. You should tell him that one.”

“Who, Michael?” Gavin balks, horrified at the very idea. “He’ll laugh at me! It’s so cheesy!”

“It’s an NPC, there’s not much he can do to bruise your feelings or whatever.” Ray hums, “It’ll be like Summer Lovin’.”

“I don’t-”

“'It turned colder; that’s where it ends, so I told him we’d still be friends.'” Ray laughs at the incredulous look on Gavin’s face, “Someday we’re gonna catch you up on American pop culture, seriously.”

“Don’t think I want to know what source that nonsense spawned from. Also, it’s not summer.”

Rolling his eyes, Ray says, “You’re missing the point. If you’ve got a limited amount of time you’re supposed to make the best of it. Like a summer fling. Make sure you say everything you want to say before it’s too late so you don’t regret anything.”

Gavin scoffs, “I’ve already said it all. I’d rather spend actual quality time with him, thanks.”

“As opposed to confessing your feelings?”

“Nothing to confess.” He twists in his seat slightly so he can level Ray with a glare, “We’ve known each other for a few months. I don’t-”

“But you could,” Ray points out before Gavin can finish. “Don’t lie to me, dude, I’m not stupid. If he was a real, living breathing guy you’d have been picturing yourself at his side for the rest of you life within a heartbeat. I know you’re not quite coo-coo for Cocoapuffs enough to genuinely think it could happen, but I don’t doubt you’ve wished it could.”

Gavin purses his lips, “All the maybes and might bes in the world aren’t going to fix anything, Ray.”

Ray folds his arms over his chest, stubbornly staring Gavin down. “While I think it’s bonkers of you to be friends with an NPC, let alone anything else, you’re a fool if you waste the chance.”

“I don’t want to make things worse than they already are,” Gavin mumbles against his palm, eyes fixed on the screen in front of them as he refuses to meet Ray’s relentless gaze. “If I said I liked him, and I’m not saying I do, that would just make the inevitable hurt that much more, wouldn’t it.”

OoOoOoOoOoO

Truth be told, Gavin has thought of it before, has been thinking of it since he and Michael purchased the mansion together in the game. He likes the feel of the domesticity, and has wondered more than once what it would be like to be in such circumstances in reality, playing video games together on the sofa, Gavin’s legs sprawled over Michael’s lap and Michael trapping one foot under his thigh. But he pushes those thoughts aside as soon as they stir, unwilling to linger on the impossible. He doesn’t even want the complicated stuff, the more intimate things. What he longs for, when he allows himself to dwell on it for a second before brushing it aside, is simply reality. He wants to be able to breathe the same air, to stand in the same space, to talk aloud rather than type, to test Michael’s patience and get shoved at with actual, physical contact. Gavin doesn’t bother to put boundaries on that dream, to label it as either friendship or relationship, because he doesn’t care which it would be.

He just wants Michael there. Living and breathing and solid and there

An impossible dream like that doesn’t need to be brought up, there’s no point. And Gavin’s never been one to wish on stars or birthday candles, too old now to be innocent enough for such things. 

So he doesn’t think he’s wasting his time, not really. Because this, right now, is what he wants. Of course it lacks the physical realness he craves, but it’s close enough.

And that will have to do.

When he pops the game in on Tuesday night, he’s certain that he’ll be content to let things stay as they are. He’ll spend the night talking and playing with Michael and close the game without regrets, as he’s been doing every night since they agreed to stop ignoring their time limit. 

Or at least that’s the plan until Michael screws it all up with a handful of careless words.

They’re in the kitchen of the mansion, lazily trying to put out the fire that Gavin of course started, the flames mostly doused by now. 

MICHAEL: I’m going to be gone for a few days_

Gavin stiffens in his chair, “What the . . .”

MICHAEL: Got an appointment to make, a few things to do. I’ll hopefully be back on Monday_

GAVIN: Are you mental? You don’t know for sure if you’ll be back at all!_

MICHAEL: I knew you’d lose your shit. Calm down for a second and-_

GAVIN: That’s a long time, Michael! Of course I’d be upset! There’s no guarantee that something bad won’t happen!_

MICHAEL: I know that, but I have to-_

GAVIN: You’re a cad_

MICHAEL: Look, I can’t just-_

GAVIN: It’s fine, go, glitch out on me, I don’t care_

MICHAEL: Fuck you. You know that’s not what I’m doing_

GAVIN: We’re running out of time, Michael! I don’t want to waste it waiting around for you if there’s no guarantee you’ll even come back! I though we were done with excuses, too! If you’re going to go, just say it! It’ll hurt less!_

MICHAEL: I’m not - god, shut up. Just shut the fuck up, Gavin_

GAVIN: We’re supposed to be friends and you just-_

MICHAEL: Just what? Just had other things going on that didn’t revolve around you? Sorry, I wasn’t aware I’d tripped and fallen into a fucking clingy relationship!_

GAVIN: Course you haven’t! If you had you’d actually care!_

MICHAEL: God, you really are an idiot. I care, you fuckwad. But I’m also realistic. At the end of the day there’s nothing special about this shit, all that it is two jackoffs dicking around in a game. Not even legit communication, just some bullshit coding connected by some shitty wires. The fuck did you think was going to happen? The game is going to end at some point, Gavin. No amount of caring will change that, and if you think it will you’re a fucking moron_

GAVIN: I know it won’t! But that doesn’t mean I’m just going to toss this all aside at a moment’s notice. What, did you think it would be easier that way?_

MICHAEL: Yeah, it would be. And I should have done it the day you showed up_

Choking on a retort, Gavin jams his fingers into the keys.

GAVIN: Then do it now. You’re going to leave? No guarantee you’ll come back? Whole game might implode in your absence? Fine. Some friend you are_

MICHAEL: Can’t be friends with a fucking NPC_

GAVIN: Fool me once, fool me twice_

Gavin’s hand goes to the eject button without a second thought. He doesn’t want to see it, doesn’t want to witness whatever end Michael has lined up for the game and himself. Inevitable, he supposes, might as well be now. 

Though it’s not the ending he wanted, not by a long shot. It’s bitter and painful and agonizing, but in none of the ways he expected, each word between them tinged with frustrated anger rather than grief. And maybe it’s better this way, to wrap up these last few messed up months with harshness, scoring open wounds that will sting too much for any actual anguish to overpower them. 

He hits eject and takes the game in hand, making a beeline for the restroom. Gavin doesn’t give it a second thought when he throws the disk into the toilet, a sharp, shaking, “Good riddance!” shouts after it as he watches it sink into the water. 

His arms stay tensed at his sides, hands curled into fists and his whole body shaking as he stares at the game sitting at the bottom of the toilet, its flimsy label beginning to peel off. 

It takes him full five minutes to regret his rash reaction, to fall to his knees and grab the disk back. He rubs it dry against his shirt, germs be damned, and cradles it to his chest with a strangled sob. This wasn’t how it was supposed to end. There’s no point in putting the game back in the computer. The disk is cracked now, a spindly line running from center to edge where it made contact with the edge of the toilet when Gavin threw it. And besides, Michael was gone long before that, departed on his own terms and in his own time.

And Gavin can’t begrudge him that choice.

OoOoOoOoOoO

“I don’t see why you won’t just check,” Ray says when Gavin relays it all to him. “Maybe he’s waiting for you guys to kiss and make up.”

“No,” Gavin assures, “He’s gone. Even if he didn’t leave when he said he would, the crack . . .” He runs a finger over the line on the disk, “When I threw it I probably . . .”

Ray narrows his eyes, “You didn’t kill him.”

“Can’t kill something that was never alive,” Gavin agrees softly. 

When Ray reaches across the desk and takes the disk, Gavin doesn’t stop him. He doesn’t even look up when Ray pops it into the computer, doesn’t bother to acknowledge any of it because, quite frankly, he doesn’t want to know. The fight had left a bitter taste in his mouth, and he’d rather it remain there, reminding him that he’d spent their last moments tearing at each other with the intent to hurt. 

“Still works,” Ray says as the start menu loads. “Want to check?”

“No,” Gavin says. “There’s no point.”

Ray makes as if to argue, but Gavin ejects the disk again and returns it to its case. “He won’t be there. And even if he was, I . . . I can’t anymore, Ray. I can’t apologize, I can’t fix things. Because it’s just going to happen again until he really does disappear, until the game gets worn out. It’s better this way, to end it now.”

“Even though you ended it fighting?” Ray asks in disbelief.

Gavin cracks a wavering smile, “We started it fighting, too.”

OoOoOoOoOoO

He checks anyways, long after the rest of the team has gone home for the night, long after the office has fallen quiet, and long after the stars have come out. But he doesn’t do it because he wants to, or because Ray told him to, or anything of the sort.

Gavin puts the game back in solely out of habit. It takes him a moment to realize what he’s doing, to pause in the motions of opening the game, going through the start menu, entering the world, and walking towards the park bench. Though it’s only been a few months, he’s done it so often now, so many times, that it’s almost instinct. With a sigh, Gavin leans back in his chair, taking his hands off the keys and pressing his palms to his eyes. “What the fuck am I doing?” he muses to the empty room. “What’s wrong with me.”

His first thought is to simply close the game down, to take it out and throw it away because it’s no use to him anymore, it no longer holds anything but a crack snaking across its surface. Except he can’t bring himself to eject it again, not when he’s so close to the bench, not without making sure what’s been done is really and truly final.

This time, Gavin doesn’t have it in him to beg for a miracle he knows better than to wish for. There’s no reason to. Even if he hadn’t rashly tossed the game into the toilet, Michael would still . . .

The breath he lets out when he finds the park bench to be empty is neither anguished or relieved. He doesn’t have time for either of those emotions. If he was a little colder, a littler crueler, he’d be glad Michael was gone, pleased that the illogical, impractical, time consuming glitch was out of his life. And if he was a little softer, he might be in tears, grieved at the loss.

If anything, he’s indifferent. Or maybe the better word would be raw. He knew this would happen, knew it would hurt in a thousand ways he’d never be able to explain or understand, knew it would crack something in him the same way it had cracked the disk. But that’s all it is, a crack, a void, empty and aching and guilty. He has no time for grief or relief, because every part of him is screaming “It’s all your fault.”

“I didn’t kill him,” Gavin tells the empty room. “I didn’t. I didn’t. He disappeared before I took the game out, before I . . .”

And, god, there’s the crack again, making the disk skip once, twice in the computer before the screen flickers and goes dark.

“You can’t kill what was never there to begin with.”

Though if that was true, Gavin thinks it would hurt a hell of a lot less.

OoOoOoOoOoOoO

The decision to go to the shop isn’t made consciously. Not really, anyways. It’s all a matter of circumstance and some very likely and not so subtle intervention in the form of a text message from Ray at the crack of dawn on Friday.

Get me some Starbucks ;)

And the thing is, Gavin knows what Ray is trying to do. When he gets the text message he takes a moment to glare at it, and another moment to sigh and run his hand through his hair before he gives in. There’s no harm in going to the store, and quite honestly, he’s curious. Though Wires has ceased to work, and Michael is gone, he still has questions. Then again, he’s not entirely sure he wants any answers. If he were to ask if the game had contained the sort of programming that could house a passably sentient NPC, and find out it could . . .

Well, which would be worse? Finding out that Michael had been nothing but normal coding, or knowing that he’d really and truly had destroyed something that was, in its own way, alive. 

Gavin drags his feet the whole way to Starbucks, takes his time with ordering and putting in his creams and sugars, and gets back in line not once, but twice to pick up a couple of muffins. He’s well aware he’s dawdling, but at the moment it’s a far better option than facing the music that is the game store squashed between this building and the gym. For a minute, he considers just bypassing it entirely, bringing Ray his coffee and going to work without giving the shop a second glance. Hell, that’s what he should have done the first time around, he would have been better off if he did. No game, no glitch, no regrets, no guilt, no . . .

No Michael.

That’s the thought that settles it and urges Gavin to step out of Starbucks and turn towards the faded paint spelling out Video Games. Michael. He has to know, even if it’s not what he wants to hear, whether or not Michael was a program or a glitch. If he knows that, he’ll be able to move on. Or at least that’s the vague hope he holds when he steps through the door of the shop, tiny bell tinkling overhead. 

The old man waves him in without so much as glancing up from the book he has open on the counter. “Welcome back, welcome back! I assume you enjoyed your last purchase.”

Gavin hesitates with how to reply to that. “I, uh, yeah, sort of? I broke it, though.” He fishes the game out of his shoulder bag and makes his way to the counter, handing it to the annoyingly unconcerned elder. “I actually wanted to ask you a few things, if you don’t mind.”

Cracking the case open to examine the crack running through the disk, the old man says, “Not much I can tell you. I didn’t make it.”

“Oh. Well, do you know-”

Whatever he’d been planning to say is cut off as the door slams open so harshly that the bell above it is sent flying, smacking against one of the shelves with a pitiful clank. Gavin jumps back, just in time and just far enough that he’s out of the path of the incoming customer, who pays him no heed when he slams a grocery bag down on the counter.

“I need another copy of this game,” the customer says.

The old man takes a peek inside the grocery sack and shakes his head, “Well I can’t tell what this used to be.” He puts a hand in and withdraws a few shards of disk, a sight which causes Gavin to stifle a burst of laughter against his palm

Whipping around, the customer turns a cold stare towards Gavin, who in turn takes another step back, though this time out of something other than fear. If ever he were to label a moment of his life as déjà vu, Gavin would choose this one as his heart rate ratchets up upon  making eye contact with the other man’s sharp, narrowed gaze. He has a pair of glasses perched on the bridge of his nose and a sock cap pulled down to cover the majority of his auburn curls. And for the life of him, Gavin can’t make the connection until the guy opens his mouth.

“The fuck is wrong with you? Got nowhere else to be catching flies and laughing at strangers? Close your mouth.” He flicks a dismissive hand in Gavin’s direction before turning back to the old man. “Look, I bought this stupid thing here a few months ago when I was in town for a convention. Piece of shit was like five dollars and it was called Wires or some crap like that.” The guy leans over the counter in what Gavin thinks must be some sort of attempt at intimidation, but the old man doesn’t even bat an eye.

“I’m afraid we’re sold out of that game,” he says, completely poker faced. Which is quite a feat, considering Gavin is less than five feet away hyperventilating himself towards an early grave.

Again, the guy glances his direction, one eyebrow raised. “Seriously, what’s your problem?” 

Gavin shakes his head and the guy rolls his eyes before returning to his interrogations of the store owner. “You got a list of buyers or something, or are you obligated to keep that shit private?”

“That information is not for public use,” the old man calmly informs him.

The guy slams his hands down on the counter, making Gavin jump again, and swipes his grocery bag full of smashed-to-pieces game back. “Fine,” he snaps. “It’s not like it was fucking important or anything.” He stalks off, though not towards the door as Gavin had expected him to. From a distance, Gavin watches him maneuver through the short rows of shelves, carefully picking his way towards the very place where Gavin had found his own copy of Wires.

And, god, it’s too unreal, too fantastical to be true, but something within Gavin flares with hope anyways. The guy has similar looks (though the difference between pixels and reality is phenomenal), the same speech patterns (cocky and cussy), and the same mannerisms, which Gavin can see even from where he’s standing. He watches the guy pace in front of the empty space on the shelf where the game should be, watches him pause and shift from foot to foot and fist his hands at his sides, and it’s the same.

It’s all the same. 

Slowly, Gavin makes his way over to him, cautious in case he’s wrong. “Ah,” he starts when the guy looks up when he’s still a ways away, eyeing Gavin suspiciously. “I just . . . You were looking for a game?”

The guy frowns at him. “Nice accent.”

Gavin cracks a smile, “Thanks, I was born with it. Do you mind if I ask about your game? I, er, recently bought and broke a game from here too, so . . .”

Shrugging, the guy puffs out a sigh. “It wasn’t that interesting, to tell you the truth. Most of it was complete fucking bullshit, glitched as hell, plotless, and without anything even slightly resembling a clear point or purpose.”

“Then why do you want a new copy?”

“Cause I fucked up.” The guy twirls the bag of disk debris around a finger. “Crushed the thing without thinking and probably destroyed the only good piece of it.” He looks away and rubs a hand over the back of his neck, “It’s going to sound really stupid.”

“I’m full of stupid,” Gavin smirks. “I’m sure it can’t be anything too dumb in comparison.” 

The guy’s eyebrows furrow together for a moment as Gavin’s response hangs in the air. “You . . .” He turns towards the shelf and shakes his head, now pointedly keeping his gaze away. “It’s nothing.”

Gavin edges a little closer, “This is probably going to sound a hundred times stupider than whatever it was you were going to say, but . . . I had a friend, once, a little while ago, and he was sort of a dick.” The guy purses his lips, and Gavin holds up a hand to keep him from interrupting. “An adorable and nice when caught at the right moment sort of dick. And recently, he tried to insist we weren’t really friends because we were, hmm, separated, you could say, by various things. We weren’t really on the same plane, if you know what I mean.” The incredulous look the guy gives him makes Gavin pause for a moment, the fear that he could be wrong licking through him before he extinguishes it again. If he stops now, he’ll never forgive himself, and it will be just one more regret on top of the rest. “He told me that at the end of the day we weren’t friends because we were just ‘two jack offs dicking around in a game,’ that it wasn’t even ‘legit communication, just some bullshit coding,’” Gavin reaches into his bag and withdraws the game, “‘just some bullshit coding connected by some shitty Wires.’”

It takes everything he has to tilt the case up to reveal the shoddily printed cover to Michael, and it is Michael, he knows it by the hitch in the other man’s breath, the way his eyes widen and he stumbles back a half step, arm reaching out behind him to steady himself against one of the shelves. “Oh, fuck,” he gasps out after a heartbeat, eyes flickering between the game and Gavin and back again. “Oh, holy fuck.”

Gavin has a split second of warning wherein Michael’s grip on the shelf falters, and he reaches out to catch him under the arms as his legs buckle. “Whoa, whoa, you donut! Don’t pass out!”

“Not passing out,” Michael says, sounding immensely dazed. “Just sitting down.”

Gavin lowers them both to the ground and Michael leans back heavily against one of the shelves, his head falling to rest on his knees. “Give me a second,” he breathes, and Gavin is just fine with that, because the world’s feeling a bit off kilter for him, too. 

He kneels down in front of Michael, not quite hyperventilating but not exactly calm, either. “This is mental,” he says, which causes Michael to hiccup out a little laugh. “Completely mental.”

“I thought . . .” Michael says once he finds the words, raising his head just enough to stare at Gavin with his chin on his knees. “I thought you were a glitch NPC.”

“I think we had a similar mindset there,” Gavin smiles. 

“When I broke the game . . .”

“Thought you killed me?” Gavin spreads his arms out to the sides. “Sorry, can’t get rid of me that easily.”

Michael cracks a small smile, “Clearly.”

And then they’re laughing, high and loud and totally hysterical as the surprising reality of the situation really and truly sinks in. Gavin falls over a bit so that he’s sitting, back against the shelf opposite to Michael’s, arm held over his eyes as he gasps for breath. Michael isn’t in much of a better state, clutching at his ribs while he howls, and both ruined copies of Wires lay discarded to the side. Once they calm down a little, with only the occasional giggle escaping, Gavin extends a hand. “Should probably introduce myself properly, yeah? I’m Gavin Free, pleased to meet you.”

“Michael Jones,” Michael grins.

Gavin’s not embarrassed to say a little shiver and spark runs through him when Michael takes his hand and shakes it. The feeling works its way up through his arm and sends a shudder down his spine, once and for all confirming that this isn’t some sort of wacked-up dream. “I’m glad,” he says while Michael stares at their still grasped together hands, “that you weren’t just a glitch.”

Michael huffs, “If anyone was the glitch between us, it would have been you. With your fucking made up nonsense words and tendency to trip. In a game. Who the fuck trips in a videogame?”

“Faff is not a made up word!”

“Not even going to try defending the tripping?”

“No, I acknowledge that that was bollocks of me. And I’m still not sure how it happened once, let alone repeatedly.”

Gavin stands and pulls Michael to his feet with him. It would be so easy to let go now, to let his hand fall out of Michael’s and back to his side so they could part with a friendly wave and a vague promise to keep in touch, the way people who meet for the very first time are supposed to do, usually do. But instead he tightens his grip, just a little, and says, “I’ve got a spare coffee and a bit of spare time.”

The smile Michael cracks is apologetic, and Gavin allows his heart to free fall down to his stomach when he sees it, internally cursing himself for assuming the other man might want any sort of contact with him outside the world of Wires. “I actually have an interview to get to,” Michael sighs. “And I’m not entirely sure how to get to the building from here.” He drops Gavin’s hand to reach into his pocket and pull out a crumpled Google Maps printout. “You wouldn’t happen to know, would you?”

Gavin takes the extended paper and blinks at it for a long moment before muttering a disbelieving, “You’ve got to be joking. The universe is messing with me right now.” He flips it around and waves the map in Michael’s face. “You’re interviewing at the Rooster Teeth office? Seriously?!”

“Well, yeah. I got called in the other day. Remember when I said-”

“You said you’d got a call! Not a call from Rooster Teeth, you donut! We could have sorted this all out ages ago if you’d been specific!” Gavin throws the paper aside and grabs Michael’s arm, “Come on, I’m getting you that job.”