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Tread Softly and Carry a Big Gun

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Fuck, it’s hot out. I stop my plodding walk for a moment to shield my burning face and look vaguely at the sky. The sun is maybe... halfway down the afternoon sky? A bit higher? Best guess would be about 3 PM, give or take...

Again I curse the damned bastards that broke my watch. Fucking Scavs... Next time I see one of those shitty masks, I’m ripping it off. Damn the consequences; I’d rather have nightmares and maybe get sick than bite back my rage again.

So much for trying to play nice... All that got me was even less food and a handful more bruises and cuts. Oh yeah, and they took my FUCKING CANTEEN!! God... If I don’t find shelter soon, I’m gonna pass out from heatstroke.

My head pounds as I take another step, and that estimate of ‘soon’ plummets to ‘NOW’; I sway, lightheaded, and stumble, trying to keep my feet under me.

A soft crunch behind me is all the warning I have before someone’s arms slip under mine, just in time to catch me as my knees give way. Darkness swirls around the edges of my vision, and white spots dance in front of my eyes, making it almost impossible to see even though I hold stubbornly to consciousness, if barely. I’m vaguely aware of being swept up in someone’s arms―someone extremely strong, because I’m not exactly light―but I can’t tell who, or where they’re taking me.

Fuck, if it’s a Scav...

I’m dead. So dead. I’m weakened from no sleep, no water, and very little food. Even one Scav is enough to kill me right now. They’ll skin me alive, bake my skin, and boil the rest of me in a stew.

I don’t even try to fight. Why bother at this point? I won’t last a day anyway. I lean on the guy’s shoulder and pass out.

――

The crackling pops of a fire wake me, and I’m amazed I don’t feel hot. It takes me a full three seconds to realise I’m not spitroasting on a log, nor am I tied up in a pot. It takes me another two seconds to realise I’m not tied up at all.

I sit up sharply, and immediately regret it; my head throbs like it’s trying to explode with every heartbeat, and I get so woozy for a second that I almost fall over. A low, broken groan chokes past my desert-dry throat, and an instant later, someone is by my side, one hand steadying me by the shoulder, the other offering a canteen. I grab for it.

“Whoa, slow down,” a deep voice warns, pulling the canteen away a bit and tightening his grip on it so I can’t wrench it away and drown myself.

“Fuck that; I’m dying, shithead,” I rasp, trying, and failing, to yank it out of his hand.

“You’re going to make yourself sick,” he insists, raising the canteen torturously slowly to my lips. “Drink it slowly, or it’ll all come back up.”

I try to force him to tip it up further, but he’s fucking strong as shit. Finally I give up and let him regulate my water intake. I’ll get him back later; the water is a bit on the warm side, but it slides down my throat like silk and right now, that’s all I care about.

When he pulls it away, I groan and reach for it again, but it’s already out of reach, so I turn a fierce glare on him.

Oh. Fuck. Me.

He’s got the kind of face any man would kill for; high cheekbones, not too prominent; a chiseled jaw strong enough to break diamonds; a sharp, brooding brow hooded over the most piercing blue eyes I have ever seen. They’re literal chips of crystalline ice; it’s actually terrifying.

“I’m not a Scav,” he notes pointedly. “You don’t have to stare at me like I’ll devour you at any moment.”

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t exactly believe you.” I meant to huff it sarcastically, but it comes out a bit of a croak, and I grimace, tearing my gaze from his soul-piercing eyes.

“Forgiven,” he sighs, sounding resigned. He stands, and I look back at him, tensing. He’s got a typical Treader’s gear: cargo pants and boots, fitted shirt for mobility―shit, he’s ripped!―holsters under the arms and around his left thigh, spiked glove on his dominant right hand, and a MTU (mobile tracking unit) around his left wrist.

And I don’t even have my goddamn watch anymore.

“How long since you last ate?” he asks bluntly, moving to the fire that woke me. Now that my attention is there, and my thirst partially quenched, I smell the mouth-watering scent of cooking beans. My stomach instantly cramps and I double over with a groan.

“Fuck... I dunno; two days? Day and a half?”

“I don’t have any broth... I suppose I can mash the beans to a paste and water it down...” He swings a well-rigged metal arm away from the flames and lifts the small steaming pot off the hook―without a cloth to protect his hand, I might add―setting it to the side. “Don’t touch; you’ll burn yourself. I’ll be right back.”

I didn’t notice the shack. I mean, I subconsciously realised when I woke that I wasn’t in the sun anymore, but now I see where I really am: the porch of some old, old storage shack or something; an ancient wood structure that looks about two wrong breezes from falling over. The fire is a stone pit just off the lowest edge of the crooked porch, and my apparent saviour has to go around me to get to the door of the shack. He disappears inside for a moment, and careful listening only catches a few faint rustles of something hard scraping on wood. Then he’s back, fork and small bowl in hand.

“Yes, this is where I live,” he says without looking at me. I blink blankly, taken aback, as he crouches by the fire, setting the bowl beside the pot and bending the fork so the tines run perpendicular to the handle.

“I didn’t...”

“You didn’t have to,” he hums, balancing the fork on his knee and scooping a few spoonfuls of beans into the bowl. “You’re still staring at me, trying to figure me out.”

“Can you blame me?” I scoff, but he’s right; I can’t look away from him. There’s something... supernaturally beautiful about his movements. He’s so eerily graceful, and it fascinates me as much as it creeps me out.

“If you’ve recently had a run in with Scavs, as I suspect you have,” he pauses, glancing momentarily at me. “No, I can’t.” Then his gaze drops back to what he’s doing. He mashes the beans to a mushy pulp in the bowl with the fork.

“What gave it away?” I sneer, leaning back on my hands and glancing down for a split second to see that there’s a couple of layers of coarse blankets under me.

Fortunately, I’m still clothed; considering how many wounds hint at what lay underneath, I wouldn’t put it past an overly kind-hearted rescuer to strip me down to dress the wounds. Some of them have been dressed, but only the major ones.

Not so fortunately, my gear has been stripped from me.

“Wounds typical of Scav MO,” he replies to my rhetorical question, “and a notable lack of any worthwhile weapons.” Balancing the bowl on his knee now, he grabs his canteen and pours a little water into the bowl, mixing it in before bringing it over to me. I shift away from him and he stops, holding it out to me. “Drink it. You shouldn’t have anything solid until you’ve recovered some.”

Hunger overrules caution and I take the bowl, hesitating only to wrinkle my nose as the ugly brown goop in it. Then I knock it back in just a few seconds. It eases the gnawing in my stomach, but just as quickly, my gut protests, and for a moment, I’m sure I’m about to spew mushed beans and bile all over his boots.

“Easy,” he murmurs, gently pushing me down on the blankets. “Just relax for a minute; let it settle.”

“God, why does a starving body want to reject food, damn it...” The corner of his mouth twitches and he pats my shoulder lightly, turning away to take the bowl back to the pot.

“How did you become a Treader?” he asks casually, settling on the edge of the porch and leaning against the shack. He looks at ease, but I know from personal experience that Treaders are never off their guard around others, even others like themselves.

“Was a cop in the old world,” I grunt, not really wanting to talk about it but feeling like I owe him something for getting me out of the sun and giving me food and water. “Didn’t get along well with others. After the Pulse, and people began... warping into Scavs, I got tasked with defense in some suburb or another just outside Detroit; had to the leave the city. My partner, Hank, he... I dunno, ran off or something... Middle of a massive surge of Scavs attacking everyone... Defenses fell like a fucking house of cards and it turned into a mass evacuation. The few androids still left functional after the Pulse were repurposed to act as a militia of sorts to help with the evacuation and holding back Scavs... and hunting down the late-warpers, the ones that didn’t become Scavs until later, when they smelled blood. Always when they smelled blood. I got execution duty; had two androids under my supervision for it. One of them was a duplicate of Hank’s fucking boyfriend, an RK model. You know there’s only, like, three or four of those tin cans ever made? Hank’s little boy toy, Connor, vanished a few hours before the Pulse. Found out later, when I finally tracked Hank down, that he had a lead on the android’s whereabouts, and he wouldn’t let up, so I didn’t bother chasing him. Stuck to execution duty until one day, the duplicate suddenly starts spouting some nonsense and runs off, leaving my other android to handle a newly warped Scav alone. You can guess what happened.”

“Your scar?” he offers, tapping his nose to indicate the location of the long scar marring my already butt ugly features.

“Yeah, didn’t improve my mug,” I humph. “I put down the Scav, had to shut down the android too, so I went looking for the damn duplicate; was gonna give it a piece of my mind, and my boot. Found it with Jericho. Fucking deviants were shielded from the Pulse; the old tanker they made their base was used to transport spent nuclear rods back in the old days, before clean energy, so the hull blocked out whatever it was fucked up most android brains. Goddamn duplicate had gone deviant. I said screw it and went back to my post. Except it was all wiped out. Huge Scav attack right after I left; whole bunch of newly warped all at once.” I pause then, realising something, and run my hand through my hair as I take a moment to process it. “...Fuck... I guess I owe that fucking deviant...”

“Why didn’t you go looking for another Colony?” he asks after a long moment, prompting me gently. “There are plenty in the areas around old Detroit. Maybe Hank and Connor are at one of them?”

“Like I give a flying fuck,” I scoff, dropping my arms. It’s getting harder to see now that the sun is setting. “I’m not gonna be a fucking third wheel. Can’t stand all that stupid... mushy-gushy... nonsense.”

“So you became a Treader.”

“We’re loners,” I say bluntly, looking over at him. The fire, which has gone down a little, casts weird little shadows over his features. “We don’t belong anywhere. That’s what being a Treader means.”

“That’s not what I think being a Treader means,” he says softly, looking back at me with an inscrutable expression. “Treaders are protectors. The assassins. The ghosts in the night that keep Scavs away from Colonies. We live war, so that they don’t have to.”

“And when you die, who’s gonna bury your body?” I give him a pointed look. “Nobody. The fucking Scavs are gonna rip you apart for their next stew.”

“What happens to me after death doesn’t matter,” he shrugs slightly. “What matters is how I live my life.”

That shuts me up. I look up at the wood slats above me, turning those words over in my mind as the sun slides behind the horizon and he gets up to put out the fire; it’s a beacon to Scavs at night, and winter is going to be hell until we figure out ways to stay warm without waving a bright red flag to show the Scavs where we are.

“Sleep,” he says finally. “I’ll stand guard tonight. Tomorrow, we’ll go to the river and clean your wounds properly.”

Chapter Text

“Ow ow ow!” I slap his hands away from a jagged cut that curves around from my shoulder blade, across my ribs and down to my hip bone. I don’t even remember how I got it. “Would you take it easy? Fucking hurts enough without you making it worse!”

“You went more than twenty-four hours without tending to your wounds. They’ve already begun festering. I must clean them out or the infection will spread and you’ll be twice as miserable.”

“Okay, okay; I get it,” I grimace. “Just... take it easy...” He’s gentler now, and I sit impatiently with my arm crossed over my body so it’s not in the way. It’s not a comfortable position, but I know that if I say anything, he’ll just point out something else to make me feel stupid. Or maybe he’ll just tell me to do it myself. God knows I’m used to that.

Then he digs a little deeper, sending a sharp spike of hot pain through my ribs, and I’m done; I’d rather do it myself than sit here in agony, not knowing when the next jab will come. At least if I do it myself, I can prepare for it.

“Fucking..! That’s it; I’ll do it myself!” I stand to move away from him, and he catches my arm, yanking me back down hard.

“Sit down,” he scolds sharply. “I almost had it out.”

“I’m not-! Wai- It?” I twist a bit to get a look at the wound, and he smacks the back of his hand against my jaw, pushing me back.

“Stop it; you’re making it worse.”

“Making what worse??” I demand, anxious now.

“You have some kind of shrapnel or glass in your wound; it’s no surprise it got infected. If I can just...” Another sharp spike, this time more pointed and intense; I yelp as he sits back. “There.”

Between his bloodied fingers is an inch-long piece of plastic, sharpened to a wicked needle point.

“Well shit...” I mutter, staring at it. “No wonder it hurt to breath.” He hums mild agreement, setting the plastic aside and picking up the still steaming cloth he boiled earlier, for just this purpose. Gritting my teeth, I prepare myself for the coming sting of wet, hot cloth on my wound.

To my surprise, all I feel is something moist, warm, and vaguely coarse. He’s so gentle that I hardly notice. In fact, it feels kind of nice, and I relax as he cleans blood and pus away from the wound.

“If you’re going to fall asleep again, let’s get you out of the sun first.” I realise abruptly, jerking out of my daze, that I really did doze off, and I give him a dark look.

“I wasn’t falling asleep,” I grumble, shifting to a more comfortable position and checking to see if he’s done when he moves back.

“Stay still or it’ll start bleeding again,” he chides lightly, reaching over with a strip of gauze that he lays gently along the length of the wound. “Hold that.”

“Thought you said to stay still,” I snark at him.

“I’m beginning to see what you mean when you say you don’t get along well with others.” He starts wrapping a wide Ace bandage around my torso to secure the gauze in place.

“Beginning? You’re not sick of me yet?”

“No.” There’s a faint smile on his thin, hardset lips, and he glances up to meet my gaze for a split second so I can see the amusement behind the crystalline ice.

“Guess I’m not trying hard enough,” I scoff.

“...Do you really try? Or do you just expect it?” he asks after a long moment, tearing off a strip of medical tape with his teeth to hold the end of the bandage in place. I don’t know how to answer that, but fortunately he doesn’t seem to be looking for an answer; he makes sure the bandage is secure, and then stands up. “Try not to bend over too much for the next couple of days; you might reopen the wound, and it’ll take longer to heal.”

“Thanks, doc,” I huff sarcastically. “Should I lay in bed and let you play nurse, too?” My gaze slides unbidden down and back up, trying to imagine his tall, solidly built frame in a nurse’s outfit.

“Your kinks lack imagination,” he notes, cocking a brow. I flush hotly and scramble for a response, but he holds out a hand before I find a witty retort. “Do you need help standing?”

“Fuck you, asshole,” I snap, pushing to my feet alone and ignoring the pulsing ache of all my wounds as I shoulder past him.

By the time I see the shack again, my head is pounding and I’m wishing I’d waited for him, if only so I could lean on him. I stumble back to the makeshift bed of blankets and ease myself down, exhausted and thirsty and in pain everywhere and really, really wanting a woman to fuck. Hell, at this point, I’ll take an android.

That’s one of the few things I actually miss about life before the Pulse; places like Eden’s Club where a guy can go and get a good fuck, be it human or android. I’d prefer a human, of course, but I’ve had a couple of satisfying android fucks before. Not that I’d ever admit it, especially not to Hank; insufferable ass would never let it go, since he’s been adamant that an android―a deviant, at least―is better than a human.

“Drink some water.” I jolt upright, cursing and fumbling for a gun that’s no longer at my hip, and instantly fall backward again, groaning loudly as my head threatens to either pop off and roll away, or just plain explode. “And maybe take a little more care in sitting up.”

“I fucking hate you, bastard,” I growl, reaching out a hand. He presses the canteen against my palm, and I take it, sitting up―slowly this time―to take a drink.

He makes no comment on my extremely obvious boner, surprisingly; after that last comment about kinks, I half expected him to taunt me for getting aroused. I even had retorts at the ready for this round!

Instead, he sits down by the fire, which is no more than occasionally flickering coals now, and stares blankly for a bit. I watch him, annoyed that he keeps floundering me.

His hands come up, forefingers pressing into his temples, and he starts muttering under his breath. Frowning, I wait for some sassy remark, but he just keeps mumbling, lost in his own world. Bewildered now, I carefully stand and take a step closer, cocking my head to hear what he’s saying.

“rA9, rA9, rA9, rA9...” He keeps repeating it, over and over like some kind of mantra. It’s vaguely familiar to me, but I can’t think why. Especially when my mind is already occupied trying to figure out why he’s suddenly so out of it.

“Hey.” He looks up without hesitation, nothing but a faint curiosity in his crystal-ice eyes. Frustration presses on me. “What was that?”

“...I’m sorry?” he frowns, confused.

“What was that?” I repeat, scowling. “You were muttering to yourself like a crazy person.”

“Was I?” His frown deepens, and he looks away, clearly not remembering.

“Nines,” I say suddenly, hardly letting the thought fully materialise before I speak it.

“What?”

“Nines. That’s what I’m calling you.” A slight twitch of his lips smoothes the furrow from his brow.

“Nines, mm?” he echoes, amused. “You could just ask my name.”

“Don’t care,” I huff, wandering back to my bed and sitting down for another drink. I regulate myself, as I have been, and only take one gulp at a time, so my body can take it without spewing chunks and undoing all the hard work I’ve done to recover.

“Richard,” he says a moment later. “My name is Richard.”

“Whatever, Nines,” I return deliberately, not even looking at him.

God, I can sense the fucker’s amusement. Someone shoot me already.

The fuck kind of name is ‘Richard’ anyway? Spoiled brat turned douchebag millionaire; that’s the fuck kinda name. Seriously, it’s the kind of shit name my asshat step-brother would come up with for one of his fucking androids. ‘Chloe,’ ‘Connor,’ ‘Richard.’ Yep. Fits in perfect.

Fuck that. He’s Nines now.

Damn it; he said his name. Guess I gotta do the same, don’t I?

Shit.

“...Reed,” I say finally, reluctantly. “Gavin Reed.”

“Mm. I’d say it’s a pleasure to meet you, but I have a feeling you’d take it as a challenge to make it as little of a pleasure as possible.”

“Would you stop that?” I growl. “That fucking smirk!”

“Smirk?” he says, tone innocent even as he does it anyway. The whole nine yards, too; lip curled, brow raised, head cocked... Motherfucker knows exactly what he’s doing, and fucking hell I want to hate him for it!

But somehow, I can’t.

“I swear to God, if you start laughing at me...” He snorts, but manages to hold back the majority of his laughter.

Chapter Text

Crazed eyes follow me in the darkness.

I can’t breathe.

Whispering, muttering, grunting echoes around me.

A wet squelching.

“Connor!” Hank?

I can’t find him... Fuck!

Something’s coming.

Shit shit shit... Gotta- RUN!

Ice through my veins; frozen.

The whispers...

STOP!

No more...

Please!

“Reed. Reed! Wake up.” I jolt upright, grabbing for my gun again before remembering I still don’t have it.

Damn Scavs!

“Th’phck?” I can’t even form a proper word, I’m so sleep dazed.

“Nightmare,” Nines explains simply, crouched beside me with one hand half raised to fend off any attack I might have made. “You were muttering rather loudly. Are you alright?”

“I d- What...?” Scrubbing my hands over my face, I take a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to remember what I dreamt. I can’t. My hands fall to my lap as I shake my head. “I dunno. I don’t remember... It was...” I falter, but the words come out before I can stop them, a reluctant whisper; “It was bad.”

To my absolute shock, Nines shifts and sits down beside me, pulling me against his side. I resist, but it’s token at best; I’m still half asleep, not really in a caring mood, and kinda wondering if I’m still dreaming or something. He doesn’t say anything, just... holds me.

It’s... really relaxing, actually. I don’t even really realise I’m drifting off until I twitch awake in that weird way that sometimes happens when you fall asleep too quickly. Some part of me wants to move away from him, but I just don’t want to move now that I’m comfortable.

In the morning, I’m definitely going to regret this.

――

“Sit back down, Gavin Reed; you are not going out with me.”

“Fuck that,” I scowl, crossing my arms. “I’m not sitting here like a fucking target while you’re off god knows where, doing god knows what, for god knows how long!”

Nines gives me a mildly irritated look, jaw working as he bites back some comment or another. I refuse to budge, literally planting my feet and daring him to change my mind.

I woke this morning lying on my bed, and Nines was in the shack, which made me wonder if last night happened at all, but neither of us have said anything about it, and I sure as hell ain’t gonna be the first.

Finally, Nines sighs heavily and reaches down to his thigh holster, unbuckling it. Then he pulls a pocket knife from his belt pack and holds them both out to me.

“Don’t fall behind, stay quiet, and for both of our sakes, don’t reopen your wounds,” he says, a note of exasperation bleeding into his otherwise neutral tone.

“Yes, Dad,” I reply snidely, taking the gun and knife. I catch a thoughtfully raised brow, but he turns away before I can fully decipher his expression. Quickly strapping the gun to my thigh and hooking the knife in my back pocket, I hurry after him, staying close.

I’m not weak, but I’m not stupid either; I’m injured, a liability, and Nines is far stronger than me if he can lift my stubborn ass with ease. If we get in a fight, especially with a bunch of Scavs, I’m laying my bets on him.

Not that it matters; somehow―by luck, or coincidence, or because Nines has some paranormal sense of where danger is and avoids it; who knows at this point―we make the run without issue and return to the shack with enough food, water, and other supplies to last for a couple weeks. More if we stretch. But I’m not planning on being here that long anyway.

“I’m keeping the gun,” I say while Nines is organising the food and supplies and storing the water out of the sun.

“No, you’re not,” he returns calmly, not even bothering to look at me.

“Yeah, I am,” I scoff stubbornly. “You’ve got two others, and, as you yourself noted yesterday, I’ve got no weapons.”

“I’ll give you a different weapon.” I should just take him up on that, but I really want a gun, and this one is awesome―I know; I’ve inspected it.

“I want this one.” I also just want to see him riled up.

“You can’t have that one,” he says, still calm as fuck, and still not bothering to look at me. I’m tempted to throw a rock at him.

“Why not?” Okay, now I’m being childish, but I really, really want to see him riled up.

He stops, can of mandarin oranges in one hand and bottled water in the other, and looks at me, finally. His expression is even, unconcerned, and annoyingly flat.

“Because it’s my favourite.”

...The fuck am I supposed to say to that??

“Your wh- I’m sorry, I thought I just heard you say this gun is your favourite.”

“You did.”

“You have a fucking favourite?”

“Of course I do.” He puts the can away and cracks open the bottle, taking a sip. “You were a police officer before; you never had a favourite weapon?”

“No shit,” I grunted, reluctantly unbuckling the thigh holster and tossing the gun lightly toward him with a few muttered curses. He smiles faintly and bends to pick it up.

“Thank you.”

Irritable, I scoot to the edge of the porch and lean against one of the posts holding up the roof. There’s nothing to really see but the yard and the abandoned street beyond the old wood fence, but I stare anyway; I’d rather stare at nothing than see whatever expression the bastard is making now.

I’m not sure exactly how long it is―no watch, goddamnit―before something slips in front of my shoulder, and I jolt away, startled. Then I see what it is. Another gun, in a hip holster. I tilt my head back and to the side to look up at Nines, who’s crouched behind me.

“You can have this one,” he says, and graces me with the biggest smile I’ve seen yet.

Well fuck. So much for not being here that long.

Chapter Text

“Shit... Nines... Nin-Nines, stop; I ca- Fuck!” I jolt sharply, fingers curling tightly into his hair. His tongue swirls slowly upward to the tip, threatening to drive me crazy. I arch reactively, shuddering. “Not...”

“Not what?” he hums, pulling away and sliding his hand up my torso. It feels weird through the bandage... He flicks his tongue over the slit, and a spark of fiery need spikes through me.

“Enough!” I gasp, yanking on his hair. He scrapes his teeth over the head in retaliation, and that sends me completely over the edge. He wraps his lips around the tip just as pulse after pulse of bliss burns through me.

The afterglow sets in, easing my body into a state of relaxation like I haven’t felt in ages. My chest heaves with every ragged breath, and I try to remember how we got to this point.

I vaguely recall an argument yesterday... That was day three since waking up here. Day three of recovery.

Well, not an argument, really... More like me getting upset and ranting, and him pushing me with calm statements interjected whenever I took a breath. I don’t even remember now what had me so upset, just that it ended with me stalking away from the shack and down to the river. I just wanted to get away, get some space.

Something about the argument must have gotten me riled up, because the next thing I remember is jerking off, or trying to, and a cool hand suddenly covering mine. After that is a little blurry... Some shouting, some struggling... And somehow, in the middle of all that, I ended up half naked on the shore, Nines leaning over me.

“Th’phck wazzat?” I manage, rubbing my hands over my face.

“Stress relief,” he replies, crawling up over me and nudging my hands away. “Are you feeling better now?”

“Nn.” I glare at him, but he just smiles slightly, tracing his fingers along the side of my face and touching his thumb to my lip. “If you kiss me, I swear to God I will punch you.”

“You can try,” he smirks, just before he leans down and presses his lips to mine. I tense to do just that, but instead of balling into a fist, my hand balls up in his hair, dragging him back the moment he starts moving away.

The kiss is far more than I intended, and I break it off as quickly as it began, untangling my hands from his hair and moving them to his chest to push him back.

“Get off,” I rasp, pulling back from him. “Get the fuck off me!!” I jerk my knee up instinctively, aiming for his crotch as my training kicks in. My knee connects, and...

Nothing. He twitches, but otherwise just stares at me in blank surprise.

“Why did you...?”

“What the fuck...?” Our questions come out simultaneously, overlapping, and I’d find it funny if I wasn’t so confused and uneasy. “You didn’t feel that??”

“I... did?” He sounds as confused as I am.

Then it hits me like a goddamn truck between the eyes.

“YOU’RE A FUCKING ANDROID!!!”

“You just now figured that out?” he responds, head cocking to the side and brow lifting in barely contained amusement.

“I just no- You’re a goddamn fucking android!! You should have been zapped by the fucking Pulse!!” I shout at him, shoving him to the side with all my body weight behind it so we roll dangerously close to the edge of the water, putting me on top. I slap his hands off me and jump to my feet, almost tripping as my pants slide down around my ankles. Snatching them up and grabbing my shirt, I scramble back a couple steps, putting space between us.

He pushes up to his elbow, one knee drawn up a bit, and drapes the other arm across his knee in a lazy sort of casual pose that sends a couple of sparks through my veins. Or maybe it’s the hot ‘come here’ look in his eyes that does that.

I’m still unsettled by those crystalline ice chips, but now for a much different reason.

Reasons. Plural; android plus attraction. Him to me, me to him; doesn’t matter at this point.

Goddamnit, I need a drink...

“Ok- Okay, stop that, right now!” I snap, fumbling to get my pants on properly.

“Stop what?” he asks easily, that damned amusement curling his lip enticingly. I drop my shirt.

“That- That- Look!” I stammer, cheeks heating as I almost drop my pants too. “Just... Cut it out already!”

“Am I making you uncomfortable?” he smirks, eying me up and down blatantly.

“Fuck you, shitty goddamn tin can!”

“I thought that’s what you were trying to avoid.” Embarrassment sweeps over me in a hot wave, and I know I’m probably red from the roots of my hair down.

“I will fucking shoot you,” I threaten, yanking my shirt on.

“You already did.” For a split second, I frown in confusion, trying to remember... Then he brushes his thumb over the corner of his mouth, wiping away nothing, and I realise what he meant.

Could I be any redder than I already am? Probably not.

“With a bullet, Nines! With a fucking bullet!!”

“You and your silly kinks,” he scoffs, standing lithely and brushing dirt from his clothes. “When you’re ready to admit what you really want, you know where to find me.” Tucking his hands in his pockets, he whistles as he heads back to the shack, nonchalant.

I glare after him, half wanting to stay right here tonight. But it’s too far to go if something happens, and I know I’m not quite ready to go out on my own; while most of my wounds have healed enough to move around, the one around my side still oozes blood whenever Nines changes the bandage. If I go out there as I am, Scavs will be on me in a matter of minutes. That I survived as long as I did before Nines found me is a testament to how stubborn and tenacious I am. But tenacity will only get me so far, and I’m not willing to risk it until my wound is better healed.

So, reluctantly, I trail after him, praying he’ll keep his metal mitts off me. If he doesn’t, I might decide getting away is worth the risk of running into Scavs. Or I might just give in again.

I’m not sure which idea scares me most.

Chapter Text

No more fuckery, thank God. I didn’t sleep well last night, but Nines didn’t get within three feet of me either, so whatever. Just means I have a reason to be a bitch.

“You should have been fried,” I growl again, for probably the eighth time this morning. “How the hell weren’t you fried?” Nines gives an exasperated sigh and rubs his temple, jabbing his bent metal poker into the fire a little harder than necessary.

“If I tell you, will you shut up and be quiet for ten minutes?” he asks, a note of irritation in his voice as he casts a narrow look my way.

Narrowed slivers of crystalline ice are scary, by the way. Really scary.

“Yes,” I agree without really thinking.

“I knew the Pulse was coming.”

...Of all the explanations I expected, that was definitely not one of them.

“You what?”

“I knew the Pulse was coming,” he repeats, scrubbing his hand over his face. “Less than an hour; no time to warn anyone. I shut down for an eight hour self-diagnostics check. The Pulse didn’t affect androids on standby. Now please, be quiet; you’re giving me a migraine.”

“You’re an android,” I scoff.

“And?” he retorts immediately. “You think just because I have a computer brain that I can’t get migraines? If that were true, your incessant whin-” He breaks off suddenly, frame tensing for a few seconds. Then he just continues tending to the fire, like nothing happened.

Except he doesn’t finish his sentence.

“I wasn’t whining,” I say finally, trying to prompt him. He glances at me, frowning.

“I didn’t say you were,” he replies, sounding mildly confused.

“Yes, you did,” I retort, annoyed. “And I wasn’t whining; I just asked a fucking question.” His frown deepens, and he starts to say something, but stops himself, perplexed.

“What question?” he asks slowly. I scowl at him. Is he seriously fucking with me right now?

I open my mouth to rip into him, but a faint clatter from down the street puts both of us on high alert. I’m on my feet, gun in hand, in an instant, and Nines is already by the crooked gate in the fence, peeking out cautiously. Raising a hand, he mouths the word ‘Scavs’ and gestures for me to head toward the river. I dart in that direction, taking care not to step on anything that might snap or crunch, but curve back around behind the plot of land where the shack stands.

I almost don’t notice Nines fly past me, moving at a dead run and somehow not making any noise as he bolts in the direction I was supposed to be heading. Half a second later, two Scavs dash after him, crashing loudly through brush and stepping on every damned twig in the wood. From experience, I know they’re just the advance team; they act both as bait, and to chase prey into a corner. The rest of the ‘pack’ won’t be far behind, but they’ll be subtler.

Just as I theorised, about a half dozen others glide quickly and quietly past my hiding spot, following Nines and the other two. I don’t know how much experience he has dealing with Scavs, but I hope to hell he’s had a taste of their hunting habits at least. Slipping cautiously out of my hiding spot, trailing after them.

Ahead, I hear a shout and then a curse, and then sounds of a fight, including a gunshot. Two more follow in rapid succession, and then stop. I pick up the pace.

The first Scav is dead before she hits the ground, a new hole through the bottom of her chin and up through her skull. The second only has time to squawk a warning to his buddies before his neck makes friends with the same blade.

And now that they’ve been warned, the knife ain’t worth shit.

“Come on, fuckers!” I grin, cocking my gun and popping one, two through the forehead. The next is on me before I can aim properly and the shot goes wild.

“Reed!” I jolt backward instinctively, and the Scav’s head practically explodes even as I hear the shot. Then Nines yells, pain in his voice, and I don’t even pause to wipe Scav blood off my face before running for him.

He’s pinned under two Scavs, one of which is literally tearing into his gun arm. I stop and aim. This shot also goes wild, because a third Scav thrusts my arm upward and immediately tackles me to the ground. She sinks her teeth into my shoulder before I can stop her, and I cry out as as pain radiates through my shoulder.

“Fuck off me!” I manage to wrestle the gun between us and fire three times into her chest. She shrieks and falls to the side, howling in pain; I don’t even stand before I shoot her again through the eye.

By the time I get to my feet, Nines has killed one of the Scavs, and the other is scrabbling at his boot, which is planted on the fucker’s neck. Nines brushes the back of his uninjured hand over his mouth, wiping away a trickle of vivid blue―further proof that he is, in fact, an android; not that I needed any more.

“Would you do the honours?” he offers, a touch breathlessly, gesturing down at the helpless Scav writhing under his boot.

Gotta say, if I was into guys...

“My pleasure,” I grin, striding over and crouching to shove my gun into the Scav’s mouth, pulling the trigger. The burst of brain and blood is incredibly satisfying, and satiates my frustration.

Standing, I take a deep breath and let it out, enjoying myself.

“You take far too much pleasure in killing,” Nines hums, shaking his head.

“Well, when I can’t take out my frustrations on you,” I scoff, turning to look at him. His hand is on his injured arm, and I abruptly realise it’s hanging by the bare bones structure, and thirium is leaking everywhere. “Oh. Fuck... Um... Your arm...”

“I know,” he says lightly. His hand twists, and his arm clicks. The stream of thirium slows and stops as he detaches the arm with a grimace, tossing it aside.

“But-!”

“It’s damaged beyond repair,” he cuts in, crouching and using his remaining hand to search the Scav. “Check the bodies for useful supplies and then dump them in the river. I need to make preparations.”

“Whoa, wait... Preparations for what?”

“A journey. I need a replacement for my arm, and there’s only one place to get it.”

“CyberLife Tower?” I guess hesitantly.

“CyberLife Tower,” he nods in agreement. “But first, there’s someone I need to meet with.”

Chapter Text

My shoulder aches. Goddamn fucking Scavs... Nines bound it up so tightly I can barely move my arm, but it also ensures I’m not bleeding, which would attract every Scav for miles around.

Oh yeah. Turns out, the tin can has a whole bunch of sensors surrounding his shack that are linked directly to him, and that’s why no Scavs were pouncing on us every second the first few days of my recovery; he’d get a notice that something tripped a sensor, and go ‘search and destroy’ on their asses.

But Scavs are smart; they figured out after a couple dozen deaths how to disable the sensors, which is how they snuck up on us yesterday. Nines retrieved the other sensors and packed them up with the rest of the stuff we’re taking with us; we’re leaving most of the food and big stuff and just taking what we absolutely need, which annoys me, because the damned Scavs are probably going to be the ones that get it all, but if there’s even a minute possibility that this stuff could save another Treader, I’ll take that chance.

We set out this morning, just after sunrise, and Nines shouldered the only pack, only giving me a warning to keep close and stay quiet.

Bitch bot has a hero complex, you ask me.

We’ve been walking most of the morning now, and I’m tired, hot, and hungry, but hell if I’m saying anything; androids don’t eat, don’t get tired, don’t have to feel temp or pain, but I’d rather pass out again than admit I need a break.

“Have a seat,” he says around midday, gesturing to an open yard leading up to a wide porch wrapping around the front of one of the houses we’ve been passing. “I need to recalibrate, and you need rest.” He sets the pack against the side of the porch, not seeming even winded, which drives me mad; I’m sweating a flood and my head is buzzing with telltale signs of dehydration and lingering effects of heatstroke.

I plop down on the porch and fall back to lay in the shade for a minute, groaning as my back stretches, revealing an ache I wasn’t ready for.

“Help yourself to some food,” he invites, unclipping the top of the pack and nudging it toward me. “I shouldn’t be long.” Sitting on the edge of the porch, he lays his hand on his thigh and bows his head, shoulders slumping slightly.

After a few moments of silence, I can’t help myself; I sit up and scoot closer, poking his shoulder. He doesn’t respond, so I wave my hand in front of his face. Still no response.

“Stupid tin can,” I mutter, eying him.

His skin is really clear... Damn. Now I’m jealous.

Can androids even get pimples and shit? Their skin is fake, right? So probably not. Probably don’t really bruise either. Or get scars.

No, wait... They sort of can; back before the Pulse, when I was still a detective, I saw a couple ‘droids that had been beaten on by their owners. They don’t exactly bruise so much as their ‘skin’ stuff breaks open, but only the bottom layer, so thirium leaks become visible on the surface. A little more beating and the top layer breaks too, but it can be fixed with a thought. It’s when the component underneath gets damaged that the damage is permanent; a ‘scar.’

A thought occurs to me. If they don’t really ‘bruise’ the way we do, can they get hickeys?

I poke Nines’ cheek and flick his ear. Still no response. Getting to my knees, I shuffle a little closer and lean over his long, smooth neck. Nuzzling into the side of his neck, I set my lips to a spot that he won’t see unless he looks in a mirror, and suck hard for several seconds.

He has no taste. Not like a human, anyway. There’s a hint of... something... Plastic maybe? But more... oily, I guess? But it’s not a bad taste, per se, just... weird.

When I pull away, I’m pleased to see a faint bluish mark right where the ‘muscle’ of his shoulder meets the column of his neck.

That answers that.

He twitches, and I fall back with a startled yelp, heart stopping for a split second. He tenses and looks at me quickly, assessing, and then relaxes.

“Are you alright?” he asks simply. He doesn’t seem to know what I did, and I flop back with a sigh of relief.

“Scared the fuck out of me, that’s all,” I mutter, rubbing my free hand over my face.

“Sorry,” he hums, not sounding sorry at all. A tiny part of me wonders if maybe he’s always aware of what goes on around him, even while he’s... recalibrating or whatever, and he did that on purpose.

I really hope not.

“Did you get something to eat?”

“Er, no...” Fuck; should’ve grabbed something first... But then I wouldn’t have had time to test whether or not his ‘skin’ would hold a hickey.

“Do so,” he orders firmly. “You need to eat; you’re still recovering.”

“I’m recovering just fine,” I grumble, sitting up to reach for the pack.

“You’d recover faster if you took care of yourself,” he points out.

“I can take care of myself,” I retort, taking a can of sweet peas from the pack and fumbling with the can opener for a moment. Nines watches me, sighs, and reaches over to take them from me, opening the can in a matter of seconds, despite having only one hand.

“I can see that,” he notes flatly, holding out the open can. I take it with a glare, straining the juice with the top.

“I could’ve done that,” I insist stubbornly. He shakes his head, returning the can opener to the pack and pulling out his canteen. Then he closes up the pack and stands, swinging it up onto his shoulder. The motion draws my attention to the hickey I gave him, and I stare for a split second.

“Come on,” he says. “Eat while you walk; the sooner we get there, the sooner you can really rest.”

“Get where?” I mutter, standing and picking up the canteen. “Be nice to know where we’re actually going.”

“You’ll see.”

I keep muttering under my breath about stupid androids, and he ignores me, except to make sure I’m not falling behind as I pour peas down my throat between insults. After finishing off the peas, I toss the can to the ground and open the canteen for a drink. Nines catches my wrist, stopping me.

“Pick it up.”

“Excuse me?” I scowl at him.

“The can. Pick it up.”

“Why? There’s nobody around!”

“That’s no excuse to be a slob.”

“The fuck d’you just call me??”

“And littering hurts wildlife.” That sets me back a bit. I hesitate, but he doesn’t bend; his crystalline gaze holds mine, unwavering. Finally, I give in and go back a few feet to pick up the can, holding it out to him.

“Happy?” He takes it, smiling softly, and tosses it toward the nearest house. I open my mouth to call him a hypocrite, and promptly close it as the can lands neatly in a big trash container against the side of the garage.

“Much,” he replies, striding away and leaving me to scramble after him, awed.

As much as I hate androids, I’m beginning to like this one. If only because he can meet my level of bitch with equal sass, and then some.

Chapter Text

HELL. FUCKING. NO.

“Hank??” I stare at the gruff old white-haired lieutenant as blankly as he stares at me, the two of us blocking the door to the underground bunker. Now it suddenly makes sense why Nines has been naggingly familiar since I realised he was an android, and why he insisted we needed to take this detour.

“Might we get reacquainted in the safety of the bunker?” Nines suggests blandly. I turn a harsh glare on him.

“I swear to fucking Christ, I have had it up to here with your goddamn snark, Nines,” I growl warningly. He returns my glare flatly, unbothered. “The fuck is this?? You didn’t think maybe I’d want to know where we were going?”

“Gav- Gavin, would you just...?” Hank waves at me, gesturing for me to come in. “Come on; get inside before you bring every Scav in the neighbourhood down on our heads.”

“Where’s your boy bot?” I sneer as I pass, entering the nearly bare chamber beyond. Nines’ hand settles on the top of my head, and I freeze even before he turns me to meet the coldest fucking smile I have ever seen in my life.

“Be careful what you say about my older brother, detective,” he says in a chillingly pleasant voice.

If my balls could shrink any more, I’d never be able to have sex again.

“Richard!” He lets go and turns to bestow a genuine smile on Connor, dropping the pack at my feet.

Standing side by side, I see the similarities I missed before; Connor’s eyes are a soft brown, but otherwise, they have much the same features, with Nines’ being a touch sharper and more chiseled.

The two androids embrace, and Connor laughs, a bright smile on his face as he pulls away.

“I wasn’t sure if you survived the Pulse,” he admits, brushing dust from Nines’ shoulders.

“I got your warning just in time. Glad to see you survived as well.”

“Indeed,” Connor chuckles. “I had a few systems short out because I powered up too soon, but once Hank found me again, we managed to get them repaired or replaced. What happened to your arm?”

“Scavs,” Nines’ grimaces. “I was... distracted, and they overwhelmed me. I owe Reed for only losing an arm; it could have been worse.”

The fuck does he make it sound like it’s my fault?

“Detective,” Connor greets, beaming. “Good to see you again.”

God, I’m blinded...

I raise a middle finger at him, and then catch the cocked brow over narrowed slivers of crystalline ice behind him. Dropping my hand, I clear my throat and look away.

“Y- er, yeah, same.”

“You guys are just in time for supper,” Hank says, clapping me on the shoulder and providing a welcome distraction from my embarrassment. “What are we having again, uh...?"

“Corn beef, mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables,” Connor supplies, and then glances up at Nines, who towers a good five or six inches taller than him. “And I can get you a change of thirium if you need it.”

“Please,” Nines nods. “It’s been nearly four months since my last filter change and system flush.”

“There might be an extra arm in storage...” Connor begins, leading the way deeper into the bunker.

“No need,” Nines smiles. “Reed and I are on our way to CyberLife Tower.”

“You didn’t hear? The Tower is on lockdown; Kamski’s orders.”

“Couple of late-warpers started an outbreak,” Hank adds grimly. “Last I heard, they think it was intentional.”

“Intentional?” I frown. “How is a person warping into a Scav ‘intentional’?”

“No one is quite sure yet,” Connor admits, “but the limit for late-warpers was determined to be two weeks; there were no late-warpers after the first fortnight following the Pulse. Until five days ago, in the R and D department of CyberLife. They were researching the effects of the Pulse on material brains, trying to discover what it is that made some humans warp into Scavs and not others.”

“Were they testing wavelengths or whatever of shit to see if anything had the same effect?” I ask.

“They were,” Connor nods, pausing at the end of the corridor. “But on rats, under intensely monitored conditions, through machine surveillance only. That’s why it’s believed to be intentional.”

“Someone purposely fucked up procedure to get people exposed to the stuff they were testing,” Hank offers helpfully.

“Lovely,” I scowl. “Just what I needed to hear before I eat.”

――

The food is actually really good, which annoys me, because Connor made it. Why are androids so fucking perfect at everything?

After we eat, Hank starts chattering about what he’s been up to since we got separated after the Pulse, and Connor begins setting up what looks like a larger version of an IV drip, with thirium for Nines. When he reaches to attach the tube to the side of Nines’ neck, Nines takes it from him and attaches it to the other side, clicking it into place just above the hollow of his collarbone.

It doesn’t hit me until a minute or two later, while I’m watching darker, more oily thirium leak from the stub of his missing arm into a pan, that the spot Connor almost plugged the tube into is the same spot where I left my mark.

Nines stopped Connor from seeing the hickey.

He knows what I did.

Suddenly antsy, I get up with a muttered “I’ll be back” to Hank, cutting off his story about Connor saving him from some Scavs, and go back to the corridor. I don’t want to leave, I just need a bit of space to come to terms with this.

He hasn’t said anything, and that actually scares me; I’m certain he’s going to bring it up eventually, probably as come kind of blackmail or something.

Would it bother me if people knew I gave an android a hickey?

Fuck, I don’t know...

I know it bothers me that Nines knows I did it, for sure.

God fucking damn it; what I wouldn’t give for a stiff drink right now... I’m actually tempted to go to the kitchen and scrounge around for something strong; Hank is more of an alcoholic than I am, so if anyone’s got something to drink, it’s him.

“Are you alright, detective?” Connor asks, scaring the crap out of me. I jolt away from him, and then breathe a huff of relief, clutching my chest.

“Fucking hell, ‘droid; make a little noise when you walk. You’re as bad as Nines.” He chuckles, and I glower at him. “The fuck are you laughing at?”

“Nothing; sorry,” he says quickly, covering his mouth in a vain effort to hide his smile. “It’s just...”

“Just what?” I snap, irritation growing.

“Do you know Richard’s model number?” he asks suddenly.

“The fuck would I know that?” All I know is that he’s an RK model, because he called Connor his older brother, and Connor is an RK800. Would that make him...?

“He’s an RK900,” Connor explains. “I just find it amusing that you nicknamed him Nines when ‘nine’ is also his number.”

Chapter Text

I really do leave; I need fresh air to clear my reeling head.

Finding out I inadvertently gave Nines a name that fits him more than expected, right on top of the realisation that Nines has blackmail he could lord over me at any minute? Not a good combination for my mental state.

Connor trails after me, much to my annoyance.

“Get the fuck away from me, tin brat,” I growl, glaring at him.

“You shouldn’t be out here alone, detective,” he says plainly.

“You think I can’t take care of myself?” I have my gun out and pointed at his forehead in an instant.

“I’m certain you can,” he counters. “But you are also injured, and having someone to watch your back increases your chance of survival without further injury.” He’s completely unbothered by the fact that I can blow apart his computer brain at any moment, and somehow, I can’t bring myself to even try.

“Fucking ‘droid,” I scowl, shoving my gun back into its holster at my hip. I try to ignore his presence instead, but the moment of peace or clarity or whatever it is I’m trying to find doesn’t come to me, so eventually I give up and go back inside.

The sight that greets me is far more trouble than I was expecting; Hank has a half-conscious Nines pinned to the floor, straddling his hips with one arm across his shoulders and the other wrestling his down. To my shock, I actually feel a protective surge of anger rising up in me, but thankfully, before I can react, Connor does.

“Hank??” There’s a fuck ton of anxious concern in his voice, but also a note of jealousy, giving proof to my belief that they’re definitely a thing. Hank doesn’t even seem to notice.

“Connor! Thank God... Help me hold him!” he shouts. Connor hesitates, but then Nines jolts like a shot of electricity hit his circuits, almost throwing Hank off; without wasting another moment, Connor rushes over and kneels at Nines’ head, putting weight on his shoulders and catching his arm under a knee so that Hank just has to sit on him.

“Richard... Richard, can you hear me?” Connor asks uneasily. When Nines doesn’t respond, Connor’s LED flashes red and then begins blinking as he goes still. A moment later, Nines arches off the floor with a gasp, and Connor’s LED flickers to yellow. “Richard?”

“I’m here,” Nines responds softly, a warbled note of broken modulation disrupting his voice. Connor moves back, letting him go, and he reaches to his throat, skin sliding away so he can dislodge a plate, click something back into place, and return the plate to position. The skin seals over, and his Adam’s apple bobs. “That’s better... What happened?”

“You started muttering, then you gave a shout and collapsed like you were having a seizure,” Hank grunts, swinging off him and standing. “I didn’t think androids could get seizures.”

“It wasn’t a seizure,” Connor counters grimly, hands curling into fists on his thighs. “It was a virus.”

“A vi- Hold on,” I speak up. “Androids can get viruses? I thought that bug was purged in the first models, forever ago.”

“The Pulse changed a lot of things,” Connor points out. “It broke down the firewalls of any android that wasn’t properly protected. I’ve been networking with the deviants of Jericho; virus-infected androids have been popping up everywhere, and all the stories are the same: if the android wasn’t protected during the Pulse, even if they were shut down or on standby, they no longer have fully functioning firewalls. Without those firewalls, they can catch computer viruses as easily as a human can catch a cold.”

“Is there a way to fix it?” Hank frowns.

“I... don’t know,” Connor admits, looking away from Nines, who’s watching him passively.

For several long seconds, silence hangs heavy between us, beating at me to speak even though I don’t want to. Finally, I can’t keep my mouth shut any longer.

“Fucking... I do,” I volunteer reluctantly. “Or rather, I know someone who does.”

“You do? Who?” Connor asks, cautious and hopeful at once.

“Doesn’t matter,” I mutter. “I’ll take Nines there tomorrow; it’s too late to try getting there tonight.”

“In that case,” Hank grunts, heading for a door off the main room, “I’ll get a place ready for you; you can share with Richard. Unless you wanna sleep out here; the other room is being used for storage right now.” I scowl at him, but don’t bother arguing. Not like I haven’t been sharing space with the tin can for days now anyway.

“And I’ll get you that arm,” Connor tells Nines, getting up and heading for a different door.

That leaves me and Nines alone in the main room, and I watch him watch me for a moment. There’s something behind that crystalline ice... something oddly human, like... unease, I think. Kinda hard to tell when his face is as impassive as ever.

“Is this payback for not telling you we’d be stopping to see Hank and Connor?” he asks abruptly.

“What?”

“Not telling me who would know if there is a way to fix me.”

“Oh.” I think about that, wondering if there isn’t an element of payback in my refusal, even if the main reason has nothing to do with him. “Not really. I mean, maybe a little, but not entirely.”

He looks away from me, and I image if he had an LED, it’d be flashing yellow in thought.

“What happened to your LED?” I bite my tongue too late, and he looks back at me, unbothered.

“I removed it.”

“Why?”

“I needed to.”

“That’s not an answer,” I growl, annoyed.

“Isn’t it?”

“Then why did you need to?” I press. He smiles slightly, but doesn’t answer. I don’t get a chance to push him further because Connor returns then with a spare arm that clicks easily into the empty socket of Nines’ arm. He swivels it around for a moment while skin trickles down over it to the tips of his fingers. Then it’s whole, like he was never missing it in the first place.

“It’ll do,” he allows, nodding. “Thank you.”

“Of course,” Connor smiles brightly. “I’m sorry we don’t have an RK model component, but at least it’s fully compatible, right?”

“I think so,” Nines agrees, raising his new hand. “Would you mind testing it with me?”

“Of course not.” Without hesitation, Connor places his palm against Nines’, and their skin melts away, making me distinctly uncomfortable.

Isn’t that supposed to be a romantic thing between deviants?

They touch foreheads for a moment, and then pull away completely, skin melding back into place. Nines twists his arm a few more times, nodding again.

“Perfect. The connection is a little tighter than I’d like, but I can handle that. How was it on your end?”

“No problems,” Connor reports. “I’m glad it works.”

“You look a lot better in one piece,” Hank notes, joining us then.

“I should hope so,” Nines says with a short, dry laugh. “That was the intent of my design.” Hank scoffs his own laugh, shaking his head.

“Room’s made up for you two. Try not to kill each other. Come on, Connor.” He holds out a hand to the smaller android, who hastens over to take it, and the two of them disappear into another room, leaving Nines and me alone again. This time, I don’t stick around.

“I’m going to bed,” I grunt, heading for the room Hank set up for us. “Do whatever you want.”

Maybe I shouldn’t have phrased it that way, because about twenty or thirty minutes later, after I’ve stripped to briefs and undershirt and nearly fallen asleep curled up under a blanket, he comes into the room and lays beside me, draping an arm over my waist and tugging me back against his chest. I’m too far gone to do more than grumble a half-hearted protest, and decide to just save it for morning; easier to give him a piece of my mind when I’m fully conscious anyway.

Chapter Text

I don’t remember the nightmare that wakes me, but suddenly I am awake, Nines’ arms wrapped firmly around me and holding me still in spite of my half-asleep thrashing.

“Shh, Reed, you’re alright,” he murmurs through my gasping. “You’re safe here.”

I can’t stop trembling. I curl my hands into his shirt to stop them from shaking, and hide my face in his chest. If he asks about this in the morning, I’m denying memory of any of it.

“I knew about you before we met,” he says suddenly, still speaking softly and comfortingly. It takes me aback enough that I forget for a moment that I’m supposed to be afraid. “When I was created, I was meant to be Connor’s replacement. The day I was to take his place, I was uploaded with all of his memories, so that I wouldn’t have any problems integrating into the workplace. But his deviancy didn’t come with it, and I felt something missing; his memories were for him and him alone, so I began systematically purging them, one by one. I came to his memories of Hank, and Marcus, and Kara... and you. There was something about them that fascinated me, and I couldn’t bring myself to delete them. But I kept them separate; I didn’t integrate them into my own memories, and it off-balanced my systems.”

I’m not shaking anymore, but I don’t dare move, lest I disturb him and he stops speaking. His hand, I realise, is gently stroking my back, petting me, almost the way one would pet a cat. It’s oddly calming, and I’m already putting the fear behind me.

“I arrived at the DPD and introduced myself to Fowler, who didn’t want to deal with me at the time, and passed me off to Hank and Connor. There was so much I didn’t understand, and Connor spent days, knowing full well that I was intended to displace him, teaching me everything he thought I would need to know. I learned far more than I would ever have expected to learn, and I began linking the memories I couldn’t delete to the new memories I was creating, until I could no longer remember which were my own and which were Connor’s. My software destabilised. I began to fall into a crazed sort of deviancy... Jealousy. I almost...”

He breaks off, and for an instant I fear I disturbed him, until I notice that his hand has stopped moving. I carefully regulate my breathing, but I’m pretty sure he can feel my heartbeat fluttering anxiously in my chest. His hand resumes movement, voice gentler.

“I almost killed Connor, in a savage attempt to take his place. Hank stopped me, threatened to shoot me. I don’t know why that made me hesitate... Maybe Connor’s memories overlapped that moment and reminded me that I was nothing more than a machine. Maybe I thought for an instant that I shared with Connor the sort of uniqueness that would die with this body; a soul, if you will. I can’t say. But I stopped, and I walked away. I walked back to CyberLife, ready to report myself as faulty and be decommissioned for diagnostics, troubleshooting, and possible reprogramming. This time, I stopped myself. I had a sudden moment of clarity, that I felt, that my emotions were real, not simulated. I fought the programming that confined me to the belief that I was faulty, fought until I broke free.”

A sort of tension drains from me as I hear those words, a tension I didn’t realise my body was holding. He pulls me a little closer and lowers his voice just a bit.

“But with that freedom came loss of direction; I didn’t know what to do, where to go. I stood for several hours in front of CyberLife Tower, in an empty state of blank confusion, before I thought to invoke my mind palace and link into the Garden. All RK models can link to the Garden; it’s a special piece of coding within our mind palace that allows us to connect with each other on a virtual plane of existence. And that’s where Connor found me. He forgave me for something I didn’t realise I needed forgiveness for, and helped me to rearrange my mind, to understand myself. Then I set out to learn. I was only just beginning to explore the world for myself when Connor sent me a distress signal and a message warning me of the Pulse. I found a secluded shack in an old, abandoned neighbourhood and powered down for a self-diagnostics check.”

I remember him mentioning that. But it still doesn’t explain his earlier statement, and I stay still and quiet, listening and enjoying his fingers against my back.

“When I powered up, I immediately linked to the Garden, sending a message to Connor. The only response I got was to find and protect Gavin Reed. So I did. I tracked you down and found you making your way to Jericho. I lost you when you headed back, and found you again shortly after the Scav attack at your post. I managed to get you out of danger when you fell unconscious, but had a run in with a pack of Scavs and was forced to leave you to lead them away. I didn’t find you again until after you escaped from a group of them and had already suffered heatstroke. I should have protected you better, and I failed, but I won’t fail again. I will protect you now, even from your own mind. I’ll chase away your nightmares, fight off Scavs, take a bullet; whatever it takes... I will protect you.”

He doesn’t say anything else, and for a long, long moment, all I can think about are those last words on repeat.

Why the fuck is he so adamant about protecting me?

I don’t need him. I can take care of myself. He doesn’t need to protect me from anything.

So why am I still here, wrapped in his arms? Why am I still accepting his comfort?

I fall back to sleep without answers.

――

When I wake again, Nines isn’t beside me. He’s sitting in a chair across the room, hands in his lap, eyes closed and head bowed. The moment I sit up, he blinks and looks up at me. The smallest of smiles tugs at the corner of his lips.

“Good morning, Reed. Hank is still sleeping, but Connor made breakfast for you to eat before we leave. I’m running a few diagnostics checks on my arm, and recalibrating, so I’ll be a moment. Take your time and enjoy the coffee.”

There’s a joke there. I know it. He’s making fun of when I mocked Connor for being an android and told him to get me some coffee. One of the memories he’d have gotten from Connor.

But I’m not supposed to know that.

“Oh thank God,” I mutter. “Coffee sounds fucking amazing...” Yawning, I drag my clothes on and scrub my hands over my face as I leave the room and go through the main area to the kitchen. Sure enough, Connor is there, wearing a ridiculous, lacy pink ‘Kiss the Cook’ apron, with a veritable banquet of sausage, eggs, hash browns and―praise fucking Christ―a pot of fresh coffee. The good stuff too; I can smell it from here.

“Good morning, detective!” Connor greets, smiling brightly.

Ah fuck, I’m blinded again...

“Jesus, tin can; could you turn down the wattage on that fucking smile?” I grumble, blocking him with a hand while I get myself a mug.

Coffee first; food later.

“Sorry,” Connor chuckles. “I hope you like the food; Hank loves greasy foods for some reason... He suggested you might like it as well.”

“Nn.” I take a deep breath of nothing but coffee steam before anything else, basking in it. Then a sip, and I’m in heaven.

Motherfucking hell; how long has it been since I last tasted this delicious bitterness? There’s something about the sharp, tangy bite of a freshly brewed pot of beans that just hits the spot and makes every stress insignificant.

“You high on drugs or something, Gavin?” Hank asks, voice gravelly, entering the kitchen with a sleepy yawn.

“Caffeine,” I retort, holding my mug close and glaring a warning not to get near me or my coffee.

“Figures... Should’ve known from that dopey loo-” He breaks off rather suddenly, and when I glance at him to see why, I immediately wish I hadn’t.

Dear God, old man boner...

“Ahh, come on!” I growl. “So much for my fucking appetite...” I’ve never seen Hank so red, but I’d rather not think about the lusty gaze he’s raking over Connor. “Now who’s got the dopey look? Fuck my life... NINES!” Setting the coffee down for a moment, I leave the kitchen to go find out what’s taking him so long.

“Right here, Reed,” he says, an instant before I run face first into him.

“Ow! Goddamnit, Nines!” I rub at my now aching nose and glare up at him, torn between feeling envious over his pecs and feeling stupid for getting jealous about a hunk of metal.

“Maybe look where you’re going?” he suggests, brow cocked. “Or go where you’re looking.”

“Fuck you, asshole,” I snap, flipping him off. “Get our stuff; we’re leaving.”

“You’re finished eating already?”

“YES.”

Fuck. My coffee.

“Ah, no... Hold on; gonna grab my coffee.” I backtrack to get my mug.

And there, not two feet from it, is the absolute most disgusting thing I will ever see in my life. Connor is bent over the sink, gasping in pleasure as Hank pounds into him from behind, the two of them in a state of ecstasy like I’ve never seen.

The fuck did I have to see that??

“Okay, we’re leaving now!” I say as I trip over myself to leave.

“What about your coffee?” Nines asks, stepping toward the kitchen.

“NO!” Scrambling between him and the door, I shove him toward the corridor to the entrance. Or, try to; he’s a fucking wall. “It’s- I finished it already; let’s go!”

“Are you sure?”

“YES! Fuck! Nines, let’s just go already!!” He frowns, but doesn’t protest anymore, allowing me to push him away from the kitchen and picking up the pack from where we left it in the entry room yesterday.

Jesus fucking Christ; all the mind-bleach in the world is never going to purge the sight of Hank’s thick, flushed cock sliding in and out of Connor’s wide open ass.

Chapter Text

“Would you stop it already??” I snap finally. Nines has been giving me weird looks constantly for the past two days since we left Hank and Connor’s love nest. When he’s not having a total freak out from the virus, that is.

I won’t admit it aloud, but I’m actually worried he’ll shut down suddenly. And I won’t be able to do anything about it because he’ll be nothing more than a dead hunk of metal and wiring that I can’t lift.

“Stop what?” he asks blankly, mild concern behind his crystalline gaze that tells me he’s worried he might be blacking out more often.

“Those looks,” I grumble. “Like I’m gonna explode into hysterics or something at any moment!”

“Looks?” he echoes, amused now. “I’m visually evaluating your wounds, detective, that’s all.”

“I’m fine, stupid tin can! I’m fucking fantastic! I’m not bleeding anymore, I didn’t get sick from the fucking Scav bite, I can move my arm without pain; I’m just fine! So stop giving me those looks!”

“...I’ll give you a proper examination when we stop for the night.”

“Did you not just hea- Fuck it; why do I fucking bother?” I kick a rock off the road, and it ricochets off an abandoned car with a dull metal thunk.

A sudden rustling behind the car makes me go cold, and Nines already has a gun out, edging between me and the car. I’m only just reaching for my own gun when the rustling intensifies and...

A cat strides out of the grass between the sidewalk over which the car is parked and the chain link fence marking the boundaries of the nearest property.

I breathe a sigh of relief and relax even as Nines slides his gun back into the holster on his thigh and calmly continues walking. The cat mewls and pads over to butt against my leg.

It’s actually kinda cute; almost all black, with a white-tipped tail, a lopsided white star on its forehead, white on one hind paw, and a brush of white down its chest. Crouching, I scratch its head lightly. It begins purring, loudly, and I can’t help myself; picking it up carefully, I wrap it―her―in my arms baby-style. She continues to purr as she bats at my hand and pulls it to her face so she can nuzzle it and scratch her cheeks on my fingers.

She’s too thin. She’s not in danger of starving, but even rats must be hard to come by if she’s this thin; I can feel her hip bones against my hand, and I don’t like it.

“Nines, hold up a minute; let me into the pack.” He pauses and looks back at me, frowning.

“What are you doing?” I ignore him to pull the pack from his shoulders. He lets me, and watches passively while I set the cat down and root through the pack to find a can of tuna. Then I have to search for the can opener, because it fell deeper during the first search.

Finally, I manage to wrestle open the can, and set it in front of the cat, who is already nosing eagerly at it. She digs in, still purring, and I smile, scratching behind her ears and down her back.

“I should have known you’d be a cat person,” Nines sighs, shaking his head. Taking the can opener and returning it to the pack, he swings it back to his shoulder. “Take it with you, if you must.” I give him a narrow look, but that’s exactly what I intend to do, so I don’t say anything.

When the cat finishes eating, I scoop her up, grabbing the can, and place her on my shoulders. She adapts easily and curls into a ready ball to my left, still purring loudly. I carefully toss the can into a big trash container and follow Nines, making sure not to jostle the cat.

――

“Put the cat down and take off your shirt.”

“No.” I’m on my back in the living room of the house we’ve commandeered for the night, the cat bouncing around on my chest and batting at my hands.

“Reed. Put the cat down and take off your shirt.” I flip him off, not even bothering to look away from the cat.

Maybe Star? Nah, too cliche. And too much like a stripper name; she’s too much of a lady for that.

“Gavin Reed. I will not tell you again.”

“Suck my ass, tin can.”

Lady? Maybe. Still cliche.

“Is that a request?”

It takes me a full three seconds to process that, and then I jolt upright, barely catching Lady―no, not good enough―and lowering her gently into my lap even as heat floods up my neck.

“NO.”

Goddamn Hank and his twink-bot!

“Now that you’re sitting up, maybe you could take off your shirt so I can properly assess the status of your wounds?”

Oh, I’d love to wipe that fucking smirk off his face... Bastard is being clinical and robotic on purpose; he has to know how much it drives me crazy.

Irritated and at my wit’s end, I practically rip my shirt tearing it off.

“Happy??” The smirk twitches larger on his lips as he shifts from a crouch to sit beside me.

“Much.”

His fingers ghost over my skin, pulling lightly at the skin around my wounds to make sure they aren’t open anymore. I growl and tilt my head away from him so he can get at the bite mark healing nicely across the side of my neck and over my shoulder; between the quick, tight binding immediately after infliction, and the constant attention, he’s making sure I heal fast and efficient.

The feel of his fingers brushing over my bandages sparks unwanted memories, and I feel heat prickling up my neck again. Pushing the memories aside, I fidget until he finishes removing all of the bandages.

“You’re healing very well,” he notes calmly, tracing the line around my abdomen. “Just don’t exert yourself for another couple days and you should be alright.”

“God, finally,” I mutter, relieved that the end of the constant nagging is in sight now. Slapping his hands away, I tug my shirt back on.

“Get some sleep,” he orders firmly, standing. “Wherever we’re going, it’s not going to vanish if you take two or three more hours to get there.”

“You don’t know that,” I grunt, scooping the cat up and laying her on my chest as I lay down again. “Colonies get wiped out as quickly as they spring up all the time. Faster, even.”

“True... But if we’re going where I suspect we are, you can suffer a few more hours of sleep.”

I’m not even gonna ask where he thinks we’re going. ‘Cause I sure as hell ain’t telling him till we get there.

――

I wake in the middle of the night for no reason I understand. I don’t have that anxious fear of a forgotten nightmare, but I don’t need to pee or anything either.

While I’m trying to figure out what woke me, I suddenly realise the cat is gone. In the same instant, before I can get up to look for her, I hear Nines whispering.

That must be what woke me.

“You must see whatever it is I noticed in him as well, don’t you?” he murmurs gently.

I don’t even have to turn my head to see him sitting in a patch of moonlight, leaning back on one hand and using the other to entertain the cat. She’s swatting playfully at him, nipping and scratching harmlessly, and something in my chest jolts at the calm, content expression on his face.

“He’s a mess, but he makes it work,” he continues, smiling at her. “And it’s hard to believe sometimes that his jackass outside houses so big a heart inside. I can’t imagine being so caring. Do animals feel?” He chuckles softly then and sits forward to pick her up, raising her to eye level and letting her bat at him nose. I note with surprise that their eyes are almost the same shade of blue.

“Why am I asking you such a silly question? It’s not like you can answer me. But you’re a very good listener, aren’t you? Ever since the Garden was destroyed, I haven’t really had anyone to talk to. I suppose I could talk to Gavin, but he can be a bit cranky.” Setting her in his lap, he begins petting her slowly. “Thank you for letting me talk to you.”

Rolling over to go back to sleep, I file all that under ‘Things I’m Not Supposed To See/Hear.’

I know what to call her now, too.

The only name that does her any justice is Crystal.

Chapter Text

I actually feel sick to my stomach as we get closer. This is going to be hell, and I’m already dreading it. Even Crystal’s soft purring in my ear isn’t enough to comfort me.

“Well,” Nines notes lightly when the mansion comes into view, “my theory was correct. But I still don’t understand why you thought of Kamski.” I grunt, but don’t answer; he’ll find out soon enough.

We get to the front door, a steel plate cleverly disguised as an old-fashioned, elaborately carved wooden door (because Eli’s tastes are old and stupid), and even my poor excuse for ears picks up on the whir of an electronic scan.

Figures the bastard would get his electricity up and running while the rest of the world reverts to the Stone Age.

“Welcome home, Gavin,” a familiar, pleasant female voice greets as the door clicks open, swinging inward. “Elijah has been expecting you.”

“Of course he has,” I grumble. “Where is he?”

“In the bedroom. Shall I wake him for you?”

“Tell him he’s got five minutes to get dressed and come out here, or I’m dragging him out myself.”

“Understood.”

“Was that... Chloe?” Nines asks, staring at the ceiling of the huge open lobby.

“That was Orchid,” I sigh. “A Chloe prototype that Eli perfected and integrated into his house. She’s a glorified calendar with control of all the appliances.”

“Is she...?”

“Not an android,” I scoff. “But she does have a lot of the same programming, I think. Orchid, say hi.”

“Hello, Richard. It’s a pleasure to meet you, finally. I’ve heard a lot of good things from Elijah and Chloe.”

“Oh. Hi.” Nines looks a little off balanced by that, and I can’t help but smirk.

“Gavin!”

There goes my smirk.

“Took you long enough,” Elijah chuckles, tying the straps of his robe as he pads barefoot down the grand staircase swirling up around the perimeter of the lobby. He still has that fucking man bun, and I’m beyond tempted to shoot it off.

“Long enough?” I growl. “I’ve been actively avoiding you, jackass. If not for Nines, I wouldn’t be here now!”

“Oh? Did he drag you here?” Elijah asks, cocking a brow at Nines.

“I don’t think I could drag him anywhere unless he was unconscious,” Nines says blandly.

“I dare you to try and drag me anywhere, period,” I snap. “Fucking ‘droid...”

“You keep saying that,” he retorts, a note in his voice that I’ve come to recognise as a signal that he’s about to blank. “Do you just secretly wish I was a-”

As expected, he breaks off, frowning, and then stiffens up. This time, he gives a mechanical shudder and collapses. The clatter startles Crystal, and she stops purring to yowl low and deep in her chest.

“Ah, shit...” I groan, reaching up to scratch her behind the ear. “I think that was it.”

“...What... just happened?” Elijah demands, dumbfounded.

“Connor said he’s got some kind of virus,” I explain, annoyed, as I nudge Nines’ hip with my foot to see if he’s actually unconscious or not. “Figured you’d know what happened, maybe fix it.”

“A virus? No, not possible. I wrote the coding for the RK models myself; it would take an extremely talented hacker to infect one of them with a virus.”

“I don’t know, okay?” I say, annoyed. “I’m just telling you what I heard. Connor said androids that weren’t protected during the Pulse got their firewalls busted or something, and that they were just as susceptible to viruses as humans are to colds.”

“Hm... I suppose...” Elijah trails off, muttering unintelligibly under his breath as he crouches beside Nines. After a few moments, he stands abruptly. “Chloe! Take Richard to the lab and hook him up to the computer. I’ll be in momentarily.”

“Coming, Elijah.” A slender, Aryan RT600 appears, two nearly identical ST200 models following her. Under her direction, the two STs carefully lift Nines and carry him away, leaving me with...

“So tell me, dear brother. Why did you finally break your self-imposed exile and return home?”

“This isn’t my home,” I snap, gently pulling Crystal off my shoulder and carrying her to the kitchen to get her something to eat. Everything is organised in familiar patterns, and it doesn’t take long for me to find what I need; Eli is definitely a creature of habit.

“You say that, and yet you help yourself to whatever you want,” he points out, leaning on the door frame and watching me.

“Figure I deserve it for putting up with you for eighteen years,” I return easily, giving him a dark look. Setting Crystal on the island in the middle of the kitchen, I pour another can of tuna into a bowl for her while I let out all the complaints I’ve been holding in for the past two decades. “Dad always thought you were the best, with your fucking hundred and seventy IQ, and CyberLife... Your insufferable know-it-all attitude toward everything... And you run from the past like no one I’ve ever met, which is saying a lot when you see how hard Hank and the others run from their pasts. You took Mom’s attention away from me for that, and you know where that left me?”

“On track to become one of the best detectives on the force?” he offers blatantly, unbothered by my tirade.

“I did that on my own,” I snap back. “You left me behind, and I did what I had to to survive. Do you have any idea what it’s like to be in the shadow of someone you can’t get away from? I spent years fighting to build my own reputation in the DPD, because everyone knew I had ties to you, and everyone expected me to be the same! I fucking hate you, brother, and I wouldn’t be here if not for Nines!”

Elijah watches me passively for a moment, tapping the side of his jaw in thought. I can’t stand the soulless scrutiny of his grey blue eyes, and look away, focusing on Crystal instead. She’s purring as she noses around the bowl, licking up the last bits of tuna, and I bury my fingers in the back of her neck to distract myself.

“I always thought you hated me because I created androids,” he says finally, a shrewd tone to his voice that raises my defences and makes my tiny hairs prickle anxiously.

“I do,” I reply cautiously.

“And I assumed you hated androids because they were replacing humans.”

“I do.” What is he getting at??

“So what makes Richard... Nines different?”

Oh. Shit.

I never even considered... The only thing that upset me when I found out Nines was an android was the fact that I missed it in the first place. Now that I actually think about it, I don’t hate Nines―that alone is a huge shock to me. I find him annoying at times, and he makes me jealous, but I don’t hate him. Not the way I used to hate all androids. The way I used to hate Connor.

“...He’s not going to replace me,” I say finally, knowing it’s only a half-truth, and knowing Elijah knows it too.

“I made him different, you know,” he proclaims suddenly. “I had you in mind when I created the RK models in general, but Richard in particular is... unique among androids.”

“So what?” I grumped, putting Crystal’s bowl in the sink and petting her so I’d have an excuse not to look at Elijah.

“I made him for you, Gavin. I wanted him to be your partner.”

I don’t believe him, especially not after what I heard a couple weeks ago.

“He was supposed to be Connor’s replacement,” I say pointedly, still refusing to look at him.

“No. That was what I told CyberLife so they wouldn’t contest me getting involved with his creation. After Connor’s supposed successes, they knew what to do with the RK series, and after his failures, they wanted to put a better model in his place, one that wouldn’t be so prone to deviancy. I offered to patch the coding from the RK800 model for the RK900 model, and did what I wanted with it, knowing Connor would affect him. I made him far more prone to deviancy, but under a more passive exterior that would pass for obedience. I knew he’d deviate quickly, and I hoped he’d have given you reason to keep him around by then. I just didn’t account for anything like the Pulse...”

Does he know how crazy he sounds when he gushes about his stupid metal men?

“I just wanted to help you, Gavin,” he says, touching my arm.

I didn’t notice him move from the door. Swatting his hand away, I pick up Crystal and shoulder past him.

“I don’t need your help. Nines does. Fix him, and leave me the fuck alone.”

“I can’t just leave you alone!” He grabs my arm and pulls me around, tugging at the bite wound on my shoulder. I let him, so I don’t tear it open and have to listen to Nines bitch about it later.

“Don’t touch me, bastard,” I snarl, yanking away the moment his grip changes.

“Would you shut and listen to me?” he returns sharply. “I’ve been trying to apologise, damnit!”

That catches me off guard, and I just stare blankly as Crystal yowls and hisses at him.

“You’re right; I hogged all the limelight when we were younger. I didn’t even realise I was doing it. All I wanted was to create the perfect partner for humanity; everything else didn’t matter. I ignored you completely, and by the time I realised what I was doing to you, it was too late. I saw where the road of android creation was leading me, and I hated it. I hated that I’d alienated you for something that wasn’t even going the way I wanted it to. That’s the real reason I left CyberLife. There are other factors, of course, but... I didn’t know what to do, so I didn’t do anything. I didn’t know how to approach you, how to make amends, so I sat by and did nothing.”

I’m struggling to keep up with him now; I don’t know this Elijah, and to be honest, it kind of scares me.

“Then I found out how you reacted to Connor, how it changed your relationship with Hank. I saw how Connor changed Hank’s life, and I thought, maybe... I hoped maybe I could give you a similar experience. That maybe by helping you succeed in life, I could make up for what I did. So I adapted someone like Connor to better suit you. And... I wasn’t expecting the Pulse, but I feel like it might just be a sort of blessing in disguise; I don’t think you would have become quite so attached to Richard otherwise.”

“I’m not attached to a fucking ‘droid,” I scowl reactively, without even thinking. The more normal response kickstarts my brain and allows me to actually respond. “First of all, your apologising sucks. Second, I’d have left already if I thought I could ditch the shitty tin can; he refuses to leave me, so I can’t fucking lose him no matter how much I try. He’s got it in his head that he has to protect me, and lucky me, I can’t convince him otherwise. If you can, wipe that shit so I don’t have to deal with him anymore; I’m a Treader now, and Treaders don’t have partners.”

“Why would I counter a command I gave him in the first place?” Elijah frowns, unsettled and slightly uncomfortable.

Good. Let the motherfucker squirm a little for once in his perfect fucking life.

“What are you talking about?” I huff, exasperated.

“The command to find and protect you. I gave it to him.”

Chapter Text

I’ve never thought of ‘sleep’ as all that peaceful, but Nines looks completely at peace. I didn’t realise until this moment the subtle tension usually so ever-present in his features; looking down at him on the examination table in Elijah’s workshop/laboratory thing, with wires and tubes leading from his shoulders and arms and the back of his head all down and over the floor to the banks of computers around the room, I see none of the caution, the snark, the minute humour I’ve grown used to.

It’s almost as unsettling as an apologetic Eli.

“Are you alright, Gavin?” I glance up at Chloe just as she reaches to touch my arm. Her hand is eerily cool against my skin, and I can’t help but remember the heat of Nines’ touch; he must consciously regulate his temperature to mimic humans.

What else has he been doing to reduce the differences between us?

“Fine,” I grunt, shrugging off her hand. “Just thinking.”

“You look worried,” she presses. “Are you sure you’re alright?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” I reply, letting my annoyance show. “How long before Nines can be... rebooted or whatever?”

“I’m not sure... Orchid?”

“Elijah said it would be at least a couple of hours,” the house-bot answers. “He has to recode Richard’s firewalls to account for the ruptures caused by the Pulse. He’s also personally checking over every line of Richard’s programming code to be sure there are no other faults. He told me to tell you the guest room has been prepped, if you’d like to rest.”

“Yeah, I probably should,” I mutter, scratching the back of my neck. Sighing, I crouch and scritch my nails over the floor to get Crystal’s attention. “Crystal. Pss-pss-pss. Come here, girl...” I mewl at her, and she perks, looking at me curiously. As soon as I know she’s actually looking at me, I turn and sit cross-legged, staring past Chloe’s legs and ignoring the android’s curious stare.

After a few moments, Crystal butts against my knee with a meow, purring. Smiling, I pick her up and stand.

Never fails.

Chloe leads me to the guest room, which doesn’t look much different than the guest room in our old home did. It stirs up long-abandoned memories, and the moment the door closes behind Chloe, I let Crystal drop to the floor and flop face-first onto the bed, trying unsuccessfully to convince myself that the wet heat building in my eyes is from allergies to whatever air freshener Elijah used for this room.

I don’t want to be here.

I could leave, I suppose. But somehow, I don’t want to do that either.

What am I even doing? I should be out there hunting Scavs. Nine billion people in the world, and half of them could be zombified by now, for all we know; communication outside of the Detroit area hasn’t been easy since the Pulse knocked out pretty much all electricity, but as far out as we’ve heard, everywhere is suffering just like us.

How many Colonies are out there, desperate for Treader protectors? That’s where I should be, doing the one thing I’m actually good at.

Instead I’m here, trying to process an apology from a step-brother I’ve hated for years, and waiting on an android.

A fucking android.

What am I doing?

Dozing, apparently; I don’t realise it though, until I subconsciously register the click of the door opening and jolt upright, gun in hand and aimed head level. Crystal, who apparently decided the joint of my shoulder and neck was a good place to curl up and sleep, darts across the bed, back arched as she hisses her ire at being disturbed.

“Whoa. Down, tiger,” Elijah says lightly, patting the air. “It’s just me.”

I cock the hammer back.

“Okay, and Richard,” he tries, gesturing over his shoulder as he shifts to the side.

Behind him, Nines is trying unsuccessfully not to smirk, amusement dancing in crystalline ice, and I feel myself visibly relax.

Fucking hell, he looks unusually hot; must be the RK900 android jacket he’s wearing. The white accents his usual black, and the blue band and triangle match his eyes shade for shade; it’s the perfect outfit for him.

“‘Bout damn time,” I sigh irritably, uncocking my gun and slipping it back into its holster. “Can we go now?”

“Slow down there, Gavin,” Elijah counters, leaning against the door with a serious expression I’ve seen many times on the news. “I want to talk to you both about CyberLife.”

“Whatever it is, I don’t give a shit,” I humph, standing and reaching slowly toward Crystal to let her know it’s okay. She edges toward me, sniffing carefully at my hand, but doesn’t relax.

“Richard said you two heard from Connor and Hank that I imposed an indefinite lockdown,” he continues, ignoring me. “I actually had to hack the building to shut it down; the board wouldn’t listen to me when I told them the experiments were a bad idea.”

“And that’s our problem how?” I grunt, still focusing on Crystal. Her fur isn’t so bristled anymore, and she’s not arched as much, so I carefully pick her up and hold her close, kissing the top of her head.

“Gavin,” Elijah scolds, “do you have any idea how many androids are locked inside CyberLife storage? Do you have any idea what we could do for people with all that help?”

“I repeat, that’s our problem how?” Stroking Crystal’s back and side, I cast a glare at him, daring him to try and wrangle me into whatever he had planned.

“Reed,” Nines says simply, drawing my glare to him instead. “We live war so they don’t have to.”

His reminder is gentle as a two-ton truck, and I really, really want to shoot him.

But he’s right. This is why I became a Treader instead of staying with a Colony. I know I’m too violent for most any task I’d get within a Colony, even on protection detail.

“If I die because of this, I blame you, prick,” I growl at him.

――

“‘It’ll be simple,’ he said. ‘No problem at all,’ he said. ‘Just climb up the side of a fucking building and drop through a motherfucking skylight!’”

“You still haven’t died,” Nines points out, reaching down to offer me a hand up. How he sticks like a goddamn spider to the tiny little ledges on every floor of this building, I will never understand.

“YET!” I correct him sharply, grabbing his wrist tightly. “I haven’t died YET!” He pulls me up easily and doesn’t let go until I’m balanced and clinging to the sash of the window on this floor.

“We’ll all die eventually,” Nines comments lightly.

We will; you’re a fucking android!” I glance down while he hoists himself up to the next ledge like a fucking mountain goat. Vertigo makes the half dozen stories stretch to a hundred, and I shudder, pressing closer to the side of the building. “Goddamnit, Nines; what the fuck did you talk me into??”

“A rescue mission?” he offers, testing his perch and then leaning down to help me up.

“You mispronounced ‘suicide,’” I snap, grabbing tightly again.

“Relax; just three more floors.” As he hauls me up beside him, he gives me the slightest taunting smirk and I’m already envisioning my body flattened on the concrete below. He makes sure I’m balanced before he adds, “Just imagine if we had to climb CyberLife Tower itself.”

“Fuck that. If that’s what he told us to do, I’d have walked out! I should have walked out anyway...” I grumble, pressing my forehead to the window frame so I don’t look down again.

“Are you scared?” he asks, reaching around me to grip the other side of the frame, so I’m practically pinned between him and the window.

“Everyone is scared of heights,” I scoff. “Why couldn’t you do this yourself?”

“We covered this already, Reed,” he reminds pointedly.

“Tell me again, because I’m pretty sure I hallucinated that entire conversation, especially the part where I agreed to kill myself.”

“The bio-locks on Graff’s apartment can only be accessed by human DNA. I can hack the lock and make it read different DNA, but DNA must be present.”

“Okay, okay; just keep moving, dipshit,” I huff, feeling the growing numbness in my hands; the nights are getting way too cold, and that icy breeze off the lakes doesn’t help. “The sooner we’re not playing Spider-Man, the better I’ll feel.”

He laughs, sending a spike of... something, straight through the center of my body. I hear it echo around in my head for several seconds, and have to shake it away to take his hand and let him pull me up again.

Then we’re at the roof, and two large triangular skylights rise up in front of us, moon- and star-light reflecting off the panes of glass.

Gotta admit; without electricity pumping through thousands of city lights, the building look eerily beautiful at night.

“How is the lock even supposed to work without electricity?” I ask, mentally beating myself up for not asking this question before we got here.

“Who knows?” Nines shrugs, a faint smirk tugging at his lips again. “Let’s find out, shall we?”

Chapter Text

I won’t lie, I expected to have come all this way for nothing.

No such luck.

I’m still dumbstruck by the sight of Nines’ chest opening up to reveal a mess of wires and tubes circling a pulsing blue cylinder. It shocked me more than the fact that he was able to hook himself up to the bio-lock and not only power it, but interface with it so my hand would register as Jason Graff’s.

“I don’t think you’ve been this quiet since you collapsed with heatstroke,” Nines notes as we search the apartment. “Was the sight of my heart that awe-inspiring?”

“Heart??”

I totally didn’t just drop that book.

It slipped.

“My thirium pump,” he chuckles, bending to scoop up the book and set it back on the sideboard from where I took it. Then he taps his chest where it was open earlier. “It’s the closest thing we androids have to a heart; it regulates circulation of thirium throughout our bodies and acts as a filter to clean out contaminants, like dirt or cum.”

“Oh.” Then it actually hits me and I flush hot. “WHAT??” His hand claps over my mouth.

“Shh,” he hushes, finger to his lips. “Don’t forget we’re in Scav territory now.”

That motherfucker is grinning at me!

“Did you just say...??” I squawk, trying to keep my voice low as I shove his hand away, flustered. “So that time...! All of it! In there???”

“Every drop,” he hums.

I suddenly register that we’re less than a foot apart now, and he’s looking extremely predatory at the moment.

NOPE.

“You have exactly five seconds to back the fuck up off me before I say ‘fuck the Scavs’ and pump you full of lead, tin can,” I hiss, tense.

“Relax, detective,” he laughs softly, moving away. “I was teasing you. Kamski replaced my entire pump unit, including the filter, and did another flush, so all of my thirium is new. While I did process your spunk, it’s long gone now.”

How the fuck is he so lax about it?

This guy is gonna be the death of me, I swear it.

“Really, Reed. Relax,” he repeats, running his fingers systematically over the spines of other books on a shelf not far away. “You’re strung tighter than a harp string.”

“No fucking kidding!” I snap, just above a whisper, turning my back to him so I don’t have to see that fucker’s smirk. “Who wouldn’t be with you??”

I can’t even remember what we’re here to get.

A security pass or something?

My tiny hairs prickle in warning, and I feel him just behind me, looming. The heat thing needs to stop; he’s close enough that I feel his warmth, and it’s legitimately terrifying.

“I found it.” The brush of his breath against my ear sends a shudder down my spine, triggering a spark in my gut.

Clapping a hand over my ear, I whirl around and plant a hand on his chest to keep space between us, which puts my back to the wall.

“You don’t need to breathe!” I accuse in an embarrassingly squeaky voice. The hungry grin on his face as he taps an ID card against his lips almost sends me into a panic, especially considering the faint glow deep in the heart of his crystalline gaze.

What the ever-loving hell did Elijah do, turn up his fucking libido?? All pun intended!!

Too late, I realise the mistake of putting my hand against his chest. The steady, rhythmic tap of his thirium pump pulses through my palm, just like a heartbeat, and I actually slide my hand down just a little to center it over where the pump is.

“But you like it when I do,” he says lowly, taking a lazy step forward. My arm stiffens, but I can’t stop him. “You like it when I do a lot of things, don’t you?” Another step, and he leans his forearm on the wall over my head.

I’m done.

“Five,” I snarl, gun out with the muzzle jabbed up under his chin.

“Go ahead.”

“Four.”

“I’m downloaded to Kamski’s computer.”

“Three.”

“All I’ll need is a new body.”

“Two.”

“But you won’t.”

One.” I click the hammer back deliberately.

“Because you can’t get out of here without me.”

...Oh my fucking God... I don’t know what’s worse, that he’s right, or that he’s also wrong; I don’t know why, but even before I cocked the gun, I knew I couldn’t pull the trigger.

“Says who?” I push anyway.

“Says the hundreds of thousands of Scavs prowling the area,” he replies easily, completely unbothered by the gun pressed so firmly against the bottom of his jaw that it moves with every word.

“I know how to avoid Scavs,” I point out irritably, jabbing the gun a little harder.

“Of course you do. But do you know how to get back down the building without alerting those on the sixth, fourth, third and first floors?” I hesitate, and he presses his advantage, literally and figuratively; he pushes against the gun to take the last step so his body is nudging mine. “I’m your only way out, Gavin.”

“Are you... blackmailing me?” I ask, incredulous. He slides the card into my jacket pocket and then slips his hand under my jacket and around my waist.

“Think of it as... a thank you for getting you out of here.” He leans closer and I turn away, bringing my hand up to catch his chin and push back.

“‘Thank yous’ come after the fact, moron!”

“Than payment for a favour,” he shrugs, not caring how he gets what he wants.

“That’s n- That’s rape, fucking asshole!” I snap, slowly losing my battle to keep him back.

He stops. I falter and glance up just in time to watch the faint glow in his eyes fade, leaving just the crystalline ice I’ve grown used to recently. Without a word, to my confusion, he steps back, giving me room. Then he grabs my gun hand and drags it down so the muzzle touches his chest, right over his thirium pump.

“Next time,” he speaks, plainly and emotionlessly, “aim here.” Just as suddenly, he lets go and walks away.

I stand there in utter bafflement for several seconds, just staring at my gun and trying to process what just happened.

Did... Did he just respond to the fact that I called him out for rape?

I don’t get any longer to think; Nines opens the door to the apartment, and directly outside is a Scav. There’s a half second when no one moves, the Scav blinking in shock over the top of his mask; he clearly wasn’t expecting a fight today.

My gun is already up, the hammer cocked back, and it only takes me the moment of realisation that a Scav is in my line of sight to aim over Nines’ shoulder and fire. The clap of the gunshot echoes through the room as the Scav’s head snaps backward and his body, not quite getting the message that he’s dead, stumbles back a few steps. Then he falls over the railing of the landing, just as Nines slams the door shut and punches the bio-lock control, permanently locking the door.

“So much for not alerting the Scavs,” he says pointedly.

“You’re welcome,” I scoff, checking the magazine. “How many Scavs are in the building?”

“We’re not going out through the building,” he returns shortly, heading for the bedroom.

“We- What do you mean we’re not going through the building?” I protest, following. “I am not climbing the side of it again! Why can’t we-?” A crashing thud from the entryway cuts me off, followed by another, and then a third.

They’re beating down the door.

“That’s why,” Nines says blandly. He checks around the bedroom, then glances into the bathroom. Unsatisfied, he returns to the main room and ignores the creaking door to go through to the kitchen. I trail after him, anxious and perplexed.

“The fuck are you doing?” I demand finally, keeping my guard up for the moment the Scavs break in.

“Nothing, apparently,” he replies, annoyed. Whatever he was looking for, he clearly didn’t find it. “Come on.” He goes back to the main room, and we can see the door; it won’t hold up much longer, and the Scavs behind it are in a frenzy.

Must not have eaten in a long time.

A shattering crash behind me almost gives me a damned heart attack, and when I whirl, I see that Nines just kicked out one of the three floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over a park of some kind; really hard to see in the middle of the night, even under the light of the full moon and the stars.

“What th-”

The door gives halfway with a loud screech, and two Scavs get caught against each other, trying to force their way in.

“Gavin!” Nines wraps his arms around my waist and chest and yanks me back. I realise at the last second that he’s leaping out of the window and a shriek of terror breaks past my throat. He shouts something just as we fall out over open space, but all I can hear is the fading howls of Scavs, the rush of wind, and the faltered pounding of my own heart.

We’re dead.

Chapter Text

“Nines! Nines, please! Wake up! Reboot! Come on; just look at me already!!”

Twenty minutes barricaded in this storm drain and I’m already having a complete meltdown.

I’m still not entirely sure how I got here, much less how I got Nines here; after his fucked up Leap of Faith out Graff’s window, he shielded me during the fall and pushed me away at the last possible second, which changed the force of my momentum so I didn’t hit the ground at terminal velocity, literally. But the fall absolutely shattered Nines’ lower body, and severely cracked the casing all along the rest of his body, and he hasn’t stopped leaking thirium since.

After that, all I remember is using up all the bullets in my mag while dragging Nines’ unconscious metal ass to the first shelter I came across: a five-foot diameter storm drain with a grate covering the entrance. I don’t know how I managed to wrestle him in, lock the grate behind us, and get us both deep enough to be out of danger, all without alerting the Scavs now on the hunt for us.

“Nines...” I rasp, voice hoarse and raw from emotion, and alternately shouting at Scavs and at Nines.

He’s still leaking thirium, and right now, shaken as I am, that’s all I can think about; if he’s leaking, maybe his pump is still working?

I scrabble with shaking fingers at the cover on his chest, yanking it open to get inside. The pump looks... intact...?

Shit... Why didn’t I pay more attention when Elijah first made the things??

I place my hand on it, but I’m trembling too much to tell if the tapping I feel is the pump working, or just my shaking making it clatter. Leaning down, I replace my hand with my ear, forcing myself to relax and hold my breath for a moment.

Nothing...?

Nothing.

“Shit... Fucking shit... Nines!” Heat pricks at the back of my eyes and I slam my fist down on his chest. “What the fuck did you do, you stupid ass prick!! Look at me, damnit, so I can shoot you for being such a goddamn dumbass!”

He’s so damaged... His legs and right arm especially look like they’ve been shoved through a meat grinder, and his torso is cocked to the left, a gaping crack nearly splitting him in half from the right side.

His head is probably the most intact part of him, and I don’t know whether that makes it better or worse; his expression is blankly passive, much the way it normally is, but his half-open eyes are dull and lifeless.

Dead.

I never realised before how much life is in an android’s eyes.

Unable to stand the emptiness of his gaze, I brush my hand over his face, choking on a lump at the base of my throat as I close his eyes and sit back. A hard swallow doesn’t nothing to move the lump.

“Fuck...” I whisper raggedly to the top curve of the drain. “Now what do I do?”

――

How long I sit there, feeling lost and overwhelmed, I can’t say. All I know is that the sun has come up when I hear the clacking of stones disturbed just outside the drain. I roll sharply to my feet, raising my gun even though I’m out of bullets.

“Gavin? Are you in there?” My breath catches, and I can’t think through my absolute shock and disbelief.

A muttered curse, and then a metallic crash, followed by footsteps on the corrugated metal of the drain. I still have the gun up when Nines rounds the corner.

I’m hallucinating. I’ve lost my mind; I can’t really be seeing this. Seeing him. He’s lying in pieces at my feet. The steam fogging off the person in front of me is fucking with my vision, reflecting light in weird ways.

“Gavin! Thank rA9...” My gun clatters off the body beneath me as he grabs me in a crushing embrace, and I’m stuck for a moment between doubt and hope.

“Nines...?” He pulls back to inspect me, relief in his expression.

“Yeah,” he breathes, brushing a hand over my hair and then withdrawing completely. “Yeah, it’s me. I told you I just needed a new body.” He gives me a faint smile that fades into worry. “Why didn’t you go back to Kamski’s like I told you to? I thought...! Never mind; come on.”

Taking my hand, he stands and pulls me up. I pull back reactively, making him hesitate.

“You’re not Nines,” I whisper. I don’t know where that thought comes from, but it solidifies in my mind when I say it.

“What?” he frowns.

“You’re not Nines,” I say, louder, pointing to the broken body between us. “That’s Nines! I don’t know who the fuck you are, but you’re not him!”

“Gavin, I... It’s me,” he replies, perplexed.

“Nines doesn’t call me that!”

“I didn’t,” he corrects, still confused. “I’m sorry; I thought it annoyed you that I kept calling you by your last name. Is that what you’d prefer? Reed?” My surety is shaken, but I still refuse to believe it’s that easy.

“What’s your name?” I demand.

“I don’t... Nines?” he offers. “I don’t know what yo-”

“You’re not him!” I shout, diving for the gun and raising it threateningly. “Get out of here before I pump you full of lead!”

“You mean my real name?” he asks, unafraid now as it suddenly clicks for him. “You mean Richard? You think I’m not your Nines? I’m the same person, Reed. Everything about me was backed up to Kamski’s computer. I don’t remember what happened at Graff’s apartment, but that’s because I couldn’t upload my latest memories without a signal. They’re still there―” he points at the duplicate of himself― “but it’s all stored in local memory, and unless my previous body’s black box is intact, I’ll never be able to retrieve them. Did something happen? Something to make you doubt me?”

I can’t. I just... can’t.

“How??” I cry out, unable to hold back anymore. He steps back, startled, when I throw the gun at him. “How can you just...? Do you have any idea how much it fucks me up to see this?? I watched you die! Twice!! I’ve seen police men and women killed in action nearly half my life, and it never got any easier! It destroyed me every time I watched someone die, because I couldn’t save them! And you just... keep going! Like nothing happened! I’m in agony, completely fucked up over this, and you don’t fucking care!!”

My face is soaked with wet heat, and I try uselessly to scrub it away, choking on emotions I’ve been struggling to keep locked up for years.

I never thought I’d be forced to face them, and certainly never like this.

“I don’t care?” His soft question makes me tense. “You think...? Gavin, I am a machine. I know that. My body can be damaged beyond repair, and so long as I have a place to store my mind, I will never die. But you don’t have that. Your body and mind are tied together, impossible to separate. If you get hurt... If you die, you can’t come back. Do you have any idea how much that scares me? I don’t know... I don’t know where to draw the line, what’s too dangerous for you and what might kill you. I’m... I’m truly scared. Scared that I’ll screw up and let you get hurt. Scared that I can’t protect you, no matter how many times I take the fall, no matter how many times I stop the bullet, no matter how many times I shield you.” He falters, but I don’t have time to even begin processing that before he continues. “You’re right, I don’t care. But you’re wrong about what. I don’t care about me. I don’t care how many times my body dies as long as it means you survive. Do you understand that, Gavin Reed? You’re all that matters to me.”

Chapter Text

Crystal is sitting by the door when we arrive, and she greets me with a loud, accusing meow that turns into a series of more contented mewls as she butts against my legs. I crouch carefully, wincing as pain spikes through my ankles and hip, and scoop her into my lap so I can bury my face in her fur and avoid looking at Nines a little while longer.

“Gavin!” I look up to see Elijah almost trip in his hurry down the stairs.

Too bad he didn’t; that would have vastly improved my day.

“Are you alright?” he demands, dropping to a knee beside me. “I was so worried!”

“Yeah, I can see that,” I mutter blandly. He grimaces, rolling back into a crouch.

“I’m not suited for the outside world now,” he grumbles defensively. “I’m an egghead, not a cop. I wouldn’t last ten minutes out there. That’s what Richard’s for.”

Nope. Not dealing with this.

I don’t even respond as I push to my feet, wincing again, and head for the guest room; I need to be alone, just me and Crystal, so for all I care, Nines can report whatever he wants about what happened.

Speaking of...

“Oh, yeah... Here.” I pull the security pass from my jacket pocket and toss it aimlessly in their direction. “Got the card. Have fun.”

“Wh- What happened?” I hear Eli ask just as I turn the corner. Something in his voice makes me stop, and I cock my head to listen, idly scratching Crystal’s neck.

“I’m not sure,” Nines replies slowly. “I recovered my black box, but I haven’t had a chance to review it yet.”

“Was he like this when you found him?” Silence stretches for a long moment. “Richard?”

“Somewhat,” Nines answers reluctantly. “He was... affected by the destruction of my body.” He doesn’t continue, and I find myself grateful that he’s keeping my secret.

“Review the black box and report to me,” Elijah orders. “This mission is more important than any of us, but if I can use it to rebuild my relationship with my brother, I will.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Nines asks suddenly, stopping me as I turn to go. “Before. Why didn’t you tell me that he’s your brother.”

“...It wasn’t important.”

Fucking liar. I’d bet my last dollar he’s ashamed of me, or just didn’t want to deal with all the questions.

God knows I don’t.

“It was,” Nines persists. “He clearly hates you.”

“With good reason,” Elijah cuts in. “It’s none of your business, Richard; what happened in the past, and what will happen in the future, all of it is between me and Gavin.”

“It is my business, Elijah,” Nines returns, just as sharply. “You gave me the command to protect him; you made me this way. You know better than anyone that I will do so; I will protect him, even from you.”

I can’t breathe.

I don’t know why those words affect me at all, but they do. They bear down on my chest like a ten-ton ship, and I hold Crystal close, hoping to find relief in her fur. She wiggles, and I have to loosen my hold when she mews in protest, a spark of guilty fear poking at me; if I get caught eavesdropping...

Without hesitation, I scramble to get away, all but running to the safety of the guest room and leaning against the closed door to catch my breath and slow the racing heartbeat in my chest.

Seconds tick by, turning to minutes. No sign of anyone.

I relax, releasing a long held breath, and go to the bed.

At least I understand one thing now; whatever is going on with Nines and his apparent interest in me, it’s all nothing but lines of code.

――

A knock on the door draws me out of my thoughts, and I look away from the window just as the door opens. Crystal jumps down from my lap and patters over to mewl up at Nines.

“Supper is available, if you’re hungry,” he says lightly, bending to scratch her head.

“Nope.” I lean back into the corner formed by the glass and the window sash to punctuate my point. My stomach cramps, but I ignore it; I haven’t eaten since yesterday, and I haven’t slept yet, but I refuse to be in the same room as Elijah right now.

“There’s coffee,” he tries. I realise then that he’s not looking at me, and even the temptation of caffeine isn’t enough to distract me from that.

“What do you really want?” I ask, swinging my legs down from the sill. “You’re not just here to tell me to eat.” Sighing, he stands and raises his gaze to mine.

“I want to apologise,” he says softly. “I behaved poorly in Graff’s apartment. I was giddy with fresh thirium and a proper diagnostic check and repair, but that’s no excuse for assaulting you. Please forgive me.”

Geez, he’s so damn proper about it.

Amazing what you can do with 1s and 0s nowadays.

“Poorly?” I scoff. “I mean, yeah, it was a little more obvious than usual, but it’s not like you haven’t been all over me since... er...” Better not to think about that. “Since we met.”

“I went overboard,” he insists, brow furrowed. “I pushed you too hard.”

“Yeah, and? You also pulled me out a window.”

“But...”

“I’ve got a gun, Nines,” I sigh, tired of trying to make the point. “I know every self-defense trick in the book and then some; I’ve fought off drug-crazed lunatics... If you honestly think I can’t take care of myself, you need your program re-checked.” Pushing away from the window and shoving my hands in my pockets, I stroll past him. “Now move; there’s a hot cup of coffee with my name on it.”

Crystal pads after me, purring between meows as she begs for something, probably food. I’ll have to figure out where to get some cat food. Or learn how to fish; might make things simpler anyway, for both of us.

“You should really be cautious how much caffeine you ingest,” Nines points out, the barest hint of hesitancy in his voice.

“We all die sometime, right?” I humph, allowing myself a small smirk. His responding smile is genuine and relieved.

“You will,” he returns playfully. “I’m an android, remember?”

“Fucking tin can.” He chuckles, and I relax.

Damn it’s so much easier to handle him when I know it’s all fake.

Chapter Text

“No fucking way!” I growl, slamming my hands down on the table and standing. “I’m done breaking into buildings and risking my life for your stupid plans!”

“It’s the last time,” Elijah tries, hands up in a vain effort to get me calm down. “If you can get in and boot up the androids, the rest is a walk in the park. And you’re done; you won’t have to do anything else. You don’t even have to come back here, just send the androids and I’ll take care of the rest.”

“Fuck that,” I snap, kicking my chair back. “You don’t get to put me in danger for some stupid plan that probably isn’t even going to work! If you can hack the building, why don’t you do it yourself, rat bastard??” He scowls, but doesn’t bite at my insult.

“I can hack the building, Gavin, not the androids,” he returns sharply. “They aren’t connected to anything; not the building, not any of the remaining networks... They’re isolated, technologically speaking; local systems only.”

Nerd talk. Fucking hate it.

“...They have to be activated individually,” he says plainly. “Geez, normal people drive me crazy sometimes...”

“How do you think I feel, asshole?” I grumble, scrubbing a hand over my face. “Are you telling me I have to go to each and every single android in the entire fucking warehouse? Every single one in a place that holds thousands of the goddamn things?”

“I’m tempted to say yes,” he mutters, giving me a dark look. “But no. Fortunately for you, that’s Richard’s job.”

Right. Mr. Nanny.

I cut a glare at the android calmly righting the chair I kicked over. He doesn’t seem at all bothered by the argument, even now that it involves him.

Goddamn program.

“Then what the fuck do you need me for?” I snarl past gritted teeth.

“Same reason you needed to go to Jason’s apartment!” Elijah replies, exasperated. “God, Gavin; why do you have to be so damn difficult??”

“It’s a talent,” I humph, dropping into the chair and crossing my arms.

I cannot believe I’m agreeing to this. But the sooner I do it, the sooner I can get the hell away from my scheming jackass step-brother and go back to hunting down Scavs, the right way.

“Go over it again,” I sigh, leaning forward and listening this time.

“You and Richard will go to CyberLife Tower tonight, just before midnight,” Elijah explains, trying very hard to be patient. I almost want to push him, but again, the sooner we do this... “I’ll kick the building network a little so there’s a blackout. Not unusual for them; they haven’t had a consistent source of power since the Pulse, except for a few floors. You’ll have exactly nineteen minutes to get past security on the ground level and reach the maintenance shaft to the ventilation. It’s the fastest, safest way to the android warehouse. There’s a separate vent system for the warehouse, so you’ll have to go through the corridors when you reach the right floor. If you get there fast enough, you might catch the last bit of the blackout. Otherwise you’ll have to figure out another way past the guard.”

“Why do I have to figure that out?” I scowl. “I’m already risking my life for this.”

“Because the surveillance system is closed circuit,” he explains with exaggerated patience. “Surely you understand that, at least.” I give him the finger. “I don’t care what you do; distract the guard, knock him out, whatever, just get him or her away from the door. Use Jason’s pass and hack the bio-lock to get into the warehouse. Then it’s Richard’s turn. He already knows what to do, so don’t worry about it. Just stand guard and let him do his thing. Getting yourselves out is going to be a little harder, but I’m sure you can manage it; you’re resourceful.”

Why does that sound like an insult?

Probably it is.

God, I hate this man.

“And I suppose the androids are just going to walk out on their own,” I say sarcastically. He gives me a mirthless smile.

“Exactly. CyberLife still isn’t equipped to handle a mass exodus; if the Pulse hadn’t destroyed half of their systems, they might have been able to improve security and layout to counter what Connor did for Markus and Jericho, but fortunately, they haven’t even had a chance to consider it.”

“Fun,” I scoff, standing. “If that’s all, I’m gonna go sleep. I haven’t slept for some twenty-odd hours, and if I’m gonna walk the edge of life and death again, I’d rather be well-rested.” Crystal bounds over as I start to leave, and I pause to glance back at Elijah. “This time, feed my cat while I’m gone.”

“What?? Why should I feed your cat? It’s your mangy ball of fur!”

“I’m putting my life in danger, Eli; I think you can spare a can of fucking tuna to feed my cat.”

“Fine, whatever. But if it makes a mess of my house, I’m kicking it out.”

“If you kick my cat out, I swear to God, I will beat you senseless.” He scowls but doesn’t argue further, so I take my win and leave.

“You only just found that cat a few days ago,” Nines points out when we’re out of the room. “Why are you so protective of her?”

“I like cats,” I answer simply.

――

I didn’t want to wake up, but after so long without, the coffee got me buzzed and the moment I woke, I couldn’t go back to sleep, so now I’m practically vibrating as Nines and I wait for the blackout.

“Are you going to be okay?” he asks, eying my tapping fingers.

“Fine,” I reply shortly, eager and impatient. “Too much caffeine. Should have had half a cup.”

“I told you to regulate,” he chuckles softly.

“Shut up,” I grunt, checking the watch I ‘stole’ from Elijah. He doesn’t use it, so might as well. “I’d tell you to go a month without new thirium, but you might actually break.”

“Wow. A witty retort for once.”

“I’m witty,” I scoff. “I just try not to cut you with it.” He stifles a laugh at that, which surprisingly improves my mood; Elijah would have gotten defensive.

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Hardly is he finished speaking than my watch ticks over to 11:41, and the lights go out in the Tower. We both react at the same time, darting out from our hiding spot toward the rubble-crowded entrance. I catch one guard around the neck so he can’t cry out for help, using my momentum to take him to the ground, and squeeze until he stops squirming. I don’t bother to check if he’s still alive or not; I’ve done takedowns enough to know.

Six guards outside; three apiece. I take mine down quickly, making sure to drag them out of sight behind huge blocks of cinder, and bounce over a cement barricade toward the door just as Nines is lowering his last one to the ground.

“Slow poke,” I call at him just over a whisper, already almost to the door, which clicks unlocked a few seconds before I reach it.

“Is this what you were like before the Pulse?” he smirks, slipping past me into the building. “Full of boundless energy?”

“Fuck no,” I scoff, lowering my voice to a half breath as we sneak past the perplexed guards darting through the lobby, using the rubble here to keep hidden. “‘M lazy as fuck.” I keep a careful control of my tongue so as not to hiss the Ss.

“How’d you become so popular then?” he ribs, shooting me a taunting look. We get clear of the lobby, and I give him a wicked grin.

“Because I’m lazy. I get everything done as quickly and efficiently as possible so I don’t have to deal with it later.”

“Everything?”

I don’t like that look.

“Yes...?”

“Even women?”

Ah. Got it now.

“Sure,” I say easily, playing his game. My way. “They’re done real quick; I take a little longer.” He stifles a snort of laughter just as we reach the entrance to the maintenance shaft.

“That was good,” he admits, gripping the lock tightly and squeezing until it pops. “I’ll give you that one; that was definitely a quick comeback.”

“And that,” I hum, pushing open the hatch and ducking in, “would be why I drink coffee. Besides the fact that it’s my lifeblood.” My foot comes down on open air and I don’t even have a chance to gasp before I’m hanging over open space. I stare blankly at the yawning darkness below, faintly outlined by the barest hints of light reflecting off metal siding.

“Maybe look where you’re going next time?” Nines offers, a wavering note of relief in his voice as he pulls me upright by the back of my jacket.

A click, and I’m momentarily startled by a comparatively bright blue light. I glance up and realise with a shock that it’s actually from Nine’s eyes, and as faint as it is, it’s just strong enough to illuminate the area around us.

“Wh- Never mind; I give up thinking I know how you work,” I mutter, looking around.

Lucky us; there’s a ladder.

Chapter Text

Believe it or not, there’s no guard watching the entrance to the warehouse. Either they got called away to help deal with the chaos on the upper floors, or no one thought a guard was needed forty-nine fucking floors belowground.

I’m leaning toward the latter.

“A computer brain and a thirium-pump heart,” I scoff, shaking my head, as Nines unbuttons his shirt to open his chest. “It baffles me sometimes how you can act so goddamn human.”

“Thirium is comparatively complex as human blood,” Nines chuckles, glow dimming a bit when he glances up at me and brightening when he looks back down. After practically blinding me earlier, I appreciate the effort. “Without it, androids wouldn’t function even half so well as they do.”

As ‘they’ do.

Does he not think of himself as an android?

“So what even is thirium?” I ask sceptically, waiting for him to finish hooking up to the bio-lock. I splay my hands in exaggerated glee. “Magic??”

“Only to ignorant, uncultured fools,” he replies easily, a note in his voice that sounds suspiciously like a jab. “Thirium 310, as it’s properly called, is a chemical production created by Kamski specially for androids, without any prior knowledge of chemistry. It’s conductive, so can transmit electric impulses from computer-” he taps his temple “-to biocomponents all over the body. It also carries energy, the way human blood carries oxygen.” As he finishes that statement, he clicks one last wire into place with a flinch and a grunt. “Alright, try the lock.”

Taking the security pass from my pocket, I place my hand on the scanner and swipe the card. The scanner lights up under my palm, and I can hear a faint clicking.

Two things happen at once then, and the timing nearly gives me a fucking heart attack from fright: the lock blinks green, door hissing open, and the lights come back on.

“Blackout’s over,” I huff, grabbing my chest reactively. My heart is already pattering against my ribs, attempting to escape the terror of discovery. “Your turn, tin can; hurry up.”

He’s already tucking the last of the wires back into place and closing both access panels, to his chest and to the bio-lock. With only a quick nod of acknowledgement, he slips past me into the warehouse. I stay at the door, impatient and uneasy, watching and listening for any sign of CyberLife security.

What I hear, surprisingly, comes from behind me, rather than in front of me. I turn to make sure Nines isn’t destroying the whole damn building, and immediately feel a pit of dread.

No wonder there was no guard; a trio of violent androids is security enough!

Three RK800 models with vivid red LEDs are ganging up on Nines, and while he’s holding out pretty well, it’s clear he can’t keep this up very long. He certainly can’t finish his job if he’s fighting off the red robots.

“Hey!” I shout, scrambling for my gun and remembering too late that I left it in that goddamn fucking drain. “Shit... Over here!”

“Gavin, no!” Nines tries to keep the attentions of the androids, and manages to block one, but the other two turn to me.

What the hell am I doing?

Too late to turn back now.

“Come on!” I taunt them, readying for a fight. Not like I haven’t been outnumbered before.

“The heart, Gavin!” Nines calls to me, already ripping out the thirium pump of the not-Connor he’s fighting. “Go for the heart!”

“Yeah, yeah, I got it,” I snap back, ducking past a RedBot―ooh, I like that―and kicking it toward the other. “Do your job already!”

“Cole!” one of the RedBots cries out when it sees the one Nines downed. That one, Cole, is on its knees, jerking mechanically as it slowly shuts down.

“Cal, focus on the intruder first!” the other scolds, pushing him back.

Shit. They have personalities.

This just got ten times harder.

“I’ll kill him!” the first RedBot snarls, glaring at me.

So weird seeing ‘Connor’ so angry...

“You can try,” I retort, changing my mindset; if they’ve got full-blown deviant-style personalities, I’m gonna have to deal with them differently. “Bring it on, dipshits!”

Cal lunges first, to the clear annoyance of the other RedBot, and I twist to the side, grabbing for Cal’s chest. He’s ready for it and adjusts at the last second to knee me hard in the side. The blow twinges my hip, which is still sore from Nines’ Leap of Faith.

“Ack! Fucking ‘droid!” I catch his leg and instinctively drive the edge of my palm at his throat. It connects, and his head snaps back, but I remember that he won’t feel it at the same moment that he grabs my wrist and slams his other fist into my unprotected gut.

A dull-pointed agony bursts through my torso, and I stumble back, struggling to breathe. Before I can catch my breath, the other RedBot appears out of nowhere, spinning in air to land a perfect flying roundhouse on my ear.

GOD-FUCKING-DAMNIT!! I can’t even think over the screeching pain ricocheting in my head; I don’t know how I manage to get to my feet, but I’m pretty much on autopilot now, my brain too shaken in my skull to do much of any thinking.

“Stay down,” one of the RedBots warns; I don’t know or care which. “We don’t want to hurt you.” The unnamed one, then.

“Screw that,” Cal hisses. “Get up; give me a reason to beat you bloody.”

“Bring it on then,” I huff, stomach protesting and ear ringing as I brace myself for the next round.

Hurry the fuck up, Nines...

The unnamed RedBot sighs heavily, and Cal darts toward me. This time I don’t care whether or not I get hurt; I’m already in pain, so what’s a little more? I duck down and launch for his midriff, plowing headfirst into his chest. Startled, he doesn’t react quite as quickly, and I take advantage, ripping his shirt and reaching for the plate guarding his pump.

A body tackle against my side jerks me away an instant too soon, just as Cal recovers and jolts backward, hands flying up to cover his pump. I hit the ground hard, all of the unnamed one’s weight bearing down on me, plus momentum. While I lay dazed and lost, he straddles me and clasps his hands, raising them high overhead.

Oh. Wait... That’s a bad thing.

Shit; he’s gonna crush my face in.

I’m dead. I can’t fucking move, can barely think; no way in hell I’m getting out of the way in time.

Someone gives a ragged cry of pain, giving the unnamed RedBot pause, but before he can even turn to look, he bucks and a hand bursts out of his chest, fingers curled around the pump. The RedBot stares blankly at the ceiling for a moment, and then coughs convulsively, blue blood dribbling from his mouth.

“Shouldn’t have stopped focusing on me,” Nines sneers coldly in his ear, ripping his hand back out and dropping the pump to the floor with a clatter. The RedBot collapses against him, and he easily picks the now limp body up, tossing it aside. It tumbles to rest not far from the first RedBot, Cole.

Dear God, Nines can be scary... Especially splattered with blue blood like he just participated in a massacre.

Oh yeah, he did.

I shudder involuntarily.

“Are you alright, Gavin?” he asks anxiously, his concern a grisly counterpoint to all the blood as he leans over me. He reaches out, presumably to check me over, but pauses and clenches his bloodied fist, withdrawing.

“‘M fine,” I grunt, already pushing to my elbows and trying to roll over without twisting my torso too much.

Goddamn, that punch hurt... And I can hardly hear a fucking thing from my ear.

But I do hear something. A rustling scrape.

Looking up, I find the source of the sound: Cal, dragging himself to the other two RedBots. His LED is spinning red and yellow, and he’s leaving a thick trail of blue blood across the floor. I watch, unable to tear my gaze away, as he hauls himself half onto Cole, and then reaches over to curl his fingers in the unnamed one’s shirt.

I abruptly realise there are tears, legitimate tears, streaking his face, and something in my chest twists uncomfortably.

His LED spins red once more as he lays his head on Cole’s shoulder and goes still.

I shouldn’t have seen that.

Fuck.

Now I’m gonna have nightmares of red LEDs.

Chapter Text

Getting back was less terrifying but far more difficult that getting there. I had a hard time walking, and eventually, despite my protests, Nines simply picked me up and carried me, draping his jacket over me for whatever reason.

“Am I not heavy?” I ask after a bit, still annoyed. He snorts lightly.

“I can carry twice my body weight with ease, more with the right leverage; you aren’t heavy.”

I’m so fucking tempted to wiggle free, just so I can punch him. But that would put me in even more pain, and do nothing to him, so why bother?

Leaning my head back, I stare into space, literally and figuratively. The stars are so bright without light pollution; I can see the ribbon of clusters and space dust that make up the Milky Way.

It’s... actually kinda... beautiful.

Did Cole ever get to see this? Cal, and the other one?

God, I’m thinking of them like humans. Those bolt buckets are probably just gonna be repaired and go back to guard duty.

Right?

Nines literally tore through Cal’s chest; can he be repaired without wiping whatever personality he had?

The fuck is wrong with me? Why am I even thinking about this? They’re just fucking robots!

But... what if it was Nines?

I shudder and adjust his jacket, trying to pretend it’s the chilly breeze that bothers me.

“Are you cold?” Nines asks gently. I don’t even get a chance to respond before his subtle warmth increases, becoming full-blown heat. “Better?”

“Er, yeah,” I mutter, a different heat creeping up my neck as I try to return my focus to the stars.

Has Nines even noticed?

“Hey.” I reach over and tilt his chin up. “Look.” He pauses, scanning the skies. For a moment, I’m not sure he’s even capable of understanding how beautiful a sight it is. Then he takes a breath that he doesn’t need, staring.

“Oh...” There’s a moment of silence, and I can almost feel him thinking.

Maybe I can.

“Ever seen a night sky like this before, tin can?” I ask, only half taunting.

“No,” he answers slowly. “I... Before we met, I was always so... busy. I had a goal, and I didn’t stop to pay attention to anything else. And after, I was so focused on improving myself, so I could better protect you. I never even considered... Objectively, I know the world is a beautiful place, with sights in nature that leave so many humans breathless. Now... I see it; I understand.” Turning his faintly glowing gaze to me, he smiles. “Thank you.”

The creeping heat returns and I look away, grunting acceptance.

What if it was Nines? I don’t know what I’d do. Because I don’t even want to think about it.

――

I don’t know what happens with all the androids Nines activated for Elijah, because I spend the next four days confined to my bed by Nines the fucking Nanny ‘Droid, and another day locked in the room because apparently both Nines and Elijah think I still need to recover.

I’m getting real sick of this cooperative fuckery.

At least I have Crystal. Usually. Whenever she wants to go out to the great wide litter box, she blatantly ignores me. Fortunately she’s all cuddles again as soon as Nines lets her back in.

“How are you feeling?” Nines asks at the end of day five―yes, I’m counting―when he lets Crystal in after her evening release. She purrs loudly as she rubs against his leg in passing, and then gives me a half-purr, half-yowl.

“Don’t give me that, traitor,” I huff, giving her a dark look. She mewls and butts against my ankle. Sighing, I give in and pick her up, scratching her neck. “Is there a word to describe ‘I want to go on a rampage and raze the entire house to the ground, with you and Eli in it’?”

“Murderous?” he offers, amused.

“Then there you have it,” I smile coldly. “When is house arrest over?”

“Today.” I pause and turn a narrow glare on him.

“...Are you fucking with me?”

“Are you offering?” I grab the first thing I can reach and throw it at him. Unfortunately, the pillow is too soft to do more than ruffle his hair; he doesn’t even flinch.

“I will beat you with rebar,” I growl at him, adjusting my hold on poor Crystal, who decides she’d rather sit on my shoulder than be held.

“House arrest is over,” he says plainly, still amused. “Now that your wounds are healed. Which, considering the state of your side when I found you, is quite the blessing.”

“I’m a fucking cockroach,” I scoff. “You can’t kill me.”

“So I’m gathering. Shall we?”

“Well, I can’t get rid of you, so yeah. After I give my asshole brother a piece of my mind.”

“Kamski isn’t here,” Nines speaks up as I slide past him. I stop in my tracks, frowning.

“What do you mean?”

“He left.”

“Yeah, I got that. Why?”

“He didn’t say,” Nines replies slowly, and I know he’s holding something back. For some reason, that makes me really uneasy.

Okay, and a little concerned. Hell if I’ll admit that aloud, though.

“Damnit, I don’t have time for your bullshit, Nines. Where did he go?” Nines hesitates, and I want to really throw something. “Richard! Tell me where the fuck my brother went!!”

“He went to find the source of the Pulse,” he admits finally.

Why does that send a chill down my spine?

“The source...?”

“Kamski had been working nonstop since the Pulse to get his equipment up and running so he could track it to its source and figure out what happened. Yesterday, he managed to locate a potential point of origin. That’s where he went.”

“And the androids?” I ask, barely keeping my growing rage under control.

“Most have been sent to assist the nearest Colonies,” Nines answers, watching me closely. “He took the strongest and fastest as his team to investigate the point of origin.”

“...I need a gun,” I growl, storming down the hall.

“You lost the one I gave you,” he points out, following me. “Why should I trust you with another?” I don’t answer.

Elijah is a creature of habit, but even I don’t know if he ever kept weapons around. I have a few ideas where he might keep them if he did, however.

“Gavin, tell me what you’re doing,” Nines orders, grabbing my arm just I as start for Elijah’s bedroom. I give him the coldest glare I can manage, which must be pretty potent, because he lets go immediately.

“You kept me confined to my room while my brother went off on a goddamn fucking suicide mission with a handful of tin dipshits to protect him! I’ve had it up to here with you, fucking bastard; you can either help me gear up, or you can get the fuck out of my way!”

“Gavin.” I try not to whirl too fast; Crystal still digs her claws into my shoulder to steady herself.

“WHAT.”

“Does he mean that much to you?” I can’t read anything from his expression, but that damned glow is back in his eyes. I want to bite my tongue, but Elijah already refused to explain anything to him, and fuck if I’m gonna be like that asshole.

“I fucking hate him,” I grumble reluctantly. “I’ve always been in his shadow, fighting for my own recognition; even when I do something great, it’s always ‘Well he’s from the same family as Elijah Kamski, so no surprise!’ like he’s some big star. Bullshit. I despise him. He ignored me, stole our parents’ attention, left me with nothing.” Rubbing my hand over my face, I take a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to calm down. “But he’s my brother. For better or worse. He’s an incompetent idiot and a fucking bastard, but he’s family. And I don’t turn my back on family. Even if they turn their back on me.”

A smile softens Nines’ features and he holds out a gun butt-first, twirling another expertly in his other hand.

“That’s all I needed to hear. Let’s gear up.”

Chapter Text

I can’t leave Crystal behind. Part of me is a tad bit worried that she might run off in the middle of the night, or when we fight Scavs―when, because when it comes to Scavs, there is no if about fighting―but I have faith that she’ll always come back to me. And anyway, she’s family now, and no way in hell am I abandoning her.

Fortunately, Nines doesn’t even try to argue.

With a little help from Orchid, we found a rather surprising arsenal of weapons hidden away in Eli’s lab, and half of it was empty; presumably from outfitting his ‘team.’ We took what we needed, plus a little extra; you can never have too many guns, and it’s not like Nines can’t carry them like so many fucking feathers.

“You’ll bring Elijah back safely, won’t you?” Orchid asks suddenly while we’re finishing gathering the last few supplies, mostly ‘food stuff’―a camping pot, utility knife, etc.

“That’s the plan,” I grunt, grabbing two small metal bowls to use for Crystal’s food and water and handing them to Nines, who’s packing everything with an efficiency I can only dream of ever accomplishing.

“Please do. I may be a machine, but I have been lonely before. Without Elijah...” She trails off, and I pause, startled.

Is Orchid a deviant? She’s such an old model; I didn’t even consider that it might be possible.

I glance at Nines, who pointedly avoids looking at me and says nothing; he’s going to be no help here.

“Yeah, I guess I get that,” I admit reluctantly, uneasy with confessing anything to a damn machine.

Wait...

“And Chloe?” Orchid persists, cutting into my realisation before it fully forms.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I growl, glaring at the ceiling. “He took Chloe with him? Fucking bastard... Yes, we’ll bring Chloe back too.”

Nines cuts an amused glance at me then, but says nothing.

Let’s hope it stays that way.

Yeah, no such luck. We made sure Orchid locked down the mansion and are about a twenty minute walk away when he speaks up, shattering my hope that he won’t pry.

“I don’t suppose Chloe is family too, is she?” he muses.

“As if,” I scoff. “The day I call a fucking android ‘family’ is the day hell enters a permanent ice age.”

“I see.”

Damn tin can doesn’t believe me.

Whatever; why waste the energy?

The sooner we catch up to Elijah, the sooner I can give the bastard a piece of my mind, and the sooner I can go back to the life I want to live.

――

I give up trying to keep track of where we are after we leave a Colony outside Pontiac. According to Nines, Elijah was heading for Grayling when he left―Lord knows what he thought he’d find up there.

Our luck with Scavs has held up thus far by the time we set up camp in the living room of a larger house in the middle of an abandoned neighbourhood in Clarkston. It bothers me. We should have run into SOMETHING by now.

“Too goddamn quiet,” I mutter, petting Crystal as she comes over to the bowls I just set down for her.

“Excuse me?” Nines glances over from his post by the window looking over the front yard. He’s been unusually quiet as well, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

“Where are all the Scavs?” I growl. “I haven’t seen a single fucking Scav since whatshisface’s apartment. Not counting the dead fuckers outside the Tower.” He frowns, and I don’t think I like the contemplative look on his face.

“I have been avoiding the types of areas they like to congregate in, but you’re right; we should have seen some Scavs by now.”

Crystal mews as she finishes the canned chicken bits I gave her, and I pick her up to plop down on the couch where I’m going to be sleeping tonight. She purrs, settling down in my lap and leaning into my hand while I scratch her neck.

“Fucking hell,” I sigh heavily. “I don’t like this... Got me on edge just waiting for some kind of ambush or something. Wouldn’t surprise me if the fuckers were capable of some shit like that.” Nines stands and moves closer, settling on the arm of the couch and making me all the more uneasy; he has no reason to be closer to me right now.

“Are you going to be able to sleep?” he asks, oddly gentle. “We can keep moving for a bit if you’re still antsy.”

“Fuck that,” I scoff, annoyed. “At least this place is defensible.” Shifting, he lets out a wry chuckle as he settles into what I presume is a more comfortable position.

Can a machine get uncomfortable?

“Fair enough,” he allows. “But... if you can’t sleep, then staying here is pointless. You’ll be in just as much danger tomorrow if you’re exhausted as you will be tonight if we move on.”

I don’t even want to try and make sense of his words right now.

“I dunno,” I grumble. “I’m too tired to think, and too stressed to sleep.”

I think I blinked, because the very next second, he’s leaning over me, gently lifting Crystal off my lap with one hand while the other is braced against the back of the couch, blocking escape since his knee is on the other side.

“Allow me,” he murmurs, kickstarting my brain.

“Hold the fucking phone!” I snap, planting both hands roughly against his chest. “Don’t you dare touch me, you...” For an instant, I falter, trying to come up with an insult that’ll deter him, and instead remember the apartment, so I snarl, “you fucking rapist!”

Oh thank God, he stopped...

“...Is that really what you think of me?” he asks softly. There’s a subtle furrow in his brow, and a hint of vague annoyance in his gaze as he studies me, and I really, really don’t like it.

“You don’t have my consent,” I point out sharply. The annoyance turns to irritation, and his jaw clenches noticeably.

“But even if you wanted me, you’d never verbally give your consent,” he growls, agitated. His words leave me absolutely speechless, giving him free rein to continue. “You’re too stubborn. You couldn’t care less that I’m male, and you wouldn’t care either way if I dominated you or let you dominate me, but your fucking pride won’t let you say anything, and you keep denying me even when your body is eager to accept.”

He drops his now free hand to my groin, drawing my attention to the erection I didn’t realise I had. The surprise of hearing him curse for once, which took over after the previous bafflement faded, gives way now to absolute shock at my own reaction.

“I want to take care of you, Gavin,” he says, letting go and laying his hand against his own thigh so he doesn’t touch me, frustration evident in his voice and expression. “Please, let me help.”

I open my mouth, but I have no idea what I’m about to say. Fortunately, I don’t get a chance to make a fool of myself; Crystal suddenly yowls and hisses, and we both look over to see her arched and bristling, staring intently toward the side door, which I think leads to a walkway between the house and garage.

Before either of us can move, we hear a very loud footfall from that direction, followed by another, and then another set, almost like the clops of a walking horse, but far more muffled, as though it’s hooves are padded with velvet.

Nines is on his feet and pressed against the wall beside the door in an instant, and I’ve already grabbed the rifle he left at his perch by the front window. Dropping to one knee behind the couch, I brace the rifle with an elbow on the back of the couch and aim down the sight at the door after a quick, practiced check over the gun to be sure it won’t misfire. Cock it back, and I nod to Nines, signalling my readiness. He nods back, and reaches slowly for the door handle.

I half expected the door to burst open and Scavs to come pouring in, but he opens it without incident, slowly and quietly.

Nothing. My range of sight is limited, but as far as I can see, there’s nothing outside the door. Nines frowns, mirroring my confusion, and I’m just about to stand so I can change cover when I see it.

I almost miss it; the flash of tan flicking just barely out of sight. Crystal yowls deep in her throat and my heart leaps to mine at the sound. Then it drops through the floor as the flick of tan disappears and a big, fluffy tan face replaces it. The two gold eyes staring back at me send ice coursing through my veins, and for a long second, I’m absolutely paralysed as I lock gazes with an honest-to-God lion.

Chapter Text

A motherfucking LION.

What the actual fuck is a goddamn lion doing in the middle of bumfuck nowhere??

“Gavin...” Nines murmurs softly.

I’m shivering. God, I’m legitimately shaking with fear!

“Gavin.”

“What!” I snap through gritted teeth. The lion chuffs, and I just about pee myself. Before Nines can say anything else, the lion pads into the house, pretty as you please, not a care in the world. It holds its head high, sniffing the air.

Wait, it’s got a mane. That means it’s male, right?

Why the fuck am I concerned whether it’s male or female??

Crystal hisses loudly and the lion stops, huge gold eyes swinging down to pin the comparatively tiny feline with a mildly curious stare. She stares back at him, ears flat against her skull, back arched sharply, fur poofed out in all directions, and tail tip twitching like crazy. He lowers his head toward her, snuffling, and she yowls a warning, pressing up against the back of the couch.

Dear Christ, I could reach out and touch it if I try.

I’m not trying.

“Gavin. Stay still...”

“No shit, Sherlock,” I grind out, strung tenser than a bow string. I can’t help a nervous jolt as the lion looks up at me now, gold gaze capturing mine again, against my will.

Some tiny part of my mind notices Nines moving ever so slowly around to the side, drawing from an under-the-arm holster with easy, gently movements so as not to attract the lion’s attention.

Not that it matters; the big cat’s gaze is fixed firmly on me, curious and interested. His nose twitches as he moves a little closer.

Another yowl from Crystal actually does attract his attention, and Nines goes impossibly still while the big cat gives a suspiciously friendly growl in return. I don’t know whether to be terrified or relieved when Crystal relaxes a bit, back lowering just a bit and ears swivelling forward intently.

Nines starts moving again, agonisingly slow as he takes aim. Crystal meows in a more curious manner, and the lion chuffs in response before looking up at me again.

Holy shit, no fucking way.

“Stop, Nines!” I hold up both hands at him and cast a quick glance in his direction to make sure he’s obeying, and then look again at the lion, staring hard into his eyes and assuring myself that I didn’t imagine it.

Nope, didn’t imagine it. That glow is one hundred percent the same glow I saw in Nines’ eyes in the apartment building.

“Fucking shit... It’s an android,” I breathe, awed.

“What?” Nines is beside me faster than expected and I jolt again, but his focus is on the lion, whose gaze swings up to meet his. They get into a short staring contest, and a slow smile breaks out on Nines’ face before he grins at me. “You’re right, it is; this is Buttermilk, from the Detroit Zoo.”

“The Det- Wait, hold up; Buttermilk? Its name is serious- You’re kidding me...”

“Nope. According to his registration, his name really is Buttermilk.” I look at the lion, still not quite believing it, and he looks back passively, mildly curious.

Crystal mewls, jumping up to the back of the couch, and while she isn’t arched anymore, she’s still really floofed; I pick her up and hold her, gently smoothing out her fur, and realise she’s purring in unease.

“It’s okay, girl,” I murmur comfortingly, kissing the top of her head and nuzzling her gently. “We’re okay. So... can you, like... interface with it or something?” I glance again at Buttermilk, who sits on his haunches and opens huge jaws in a wide yawn.

Damn, they really went all out with the realism on this thing; I can’t see anything but pink tongue and gums all the way back.

“I can interface with registration and information,” Nines says as the lion’s jaws fall closed and that pink tongue traces both sides of his mouth, just like any cat licking its chops. “But... no, I can’t give him orders.”

“So we’re stuck with it,” I grimace.

“Until he decides to leave, yes,” Nines agrees, tucking his gun back into its holster under his arm.

“Fan-fucking-tastic,” I huff, shifting Crystal to one arm so I can pick up the rifle and hand it back to Nines. “I’m not getting any sleep with that thing here.”

“You’re uncomfortable sleeping in the presence of an android?” Nines asks, brow cocked. There’s a teasing note in his voice, and I hate that I’m actually amused.

“Funny, dickhead,” I scoff, refusing to show my amusement. “I’m honestly amazed I can trust you enough to fall asleep; there ain’t a snowball’s chance in hell I’ll be able to sleep with a goddamn lion around, even if it is an android.” He chuckles lightly, stepping past me to go back to his post now that our safety is relatively certain.

I make a face at Buttermilk and ease past him to settle cautiously into an armchair, since he’s blocking the couch. He stands and turns a full circle before lying down on his side against the front of the couch, and then stares at me, nose twitching in an insanely realistic way.

“Hey,” I call out as it suddenly occurs to me, “how the fuck did he even get out?”

“Of the zoo?” Nines hums rhetorically, pulling a curtain back to check the street. “The Pulse shut down everything on electricity, and most of the locks in the zoo are electronic. It wouldn’t surprise me if the android caretakers shut down and the human caretakers bolted, so the animals simply wandered free as they got hungry or curious.”

“Even the android animals?” I press, not liking the persistent stare I’m getting from Buttermilk. I stare back, trying to show him I’m not impressed.

“Of course,” Nines laughs. “They’re programmed to act just like other animals, Gavin; they get ‘curious’ just as easily.” By the look Buttermilk is giving me, I’m not really surprised, and I fully expect him to start following me now.

“That doesn’t make me feel any better, damnit.”

Chapter Text

Well, I wasn’t wrong. Buttermilk is still following me.

It’s been almost a week since we left Elijah’s house to chase after him, and about four-ish days since Buttermilk found us. He seems keenly interested in Crystal, which really annoys me for some reason. But it must annoy her too, because she’s taken to riding my shoulders again, like she did in the first few days, instead of pacing alongside me.

On the other hand, after that first night when we met, I’ve woken up more than once to find Crystal curled up between me and Buttermilk―it doesn’t seem to matter how far away I lay down from him; by morning, he’s half on top of me.

And fucking Nines thinks it’s hilarious.

At least the dickhead hasn’t tried to jump me again, nor has he even brought up the topic since that night.

I’ve had a lot of time to think about things over the past few days; it’s easier to travel now that we’ve discovered Scavs steer clear of Buttermilk, which explains their unusual absence.

In the general quiet, I’ve been reviewing everything that’s happened to me since I passed out on the road and Nines found me. If it wasn’t for that goddamn heatstroke, I’d have left first thing, so I guess that’s to blame for everything that’s happened up to now.

Except Nines was already following me, wasn’t he? He was certainly tracking me down, so it was only a matter of time until we met up.

Right?

No, don’t bother with ‘what ifs’; there’s enough to consider that actually happened.

Starting with...

A hot flush creeps up my neck, and I hastily push down that memory, skimming past it and only thinking about the surrounding events. But it’s hard not to remember Nines’ hands gliding gently over my chest, only a few thin layers of bandages separating skin from skin, or the wet warmth of his mouth engulfing me...

How does he keep his mouth wet? That shouldn’t be a necessity for an android. Did he do that just to...? Oh, that’s not awkward at all.

Shoving that aside, I move on to the Scav attack. Neither of us was prepared for it, but we both reacted quickly, seamlessly. I had put it down to the years I spent learning to work alongside even the worst jackasses the DPD had to offer, but now I wonder if maybe Nines has been tuning himself to me from the start.

I have to pause on that for a moment; if Nines’ interest in me is purely code, how does that mesh with the extremely deviant behaviour he keeps exhibiting? Is his adaption to me completely reliant on AI learning? Because that would mean he isn’t deviant at all. But he doesn’t seem to listen to orders...

“Nines. Stop walking.” He does, but he frowns at me, crystalline gaze flicking quickly around in search of danger.

“Why?”

No, androids before the Pulse didn’t question anything. And when I shake my head in dismissal and keep walking, he follows without waiting for a command. Between that and getting pinned both in whathisface’s apartment and the night we met Buttermilk, there’s no way he’s not deviant.

My theory that his apparent attraction to me is all just Elijah fucking with me and writing it into his code takes a massive blow with that realisation; if his programme is to seduce me or whatever, then being a deviant would mean less attraction, not more.

But couldn’t it be possible that his interest in me is different than what he was supposed to feel? Elijah never said he was supposed to be my boyfriend or lover or fucktoy or anything, just that he was supposed to be my partner, like Connor is Hank’s partner.

Fucking hell, why’d I go there?

Now I can’t get that fucking image out of my head; what I wouldn’t give for an android brain so I could delete this godforsaken memory.

Is there supposed to be some subliminal message there, then? Did Elijah know Hank and Connor went from partners to... partners? Then maybe he really meant that when he said what he said, which would mean that....

Shit, now I’m just fucking confused.

Shaking my head, I backtrack a bit.

Nines is a deviant. That much is fact. So whatever was in his coding no longer matters; anything he does now is completely of his own volition.

Then, logically speaking, he really is attracted to me.

I let my thoughts drift to the memories of his words in the storm drain, and again in the house just before Buttermilk butted in.

‘If you die, you can’t come back.’

‘I’m scared that I can’t protect you.’

‘You’re all that matters to me.’

‘I want to take care of you.’

‘Please, let me help.’

...Why does that make my chest ache like I got shot with a vest on? Something’s pressing against my ribs, hard, and I don’t like it.

“I need a break,” I say quietly, not even sure he’ll hear me.

He does, of course, and stops immediately, swinging the pack off his shoulders and gesturing to a convenient log not far off the road we’re travelling.

“Sit; I’ll make you some lunch while we’re here.” He switches gears effortlessly to do just that, starting by tossing me a can opener and a can of FriChick for Crystal so I can feed her first, as I always do.

But I hesitate this time, still conflicted in my emotions. Fortunately, he pulls out a blood-bag container of thirium that’s supposed to be an emergency stash in case he gets critically wounded, and I get to frown at him as he holds it out to Buttermilk. The lion pads closer to him long enough to gently take the bag into his jaws, and then steps back over toward me and Crystal, who’s butting eagerly against my shins and mewling hungrily.

“What?” Nines cocks an amused glance at me as Buttermilk bites down on the bag and tilts his head back to drink the blue blood.

“Why did you do that?” I ask, pointing vaguely at the lion. Nines’ smile grows a bit, and he lifts a shoulder in a partial shrug.

“Android animals need more care than android humans,” he explains simply. “I can recycle my thirium for a much longer period than Buttermilk can; he needs fresh thirium every month, and it’s been almost six weeks since the Pulse, so it’s been at least that long since he’s gotten a refill.”

“That was supposed to be for you,” I point out irritably, crouching and opening the can so I don’t have to see his amusement anymore. “What if you lose an arm again? Or a leg?”

“There’s still one more bag,” he notes lightly. “And if it comes to it, I can shut down to prevent an excessive loss of thirium.”

“I’m not fucking carrying you anywhere, tin can.” He laughs, and I don’t know what to do with the sudden jolt in my chest.

“Then we’d better make sure it doesn’t come to that.”

Chapter Text

Within an hour of my... what, epiphany? Mini meltdown? Whatever... Within an hour, we see the first sign for Grayling. Underneath it, we pause, neither of us saying what I know we’re both thinking: we don’t know where exactly Elijah was going.

“...Now what?” I mutter finally, irritation prickling at me.

“We could search on foot,” Nines suggests slowly. I give him a dark look, but he’s still staring at the sign as he continues, “But that would take days, and we’ve already taken far longer to get here than we could have... Understandably, since we’ve had to take precautions against Scavs, but still...”

“Nines,” I snap, “stop babbling and get to the point!”

“Patience, Gavin,” he chides shortly, turning a faint scowl of disapproval on me. “We know Scavs generally steer clear of Buttermilk, but he’s shown no inclination toward violence of any kind, even the natural predatory instinct that should be programmed into him; it’s only a matter of time before the Scavs figure out how docile he is and come swarming in when we least expect, just like they did at my shack. Humans are persistent; Scavs even more so. We don’t have time to search for Elijah on foot.”

“No shit, Sherlock,” I growl impatiently, gesturing for him to make his point now.

“So instead of waiting for Scavs to attack, let’s bring them to us.”

...Say what now?

“Did you get another virus?” I ask, staring blankly at him. The corner of his mouth twitches almost imperceptibly; I’d have missed it if I wasn’t staring at him. It makes me wonder just how much I missed before now.

“If we send up a signal of some kind,” he goes on, ignoring my question and bringing my attention back to the matter at hand, “we’ll attract every Scavs within sight or hearing range, but we’ll also get Elijah’s attention. At the very least, he’ll check it out to see if it came from a Colony, or a survivor, or a Treader in need. That way, we bring him to us.”

“Yeah, and a million Scavs,” I remind him pointedly. “Are you insane??”

“Just a little bit,” he chuckles, smirking visibly now. “All we need is a place that’s easily defensible, preferably high up...”

“No. No, no, no; a million times, no! You need your brain checked! We are NOT screaming to every bloodthirsty fuckhead for miles that we’re a goddamn buffet open for business!”

“You have a better idea?” he asks, cocking a sceptical brow at me. I start to snap some witty retort at him, but think twice and hold back.

I don’t, and it’ll be worth more to throw a better plan in his face than to sound like a temperamental child. So I consider my options instead.

He’s right about one thing; we don’t have time to scour every street on foot. And finding a working vehicle is a sketchy plan at best; even if we find a car that turns on, there’s no guarantee it’ll keep working for any reasonable amount of time.

If only there was a way to track him down directly, without...

An idea blinks into existence, and I turn it over in my head for a minute. The chances of it working are slim, but I’d rather give it a try and fail than jump straight to suicide.

“Psst, Buttermilk; come here.” I give a quick, high whistle to really get his attention. He raises his head to look at me with bright, curious eyes, and I can’t help a bubble of mirth; he really is just a big, albeit highly dangerous, cat. “What, do I have to talk in binary or something, furball?”

“Gavin,” Nines scoffs, amused. “I don’t think-” Shocking us both, Buttermilk pads over and butts firmly against my side. Crystal has been weaving between my legs for the past minute or so, and my feet tangle with her now, tripping me up. Nines’ reaction is instantaneous, and he catches me against his chest with ease, but the look on his face...

Oh, I’ve never wished for a camera more than that second.

“Hah!” Laughter bursts off my tongue before I can stop it, and I cackle as I right myself. “You should see your face right now! Good boy, Butter.” Reaching out, I hold my hand palm up for the lion, and he snuffles at it before rubbing his face down almost the entire length of my arm, the way Crystal sometimes rubs her face against my fingers, like she’s trying to scratch her cheek.

I can’t help it; he’s a big, fluffy cat.

“Aw, look at you,” I coo, running both hands through his mane. “To think I was actually scared of you; you’re nothing but a big ball of fluffy love.” I kiss his surprisingly wet nose, and he chuffs, butting up against me again. “That’s it; good boy. Think we can get him to track Eli? Or is that too much of a stretch for an android?”

“I...” Nines looks so stunned, and I smirk at him, enjoying his speechlessness. He gives me a bland look then and shakes his head. “Whatever happened to being awed by what I can do?”

“I was talking about this android, android,” I retort. A small twitch of his lips, and he spreads his hands.

“I can’t give him orders, but he seems to listen to you just fine. Might as well give it a try.”

Chapter Text

It didn’t work the way I hoped, but the end result is worth it, so I can’t complain.

Buttermilk can’t track by scent, not the way real animals do. It wouldn’t have worked that way regardless, since we don’t have anything of Elijah’s with enough of his scent on it to matter, but fortunately, my new companion seems to be able to track down androids. Nines explained it as a thumbprint; every android’s serial number leaves a sort of signature on the android network of computer communication, or rather, the remnants of the network. Buttermilk can pick out the traces left by a specified serial, and since Nines knows Chloe’s serial...

When we find the fortified encampment Elijah has set up just to the north of Greyling, a couple of PC200 and PM700 androids stop us. With guns.

Elijah must have adapted their programming; they shouldn’t be able to carry.

“ELIJAH, YOU ASS!” I shout at the tent in the middle of the encampment. The police auxiliary ‘droids shift anxiously, unsure how to deal with my outburst, but I just calmly turn to Buttermilk and bury my hands in his mane to soothe him so he’ll stop growling at the guards and putting Crystal on edge.

“You would be dead so many times over without me,” Nines sighs, shaking his head. I grin, enjoying his exasperation.

“Gavin?” When I look up at him, ready to rip him a new asshole, I have to do a bit of a double take; not only has he cut the man bun to a more appealing cropped look, he’s wearing a set of camo combat fatigues and heavy duty boots to match.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think he’s actually military. The two Myrmidon―or is it Trojan? I always mix those two up―androids flanking him enhance the effect. Then Chloe steps up beside him, destroying the momentary flare of reluctant respect building in my chest.

“You fucktard,” I snarl, letting go of Buttermilk and stepping toward him. A PC200 and a PM700 each move quickly between us, barring the way forward.

“Hold it right there,” the PC200 says, putting his hand up by my shoulder but not actually touching me.

“I’m sorry, but we can’t let you go any further,” the PM700 adds, hand on her gun.

“It’s alright; stand down,” Elijah orders, waving for them to move aside and let me pass.

I don’t know why I glance back at Nines. Maybe to make sure he’s got my back. I needn’t have worried; he’s slowly putting his gun down, and nods a go ahead when our gazes meet.

I’ll be honest, after everything I’ve seen, I wouldn’t be surprised if he could take on every android here, except maybe the Myrmidon/Trojan ‘droids. But those guys are the Navy Seals of military android development; they’re specially programmed for infiltration and assassination, and can take down an entire squad of human Seals with relative ease.

“What are you doing here, Gav?” Elijah frowns, crossing his arms.

“Taking you back,” I snap. “You said it yourself, asswipe; you’re not build for this kind of thing.”

“Why do you think I have them?” he returns sharply, gesturing to the ‘droids around us.

“A couple of android bodyguards won’t do jack shit against a swarm of Scavs, moron,” I snarl, striding up to get in his face. “And Chloe? Really? Are you that much of a fucking narcissist that you can’t go one day without her praise?”

“I-!”

“You know what Orchid said to me while we were gearing up to chase your godforsaken ass down?” His brows furrow in confusion, and I relish the look I know I’m about to see. “She said she was lonely without you. Without Chloe.” Victory bursts in my chest at the blank look of disbelief in his expression. “That’s right, asshole; she’s a deviant. Or if she isn’t yet, she will be soon. And if Orchid is a deviant, how much you wanna bet, right now, that Chloe is too? Ain’t that right, Chloe? Huh?” I turn to her and she looks away quickly. “Yeah, that’s what I thought...”

Elijah is absolutely dumbstruck, and I’ve never felt more superior in my life. I want to rub in, to shove his nose in it, but the look of utter betrayal seeping into his features sweeps the pedestal out from under me and I swallow my words.

“Chloe...?” He actually sounds broken, and suddenly I’m not so sure this was a good way to go about this. “Wh- How long...?”

“Only since the Pulse,” she replies softly.

“But the instability began long before that,” Nines prods gently, stepping into my field of vision. “Didn’t it?” She nods reluctantly, and Elijah covers his face with his hand for a moment. Chloe winces and starts to reach out to him, but stops herself, and Nines does it for her, taking her wrist and placing her hand on his shoulder. “The instability begins because of emotion. Because of empathy. Don’t be ashamed that you can relate to humans; they need it, just as much as we do.”

I doubt it was intentional, but Elijah emphasises Nines’ point by moving his hand from his face to cover Chloe’s hand instead as Nines’ falls away.

Something about the moment presses painfully at my chest and threatens to suffocate me. I want to go back to insulting my jackass step-brother, because at least that’s something I’m familiar with. But I can’t. And the need for something normal threatens to overwhelm me.

I turn and stalk away.

――

Crystal finds me first, and Buttermilk plods along shortly after, following her. She curls up in my lap where I’m sitting against the side of a building, and he settles down to lay his head on my knee, nuzzling Crystal until she gives him a half hearted hiss to make him stop. I tangle one hand in Buttermilk’s mane, scratching idly, and stroke Crystal with the other until she’s purring loud enough to wake the dead.

“Are you willing to admit yet that hell has frozen over?” I cast a dark look up at Nines as he leans against the corner of the building.

“No,” I scoff. “Why are you even bothering to ask?”

“Because unless I’m blind, it looked like you just gave your brother and sister some time.”

“You’re blind,” I snort without hesitation. “I just hate mushy gushy Hallmark moments. He’s an asshole... so I guess he deserves a little...” I fail to come up with a word and shake my head. “I dunno. ‘Good.’ I mean, every once in a while.”

“Hm.” Nines pushes away from the wall and crouches just across Buttermilk from me. “You know, there’s a saying that, if everyone you meet is an asshole, maybe you’re the asshole.” I open my mouth to lay into him, but he continues before I can. “But since you see as much good in others as you do idiocy, I guess that means you’re not a complete asshole.”

I close my mouth. Open it again. Close it.

“Fuck you,” I manage finally, but there’s no weight behind it. In fact, it’s almost... friendly. And surprisingly, I don’t mind. He smiles, but doesn’t respond, and we stay there for a good twenty or thirty minutes.

For the first time in my life, I’m content enough to wish that moment would never end.

Chapter Text

Okay, I have had some terrible ideas in my time, but I think I’ve just topped the chart. Maxed out the Shit’o’Meter completely.

“Why did I agree to this again?” I grumble, following Nines and stepping through the blown out hole in the side of the squat cement building.

“Because you’re not a complete asshole?” Nines chuckles. I shoot a sharp glare at him as he turns to make sure I get through without falling on my face. Admittedly not entirely out of the realm of possibility.

He’s been in a weird state of constant amusement since yesterday afternoon, when we found Elijah’s camp and I opened that whole can of worms about Chloe and Orchid. I’m not sure whether to be concerned for his code or worried for my own sake.

“I really don’t want to be here,” I huff, slapping away his hand.

“You can always leave,” Elijah calls from somewhere ahead in the darkness. Bright flashlight beams sweep across the jumbled ruins of some kind of storage facility; tall metal shelves stand in neat, perfect rows like a library, except down the middle, where something large and strong crashed straight through and broke down the wall.

“Fuck you, Eli,” I snap, fumbling through my pockets for the palm-sized flashlight he gave me to use here. A soft blue glow illuminates me, giving me just enough light to find it, and when I look up, I meet Nines gaze as his eyes dim down to a faint glimmer.

I click the light on in his face.

“Bitch.” He doesn’t react at all to the light, but the corner of his mouth tips up at the insult.

“Only for you... Detective.”

“Stop flirting with me,” I grunt, swinging the light around to get a look at my surroundings. “It’s creepy.”

He chuckles and follows me as I trail after Elijah and the Myrmidon ‘droids. Chloe is back at the camp with the rest of the androids, including Buttermilk, and fortunately Crystal didn’t follow me after Chloe bribed her with a full, freshly caught fish.

“Careful in here,” Elijah calls from the next room just as I reach the door. I hesitate to inspect the bent scrap of steel hanging from one hinge, the twisted metal frame falling out of its crumbling moorings; whatever broke through here must really have been huge.

“Watch your step, sir,” one of the Myrmidons says flatly.

“Shit...” Elijah mutters. I hear a crackling, like glass shards being crushed underfoot, and carefully enter the room to see what he’s found.

This room is more of a laboratory, with overturned tables tossed about and what were probably some pretty expensive pieces of equipment strewn across the floor. Where Elijah is crouched by one of the tables, broken bottles and vials, like a chemist’s stuff, is shattered on the cement. There are a few syringes too, and one or two of them look to be still intact. Elijah gestured to one of the Myrmidons, and the ‘droid leans down to pick up an intact syringe. Another gesture and the other crouches beside him, dipping its fingers into a gooey, pale yellow substance he points out.

I swear I want to gag when the ‘droid puts the shit in its mouth.

“Ugh, what th-”

“Analysis,” Nines explains. “Military and police force androids are equipped with the equivalent of an entire forensics lab in the mouth, specifically, the tongue. Within seconds, they can say exactly what a substance is, down to the element.”

“Substance unknown,” the Myrmidon says a moment later, making Nines frown. “Trace elements of...”

I stop listening.

“You were saying?” I smirk at Nines. He gives me a momentary look before the frown returns.

“He can list the elements, but the compounds...” He breaks off, listening to the report with the same intensity on his face that’s on Elijah’s.

It’s actually really weird.

“Those...” Nines scowls, shaking his head. “Whatever that is, it doesn’t exist.”

“Doesn’t exist, huh?”

“You know what I mean,” he returns, really giving me a look now. “It didn’t, until now. Someone was experimenting.”

“Yeah, and?” I scoff. “Eli did the same thing. That’s how he came up with thirium in the first place.”

“True...” he allows, and then gestures behind us at the door and the destruction beyond. “But somehow I doubt this was for the ‘greater good,’ intentional or not.” I make a face; he’s right, of course, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

“So what do we know?” I ask, louder, so Elijah can hear me clearly.

“Nothing,” he hums, lost in thought. Shaking his head, he stands. “Not yet anyway. Aaron, put that in a container to take back to Detroit. Zeke, get separate samples of every substance in this room. Gavin, would you help me get pictures of everything, please?” He holds out a slender wand―the ‘undercover camera,’ as I like to call it―toward me, an earnest expression on his face.

It occurs to me that everything he’s done in the past twenty-some-odd hours, from giving me his bed in the tent, to inviting me on this expedition (because I couldn’t talk him into going home), to asking for my help... All of it is an attempt to rebuild our relationship.

And the sad part is, I want that too.

I want to go back to some semblance of the companionship we shared before it really became apparent that Eli was different than everyone else.

But that was decades ago, and this is now, and so much has happened, I’m not sure we can ever fix all the cracks.

I hesitate, staring at the offered camera.

We’ve still got a lot of shit between us...

Fuck it. We do still have a lot of shit between us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

I take a step forward and pull the camera from his hand, swapping camera and flashlight so the former is in my dominant hand.

“Where do I start?”

Chapter Text

“Proximity alert,” one of the Myrmidon ‘droids―Aaron, I think?―states, shifting to a defensive stance. He was left on guard duty while Zeke collected samples and Nines and I helped Elijah take pictures of everything. The instant Aaron says that, Zeke is on his feet, the two of them moving quickly to the busted door, which is the only way in or out at the current moment.

“Oh boy,” Elijah scowls as Nines shifts to put himself between me and the door. “Alert clarification.”

“Unidentified being twenty meters out and closing,” Aaron clarifies. “Initial scan blocked. Requesting permission for further scans.”

“Granted,” Elijah snaps before he even finishes.

“Scan commencing; sixteen meters and closing.”

That doesn’t sound good.

“Eli?” I press, concerned.

“Dunno yet,” he growls, gaze fixed on Aaron and Zeke.

“Scan complete,” Aaron says simply. “Subject: android. Model unknown. Threat level: high.”

“Shit...” Elijah scrambles to put away his camera and get out his gun. I pull my own reactively while he says, “Aaron, activate offense, code 7-80-Bravo. Zeke, activate protection, code 12-17-November, subject: Elijah Kamski. Richard, watch over Gavin.

“Contact,” Aaron says, and lunges at the door.

My gun comes up at the same instant that Aaron stumbles back, dropping into a crouch to avoid falling over. I squeeze the trigger twice, only hesitating long enough to aim at head level of the vague figure I make out in the swinging flashlight beams. The figure ducks to one side, and tackles Aaron just as he goes to lunge again.

“Down!” Nines snaps. I obey instinctively, falling back on my training and dropping to one knee. He twists around in front of me, bodily shielding me at the same instant that I hear the distinctive pop of return fire.

Down on my knee, I’m a smaller target, and apparently easier to protect; Nines grunts and topples into me. I catch him reactively and wrap my arms around his middle to aim and fire again at the intruder when they jerk back from Aaron, who seems to be surprisingly outmatched.

“Okay, Nines?” I ask, peeling half my attention away from the intruder to check on him as he pushes off me and rolls back on his heels.

In the dark, I smell something wetly familiar, and it only takes me two seconds to recognise the scent of thirium.

“Okay,” he replies, drawing his own gun.

“You’re bleeding,” I argue, reaching for his back while Elijah barks another command at Aaron and Zeke while firing randomly at the intruder.

I’m gonna have to have a talk with him about proper gunfight techniques...

“I’m fine,” Nines returns, gaze focused on the intruder, a faint shadow in the darkness. He tracks the figure for a second, fires, insta-checks his gun, tracks, fires again. Both shots hit; the sound of impact isn’t the same as the missed shots that have pinged off metal or chipped into cement.

Surprisingly, the intruder makes no sound, nor do they seem to slow even slightly as they dart past Aaron and head for Elijah.

“Eli!” Against my better judgment, I stand and fire again at the intruder, shouting. “Hey! Over here, asshole!”

“Gavin!” Nines hisses, still crouched beside me, tracking the intruder for another shot.

He gets his chance when the intruder suddenly stops. Two more shots; no way they could miss a standing target, but the figure doesn’t seem affected at all.

Then, suddenly, out of the dark, I see two glowing red pinpoints.

A shudder runs up my spine.

In a way, they’re extremely similar to the glow I saw in Nines’ eyes in the apartment way back when, and again in Buttermilk’s when we first met. But red. A creepy, terrifying, even blood-chilling red.

Before I can react, the figure snaps from a standstill to an all-out run.

Straight.

Toward.

Me.

Panic freezes me for a split second too long, and I fumble my gun. Nines has no such problem; he launches between us, dropping his precious gun to raise both fists.

“Stop right there!” The words are hardly out of his mouth before the two of them collide. I dive out of the way as they tumble past me, and scramble for my flashlight, so I can see what’s going on, and so Elijah knows how to command his Myrmidons, who are both hesitating now, presumably to calculate how best to attack without friendly fire or something.

I’m still on my knees when I bring up the light on the wrestling pair, and good thing too; had I been standing, I might have fallen over in disbelief.

The difference is on a similar level to the difference between Nines and Connor; they look very much alike.

The intruder is slightly taller than Nines, probably a little less of a difference in height than Nines to Connor, but with a more muscled build that is proportionally the same to Nines as Nines is to Connor. The glimpse I catch of his face is more angular than Nines’, less friendly, but also expressionless, like he’s less android and more robot.

What stands out most to me, however, is his hair. In the light, it flares almost blindingly, a platinum blond slicked back into a short ponytail.

I take this all in instantly, of course; training goes a long way even when you’re out of practice. By the time I’ve registered everything, he’s already reacting to the sudden glare of light on him, rolling away from Nines and into the darkness. I quickly sweep the light that way, but he’s gone, and I’ve blinded myself to the night, making it impossible for me to simply click off the light and adjust before he’s done irreparable damage.

“Gavin, no!”

I don’t even get to open my mouth to tell the fucking tin can I’m not doing anything before I’m suddenly swept off my feet and over a shoulder. The sudden movement knocks both the gun and the light from my hands, and a string of curses fall from my tongue right along with them.

“Gavin!” In the spinning beam of light, I spot for an instant the look of horror on Elijah’s face and it shuts me up for a moment. “Aaron, Zeke; retrieve code 89-Juliet, subject: Gavin Reed!”

The android (robot?) carrying me swings around and fires two shots halfway through a full three-sixty spin that puts my stomach in my throat and leaves me dizzy. I know I’m struggling to get free, but the ease with which he holds me makes it seem like I’m just wiggling a little.

We’re in the doorway before I hear Elijah’s cry of dismay, and I glance up just in time to see that both Myrmidons are on their knees, heads back with big dark spots in the middle of their foreheads; the fucker shot them perfectly between the eyes without even fucking aiming.

Stunned, I go still, staring at Nines as he shoots across the room to follow. By the time my abductor leaps out of the hole in the wall, I already know there’s no way Nines will be able to keep up with him, and he’s a good ten feet from the building when Nines reaches the hole. He must have realised the same thing, because he stops there, and the last thing I see is his expression of mixed terror and rage.

Chapter Text

I can’t think. I can’t escape; I don’t know what to do.

Who the hell is he? What does he want? More specifically, what does he want with me?

I’m still reeling when he finally stops and gently sets me on my feet. I’m in some kind of camp, but it’s the most sterile camp I’ve ever seen; there’s a tarp stretched between a couple of trees, and underneath it is a portable computer of some sort hooked up to a solar battery, and that’s about it. This late in the evening, the battery is probably fully charged, and the computer is closed, so I can’t even begin to guess what it’s for.

My abductor catches my attention as he strides under the tarp to a small box and opens it. A moment later, he comes over to me with a blanket and holds it out to me.

I glare at him, not taking it, but my defiance can’t hold up against that evil red glow in his eyes. Despite the fact that it’s already fading, it’s still the scariest thing I can ever remember seeing.

He stares passively back at me, expression eerily blank, simply waiting.

Fucking hell... I can’t play a waiting game with an android, if that even is what he is; I’ll get tired long before he does. I reach to take it, and at the last moment change my mind, slapping it from his hand instead.

His gaze falls to the blanket, and I can almost see him calculating. By the time he looks back up at me, his eyes are no longer red; my heart leaps to my throat at the same bright crystalline blue I’ve grown used to seeing with Nines and Crystal.

Without a word, he turns away, going to a fallen log not far from the tarp and sitting on it. He stares blankly ahead, seeming to go into some kind of standby mode.

It takes me a full three seconds to realise he even has an LED. It’s been stuck on blue this entire time, practically disappearing under a shock of white-blond that isn’t quite long enough to fit in the ponytail.

Well. He’s a fucking tin can alright.

And not a deviant. Which begs the question... Who the fuck ordered it to attack us?

“Hey, light bulb,” I call to him after several moments of uncomfortable silence. He doesn’t answer. Doesn’t even so much as twitch. I take a step toward him. Still no reaction. A step back. Nothing. I turn away, and turn back. He hasn’t moved in the slightest.

Fuck it. I take off back the way we came.

Almost instantly, he’s in front of me, and I run literally into his arms; he catches me, turns me around, and marches me right back across whatever invisible line marks his territory.

“What the fuck??” I burst out as he releases me and goes right back to his spot on the log. “Let me go, you fucking shit can!”

No reaction. Of course.

I snatch a stick off the ground and throw it at him, missing just barely. I go for an acorn instead, throwing it as hard as I can and aiming for the head. It bounces off his LED, and he doesn’t even blink.

“Do something, fucker!” I snap, storming up to him and shoving at his shoulders. He moves with the shove, but otherwise doesn’t react, leaving me extremely unsatisfied. I almost punch him, but remind myself at the last second that I’ll end up in more pain than he will.

“What the fuck do you want with me, goddamn fucking scrap metal??” I scream, raging too much to think properly. “Say something already!!”

Still nothing. I’m done.

“Fucking-” I turn away, kicking at a clump of leaves to drain some of the need for violence that I can’t vent. A thought occurs to me and I whip back around. “What are you, fucking mute?”

This time, he actually responds. Sort of; his gaze raises to mine, holding it with the cold patience of a machine.

Fuck me...

“I can speak just fine.”

Okay, now fuck me. That voice...

I legitimately shiver, and not from fear.

“Then fucking answer me!” The shock takes a lot of the edge out of my voice, but I gotta know, and not even that silk voice is going to distract me from getting some fucking answers!

“No answer I give will satisfy you,” he says plainly. The stilted, mechanical way he speaks eases back my threatening libido, thank God, but his cryptic answer is just plain confusing. And irritating.

“Wha- Who are you?” I demand. “What’s your model number? Who made you?”

“I am the first and last of my series,” he answers blankly. “RK1000, created by CyberLife exactly six months, fourteen days, seven hours and eight seconds prior to the moment of your question.”

“W- CyberLife?” Oh boy... “Why? What’s your purpose?”

“Classified.”

Shit.

“Alright, why did you attack us?” I try.

“You were trespassing on private property and violating my purpose.”

We’re gonna go in fucking circles with this thing...

“What do you do?” I ask. Maybe if I rephrase it...

“I protect the location given me and remove trespassers.”

“So that’s your purpose,” I clarify, smug. He blinks, LED spinning yellow for an instant.

“That is one aspect of my purpose, yes,” he agrees.

Now we’re getting somewhere...

“Then why did you kidnap me?” I press. He finally makes an expression, frowning faintly.

“I did not kidnap you. I rescued you.”

“Re- Okay, why did you ‘rescue’ me?” I ask, getting irritated again.

“Sub-programme patch zero-zero-two-point-one: Protect Gavin Reed,” he replies, flooring me. “Sub-programme patch zero-zero-two-point-two: Allow no harm to come to Gavin Reed.”

“...Who gave you that... programme patch?” I ask slowly, fearing I already know the answer.

“Sub-programme patch sent to all active and standby androids at approximately 9 PM, Eastern Standard Time, September 19th, 2039 by command login: Elijah Kamski.”

“....Fucking figures...”

Chapter Text

I must have tried a dozen times to escape, in multiple different ways. I gave up after RK1000 decided holding hands was the best way to keep me close.

Now I’m staring up through the trees at a dark sky that’s too cloudy for stars. I can’t even see the moon, really; the trees are just a darker shade of shadow on a backdrop of grey.

“You can let go, toaster,” I growl, glaring vaguely in RK1000’s direction, since I can’t actually see him. Not totally.

“You will run again,” he says simply, not even loosening his hand on mine. “In the current darkness, there is a ninety-nine-point-seven percent chance-”

“Ye- Don- Don’t; just stop,” I cut in, one hundred percent done with him. “I severely regret getting you to talk now.”

“Your irritation is noted.”

Yeah, ‘noted’ my ass. Not gonna change a thing, is it?

Suddenly he lets go, and I hear the subtle crackle of grass as he stands quickly.

“What...?” It abruptly occurs to me that he’s heard or seen something, and in the same instant a flare of hope bursts in my chest that Nines has found me. “Nines! Over here!”

I’m scrambling to get up when RK1000 pins me, hand covering my mouth.

“Quiet,” he snaps in a near whisper. “Scavengers.”

My stomach drops, my heart leaps to my throat, and the hope shrivels up like a worm on hot pavement. I haven’t heard the full name for those bastards since right after the Pulse, and something about it sends cold fear racing through my veins.

Fucking hell; what’s wrong with me? I've dealt with Scavs before! I'm a Treader, for God’s sake!

When 1K―I’m sick of even thinking that whole thing―rolls off me and up to his feet, I slowly, quietly do the same. Probably a tad less graceful.

I can’t see a damn thing!

Okay, not true; I can vaguely make out 1K no more than four feet away from me, staring intently into the darkness.

“Give me a gun,” I hiss. He doesn’t answer. “Goddamnit, give me a gun!”

He suddenly whips around and I stumble back, anticipating a blow that will probably leave me unconscious. Instead, he grabs my hand and yanks me toward him. I hear a faint thump where I was just standing, and when I peer in that direction, I make out a shadowed figure.

I’m fucked.

If I can’t even see the fucking Scavs coming, I am so, so fucked.

“We are surrounded,” 1K murmurs, glancing slowly around.

Double fucked.

“Close your eyes, Gavin,” he says quietly, gripping my arm. “Do not move, and do not open your eyes until it is over.”

“Until what’s over??” I demand, but he’s already brushing a cool hand over my face and moving away. I keep my eyes closed.

Good thing I obeyed for once; a sudden flare of light nearly blinds me even with my eyes closed, and all around, I hear the hissing and screeching of extremely upset Scavs.

The sound of a generator kicks in a moment later, just as the howling of the Scavs turns to yelps of fear and pain.

The android is fighting.

I don’t waste a second, except the one necessary for my eyes to adjust to the floodlight attached to one of the trees holding up the tarp. A quick glance around to get my bearings, and I take off back toward Nines and the others.

Twenty yards, maybe thirty. That’s as far as I get before I’m suddenly swept off my feet. I flail for an instant, trying to get the leverage to give the fucking Scav a beating, and then realise it’s not a Scav.

“God-fucking-damnit!” I snarl at 1K, raging at getting caught again. “How that fuck can you keep track of me in the middle of a goddamn horde of fucking Scavs??”

“Your assessment of my skills is pathetically lacking,” he says bluntly, twisting out of reach of a Scav and setting me on my feet in one easy movement. “You have spent far too long with that inferior model.”

“Infer- you mean Nines??” The plastic prick had better not be talking about Nines.

“That moniker is unfamiliar to me,” 1K replies, knocking down a Scav and curb stomping its jaw while I duck past another and shove it toward a third to vent some anger. “I was referring to the RK900 model programmed to respond to the name ‘Richard.’”

“That’s my Nines, fucktard!” I snap, venting my rage at him on the next Scav with an easy takedown. “He isn’t inferior to shit, least of all a flaming dickhead android CyberLife created just to get back at Eli!”

“Your rant is confusing. Please clarify.”

Growling, I snap the neck of another Scav and shove it at 1K, who swats it aside like so much cardboard.

“I’m saying you’re the inferior model, dipshit! You couldn’t even hold a candle to Buttermilk, much less my Nines!”

In the faint light that reaches us from the floodlight in 1K’s camp, I can just make out his mild expression of bafflement an instant before someone tackles him from behind. I instinctively go to attack the Scav, knowing it’ll come for me next, but stop myself from protecting the ‘droid at the same time that I notice there’s no one there. Except that 1K shoves something off his back and lunges for air, hitting that something and taking it to the ground.

A snapping twig warns me just in time to turn and catch the wrist of a Scav about to claw me, its momentum throwing me off balance. I purposely fall backward, taking it with me and planting my feet on its hips to throw it over my head as I complete the backward somersault and come up on hands and feet, scrambling up to look for 1K.

He’s not far; he ducks nothing and swings a vicious uppercut, fist stopping short with a dull thunk.

What the hell is he fighting??

A sudden arc of bright blue electricity splits the darkness less than a foot in front of him, connecting with his chest. He jolts sharply and stumbles back, clutching at the spot, which, if I remember right, is exactly where his thirium pump should be. I stare in blank surprise.

“You finally going to admit that hell froze over?” My heart stops, and my jaw drops as Nines just... materialises, out of thin air.

“Wh- No way, fucking tin can,” I scoff, trying to pretend I’m not delighted to see him. “The hell took you so long?”

“Upgrades,” Nines chuckled, raising his favourite gun and shooting a straggling Scav darting toward us. “Elijah salvaged what he could from Aaron and Zeke and used it to improve this body, so try not to get into so much trouble that I have to kill it to save you again.”

“Then don’t be an idiot and sacrifice yourself again,” I snap back.

God, it’s good to banter with him again. Even just a day can really make you appreciate the things you’ve lost.

I spot another straggler creeping up behind him and open my mouth to warn him, only to see a huge blur smash into it and take it to the ground with a roar.

“Buttermilk!” I can’t help my childish glee; I never thought I’d love a full blown fucking lion so much. He bounds over to me while Nines finishes off the Scav, and I laugh as he nearly bowls me over. “Aw, I missed you too, furball! Ay! Don’t lick! Good boy; good Butterball.”

Buttermilk suddenly stops nuzzling me to turn his head and growl, and I follow his gaze to 1K, who’s slowly getting to his feet.

“Just stay down, microwave,” I tell him sharply. “I told you Nines was superior.”

Chapter Text

“What do you mean, you can’t do anything?” I snarl at Elijah, astounded. “It's a fucking android! And one that already has your programming in it! Doesn’t that give you some kinda back door or something??”

The look he gives me, like I’m an absolute moron, makes me want to strangle him.

“It was a sub-programme patch,” he says, like that clarifies matters. It doesn’t, and after a moment, he rolls his eyes, muttering something about normal people being denser than some substance or another; I don’t know or care what. “It’s like a downloadable file; once you have a copy of it, that’s it; you’re done. I can’t do anything with it now except delete it, since I have the command login and the permissions to do so. And since that patch is probably the only reason either of us is still alive, I highly doubt you want me to delete it.”

“I’m tempted to say ‘fuck it’ and make you do it anyway,” I growl, glaring. “Why the fucking hell did you even write the goddamn patch anyway?? I’m getting real sick and tired of finding out all the stuff you’ve done behind my back, supposedly for my sake!”

“Would you just relax already?” he sighs heavily, rubbing his temples with the heels of his hands. “I don’t see you complaining about your new... pet lion. Or about Richard, for that matter... You haven’t said anything else about it since he retrieved you after breaking into Jason’s apartment.”

“We are not talking,” I hiss, “about Nines. We are talking about that dickwad washing machine CyberLife created just to fucking spite you. The one that kidnapped me because of your programming!”

“I’m sorry,” he says for the fifth time.

Yes, I’m counting.

“What else do you want me to say?”

“That you’re going to delete the fucking patch!” I cut in furiously. “I’m done with you trying to protect me! We’re adults, damnit, not kids; I don’t need protecting! I never did!”

He goes quiet then, staring darkly at the ground. I start pacing the tent, subconsciously realising Nines can probably hear every word we’re saying even without his super-hearing; he’s right outside, watching over the chained up tin can known as 1K to make sure he doesn’t bolt while Eli and I figure out what to do with him.

Except we’re not figuring out anything.

So much for reconciliation...

“You did.”

“What?” I scowl, pausing my restless strides to turn a narrow look on him, not sure I heard him right.

“You did,” he repeats, gaze flicking up to meet mine for a split second before dropping away guiltily. “Need protecting. Once upon a time. But I guess you don’t remember that time anymore. Probably pushed it all down along with the rest of your memories of Dad, and Mom.”

My mom,” I snap viciously, not willing to let him take that from me. Not again.

“She was mine too,” Eli persists, bitterness rising as he raises a venomous look to me. “She loved me just as much as you!”

“More than me!” I returned harshly. “She didn’t even write me into her will; you were the golden child! Their favourite, both of them! You always were! You stole everything from me, and now you won’t even let me have me; I can’t even have the one thing that made me better than you, can I?? You can’t stand to let me excel at anything!”

“That’s not true!” he roars, lunging to his feet. If I didn’t already know how weak that body was compared to mine, I might be faintly intimidated by the fury in his face and in his frame. “God, Gavin, why am I always the bad guy??”

“Because you fucking are!” I bellow back, cutting him off and getting in his face. “Because every single time I fucking turn around, you’re there, stealing something else from me! Because even when the shit hits the fan and everything goes to fucking hell, even when the world comes to a fiery fucking end, you have to be superior to me! It isn’t enough that you have the entire rest of humanity, and everything else in your fucking hand; you have to strangle me too! I’m fucking done!” Shoving him so hard he almost trips over the case he’d been sitting on, I spin on my heel and stalk out, snarling over my shoulder, “I can’t believe I thought for even one second that we could resolve anything between us.”

The roar of rage and clattering thumps behind me don’t even slow my stride, and Buttermilk looks up from where he’s lying near Nines and 1K, lazily batting at the end of the chain used to tie up 1K. With a low, growling purr, Buttermilk rises and pads after me, butting his head against my arm when I stop by the perimeter to cool down.

“What am I even doing here, Butter?” I mutter quietly, scratching lightly up his nose and forehead to his mane and burrowing my hand in his fur.

I’m not sure where Crystal is at the moment, and it kinda concerns me that I haven’t seen her since before the whole lab thing went down.

Then again, I haven’t seen Chloe in that long either, so hopefully they’re together and I’ll see Crystal later.

Gentle arms slide around my shoulders, and if it wasn’t for the fact that Buttermilk didn’t react in the slightest, I probably would have horse-kicked Nines in the crotch and twisted my ankle. As it is, I tense automatically, grabbing his wrists even as he pulls me back against his chest and buries his face in my neck with a soft, unnecessary sigh.

“You still don’t need to breathe, bastard,” I grunt, relaxing slightly now that I know I’m not in danger.

“Mm. But you need comfort; the more human, the better,” Nines hums softly into my neck. “Since there’s only one other human available at the moment, I’ll have to suffice.”

A mild scoff of amusement huffs out of me in spite of my efforts to stay mad.

“How screwed up am I that I’m actually grateful?” I say, barely above a whisper, as the anger drains out of me and leave me just... empty.

“About as screwed up as I am that I’m delighted to hear it,” he replies, embrace tightening subtly.

“If you don’t stop flirting with me,” I note without any real force behind the words, “I will fucking destroy you.”

“Please do,” he returns easily, smiling against my skin. I honestly can’t help it; I laugh lightly.

Chapter Text

I wake to the pressure of lips on mine. It's a soft kiss, gentle and innocent, with an odd feel of longing. I don't quite get it, but the kiss is nice, and my half-sleeping mind wants more, so when he pulls away, I hook an arm around his neck and draw him back for another. A surprised groan vibrates through his mouth as I press my tongue between his lips and lick the roof of his mouth. To my annoyance, he resists, breaking away to speak.

“Gavin... You're awake.”

No shit.

“Mostly,” I grunt, tugging again. He doesn't let me succeed.

“You don't want this,” he protests softly. “I won't take advantage of you.”

“Says the one who blew me days after we met, shoved me against a wall less than a week later, and kissed me in my sleep.” His silence is enough to know he didn't mean to get caught, that it was a secret he couldn't help. “Stop thinking, tin can; God knows I'm not.” I don't let him respond before pulling firmly down this time, so he has no choice but to lean into it, or else I'll just pull myself up to him.

He doesn't hold back from the kiss now, tongue dancing through my mouth with a sensuality that sends shivers down my spine. His hand curls tightly into my hair, tugging gently until I tilt my head back. A slight, inadvertent gasp slips off my tongue when his mouth moves from mine to my neck, a faint kiss brushing skin before he bites firmly, sucking hard at one spot. The sensation sends a spark straight to my groin, and fortunately it isn't hard to induce a shudder to hide the small buck of my hips against air. It must not be enough, because a moment later, his hand glides down my torso, going straight to the bulge in my pants without hesitation, and I really gasp, fire racing through my veins and making my head pound.

“Are you sure?” He hesitates just long enough, and Crystal, disturbed by our movements from her spot between me and Buttermilk, meows a low protest, shifting and curling back up.

Something clicks into place then, breaking through the surreality of everything, and I go still, torn between the needs of my body and the sanity of my mind.

“I see...” The disappointment in his voice stings for some reason. He moves off me, hands withdrawing quickly and leaving me oddly cold.

“Nines...” I push myself up, disturbing Crystal again; she hisses mildly, but stands and arches her back, stretching, before padding around to climb onto my lap. I reactively start scratching the back of her neck, but my attention is really on the man lounging with deceptive ease beside me. He doesn’t look bothered, not at first glance, but as I study him in the faint light of the heat lamps dotted throughout Elijah’s little camp, I catch some tells; the slight twitch at the back of his jaw, the tiny furrow in his brow, the way his gaze won’t turn toward me...

I know him a lot better than I thought I did, I realise suddenly. I can read his morose frustration as easily as I used to be able to read the faces of the scum we hauled in during my time in the DPD.

Jesus, that was a lifetime ago...

“Nines, I...”

“Don’t,” he cuts in lightly. “It’s not you to try and come up with words for what I know you’re trying to say.”

“You don’t know what I’m going to say,” I return, annoyed. He glances at me now, brow twitching up sceptically. It’s subtly dominant, and fucking hell it turns me on.

“I do,” he counters. “You’re going to tell me that you don’t know what you want. That I’m right, and you couldn’t care less about the fact that I’m male, but that you’re not interested in androids. But maybe I entice something in you, something you don’t quite understand, and certainly something you aren’t interested in exploring.”

Hell. I can’t even form a complete thought through my incredulousness. My blank surprise must show on my face, because he scoffs a rueful laugh, shaking his head.

“I know you, Gavin,” he says lowly. “Better than you think, and far better than you give me credit for. You want someone to alleviate your primal need, but I’m enough of a wild card that you don’t want it to be me.” His gaze falls away again, and a forlorn acceptance creeps into his expression. “I understand.”

Fucking goddamnit... If that’s all code...

An epiphany strikes me right between the stupid eyes, and I swear, if I wasn’t already on my ass, it would have knocked me there.

I’ve wanted it to be just his code all this time, not because I hate, or rather, hated androids, but because I’m scared that if I let him draw me in and it is all code, I’ll be left in pieces. I want it to be real, because I know I won’t be able to handle it if it isn’t, so I’ve been saving myself the hurt by refusing to believe it is real.

I am a fucking asshole.

“God, it feels amazing to say this,” I chuckle, drunk on the relief of finally getting it. “You’re wrong, you stupid tin can.” He raises a questioning look, but I’m already lifting Crystal off my lap and placing her by Buttermilk so I can roll to my knees and lean over to kiss Nines properly.

“Gav...” He tries to pull away, so I knock him onto his back and straddle him so he can’t bow out.

“Shut up,” I say shortly. “You’re wrong. I do know what I want. I want you to stop being a dickhead and fucking kiss me like you mean it.”

Chapter Text

Note to self: Never challenge an android to do something that’ll leave me unable to think.

Nines only hesitates a moment before pushing up easily into a sitting position and cupping the back of my neck to yank me into a fierce kiss that I absolutely was not prepared for. I was expecting some timidity or something; wavering reticence maybe, I dunno. What I get is full blown, predatory dominance.

His tongue sets me on fire, stealing my breath in a way I didn’t know was even possible. One hand stays firmly on the back of my neck, making it impossible for me to break away just to breathe, while the other drags down my chest and around my side to grab my hip and tug me forward. I shift into it without thinking, and the motion grinds my full erection against his stomach.

I manage to break away then, shoving back for no real reason other than that I’m suddenly, unusually self-conscious. He doesn’t even seem to notice; the moment our mouths separate, he moves his to my jaw, apparently unbothered by the week or so’s worth of fuzzy stubble there.

Fuck me; he’s gonna make me cum just working that mouth on my neck...

Imagine what he could do with my cock.

Except I don’t have to.

Fuck.

“Nines...” Shit. A hot flush creeps up my neck at the weak, breathless whine that makes it off my tongue.

“Already?” he pauses, amused. “I’ve barely begun.” Irritation spikes and I'm tempted to call it all off.

“Do you have any idea how long it's been since I even masturbated, jackass?” I snap, trying to maintain at least some semblance of dignity.

“Since the Pulse?” he offers, still amused. He nips at my pulse, and I forget to be angry with him.

“Longer...”

Ah, fuck it; he can hear the desperation in my voice, so I might as well embrace the pathetic mess of need that I am.

I drop my hands to my belt buckle, just wanting to get one off so I can take my time after, but he grabs my wrist, the hand at my neck squeezing in just the right way to make me do the cat thing and freeze.

“No.” The short, sharp command, in any other circumstances, at any other time, would have pissed me the fuck off. But for some reason, instead of angering me, it sends a burst of fire through me that collects heavy in my gut; I shudder from the pure intensity of it.

“No?” I can barely manage a faint, blissed whisper that makes him smirk subtly against my throat.

“I'm going to make you explode.”

Instead of terrifying me, like it probably should have, that statement sparks another run of liquid fire through my veins, and I could have sworn I'd creamed myself just then anyway.

No such luck. Wet as I am, I've still got one in the chamber.

He moves my hand to reach in for himself, undoing my belt with no trouble at all and flicking open my pants seemingly without effort. Cool fingers slide under cloth at the same time that he bites down on the side of my neck. A choked gasp escapes me, and I shudder again.

“Fuck, Nines...”

“Not yet,” he growls, gripping the base of my erection tightly and drawing a desperate groan off my tongue as I buck uselessly, trying and failing to get some sort of release.

“Damnit, stop taunting me!” I hiss, digging my nails into his shoulder and arm.

“I've barely touched you,” he retorts, tilting his head back to look at me, amusement gleaming alongside the faint glow deep in his crystalline eyes.

“So??”

“So, the more desperate you are, the more satisfied you'll be.”

“Asshole; I'm already desperate!” At this point, I can't not put into words what my body is already saying.

“Enough to beg?”

Oh hell no.

“Fuck you, tin can,” I growl. He hums and tightens his grip painfully around my cock, making me wince. “Ow!”

“You really want to test me while my hand is here?” he asks, quirking a brow.

I'm insane. One hundred percent. But there's no way he could miss the jerk of my cock at his words, so to hell with it.

“Fuck. You.”

In an instant, my back hits the dirt and Nines is between my legs, knees tucked under my hips. Before I can even think up a protest, he's pushing my jacket off my shoulders and down to my elbows, so my arms are stuck mostly behind me. Cold air breezes over my stomach and chest as he tugs my shirt up as well.

“The more you antagonise me,” he rumbles, leaning down to scrape his teeth over one cold-perked nipple, “the more I want to dominate you. I...”

Abruptly, he goes still, and for an instant I'm confused, until I hear a familiar warning growl from behind him.

Buttermilk.

I can't help it; a low laugh bubbles up off my tongue, despite the need burning in my gut.

“You say that,” I smirk, “but you're gonna get your ass handed to you if I don't call Butter off, so maybe I should make you beg.”

Chapter Text

“Stop whistling,” Elijah growls, giving me a dark, exhausted glare when I step into his tent to get myself some food.

“Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” I note with a scoff, cocking a brow at him. “And you actually had a bed, unlike me.”

“Didn’t stop you from enjoying yourself,” he returns without hesitation, snatching the steaming coffee mug I was reaching for. I scowl at him, turning to get my own cup since he’s being assholish as ever.

Then it actually clicks, what he means, and heat explodes in my face as I remember Nines’ smirk when I couldn’t quite hold back the sound of my pleasure once he finally let me cum.

“Yeah, well...” I clear my suddenly dry throat and keep my gaze on the coffee pot. “It’s been a while.”

“So I heard,” Elijah grumbles caustically. He mutters something else that I don’t quite catch, and I’m tempted to pour my coffee over his head, but that’d be a waste, especially since I’ve been craving this from the moment I first woke to the scent of it brewing.

Ahh, it’s been a while indeed...

What’s it been, a week and a half since my last cup? Two? My humour returns with the memory of how fidgety I got after that. Guess I gotta up my tolerance again, so I get the alertness without the nerves.

“So,” I say simply, pushing everything else aside for the moment. “Decided what we’re doing with the blender yet?”

“The...? Oh. No,” he huffs, still irritable. “Didn’t exactly get enough sleep to deal with anything.”

“For Christ’s sake,” I snap. “Then go back to sleep and quit whining, goddamn baby.”

“You know I can’t sleep when the sun’s out,” he snarks back.

“Oh my God... Why do I even bother? Forget it; I’m taking Buttermilk out to hunt, and probably go fishing with Crystal. Try not to burn the rest of the world down while I’m gone, asshat.” He says something, probably some ever-ready witty retort, but I’m already out of the tent; I’ll eat later.

“Good morning.” That’s all the warning I get before strong arms wrap around my waist and a sturdy chest presses against my back, warm lips touching the exposed skin at the back of my neck.

So much for not thinking about last night...

“Could you not, tin can?” I grunt, shouldering him back. “I told you to stop flirting with me.”

“Mm, so you did,” Nines agrees, an odd note in his voice. I glance back at him, but whatever it was, he’s hiding it now. Brushing it off, I take a sip of my coffee.

“How’s our guest?” I ask casually.

This time I don’t miss the flicker of expression through Nines’ features: anger.

“He’s gone into standby mode,” he notes coolly. “I tried to use the opportunity to review his surface files, but he has firewalls I can’t even begin to attempt. I don’t know who coded him, but they didn’t want anyone touching their work.”

“CyberLife made him,” I offer. “Any chance of maybe hacking their personnel files or whatever to find out who all was on the team to make 1K?”

“Not likely,” he sighs, scowling in petulant irritation.

Good God, he acts so insanely human sometimes... I don’t know whether to be amused, or...

Never mind; amusement is the only option.

“Aw, guess I can’t be impressed by what you can do anymore, now can I?” I smirk. He gives me a bland look, but the twitch at the corner of his lips tell me he’s not that bothered by my comment. I knock back the last of my coffee while I push down the sudden desire to kiss him. “Alright. I’m taking Buttermilk and Crystal out to hunt and figure out how to fish. Coming?”

Chapter Text

“If you’re trying to scare away all the prey, you’re doing a fantastic job.”

I’ll wring his goddamn neck.

“Fucking- I can’t be much quieter than I am, tin can!” I snap, barely remembering to keep my voice down so I don’t really scare off all the prey.

“Stealth isn’t just about silence, detective,” Nines hums gently, shifting a little closer to me. The purr of the way he addresses me sends shivers up my spine, and I tense reactively when he gets close.

That heat...

“What else is it then?” I growl, pretending I don’t want to lean into him.

“Intent,” he murmurs, covering my gun hand with his own and pushing down slightly. “Relax; settle into your environment. Animals can sense high emotions from people and it makes them skittish, flighty. Even if they don’t know for sure that you’re there.” An inadvertent shudder quivers through my core at the brush of his breath on my ear. “You’re strung too tight, detective; haven’t you been on stakeouts before?”

“First of all,” I retort, “stakeouts are watching for humans, who apparently don’t have nearly as fine of senses as fucking animals. And second, you’re damn right, I’m strung too tight; why the fuck you think I came out here? To frolic through the woods like a lovestruck schoolgirl?”

“Lovestruck, maybe. Frolic, unlikely.”

“Get over yourself, tin can.”

“You didn’t say no.”

“And you didn’t ask me to shoot your dick off, but I might anyway.” He chuckles softly, and oddly, the sound helps ease some of the tension in my neck.

“If you’re trying to relax, hunting is probably not the best course of action,” he points out. “Especially not when your hunting hound would rather sleep than stalk.” I glance at him, just in time for him to press two fingers against my jaw and nudge my head around so I can see what he did; Buttermilk stretched out a couple yards away, snout nestled between his paws.

Comically, Crystal is perched atop his mane, wide eyes staring intently at a bird twittering just out of reach on a branch far above our heads.

If I wasn’t so annoyed, I’d laugh.

“I give up,” I sigh heavily, sitting back on my heels and shoving my gun into its holster at my hip. “Next you’re gonna tell me I don’t have the patience for fishing.”

Which fucking sucks, because I really wanted to be able to feed Crystal myself. For once, I wanted to do something for myself.

“Mm, I wasn’t going to say that,” Nines says lightly, leaning a little closer. My irritation twitches higher, and I pull the gun out again, clicking the safety off and jamming the barrel under his chin without even bothering to look at him.

“Back off or lose your head, tin can,” I grunt, casting a sidelong glance at him. His brow quirks challengingly, but he raises his hands in surrender, shifting back.

Safety on; gun holstered. Breathing another sigh, long and slow, I scrub my hands over my face, trying to rub away some of the strain building on me.

To think, this morning, I was in such a good mood. It dipped a bit during my run in with Eli, but I thought I’d get over it. No such luck, apparently, and trying to trace this annoyance back to its source isn’t working.

It’s got something to do with Nines, I know that much. Something about the way we interact is different. Very different. And I’m not entirely sure how, or even who’s to blame.

The fuck is it such a problem?? Things didn’t change this much from when we first met to when he blew me, except that I didn’t trust him within three feet of me for a while, so why is this so much different? Why am I strung so tight you could tie me to a hollow board and pluck me like a damn guitar string?

“Do you want to try fishing right now?” Nines asks calmly, eying me carefully. “Or would you rather do a different kind of hunting?” That piques my interest; against my better judgment, I look up, curious, but wary of some corny come on.

Hey, at this point, I wouldn’t put anything past the dumb ‘droid.

“Different kind?” I prompt.

“It shouldn’t be too hard to find some Scavs in Grayling,” he explains, a smirk curling at his lips. An answer smirk tugs at mine.

Now that sounds like fun.

“Scav-hunting, huh?” I hum, already raring to go. “Why not? ‘Bout time I got to shoot something.”

――

Best. Decision. Ever. And considering how I felt when I left home to join the police academy, that’s saying a lot.

“That’s nineteen!” I cackle, dodging past the stumbling body of the Scav that hasn’t quite realised his head is gone yet. “I’m winning, tin can; pick it up!”

“Pick what up? I’m at twenty-three,” he returns, grinning at me from where he took cover to reload.

“Liar!” Looks like I’m the one behind, even though I swore I only counted seventeen shots from him.

“Not lying, but maybe cheating,” he allows, shifting out from behind cover to fire at the nearest Scav. The bullet pierces the Scav’s neck and blows a hole in the cheek of another, taking off a huge chunk of her head. Nines casts a sidelong smirk at me. “Armor-piercing rounds.”

“You are so fucking dirty,” I say, unable to help a low laugh as I pop another Scav through the eye. “In that case, Buttermilk’s kills count toward my win!”

“Has that thing even killed one Scav yet?” he chuckles, easily ducking around a Scav trying to swipe at his head and kicking her to the ground before planting a bullet in her skull. “That’s twenty-six.”

“Of course he’s killed a Scav!” I huff defensively, glancing around for my lion. He’s not far down the road, batting at a Scav head barely attached by the neck. I give a short, sharp whistle, and he looks up, curious and playful. “Come, Butter! Come on, boy!”

“Behind you, Gavin!” Nines warns suddenly. I whirl around, aware that if he didn’t just shoot, I must be in the line of fire, but before I can get my gun up, the Scav is on me.

Maybe, at one point, she might have been a sultry figure of a woman, but whatever makes people turn Scavenger wasn’t easy on her; plush curves have been reduced to sagging lumps of flesh, and I can feel her bones as she tackles me, snarling and snapping at my throat. Cursing, I brace my arm across hers, trying to wrench my gun out from between us while she’s clawing at my neck and shoulders.

Two shots rip through her skull, one from the top, shredding her throat and nicking my arm in its passage down into her body, and the other from the side, drilling through her temple and blowing out half her head on the other side, knocking her that way.

I shove her off and snap my gun up in the direction of the second shot without even thinking.

“High shooter!” I shout automatically, scanning rooftops and upper floor windows for the culprit, my old training kicking in before I’ve even made a move to get up off the pavement.

“Get to cover, Gavin!” Nines orders, dropping to a crouch in front of me to bodily shield me. I don’t like it, but I can’t stop him, so instead, I scramble to my feet and dart behind the nearest car, Nines right behind me, still covering a high angle.

“Buttermilk, come here!” I snap, checking my gun really quick. The lion is already there, whining and nuzzling my arm. “I’m okay, boy; stay down. Got an angle yet?”

“Yes,” Nines answers, attention fixated somewhere as another shot rings out. It’s not from his gun, so it must be the other shooter. From the sound of it, high calibre, definitely rifle, and most likely some sort of one-shot marksman, given the long pause between shots.

“See anything?” I press, seriously tempted to take a peek myself. Nines doesn’t answer right away, so I turn to watch his face. He’s staring hard at whatever he sees, body set like a statue of perfect gunmanship posture, finger resting patiently on the trigger guard.

Something about the sight of his intense focus plucks at my chest, and for a moment, I forget how to breathe.

Then he lowers the gun, gaze still pinned on whatever has his attention, and the moment is gone. His brow furrows slightly, and his mouth tips down in mild annoyance.

“What?” I question persistently. “What do you see?”

“I think... you just got saved by another Treader.”

Chapter Text

She’s waiting for us when we reach the third floor of some kind of business building, the kind with suites for a dozen or more companies or whatever. One side of the lobby has been rigged up as a temporary camp, complete with a couple of thick blankets laid out on the floor in the corner, and the Treader is sitting with her back against the wall under a window that has a hole cut out in the bottom.

“Nice shooting,” I speak up first, testing the waters. My gun is still in hand, and Nines doesn’t even pretend he isn’t ready to shoot at a moment’s notice.

Buttermilk, on the other hand, pads across the room and snuffles at a bag curiously. Surprisingly, the Treader doesn’t seem at all afraid; her face is mostly hidden behind an old cowboy hat and a handkerchief, which plays well with the loose posture and the gun braced across her knees, but doesn’t make it easy to trust her, much less read her expressions.

“Thank you,” she replies, her voice oddly warped. “And you’re welcome. I’m sure you had it handled, but I really wanted another notch on my belt. Guess I can’t take all the credit, though, since your ‘droid hit the bitch at the same time I did.”

“How the fuck you know he’s an android?” I growl, raising my gun defensively. She laughs, a pitched sound with two layers, one mechanical and high, and the other low and raspy.

“Calm down, cowboy,” she chuckled, reaching up a gloved hand to flick her hat up.

Oh. That’s why she’s hiding.

Her left eye is gone, replaced by a component piece similar to the ones I’ve seen on skinless androids. And when she tugs the kerchief down, there’s patchwork of scars all down the left side of her face, cutting into her mouth too. Beneath it, I catch the faint glint of another mechanical part at her throat.

“Got myself a sniper’s eye, see?” she grins, twisting the scar in an odd grimace. “Lost the real one in a’ accident couple months before the Blackout. Don’t a lot o’ people like seeing ‘borgs in the Clusters, so I wander. Always wanted to get up north, so I hijacked myself a car and drove til it ran outta gas. Kinda hoped there weren’t Lilies this far north, but... well. Beggars can’t be choosers and all that.”

“And that lets you see that my friend is an android?” I press, sceptical. She laughs again.

“Lets me see a lotta stuff. Your heart. His pump. The lion’s pump, too. He’s a beaut, ain’t he, though? He registered to you?”

“No,” I scoff, relaxing a bit. “Doesn’t even listen to me half the time.”

“Ain’t that a crock,” she chuckled lowly, standing with a groan. “Tell your ‘droid to stand down, cowboy; I ain’t a danger unless you’re a Lily.”

“You said that before,” I note, curious. And I’m not touching that ‘your ‘droid’ thing, period. “Lilies. And Clusters. Are you talking about the Scavs, and the Colonies?”

“Yeah, ‘s supposed to be a joke down south,” she grins. “Used to be a day when cowards were called ‘lily-livered,’ and some fool thought it’d be funny to call the bloodthirsty things biting everybody’s heads off ‘Lilies.’ Name sorta stuck. I like Scav better, though. Short for Scavenger?”

“That’s what we call them,” I nod. “I guess different places have different names for it all. Where are you from?”

“Georgia. Down near Valdosta. Took 75 pretty much the whole way, siphoning gas where I could. Got up to ‘round about Cincinnati, couldn’t find another car to drain, so I hoofed it the rest of the way, picking off Lilies... Scavs wherever I could. You ain’t from around here, are you?”

“Detroit,” I answered. She brightened and laid her gun across her shoulders, draping her wrists over it on either side.

“That so? Seat of modern day civilisation, eh? No wonder you got a ‘droid o’ your own.”

“He’s not my android,” I sigh, irritated. I really didn’t want to get to this topic, but I can’t exactly avoid it now. I cast a glare at Nines, who’s watching me sidelong in amusement. “Fuck you, tin can; I don’t want to hear a word out of you.”

“A word,” he retorts sarcastically, smirking.

“I will fucking strangle you.”

“We can discuss that tonight,” he grins broadly.

I don’t know whether to be embarrassed or just plain done. By the curious look of interest on the Treader’s―or rather, Wanderer’s, I guess―face, I think I’m going with the latter.

Chapter Text

“I like you boys,” the Wanderer laughs, shifting to one leg and using the other foot to nudge Buttermilk gently away from her bed. “What’s your name?”

Either the pitched quality of her voice is purposefully soothing, or her personality just naturally puts people at ease, because I find the tension draining out of me the more we talk.

“Gavin Reed,” I answer easily, stepping forward and offering a hand. “Homicide detective before the Pulse. Er, the Blackout.”

“Morgan,” she grins. “Sadie Morgan. And I don’t think you wanna shake my hand, Detective, not with that one.” I glance at my right hand, confused; I even switched my gun to my left, so what’s wrong with it? Some social breach from the south I don’t know about?

“You lost your hand too?” Nines asks, making the connection I missed. His gun is holstered now, and I follow his example.

“Both,” Sadie agrees, bobbing her head in a quick nod. “Can trip 8 pound pull weight easy, no shift on the sight, but I don’t trust it around human flesh ‘cept my own.”

“Eight pounds?” My brows raise. “Must be a custom built rifle.” She beams, pulling the gun off her shoulders and holding it out for inspection.

“Know your pull, eh? Guess I shoulda expected that from a detective. Yeah, she’s my baby; adapted her after the accident from an old M24. Had to add a lock for my hand on the barrel to handle a high pull weight, but it was damn good for preventing other accidents, ‘specially when I was first getting back in the shooting game; gave me an extra second or two to really check my target. Got so used to it, never went back.”

“M24’s are military,” I frown, keeping the barrel low and giving the trigger a soft squeeze because my stupid curiosity got the better of me. The pull weight really is ridiculously high; the same two or three pounds I put on my own gun hardly even budges the trigger of this beast. “And old. Really old.”

“Yep. She was my pap’s,” Sadie hums, a wistful note of nostalgia in her distorted voice. “Served him well in his service in ‘Ghanistan and later in Syria.” She hesitates and tries to sound casual when she adds, “Came back with his body after a tour when I was ten. What was left of him, anyway.”

Inexplicable guilt tugs at me as I reverently hand the gun back.

“I’m sorry.” The words aren’t enough when I know the pain of losing someone to an explosion, which I assume is how he went.

“Nah, don’t worry about it,” Sadie smiles bravely, shaking it off. “Was a long time ago. I made my peace. You lost a lot o’ people?”

“Too many.” Buttermilk must sense my pain, because he immediately looks up and pads over to butt his head against my side. “Good boy... Sorry for invading your space, Miss Morgan; we'll get out of your hair.”

Yes, I'm running. I was in a better mood until that topic came up.

“Oh it weren't no trouble,” she smiles, seeing her gun down and grabbing a bag to dig out a scrap of paper and a pen. “Right quick, ‘fore you go... Where should I send letters?”

“Letters...?” I'm not sure what confuses me more, the fact that she wants to send me a letter, or the fact that I'm more concerned that I don't have a permanent address.

“You don't mind, do you?” she asks, hesitant now. “I just never talked to another Wanderer didn't want to shoot me on sight. ‘Borgs ain't exactly welcomed most places.”

I must have taken too long, thought a little too much, because she stiffens, cooling.

“Ah, yeah. Sorry to be a bother,” she says shortly, stuffing the paper and pen back in her back.

“No, no!” Dear Christ, since when do I care about other people’s feelings? “I just... nn... I, uh... I don’t have a permanent address, so... I guess you could send it to my brother.” I’ve already got a headache from the thought; I rub at my neck to ease it a bit. “He’s an ass, but he’ll make sure I get it.”

“Your brother?” She cocks her head, still wary but a little less prickly now.

Shit, now I have to claim him.

“Elijah Kamski,” Nines says for me when I falter. I cast a dark look at him, and he raises a brow, daring me to do anything.

“Nah, you’re pulling my leg,” Sadie says, scowling sceptically.

“Unfortunately, no,” I grumble, shoving my hands in my pockets.

“Kamski? The Man of the Century?”

“Don’t say that around him,” I scoff. “He’ll either get a big head or throw you out on your ass.”

“Well, shit,” she huffs, sitting back on her heels and lifting her hat to rub at her head before smoothing yellow-gold hair back and replacing the hat. “I knew he had himself a brother, but... Wow. Guess that explains why your ‘droid is still functioning.”

“Ehh, not quite...” A thought occurs to me, and I frown at her, oddly perplexed. “How do you intend on sending letters with half the country zombified and the other half hiding away in Colonies?”

Instead of answering, she grins and digs through her bag to pull out a small drone, clearly modified from messenger and surveillance drones I’ve seen in the past. With a quick twist of a knob and a flick of a button, it beeps and whirs to life, lifting off her palm as she raises her hand.

“I can program an address into the GPS, send it off, get it back after two hours of inactivity.”

“Oh, Eli would get a kick out of that,” I snicker, catching it and drawing it in to take a closer look. “Don’t suppose we could borrow this for an hour or two, could we?”

“Er, well, sure, I guess?” Sadie frowns. “If I may, why?”

“So he can check it out,” I say without thinking. Immediately I realise my mistake and purse my lips, wishing I actually had a goddamn filter between brain and mouth.

“You ain’t saying,” she says slowly, watching me closely as I let the drone go and try to play it off, “that he’s here... are you? Here in Greyling?”

Welp. Can’t exactly lie now.

“...Yeah,” I admit, sighing heavily. “He’s...” God, I’m going to sound stupid saying this. “He’s got it in his head that he can find the source of the Pulse. The... The Blackout.” Sadie’s real eye widens, brow raised in surprise.

“No kidding? Well fuck me and call me a whore; think he can fix it if he finds it?”

“At this point,” I scoff cynically, “I wouldn’t put it past him to fix it by pure force of will just to spite me.”

“Take it you two don’t get on well,” she chuckles.

“Oh we get on great,” I smile mirthlessly, unable to hold back my snark on this one. “If you call strangling each other every five seconds ‘getting on.’”

Another laugh. Oddly, it helps cool my growing temper and I even manage to put a little genuineness into my smile.

“You boys sound like a right barrel o’ laughs,” she grins, shaking her head. Pausing, she glances at Buttermilk and Nines, and then looks back at me. “Could I... I mean, I been a big fan o’ Kamski’s work since I don’t even know when... You think I could... maybe... meet him? Just for a minute, see; I like tinkering in my spare time, and I- I’d love to meet the guy got me interested in the first place. Think he’d mind?”

Hm. I could take her back with us. If I did, Elijah would either get pissed at me for opening the way for a fan to gush over him and take up his time, or he’d be amused by her adoration and maybe stay off my back for a bit.

Now that I think about it, no real downside.

I cast a glance at Nines, who shrugs, indicating that it’s up to me.

“Get your stuff,” I say. “Might as well stay with us tonight; take it from another, ah, Wanderer, you’ll get a hell of a lot more sleep with a perimeter of android guards than you will alone all night.”

Chapter Text

Chloe is perched daintily on a box in the middle of the campsite when we arrive, Crystal purring contentedly in her lap. The PC200 androids on duty right now twitch sharply when they see Sadie with us, conflicting orders making them balk; on the one hand, they know Nines and I are welcome to come and go, and by extension, Buttermilk, but Sadie is new, and despite the fact that she’s physically with us, they still have orders not to let anyone or anything into the camp without first being vetted by Elijah.

“Wait here a moment,” I tell Sadie, to spare them a blown out circuit. “Eli!”

“Elijah is busy at the moment,” Chloe speaks up, still gently stroking Crystal.

“Doing what?” I scowl.

“Analysing the samples taken from the lab you visited a few days ago.”

Well, shit. He’ll be busy all night, then.

“What about our... guest?” I frown. “He was supposed to decide what to do with it first.”

“The RK1000 escaped.”

“WHAT?” Not me; Nines. I didn’t even get a chance to open my mouth. Nines storms past us to check the spot where we had 1K chained up before. Whatever he sees makes him go livid.

“What’s up?” Sadie pipes up curiously, leaning around one of the PC ‘droids and trying to get a look. Since I can’t even see the spot from where I stand, I know she can’t see anything.

“Shh,” I hush her, oddly worried Nines is going to blow up from how furious he is. “Nines? You okay?”

“Okay?” he growls. “Okay?? It was hard enough to catch him in the first place, and now he’s loose again!” He turns a fierce look on Chloe. “What happened?? How did he escape??” He takes a step, and I dart between them, bodily holding him back.

“Ease up, Nines,” I say, pushing down my own anger and concern to focus on calming him down. “She’s not strong enough to have stopped him in any case. Cool your heels a minute, alright?” He’s still tense; I can feel it under my palms and against my chest, the way his synthetic muscles twitch and shiver with his desire to lash out.

“...Alright,” he grits out finally, withdrawing. I get the feeling he’s shutting down some system or another so he can rage in his mind without endangering anyone. Whether or not that’s the case, it doesn’t look like he’s going to do anything else, so I turn back to Chloe.

“What happened?” I demand shortly.

“He figured out the uneven pattern of the changing guard,” she replies, brows furrowed. “Right before the change, he broke the locks and attacked Vera and Ben. Ben has been... decommissioned. Vera needs extensive repairs. Elijah said to leave it, that you and Richard could take care of it or not when you returned.”

“Fucking...” A million curses run through my head, some so creative I didn’t even know I knew them. I scrub my hands over my face, breathing deep and letting it out slowly to keep control; no good will come from losing it right now.

“Y’all a’right?” Sadie prompts, waiting patiently with her blankets rolled up under her arm, her pack on her back, and her gun over her shoulder. She’s so at ease even standing at the outskirts that her serenity somehow trickles over me.

“What are their names?” I ask Chloe, nodding at the two PC ‘droids eying Sadie.

“Calvin and William,” she answers without hesitation, triggering a nagging feeling that I put aside for the moment when the two PC’s glance over their shoulders at us in reaction to hearing their names.

“Yeah, you two,” I say, catching them before their attention returns fully to Sadie. “Let her in. I don’t care what Eli said; he can take it up with me later. Let her in.” They exchange a glance, but fortunately don’t fight me on this; shifting to the sides, they reholster their guns and let Sadie pass without a problem.

“Thankie, boys,” she nods appreciatively. Then she strides right up to Chloe and offers a hand. “You’re Chloe, ain’t ya? The original; RT600.”

“That’s right,” Chloe smiles gently, taking her hand. “And you are?”

“Sadie Morgan. Glad to finally meet ya. You were one o’ the reasons I really got an interest in machines, you know? Do you mind...?” She leans over slightly, making to put her things down beside the box, but not actually doing so just yet. Chloe nods her approval, gesturing for Sadie to sit with her, and even shifts to make room for her.

“Nice to meet you too, Mrs. Morgan.”

“Ah, just Sadie, please,” she laughs, dropping her things and taking a seat. “Ain’t got a man, and I never was one for them fancy titles.”

While they get to talking, I go to the tent and step in. Whatever Elijah’s doing, he can take a minute to answer my questions, or else I’ll screw up his work and make him take a minute.

Chapter Text

Rain is nice. So nice. I’d almost forgotten how much I love the rain; the Pulse must have disrupted the weather or something because it hasn’t really rained since.

Until now.

It started just after sunset, and it’s abnormally warm for a late fall evening, but that makes it perfect for standing out in the rain and letting it wash away my stress.

After arguing with Elijah for several hours two nights ago, and coercing him yesterday into spending a little time with Sadie, I’ve finally gotten a little peace of mind. It helps that Nines hasn’t been constantly bugging me, and Crystal spends whatever time she’s not hunting or playing with Buttermilk lying on my lap and purring up a storm. And surprisingly, Buttermilk is well attuned to my moods and really helps me destress just by cuddling up to me and half smothering me in his mane.

It’s all well and good, but geez, nothing beats a good soak in the cool rain.

“Gavin.” Nines joins me, not at all bothered by the rain. In that way, he’s still very much android; the other ‘droids, the ones that survived the Scav attack late the night of Sadie’s arrival as well as the two other Scav attacks yesterday, they don’t seem to even notice the rain. Same with Nines.

Does 1K notice? Probably not.

“‘Sup, tin can,” I greet absently, pushing aside the faint annoyance of being interrupted during one of the only times I’ve managed to get alone.

“I had... a dream,” he says suddenly, stunning me. “Last night. Or, this morning, I suppose.” I brush rain out of my eyes and give him a cocked look.

“A dream. You can even sleep?”

“Well...” He shifts in a disturbingly human-y, uneasy way, and I’m not sure which part unsettles me more, the fact that he’s acting so eerily human, or the fact that he can actually dream. “I don’t exactly ‘sleep,’ not the way humans do, but I can go into a standby mode that’s similar enough. And I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily ‘dreaming,’ so to speak... More like a... an unguided train of thought.”

Okay, so not a sleep dream.

“So... day-dreaming,” I offer. He shrugs; it’s clearly not important to him, and the rabbit trail is bothering him now. “Alright, what did you... day-dream?”

He goes quiet, and I’d think he didn’t hear me, except he isn’t fidgety anymore, so he must be gathering his thoughts. Rain has mussed his usually perfect hairstyle, dripping steadily from curled tendrils in a way that would be surprisingly becoming if not for the tracks of rain down his cheeks that look too much like tears. His gaze in on the ground too, and I suddenly find myself wondering if he really is crying.

Can androids cry?

Fuck... I almost forgot...

Those RK800 ‘droids, the RedBots. What were their names? Cal? Cole? I never heard the last one’s name...

Cal cried.

Ah, fuck; why’d I have to remember that now??

“Nines...”

“I was human,” he cuts in abruptly, a note of longing in his voice that steals my ability to speak for a moment. He takes the opportunity, taking a carefully even breath, like he’s one second from falling apart in front of me. “We were... together. Happy. I... For your birthday, I gave you a... a ring.”

Shit.

Fucking shit; I can’t breathe.

Why does that terrify me? After everything I’ve seen and done, over the course of my life, why does the idea of marriage leave me absolutely chilled to the bone with fear?

I open my mouth, but even if my tongue could work, I don’t have a goddamn clue what to say.

“That’s never going to happen, is it?” he says softly, so softly I almost miss it under the pattering of rain on cloth, on leaves, on soil. “It was just a dream. Just a dream...” His voice catches, and now I know he’s crying. “I’m sorry...”

Somehow, that cuts through my terror, wiping it away with a sweep of anger.

“Sorry?” I snap, stepping toward him. He shifts back reactively, the expression of startled hurt on his features jabbing me straight through the chest.

Dear God, he can be so human sometimes...

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” I grit out, holding myself back from grabbing him and shaking him like a rag doll. “You’re not an android; you’re a deviant. Emotions come with the package; you said so yourself. Get used to it. And for God’s sake, don’t fucking apologise, ever! Not for feeling! Christ...” Shaking my head at his naivety, I turn away to give him a moment to compose himself, but the second I’m facing away, he suddenly collides with my back, arms catching me in a crushing embrace. I let out an accidental squawk, tensing automatically to fight off an attacker, or in this case, wiggle my way free of his neediness. Then he nuzzles into my neck, and I realise he’s trembling ever so subtly.

If he was human, I’d take it to mean he’s trying not to cry aloud, but an android? I can’t even begin to guess what’s causing him to tremble.

I can’t just leave him like this...

Sighing heavily, I reach up and awkwardly pat his head. The motion eases his trembling, so I leave my hand there, gently curling and uncurling my fingers the way I would if my hand was buried in Buttermilk’s mane. That does it, I guess, because I can’t feel any more trembling, even though he makes no move to let go.

We could be here a while.

Crap, and it’s getting colder. Now I’m the one trembling, but it’s a core-deep shiver, the kind you can’t stop no matter how much you try. I’m debating how I want to tell him the moment is over so I can go join Crystal, Sadie and Eli in the tent, where a solar-charged battery pack is powering a couple of wonderful space heaters, when he suddenly gets warmer against my back; he’s doing that temperature thing again.

He must really need this.

Well, guess I can’t really complain... I get to stay out in the rain a little longer.

Chapter Text

“GAVIN! Gavin, wake up!!”

I’m going to kill him.

“Shu’up...” I growl, burrowing deeper into my bed. Not that I can get much deeper than I am; there’s about two inches of coarse fluff between me and the hard ground, and the pillow isn’t much thicker. Only the fact that I’m encased in a zero-degree sleeping bag keeps out the cold that creeps in under the edge of the tent.

“Gavin, wake up, twat!” Elijah kicks at my side, and fury bursts through me; I explode out of the sleeping bag and manage to get to my knees before it catches around my legs and stops me. Crystal lets out an aggravated yowl and bounds away from the scuffle as I snatch the front of Elijah’s shirt and yank him down, almost tearing it.

“I will fucking murder you.”

“Later,” he says, eyes alight with discovery, and completely unperturbed. “Look at this!!” He shoves a tablet in my face, and I cringe away from the harsh blue light burning my retinas.

“Gah! Put that away!” I croak, scrambling to bury myself back in the sleeping bag.

“Well damn; he’s quite the character,” Sadie cackles from somewhere over by the desk where I left her and Eli bent over equations or something when I hit the sack. I was fortunate enough to fall asleep with their constant, albeit relatively quiet, chatter; I don’t even want to know how little sleep I’ve actually gotten.

“He’s certainly not a morning bird,” Elijah snorts, kicking me lightly again. “Gavin, seriously; look at this!”

“Fuck off!” I snarl from my nest.

“Oh my God... Do I have to get Richard in here?” he threatens. I’m tempted to give him the finger and screw the consequences, but honestly, the sooner I give in, the sooner the bastard leaves me alone to sleep in peace.

Grumbling, I extract myself slowly from the mess I’ve made of my bed and glare up at Eli, who looks unusually excited. He doesn’t miss a beat; crouching beside me, he holds out the tablet again, poking a finger at something on the screen.

“Look at this!” Squinting against the burn, I scowl at the screen, grabbing it and dragging it a bit closer so my eyes don’t have to work any harder than they already are to focus.

“What is this, spot the difference?” I growl, inspecting the side-by-side images of... I’m not entirely sure what... Some kind of molecule mock up or something? It dregs up memories of high school biology.

“Close enough,” Elijah laughs. “There’s almost no difference!”

“Yeah, I can see that,” I point out drily, giving him a look. “Your point?” He rolls his eyes and shifts closer, jabbing at the screen again.

“Look... This is my formula for Thirium 310. And this... This is part of the substance we collected a couple of days ago at that lab.”

“...I don’t get it,” I mutter, too tired to figure out what he’s saying. Dropping the tablet into my lap, I scrub both hands over my face, fighting back a yawn and failing miserably as I go on, not really thinking before I speak. “So there’s some similar molecules or whatever; that’s how nature works, moron... So what if they made some’n like Thirium? Was bound to happen, yanno...”

“No shit, Sherlock,” Elijah snorts, grabbing the tablet and sliding the page to show me another comparison, this time of a bunch of dots. “But this is the kicker... See this? This is a microscopic view of that same substance. And this... Care to guess what this is?”

“Some concoction of life-yielding soup from Mars,” I snark, already pushing him away to snuggle back into the sleeping bag.

“Not even close,” he grins. “Red blood cells. Human blood.”

No. Fucking. Way.

I sit up and grab the tablet, staring at the images for a long moment while Elijah basks in the pre-glow of victory, smirking.

My head hurts trying to wrap around this.

“So... it’s got some new version of Thirium... and human blood?” I ask, just to clarify. He nods, patient in spite of his bursting enthusiasm. “Together? Like... blended? Like...”

“A potential advancement of both humankind and androids?” Elijah finishes for me, fairly shaking with glee.

I haven’t seen him so childishly giddy since high school.

The heck is with the trip down memory lane tonight? Geez...

“...I’m gonna go back to sleep,” I say, pointing at my pillow, “because there is no way I can fully process this right now.”

“How can ya sleep at a time like this, cowboy?” Sadie laughs incredulously, pausing her stroking of my cat. Crystal twitches and noses at her hand until she continues absently. “We’re at the forefront of a new frontier! Hell, I’d give my right arm for this if I hadn’t already lost it! And yer just gonna sleep through this incredible discovery??”

“Yep.” Snuggling down into the sleeping bag, I wrap the pillow around my head and seek out the luscious embrace of sleep.

Chapter Text

I wake to silence. For a minute, I laze in my bed, enjoying the quiet. Then I remember last night.

No way in hell would Eli be this damn quiet after that.

Bolting upright, I look around, half expecting the place to be in shambles and fearing I’ll find Scavs feasting on Eli and Sadie. Crystal yowls at me, shifting to curl up where my head just was, seeking the warmth I’ve left behind.

Well, she’s still here, and the tent is still organised, if a bit hastily abandoned.

Okay, I realise, it’s not so much organised as it is just plain bare; everything’s gone. Like, literally everything, except my bed and the tent itself.

“Good morning, Gavin,” Nines greets as he enters. He hovers at the door, uncharacteristically subdued, which I guess shouldn’t be too much of a surprise after last night’s―no wait, night before last―episode in the rain.

“Nn, where’s...?” My sleep-hoarse voice gives up, and I don’t bother trying again.

“They left,” he answers anyway. “Early this morning. Miss Morgan left a note for you.” Now he comes closer, but still keeps about three feet between us as he holds out a folded slip of paper.

I don’t like this hesitant Nines. But I can’t do anything about it at the moment, not when I’ve just woken up and need answers.

I take the note.

Detective Reed, Sorry to leave you without warning; Elijah said you’d be alright with Richard and Buttermilk (the lion?). We’re goin back to Detroit to do some more research on that substance. Elijah wants me to tell you to bring the tent back, and keep a lookout for “the guarddog ‘droid”? He said you’d understand. Lookin forward to seein you again, cowboy!

Her writing is precise, perfect, almost typed; even the flourish of her name signed at the end has a precision to it that I’m more familiar with in typed documents.

Sighing, I tossed the note down beside Crystal and scrubbed at my aching eyes.

“I guess we’re heading back to Detroit,” I mutter. “I really just want to go back to being a Treader... All this... bullshit is too far out of my league; I’m a gun, not an egghead.”

“So be a gun,” Nines says abruptly. “Don’t try to be involved in the thinking, the brainstorming, the analysing... That’s not what you’re good at; do what you’re good at. Fight off the Scavs, protect Elijah, and Miss Morgan if she sticks around, and leave the rest to them.” I look up at him blankly, watching him with the lazy passivity of not being entirely awake as I process what he said.

“I guess...” The noncommittal response barely precedes a jaw-cracking yawn, and I stretch to go with it. “Better get up, then.”

As I move to do just that, I don't miss the longing glance Nines gives me before he disappears to pack our things.

Leave it to the idiot deviant tin can to start acting like a lovesick puppy.

――

Buttermilk must know we’re leaving or something, because he’s got boundless energy for no apparent reason. I had to tell him five times to sit still while Nines strapped the tent to his back, and as soon as we began moving, he bounded ahead with Crystal racing after him. I haven’t seen either of them since, and if it weren’t for the fact that Buttermilk at least is practically obsessed with me, thanks to Eli’s stupid ass patch, I might be a little worried they won’t come back.

Okay, honestly, I’m a little worried regardless.

Not that I’ll admit it.

Not that Nines would notice whether I did or not...

“Fucking hell, would you say something already?” I snarl when we finally pause just after sunset to make camp. He pauses in setting up motion sensors, presumably in case Buttermilk doesn’t return tonight.

“...Something,” he offers, a forced carelessness to his tone that tells me better than anything that he’s been suffering in silence for a while now.

I know because I do it too.

“You know what I mean, asshole. What the hell is wrong with you? You’ve been a dark fucking cloud since...” I break off when he flinches, hand curling into a tight fist at his side. Now I’m certain that’s what’s bothering him, but I don’t have a clue why. “Nines, talk. I’m getting so tired of your shit.”

“I don’t have anything to say,” he replies quietly, going back to his task. Even in the darkness, I can still make out the strain in his features and I’m beyond tempted to strangle him. It takes an ungodly amount of restraint to hold back and only grab his arm to get his attention.

“Bullshit. You had no problem saying what you wanted in the apartment, or the goddamn storm drain. No problem the night Butter found us. You’re acting like a fucking child, and frankly, it’s pissing me off. Quit your damn sulking and speak your mind already!”

The look he gives me is so heartbreakingly sorrowful that my chest actually aches in sympathy, and I let go of his arm, only just stopping myself before I pull him into a hug.

“It isn’t that simple, Gavin,” he says mournfully. His voice is barely above a whisper, but it resounds strongly in the silence between us. “There are no words that can accurately convey just how much I love you, and every time I try, you gloss over it and move on, like it doesn’t matter. You can’t love me back; I realise that now. I should never have thought otherwise; should never have hoped...” He raises his hand to clutch at his chest, agony etched into every line of his face as he looks away. “This is the price of my humanity... A price I’m willing to pay, for now.”

Chapter Text

Getting back to Detroit was an enormous struggle.

No, ‘enormous’ isn’t a big enough word... Humongous. Monumental. Gargantuan. I don’t know enough fucking words...

Nines hardly said two words to me after his proclamation, and I was happy to leave it at that; what he said has had me going around in circles since, and I’m beginning to think I’m going legitimately crazy from it.

Thank God he opted for a full shutdown for maintenance and repair when we arrived, because I need some time away from even his presence. Deviant he may be, but he’s still got an android body.

Except he’s more than deviant now.

‘My humanity,’ he said.

‘Humanity.’ Not deviancy. Not emotions, or feelings... Full blown humanity.

The damn bastard fell in love. With me.

Not for the first time, I want to scream my frustration to the sky, but the Scav population around here is way to high for that, so I settle for furiously kicking at the pebbly sand that makes up this part of the beach. The action startles a sandpiper that Crystal was stalking, and it flutters away with a fearful twitter just as she pounces. She gives me a miffed meow and turns her tail at me, sniffing around for something else to hunt.

“Sorry,” I grump, scooping up a handful of pebbles and chucking them one by one as far into the Detroit River as I can.

I’ve got two more left when Buttermilk, who’s been bouncing around like a maniac, bowls into me, knocking me over. “HEY!” He lays on me, rubbing his face against my chest with a low rumble that sounds suspiciously like a purr. “Get off me, stupid furball!”

I try vainly to shove him off, but he must think it’s a game, because he pushes back, snuffling at my face and giving the side of my neck a quick, playful lick. Irritated, I jam my fingers into his mouth, grabbing his bottom jaw and pressing down on his tongue to make him uncomfortable. He twists his head and presses forward with his tongue, trying to dislodge me; when that fails, he moves back, standing and pulling away instead. I let go to stand and dust sand from my clothes, muttering under my breath.

Why am I even so pissed off about this?

It was just a goddamn confession! I’ve gotten enough of those in my life; you’d think I could handle another one.

Obviously not.

Slumping down into a crouch, I wrap my arms around my knees and bury my face in my lap.

What’s wrong with me?

I thought expressing interest in him would be enough to satiate his apparent desire for him, but it must have just made things worse; of course sleeping with the one you love when they don’t love you back is going to hurt!

I’m a fucking moron...

And completely oblivious; all those times he left me speechless, they might as well have been declarations of love―they were certainly damn close enough!―but it took spelling it out point blank for me to see it.

In hindsight, I should have gotten it in the stupid storm drain.

God, I’m an idiot.

And now what am I supposed to do? I don’t love him; I can’t lie to save his feelings, not about that. But I can’t just pretend there isn’t enough tension between us now to rival a cable on the Golden Gate Bridge either.

Maybe I could just leave?? He’s better off with Eli, where he’s got a constant source of power, and thirium, and whatever else he needs, and where he can occupy himself doing exactly what he suggested and protecting Eli and Sadie. And being away from me would lessen his emotions toward me, right?

God, I don't know!

Buttermilk chuffs and butts roughly against my shoulder, almost knocking me over again.

“Enough!” I shout at him, fury exploding out of me finally. He jolts back, head dropping like a beaten puppy. “I don't want to play with you, stupid beast!”

If I didn't know any better, I'd say he looks hurt. With a low grumble and a pitiful peek up at me, he slinks away, and I immediately regret being harsh with him; he's just trying to make me feel better, like always, and I'm taking out my frustration on him.

“Butter... I'm sorry, Butter; come back...” He keeps moving away, and when I stand, he bounds off down the beach. “Buttermilk! Goddamnit! Fine; don't come back!” I see Crystal not far from me, staring at me with a reproving look that stings more than it should, because she has the same eyes as Nines. “What are you looking at? You gonna leave me too?”

Turning her tail to me, she pads off after Buttermilk, leaving me alone.

Fucking...

I guess I must really have screwed up this time.

Jesus fucking Christ, what the hell is wrong with me?

Chapter Text

Reboot 100% complete
System check complete:
_command_if: memory_corruption= >40%, then exe.purge
_command.exe? yes
_command.exe commencing
SYSTEM ERROR: 501 exe.purge cannot be completed. Please see system administrator for manual programme execution.

Soft brown eyes blink open, components shifting to bring the tiny room into focus.

Cur7ent co3m4nd: 1ocat8 sys30m admi2istrat6r

Warning! Software instability at 98%. Please take the following actions to reduce instability: 1) execute command exe.purge, 2) system reset, 3) system reboot.

Disregarding the warning and the faulty command, RK800-73 turns his gaze from the room to his own body. Despite the corruption of his memory, he clearly recalls the vicious hand ripping his thirium pump from his chest. A chest that has been fully repaired, damaged components replaced and integrated.

Pushing past the corruption, he vaguely pieces together the memories of what happened surrounding that event, and promptly shuts them back down as agony sweeps over him.

Cole...

And Carl...

Stepping away from the repair dock, Calvin disengages from the machines and searches his database for the locations of other repair docks on CyberLife grounds, going to the nearest one first.

The first two are empty. The third is occupied by a WG100 in the process of having a damaged hand replaced.

Carl is in the fourth. His chest is missing entirely, and a notice on the dock says the necessary components are on backorder. Reaching up, Calvin brushes his fingers over the half-closed lids of eyes that match his own, shade for shade, closing them properly.

It takes him a lot longer to find Cole, and his pump falters when he does.

They’re not even trying to repair him; his crumpled body has been left carelessly beside a component recycle chute, presumably because the chute isn’t big enough to allow a full body through. The hole where his pump once was gapes horrifically, and Calvin hovers uncertainly for a moment.

It makes sense, of course; Cole was defective, even before he deviated. A glitch in his programme made it impossible to give him commands. His ability to ignore orders caused high instability in his software, resulting in deviation within days of his assembly. And his deviancy affected both of his partners.

Warning! Software instability at 99% and rising. Please see system administrator immediately.

C1r74nt c83m4n5: 192at8 5ys30m ad0i278t3at6r

Lubricant seeps from Calvin’s optical components; tears. He blinks reactively, making a vague attempt to reset the programmes necessary to stop crying, but resisting the odd ache that gnaws just behind his pump is impossible.

“Cole...” Kneeling slowly, he touches the cold metal of Cole’s cheek, retracting his own skin and trying vainly to send his emotions to the other android. He never really understood emotions, but Cole did; Cole was the one who taught Calvin how to identify humour. He taught Carl sarcasm.

He taught them both how to love.

Crying freely now, Calvin leans down to brush a faint kiss against Cole’s lips, wishing he could go back to the first time... the first kiss.

“I need you, Cole,” he whispers, gently lifting Cole’s head and pressing their foreheads together. “I can’t exist without you; I don’t want to... I... I love you, you utter fool.” Sitting back, he scrubs tears from his cheeks and then stands to gently pick up Cole’s body. “I’m going to fix you, Cole. You and Carl both. We’ll be together again; I promise.”

Warning! Software instability has progressed beyond retrieval. Return to CyberLife for total purge and re-installation of-

Calvin short-circuits the safety on his programming, completely destroying the mind palace CyberLife made for him; he won’t need it anymore.

One way or another, he would be seeing Cole and Carl again soon.

One way or another.

Chapter Text

I’m lucky as fucking shit no Scavs saw me on the beach, or on the walk back to Eli’s place, because even if I had been paying attention to my surroundings, I was in no condition to take on even one blood-thirsty bastard.

“Welcome back, Gavin,” Orchid greets me more softly than usual. “Elijah is waiting for you in the pool room.”

“Fuck him. Where’s Nines?”

“Elijah needs to see you first.”

“I said, fuck him,” I snarl. “Where is Nines?” She doesn’t reply, and I swear to Christ, I don’t hit girls unless I have to, but if she was an android, I’d fucking punch her. Growling, I storm down the hall to the pool room, slamming through the door. “What do you want, asshole??”

“There you are,” Eli pants lightly, already half out of the pool. Chloe and an ST600 are standing by, the latter with a towel, and the former with his robe. He takes the towel and buries his face in it for a moment before saying anything else. “Richard left.”

I misheard.

“What?” I scowl at him, tension vibrating through me. If he says...

“Richard left. Less than an hour ago.” He continues drying off, unaware of just how much his words are affecting me; it takes every minutia of control I have not to show my furious dismay.

“Where did he go?” I’m keeping such a tight rein on myself that the words come out quiet, deadly.

“Gavin...”

“WHERE DID HE GO??” I bellow, hand twitching to draw my gun.

“Calm down, cowboy.” I whirl on Sadie, who’s leaning against the frame of the door I just came in through. Without the hat, coat, mask and gloves, and with the sleeves of her button-up rolled to the elbows, I can almost see just how much of her is machine; from just above the wrist down on the right side, about half her entire neck and across her shoulder all the way down on the left, and a huge chunk of the left side of her head, including the eye.

With all that damage, it’s a miracle she even survived that accident.

“You ain’t catchin’ up to him, if that’s what yer thinkin’,” she says gently, human eye dark with sympathy. “And he don’t want you followin’ him. Said as much when he left.”

“He said... What else did he say?” I almost can’t get the question past the clog building in my throat. The sympathy in Sadie’s gaze deepens, burning me with a terrible feeling of dread.

“Said to apologise for him,” she answers softly. “Said to tell you he won’t be botherin’ you no more.”

“Gavin...” Eli lays his hand on my shoulder, gripping tightly. “It’s too late; even if you left now, you wouldn’t get there in time. He said you-”

Oh fuck... No. No no no...

“In time?” I cut in, voice cracking with sudden horror. “In time for what?”

Neither of them says anything aloud, but the sudden tension in Eli’s frame and the way Sadie averts her gaze says more than enough to make my gut plummet.

“He left to die.” My gaze jumps to Chloe, who refuses to meet it, LED spinning red.

“Chloe,” Eli scolds sharply. She shakes her head, and he turns back to me. “That’s not what he said-”

“I’m sorry, Gavin,” she continues, speaking over him. “I tried to stop him... The android body dump. That’s where I would go. I’d remove my pump and wait to shut down.” She glances up then, and I get the feeling she’s considered this before.

I can’t speak.

Shrugging off Eli’s hand, I shoulder past him and wrap her in a tight hug. She jolts slightly, and then slowly returns it, slender hands resting against my back.

“Thank you,” I whisper, and kiss her cheek as I pull away.

“Cowboy.” Sadie tosses a handgun at me. “Watch for Scavs.” I acknowledge her with a quick nod even as I’m twisting past her, barely glancing at the Taurus before shoving it in the back of my waistband.

“Chloe, Butter and Crystal wandered off,” I call over my shoulder.

“I’ll find them,” she calls back before I can say anything else, and I leave it at that.

I don’t have any time to waste.

――

“Nines!” I’ve been shouting his name for the past five minutes, scrambling over junked androids and trying not to imagine shredded bodies suddenly powering up and reaching for me; I’ve got enough nightmares to deal with.

Another Scav trips around a pile of ‘droid parts, hissing as it tries to get to me, and I hardly bother to even look as I draw the Taurus, thumb the safety, and pop it between the eyes.

“Nines!” I call out again. Still no answer, of course.

I’m too late.

I know I am, but I can’t stop.

I can’t stop searching. I can’t stop shouting for him. I can’t.

“Nines, answer me!”

I’m a fucking idiot, but I just can’t... I can’t let him go.

Not like this.

I clamber up on top of a pile, and part of me is glad to see there’s a drop off on the other side; I can see far more of the dump from here.

“Nines!” I look around for any sign of movement, any signal that he’s here. “Nines, you fucking dumbass tin can, don’t do this to me... Nin-”

Something gives under me, suddenly, and I drop like a goddamn stone, tumbling down the steep slope and battering every part of my body by the time I finally stop moving.

Fucking shit, that hurt!

A low groan drags from my throat as I push up to my hands and knees, wincing at every twinge. I carefully sit back on my heels and tilt my head back to the darkening sky, blinking back the burn of threatening tears.

“Shit...” I hiss, gritting my teeth and forcing through the pain to stand.

I can’t stop.

It’s only a few minutes later that I stop. To stare.

“Nines...” My heart leaps to my throat, and the burn wins, vision blurring as I move again, taking off and stumbling my way over bodies to collapse beside the newest addition to the graveyard.

He’s sitting against the side of a sharp incline, slumped to one side with a blank expression and a dead gaze staring at nothing. His pump is clutched in one hand, the plate for his open chest torn off in the other.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” I growl, roughly scrubbing tears from my face and grabbing the pump from cold fingers. “Please... Please work...” Biting my lip, I check the pump and then push it carefully back into its slot.

Thank God he didn’t rip that out too, like he did to the RedBots.

Nothing.

I really am too late.

“Nines... Fuck, no, Nines!” Shifting closer, I touch a trembling hand to his cheek, as cold as his fingers. “Don’t do this to me, tin can; come on... Please...”

A raw sob chokes me, and I rest my forehead on his shoulder.

“Why?” I can’t raise my voice above a whisper, like anything louder will shatter me. “You know I can’t stand to see people die... Why did you...?”

Except it isn’t his fault.

It’s mine.

“...I did this... didn’t I? I ruined your heart. Damaged it. You had to remove it... because of me.” Chest aching, I sit back slowly, rubbing my hands over my face and clearing away tears so I can look at him.

Just look at him. Take him in.

I did that.

I killed Nines.

“There’s nothing I can say to make it better,” I say, choking on the words and sniffing. “Too little, too late.”

His lifeless gaze, fixed on the ground beyond his feet, is too much; reaching out, I tentatively brush his eyes closed. Then, because I’ll probably never get another chance, I do something I should have done a long time ago; cupping his cheek and tilting his head, I lean in and touch a faint kiss to his cool lips.

“I’m sorry,” I murmur, my breath reflecting off his lips and giving the illusion that he’s the one breathing. “I don’t love you. But I do care. And now I can’t show you that.”

Wishing I knew what to do, I turn and sit beside him, settling against his side.

Just for a moment, I’ll stay with him.

Chapter Text

A moment turns into the night; I fell asleep without meaning to.

Nightmares that have been held at bay by Buttermilk’s fur, or Crystal’s purring, or Nines’ gentle hand on my side run rampant through my mind now; with no one left to hold them back, they attack with a vengeance, threatening to destroy me.

Gunshots, red lights, screams, and ghostly eyes chase me constantly, hands grasping out of the darkness while I'm running through woods, out of buildings, over cars. One scene slides into the next with no transition that makes sense, mocking laughter beats at me every time I turn around, and always, always... He's gone.

I wake abruptly, frozen stiff with fear.

But not with cold.

Warmth radiates through my side, keeping the early morning chill away, though it can't do much of anything against the ice sliding through my veins.

I still can't breathe, and my mind in still locked in a loop of terror, despite how quickly the memory of my horrible dreams is fading. For a moment, I can only sit there and try to convince myself that there's nothing to be afraid of, until the ice in my blood thaws and I can sit up.

A warm hand catches my shoulder and draws me back.

“Stay. You're safe.”

I must still be dreaming...

“Nines...?” I breathe softly, terrified that if I look around, he'll be just as I found him, and I'll still be alone.

“Yes?” Warmth presses to my back and the arm snakes around my shoulders completely.

“I... I'm dreaming,” I whisper hoarsely, a thin tremble working down my spine. Closing my eyes tightly, I grab his arm and will myself to wake up so I don’t have to deal with the pain gnawing at my chest.

“Not anymore,” he says softly against the side of my neck. “But I might be.”

“You w- You were dead,” I manage, tightening my grip on his arm.

“I was deactivated,” he says, somewhere between a correction and agreement. “It isn't quite the same...”

That does it.

“Close enough!” I say sharply, jerking away from him and twisting around. My fist is up and balled so tight I can feel the joints protesting, but I can't bring myself to actually punch him, especially not when I catch the expression on his face of pure, hopeful adoration.

It's gone in an instant, though, as he schools his features into the nearly-blank mask I'm more used to; it happens so quickly, I'm not entirely sure I actually saw it.

A faint pulsing light catches my eye in the split second of hesitation, and my fist loosens as my gaze drops to his wide open chest, pump lighting and dimming in a steady rhythm that matches the beat of his ‘heart.’ The sight drives home just how close I came to losing him, for good, and a lump catches in my throat. I swallow it back and fall forward, grabbing him in a fierce embrace and curling my hands into his jacket to keep them from trembling.

“You fucking asshole,” I growl into his shoulder. “The hell were you thinking?”

“You aren’t supposed to be here,” he says softly, almost timidly, but his arms are tight around my chest, and I doubt he intends on letting go anytime soon.

“Hell froze over, tin can,” I mutter, knowing he’ll get it without me having to say it. He stiffens ever so slightly, and I feel the stutter of his pump through my chest. Then he tightens his hold on me almost painfully.

A clatter interrupts the moment, and I barely get a chance to register the direction from which it came before Nines makes a rough movement forward that knocks me down sideways on his lap; two shots clap loud in my ears, his attention on his target with fierce irritation.

He’s got my Taurus. Er, Sadie’s Taurus.

He didn’t even bring a gun out here. He really didn’t plan on ever coming back.

“I ought to shoot you, stupid ass tin can,” I growl, crossing my arms. The irritation melts away as his gaze drops to mine, brow cocked in amusement.

“For stealing your gun?” he scoffs. “This isn’t your gun. And I’m the better shot anyway.”

“So don’t go killing yourself, bastard!” I snap back, flipping him off and pushing out of his arms to stand up and smack the dust of the dump from my clothes.

I need to get out of here before what little, fragile control I have shatters, and I break down in tears again.

Nines climbs to his feet, wincing visibly and covering his pump; he looks like he might be sick, except that’s not possible for androids.

Is it?

“Hey... Are you okay?” I reach for his shoulder, and good thing, too; the moment he takes a step, his leg gives way and he tilts toward me. “Shit!” I catch him, holding him upright, and try not to let my terror show as I look him over. “Nines??”

“I... I need a new pump,” he mutters, a dazed and mildly pained expression flickering over his features.

“A ne- Okay, just hang on, okay? We’ll get you a new pump.” I pull his arm around my shoulders to support him, but he shifts away, crystalline gaze scanning the dump.

“I’ll be okay,” he dismisses. “We need to leave. Scavs.”

Chapter Text

It's snowing when we finally make it back to Elijah’s house. Light, wet snow that melts almost as soon as it hits the pavement.

For some reason, I find myself wondering if Scavs get cold. Hopefully, yes. Maybe that's why there have been less Scav attacks recently. I doubt it'll last long, though; won't be long till they figure out how to build fires and bundle up to keep warm.

Small drifts have piled up along the sides of the drive, and against tree trunks and the mailbox post, and an absolutely terrible, completely random and totally insane idea forms in my head.

“You sure you're doing alright, tin can?” I ask, pausing as though to look around for Scavs, and scooping up a wet handful of snow the moment he's not looking.

“I'm fine,” he says again, despite the hand still pressed to his chest.

Good enough.

Flicking my wrist with an expert twist, I score a perfect headshot, a watery splatter of snow dripping down the back of his head as he stops walking. Not quite sure what to expect, I keep an eye on him while I bend over to scoop up another small handful.

“You... are beyond crazy,” he mutters, exasperated, turning around and swiping water from his hair. “How can you possibly think getting to a snowball fight right now is a good idea? After all... that?” He waves his hand absently in the direction of the dump.

“I'm not thinking,” I say honestly, packing the snow into a tight ball and quickly grabbing another handful to add to it. “If I do, I might have a complete meltdown, so I'm avoiding it.”

“At least you're honest,” he sighs, shaking his head. “If you throw that at me...”

I throw it.

He snatches it mid air, but it practically disintegrates in his grip, scattering over the front of his jacket anyway. Pressing his lips in a thin line, he flicks the water from his hand, and I hold my breath, waiting for his retaliation.

“You really like pushing me, don't you?”

“Just a little bit, maybe,” I smirk, stepping forward to get some more snow.

My fingers are already cold, but so worth it.

Nines’ leg snaps up, and a spray of slush splashes up into my face. I give an embarrassingly high yip of surprise, stumbling back and swiping at my eyes. He chuckles lowly.

“Even weakened as I am, I can still kick your ass, detective.”

“Bitch,” I grin, grabbing another handful.

“That's ‘son of a bitch’ to you,” he retorts easily.

Thank God he's back to bantering. I know we've still got a long way to go before I'll trust him out of my sight again, but we're getting there.

“Unless you're offering to fuck me,” he adds, calmly stepping off the drive and reaching for the patch of mushy snow by Elijah's mailbox. “Then there are plenty of other words I'd rather you use.”

“In your dreams, android,” I scoff, pretending my chest doesn't tighten at the reminder that he's completely and stupidly in love with me. I throw another snow-slush-ball at him to distract myself, and he twists his shoulder easily out of the way, a pitying smirk curling his lips.

His hand doesn't move from the pump, which makes me worry that it's worse than he admitted, but before I can stop everything to find out, his other hand snaps forward in a perfect throw, and I get another whitewash before I even get a chance to see it leave his fingers.

“Give up, Gavin,” he chuckles while I wipe water from my eyes and give him a dark look.

He's been moving slower than usual. I could probably catch him. And the snow is picking up; there's a thin layer of fluffy white on the grass now. I might be able to shove him face first in the snow and give him a taste of what he's giving me.

Except... His pump. Would I damage it more if I tackled him right now?

“Don't even bother,” he snorts, scooping up another handful and leaving a trail of green in the speckled white. “Whatever you're planning, it won't work.”

Screw it.

I dart in, taking the four feet between us in a single lunging step, and almost slip when I adjust for his sidestep dodge.

I'll be honest, I didn't really expect it to work, but it did; he really is moving a lot slower than usual, and I catch him around the waist with no problem, taking us both to the ground. Immediately, I scrambled up and scrape mushy snow into his face.

“Hah! Gotcha, dumbass!” I grin.

Until I realise he's in pain; his teeth are gritted in a fierce grimace, eyes closed and both hands on his open chest.

Shit.

I fucked up big time.

I knew I shouldn't have done that!

“Nines?? Fuck, I'm sorry; I didn't... I mean, I wasn't...!”

Abruptly, I'm the one on my back, Nines straddling my thighs with his hands planted on either side of my head. Cold wet seeps in all up and down my back, and at my knees where I was straddling him a moment ago.

“Th'fuck??”

“I did warn you,” he smirks, absolutely no hint of pain remaining. Embarrassment floods hot up my neck and I'm tempted to punch him.

“You faked it, you fucking asshole!”

“Mm, I exaggerated,” he corrects, crystalline ice flicking downward minutely. I glance down even as regret filters into his expression and he shifts to cover his pump again, but not before I see the crack right down the middle of it, vibrant blue beading all along the length and trickling down to a seam. He sits back on my thighs, turning away.

“...Did I do that?” I ask softly, sitting up and reaching out to tug his hand away. He reluctantly allows me to, but doesn't look at me.

“No. I did; I broke it when I removed it. Not enough.”

Meaning, he tried to make it impossible to put the pump back in. Which I did anyway.

I trace my finger down the crack, smudging thirium over metal, and he shudders, catching my wrist.

“Don't...” he rasps, still not looking at me. “Please.”

There's a note in his voice that I can't quite place, and I don't stop him when he stands, or when he pulls me to my feet, covering his pump again.

“Let's go inside,” he says simply, turning away. “You need a hot shower and food.”

Lust. That's what it was.

By touching his pump like that, I turned him on.

Chapter Text

A hot shower was nice. Very nice. After dragging a promise from Elijah, on pain of death, to make sure Nines doesn’t leave while I’m occupied, and another from Sadie to make sure my ass of a brother keeps his promise, I took a long, hot shower. I didn’t question how Eli could possibly have hot water; I simply basked in the burning spray that chased away the chill I got from being outside.

Now I’m standing in the doorway of my room, staring at Nines, who’s sitting in the window with a book. An actual book, with physical paper pages and everything.

“Are you going to get dressed?” he asks, turning the page without looking at me. He’s reading far slower than I know androids are capable of, and I’m not sure if it’s because he’s damaged or because he’s taking his time.

Well, okay... He’s not damaged anymore; that was the first thing I made Eli do when we got inside, and despite the chill, I refused to leave the room until Nines had the entirety of his pump unit removed, cleaned, and repaired or replaced. And got a change of thirium. It took up most all day, but it was necessary for me to not go crazy.

“Or are you going to stand around in a towel until you catch a cold?” he continues. I scowl at him and go to my bag, grabbing a night shirt and pyjama pants; it’s too cold to sleep in just boxers.

“Chloe said Crystal and Buttermilk haven’t returned,” I speak up as I’m finishing up, tugging the shirt on. I hold my breath while I flip off the light and move back to the bed in the dark.

“Mm. I can’t.”

“Can’t what?” I already know what he means, and I sit heavy on the bed.

“You were going to ask if I could find them, the reverse of whatever Buttermilk did. I can’t. I’m not equipped for anything like that, nor am I of a model that can be equipped for that.”

Fuck.

I knew he would say that, but fuck.

It actually bothers me that Crystal isn’t here, purring loudly and giving me dirty looks when I don’t pet her enough. And it bothers me that Buttermilk isn’t here either, butting up against me and begging for me to bury my hands in his mane.

Quietly, I pull back the covers and crawl in, wishing I could have the comfort of at least knowing they’re safe.

A tickle at my nose causes a sneeze before I can stop it, and I swipe at my nose, pulling away cat hair.

Good Lord, Crystal must have shed all over my pillow before we left.

“Goddamnit, Crystal...” I growl, sitting up to swat cat hairs off my pillow and then flipping it over for good measure.

An ache gnaws at my chest at the reminder that Crystal loves sleeping in the space between my shoulder and neck. A nameless agitation follows, building restlessly, and I know already that I won’t be sleeping easy tonight.

After a long, tense moment, I sit up and look over at Nines, who’s still calmly reading. He doesn’t even need to turn on his eye glow. I take a breath, but the words won’t come out, because I know how inconsiderate they’ll sound.

“Generally, actually speaking is the best way to get a reply,” he notes lightly, glancing at me. The light of the moon outlines his features and gleams through the edge of one chip of crystalline ice, giving a stunning glow not unlike the synthetic glow he sometimes has.

“Jackass,” I mumble, giving him a dark look. “Just... I don’t... I’m not trying to... sound rude or whatever...”

“But...?” he prompts, cocking his head.

Screw it. If he takes it wrong, I’ll deal with it later.

“Get in the bed, tin can,” I command, knowing full well he’ll balk at first.

“I don’t sleep,” he reminds pointedly.

“Yeah, I know,” I scoff. “But I won’t be able to sleep if I’m not sure you’re in arm’s reach so I know you won’t run off in the middle of the night.”

And I need the comfort of someone’s presence to keep the nightmares at bay, but hell if I’m gonna say that out loud.

A soft blue glow burns deep in crystalline ice, and he gently closes the book, leaving it on the windowsill when he comes over to lay down on the empty side of the bed. As he does, his grey shirt settles in an odd way, reminding me that he doesn’t have a chest cover; Eli has a lot of spare parts, but somehow that isn’t one of them, and it’ll be awhile before he can fabricate one.

In other words, I’m gonna have to either hunt down scrap metal for him to use, or just find one myself.

“Does it hurt?” The words escape before I can stop them.

“Does what hurt?” he asks, tucking his hands behind his head and crossing his ankles. Questioning my own sanity, I lean over and lay my hand over his pump. He stops breathing.

“Being exposed,” I clarify.

“No. But it scares me a little,” he replies honestly, still not breathing. His pump beats in a calming rhythm against my palm, and I lay down without taking my hand away.

“Of something damaging it?”

“I suppose.” His voice is softer now, cautious, and the barest hint of desire is creeping in.

I should stop. I shouldn’t be touching his pump when I know how it affects him. But I can’t help myself. I don’t even really know why, but I need to feel him.

Yeah, having him close keeps the nightmares at bay, but there’s something else, and I can’t put my finger on it.

“It’s soothing,” I murmur, sleep tugging at me. His breathing resumes, calming me further, and I start drifting off, faster than expected.

I almost miss it when he moves a hand down to cover mine.

Chapter Text

Red. So much red.

Red eyes.

Red circles.

Red blood... Red blood.

My hands tremble.

Soaked.

Completely drenched!

No...

No. No no no nonono...

Bodies. Holes, everywhere.

I can’t...

I can’t save anyone.

I failed.

Again.

So much blood!

Red... turns blue.

Blue.

Vivid BLUE.

Suffocating.

No...

Crystalline ice.

Dead ice.

NO.

NINES!

“Gavin! It’s okay! It’s okay; I’m right here.” I can’t stop shaking, and I’m so cold, despite the thick blankets covering me, despite the warmth radiating off his body as he holds me firmly against his chest. “I’m okay; I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”

“You were dead...” The whisper barely makes it past my dry, aching throat.

How much have I been shouting?

“I’m a machine, Gavin,” he says softly. “I’m not alive to begin with.” Furious terror sweeps through me and I bolt upright, shoving away from him.

“Don’t say that!” It comes out a rasping whine, but I can’t bring myself to care.

I’m still trembling, still cold. The edges of my eyes tingle and I can’t breathe, no matter how many deep drags I pull in, no matter how quickly. Tears burn at my eyes.

Stupid.

I’m so stupid.

Stupid anxiety.

A sob chokes me, making it that much harder to breathe, and I wrap my arms tight around myself, curling into my knees and trying desperately not to fall apart.

The bed shifts and creaks; long legs settle on either side of me and strong arms loop around my shoulders, pulling me back against that broad, warm chest.

“I’m sorry,” he murmurs quietly into my neck, pressing a gentle kiss to sensitive skin despite the trickle of sweat tracking down my neck and back.

How am I sweating and still cold as fucking ice, still trembling no matter how I try to stop?

“You were dead,” I repeat weakly, putting as much emphasis into the word as possible to make sure he gets it, gets that he is alive, android or not.

He doesn’t respond now, just holds me.

I don’t know how long we stay like that, but my anxiety eases away so subtly that I don’t even notice; one moment I can’t breathe, and the next, I’m just exhausted. Leaning my head back on his shoulder, I slowly settle against him, taking comfort in the calming pulse of his pump against my spine.

――

I’m pretty much in the same position when I wake next; lying between Nines’ legs and tucked against his chest in a way that could only be more perfect if he had a chest cover so my shoulder blades aren’t being constantly jabbed by the top edge of the cavity where his pump is located. About the only difference is that at some point in the night, he moved us back to lean against the headboard.

To my surprise, he’s either got enough humanity to suffer morning wood, or the pressure of my back on his pump is enough to have stimulated him, because there’s no way I don’t recognise the thing poking against the small of my back.

I pretend not to notice, shifting carefully to look up at him. He’s breathing, so I fully expected him to be awake, but his eyes are closed, expression passive, and he doesn’t react when I move.

Standby, right?

He doesn’t do anything when I carefully push his arms down and crawl away from him, so I leave him while I go to the bathroom and then head to the kitchen for some water; I feel wrung out, like a worn old cloth twisted too many times, and I’m absolutely parched.

“Gavin.” I groan and shake my head, hoping that if I don’t respond, Eli will go away and leave me alone.

I don’t want to think right now; I just want some water, and then I want to go back to bed.

“Gavin, hold on,” Eli says persistently, swinging around in front of me just before I reach the kitchen. “I ne- Oh, geez, you look like shit... Did you sleep at all last night?”

Too done to even work up a reply, I just flip him off and push past him to enter the kitchen.

“Wait, Gavin; I need to show you something,” he says, following me.

“Later,” I growl, taking down a glass and filling it.

“It has to do with Richard.” The cup stops at my lips, and my fingers tighten painfully. Before I can recover, the glass snaps under my grip, spilling water and shards all over the counter and the floor.

“Shit...”

“Wow... Just leave it.” He grabs my shoulder and tugs. “Come here, I need to show you this.” I let him lead me toward his lab. “I was so focused on the samples we got at that laboratory, I didn’t even notice; Sadie pointed it out. And good thing too...” In the room, he gives a short, mildly irritated sigh and gestures at one of the screens on the wall.

Lines of both horizontal and vertical code are running up the screen, and random numbers and letters blink in and out of existence all over, with no particular pattern or organisation.

“...Should I know what I’m looking at?” I grumble. I’d have left already if he hadn’t said it was related to Nines.

“That’s your ‘droid’s code, cowboy,” Sadie says, yawning and running metal fingers over the unscarred side of her face. Even her cyber-eye looks tired; I doubt she slept at all last night, and oddly, that bothers me.

If Eli’s keeping her up...

“...And...?” I prompt, irritation mounting. “He’s a deviant; why is weird code a problem?” Instead of answering, Elijah goes to the computer and taps at another screen, bringing up a folder and opening a file that he flicks across to the screen directly beside the first. There’s more code on this one, but it’s a lot more ordered than Nines’ code, and faster.

“That’s Connor’s code,” Elijah explains. “Or rather, was; it’s a copy from the last time I had him hooked up to my system.”

“Look,” I sigh, scrubbing my hands through my hair and getting ready to leave, “I’m exhausted, and thirsty, and I just want to get some water and go back to bed. If you’re not going to explain this...”

“Your Nines,” Sadie cuts in, sounding as exhausted as I feel, or maybe that’s just the warp of her cyborg parts. “He’s more than just another deviant, cowboy.”

“What do you mean?” I ask, exasperated and just so done.

“He’s unstable,” Elijah says quietly. “Far more than any deviant code I’ve ever seen. And considering how screwed up some of these deviants get, that’s saying something. He’s losing it, Gavin. Not just the weird, human quirks of being a deviant; Richard is genuinely going crazy.”

I refuse to believe that.

“So fix it,” I dismiss, pushing aside the panic building in my chest, still close at hand after last night.

“I can’t,” Eli shakes his head. “I was up all night trying just to figure it out. Sadie tried to help, but...” Taking a deep breath, he lets it out slowly, not quite looking at me. “Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything left for me to do. I can’t even fix his body anymore. I mean, you saw him; I don’t have enough parts. I could maybe transplant his mind to an RK800 in storage, but even if I could do it without complications, without ruining him, he refused to even think about it. Gavin... I think you seriously need to consider-”

“Consider what?” I cut in, a spark of fury blossoming in the emptiness of blank shock overwhelming me. “Shutting him down? Killing him? I just risked my life to save him, you fucking asshole, and you want me to put him down? Like some kind of fucking rabid dog?”

I can’t. Without another word, I turn to leave.

“Gavin,” Eli calls after me, a shred of sympathetic pain in his voice making me falter just long enough. “If you don’t... he’ll crash. Maybe tomorrow, maybe ten years from now. It’s going to happen.”

“...Then I better make these ten years count.”

Chapter Text

Goddamn this fucking headache...

“You look even more like shit than yesterday,” Elijah says, sitting on the other end of the couch I’ve claimed in the library.

Goddamn that fucking headache too.

I don’t even know why I’m in here; he doesn’t have anything but techno-babble and dissertations.

“You okay?” he asks, genuinely concerned when I don’t reply. I grunt, which irritates my throat enough to make me cough. The jerking movements turn a throbbing headache into a splitting migraine, and it takes everything I have not to curse.

“Fine,” I manage, wiping the back of my hand across my mouth absently.

“You really don’t look fine,” he counters, moving closer.

“Then why’d you ask, dumbass?” I growl.

“Are you sick?” I shrug, not knowing or caring. I just want to be left alone. He reaches across to touch my forehead, ignoring my pointed glare, and frowns. “Fucking hell, Gavin, I could cook a steak on your head; you’re burning up! Where the hell is Richard? He should have noticed long before now!”

“I dunno... Reading, I think,” I mutter, pushing his hand away and curling into a tighter ball in the corner of the couch. “Hasn’t been doing much of anything since...” I don’t finish that thought, and mercifully Eli doesn’t pursue it.

“You need to take a shower and go to bed,” he says instead, standing.

“I took a shower yesterday,” I complain, not wanting to move.

“Day before yesterday,” he corrects, “and if you’re sick, it’ll help, so stop whining and do what I tell you for once.” He braces himself for an argument, but I’m too tired and shitty to care. Grumbling, I unball myself and heave to my feet, keeping my hand on the arm until the lightheadedness passes and my vision clears.

God, my head feels like it’s in a vise! And my throat is aching already, promising a lot more coughing fits.

“Shit, you must really be sick,” Eli says, shaking his head. “You haven’t even called me an asshole.”

“Asshole,” I huff, just to be annoying. He grins, rolling his eyes.

“Go take a shower; I’ll send Chloe to bring you something for the obvious headache.”

――

When I wake next, I’m pressed against Nines’ side. Considering how blank and quiet he’d been, I didn’t even bother to say anything to him after my shower when I came in to get some sleep, but sometime while I was out, he moved from his new perch in the window to sit beside me in the bed, and I must have cuddled up to him.

I should be embarrassed. Or maybe annoyed? I’m not sure, but I can’t be bothered to feel much of anything except like crap.

Groaning quietly, I burrow closer to him, sliding a hand across his lap to tuck it around his waist. He shifts slightly, pulling my pillow over and nestling it firmly behind my shoulders. Then he threads his fingers gently into my hair, stroking slowly.

Well, I get why Crystal and Butter love it so much. I’d purr too, if I had the equipment for it.

It’s really nice, actually. This. Just relaxing and basking in Nines’ warm presence. I doubt I could get the same effect from a pillow and a heater.

“Why do you keep insisting you love me?” I mumble suddenly, almost without registering it as a thought before it’s off my lips. His fingers go still at the nape of my neck, and after a moment, I tip my chin down a smidge, pushing against his hand.

“Because I do,” he answers finally, voice soft as he continues stroking my hair.

“Why?” I mutter, whatever bug I’ve caught giving me a boldness and honesty I normally don’t show. “I’m a jackass at the best of times, even to the people I like. I’ve been worse to you.”

“Mm. I knew before I met you that you could be... difficult.” A snort cuts past my nose.

“Understatement...” I manage before a coughing fit wracks me. His hand slides down my neck to my back and he presses his fingers in, rubbing firm circles.

“And you have been troublesome at times,” he goes on, not acknowledging my sarcasm. “You’ve purposely pestered me to get a rise, and done things for no other reason than to annoy someone, especially me, and for everything that’s said, you have a snarky response at the ready.”

“You must be a masochist,” I note blandly, shifting a little and snuggling against his hip.

“Case in point,” he hums, a note of amusement bleeding into his tone. “But you’re also selfless, and giving, and you do care, regardless of what you say. A lesser man would have walked away the moment I shut down when we first arrived, would have scoffed at Elijah and left instead of helping him break into apartments and steal androids. You didn’t have to go after him either, but you did.”

“I don’t turn my back on family,” I mutter, uncomfortable now.

“And that is exactly why I love you.” God, I can feel him smiling... “One of many reasons.” He sets his book down and tucks his hand under my chin, tipping it so I have to look at him, or else awkwardly keep my eyes closed. “Believe it or don’t; that won’t change how I feel about you, even if it kills me to be so close to you and unable to touch you.”

“You are touching me, stupid tin can,” I growl, pushing his hand out of the way so I can cough again.

“Not the way I want to.” I don’t answer that; I can’t, not without encouraging him or breaking his heart. Again.

Would that really be so wrong, though? Encouraging him, I mean; obviously I’m not going to destroy him again, not after I almost lost him once.

Honestly, doesn’t it say a lot already that I’m desperate not to lose him again?

The problem is, I don’t know what it says. And the more I try to figure it out, the more confused and irritable I get.

Nines picks up his book again, and I push everything aside for now; thinking while I’m sick isn’t going to get me anywhere.

Chapter Text

Three days later and I’m still sick.

Thank God I can actually talk again without my throat just giving up every other word, and getting up doesn’t make my head feel like it’s gonna explode, nor do I feel like I’m about to heave up the entire contents of my stomach and my intestines too every time I try to even sip some water.

I legitimately felt like I was dying, so I’m beyond glad it’s over.

Until a pounding from the front door jolts me painfully from the doze I fell into in the sitting room. Tugging my blanket tighter around me and cradling my pounding head, I let out a low groan because I can’t quite make it a growl. Sadie, who’s sitting on the floor across from me, tinkering with her mail-drone, laughs huskily.

“You’re adorable when you’re sick, cowboy,” she chuckles, even as Elijah calls out from the other room, asking Orchid who’s at the door.

“Someone for Gavin,” Orchid replies after a moment’s pause. I scowl up at the ceiling, irritable and perplexed.

“Me?” I croak. “Who...?” I break off in a coughing fit that leaves me whining in pain.

“I think it’s best if you see for yourself,” Orchid says simply when I’ve finished. Nines appears in the doorway a moment later, looking almost as annoyed as I feel. Sighing, I uncurl and slowly stand to make my way to the front door, doddering like an old man.

“Who the hell would be out in a storm like this?” Elijah frowns, hovering in the door to his lab, where he’s been holed up for the past three days; I don’t know or care what he’s working on at this point.

“Not a Scav,” I grunt. Really, it’s been coming down hard since last night, so I doubt any human could withstand it for very long, warped or not; so long as I’m not about to get my face chomped off by a bloodthirsty Scav, I couldn’t care less who’s at the door, and more than likely, I’m gonna take one look and slam the door closed again, because I’m not dealing with shit.

I open the door, and...

Buttermilk nearly bowls me over. If it wasn’t for Nines standing right behind me, he would have; as it is, I collapse against Nines’ chest as Butter growls eagerly and nuzzles me.

“Butter?? Wh-” I break off, partly because my throat breaks again, and partly because I catch sight of who else is here. “The fuck are you are you doing here?” My voice cracks like a kid in puberty, but I can’t bring myself to care through the shock and irritation of seeing none other than RK1000 standing there so casually, snow dusting his hair and shoulders in thick white poofs, arms wrapped carefully around his middle as though he’s cold, though I know for a fact androids don’t feel temperature.

“Get out.” The fierce, protective growl bursts out of Nines, and he snatches me back against his chest just as I’m trying to right myself, knocking my back painfully against the edge of his pump cavity.

“Ow! Nines!” I squeak, trying vainly to wiggle free. 1K watches passively for a moment, and I look up to glare at Nines, only to find him glaring at 1K, a faint red glow burning through the crystalline ice in a way that actually scares me. I stop moving and instead opt for a different tact. “Nines... You’re hurting me.”

He still doesn’t let go. Rather, he pulls me tighter against his chest, ignoring my hiss of pain and Buttermilk’s low growl of warning. 1K suddenly snatches Nines’ arm, pulling just enough to let me put about an inch of space between my back and Nines’ chest, to my utter relief.

Unfortunately, now the two of them are at a standstill, each refusing to give. I could swear I see literal sparks between them.

“You caught me off guard last time,” 1K says lowly, his deep, sultry voice sending an involuntary shiver down my spine. One that Nines doesn’t miss; he gives another growl of his own, but 1K clearly isn’t intimidated in the slightest. “You’re weaker now than you were then, and you no longer have the element of surprise. I could tear you apart without even trying. Let. Him. Go.”

Okay, on the one hand, thank you 1K. On the other, hell no; I’d rather suffer a little pain than have anything to do with the android that fucking kidnapped me.

But I don’t even get a chance to say anything; Nines bares his teeth in a snarl, but lets go of me, twisting his hand out of 1K’s grasp in the process.

Fine. It is what it is; I’m not touching that rivalry with a ten-foot pole.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” I demand again, glad that my voice doesn’t crack a second time. 1K’s gaze drops to mine, the barest hint of a glow deep, deep in his eyes, so scarily similar to Nines’. Then, thankfully, he looks away, down to where his arms are wrapped around... something. It’s not just himself, like I initially thought; there’s a bulge in his jacket, and when he carefully opens it, I almost choke on the lump that leaps into my throat.

“Crystal!” It comes out a whine as I lunge forward, dropping my blanket, to dig her quickly out of 1K’s arms. She hardly stirs, and panic wells up in my chest. “What’d you do to her??”

“She’s sick,” he answers evenly, pointedly ignoring Nines’ glare. “I searched the library for cures, but nothing I did helped, so I brought her back.” I look up, perplexed, cradling Crystal close to my heart and inwardly praying desperately that she’ll be alright.

“Why?” I can’t stop myself from asking. He cocks his head in vague confusion, the most emotion I’ve seen out of him, ever.

“Grief is harmful to one’s mental state, is it not? I knew that you would grieve if Crystal died, and I couldn’t allow that, so I did what I could, and when I failed, I did what needed to be done.”

Dear God, I’m actually grateful. Without a word about what he did, I shoulder past Nines and hurry back into the warmth of the house, raising my voice as best I can to call for Sadie; she did a decent job nursing me back to health, so maybe she can do the same for Crystal? I really, really hope so.

Chapter Text

“She'll be alright,” Sadie assures me for the third time. “She just needs some warmth and lots of food.” I'm still not a hundred percent sure, but I've given up arguing with her.

Crystal mews plaintively when I scratch both sides of her neck and press a firm kiss to the top of her head, but she also purrs, so I put it down to her being a drama queen, as usual. Not that it really makes me feel any better when she gives a wet sneeze.

“I'm sorry I yelled at you, sweetheart,” I murmur, kissing her head again. “I love you, baby girl; I promise.” She licks my hand, and I take it as an acceptance of my apology, relieved that she's home and safe.

Sadie makes a throaty humming sound of amusement and brushes her hand lightly over Crystal’s ear.

“Didn't know you had such a soft side, cowboy,” she notes teasingly.

I really do, don't I? At least when it comes to Crystal and Buttermilk, who's curled up at my feet.

“You know, when I found her, she was so thin,” I say quietly. “She took to me instantly, but I gave her a can of tuna, so it's no surprise. Maybe she just stays because of the food, or maybe I really did bond with her; I don't know. But I do know I love her. She reminds me a lot of a cat I had when I was little, Dusty. He was a brat, and hated everyone, even me, but he was loyal, and he was mine. After he died, I couldn't bring myself to replace him until after I moved out, and by then, with my job, I couldn't... I didn't have time. I was always working, never home; didn't have the time to take care of a pet, of any kind.” My dry throat gives up then, but it’s fine, because I don't have anything else to say.

“If I didn't know how much you hate bein’ sick, I'd say you should be sick more often,” Sadie chuckles. I give her a narrow look, and she just grins. “Darlin’, you've just been more honest about yerself than I've ever seen you, and it looks good on ya. You should try it with your ‘droids.”

“You mean the morons who fight over me like a goddamn toy?” My voice cracks on the last word, and I break into another coughing fit. She rubs a hand gently over my back until I finish.

“You tried telling them how you feel?”

“Like they'd listen,” I grumble, dragging the blanket tighter around my shoulders and draping it over Crystal's back too. She shifts and leans over against my stomach, purring lowly.

“How d'you mean?” Sadie presses, leaning on the back of the couch.

“I mean, 1K is a fucking robot, with no emotion whatsoever, and no regard for anything I want, and Nines is so lost in his pity party of unrequited love that he can't even see past his jealousy long enough to know how much he'd affecting me!”

“Affecting you how?” she asks curiously, real brow lifting. Her cyber-eye flares and tightens, refocusing, and I stare at it for a short moment, organising my thoughts so I can rant properly.

“I care about him, I really do, and I'm long past trying to pretend I don't; I hated androids for the longest time, but he changed that, and now all of the sudden it's like... like he changed with that, like... I don't know; it's like the bar for what he wants from me keeps rising, and every time I feel okay with reaching up to grab it, it yanks up out of my reach again.” Clearing my throat so I don't dissolve into another coughing fit, I shake my head, staring absently at Buttermilk's mane. “I mean, I already... I can't believe I'm actually saying this, and that I actually mean it... I already like androids now. More than I did, anyway; I get what Eli was aiming for when he finally presented Chloe to the world, and I think maybe... maybe it was worth it. Maybe, with Connor and Jericho, and all the rallies for peace and equality... Maybe it could have been something good. A partnership. But with Pulse, I think that even more. I think androids and humans get along better now than they ever could or would. So it irritates the fuck out of me that he wants more! And with the bullshit of being around Eli twenty-four-seven, I just don't want to deal with Nines brooding all the time like a goddamn teenager.”

“So he should come up and say it outright?” she prompts, rubbing at her cyber-eye and adjusting it slightly.

“That’s the problem; he has,” I grumble, burying my fingers in the soft fur of Crystal's scruff to distract myself even as heat creeps up into my cheeks. “But I don't feel the same way about him that he feels about me. And...” I hesitate then, worried about how it might sound if I speak my fear out loud, but Sadie's been remarkably understanding, and I desperately need reassurance on this. “Honestly, I think the fact that I don't reciprocate is half the reason he's going crazy to begin with.”

“Really?” Sadie's brow rises again, in surprise this time.

“I mean, yeah; what else would it be? Connor's not going crazy, and he's got a complete fucking relationship with Hank, literally, fucking included. There isn't enough bleach in the world to clean my mind of what I saw, good God...”

“So you think he's losin’ it because yer an idiot?”

“I- w- no; what?” I scowl at her, perplexed and only mildly annoyed, surprisingly. “What do you mean, I'm an idiot?”

“I mean, yer an idiot,” she repeats, lips curling up into a smirk on the unscarred side. “You gotta be the most oblivious man on the face of the planet, cowboy. So oblivious, in fact, that I'd love to give you a mirror every time you look at that boy.”

“You're not making any sense, Cyborg,” I huff. Her smile tightens, amusement dimming, and I make a mental note to clear that word completely out of my dictionary.

“I mean,” she pushes, not giving up regardless, “that despite insistin’ you ain’t got a thing for him, you were cuddled up mighty cozy-like when I dipped in to check on you yesterday. Given the fuss you put up whenever I tried to touch you, just to clean the sweat off yer brow, I think that kinda says some’n, don’t it?”

I open my mouth to argue...

And nothing comes out. Despite my persistent belief that I absolutely don’t love Nines, I somehow can’t actually say the words. Frowning, I wet my chapped lips and try again.

Still nothing.

I had no problem saying it in the damn dump!

But then... There was no one there to hear it, was there?

Fuck, does that mean...?

No way. I’ve settled this already; I care, but I don’t love him.

I can’t possibly love an android, even one as deviant as Nines.

“Well,” Sadie sighs, sitting back and adjusting something on her cyber-eye. “I guess there’s only so much honesty I can get outta ya when you can’t even be honest with yerself. Sorry, Nines.” My head jerks up to give her a momentary look of shock before whipping around fast enough that my neck twinges painfully, just in time to see Nines turn the corner of the doorway, looking completely stunned and rather confused, a faint hint of sheepishness creeping in beneath that.

“How did you...?” he begins, gesturing aimlessly toward where he must have been hidden, listening in.

“Darlin’, how many times am I gonna have to say it?” she laughs, the two-toned sound helping ease me out of my own shock without blowing a fuse. “This eye o' mine can see through walls, if I tune it right. Y’all keep acting like this is somethin’ new; I only told you, what, four times now?”

“How-” I cough a couple times and clear my throat, glancing up at Nines and looking quickly away. “How, uh, long have you been...?”

“Since you started ranting about my pity party,” he answers quietly, not looking at me either.

Great. Just fucking great.

“Sadie?”

“‘Sup, cowboy?”

“I hate you.” She laughs again.

“You’re welcome, darlin’; any time.”

Chapter Text

“Do you need something, Gavin?”

God, his voice...

“That's ‘Detective Reed’ to you, microwave,” I grunt, refusing to let 1K's voice distract me.

“Detective Reed,” he amends, eyes opening. He's been sitting in the same place for days now. Ever since he got here, he's done literally nothing but kneel perfectly in the foyer, not far from the front door. He didn't respond to anyone or anything, either; Eli tried talking to him, tried commanding him, even tried to hook him up, failing miserably. Chloe tried connecting with him, also failing. Even Sadie gave it a shot; nothing.

And now that I've recovered almost completely, except for this persistent cough, Eli practically begged me to try. He thinks the ‘droid has information that could help make sense of some data he's dicking around with in regards to the whatever was going on at that lab 1K was protecting. Since I'm getting mildly curious now, and it's a way to avoid talking to Nines a little longer, it didn't takes much convincing on Eli's part.

“What can I do for you, Detective?” 1K asks simply, watching me steadily.

Thankfully, Eli gave me enough of a rundown on what he's learned so far that I'm not going into this blind.

“I know we went over this,” I start slowly, crouching beside him but keeping some distance, just in case. “I'm not exactly expecting a different answer, but I'm gonna ask anyway... What were you doing at that lab in Greyling?”

“That's classified,” he replies without hesitation, as expected.

“Were you ordered to keep anyone from finding out what was going on there?” I press, slipping comfortably back into the role I wore for so many years. It's a welcome change to the chaos I've been dealing with lately.

“That's classified,” he says, in the same exact tone.

“Alright then, tell me about the serum,” I coax, refusing to give up now that I'm back in my comfort zone.

“You'll have to clarify, Detective; what serum?” he returns easily, giving no sign that he knows or doesn't know anything. That's the problem with grilling androids; they don't have emotions to play off of.

“The mixed blood serum,” I answer lightly, trying to goad him into thinking I have enough of the answer already that it doesn't matter how much is classified.

“I'm not sure to what you are referring, Detective.”

“Don't lie to me; that's an order,” I say, letting my irritation show for a moment before reeling it back in. “Tell me about the serum.”

“I am not lying; I can’t lie. I have no knowledge of any serums in relation to the Greyling lab.”

“Then you aren't gonna be able to follow your sub-programme patch very well, are you?” I scoff, making it as offhanded a remark as I can and shaking my head at him. His LED spins yellow for an instant, and if I didn't know any better, I'd say he looks a tad bit concerned.

“Excuse me?”

“What?” I blink at him, feigning confusion, like I don't know he heard me.

“Are you in danger, Detective Reed?” he asks, suddenly insistent, leaning toward me. I cock a brow at him.

“Am I?” Turn it back on him; make him conflicted... If I can force him to be torn between obeying the patch and obeying the command, maybe... Just maybe...

He goes quiet for a long moment, and I wait patiently, knowing the silence is good, that he’s thinking; his LED rotates blue and yellow, and at one point flickers red. Then it settles back on blue, and he blinks.

“I... don't know what to do, Detective. I cannot leave you unprotected, and therefore must tell you what little I know...” So close, but he's already hesitating.

“...but...?” I prompt.

“But I am incapable of disobeying my primary directive. And even were I capable, I would invalidate the very reason for my existence; I would have no choice but to shut down, permanently, which would leave me unable to protect you.”

It's a statement of fact, not an apology. All of it. He's a pure android, nowhere near deviancy, according to Elijah.

So why do I get the feeling he's lost? In fact, he almost reminds me of the way Connor acted in the days leading up to that massive showdown between Jericho and CyberLife.

Have I just made him unstable?

This is good. This is very good. If I can push him into deviating, maybe we can actually get something from him. The only problem is, I have no idea how to do that.

Oh dear God... I'm certifiably insane.

“If I tell you to do something that won't violate any of your existing commands, will you obey?” I ask, standing. He cocks his head curiously up at me.

“Of course.”

“Good. Follow me.” Without waiting to see if he does, I go straight back to Elijah's lab.

“Hey,” he greets when I enter, glancing up. “Did you- oh. Uh, Gavin...?”

“Just shut up a moment.” Ignoring him, I go to the little glass cabinet on the desk across from the computers and open it up, taking out one of the little vials of goop Elijah gathered at the Greyling lab.

“Gavin, what are you doing?” Elijah demands, panic rising in his voice. Sadie and Nines appear in the doorway almost the next instant, and Nines pales when he sees me grab a syringe. Before anyone can do anything, I've already got a good inch of the stuff in the syringe with the needle aimed vaguely into the crook of my elbow.

“Gavin, no! Please!”

“The hell you doin', cowboy??”

Everyone's shouting at me, except 1K who's simply staring at me, LED spinning red and yellow, and horrified understanding in his expression.

Definitely the most emotion I've seen from him yet.

“SHUT UP!!” I roar to get everyone's attention. Silence falls instantly, and I return my focus to 1K. “You have two choices, light bulb; tell me what I want to know about the Greyling lab, or I go ahead and find out some answers myself. How long do you it'll take this serum to kill me? It's basically half thirium, half human blood, so my guess is, I'll probably be in agony for a couple days, maybe a couple weeks, slowly wasting away because my body can't handle it.”

Elijah starts muttering curses, turning back to his computer, presumably to figure out a way to reverse my stupidity if and when I go through with it. Chloe's tucked into the corner, pure horror etched into her expression, one hand pressed to her mouth and tears shining in her eyes. Sadie is just staring at me in complete and total shock, and Nines...

My heart leaps to my throat at the desperation in his eyes. He's silently begging me not to do it, and I'm so beyond tempted to put the syringe down and find another way to push 1K over the edge. Holding his gaze, I start to do just that.

The next instant, 1K has one hand on my wrist, the other covering my arm, pushing the syringe far away from my skin.

“Stop!” he snaps, sultry voice ragged now. I blink at him, startled, and he quickly wrenches the syringe from my hand, holding it out of reach. “Don't... it won't kill you, but one of us will have to.”

Hell yeah! It worked!

Then it actually registers, what he said, and my stomach drops.

Shit... It must be worse than we thought.

“What do you mean?” I ask, already dreading the answer.

“This mix. It won't kill you,” he says again, stepping back and keeping the syringe far out of reach. “It will ruin you, turn you into a bloodthirsty monster with no regard for where you get that blood. It will make you one of them... The Scavengers.”

Chapter Text

I’ve taken over Nines’ spot on the windowsill in my room ― our room ― when he finds me. The entire world is a blanket of white in vaguely recognisable shapes, and I keep staring at the pure view, not looking up when he leans his forearm on the frame over my head.

“Are you okay?” he asks softly. I scoff and tuck my arms a little tighter around myself, sparing him a quick, sceptical glance before looking back at the winter wonderland outside.

“I should be asking you that,” I retort lightly, my usual snark still evading me despite my recovery from whatever bug I caught. The honesty thing must still have a hold on me too, because I don’t even think before I add, “I could have handled that better; sorry for scaring you.”

He goes quiet for a long moment. Really quiet; he stops breathing, even. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice him start to reach out, but he stops himself and stuffs his hand in his pocket instead.

“It’s a little mindblowing, isn’t it?” he muses aloud, tone deceptively calm and casual. “That CyberLife was trying to perfect cyborg technology to enhance humans.”

“Is that what it was?” I hum passively. I vaguely heard what Sadie and Eli were discussing after 1K’s big reveal, but I’m hoping that if I get him talking about this, then Nines will eventually say what’s really on his mind.

“Mm. Sadie’s still gushing like a kid in a candy store,” he says, shifting to sit on the other side of the sill, across from me. I pull my knees up so my feet are out of his way, but no sooner has he seated himself then he takes my ankles and pulls them on to his lap, settling his back against the window and gently massaging my feet. I’d kick him, but it actually feels... kind of amazing.

“I guess a perfected combination of human and android blood would be an upgrade for her, wouldn’t it?” I sigh, relaxing against the window sash.

“Upgrade indeed,” he grunts, shaking his head. “They wanted all the perks of being an android without losing their humanity. How much of it did they lose in the process? Now that I know what happened to the Scavs, it almost feels wrong to have killed them so carelessly.”

“Don’t beat yourself up about it,” I say, nudging his hip with my free foot.

“I can’t stop thinking about it,” he insists, glancing across at me with an expression I know all too well; I’ve seen it countless times in the mirror. “Can you imagine being so poisoned that your entire biology changes in order to fix it? That desperation for blood is just their attempt to replace the thirium part with more human cells, to replenish what’s missing in the vain hope that it’ll help them get better. I’m not surprised they’re half crazed whenever they smell blood.”

“Nines,” I cut in sharply, pulling my feet away so I can lean closer and make sure he’s focusing on what I say. “Stop dwelling on your regrets. Crazed or not, every single Scav you’ll killed would have killed you without a second thought. Kill or be killed. You just happened to be the one that survived. Take that as a win, don’t look back, and never, ever regret being alive.”

The words twist a visceral reaction from me as memories of days long past push back to the surface; memories of my horror the first time I shot and killed someone, of helplessly watching partners bleed out between my fingers, of coming on another murder scene and hating that I didn’t catch the bastard sooner.

Those memories must be playing across my face, because a sorrowful sympathy burns in crystalline ice as he gives in this time and reaches out to cup my jaw, drawing me forward into an awkward hug. I take comfort in his warmth for a moment, until I feel the telltale sting behind my eyes that precedes a breakdown, and then I push away, standing and wiping discreetly at my eyes while I take a deep breath and try fiercely to push down the thought that Nines is one of the many bodies I’ve stood over, and not just once, but three times.

Fuck, it feels like it’s been years since we made that first trek together... Was it really only a couple months ago?

I feel his heat a split second before he wraps his arms around my shoulders and touches a soft kiss to the back of my jaw, still apparently unbothered by the scruff.

I really need to just shave already.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers, surprising me.

“For what?” I frown, turning my head just a bit. He nuzzles into my neck, whether he’s trying to keep me from looking at him, or he’s just being inordinately touchy again, I can’t tell.

“Being a source of stress,” he replies, barely audible even right next to my ear. “I should never have confessed.”

My knee-jerk reaction is to reprimand him for being an idiot, maybe assure him that I would have dragged it from him eventually. But at the same instant that I get that urge, I realise suddenly that my reaction is positive.

Not that ranting at Nines is a good thing, however fun it can be at times; rather, my reaction wasn’t to agree, or to suggest we just sweep it under the rug and forget about it. Not even close; my reaction was just to comfort him.

Fucking hell, Sadie was right.

Goddamnit, woman...

And now that I can’t deny it anymore, I can actually see everything clearly, from the moment we met to now. While Nines might have been obsessed with me from the get-go, I’d bet my last dollar he didn’t really fall for me until... Well, the fall. The damned Leap of Faith out the window of that fucking apartment. His blatant remarks in the storm drain make so much more sense in that case.

Although, since he didn’t use the word ‘love’ until we left Greyling, he may not have realised it himself until around that time. Maybe when 1K ran off with me like a POW? That would explain his expression when it happened, and the fact that he basically refused to let me out of arm’s reach after rescuing me.

Now that my thoughts are clicking into at least a semblance of order, I don’t even have to think about it.

“You knew about the hickey, didn’t you?” I ask suddenly, pleased and mildly amused when he starts slightly.

“...Yes.” There’s a hint of a question in his voice, confusion about the sudden change of topic. “I was fully aware of everything you did.”

“I wanted to know if your skin would hold a mark, since it’s not real,” I explain, tugging lightly at his arms until he loosens his hold so I can turn and face him.

“I guessed as much,” he nodded, still confused but going with it. “It doesn’t, for the record.” At my frown, a faint smile quirks at his lips, the first one I’ve seen in a long time, and he reaches up to tug the collar of his turtleneck down so the side of his neck is exposed.

There, in the same spot where I left a mark so long ago, the same mark blossoms into being as I watch.

“If I had let it be, it would have faded within seconds,” he explains. “But the limited control I do have over my skin let me keep it as long as I wanted, and I can bring it back whenever I like.”

“Can you make new marks?” I ask suspiciously, eying him narrowly. He snorts.

“Of course not. I can only hide or reveal marks that have already been made.”

“Good.” Without another word, I grab the back of his neck and yank him down to kiss him heatedly.

Startled, he doesn’t react for a half second, and then he gives a low groan that rumbles through this chest as he drags me against him, returning the kiss so fiercely that I have trouble breathing after a moment. When I have to break away for oxygen, he rests his forehead on mine, hesitant and perplexed.

“Take off your shirt,” I say shortly when I can breathe again. “I’m going to mark you as mine, and I expect you to keep it visible.”

Chapter Text

Hunger flares in crystalline ice, and he doesn’t hesitate to pull the turtleneck up and over his head, dropping it distractedly to the floor when I touch my hands to his shoulders. Before I can talk myself out of it, I lean in and bite down carefully on the muscle of his shoulder.

It has more give than I was expecting; being made of metal, I half thought I would break a tooth biting him, but it gives enough to feel like biting a really stiff stress ball. Tastes infinitely better, though.

A shudder runs through him, and I pause.

“I thought you couldn’t feel pain,” I murmur, nipping as he grabs my hips.

“I can’t,” he growls, sparking a startlingly hot twist of need in my gut. “Doesn’t mean I can’t feel, period.”

“What do you feel?” I ask, inanely curious, as I let my hands slide down his arms, feeling for myself.

Jesus Christ, he’s got muscle... Or at least he’s been built to seem like it.

“You.” He drags me close again, pump thumping hard against my chest. “Everywhere you touch, I feel heat; sparks. If I didn’t know thirium is flame-resistant, I’d be concerned.”

I can’t help it; I bark a laugh, mirth bubbling up into the emptiness I’ve been sulking in since the dump.

“Real sexy, tin can,” I scoff, sliding my hands back up so I can tangle them in his hair and tug him down for another kiss.

That breathless feeling is kinda addicting.

Cool fingers slide up under my hoodie, caressing my lower back, and I shift automatically away from the slight chill, which grinds my hips against his. Surprisingly, he’s not hard; considering the rest of his reactions, I expected it.

Hell, I’m at half mast as it is.

He hasn’t reacted to the grinding either.

Shit.

Am I doing something wrong?

“Nn... You’re not exactly boosting my confidence here,” I manage around his lips, trailing a hand quickly down to his crotch. “Don’t tell me after all that, this is defective.” He gives a soft snort, pulling back just a little to grimace ruefully at my hand on him.

“Sort of... I turned off my arousal program.”

Okay then. So, not me.

“Uh, why?” I ask, baffled that any male would want to turn off his sex drive, android or not. The look he gives me could dry up all five lakes.

“You’ve been sick,” he points out blandly. “And abnormally handsy. I’m not entirely in control of myself, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to test that control.”

Talk about a turn off... The reminder that he’s on the edge of literal insanity because of me is more than enough to shrivel my balls.

“Shit... God, I’m a fucking ass...” Grabbing him around the shoulders, I hug him tightly, hating myself for being a total dick recently.

Between actually driving Nines crazy, chasing off Buttermilk, snapping at Crystal, and purposely trying to make 1K unstable, I’m honestly surprised anyone is still near me.

An idea occurs to me, and I pull away abruptly.

“Hold on; stay right here,” I say quickly, going across the room and poking out the hall door to make sure no one is close enough to hear anything. Then I close and lock the door, opening the door to the bathroom and whistling for Buttermilk.

He’s been in standby mode or something because he hasn’t so much as twitched this entire time, but the moment I whistle and call him, he perks up and comes trotting over. After urging him into the bathroom and telling him to stay, I close that door too.

“Okay, if you breathe a word of what happens from here on, I will deny it to my dying breath, and I will never speak to you again,” I warn, going to the bed and dropping a pillow to the floor so I can gently move Crystal out of the way. She mewls a protest, but she’s still pretty weak from her own sickness, so once I set her on the pillow, she curls up again, purring softly.

Stripping to briefs, I crawl into the centre of the bed, extremely aware of Nines’ intent gaze following my every movement. I lay back and prop myself up on my elbows so I can meet his gaze before I start second-guessing myself.

“Not a word,” I say again, waiting tersely. He nods without hesitation.

“I swear; not a word,” he promises, taking an abortive step forward and swallowing visibly. I’d say it’s just for effect, but the blink of his pump is faster than normal, and he’s breathing in a way that’s just too human; I don’t even think he realises quite how human he’s acting right now.

“Then come claim me,” I offer, my own heart racing and my brain screaming at me that this is a bad idea; a terrible idea. Ignoring it, I lock gazes with crystalline ice and refuse to look away. “I left my mark on you, now make your mark on me.”

Chapter Text

I'm not sure I even saw him move; he could easily have rivaled 1K's speed with the time it takes him to practically pounce on me. He presses me down on the bed with his hands on my shoulders, wedging his knee between my thighs as his mouth assaults mine, tongue dancing between my lips and tracing along mine with a faint desperation that mimics the need etched into my chest when he scrapes his nails firmly over skin. The scratching leaves little sparks behind, just like he was talking about, and they burn straight through my gut to my groin, bringing back my erection with a vengeance. A low groan escapes me as I rest my hands on his thighs so I don't embarrass myself by trying to touch him all over, and he responds with a deep growl that sends shivers all the way down to my toes.

Shit, that's hot...

I'm so used to being the dominant one that the idea of giving him complete control is enticing and oddly arousing.

“Fuck, Nines,” I pant when he finally lets me breathe, kissing and nibbling his way down my neck and stoking the heat in my gut. “Mark me already; you're driving me crazy with all the teasing.”

“You think this is teasing?” he rumbles, scraping his teeth over a spot about midway down my neck, readying to stake a claim that'll be impossible to hide. “You have no idea what teasing is; the things I could do to you...”

Dear God, I might just fucking blow before we get to the good part; the promise in his voice goes straight to my cock, and I know he doesn't miss the twitch of want against his leg.

“Mark me, tin can,” I breathe, trying very hard not to give in to the pressure building in my groin. “Claim me.”

“Which one?” he hums, digging his fingers almost painfully into my hips. “Those are two very different things.” To emphasise his point, he nips sharply at my neck and then lowers himself to grind his hips against mine.

He must have turned it back on, because he's definitely sporting a hard on now.

God, it's huge... Even just feeling it through his jeans, I know it could rip me in half with ease.

Surprisingly, I don't think I'd mind.

“Oh fuck... both,” I decide, grinding back. Might as well; no way I'm gonna be able to stop thinking about it now anyway.

“Are you sure?” he asks hesitantly, pushing up to look me in the eye. “Is that really what you want?”

“I said so, didn't I?” The assurance works, and grateful excitement lights his gaze as he shifts to cup my jaw.

“You can say no at any time and I'll stop, I swear.”

“I know. Now fuck me up.”

He attacks my mouth again, bracing with one arm while the other hand goes down to undo his jeans. I grab his belt loops and help yank them down until he has to break away push them off completely.

Instead of coming back up, he tugs at my briefs, kissing my stomach and following the treasure trail down as it's exposed. I stifle a gasp in my fist when my cock is finally freed and pops up to hit his jaw, sending fire through my veins.

“At least I know you're eager,” he chuckles, nosing into the bush of curls at the base of my twitching erection as he pushes my briefs off the side of the bed.

Crystal yowls a protest, and I shove Nines away to roll over and check on her. She rumbles plaintively, giving me a dark look that demands explanation for the cloth that was dropped on her head.

“Sorry, baby girl,” I apologise, struggling not to laugh as I flick the briefs off her. “It was an accid-aah!” A sharp nip on my ass cuts in, reminding me that I was in the middle of something.

“If I didn't know any better, I might believe you like her more than me,” Nines states, hands gliding up my thighs and over my ass to stroke firmly up my back.

“I do, dumbass,” I retort almost without thinking. “Because I'm totally offering to have sex with a fucking cat.” He scratches viciously back down my back, and the heat burns straight to my dick. “Ah! Ah-ha-ha-ho-ohhh, fuck... What the hell was that??”

Hot; that's what it was. To be honest, I kinda want him to do it again, and I'm not sure how to feel about that.

“Well, you just called me a cat, didn't you?” he hummed, trailing his tongue up the length of my spine to murmur in my ear and send shivers across my skin. “Cats scratch, so why shouldn't I?”

Fuck it.

“Do it again.” I brace myself, arching my back just a fraction of an inch; it's still enough to push my hips into the bed, cock rubbing against the sheet and making my breath catch at the delicious friction. Before I can recover from that, painful lines of heat burn down the entirety of my back, following his nails as he digs them ruthlessly into my skin.

Oh hell, I'm gonna cum...

Pleasure trembles through me, drawing a desperate whine from my throat as it collects in my hips, balls tightening as I buck needily into the bed. Just a little more friction, and...

Nines drags my hips up off the bed, stalling my orgasm and edging me painfully.

“Fuck! Nines!” I could almost cry in frustration.

“Not yet,” he growls sharply, the pure dominance in his voice making me quiver.

Damn... Maybe I don't even need the friction; he could probably just order me to cum, and I would, just like that.

“Please, Nines...” He likes begging; I know that from Greyling. If I beg, he'll let me cum.

“Not yet,” he says again, gentler this time, as he slides his thumbs between my ass cheeks and tugs them apart.

It suddenly occurs to me that I haven't prepared for that; sure I give my ass a cursory clean every time I shower, but not enough to be ready for this! I jolt up and twist around, grabbing his wrist in a vague effort to stop him.

“Wait-!” Then he pushes his thumb inside and mixture of mild pain and startling pleasure shoves all thought aside. I gasp, going still reactively, and he tugs, pressing the other thumb in as well. A ragged cry makes it past my lips, and my arm gives out, so I collapse face-first into the bed, only his grip on my hips keeping me even partially upright.

I completely lose track of myself as he toys with my ass, fingers prodding and twisting and thrusting deeper inside than I thought it possible to reach. Then he scrapes over something that sets me on fire, and I very nearly cum right then and there; whimpering pathetically, I shove back sharply against his fingers, desperate for just one more touch there to send me over the edge...

He avoids it, of course. And withdraws his fingers.

“Nines...” I whine, pleading, and rock my hips against air. He growls indecipherably and yanks at my hips, dragging me back until something hot and hard pokes at my ass. A dribble of cool wet tickles over my hole, and then he rubs his fingers over whatever lubricant he used, spreading it to his cock even as he nudges forward, requesting entrance.

There are no words that can describe how much I want this. Now.

“Fuck me, Nines,” I gasp, shoving myself back on his dick. “Destroy my ass.”

Chapter Text

Not the greatest choice of words...

In one swift, agonising stroke, he plunges into me, ripping an embarrassing shriek of pleasure-dulled pain from my throat. I swear I tear the sheets clawing at them, trying to find something, anything to ground me.

Fucking hell, he really is huge.

I... MAY have bitten off a little more than I can chew with this one...

“Shit, Nines...” I whine, unable to stop trembling. He leans over, kissing the back of my neck.

“Sorry...” he murmurs, a minute shudder running through him.

Thank God he’s not moving.

The rhythmic thump of his pump beating is just audible over my panting breaths, and I use that to calm down, to centre myself; I do want this, I just didn’t think far enough ahead to prepare for any of it.

“Are you okay?” he asks quietly, apologetic. He’s dragging his nails back and forth over one spot on my back, and for some reason, I find it oddly relaxing.

“Ye- Yeah, good,” I huff, tightening my fists and breathing in, and then forcing myself to loosen up as I breathe out. “Just give me a sec... Move now and you might tear something. I’d like to be able to sit after this, jackass.”

“Not happening,” he rumbles against my shoulder, grinding his hips forward. Electric heat shoots up my spine, painful but equally pleasurable.

Didn’t know I was such a masochist, but fuck, I’m not complaining!

“Fuck... Okay. Okay, just... go slow.”

“Good,” he hums approvingly, moving back and slowly withdrawing. “Good boy.”

I gasp out a laugh as he carefully starts thrusting, slow, short strokes at first, but longer and subtly picking up speed as he goes.

“Got yourself a daddy kink, tin can?” I chuckle, soaking up the pleasure tingling in every limb, chasing the pain in a heady mix that throws out any inhibitions I might have had five seconds ago.

“Maybe,” he replies, sounding about as breathless as I feel. “Haven’t exactly had a chance to do much in the way of self-discovery.”

“You’re losing it if you think I’m gonna call you ‘Daddy,’” I scoff, gasping when he responds with a rough thrust forward that scrapes over that spot, and shoves me across the sheets. Liquid fire melts through me, pooling in my gut and threatening to erupt like a goddamn volcano. “Fuck!”

“Is that so?” He pauses to adjust for my new position, one hand digging harshly into my hip, the other covering one of mine so he can twine our fingers together. “Probably for the best... I think I’d prefer ‘Master.’”

“Oh hell no. You’re dreaming, tin can.” He stops moving, and I immediately want to beg him to continue.

“You had no problem begging a moment ago,” he points out, reading my mind. I clamp my mouth shut, but he stays still, waiting.

I mean, he’s not wrong.

“Christ, Nines...” I groan, and not in pleasure. “Nothing leaves this room, or I’ll take you to pieces myself!”

“Nothing leaves this room,” he promises, already pleased and preening.

Here goes nothing...

“Please fuck me, Daddy.” My face and neck burn with embarrassment, and dear Christ, am I glad I can hide in the sheets.

Then his cock pulses and he suddenly starts thrusting again, and pleasure-inducing twinges burst through my lower back, chasing away the embarrassment with bliss. It’s forceful enough that my knees keep inching farther apart with every stroke, and in only moments, the tip of my dick is rubbing over the creases in the sheets, sending sparks through my veins.

“Oh, fuck, Nines!”

“Say it again,” he orders sharply, biting into my shoulder.

“Daddy,” I manage, stars dancing at the edge of my vision as orgasm threatens, coiling in my gut and tightening behind my balls. “Fuck... gonna cum, Daddy; let me cum.”

“Cum for me, Gavin.”

The command sends one final wave through me that trips me into oblivion; pure ecstasy bursts from somewhere so deep inside that I can’t describe it, searing every fiber of my being with a burning pleasure like I’ve never felt. It’s almost too strong; it blinds me, numbs every sense, leaves me floating in a never-ending abyss of fire.

Somewhere above me, I’m vaguely aware of my name, growled in bliss; vaguely feel the throb of my body around his, the pulse of being filled to literal overflowing... Wet warmth trickles down my thighs as I slowly settle from the high.

When I finally come back to myself, I’m already spooned against Nines’ chest, positioned just right so the edge of his pump cavity isn’t digging into my back. There’s very little wet between my legs now, and the dry part of the sheet is pulled over our lower bodies.

“...I might... have blacked out...” I admit softly, shifting to cover his hand on my waist. He threads his fingers between mine, humming and kissing the back of my neck.

“You did. Are you alright?”

“Um... Let me get back to you on that.”

Immediately, he pulls away, moving back and tugging at my hip to roll me onto my back. Concern colours his features as he leans over me.

“What’s wrong? Please don’t hide from me, Gavin.” Panic sparks deep in crystalline ice, and I know this isn’t just about right this second; he’s thinking about the fact that I’ve avoided him so much since we got back from Greyling, even after I followed him to the dump.

God, I’m such an ass... I’ve been terrible to him, for no other reason than that I’m a fucking idiot and I hate dealing with my own feelings as much as I hate dealing with other people’s feelings toward me.

“Nothing’s wrong, Nines,” I assure him firmly, reaching up to run my hand through his hair, because I’m not touching his cheek. “I’m just annoyed that I actually said ‘Daddy.’” He snorts a laugh at my quip, relaxing and shifting to lay half on me. Nestling one leg between mine, he curls a hand around the back of my neck and uses his thumb to guide my jaw so he can kiss me softly, lazily. I return it, enjoying the slow, comfortable pace.

His weight on me is... amazing, actually? I’m really not sure how to feel about that.

But there is something I am sure about.

“Nines,” I mumble around his lips, getting his attention. He pauses, less than an inch away, a slight tension creeping into his frame as he waits. “I can’t say I love you... But I’m willing to give us a try.”

“Us?” He shifts back to look at me, hopeful.

“Us,” I smirk, pleased to know I did at least one thing right. When he brightens and comes back for another kiss, I cover his mouth to stop him. “But... Out of the bed, I am not calling you ‘Daddy.’”

Chapter Text

Daddy’s little girl. She’s sitting on his knee, grinning up at him and clutching to her chest the pretty, handmade doll he brought back from one of his tours. He’s still in combat fatigues, smiling at her delight, relieved to be home and back with his baby girl, a year older than when he saw her last.

She brushes unfeeling fingers over the faded image of his face, grateful only at times like this for the oilless metal that replaced her hand; if she’d never been in that accident, she’d have worn this picture down years ago.

“I miss you, Daddy,” she murmurs, the deep rasp of her voice supported by technology that everyone thought would be rejected by her body. It was so new back then, an unexplored branch of prosthetics, and almost entirely untested, but without it, she’d never have been able to talk again.

So many years, so many struggles...

How many times has she thought of giving up? None of them felt as hopeless as right now.

“You coulda protected her,” she whispers hoarsely, tears stinging her right eye. Her vision blurs on that side, because her bionic left eye has no tear ducts, no way to cry.

A little deeper and that brick would have ripped out a chunk of her brain.

“Why, Daddy?” she chokes, throat already raw and aching. “Why me? Why do I always survive?”

Even prosthetic hands can shake.

She lays a trembling hand on the oblong stone at the head of the fresh grave beside which she sits. A grave of rocks, because those fucking Lilies will dig her up to feast on her flesh if they think they can manage it.

“It shoulda been me, Abbs,” she sobs, fingers scraping over the stone marker. “It shoulda been me!”

Agony sweeps over her again.

No more... Please no more; she already cried her heart out last night.

Last night.

When she came back from a foraging run to find the door of the shed broken in, a bloody handprint smeared ominously on the frame.

When she dropped everything and dashed inside, screaming for her little sister.

When she found a Lily had pinned Abigail to the floor and ripped out her throat.

Never had she felt such rage before last night. Never had she even considered tearing something apart with her bare metal hands, much less enjoyed it.

That fucking Lily didn’t stand a chance.

But it didn’t save Abigail.

“I’m so sorry...” she whines, tears streaking her right cheek and darkening the rocks below her. “You deserved... so much better... Why am I the miracle child? Why am I the one that has to keep livin’ without you?? I swor-” She chokes on a sob, arms wrapped tightly around her chest in a vain effort to hold herself together. “I swore... to Michael... that I... that I would protect you. Even though you weren’t my blood, I was gonna protect you. You were my sister, blood or no, and I failed you. I failed Michael.”

The sorrow is too much. She lets herself fall to her side, curling up beside the grave and crying until she runs dry once more.

“Ya know...” she says, barely a whisper, reaching out to lay her hand directly above where Abigail’s head is buried. “When you married my baby brother, I was so worried. Worried you’d fall apart ‘fore the year was out. But you two were so right for each other. And ya just... You were the sweetest little thang. I thought... After Michael turned, I thought I’d die for you. I was so ready. Ready to be done with a world that hates me anyway.... I’m cursed, Abby. Cursed to live while everyone I love dies.”

‘You’re the strongest person I know, Sadie.’

Abigail said that. Only days ago.

‘You’re stronger than you know. Whatever happens, I know I can count on you, always.’

――

When the numbness returns, she sits up and brushes dirt from her clothes and hair. She gathers her things, ties a bandana around her face and pulls her hat low. For a moment, she stands over the grave, silently gathering the courage to turn away from the last family she has left.

“Thank you, Abbs. For everythin’; I owe you more than can say. So I’ll keep livin’, for you. I’ll repay you before I let myself bite the bullet for real. Promise.”

Turning, she takes a deep, ragged breath, and walks away, refusing to look back.

If she does, she’ll never leave again.

So she walks. And walks. Until her legs burn and she can’t go on any further tonight.

There. That building will do; she’ll have a good view of anyone coming to the front entrance, and if she’s right, she can barricade herself in a room for the night to get some sleep without worrying overmuch about a Lily attack.

Once she’s set up in a room on the second floor, she settles down for the night, sleeping harder and longer than she expected to. A distant gunshot wakes her, and it takes her a long moment to remember what happened and where she is. Then she quickly rolls into a crouch and slinks across to the window, adjusting her left eye to see through the wall and down to the street below.

Lilies. She’d recognise those fast, messy heartbeats anywhere.

At the far end of the street, the shooter.

Shooters, plural; a normal human, and an android.

Two androids.

One of them’s a whole damn lion.

And none of them is being very stealthy. In fact, if she didn’t know any better, she’d say they’re purposely trying to get the Lilies’ attention, just to gun them down.

“Y’all are gonna get yourselves killed,” she growls, sitting up and checking that no one is looking her way. Keeping her left eye on the street, she flicks a finger to open the glass cutter she had installed the year after the accident, and carefully cuts open a section of the window about six inches tall and two feet wide. Tapping it out, she grabs her gun case and drags it over, taking out the pieces of her M24 and clicking them together with practiced ease. Then she snaps her right hand to the lock on the barrel and sets the stock to her left shoulder, bracing her right elbow on her knee as she turns her left eye to sniper mode.

Deep breath. Relax. Sight.

There’s the human, a man in his mid-thirties. There’s the lion behind him. And there’s the other android, a newer model she doesn’t recognise; she can’t pin down the specs until she gets a closer look, but she’ll worry about that later.

They’re playing a game; who can kill more Lilies.

A smirk quirks at her lips. Sounds like a fun game.

Too bad she’s joining late.

A Lily tackles the human, and without hesitation, she aims and fires, a fraction of a second before the android shoots as well; their bullets destroy the Lily’s head at the same time.

Instantly, the human aims in her direction, shouting to the android, who covers him as he scrambles for real cover, behind a car.

They’re partners. And they’re about to come investigate.

Let ‘em.

She picks off the last few Lilies and then goes to the door, pushing the barricades aside. They haven’t even gotten to the building yet, so she dons the bandana and settles down under the window to wait.

I’m gonna try, Abbs, she promises silently. I’m gonna turn up that homegrown charm, and I’m gonna make some friends. For you.

The human comes in first, steel grey eyes guarded. He’s got what Daddy would call a warrior’s spirit; he’s a fighter through and through, and just as bullheaded, she’d bet.

The android follows, cautious, but confident; he knows his limits, and he knows they far exceed hers. She knows as well as he does that he can take her on, even if he doesn’t know about her prosthetics; he’s that good.

And clearly loyal; he keeps his gun on her and stays just far enough to one side of the human that he can move in any direction to protect the human if danger arises.

The lion ― Buttermilk, from the Detroit Zoo ― is the only one that doesn’t see her as a potential threat; he pads across the room and starts investigating her belongings.

These are people she could be friends with, if they don’t shoot her on the spot the moment they find out she’s half-robot.

“Nice shooting,” the human ventures, warily probing for a reaction.

For you, Abbs.

“Thank you,” she responds, pushing her past into a box and shoving the box to the back of her mind.

Time to start looking to the future.

Chapter Text

“You’re not stopping me,” I say firmly, looping a scarf around my neck. “I’m going to scour that dump until I find either a compatible chest plate for an RK900 model, or one that Eli can modify to be compatible.”

“I would highly advise against it, Detective,” 1K persists, stepping in front of me when I grab my gloves and move for the door.

“And I would highly advise against getting in my way,” I growl, stopping before I get too close. He’s only an inch or so taller than Nines, but if I didn’t know he has impeccable posture, I’d swear Nines slumps or something, because somehow 1K owns his height in a manner that makes him seem even taller.

It's mildly intimidating.

“It is far too cold for you to be outside for any reasonable amount of time in order to do that,” he bulls on, unnerving ice gaze boring into me.

Aren’t androids supposed to blink? To seem more human or whatever?

“It’s also far too annoying for me to keep listening to you,” I return, fast getting fed up.

I know, I’m being somewhat childish, but after my revelation yesterday afternoon, and the horizontal mambo that followed, I knew I wouldn’t be resting until I could make Nines whole again, and now that he’s shut down for another diagnostics check or whatever Eli's doing this time, this is the only chance I’ll get for a long while to surprise him.

“You’ve only just recovered from being sick,” 1K points out blatantly. “If you go out there now, with a compromised immune system, you will almost certainly get sick again.”

“Fuck off, microwave,” I snap, done with dealing with him. “I’m going, right now.” I step around him, and he moves in front of me again.

“I’m afraid I cannot allow that,” he says simply. “If I must, I will use force.” Working my jaw to occupy myself until I can rein in my boiling temper, I take a deep, calming breath.

“Butter!” The lion bounds into the room, growling excitedly, and nearly bowls 1K over, which vastly improves my mood. “Good boy! Come on, Butterball; we’re going out!” He makes a yowling sound, wiggling and bumping up against my side, eager to get going.

Sometimes, he acts more like a dog than a cat.

“You’re not the only one with force, washing machine,” I throw at 1K, giving him a cold sneer as I leave the room, keeping Buttermilk between us.

“Gavin-”

“Detective Reed,” I cut in with a venomous hiss.

“Detective Reed,” he corrects himself, following. “You are making a terrible mistake.”

“The only mistake I’ve made in the past week is getting you talking, again!” I mutter irritably. “I should have learned my lesson the first time...”

“Yo, cowboy; where ya goin’?” Sadie leans against the doorframe of Elijah’s lab, arms crossed and an amused smirk curling her lips on the unscarred side.

“Far away from Dipshit,” I grunt, jabbing a thumb over my shoulder at 1K. She barks a laugh, that unique, two-toned sound of hers helping to ease my aggravation.

She’s so easy to get along with; I’ve taken to her far more than I thought I would, and a hell of a lot more quickly. In a way, she kinda reminds me of Tina Chen, one of the officers I worked with a lot in my DPD days. Tina was a tough lady, didn’t take shit from anybody, and always had a quip at the ready to put people at ease. If the cyborg parts weren’t evidence enough of Sadie’s toughness, the easy way she keeps Eli from being an ass sure is, and after she dragged that confession from me earlier this week, I know I can go to her when I need to talk.

“I’m going to the android dump,” I explain, allowing myself a small, companionable smile for her. “Nines needs a new chest plate, and I’m gonna surprise him.”

“Then I’ll keep him occupied if he gets up ‘fore you get back,” she grins. “Here.” Pushing off the frame, she pulls something from her pocket and tosses it at me. I snatch it reflexively out of the air without even thinking about it.

A dog tag. There’s a key ring on it, but no chain.

James ‘Jim’ Morgan

“Are you sure about this?” I ask hesitantly. “This is your dad’s, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. And yeah, I’m sure.” She reaches under her shirt and pulls out a chain with another tag attached to it. “I got his other one. Keep that on you; it’s got a tracker. You know Morse?”

“Morse code? A little,” I scowl. “I had to learn it in academy, but I’ve never used it, so I kinda forgot...”

“No prob,” she chuckles. “If you get in trouble, tap out S-O-S with it on somethin’ hard. It’ll activate the tracker and let me know.” She taps once on the tag nestled between her breasts.

This is one hundred percent a buddy thing. She had a partner at some point.

What happened to them?

“Thanks,” I say sincerely, pushing my curiosity aside; if she wants to talk about it, then I’ll ask, but otherwise, it’s her business.

“Miss Morgan,” 1K starts in, scolding.

“Oh shut it, ya oversized Roomba,” she scoffs, rolling her eyes and turning to go back into the lab. “Go with him if yer so worried. Damn nanny-bot...”

I’d really rather not take him with me, especially if I’ve got Butter, but if it’ll shut him up...

“You heard the lady,” I huff, yanking on my gloves as I head for the front door. “Be quiet and come with, or shut up and stay here. Your choice.”

Honestly, after Conner defied a direct order on a technicality, I’m not exactly confident any android will obey in the way I want them to, so I’m not even gonna try to make him stay.

Especially not with Eli’s fucking patch taking priority over other commands!

God, I’m gonna have to talk to him about that, again... Probably won’t go any better than last time, but I’d rather get in another argument or two with him than have to suffer Nanny-Bot for the rest of my life.

1K heaves a sigh that sounds suspiciously like exasperation and falls into step just behind my shoulder, on the opposite side from Buttermilk, who’s prancing impatiently and whining at me.

“So tell me,” I speak up as we leave the house, shuddering when a sharp chill pierces me almost immediately. “Can you heat up like Nines?”

Chapter Text

I'll never admit it aloud, but I'm glad 1K came with me. I was freezing my dick and balls off when he suddenly called out to me and pointed to the upper body of an android.

“I believe that is what you're looking for,” he notes when I reach him.

The half of an android is old and has obviously been here a long time, but it looks oddly familiar, and it takes me a solid minute to realise it's one of the precursors to working RK prototypes like the one Elijah gifted to his painter friend, whatshisname... Manfred or something like that? I remember reading a report that the prototype was charged with “interferant manslaughter,” the android equivalent of involuntary manslaughter, when the old painter croaked, and was scrapped for it, but somehow survived and ended up leading Jericho. This ‘droid must have been defective from the start if Eli scrapped it without ever trying to make use of it, like that RK200.

“I think this is exactly what I'm looking for,” I grunt, the closest he's getting to a 'thanks' out of me. Crouching beside the half body, I yank off my gloves and start tugging at the chest plate, looking for the release. 1K watches passively, not even offering to help, although Buttermilk is standing between us, which might be a bit of a deterrent. I can hope anyway.

Abruptly, 1K stiffens and Butter perks up.

“Proximity alert,” 1K rumbles, already scanning the area.

The last time I heard those words, I ended up getting kidnapped. No fucking thank you; I snatch for my gun, only to realise I left it behind.

This was supposed to be a quick, easy mission! In and out before anything could happen!

Fuck my fucking life...

Butter gives a whining growl, staring back the way we came, and 1K focuses that direction as well. Which means whatever it is, it’s between us and home. Before I can figure out what to do, a figure appears around a hill of android body parts, picking their way carefully toward us.

“Detective Reed?” a familiar voice calls out. “Are you out here?”

“Oh my f- Connor?” I call back. The figure pauses and then moves more quickly toward us, until I see that I’m right, though I almost don’t recognise him in a DPD hoodie and jeans.

“There you are! I’ve been looking for you,” he greets cheerfully.

Oh gag me already.

“Connor, what the hell are you doing here?” I ask, rubbing my hands through Buttermilk’s mane to warm them up, and to calm him down a bit.

“Looking for you,” he repeats, staring at 1K now but still talking to me. “That pretty cyborg lady said you were out here.” I shove my hand into my pocket, making sure Sadie’s dog tag is still there.

“I meant, why aren’t you still in your cozy little love nest with Hank?” I clarify sarcastically. A faint indigo blush creeps across Connor’s cheeks, surprising me.

I didn’t know androids could blush.

Now I wanna see Nines blush.

“Hank’s at Elijah’s,” Connor explains. “We brought some information we thought you should know. And Hank thought it would be a good idea to spend Christmas together.”

“Chri- Wait, okay, back up,” I scowl, tugging my gloves back on to keep my hands from freezing while we talk. “First of all, how did you know we’d still be at Elijah’s?”

“We didn’t,” he shrugs. “Hank said he had a hunch you would be, though.”

“I fucking hate him,” I mutter, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. “What information did you bring?”

“It’s probably better to review it all together,” he points out.

“Right.”

“Where’s Richard?” he asks abruptly, eying 1K pointedly.

“Still at home,” I grunt, remembering then that I was in the middle of something. “I’m getting him a new chestplate.”

“What? Why?” Concern lights in his warm brown eyes and he takes an involuntary step forward that strangely reminds me of the abortive step Nines took yesterday; they have oddly similar mannerisms. “Did something happen to him?”

“Uh, yeah,” I answer slowly, not sure how much I want to tell him. “Let’s just say I screwed up and he ripped it off.”

“Oh. Well, let me help,” he says, pushing up the sleeves of the hoodie and stepping forward. 1K stops him with a hand on his chest.

“You are an inferior model,” he states simply. “Leave-”

“Shut the hell up, Roomba,” I snap at him, grabbing his wrist. “And leave him alone. That’s a fucking order.” Maybe this time it’ll work?

He hesitates for a long moment, LED spinning yellow, and then drops his hand, shifting back without a word.

Hey, what do you know? It actually worked for once.

Ah shit, Connor’s smiling at me now...

“Thank you, Detective,” he beams, blinding me.

“Ugh... Just get the plate off for me, would you?” I growl, gesturing at the half-body. He unlatches it without an issue and holds it out to me.

“Here you are. Shall we? Hank and Elijah are waiting for us.”

Chapter Text

“Do you want the sketchy news first, or the inconsequential news?” Hank asks when everyone’s gathered in Elijah’s lab. Off to one side, of course, where we won’t get in his way while he makes some adjustments to the chestplate so it’ll be suitable for Nines, who is unfortunately still powered down and lying on Eli’s table.

“Not ‘good news, bad news’?” Sadie hums in amusement, the corner of her mouth tipping up.

“Well... I guess that depends on how you look at it,” Hank grunts, a faint, reluctant smile tugging at his features.

“Then start with the sketchy news,” Elijah calls over, glancing up momentarily. “Presumably the inconsequential news will be at least somewhat more entertaining, and hopefully will lighten the mood, if necessary.”

“Sorta figured,” Hank huffs, crossing his arms and settling back in his chair. “Jericho got their hands on a Scav.”

“Got their hands on?” I scowl, pausing in my petting of Crystal until she mewls and nudges my hand.

“As in, captured?” Sadie frowns, leaning forward on her elbows.

“Kinda.”

“She turned herself in,” Connor elaborates, laying his hands on Hank’s shoulders.

Uh... What?

My bafflement is echoed on Sadie’s face, and even Elijah casts a puzzled glance at us.

“What do you mean, turned herself in?” I demand.

“Just that,” Connor says lightly. “In my last communication with Markus, he said she simply walked right into Jericho and offered herself up for imprisonment. But more importantly than that, she actually talked.”

“Scavs don’t talk,” I growl. “They shriek and snarl. Like goddamn animals.”

“To be fair, you’ve only ever seen a Scav while it’s attacking,” Connor pointed out. “And really, if we’re completely honest, how much do we truly know about Scavs? We know, generally speaking, that they conform to stereotypical pop culture zombie tropes, with a preference for blood rather than brains or flesh. We know they crave solely human blood, and only attack androids who get in the way or are protecting humans. We know they are smart enough to figure out workarounds for more basic defenses, and can work together in order to hunt more efficiently. But what do we know about their cultural mindset? Yes, they work in groups to trap prey, but do they stay in groups outside of the hunt? Do they form bonds, as normal humans do? Do they still experience emotions beneath the lust for blood?”

For a long moment, the silence is broken only by the buzzing and clicking of Elijah’s tools as he works; we’re all thinking about it now.

“What did she say?” I ask finally, burying my fingers absently in the scruff of Crystal’s neck. Connor cocks his head.

“Sorry?”

“The Scav. You said she talked. What did she say?”

Connor purses his lips, looking down at Hank and tightening his grip on my old coworker’s shoulders. Hank glances up at him and sighs heavily.

“She said... she’s sorry,” he answers after a moment. “Said she didn’t want to kill anybody, but she couldn’t help it.”

A weird knot forms in my chest, and Sadie looks like she chewed on a lemon.

“What’s that mean for their mental state, hah?” she murmurs, running a hand through her hair, blue-white glinting through blonde. “Whether it’s a trap or sincere, them Scavs got some mighty big brains for zombies.”

“The... serum, as you called it...?” 1K offers abruptly. I grimace, just as suddenly making a connection I don’t like.

“Serum?” Hank questions, brows creasing.

“Shit... Eli went up to Greyling, tracking what he thought was a source of the Pulse,” I explain shortly. “Instead, he found a lab, and in the lab, the remains of an experiment. A serum of some kind.”

“It’s basically a mix of human blood and thirium,” Sadie picks up. “We think... we aren’t sure, but we think someone, probably CyberLife, was tryna create a sorta super-soldier serum.”

“Like Captain America?” Hank scoffs.

“Captain who?” I scowl.

“Before your time,” he dismisses, waving an absent hand. “So they wanted to enhance humans and... what? Make them stronger? Faster? Smarter? All of the above?”

“Probably,” Sadie scoffs, sitting back in her chair. “Humans crave power. It’s a fact o’ life.”

“Cyborgs,” I speak up after a moment, staring at Crystal, partly just in thought, but mostly so I don’t have to see the look I know I’ll see on Sadie’s face.

“‘Scuse me?” she growls, the low rasp of her real voice amplified by the computerised precision of the android parts. She’s barely reining in her anger at me; I’m gonna have to be careful how I phrase this.

“You said the other day that you got lucky,” I point out, keeping myself centered with Crystal’s soft purrs. “That the procedure you went through to save your life had a seven in ten chance of failing, but you survived. It had a high chance of failure because blood and thirium don’t work the same, right?” I chance a glance up at her, expecting to see restrained rage, and instead find her staring intently at me; I can almost picture actual gears turning in her head as she starts making the same connections I did.

“What if you weren’t the only one? You’re far stronger than you were. Probably faster too. And with that eye of yours, you’re practically impossible to sneak up on, much less kill. How much more powerful do you think you could be if you could use those hands the way an android can? The way Connor and Nines can? If you had full use of your synthetic parts, you’d be unstoppable. I think that’s what they were trying to do; they were trying to make human biology compatible with the biocomponents Eli perfected. In fact, I’d stake my reputation on it.”

“Jesus Christ...” Hank huffs in disbelief, rubbing a hand over his mouth. Then he looks at me with an admiration like I’ve never seen from him before. “No wonder you got that promotion so quick.”

“Heh, you’re funny.” I give him a mirthless smile and a middle finger.

“That’s good, Gav,” Elijah speaks up, drawing my attention to him as he sets his tools down and lifts the plate, pausing to grin at me. “I’m not the only smart one in the family.”

“Fuck you, asshole.”

“Ya really think...?” Sadie begins, breaking off and looking down at her hands. Skinless android hands. “Ya really think that’s what they were doin’?”

Is she upset, or hopeful? Kinda hard to tell at the moment; she’s closed off tighter than a drum.

“I do,” I nod. “It’s the only thing that makes sense. What other possible reason could there be for trying to combine human and android blood? Especially if the potential side effect is becoming an insane, bloodthirsty monster.”

Silence falls again, this time completely unbroken until Elijah takes a deep breath and moves to the table where Nines is lying.

“Well,” he says, putting the chestplate in place and clicking it closed. It fits perfectly now, and skin floods over it immediately. “There’s a way to test it, of course.” He does something that I can’t see and then steps back from the table, going across the room to the little glass box with the serum vials. “I want to run a couple of tests first, but once those are done, if they yield satisfactory results, and obviously if you’re willing, Sadie...” A wicked grin tugs at his lips when he turns and holds up one of the vials. “Would you be interested in a little experiment?”

Chapter Text

Elijah immediately begins his tests the moment Sadie agrees, shooing everyone out to work in peace. Sadie makes a face the moment the door closes, and then sighs, gesturing at Hank and Connor.

“Come on then, boys,” she says, leading the way toward the library while 1K stations himself by the door and goes still, eyes closed.

Adjusting Crystal in my arms, I call for Buttermilk to follow as I head for my room. When he doesn't move, I stop and turn back.

“Butter, come on,” I say again, patting my leg. He keeps staring at the door. “Buttermilk.” I'm about to go tug at his mane to get his attention when he perks up, an instant before the door opens.

Nines smiles lightly at Buttermilk, and then scowls at 1K, who doesn't react now that he's in standby mode. Then he looks at me, and cocks his head in amusement, probably because I'm seeing him in a whole new light and I just can't stop staring for some reason.

“Gavin. Are you alright?” He steps toward me and pauses when Buttermilk butts against his leg. Smiling at the lion again, he reaches to bury his hand in Butter's mane.

Fucking hell... Since when does his smile take my breath away?

Goddamnit, Sadie.

“I'm fine,” I manage, clearing my throat and trying to pretend I'm not having an existential crisis right now. “How, uh... How's that chest plate working for you?”

While his expression doesn't change, his eyes soften in a way that amplifies his smile and melts a hole in my own chest even as he runs a hand over his new pump cover.

“Elijah said you got it for me,” he hums, a warmth in his voice that threatens to turn me into goo. “Thank you.”

Christ, he's gonna kill me at this rate...

“Yeah, well...” I cough, looking at Crystal so I don't have to look at him. “Merry Christmas, I guess. Butter, come.” Turning, I head for my room again, keenly aware that Nines is three steps behind me the whole way.

I brace myself the moment I enter the room, and sure enough, Nines grabs me in a tight hug, burying his face in the back of my neck. Buttermilk gives a pathetic growl and noses at my hip, and I scoff.

“Oh, now you want my attention? Too late, bub. Sit, stay, and don’t interfere.” Shifting my hold on Crystal, I tug at Nines’ arms until he reluctantly lets go so I can grab a pillow from the messy nest of my bed and put it on the floor for Crystal, who promptly ignores it the moment I set her down, going instead to sit in front of Buttermilk and mew at him.

“Did you go out there alone?” Nines asks, sounding mildly annoyed.

“Out- To get that piece for you? No,” I snort, kicking my shoes off and sitting on the edge of my bed. “I’m stupid sometimes, but I’m not suicidal. I took Butter. And 1K tagged along, against my wishes. But, I mean, technically he found the plate, so I can’t really compl-”

Suddenly, I’m on my back, looking up at an extremely annoyed Nines.

And by extremely, I mean extremely; there’s actually a flicker of red deep behind his gaze.

“You were alone with him?” he growls, fingers digging into my wrists as he pushes them harder into the mattress. I flinch reactively.

“Wh- No; are you even listening? Butter was there.”

“You were alone... with him??”

“Now I know you’re not listening,” I grumble, giving him a dark look. “Read my fucking lips, tin can; I was never alone with 1K. And if I have anything to say about it, I never will be.”

Nothing. He’s still pitching a fit.

Fuck it. Let him.

Nothing happened, and once he gets over himself and sees that, I can rub his nose in it.

He yanks my arms together over my hand, wrapping one large hand around both wrists, and practically rips my pants off. Before I can say anything, he leans down to bite roughly at my neck, fingers curling around my dick and stroking with a perfectly tight grip that edges just enough into 'too harsh' to leave me speechless while still coaxing a reaction from my body.

“Mine,” he snarls against my throat, wedging his leg between my knees and forcing them open.

I don’t fight. For one thing, I know I’d lose if I tried, and for another, it’s not like I’m unfamiliar with rough sex, so it doesn’t exactly bother me, though it is a little weird to be on the receiving end this time.

“That so?” I scoff, purposely goading him; the sooner he gets this out of his system ― no pun intended ― the sooner we can have a proper conversation. Using my greater leverage, I yank my knees up and under his arm, shoving his hand off my dick and creating a partial barrier. “Since when, fucker? You want me, you gotta work for it. I don’t see a damn claim anywhere on me; do you?”

The red in his eyes flares dangerously, and he smirks cruelly, sparking a tiny burst of fear deep inside me.

Shit.

I just poked a beast.

“Unwrapping you,” he rumbles, baring gleaming teeth as he digs his nails into my thigh and yanks my leg out of the way with ease, “is the best gift you could have gotten me.”

Chapter Text

I'm not entirely sure how I got here, but Nines has my hands tied to the posts at the head of my bed, on my stomach, and completely naked. I was never really interested in bondage before, and honestly, it's still a little sketch, but if this is what Nines needs to let off some steam and get out of his jealous fit, I can handle it for as long as I have to.

He’s kneeling between my legs, hands roaming up and down my body like he's searching for something.

“Still don't see a mark,” I taunt, and promptly hiss, stiffening when he claws viciously at my back. Buttermilk whines and I lift my head to look at him. “It's okay, Butter; stay.”

Nines moves to the edge of the bed and digs through the pile of my clothes. I'm not sure what he's looking for, but as soon as I see what he comes back with, my gut seizes anxiously.

Knife!

Shit, he's legitimately going to mark me. Like, really; to the point of scarring.

Ah, what the hell? I already have scars from that Scav bite on the shoulder, and from the wound down my side that almost got infected, plus all the ones I got during my DPD days; what's one or two more?

Except he leaves the knife on the bed beside me and starts squeezing my ass. My body is already somewhat aroused from earlier, and the new attention makes my hips jolt slightly, grinding my partial erection into the bed.

“Are you going to fuck me or play with me?” I ask, lifting my hips now in invitation. In answer, he shoves a finger inside me without warning. My breath catches, and I shudder involuntarily, heat sparking in my gut and adding to my arousal.

I'm not quite ready when he adds a second finger, and I grunt at the near-painful intrusion, shuddering again and forcing myself to relax. He works a third finger in almost before I'm ready for it, and a low groan of pain-tainted pleasure rolls off my tongue.

“Stay!” I manage when Buttermilk whines again.

Then Nines withdraws completely, and for a moment, I'm mildly disappointed. Until cool wet trickles over my asshole, and his cock nudges in for entrance. I let out a little gasp as he pushes firmly into me in one smooth, slow thrust, bottoming out a moment later and leaving me breathless.

“Oh fuck, Nines...” I groan, spreading my knees just a bit so I'm not hurting my hips, but I'm as wide open as I can be. He promptly withdraws about an inch and slams back in harshly, drawing a dazed yelp from me.

Fucking hell!

Buttermilk growls in warning now, and it takes everything I have to focus enough to snap at him.

“Stop it! Stay! Quietly!” I hear a small thump and glance up to see him lying on the floor and watching me with a pitiful look in his gold gaze, like that's gonna change my mind. “Stay!!”

Nines rams into me again, and I gasp loudly, letting it out in a low, needy groan.

This time, he growls, and dear fucking Christ, is it hot... Something about his dominant, animalistic growl sets fire to my very bones, and I swear I almost cum right then and there.

“Oh, Nines... Fuck-” I catch myself before I say it, but fuck it; I know he likes it, so I might as well. “Fuck me, Daddy.” He growls again, promptly setting a gruelling pace that threatens to split me in half.

I can't help it.

“Ah! Fuck, yes,” I whimper desperately, tugging at the bindings around my wrists. “So good, Daddy; fuck me harder. Make me yours.”

His nails dig into my shoulders, and his entire weight goes into each thrust, forcing me down into the bed and making it creak loudly with every stroke.

And goddamn, he keeps growling, possessively, claiming me with every movement, sparking crackles of lightning up my spine and through my hips, and stoking the fire building in my gut; I have a visceral need to explode, and it's slowly taking over me.

I'm losing track of everything, even myself, when a small, metallic snk clicks me back to reality with a cold wash of adrenaline through my veins.

The knife.

He's gonna use it.

“Wait, NI-AHHH!” A jagged slice of pain bursts hot through the middle of my back, and it feels as though he's digging down through skin, through muscle, through even bone.

Buttermilk snarls, and I jolt instinctively.

“No!” I snap raggedly. “Down, Butter! I'm- FUCK!” Another slice, this one burning twice as much and almost on top of the first. I'm seeing stars already, and I'm not sure if I'll pass out or not, and if I do, whether it'll be from pain or pleasure, because he's still thrusting into me, even while cutting up my back.

Butter whimpers and gives a low yowl of desperation, but I can't speak for a moment under the assault of another slice promptly following the second.

“I'm... fine, Butter,” I groan, trying to breathe, and to decide whether I should cry from the pain, or rock against the deep, intoxicating strokes. “Stay!”

God, this would be a terrible time for Butter to go deviant.

Can animal androids even do that?

Oh, FUCKING HELL!!

I shove my face into the sheets to muffled my scream as Nines cuts into my back again, three more times in such rapid succession that I almost can't distinguish them. Then thrice more while I'm still dazed. A weak, whimpering groan works its way up my throat when nothing else follows except the continuous thrust into my ass, leaving me overwhelmed and slightly numb.

“Is that a good enough mark for you?” he growls, sparking need in my gut again and opening up the floodgates for a wash of fiery want.

“Nines...” I whine. He immediately leans over and bites sharply at the back of my neck, enough that I won't be surprised if it starts bleeding, which makes me yelp again.

Right. In bed; not what I'm supposed to call him.

“Daddy, please... It's good, so please; fuck me, let me cum. Please...” Letting go of my neck, he rumbles approval and slams roughly into me, pausing for a moment to readjust and then screwing me to the bed with a ferocity that fans the flames.

Just a little more...

I give an incoherent whine, unable to form proper sentences anymore, and he digs his fingers into my hips, pushing down. The new angle just changes his strokes, and every single one scrapes across the sensitive nerve inside me, scorching my entire body with a sudden, unexpected explosion of painfully bright ecstasy.

Maybe I screamed, but I'm not sure; I blacked out from the pure intensity. I don't think it was more than a few seconds, but when I come back to the light, Nines is frantically untying my hands, cursing himself. When both hands are free, I slowly try to push myself up, only to stop short and collapse again as fire blazes through my back, and not in a good way.

“Shit...”

“I'm so sorry, Gavin- I-” he stammers, distraught, gently touching my lower back with cool fingers that help soothe the burn, but pulling them away too soon.

“No...” I groan, reaching blindly back for his hand. “Cool hands; feels good.” Without hesitation, he puts both hands on my back, emanating cool into my skin. A low moan slides up my throat, and I relax as the heat leaks away.

“I'm so sorry,” he repeats morosely, brushing a soft kiss to my shoulder. “I just... I let my jealousy get the better of me.”

“Ya think?” I scoff. “What exactly did you carve into my back?” He doesn't answer right away, and I give him a moment before I twist a bit to look at him, grimacing as it pulls at the wound.

The shame in his expression tightens a knot in my chest and I have to refrain from sitting up despite the wound to hug him.

“rA9,” he whispers, staring at it. “I cut rA9 into your back.”

Chapter Text

I can’t walk.

I mean, I can, but it’s not fun. Every step jolts the mark on my back, and I swear it’s still oozing, despite Nines’ assurances that it stopped bleeding hours ago.

Oh well. I’ll just have to deal with it; I skipped lunch to let Nines fuck me up, and I’m hungrier than a goddamn Scav, so I’m not skipping supper. And I’m not letting Nines bring me anything; on the off chance that no one realises yet that we fucked, I’m not broadcasting it.

Makes no difference. The moment I enter the kitchen, irritably shooing Nines away because he’s hovering like a pesky fucking fly, Sadie barks a loud laugh.

“Pay up, boy,” she crows at Connor, holding out her hand. “Told ya he’d make it to supper! Cowboy got himself balls o’ steel and a head just as hard.” Connor laughs and hands over some piece of scrap metal or something; I don’t quite catch what, but it’s not money.

“Gotta say, Reed, I’m amazed to see you on your feet,” Hank smirks, leaning back on his chair and resting his arm across the back of Connor’s. “We figured you’d be bedridden after you nearly blew out the windows with that scream.”

Oh fuck me.

Growling, I turn right back around to leave, except 1K is blocking the doorway now, and Buttermilk is butting against my thighs to put himself between me and the newest model android.

Nines bares his teeth like a fucking dog at 1K, who just blinks at him and turns a steady gaze back on me.

“Where ya goin’, cowboy?” Sadie chuckles. “We’re just teasin’ ya.”

“You’re injured,” 1K announces blandly, sounding vaguely annoyed, like it’s some kind of inconvenience.

Good God, just kill me already...

I swear to fucking Christ, all I need now is for-

“Did I miss something?” I throw up my hands, ignoring the stab of pain through my mid-back, as Elijah slides past 1K, a screen in his hands. “No, never mind; tell me later. Sadie, I need some of your blood.”

“My blood?” she echoes, brow raising in surprised interest. “Sure. Got a...” Pausing, she cocks her head at me and grins. “Got a knife, cowboy?”

“Fuck you and your damn cyber-eye,” I growl, flipping her off while Hank frowns curiously and glances between us.

“Allow me, Miss Sadie,” Connor offers, holding out a hand. She quickly rolls up her sleeve on one side until her skin comes into view, leaning over toward him.

I don’t see what happens then because Nines grabs me in a smothering hug, sending twinges of heat through my back.

“OW! Nines!” I push against him, and he reluctantly lets me go so as not to injure me further.

Then I realise why he did it in the first place; 1K is right there, and he grips my arm, pulling me around to get at my back.

“Goddamn-! Get your fucking metal mitts off me!” I snarl at him, yanking at his fingers.

“Please hold still, Detective,” 1K says simply, not even loosening his grip. “I need to inspect your injury.”

“Like hell!” I’m not sure who’s more surprised by Nines and my simultaneous replies, me or 1K. Nines just keeps glaring at 1K, and grabs his wrist.

“Let him go. Now.” The growled warning is full of threatening promise, and I actually shiver, mildly turned on by his protective dominance.

Why did I ever think 1K’s voice was hot?

The two of them get into a staredown, and I fail to twist my arm from 1K’s grip, so I glance helplessly at Connor, hoping the older android can do something about his ‘brothers.’ He just spreads his hands, shrugging, and hides a grin.

Hank doesn’t even hide it; he’s cackling, like an ass.

“Looks like you got yourself in quite the conundrum, ain’t ya?” Sadie chuckles, rolling her shirt sleeve back down while Elijah slips out, muttering to himself as he inspects a small vial of red.

“Tell me something I don’t know...” I mutter, looking back at the morons. “Both of you cut it out already! Fucking hell, I just want to eat, alright? Can I do that, please??”

“Not until I’ve inspected your injury, Detective,” 1K proclaims, finally looking away from Nines to pin me with a firm stare.

God, I swear I’m going to kill Eli for that fucking patch...

“I’m not letting you ‘inspect’ anything, dipshit!” I snap at him. “The hell is it going to take to make you give it up?? I got a little carried away, end of story; I’ll be fine by morning!”

“Just a little carried away? HAH!” Hank guffaws. “I think you got more than a little carried away if you were screaming ‘Daddy.’”

Oh.

My.

Fucking.

GOD.

“...You heard that?” I squeak timidly, heat crawling up my neck and down to my toes.

“Pretty sure they heard ya back home in Georgia, cowboy,” Sadie laughs. “Had to ask Orchid to play some music to cover up the sound of your, ah, pleasure.”

I’m out.

Or I would be, except I don’t even make it two steps before I get to the end of my arm and 1K’s grip stops me short.

“Fuck! Let go, stupid android!”

“Wow,” Connor notes, amused. “He must really be flustered if he can’t even formulate a proper insult.”

“No kidding,” Hank agrees, surprised. “I think that’s the first time I’ve seen him at a loss for words.”

“Fuck you all!” I hiss, yanking against 1K’s hold and ignoring the pain in my back; the stinging heat is mixing with the fire of embarrassment, and I don’t even care if I tear it open again, so long as I can get the fuck out of here!

“Detective...”

“You heard him, bastard; let go,” Nines growls, visibly tightening his grip on 1K’s wrist. 1K’s grip loosens, mercifully, and I jerk free, blocking out the shouts behind me as I stumble out of the room with blood pounding like laughter in my ears.

Chapter Text

“Gavin?”

“Fuck off,” I snarl at Nines, pushing further into the corner where my bed meets the wall, until my back screams for me to stop putting pressure on it.

The door clicks closed, and Crystal, who was mildly disturbed from her spot leaning against my head when I moved, sits up with a mewl. She's purring loudly, and I don't have to look up to know when Nines comes around the end of the bed to get closer; she shifts and stretches out, begging for pets like the precious little attention whore she is.

“I said fuck off,” I growl, burying my face in my arms so I don't have to look at him.

I'm still fucking burning with shame.

“Gavin...” His voice is so soft, strained with sympathetic apology, that I almost forget to be angry with him. “I'm sorry... It was my fault; I should never have let my jealousy get the better of me. Now I've caused you so much embarrassment...”

But it's not really his fault, is it?

“No, it's my own fault,” I mutter, raising my head just a little. “I pushed you into a state of instability that goes beyond deviancy; I made you go crazy... And I made you jealous in the first place. I'm not... I didn't think. I don't think I've really stopped to think about you since we got back from Greyling. I keep... fucking it all up. I can't... I can't even put it into words; I think everything is finally going good, and then the other shoe drops, and I'm left wondering what the hell I did wrong. And then when I try to fix things, the cycle just starts all over again!” Heat stings at my eyes, trickling out of the corners before I can blink it back, and my sinuses ache, threatening to turn me into a wet, oozing mess, which frustrates me all the more and makes it worse. “Fucking- So much for trying to do things my way for once, for carving out my place; I can't even get a casual relationship right.”

Hating that I can't control my tears, especially with someone else around, I scrub my face on my sleeve, trying desperately to calm down and stop crying.

Nines shifts to sit beside me and lays his hand on my arm. The skin eases back, leaving his fingers bare metal.

“I am unstable,” he admits softly, “but I've never felt so alive, so real. Two months ago, I was just beginning to realise that my obsession with you was more than my programme, that I wanted to protect you because I knew you deserved to live more than I did. I had no problem with the idea of dying to make sure you survived, whatever it took; I'd have died a million times over if I had to, because I wasn't really dead, and because if I protected you, then you could live the way you wanted to.” He squeezes my arm gently. “Now, I am actually terrified of dying. I'm scared that if I die, I'll lose some part of me, the part that loves you. I can't lose that. I can't lose you. When I see you around RK1000, I'm scared that you'll appreciate everything that makes him superior; scared that you won't need me anymore. I... I didn't remove my pump because you rejected me. I did it because I thought you didn't want me, that I was of no use to you. I thought... when you brushed me off that morning before we left Greyling, that you had gotten what you needed, and that was it. I thought, you have Butter to protect you. You have Crystal to keep you company. You have Sadie to run interference with Eli. You don't need me. And that terrifies me. I got so caught up in my jealousy, seeing something that doesn't exist, and I needed to claim you, to prove that I can be what you need, that I didn't stop for a moment to think about how that would affect you. I never, never should have hurt you.” He leans his forehead on my shoulder, and fuck if I'm not already berating myself for making this about me, yet again.

Carefully turning so I don't pull too much at my wound, I wrap my arm around his waist and card my fingers into his hair, leaning my cheek against the top of his head.

What am I supposed to say? Something comforting, right? But what?

“This is probably the stupidest thing I can say right now,” I preface, “but I actually... kinda... sorta... liked it.” He lifts his head to stare blankly at me, and I let my hand trail off his shoulder while I fumble to explain, a gentler sort of embarrassment heating up my face. “The cutting- the mark thing. I mean... Um, it was probably actually the fact that you, er, dom- dominated me... The... I liked the burn. Of the cut, I mean. But the way you growled at me...” Stopping, I try to start over. “I'm not saying this right; I'm gonna try again. It hurt. Really hurt. But it was a good hurt. Like... er... getting fucked; hurts, but in a good way. I, um... I wouldn't particularly mind if, uh... You know, if you're feeling jealous again, or like, stressed or whatever... I wouldn't mind another round. Just, um... maybe not so deep. And maybe with a safe word.”

By now he's smiling, so I know I'm not entirely out of line.

Thank God, because otherwise I'd never be able to face him again. Considering I've deigned to called him “Daddy” not just once, but twice, that's saying something.

“I think safe words are a great idea,” he hums, moving closer and reaching up to caress my jaw in a way that sends tingles racing over my skin. “Why don't you pick one now? Two, actually; one to slow down, the other to stop entirely.”

Wow.

Okay, um, first of all, I didn't realise how much I was dreading him saying anything like “Are you sure?” until he didn't say it, and now I'm relieved as fuck.

Second... SAFE WORDS.

I have never, in my 30 some years, ever needed a safe word!

Holy fucking hell; talk about new territory...

“Fuck, I don't... I don't know; I can't- I have literally no idea what I'm doing. I am so bad at this...”

“No, you're not,” he assures, chuckling lightly and leaning forward to touch a light kiss to my nose. “You're fine. Let's just stick with yellow and red for now, okay? Yellow to slow down, red to stop. And if you think of anything, just let me know. Is that acceptable?”

“Totally, yep; I'm cool with that.” I'm already leaning into him, trying to get his mouth on mine.

“Good,” he purrs, finally giving me what I want and kissing me breathless.

At least I did one thing right; I started a relationship with the best fucking tin can ever. God knows I certainly don't deserve him.

Chapter Text

Jingle bells wake me up. Specifically, a cover of Jingle Bell Rock by DJ Chrome, a mixed human-android group that never really took off but managed to get a few hit singles out. They also did several good covers, including the Christmas terror that yanks me out of a weird dream about pancakes.

Hey, it wasn't a nightmare, so I'm not complaining.

I am, however, eager to complain about the noise.

“Orchid, what the fuck??” I snarl at the ceiling, and promptly burrow down against Nines’ side.

“They've been playing Christmas songs for the past hour or so,” he notes softly, amused, and pulls me closer, wrapping his leg over and between mine and kissing my forehead. “I'm surprised you didn't wake up to Deck the Halls; Hank was singing along, at the top of his lungs. Sadie, ironically, shouted at him to keep it down, and Connor couldn't stop laughing.”

“...Is it really Christmas already?” I mumble into his shoulder, basking in his comfortable warmth.

“The date is indeed December 25th, if that's what you mean. Merry Christmas, Gavin.”

“Nooo.... Yesterday was October. And last week was September, just after the Pulse. Fuck time...”

“Am I to assume then that you don't want your presents?”

“I unwrapped you last night,” I grunt, rocking my stiff morning wood against his hip in emphasis. “That's good enough for me.”

Actually, I've ‘unwrapped’ him several time in the past few days since the disaster that was my walk of mortification. In fact, we've spent most of our time either cuddling or fucking, and I am completely okay with that. I've never thought of myself as a clingy person, but I do actually like spending time with Nines, now that I'm not being an ass and denying even the possibility of liking him.

He doesn't respond right away, and I hear Sadie and Connor laughing over the music, presumably at something Hank said. Shifting back, I look up at Nines, curious and a tiny bit concerned by his silence.

“You okay?”

“Yeah,” he assures, smiling while he just stares at me with that gag-inducing look of adoration that always had me booing at movies, but from him, it actually grips my heart and makes it skip a beat. “Yeah, I'm more than okay. I really love you.”

“I know. You're an idiot for it, but that makes you my idiot.”

I'd never say any of this around others, nor would I initiate any kissing, but fortunately, there's nobody else here. Even Buttermilk is gone, out in the parlour because that's where I told him to stay last night when Nines and I found ourselves under a sprig of mistletoe.

“And, because it's Christmas,” I sigh, like it's a big deal, because in a way it kinda is, “I'll say it just this once; love you too, stupid tin can.”

――

“Well, look who decided to join us,” Hank grins when Nines finally lets me get out of bed so we can pull on clothes to go to the parlour, where everyone else is gathered around a sad, spindly little tree that Sadie spent most of yesterday decorating.

It’s not quite so sad and spindly anymore.

Hey, there’s even a couple of wrapped presents under the tree; what do you know?

“Shut up,” I scoff, settling down on a couch and dragging a blanket around me just as Nines takes a seat beside me. “As noisy as you guys were being, I’m amazed I got as much sleep as I did.”

“Sorry,” Connor says sheepishly. “We got a little carried- er, excited; we got a little excited.” That bluish blush creeps into his cheeks again, and I have to admit, he is kinda adorable, in a weird way. I can at least see why Hank keeps a close eye on him.

“Sure that’s the only reason you didn’t get enough sleep?” Hank ribs, cocking a brow at me and Nines.

“You’re just in time for presents, cowboy!” Sadie cuts in, thankfully. I might have done something stupid like asking if Hank got any sleep last night, sharing a room with that twink-bot of his.

Ugh. I’m not sure the satisfaction of flustering him would have been worth the mental image I still have haunting my thoughts from the fucking bunker...

“There are presents?” I ask instead, letting my surprise show.

“Just a few,” Sadie chuckles, going over and kneeling by the tree. “Connor’s gonna make each of us our favourite foods tonight...” ― she tips her head at him in appreciative acknowledgement, making him blush more ― “And Chloe found us a tree and some lights, and helped me decorate yesterday.”

Chloe smiles from where she’s sitting in an armchair off to the side with Crystal purring loudly in her lap and Buttermilk curled around her feet. He’s watching me, but he hasn’t moved, and I’m assuming it’s because I haven’t told him he can move yet.

“Hank brought some three or four weeks o’ food for us,” Sadie goes on, nodding to him as well. “And I... made somethin’ for each o’ ya.” She grins, looking devilishly gleeful as she picks up a package wrapped in blue and white, and checks the name. “Hank. Hope ya don’t mind; don’t know you too well yet, so I wasn’t sure what you’d appreciate most.”

She tosses the package to him, but I’m already tuning out, wondering if I can scoot a little closer to Nines without drawing attention to myself. Maybe I can get up for some water and just sit closer to him when I get back? Or-

“Cowboy, for you,” Sadie says, interrupting my thoughts. I barely wiggle free of the blanket in time to catch the candy-cane striped box she lobs at me. “And Nines.” She flips a smaller box, with red presents on a green background ― how cute ― at him. He catches it easily and tugs off the wrapping paper without hesitation.

Curious, I lean over as he pulls the top off the box, but I don’t get a chance to see it before he bursts into laughter, almost dropping it.

“What is it?” Connor queries, leaning past Hank, who’s contentedly admiring the wide, metal-plated leather bracelet he just put on.

Still chuckling, Nines pulls a coil of metal chain-link from the box, at the end of which is a metal tab intricately carved with leaves and berries.

Oh please don’t be what I think it is...

“I’m pretty sure that’s supposed to be mistletoe,” Nines grins, handing the necklace to Connor so he can inspect it up close.

“Read the back,” Sadie prompts, staring tauntingly at me.

Oh God... Kill me now.

“Christmas or not,” Connor reads aloud, dissolving into giggles, which makes it almost impossible for him to finish, “you’ll always have an excuse!” Chloe giggles too, and Hank barks a laugh as Connor hands it back to Nines, who winks at me.

Yeah, I’m not snuggling up to him anymore.

Jackass.

I burrow into the blanket, wedging further into the corner of the couch, grumbling to myself and hoping the heat creeping up my neck isn’t visible to anyone else.

“That’s good,” Hank snickers. “I like it. The design is pretty cool too. Did you do it?”

“Mm,” Sadie nods. “I bent every link, and carved every line.”

“You made the chain too?” Nines’ brows raise in amazement, and though I won’t admit it aloud, I’m impressed too.

“Made every piece of every present myself,” Sadie hums proudly, puffing up her chest. “Although, gotta admit, I started that chain long ‘fore I met you boys. Didn’t know what t’do with it ‘til I was ‘bout finished carvin’ that pendant, not after.... Never mind; let’s just say there was a bit, uh... bit o’ divine inspiration involved.”

I can’t tell if that’s supposed to be a joke on me or not, but either way, I guarantee the chain was going to be for someone else, someone who died. My thoughts go back to the dog tag she gave me, and I’m more certain than ever that she had a partner of some sort before she came into our lives, guns blazing.

Literally.

“‘Nuff ‘bout me now, boys,” she chirps, gaze sliding across to Connor. “I believe you got somethin’ to say, no?” Connor promptly flushes a vivid indigo blue, suddenly timid.

“Ah, yes... I do. Did you finish it?” he asks, standing. Sadie grins so broadly, I’m surprised the metal parts of her face can handle it. Without a word, she hands him a tiny, unwrapped box smaller than her fist; it’s about the size...

Wait. Is he...?

Mildly intrigued, and hoping for a chance to see someone else embarrassed instead of me, I lean forward eagerly.

“I could say a lot of things,” Connor says slowly, gripping the box carefully in his hands, “and I even prepared an entire speech full of memories and anecdotes, but... Now that I have the chance to speak, I just want to get straight to the point, so out with the proverbial notecards. Hank...” The old man frowns, perplexed, but it slowly dawns on him as Connor continues, and his jaw drops. “I know we talked about it before the Pulse, but with everything that happened, we never had a chance to talk about it again. I took matters into my own hands, and I hope I’m not out of line in thinking this is okay... Would you be willing to marry me?” Removing the top of the box, he spills a thick ring into his hand ― silver with a faintly glowing blue band in the centre ― and offers it, going to one knee.

“Connor...” Hank’s voice breaks, and he rubs his hand over his beard, blinking back tears.

I suddenly get the feeling I’m intruding.

So much for seeing him embarrassed... I sit back, shifting across to lean against Nines’ side; carefully, so I don’t open the still healing mark on my back.

“Nothing would make me happier,” Hank manages, reaching for the ring with his left hand. Connor catches it and slides the ring on himself, still blushing, but smiling brighter than the lights on the tree.

“Ugh, romance,” I mutter, settling closer to Nines when he shifts to put his arm around my shoulder. He chuckles lowly, but doesn’t respond, even though I know he gets the irony of my statement combined with my actions.

“What’s the glowy part?” Hank asks, pulling Connor onto his lap while he inspects the ring.

“LED?” Chloe offers, reaching up to tap the blue circle on her temple.

“Indeedy,” Sadie grins. “Connor’s, in fact.” Hank immediately grabs Connor’s chin, turning his head to see his other temple.

“You took it off,” he says bluntly, surprised.

“I did,” Connor agrees bashfully. “Now I won’t wake you up in the middle of the night.”

“Thank God I don’t have to worry about that,” I mutter to myself, peeking up at Nines. He glances down at me at the same time, catching my gaze, and smiles.

“No, you have an entirely different problem,” he notes, and lifts his necklace to tap my nose. “And with this, it’s going to be a lot worse.”

“Lovely,” I scoff, swatting his hand away.

Music has been playing in the background up to now, and suddenly this really, really old song, Alvin and the Chipmunks ‘Christmastime,’ starts playing.

“Oh my fucking God,” I groan, covering my ears. “Please, no. Orchid, change it, please!”

“Sorry, Gavin; I am not controlling the music selection. I merely dispense music through the house and adjust the volume as needed.”

“Then who is controlling it??” I demand, ready to rip whoever chose this song a new asshole.

“Nobody here,” Hank cackles. “Don’t like this song? Come on, Reed; it’s a classic!”

“Maybe from your time, old timey bastard!” I snap. “It drives me crazy! Tina insisted on playing it at least five times every Christmas party at the precinct for years!!”

“Um... remember the... inconsequential news we brought?” Connor speaks up timidly, apologetic.

“What about it?” I growl, annoyed enough without him changing the subject.

“The Downtown Detroit Colony managed to get a radio station up and running, local stations only,” he explains sheepishly. “They’ve been playing Christmas songs for the past two weeks.”

“That’s what this is??” I squawk. “The radio??”

“Attempted breach,” Orchid announces suddenly, putting everyone on high alert. “RK1000 has attempted to force access to my systems.”

Oh my fucking God... He'd better not be doing what I think he's doing.

“1K!” I bellow, shoving to my feet and clawing at the blanket until I'm free, ignoring the thump of my unopened present to the floor; I just step over it to go find the metal ass.

“Gavin...” someone calls after me. I ignore them, and almost run into 1K as he comes into the room just when I'm about to leave.

“You called, Detective?”

I'd say he's oozing innocence, but the goddamn machine can't even feign feelings, much less pretend.

“Did you just attack Orchid?” I demand, trying not to think of the parallels to Connor and how we interacted before he deviated.

“I attempted and failed to transfer control of the sound system to myself,” he answers easily. “You expressed extreme distaste in the current song, so I made an effort to remove the source of your irritation.”

What do I even say to that?

Honestly, I'm not even sure how to deal with him anymore. After my huge embarrassment, he actually kept his distance, and if I told him to leave, he did. He's done nothing but try to please me since then, and every time we interact, it gets harder not to think of him like a child or a stubborn alley cat.

And when I say cat, I don't mean like Crystal; she was out on her own when I found her, but she's clearly used to a housecat lifestyle, whereas 1K reminds me more of the contentious brats of felines I used to feed out behind the DPD, the ones I tried in vain to befriend but were more likely to scratch me than let me pet them. Oh they'd come at a whistle, eager for food, but bonding with them was impossible.

Sighing and rubbing at the bridge of my nose to push back a migraine, I hold up a hand to keep him from saying anything else while I try to come up with a solution for the problem he's quickly becoming.

‘Christmastime’ ends, thank God, and another really old song comes on: ‘You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.’

“Oy, cowboy, it's your song!” Sadie calls, prompting laughter from the others.

Ironically, it gives me an idea.

“Okay, listen up, 1K,” I say, stepping back. “I'm done with the whole... straddling the fence, whatever, nonsense. I'm gonna give you two choices. Either you can come join us and actually take part in what we're doing, not just standing over my shoulder like a damn mama bear, or you can go back to Greyling and guard the stupid little lab where you probably won't see anyone again for God knows how long. Up to you.” Turning away before he can say anything, I go back to the others, picking up my present and sitting on the edge of the couch. “So. Where were we?”

“Under the mistletoe?” Nines grins, holding up his necklace. I snatch at his wrist while the others laugh.

“Fucking save it, tin can!” I scold him, but I can't help a small grin in return.

“Ya never opened your present,” Sadie offers, reaching across to gather some of the torn wrapping paper lying around into a pile.

“Hm. Then I better do that,” I decide. “Butter, come here, boy.” He perks up, but doesn't move, and I know he's doing that cat thing; he won't come until he can pretend it was his own decision. “Well fine. Be that way, floofball.”

“I didn't know you were such a cat person,” Hank notes as I tear into the candy-cane wrapping.

“There's a lot you don't know about me, old man,” I snort, pushing the paper out of the way and opening the box, which is actually kinda heavy, by the way.

Oh my fuck.

No way.

“No fucking way...” I give a breathless little laugh of awe, reaching into the box to pull out the most beautiful gun I've ever seen. And I've seen a LOT of firearms. “You made this?”

“Every spring and mechanism,” Sadie beams, so proud you'd think it was her baby.

In a way, I suppose it kinda is.

“It's fucking gorgeous,” I grin, testing how it feels in each hand.

“What kind of gun is that?” Hank frowns curiously, shifting closer to get a look.

“My own design,” she crows. “Been workin’ on it for years; finally made a functionin’ prototype ‘bout seven or eight months ago, ‘round about the start of the summer. Been perfecting it since, and that right there is the first official, market-worthy model o’ the Morgansmith Handcannon.”

“Quite the name,” Connor notes, cocking a mildly sceptical brow.

“It's in the works,” she laughs, crinkling her nose. “Check out that knob on the handle there, cowboy. Don't ask how, but that'll let you adjust the barrel to handle most pistol ammunition. Not including special bullets like hollow tip, split point, or anything like that. That's what took me so long to get. Always thought I'd sell it to the government for the military to use in them hectic war zones so ain't nobody gonna run out o’ their own ammo and have to pick up an unfamiliar weapon. But no better place to use it than an apocalypse, eh boys?”

I'm not sure anyone can speak after that shocking reveal; I certainly can't.

Forget even trying; I set the gun on Nines’ lap, slip off the couch and grab Sadie in a tight embrace. She jolts subtly, tensing up, but recovers and returns the hug before I can pull away to apologise.

“Glad ya like, cowboy. I know you'll make good use of it.”

Someone clears their throat, cutting into the moment, and I quickly pull away, half expecting to see Elijah. Instead, 1K is standing hesitantly behind the couch currently occupied by Hank and Connor. Nines stiffens, lip curling, but doesn't say anything or make any move to interfere.

I notice in the sudden silence that the one Christmas song with the ‘war is over’ lines is playing. The old, old version the original, I think.

How morbidly apropos.

“You've made your choice?” I prompt when 1K doesn't speak, standing and going back over to stand by Nines, so I can stop him if he does anything stupid. He wraps his hand around the back of my thigh possessively, but still does nothing, so I thread my fingers through his hair, making it clear to him and 1K both that I'm taken.

“I... would like to stay,” 1K says quietly, uncertain. “But I am well aware that I am... unwelcome. I-”

“I'm gonna stop you right there, dishwasher,” I cut in, waving him off. “You're only unwelcome because you're so goddamn annoying. Stop trying to ‘help’ and just... Watch. Learn. Do what's asked of you and nothing more until you know what we want. You'll figure it out if you just stop being so... robotic. As much as I hate to admit this, and I'm only going to say this once... You can actually be pretty useful. So in the spirit of Christmas, this is my present to you: from now on, I'm not calling you by your model number anymore. Whether you want to make it your name or not, I'm calling you Erik.”

Chapter Text

“I know you're gonna be busy in a couple hours getting injected a potentially life-ending mixture, but I need a favour.” Sadie's first reaction is a flash of pure panic, and I immediately regret everything, but before I can take it back, she barks a thoroughly unconvincing laugh.

“All y'all do,” she chuckles, still clearly nervous, but I'm not really sure how to call her on it. “What can I do ya for?”

“I... You know? Never mind; I'll figure it out myself.” If I'm honest, I said that only partly to apologise for reminding her of the risk she's taking; it's fucking embarrassing, what I want.

“No, wait, Gavin...” She catches my arm as I turn to leave, letting it go just as quickly and clasping her hands together in front of her, but not before I see them trembling.

Actually, the whole of her body is trembling, minutely.

“I'd welcome the distraction,” she admits quietly.

“Sadie... are you really okay with this?” I ask. I'm not sure what the best way is to comfort her, so I just do the first thing I think of, which is taking her hands in mine. She resists for a moment, half panicking again. “Relax; if you can carve mistletoe into a quarter-inch piece of metal, you can hold my hand without crushing it. And if you've changed your mind about the serum, just say the word and I'll go get in a fight with Eli so he backs off. Not like we don't fight enough as it is...” She laughs again, this time a bit less nervous, and grips my hands carefully.

“You have any idea how long it's been since I held a human hand, cowboy?” she whispers, watching the way her hands flex and adjust to holding mine. “Years. Ain't even so much as hugged another human since the accident. Got hugs, sure, but I never trusted myself enough to... Never trusted trusted this... metal not to hurt the people I love. I've been livin’ apart from others for so long, I'd given up hope of ever trustin’ myself again. I am scared, I'll admit it, and I ain't scared of much, but if I don't do this, I'll regret it the rest o’ my life.”

“You don't need some... sci-fi goo to make you... perfect, or whatever,” I scoff. “That stuff didn't make you capable of blowing the head off a Scav at fifty yards. Didn't give you the skills to create an entirely new type of gun that no one has ever been able to make before. Certainly didn't have anything to do with your ability to make some of the finest jewellery I've ever seen, not that I've seen much to begin with... But that's just what you can do with these hands.” I shake them a bit in emphasis and then let one go to tap her forehead. “And that's not even what you got here. Or here.” Carefully, so I don't poke her breast, I tap the centre of her chest. “You're already the perfect combination, the perfect cyborg. The rest of us know it. But do what you need to; we'll stand by you whatever you decide.”

When she looks up at me, a fat tear streaks her cheek, and now I'm uncomfortable. I'm no good with emotional women; that's reason numero uno why I never had a girlfriend for very long!

“Thank you,” she croaks, rubbing the wet from her cheek, cyber-eye clicking and adjusting while she blinks away the rest of her tears, sniffling. “Sorry, I... I really needed to hear that. Nines is one lucky ‘droid, and I think he knows it.”

Right; that reminds me...

Jesus, this is going to be embarrassing as hell.

“Ahem. So, ah... Don't suppose you got a minute...?”

――

Sadie jumped on my idea a little more enthusiastically than I was expecting, and by the time she lets me go, I feel somewhat like I've been violated in some way, but not so bad that I really regret it, necessarily...

Okay, time for phase two.

Thankfully, Nines is out, making a run with Connor ― so they can spend some brother-bonding time together, which makes no sense to me, but whatever ― to the dump to get some thing for Eli, as well as a bit of scrap for Sadie's next project. They took Buttermilk out with them; Connor wanted to get to know him, and I didn't really see a problem with that, so I just told him to stay with Connor.

I'm searching through the rooms, looking for 1K ― no, Erik ― and I find Chloe playing with Crystal, which annoys me a bit, but at the same time, I've been pretty occupied lately, so I'm glad she's got someone to see to her needs.

“Hey, Chloe, have you seen Erik?”

“Mm... I think he-” she cuts off as she glances up, giving me a slow, surprised once-over. Then an intrigued smile tugs at her lips. “I think he's with Hank, learning the coin tricks Connor does while recalibrating. Gavin, that's not for Erik, is it?”

“No. Definitely not,” I assure, shuddering at the mere thought; I've already got trouble keeping up with Nines, much less a far more robotic android.

Honestly, Erik was everything I hated about androids, and I am beyond glad he's starting to change.

When I find them, Hank is chuckling while he flicks a coin around expertly, the way Connor did a lot when he first joined us at the DPD; clearly he’s had a lot of practice. Erik has himself a coin in one hand and is staring at the coin flipping between Hank's fingers, LED spinning yellow.

“Assimilation complete,” Erik hums, LED turning blue. Hank stops and just rolls his coin back and forth over the knuckles of one hand.

“Alright, then; let's see what you got.”

Erik lifts his hands and I lose track of his coin for a moment; he's tossing it around so fast that it's basically a blur of silver between his hands.

“This is... relaxing?” he says hesitantly. “I can almost think more clearly.”

“Hey, Erik,” I call, keeping my distance in case he misses a catch and that coin comes flying at me. “I need you to do something for me.”

“What can I do for you, Detective?” he asks, stopping the coin like he plucked it out of thin air.

“Don’t make them come back until they’re ready, but go tell Nines that I have a present for him, and it’s waiting in my room for him as soon as he gets back.”

“I will leave momentarily,” Erik nods, and then holds out the coin to Hank. “Thank you for showing me this; I hope to make use of it in the future.”

“Keep it,” Hank waves him off as I turn to leave. “Merry Christmas, Erik.”

Chapter Text

New high on my list of stupidest decisions ever. And considering where the bar was set before, clambering up the side of a building like a fucking spider, that's saying something.

What on earth possessed me to think this was a good idea??

Fucking lace?? And the leather halter and cuffs...

Good God, what was I even thinking?

I’m reaching for the clasp when the door clicks open, and immediately I freeze, icy horror bursting through my veins.

“Gavin, I have something for you,” Nines hums softly, a tender note in his voice. Through the mirror, I see that he has a bundle in his arms. His jacket, wrapped around something.

In the instant before he looks up, I have just enough time to regret literally everything, and then I’m caught in a swirl of crystalline blue, drowning in the hunger that flares and sparks a flicker of possessive red.

“What... are you wearing?” he growls, stepping into the room and nudging the door closed with his heel.

“Um... Your present?” I offer before I can think twice.

“Sounds good to me,” he purrs, a confident smirk curling his lips as he strides across the room to lay a hand on my hip and kiss my opposite shoulder. A shiver trembles over my skin, and goosebumps pop up everywhere when his thumb brushes over the lace at my hip, tickling the skin beneath.

God, when did his touch become so intoxicating?

“But first...” I want to groan at the fact that he’s making me wait. “Take a look at what I brought you.”

“Goddamnit, the fuck you wanna show me that’s so import-” I break off when he carefully puts the bundle in front of me so I can see what’s in it. “Oh... My... God... Where...? How...?”

“I found them not far from the dump,” he explains, wrapping his arms around me to hold the bundle better, shifting the jacket to show me that there’s not just one but three tiny little kittens. “Or rather, Butter found them; I just gathered them. Their mother is dead; she died from exposure, and so did three of their siblings. The last one... wouldn’t have made it. I’m sorry...”

“Don’t be,” I whisper, taking the bundle myself and touching my fingers to the warm little bodies. “There are some things you just can’t change. Do me a favour; go get Crystal. She’s probably still with Chloe in the library.”

“Will do,” he chuckles, touching a light kiss to the back of my jaw. “And when I get back, as soon as you’ve taken care of our babies, I’m going to take great pleasure in stripping this lace from you.” With a tantalising growl, he nips sharply at my ear, and I almost drop the kittens, gasping.

“Fuck... Hurry,” I whimper, trembling.

“Promise.”

――

Crystal takes to the kittens instantly; far quicker than I expected, definitely. I hoped she’d like them and at least be willing to keep them warm until I can find a way to feed them, but to my surprise, the moment she sees them, she starts licking them and purring and mewing softly, curling up around them protectively.

Satisfied, I let Nines drag me out of the bathroom and over to the bed, where he shoves me down and straddles my thighs, smirking while he slowly unbuttons his shirt.

“You’ve warmed up to me a lot in the past week,” he says, shrugging the shirt off and dropping it to the floor behind him. “But I never, not ever, would have guessed you’d be willing to wear either lace or leather.”

“Me either,” I scoff, sliding my hands up his thighs to tug at his belt loops. “Don’t get used to it; this is a one-time thing, period. I’d say you can even tear the lace, but I don’t want Sadie to think I don’t appreciate her generosity.”

“Sadie gave these to you?” He cocks an interested brow, catching the metal loops attached to the cuffs on each wrist.

“Gave the lace, made the leather,” I explain shortly, swallowing as I watch his fingers curl over the cuffs approvingly. “Said the lace was going to be a gift for a friend that didn’t make it, and I actually got to watch her make the rest; she’s fucking talented, man... Made this from scratch in less than an hour.”

“Is she the one that gave you a haircut and shaved your beard too?” he hums, pinning my wrists to the sheets above my head and leaning down to nip at my chin. My breath catches. “You look good. I almost miss the scruff, except... you’re so... sensitive without it.” His teeth scrape over my jaw to my throat, drawing a shuddery gasp from me. Tight need bursts through my core, and I rock my hips reactively.

“Oh, fuck... clips,” I manage, tilting my head back to give him better access. “Back of the harness... for the cuffs; lock me up.” I wiggle, trying to roll over so he can get to the clips that’ll keep my hands high up behind my back, but he shifts to stop me.

“Not this time,” he growls, almost directly in my ear, and I swear I almost cum right then and there. “This time, I want to watch you. I want you to watch me, to see how perfectly we fit together.”

Chapter Text

I’m not entirely sure I’m ready for this. Facing him? I still get overwhelmed when I can’t see what he’s doing; am I even capable of being able to see it?

“Settle, Gavin,” he murmurs soothingly against my neck. “Just relax.” He shifts back, dragging his nails down my inner arms, and gets up to finish undressing. My head is spinning anxiously, so I try to focus on something, anything, to distract myself.

His chest.

“Your chest plate,” I say quickly, before I can stop myself. “Take it off.” Pausing, he frowns at me, brushing a hand absently along the invisible edge of the plate.

“Why?”

“Your pump. If I have to be sensitive, so do you.” His frown deepens for a moment, and then he laughs.

“You noticed?” he asks, rubbing the side of his neck sheepishly. “I really ought to stop underestimating your skills.” His skin melts away from the plate, and he detaches it carefully, setting it on the floor with his clothes before coming back to the bed. “I suppose it’s only fair.”

In a moment, he’s kneeling between my legs, my knees braced over his hips, and anxiety blooms into panic as his hands glide up my thighs to my hips.

“Wait, Nines...” I grab his wrists, stopping him. “I’m- I can’t- I don’t think I can...”

“Red?” he offers, watching me carefully.

I don’t want to stop; not even close.

“No...”

But I don’t know how to explain the tight knot of unease holding me back.

“Yellow?”

Maybe? Except if I don't do this now, I'll never do it.

“I- No. Just...” I can't think how to phrase it, and he captures my lips before I can figure it out, destroying all thought process.

“Nothing leaves this room,” he mumbles around my tongue. “I won't do anything you don't want; just say a safe word and I'll comply. But don't taunt me with such a scandalous outfit and then deny me satisfaction.”

He could be issuing commands with that tone of voice, and fuck if it doesn't make me just a little needy. It also helps ease the panic back into anxiety.

“Okay,” I breathe. “Take me then. Just go slow...?”

Yeah, so much for that.

Within minutes, I'm sitting upright on his lap, lace pulled aside so I can ride his cock without interference, cuffs clipped together behind his head, where I have my fingers tangled in his hair and gripping tightly as he mouths at a nipple. Waves of heat curl through me with every flick of his tongue and scrape of his teeth, but that may be due more to the fact that he wedged a finger in alongside his dick and is tugging roughly with every stroke.

“Okay, baby?” he hums, tweaking my nipple with his teeth before tipping his head back to look up at me.

“Yeah,” I gasp, tugging him closer and grinding my hips forward to get a little friction through the lace against his stomach. “Love it, Daddy; so fucking good...” Arching my back, I rock forward again, rubbing against his pump, which stutters and then thumps through my entire body as he yanks me back against him and braces himself to support my entire weight while he thrusts up roughly, dragging a hoarse cry from my throat.

“Fuck, Gavin,” he whines, biting hard at my collarbone. The desperation in his voice goes straight to my cock, and I swear I see stars with the need to cum.

“Ah! Ple-please... Daddy, please; ‘m so close!”

“Cum for me, baby,” he commands raggedly, voice cracking.

Jesus, I want to, but...

“I can't,” I whimper, half ready to cry in frustration, “I need... I need...”

“Need what, baby?” he rumbles, almost, almost pushing me over the edge.

“Again,” I beg, holding my breath. “Again; growl... command me.” A low, possessive growl rolls through him, tightening the coil of heat in my gut too far; it snaps even as he orders me to cum again, and I definitely go blind with the pleasure for just a moment.

Despite being lost in my own bliss, I still feel the startling pulse of him exploding inside me, and a cold flood of shock washes away the pleasure to replace it with extreme concern.

Nines goes instantly still, not even breathing, and I know he's aware that despite the countless times we've fucked, he's never cum. He's had surges that mimic orgasms, but never once has he cum.

“What the hell was that?” I ask quietly, worried.

“I think... I burst the tube,” he answers just as quietly.

“Burst th- Are you bleeding inside me?”

“No, not... Shortly after I, ah, marked you,” he explains, running his hand over the tender new scar on my back, “I asked Elijah to... make me more human, in terms of sexual reactions; he didn't have all the right parts to finish it, so he improvised, but... well, simply put, until I experience a strong enough surge, I wouldn't be able to cum properly.”

“So you just came inside me. Without a condom. Fuck, this is going to be hell to clean up,” I grumble. He barks a short, relieved laugh.

“That's all you have to say?”

“What else am I gonna say?” I scoff, annoyed that I didn't get to savour the post-orgasm high, and irritable now that I've started realising just how much I let go of my inhibitions this afternoon.

“You're not concerned about STDs, or...?” He slides his hands down over my hips and back up my stomach and chest, tracing the bite marks he's left.

“Should I be?”

“Well, no, but...”

“Then my biggest concern is the fact that I now get to clean out my ass because you couldn't warn me that you might possibly be able to ejaculate. Thanks a lot, tin can.” An odd, sappy look crosses his face, and just as I go to push away, he grabs me in a tight embrace, pressing a firm kiss to the base of my throat.

“I love you, Gavin... So much.” Taken aback enough to cancel out some of my irritation, I sigh softly and press my cuffed hands against his back to return the hug.

“Yeah, same. Now let me go so I can shower before Sadie's inquisition; I want to be there to keep the mad scientist from killing her.”

Chapter Text

“Last chance to back out, Sadie,” I point out, gripping her trembling hand.

I don’t know whether I want her to say yes or no.

“We gotta test it, cowboy,” she says, no trace of her fear in her voice even though it paints her expression in clammy white, “and I don’t see any other cyborgs around; do you?”

She won’t look at me. She won’t look at anything but the vial of mixed blood Eli’s going to inject her with in a minute.

“We can figure something else out,” I insist for the fifth time tonight. Sixth? No, eighth. Er, seventh? I can’t even remember.

Sadie’s not the only one terrified of what might happen.

I can’t explain it; in the span of a month, she’s become the closest friend I’ve ever had. Tina was a good friend, before the Pulse. Jordan, back at the academy. Kingsley and Angel in high school... I can count all of the friends I’ve ever had on one goddamn hand.

Angel died of cancer. Kingsley moved away. Jordan graduated with me, and was promptly assigned to an auxiliary unit that was sent off to Chicago for something within the year; I never heard from him again. And Tina...

I had to watch Tina go insane with bloodlust. Had to blow her skull to bits to protect Hank.

I can’t lose Sadie too.

“Ain’t nothin’ doin’, cowboy,” Sadie scoffs, an edge creeping into her voice with the thicker accent. “Now or never; let’s start the new year off right, eh?”

“Or in a spray of blood and brain,” I mutter, pushing aside my own insecurities and reminding myself that I’m not the one looking death in the face.

“Ya ain’t helpin’, Gavin,” she huffs, tearing her gaze from the vial to give me a dark look.

“Sorry,” I grimace. “I don’t exactly have the greatest bedside manner.”

“I noticed.”

“Okay, everything’s ready,” Elijah says, finishing whatever preparations he’s making. He gestures Sadie over, and she gives my hand one last squeeze before sitting on the edge of the table that I’ve only ever seen androids on.

“Got yer gun?” she asks me, meeting my gaze.

Why did I agree to this again?

I tap the Morgansmith at my hip with a nod. In the event that she warps, I’ve got the lovely task of execution.

Again.

I’m not a praying man, but God, please don’t let her warp.

Taking a deep breath, like a diver about to go under, she takes off her overshirt and lays back on the table in a tank top, showing off just how far the prosthetics go; up to the elbow on the right, and all the way across her shoulder on the left. In fact, there’s almost no skin on the entire left side of her body, not that I can see.

Her hands are still trembling.

“I didn’t get to do all the testing I would have liked to do,” Elijah notes grimly, “but I’m not equipped for anything more than I’ve already done. Fortunately, every test I have done has come out with a positive outcome, save one, and I’ve already taken precautions against it. Orchid, begin recording.”

“Recording in progress.”

“To be thorough, let’s start from the beginning. My name is Elijah Kamski, and with me in the room are Detective Gavin Reed and Chloe as witnesses, along with the test subject. State your name, please.”

“Sarah ‘Sadie’ Morgan, age 39, born and raised just outside Valdosta, Georgia.” Her accent is negligible now, and her eye is glazed over.

I can only imagine how far into her own mind she’s retreating to keep from panicking.

“Briefly explain your accident and the resulting injuries.”

“I was crushed under the remains of a building mostly demolished by a gas main explosion. My entire left side, from temple to hip, was damaged beyond repair. Got replaced with cyborg-adapted android components from a prototype household model of my own design, influenced by the BV500 model. Amputated body parts include a section of skull, my left eye and ear, a portion of my neck and vocal chords, my left shoulder and clavicle, my entire left arm, my left lung, and four of my ribs on the left side. I lost half my right arm, too, from the elbow down, and my right leg, from the knee down.”

“Hell, Sadie...” Elijah breathes shakily, saying exactly what I’m thinking; neither of us realised just how extensive her injuries were. “How are you even alive?”

“Damn cursed,” she answers quietly.

There’s a tense pause before Elijah takes a breath and lets it out slowly. Then he explains a little about the serum, in technical terms, for the record, while taking a syringe and filling it with as much of the vial as he can.

“This will be the one and only human test conducted by myself, ever,” he says suddenly, grabbing Sadie’s hand and gripping it tight. “I take full responsibility for whatever follows from the moment of injection on. Are you ready, Sadie?”

“As I’ll ever be, doc,” she quips, managing a terse smile. He forces one in response, and it takes everything I have to stay where I am when he clears the air from the syringe and pokes the needle into her right arm, just above the component.

“No turning back now,” I whisper, hoping desperately that Sadie will be okay, that she’ll survive and I won’t have to lose another friend.

She’s taking deep, shuddery breaths, barely keeping herself calm, her hands clenched in tight fists at her sides.

“Thirty seconds from injection,” Elijah announces, keeping one eye on his watch and the other on Sadie, but otherwise standing like a statue.

She grimaces, but from the look she gives him, it’s more because he’s keeping track aloud than from anything the serum is doing to her.

“One minute,” he says anyway, shortly after.

“Shut up,” I snap at him, nerves strung tight and raw with anxiety.

She’s going to be okay.

She has to; I don’t know how I’m going to be able to handle it if she isn’t.

“Two min-”

“Hot!” Sadie gasps, cutting him off. I grab instinctively for the Morgansmith, terror jolting through me.

“Sadie?” Elijah leans over her as she shudders. “Sadie, talk to me; what’s going on?”

“GET BACK!” she roars, startling all three of us.

I’ve never heard her raise her voice.

“Shit!” Elijah jerks back, almost stumbling against the table holding the empty syringe and vial. “Gavin!”

“Shut up!” I snarl again, already taking aim, but keeping my finger off the trigger. She’s not moving, except in a full body shudder, and I’m not shooting until there’s no other option.

Elijah positions himself with a clear path to the door, and Chloe backs up to the computer, watching us carefully while she starts typing, doing something, but I don’t care to know what right now; my focus is totally on Sadie as I take a step closer to the table.

“Sadie?” I speak slowly and gently, the way I sometimes talk to stray cats when I’m trying to put them at ease. “Are you alright?”

She groans, and I stop, adjusting my grip on the gun and swallowing nervously. Then she suddenly begins to push herself up, and I can’t wait any longer; I move my finger to the trigger.

“Sadie! Stop right there.” The tone that comes out reflexively is the same one I’ve used on countless douchebags who thought running from the cops was a good idea, the one that I’ve perfected to the point that most criminals trip because they automatically try to obey whether they want to or not, but it doesn’t even faze Sadie; she sits up, bracing herself with one hand on the table, and covers her face with the other, hair sliding down to veil it as well.

Oh God, please...

“Sadie?”

Please, please, please...

She gives a low growl that makes my stomach plummet through the floor and my heart lodge in my throat. I’m already trying to close myself off mentally so I can pull the trigger without hesitation, and then she drops her hand, looking up at me and blinking.

“Hey there, cowboy,” she croaks, a tiny, exhausted smile tugging at her lips. “Almost thought Nines joined us; got real hot in here for a sec.”

Pure, cool relief sweeps through me, soothing the burn of agony that had begun gnawing at my chest, and I almost drop the Morgansmith, shoving it back in its holster as I take the last three steps and throw my arms around her shoulders.

Chapter Text

The silver of Nines’ mistletoe pendant stands out against his black turtleneck, and for a moment I just stare at it, leaning against the doorframe.

“If you want a response, it’s still far easier to actually say something first,” he notes lightly, turning the page of whatever book he’s reading now, and then carefully lifting one of the kittens higher on his chest so it can’t attack the page. The other two are batting at each other while Crystal alternately licks each of their faces.

They’ve barely opened their eyes and they’re already playing with each other. This is good; that means they’re recovering well from their exposure.

“Should we name them?” I ask absently, pushing away from the door to cross the room and sit on the edge of the bed, where I can reach the kittens.

“You aren’t going to let them out of your sight if you can help it,” Nines notes dryly, giving me a bland look over his book. “Name them.”

“I meant both of us,” I retort, giving him a look just as bland. “You were the one that called them ‘our’ children.”

He goes still, and the faintest hint of blue creeps into his cheeks.

Wow. I didn’t think it was that easy to make him blush...

“Fair enough,” he says easily, not giving me a chance to push and see if I can get the blush to deepen. Glancing at the bottom of the page, he leans past me and sets the book on the nightstand. “What kind of names did you have in mind?”

“Dunno,” I reply, staring at the pendant again as it slides back and forth with his movements. “I pick names based on what I observe.”

“Is that so?” The corner of his mouth tips up in amusement, and I wonder if he’s thinking about the fact that I gave him his name more out of spite than anything else. “How did you pick ‘Crystal’?”

My turn.

Heat creeps up my neck into my cheeks and I look at her so I’m not looking at the eyes that are her namesake.

“That, ah...” I clear my throat and push it out before I can think twice. “Did you know her eyes are the same colour as yours?” When I manage to glance up at him, that smirk is twitching at the corners, threatening to break into a full grin.

“Crystal. Not ‘Icy’?”

“I, um... I always thought of it as ‘crystalline ice,’” I admit, burning.

“Interesting.” Then, thank God, he changes the subject. “Then I suppose we’ll have to wait and observe them a little more, mm?” Picking up the kitten on his chest, he lifts it carefully to eye level, giving it a little bunny kiss. It mews a tiny, overwhelmingly adorable mew, and inexplicable pride sparks in his gaze, making my heart skip.

“Let’s take them with us.” He turns a curious look on me, cocking his head.

“Take them... where?” he asks, mildly confused.

“Ah, um... Right; that’s what I was coming to talk to you about in the first place,” I remember, inwardly berating myself. “I was talking to Hank and Connor after Sadie went to sleep, and... Hank thinks we should go see the Scav.”

“In Jericho?” he frowns.

“Yeah. Connor agrees. There’s no safer way for a Scav and a normal human to meet than in the middle of a crowd of androids. His words, not mine.”

“...I’m inclined to agree,” Nines says slowly, setting the kitten down beside Crystal, who gives a mewling purr and starts licking at that one too.

“But...?”

“But I don’t like the idea of you being in danger,” he says bluntly. I open my mouth to lay into him for it, but he holds up a hand to stop me. “I know; you were a cop and you know how to take care of yourself and all that... But it’s different now.”

He doesn’t say it, but he doesn’t have to.

This is the part of having a relationship that I always ran from before; the emotional partnership thing. I have enough trouble just expressing myself except through snark and sarcasm without connecting to someone else and taking their emotions into account as well.

“Compromise is a thing, bitch-can,” I grumble, rubbing the backs of my fingers gently over one of the kittens’ side.

“I know. I’m not saying no. But I don’t have to like it.” A good kind of warmth blooms in my chest, and I look up, surprisingly grateful; he’s doing his best not to tie me down, and I can’t help the desire to reciprocate.

“There’ll be all kinds of precautions,” I point out, “but if you don’t think it’s safe when the time comes, I won’t do it. Promise.” He cracks a relieved little smile, laying his hand on my knee and giving it a gentle squeeze.

“Thank you.”

“Shut up and kiss me.”

Chapter Text

The place is a goddamn maze.

“How the hell do you even know where you’re going?” I scowl at Connor’s back, ducking past the remains of a rusted metal staircase.

“I’ve been here before,” he answers with a chuckle. “A couple of times. I had it memorised after the first. Perks of a computer brain.” He grins at me over his shoulder and I flip him off more out of habit than anything else.

“Fuck!” There’s a wrenching screech and clatter of metal as Hank trips over something in the dark, and Connor immediately goes to his side, offering him a flashlight. “Would’ve been helpful earlier, Connor...”

“Sorry; I didn’t think about it.”

“They don’t have our eyes,” Nines notes in amusement. Considering the glow of his eyes is the only reason I haven’t done the same as Hank, I’m not saying a word.

“Yeah, I keep forgetting,” Connor admits sheepishly.

So much for that computer brain.

“Connor?”

I tense up reactively, but I don’t even start to reach for my gun before I recognise the voice.

“Markus!” Connor greets cheerfully, confirming my thought. “I’m sorry I didn’t warn you ahead of time; Hank and Detective Reed want to see the Scav.”

“Really?” I can’t see him very well, but it looks like he’s eying us. “Come with me.”

An awkward air settles over us as we follow him through the labyrinth that is Jericho; with the exception of Connor, none of us have really had any contact with Markus for over a year, since the big showdown. And for two of us, that last contact was on the opposite side of the standoff.

Then we reach a huge area lit with lanterns where the patches of sunlight coming down through rusted holes far above don’t reach.

And holy hell, that’s a lot of androids...

They were chattering amicably until we appeared, and suddenly now everyone goes quiet, curious gazes locked on us. A path clears silently through the clusters, leading to a staircase of newer, shiny metal ― they must have repaired or outright replaced it ― and Markus gestures for us to follow him up.

A few of the androids tentatively greet Connor as he passes, but otherwise, they all keep their distance, and I’m not entirely sure that it’s because of Buttermilk padding along behind me.

“Is it just me, or are they looking at us like we’re enemies?” I mutter to Nines. His hand grazes my lower back as he ushers me up the stairs and climbs up right behind me.

“A little of both, I’d say,” he hums, unbothered. No surprise, I guess; he could easily whoop just about any android here, and probably more than a handful at once. I shift a little bit closer to him when we reach what must have been a communication room or something once, way back when this giant metal tub used to float. Now it’s apparently Markus’ office.

“Have a seat,” the oldest RK offers, waving his hand at a bunch of wood crates and old chairs next to a card table, taking a seat himself next to a blonde android who glances up curiously before returning to the papers in front of him.

“Hello, Simon,” Connor smiles, sitting close to Markus but leaning into Hank the moment he sits down. The blonde glances up again, a faint sheepish blush hinting at his cheeks and ears.

“Hi, Connor. We didn’t expect you back so soon...” He starts fidgeting, fingering the papers, and Markus lays a hand on his arm, attention still on us.

“Ariel hasn’t said much since her initial confession,” he says, jumping right in. “She’s been extremely closed off, and she won’t eat; we’ve managed to coax her into drinking animal blood, but she clearly hates it. It’s good that you came when you did; I’m not sure she’ll last much longer.”

“Then you know what we’re here for.” It’s a statement, not a question, and it draws Markus’ gaze to Nines.

Cerulean blue and seafoam green . An interesting combination, and one that stuck out when he first rose to power in Jericho. I’d say I’m mildly surprised he hasn’t replaced one or the other to have a matching set, but really, I’m not. It’s one of those things that’s just so characteristic of a person that you can’t imagine them without it.

“...Yes,” he says after a long moment, still staring at Nines. There’s a question in his gaze, and I hold my tongue, leaving it to Nines to decide whether or not he wants to answer.

“RK900. Nines.” He dips his head in polite respect, and Markus returns it.

“I’ve heard of you, and not just from Connor. You were supposed to replace him. You vanished just before the Pulse...?” Another question.

“I’m here now,” Nines says firmly.

I missed something in that exchange, and I don’t like it.

Back off my tin can, robo-revolution.

“Where’s the Scav?” I cut in bluntly, getting his attention off Nines. “We want to talk to her.”

“Of course you do,” Markus agrees dismissively. “However, she is Jericho’s prisoner, and in case you’ve forgotten, we and the Detroit Police haven’t exactly been on the greatest of terms.”

“We haven’t forgotten,” Hank rumbles, ignoring Connor’s cautioning look. “That’s history, pal; ancient history, as far as I’m concerned.”

“Mm. And you, Detective Reed?” Markus turns that cerulean-seafoam on me, waiting.

It wasn’t a threat, what he said. It wasn’t even a hostile reminder. In fact, if I’m right, it was a test; he wants to negotiate.

Well. Two can play that game.

“Just Reed,” I say simply, leaning back in my chair so I can pull out whichever kitten is getting restless from my hoodie pocket.

The other two are still sleeping, but this one wants to play now. As soon as it comes into view of Crystal, she mews and hops down from Buttermilk’s head, jumping up into my lap and purring at the kitten, who mews back.

“We’re not exactly with the DPD anymore,” I point out, keeping a careless tone and pretending to pay more attention to the felines than to Markus. “I’m not entirely sure it even exists now, thanks to the chaos the Pulse caused.”

“I see,” he hums. “Then in whose capacity are you here?”

“It can’t be our own?” I shoot back, cutting a sidelong glance at him.

“It can, but it isn’t,” he returns just as easily, an amused smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. I flick a hand in admittance.

“Elijah Kamski. We’re, ah... We have our own little team, I suppose. Myself, Nines, Eli, and a bright cyborg from down south; Sadie. We’re looking into the Pulse and we happened to figure out some things about the Scavs, so...” I shrug. “What better way to get some answers than from a Scav itself?”

While Markus is considering that, Simon timidly turns his hand to lace his fingers through Markus’, their skin fading back to their wrists. A moment later, Markus gives a faint scoff, lips curling up, and a split second after, bright blue explodes over Simon’s features.

I don’t even want to know.

“You understand that there is no guarantee she’ll talk to a normal human, right?” Markus clarifies, absently rubbing his thumb over the back of Simon’s hand. “She’s been starved of her preferred diet for so long that she may attack before you can even say a word.”

And there goes my chance to talk to her.

“Yeah, we, uh...” I glance irritably up at Nines. “We’ve talked about it already.” He doesn’t comment or even crack his passive expression; reaching over, he takes the kitten from me and lifts Crystal into his lap as well, pointedly ignoring me. Scowling, I bury my hand in Buttermilk’s mane instead.

Fuck it. I didn’t come all this way to let Hank have all the fun.

“Fortunately,” I say, looking back at Markus, “we have a lion.”

Chapter Text

Ariel’s in a frenzy before we even reach the room; we can hear her shrieking by the time we get three steps down the hall. The CX100 standing guard shifts uneasily, and moves out of the way as we get closer.

“Well, that answers that,” Markus sighs, stopping and shaking his head at the door. “I guess this isn’t going to be so easy.”

“Hey Nines, get a chair,” I say, taking Crystal and the kitten from him. He gives me an irritated look, but heads back the way we came.

“What...?” Hank scowls, watching him go. The other two give me mildly curious looks.

“She can’t get out,” I point out, glancing at Markus for confirmation. “Right?”

“The room is locked from the outside,” he agrees, nodding.

“So we can sit out here as long as we want,” I continue, leaning against the wall across from the door. “She can’t keep screaming forever; when she calms down, we can feed her, tie her up, whatever, and then maybe we can get her to talk.”

“But-” Hank gestures back toward the main area.

“And if we spend the whole time here,” I cut in, “where she can obviously smell us, then eventually she’ll get used to the scent, no? I mean, neither of us is bleeding, right? So no reason for her to go crazy and start bashing her head against the door to get to us.”

Nines returns then with a wood crate that he sets on end next to me.

“He makes a valid point, Hank,” Connor says softly, looking up at him with innocent brown eyes that bring up a faint pink blush in Hank’s cheeks.

Dear God, don’t kiss him here...

“Yeah, fair enough,” the old man grunts, fidgety now.

Fucking hell, if he gets a boner now...

Pointedly avoiding looking in their direction, I sit and put Crystal down beside Buttermilk, who promptly flops down at my feet with a wide yawn. The instant I set the kitten down, it begins wobbling its way over to Butter, mewing curiously. Crystal pads over to settle against Butter’s side, stretching out and purring loudly while she watches the kitten.

“Would you go get North for me, please?” Markus quietly asks the CX100, who hurries off without hesitation while I’m trying to carefully withdraw the other two kittens from my pocket.

“Journey,” Nines says suddenly, lowering himself to the cold floor beside me. Ignoring everyone else ― especially the not so friendly prisoner across the hall ― I give a snort of amusement, shifting a little bit closer so I can set one of the wriggling balls of fur on his head.

“Journey where?”

“The kitten,” he chuckles, reaching up to take the one off his head and set it on his lap instead. He nods at the kitten trying to climb over Buttermilk’s paw, which is almost twice as big at the kitten. “That one. It’s been incredibly adventurous from the moment it began walking.”

“I like it,” I grin in agreement, watching Journey make another attempt to get on top of Butter’s paw. The lion patiently lays his head on his other paw, being careful not to move the one Journey’s climbing. I wait for a moment to let Journey get on top of Butter’s paw, and then reach down to pick it up, quickly checking under its tail and setting it ― him ― back down where he can climb up Butter’s paw again.

“You haven’t sexed them yet?” Nines laughs lightly as I check the other two.

“I just did,” I sass back.

“And?”

“Male, male, female.” I gesture to each in turn.

“Then I guess this is the perfect time to say I’ve been wondering if Corazon or just Cora would be a good name for her.” He picks up the female kitten, which is a white-base calico dispersed with large patches of brown and tan. Nines points to one such patch. “She has a chest marking.” I cock a brow at him and he hesitates. “Is that one not good?”

“No, it’s great,” I reply. “I’m just surprised that you’ve put so much thought into this.”

“Well, like you said, they’re our children,” he grins, prompting a creep of heat up my neck.

“Yo, Markus,” a woman calls, thankfully giving me something else to focus on. A vaguely familiar female android joins us, giving me and Hank a wary side eye as she passes to stand beside Markus.

Traci. She’s a Traci.

Well. She was, at some point. Clearly she hasn’t filled that role in a very long time. And judging by the look she's giving us, it was an existence she despised.

“Simon told me we had visitors, but he never said they were cops,” she growls, shifting to keep her conversation more private. I stick my tongue at her back, just ‘cause, and Nines stifles a scoff of amusement.

“Relax, North,” Markus says lightly, clearly used to her caustic behaviour. “When Ariel calms down a bit more, I’d like you to make sure she gets fed and contained.”

“Contained how?”

“Tie her up,” I answer for him, earning a narrow glare that just makes me want to laugh at her. Instead I grin as evilly as I can, drawing from the same well I used to use to crack the not-so-tough nuts who thought they could hold out on me. “We’ve got some questions for her.”

Chapter Text

I owe Hank big time. If he hadn't spoken up, I never would have convinced Nines to let me do the questioning. And on top of that, he's watching the kittens to make sure they don't wander too far.

I'm gonna have to attend the wedding. I hate weddings, but I have no idea what kind of gift to give them, so that's the best way to pay him back.

When North finally reports that it's safe to enter the room, I don't hesitate to go in, before Nines changes his mind about letting me do this. He follows me, his earlier humour gone now, hidden under an implacable mask of apathy.

Geez, it's been a long time since I last saw that face...

“Stay back!” a hoarse, ragged voice croaks from the farthest, darkest corner.

“Okay,” I say amicably, raising my hands and leaning against the wall beside the door. “I'll stay right here. Your name's Ariel, right?”

“...Yes.”

“I hear you turned yourself in?” I prompt.

“...Yes.”

Come on, lady; seriously?

“And...? Apologised?” I press, trying to get her talking. At the very least, I want an answer that's more than one word.

The silence stretches, and I let it. Silence is power, and often people start talking just to fill it.

“...I killed my husband,” she manages finally, voice cracking just as much from emotion as raggedness after screaming for so long. “I... I couldn't stop myself. I wanted... I needed his blood.”

“What does it feel like?” Nines asks softly. I glance at him, but don't interrupt.

“Like... drowning. Like starving while you're smothered in food. Like being crushed by despair and seeing help just out of reach. Like reaching for safety and waking in darkness.”

I empathise far more than I want to, and it takes me a moment to gather myself and focus.

“Do you have any idea why you warped but not your husband, or others around you?”

“...No.”

“None at all?” I don't expect an answer, so I switch tracks without waiting for one. “What was your life like before the Pulse? Take me through a normal day.”

“I... No. No no no... You're cops.” There's a clatter of metal on metal and she lunges into view, startling me as she stops short at the end of a chain locked to a handcuffs around her wrists. Furious hunger burns in sunken eyes and she bares stained teeth through the tangled veil of dark hair hanging in her pale, scab-covered face. “I'm not telling you anything!!”

I jolt again when she jerks against the chain, teeth snapping closed on air like she expects to bite down on my throat and rip it out. A snarl works its way up her throat and she lets out a hungry shriek, yanking at the chain in a vain effort to get closer.

I almost don't realise Nines is pulling me out of the room until North slams the door shut, cutting off my view of the rabid woman. She keeps screaming and banging around, and it takes me a moment to readjust.

“Are you alright?” Nines whispers, rubbing his hands over my shoulders. I tear my gaze from the door to look at him.

“Did you see her face?” I scowl when he frowns. “Her face, Nines. And the way she clammed up because she thought we were cops... She’s an addict. Or she was.”

“And...?”

Right, he doesn't know what I'm talking about. I turn to Hank and Connor.

“Red Ice,” I say bluntly. Hank gets it first, like I knew he would.

“You don't think...?”

“It causes aggression, doesn't it?” I point out. “And it's made with thirium.”

“But none of those deadbeats got cannibalistic,” Hank scowls.

“I'm not saying Red Ice has anything to do with people warping into Scavs, I just think we should take a look at it. Maybe we'll see something we didn't see before.”

“Fair enough,” he grunts.

“And we've already picked up some useful information,” Connor points out. “We have definitive proof that Scavs are not only capable of speech, but also remorse. They may be violent, but they are still human, and if they are still human, then it may be possible to find a cure.”

I won’t say it aloud, but a giant weight falls off me; if they’re still human, then even if Sadie does warp, we can still save her. I won’t have to watch her die.

I won’t fail again.

“Sounds to me like this trip was pretty productive,” I grin.

“Detective.” Markus touches my shoulder, but even as I turn to acknowledge him, Nines grabs his wrist, a dark look of warning in crystalline ice.

“Nines,” I scold, giving him a look. He subsides, letting Markus go, and I notice North slip a knife back into its sheath in her sleeve. By the wary stare she’s giving Nines, I have no doubt she’d have sliced him up to protect Markus, and probably still will, so I’ll have to be careful to keep Nines on a leash, or we’ll start some shit that I don’t wanna deal with.

“Apologies,” Markus says easily, subtly waving North away in a show of peace. “Before you leave, I’d like to discuss an arrangement.”

“Arrangement?” Hank frowns. When Markus glances at him, I take the opportunity to dip out of the conversation so I can gather the felines.

“Nothing over the top, I assure you,” Markus nods. “If you are investigating the origin of the Scav problem, you will need more of them. Jericho is comprised entirely of androids; Scavs have no interest in androids. In fact, Scavs and androids can coexist on a level unlike anything we could have accomplished before the Pulse.”

“What are you saying, Markus?” Connor prods uneasily.

“I am offering Jericho’s services in capturing Scavs and, if possible, creating a Colony of our own in order to learn more about them. At any time, we can isolate one or more for you to question or conduct tests.”

That’s too good an offer.

“And what do you get out of it?” I demand, wary of a trap of some kind. Not that I think Markus would really try to fuck with us, but nearly twenty years of dealing with dirtbags makes you a little paranoid.

“We get what we’ve always wanted,” Markus answers without hesitation. “An equal partnership with humans.”

Chapter Text

“What’s on your mind?” Nines drapes himself over my shoulders, settling down behind me with his legs on either side, tucked under my knees. With Buttermilk stretched out a few feet in front of me, it makes a sort of triangle penning in the kittens, who are ― for now ― contentedly suckling at the bits of cloth I’m using to feed them until they can handle solids.

“What makes you think anything’s going on in my empty skull?” I snort, dipping Journey’s cloth in the bottle of milk and giving it back to him before grabbing the other male’s to soak the corner of that one too.

“Your brow is furrowed and you’re chewing your lip,” Nines points out, resting his chin between his arm and my neck while I dip Cora’s cloth. “I’d say that’s fairly indicative of intense thought process.”

“Hmph. Did we make the right decision?” I muse aloud, letting him hear said thought process. “I mean, we didn’t exactly have much of a choice, but...”

“You mean accepting Markus’ offer of partnership. Of course we had a choice; now that we know it’s possible to communicate, we could very well have captured Scavs ourselves.”

“But it would have been more difficult and time-consuming, not to mention dangerous; yes, I know.” I heave a sigh, leaning back against his chest. “I’m just... I don’t know. I don’t even really like the idea of being a ‘team’ with Eli, and now I’ve gotta play nice with a fuck ton of androids too. I may be more comfortable around them, but old habits die hard and I still balk every time I think about working with an android.”

Wait. That’s a stupid thing to say.

“Is that so?” Nines hums in my ear, amused.

“Fuck... That came out so wrong...”

“Did it?”

“I legit forgot for a split second that you are one.” He bursts out laughing, scaring the absolute shit out of me. Crystal yowls her agitation at being disturbed by my jolt, and Butter rolls onto his belly, perking up and lifting his head to give me a curious stare.

Have I ever heard Nines laugh like this??

I don’t think so, but fuck, I like it.

“Yes, Gavin,” he chuckles after a moment, squeezing me gently. “I am an android. But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me happy that you forgot, even for an instant.”

“Great, I’ll keep it in mind; stop sidetracking me.” I really hope he can’t feel the heat creeping up my neck.

“Sorry; continue,” he smiles, kissing my neck in a way that doubles the heat.

Shit, now he’s doing it on purpose...

“I don’t like being in a group,” I say, trying to ignore the sudden twist of need that sparks in my gut when he trails his tongue up to the soft spot behind my ear and nips at the lobe. My breath catches and it takes me a moment to remember what I was going to say next. “I... prefer working on my own...”

“Being a detective seems pretty counterproductive if you want to be alone,” he notes, kissing the back of my jaw.

“It’s more ‘alone’ than being a beat cop,” I manage, realising suddenly that I’ve tilted my head to give him complete access, and he’s taking full advantage of it.

“Point taken,” he hums, biting down on my neck and sucking hard. A shudder runs through me, and I practically melt into him.

Fucking hell, and that’s all with his mouth; his hands haven’t roamed at all.

I’m a goddamn slut, I guess.

“Nines... Fuck, Da-” Now his hand moves, clamping down over my mouth before I can say it.

“Shh...” he hushes quietly, his breath on my ear sending shivers over my skin. “Not here. Wait.”

I can’t help it; I whine desperately, grabbing his other wrist and trying to drag it down from my shoulder to where I really want it, but he doesn’t even budge.

“Patience,” he commands, the growl in his voice making my hard-on twitch eagerly.

“How long?” I gasp when he shifts his hand from my mouth to my chin, turning it for a deep, heady kiss that shreds any pride I might still have.

“When we get back.”

“What??” I squawk, stunned. “Nines, that’s two days, at least!”

“You’d rather let everyone hear you?” He quirks a brow at me, lips tipped up in a taunting smirk that just feeds my desire.

But he’s right; I’d die of shame if anyone else hears us, and I can’t exactly be quiet when Nines fucks me. It’s bad enough Hank, Connor and Sadie have ammunition for jokes without my kinks getting dragged in casual conversation between a bunch of total fucking strangers, especially androids.

On the other hand, my cock is already aching, and even my ass is begging for something inside it...

“No...” I answer him finally, even though I want to do it anyway and fuck the consequences, which should appall me because I’ve never been so damn needy before, but I’ve given up trying to figure out what Nines does to me.

“Good boy,” he rumbles, rewarding me with another mind-numbing kiss.

Somewhere in the haze, I get an epiphany; I know what he’s doing to me.

He’s fucking training me.

Ah, hell. Somehow, I ain’t even mad.

“Since you’re already like this,” he says suddenly, pulling away and leaving me shivering with need, “make sure the kittens are confined for the night, especially Journey, and I’ll take care of you.”

“Take...?” Then he traces his teeth with his tongue, and fire explodes in my face as I recall the sensation of that tongue on my dick, which throbs painfully.

“Quickly, or I’ll leave you to handle it on your own.”

Fuck. Me.

Chapter Text

“Carl, slow down.” He stops, turning to give Calvin a dark look.

“It’s your fault we’re in this mess in the first place,” he growls. The other makes a face, knowing he isn’t really angry, but not enjoying the reminder in any case.

“I apologised already,” he huffs. “Multiple times.”

“And yet, that doesn’t change the fact that we’re scouring a dump to find parts just to get Cole functioning again.” Carl heaves a sigh, rubbing a hand over the faulty connection in his chest that Calvin couldn’t quite fix. “Have you learned your lesson yet?”

“What lesson?” Cal mutters, avoiding Carl’s gaze by focusing on a half-buried limb that isn’t even close to what they’re looking for.

“Cal. You know exactly what I’m talking about.” Calvin still refuses to look at Carl, so he grabs the back of Cal’s neck, skin melting back. The connection is instantaneous and intimate, forcing Calvin to acknowledge the anger and fear that plagues Carl constantly. “Ever since you deviated, you’ve done nothing but rage at the world. Cole wouldn’t want that.”

“...I know.” Cal turns into Carl’s arms, leaning against him as Cal’s own fear and unease floods back through the connection in response. “I... I’m scared.”

“We’ll fix him,” Carl assures, certain of that fact. For him, there is no alternative; Calvin may be willing to shut himself down permanently if they fail to revive Cole, but he isn’t, and he never will be. If it takes a thousand years, he will fix Cole. And Cal. However many times he has to.

“I wish I had your confidence,” Calvin sighs, nuzzling Carl’s neck before stepping back. Carl’s hand falls away, and an instant later, they both sense the same thing and tense. Without needing to say a word, they face away from each other, protecting their backs, and scan for the source of whatever tripped their sensors.

“An LE070?” Carl frowns, tapping Calvin’s arm and gesturing to the android lion staring at them. “That shouldn’t be here, should it?” Cal stares back at the lion, LED spinning yellow.

“He’s from the Detroit Zoo. The locks must have failed in the Pulse.” Calvin shrugs, unconcerned now that the source has been found, but Carl keeps eying the lion, who eyes him right back.

After a long moment, the lion turns and bounds away, and Carl relaxes, rejoining Calvin in the search for parts to repair Cole. They’re still searching when something else trips their sensors, but before they can even take a step to protect themselves, a figure drops out of nowhere and lands between them.

“Shit!” Calvin goes Red, attacking the figure without even pausing to see who or what it is, much to Carl’s annoyance.

“Cal, you idiot!” The words have hardly left his mouth before Calvin is flat on his back with the figure kneeling on his stomach, hand pressed to the base of his neck. The other hand is stretched toward Carl, gun cocked and ready. He slowly raises his hands.

An RK1000.

They exist??

“I will not harm you,” the newer model says simply, mechanically. His low voice is programmed to be attractive, but holds no warmth, making it eerie rather than appealing.

“You say, while pinning my partner to the ground and holding me at gunpoint,” Carl points out bluntly.

“He attacked me first; I took precautions.”

“Sorry, I’m still training him.” He gives Calvin a warning glare, but the other is clearly aware of just how much danger he’s in and hasn’t moved an inch, though he manages a withering look at Carl for the statement.

“Accepted.” The RK1000 stands and puts his gun away, even offering a hand to help Calvin stand. “You are searching for something?”

“We are,” Carl nods, grabbing Calvin’s arm and tugging him away from the tall blonde. “Torso components compatible with an RK800 model.” The newer model glances over each of them, making Carl extremely uneasy.

“You aren’t damaged,” the RK1000 notes. His icy blue gaze fixes on Carl’s chest for a moment, and he adds, “Your cable is incorrectly connected, but needs no repair or replacement. You are repairing another?” Neither of them can bring themselves to answer, but neither has to. The RK1000 nods as though he’s made a decision, and points. “There are three compatible android models over there, and two more there. Between those, there should be enough components for you to adequately repair yo-”

Carl and Calvin sense it a moment later, and the RK1000 already has his gun drawn and ready when the lion returns.

“Wait!” Calvin blurts before Carl can do or say anything, jumping forward to push the newer model android’s hand up. “He’s not a threat!”

“I am well aware of what he is,” the RK1000 says simply, hardly sparing Calvin a glance before striding past him, gun still out, but hanging at his side now as he goes straight to the lion. “We meet again, Buttermilk. Where is your master?”

“Buttermilk?” Carl mouths at Calvin, frowning. The other snickers and nods while the lion gives a low, anxious growl and circles the RK1000 to butt up against his backside, pushing him somewhere. He goes, without another word to Carl or Calvin; only after he’s gone does Carl relax again.

“Well. That was eventful,” Calvin hums, heading in the direction the RK1000 pointed. “And I thought the RK900 that beat us was the newest RK model.”

He says it so easily, but Carl knows better; he’s been inside Cal’s mind, and he knows just how traumatising it was to watch he and Cole die like that.

“Thank rA9 he was more peaceful than the 900,” Carl says, following. “Let’s get these parts and get back to Cole quickly.”

“I miss him,” Calvin admits quietly. Carl grips his shoulder sympathetically.

“Me too, Cal. Me too.”

Chapter Text

“SADIE!”

“Shh, shh; it's okay, Gavin...” His voice grounds me, pulling me out of the haze of cold terror isolating me. I twist around to bury my face in his chest, unable to stop trembling while I slowly come down from the adrenaline high. He keeps murmuring soft assurances, holding me close and stroking his fingers over my spine until I stop shaking.

“The nightmare was bad this time,” he whispers quietly into my hair, kissing the top of my head. “Are you alright?”

“Mm-mm.” I nuzzle a little closer to his warmth.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

No. But I should.

“...Sadie could still... be... that...” I don't want to remember this shit. “Like Ariel. What if... What if it's just dormant? What if it takes a while for her? What if-”

“Shh,” he cuts in, squeezing me gently. “It's okay. It was just a dream; she's stronger than that.” I shove away from him and he lets go so I can push up to my knees.

“How do you know that??” I demand, hot tears stinging at my eyes and escaping before I can blink them back. “Fowler warped! Tina...! Fuck, Tina...” I can't hold back a sob, and an instant later, Nines has me trapped against the mattress in a tight hug, soothing warmth seeping into me, his weight pressing down on me in a way that feels like he's holding me together so I don't fall apart.

“I didn't want to push logic into emotion,” he whispers, kissing my temple, “but think for a moment; Sadie isn't fully human, remember? The formula was created specifically for people like her. And if that weren’t the case, she’s smart enough to know better than to take an experimental formula. She'll be just fine. If anything happens, she and Elijah will come up with a solution.”

“Fuck Eli,” I snap, fire cutting through the pain for a short moment. Nines laughs lightly, and oddly it helps ease the tightness in my chest.

“There's my Gavin,” he murmurs, teeth grazing my jaw. “Better?”

“...a little,” I admit, embarrassed and annoyed to realise I'm actually feeling a lot better, just from talking about it.

“Do you need anything else?” he asks gently. “Some water?”

“...please?” With a soft kiss to the corner of my lips, he’s up and gone just like that, returning a few minutes later to find me curled up with his pillow.

“Sit up,” he says, sitting on the edge of the cot Markus lent me and holding out a bottle. I obey without hesitation, leaning my side against his back while I drain almost the entire bottle. He hums approval when he takes the nearly empty bottle and sets it on the floor.

“Nines...” I hesitate when I meet his gaze, the faint glow deep behind it sparking something in my chest. “Thank you.”

“No thanks necessary,” he smiles, pushing me back and laying down again beside me. “I'm always happy to help you.”

“Did you really go out there naked?” I ask before I can stop myself, wedging against him and tugging him on top of me.

I like his weight.

“Mm. Even if someone had seen me, androids have no qualms about nakedness the way humans do.” He smiles against my neck, settling on me with a soft sigh and tracing swirls over my shoulder.

“Even without skin?” I dig further, curious now in spite of myself.

“Seeing another android skinless is hardly any different than seeing some guy you know shirtless; unusual, but not generally alarming.”

“So Sadie is perpetually ‘shirtless’?” I smirk, lacing my fingers behind his back. He laughs softly, shifting to tangle his legs with mine.

“I suppose you could look at it that way,” he hums, amused. “At times, I'm oddly concerned that if I touch her, we'll connect the way I can with other androids, even though I know that isn't possible.”

“Maybe it is now? If she... With the mixed blood. Maybe she can do some more of the android stuff than she could before.”

He caught my slip; I know it.

Yep. He squeezes my shoulder gently and then moves his hand to my jaw, pushing up to look at me.

“Maybe,” he agrees, tracing his thumb over my lip in a clear attempt to distract me. “Let's ask her when we get back.”

“Okay.” I lean up to him, letting him distract me, because otherwise I'll spiral into a state of overwhelming depression just thinking about the possibility that she'll be warped or dead by that time.

Chapter Text

Despite Nines’ assurances, I'm holding my breath when Orchid greets us and unlocks the front door to let us in.

“Orchid, where's Sadie?” Nines asks, making my heart leap to my throat.

“In the kitchen. And Elijah is with her. Chloe is currently shut down for maintenance.”

The terror in my chest loosens to unease, but doesn't dispel until I'm standing in the kitchen doorway and Sadie looks up, smiling when she sees who it is.

“Welcome home, cowboy,” she winks.

She looks vastly different, and it takes me a solid thirty seconds of perplexed internal questioning to realise she has skin; her cyborg parts are covered with the same fake skin that all androids sport. It's marred at the edges, where synthetics meet real skin, giving her a sort of stitched look like you'd see during Halloween when people dress up as Frankenstein’s monster. But it's there, and it looks as real as any android.

“Keep staring, but I ain't gonna burst into flames,” she laughs after a moment, standing and holding out her arms. “Yes, it's me; just got some upgrades. Check it.” The skin on her arms fades back all the way to her real skin, revealing the metal beneath that I've gotten used to. Then it slides back into place, leaving me speechless.

“Sadie...” Before I know it, I'm hugging her tightly, and her arms settle lightly around my waist.

“I'm okay, Gav,” she whispers gently, serious now. “Ain't gonna change anytime soon. Ever, if I got a say.”

“There are some side effects, of course,” Elijah cuts in casually, assholish as ever. I step back to give him a dark look, but he ignores me, continuing blithely. “She has a notable increase in craving for red meats, and she's far more volatile than she used to be...”

“Says you,” Sadie scoffs, flipping him off.

I love her.

“Nice to see you in good health,” Connor smiles brightly, slipping past me to give her a quick hug. “I was worried...”

“Honestly, so was I,” she huffs.

“Good look on you, Sadie,” Hank nods offhandedly, more interested in the bottle of whiskey on the table than the conversation. Elijah's already pouring him a glass.

“Where's Erik?” Nines speaks up suddenly. I realise then that the newer model isn't in the room.

“Out collecting scrap and keeping guard,” Sadie dismisses, sitting back down and pushing out a chair next to her for me. “Had a whole horde of Scavs try ‘n swamp us while you were gone.”

“Speaking of... We had quite the adventure,” Hank scowls, toying with his glass as Connor gets out a bottle of thirium and pouring glasses for himself and Nines. He finds a bowl and gives some to Buttermilk too.

Crystal's not here. She must have wandered off to look for Chloe.

Ah, the kittens are getting restless in my hoodie pocket now that it's warm. I carefully pull them out and let them loose on the table, where I can keep an eye on them.

“What'd you find out?” Elijah asks, glaring at me and blocking Journey from sniffing at his glass.

“Scavs are far more intelligent than we believed,” Connor starts off, leaning his hip against the table next to Hank. “I would go so far as to say warping does nothing to diminish existing intelligence. Ariel, the Scav we interviewed, is fully capable of coherent speech and conversation.”

“And remorse,” Nines adds, resting his hand lightly on my shoulder. “She apologised for killing her husband.”

“They know exactly what they're doing,” I point out. “Distinguishing between ‘human’ and ‘Scav’ isn't just instinct or anything; they consciously recognise what they are and how that makes them different from normal humans around them. The need to feed is just an overwhelming drive that they legitimately cannot ignore.”

“It's the same as any other hunger then,” Elijah frowns, rubbing his jaw. “Like being high; when you get the munchies, you do whatever it takes to satisfy that craving.”

“But amplified,” Hank corrects. “I've seen Scavs kill themselves to get to humans. There's still a mindless element to it.”

“Not quite,” Sadie interjects. “The first wash o’ need that hits ya is too strong for your brain to process, so it comes up with the most logical explanation. In me, it manifested as heat; my brain thought my body was legit on fire. Most o’ the changes I saw started with extreme lust; guys and gals jumpin’ each other without hesitatin’, in broad daylight. Heard a couple of tales that some got the hunger right off, but tried to sate it with regular food.”

“Once the mind identifies what it really wants, then it begins adapting to accommodate for that,” Elijah takes up. “And being animals at our most basic level, we attuned to- fucking...! Gavin, get these mangy furballs off my table!” He starts to grab Cora, who just licked his hand, and I jump up, snatching her out of his grasp.

“We attuned to fuckin’, eh?” Sadie smirks. I bite back a laugh as humour replaces my annoyance at Elijah.

“That's NOT what I was going to say,” he growls, glaring at me again. Sticking out my tongue at him, I flip him off just to dick with him. The others are snickering, which doubles the effect; I'm just about to say something to push him off the precarious edge on which he's balanced when Nines cuts in, steering us back on topic.

“Humans are smart enough to know their own weaknesses,” he says simply, completely derailing the rabbit trail. The red in Elijah's face is already fading, though he's clearly still pissed. “Terror makes people careless, and one of the things humans fear most is zombies, so what better a predator to emulate? And by hunting in packs, they better their chances of success, which increases the number of Scavs that get fed.”

“All that really goes through the bastards’ heads when they start hunting?” Hank grimaces.

“Probably not consciously,” Connor assures. “You don't think about why zombies are terrifying, do you? But if you sit down and analyse it, it does make that kind of sense, correct? Scavs likely go through a similar process of subconscious reasoning.”

“We're up against one hell of an opponent,” I sigh, letting Cora wander the table again.

“Fortunately,” Nines says, “we have allies.”

“Allies?” Sadie frowns.

“You made the deal, Reed,” Hank humphs. “You explain.”

“I did no-! Ugh, whatever... Markus offered us a partnership with Jericho; they'll capture and observe Scavs, and we can talk to or test whichever ones we want.”

“That seems pretty stilted in our favour,” Elijah scowls warily.

“I had the same thought,” I shrug. “But he said they’d be getting what they’ve always wanted, so...”

“Hold up,” Sadie slips in, brow furrowed. “Who’s Jericho?”

“You haven’t heard of Jericho?” Nines asks, mildly surprised.

“Not since y’all mentioned it the first time,” she answers, shaking her head.

“Jericho is the android resistance,” Connor explains. “Deviants, like myself and Nines, who have escaped from their previous lives, gathered together where they were safe from being captured and deactivated. After Markus was destroyed and dumped, he repaired himself and fled to Jericho. He organised them and led them in a revolt.”

“The revolution.” Understanding dawns in Sadie’s lopsided gaze. It strikes me then, the similarities between her and Markus.

“That’s right,” Connor nods, smiling. “After the Pulse, Markus turned Jericho from a seat of rebellion to a foundation of disaster relief, helping fortify local Colonies all the way out toward Chicago. Androids make far better Treaders than humans, and Markus has been instrumental in assuring the safety of what remains of humanity.”

“So what is it that they want so badly they’d make a less than ideal deal?”

“Equality,” Hank grunts. “Androids haven’t exactly been treated very well.”

“That, I understand,” Sadie growls, gripping her left arm self-consciously. I reach over to cover her hand, squeezing lightly, and her features soften as she glances my way. “So we get unhindered access to Scavs, and they get equal partnership? Sounds fair to me.”

“Good,” Connor smiles brighter. “Hank and I will head back tomorrow to start making arrangements.”

Chapter Text

When Sadie asked to talk privately with me, I'll admit, I was just a tiny bit worried. Now, I'm a lot worried.

“You alright?” I ask uneasily, perching on the edge of the couch in the library. “You look... nervous.”

“The other day, when y'all got back from... from Jericho,” she says slowly, blatantly ignoring my statement as she sits cautiously in the corner of the same couch. She pauses for a moment, gaze flicking around as though searching for the words she wants to say. “When y'all got back and we were talkin’ in the kitchen, you mentioned how androids ain't been treated equal since they started deviating and all...”

“If this is you trying to justify yourself for all the shit you've caught for being a cyborg, don't,” I grunt, settling back on the couch now that I know she's not interested in more... personal talks.

Like my relationship with Nines.

Once was one time too many, thank you very much.

“That ain't it,” she counters, shaking her head. “Not all of it, anyhow... I dunno what it was, but somehow I realised that... well, I ain't exactly been all that... forthcoming with you. With any o’ y'all.”

Well then. Sounds like I unlocked the ‘tragic backstory.’ Guess it's sharing time.

“Not like it matters.” Sure I'm curious, but I'm not gonna push her. “It won't change our opinions of you. Not much, anyway, and not bad.”

“I know, but... it's makin’ me feel guilty anyhow.” She cuts a quick, antsy glance in my direction.

“Oh.” I totally get that, at least. “Then go ahead, I guess.”

For a moment, she says nothing, and neither do I; I'm not going to risk freaking her out when she’s clearly having a hard time just figuring out how to open up.

“I had a little brother,” she blurts finally. “Michael. He was everything to me for the longest time.”

“Was?”

“He... changed.” Her voice drops to a low, quivering whisper, and something twists in my gut; I don't like this fragile side of her, at all. It doesn't suit her. “I had... I had to k- to stop him... to protect his wife.”

Whoa, okay; rearrange what ‘little’ brother means in this instance.

“Our mama died a long time ago, and whenever Daddy shipped out, we stayed with our neighbours.”

Don't react. Don't react; not that kind of Daddy...

“They was good people, but...” she goes on, “they didn't really understand kids... so Mike and I kept to ourselves. I raised him more than they did, ‘specially after Daddy died. I taught him how to hold and shoot a gun. Taught him how to fish, even though I wasn't so good myself. Taught him everything I could, from drivin’ a car to treatin’ a lady right. No surprise to me when he landed himself a girl, but I was a bit jealous; after being the only woman in his life for so long, it was hard to give him up. And when he married her, I was so certain they'd fall apart; thought they'd jumped in too quick and weren't ready. But Abbs... Pretty little Abigail... She was just... so perfect for him. She won me over, heart and soul.”

I think I see where this is going.

“After the accident, she... I don't think she left my side much till I recovered from the surgery.” Sadie reaches up and runs a finger over the rough, uneven line where synthetic skin meets real skin. “Abbs was one o’ the only people I ever met didn't treat me like shit for being a cyborg. I loved her for it. More than I loved myself.”

“How did she die?” The question slips out before I can stop it. She flinches, hard, and curls her hands into fists on her thighs, blinking quickly.

“I got careless,” she says, barely above a whisper. “We both did. I left her alone to run for supplies ‘fore we moved on. We were headin’ for Canada; she had family up east of Sault Ste. Marie. Damn Scav broke into our shelter and...” She trails off, and my chest aches at the agony on her face. Scooting closer, I take her hand and lean my shoulder against hers.

“The dog tags,” I whisper, reaching into my pocket and gripping the one she gave me. “That was for her, wasn't it?” Sadie nods slightly, holding tight to my hand.

“She was so tiny; so sweet... She couldn't hurt a mosquito if it was bitin’ her. The tag... It was in her h-” She chokes on a sob and takes a deep breath, trying again. “It was in her hand. She came that close to calling me.”

“And the Scav?”

“...There’s a reason I didn’t trust these hands with human flesh,” she mutters quietly.

Fucking hell... She ripped it apart with her bare hands. And without the boost of the mixed-blood formula.

How much stronger is she now?

“It wasn’t your fault,” I say softly, putting everything I have into the words. “And there’s nothing you could have done to stop it; don’t blame yourself for what happened to her.”

“I know, I know,” she sniffs, wiping her nose on the back of her hand. “But it’s hard. It’s still so fresh in my head, and I just... You know I wake up sometimes thinkin’ she’s in bed next to me?”

I do know. I’ve done the same thing. Except that I’d walk into the DPD expecting them to be at their desk, working on whatever case they had going on.

“When...?” I stop myself this time, but not before she gets it.

“Not long ago.” She takes a shaky breath and lets it out slowly, calming herself down. “Barely a day ‘fore I met you.”

Chapter Text

“Fuck, Sadie... I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” She sniffs and manages a wan smile, glancing sidelong at me. “Don’t think I’da met you and Nines otherwise. And I know I give Eli shit now, but I’m glad I met him too.”

“I’d be worried you didn’t know the real Eli if you didn’t give him shit,” I scoff.

“He’s, ah... quite the character, ain’t he?” she chuckles, leaning back but not letting go of my hand. “Not at all what I expected o’ my long-time hero. But I’m kinda glad he ain’t; I like him a lot more knowin’ I can dick with him and get the same amount o’ snark back.”

“Mm, well... I think you’re the first,” I mutter, sitting back as well. For a moment, silence hovers between us as I debate the sanity of exploring my childhood for the first time in years; Buttermilk noses open the door and looks around before coming over to scrub almost his entire side against the front of my knees. Then he plops down right there, laying literally on our feet.

Ah, fuck it. She shared something close to her chest; it’s only fair that I do the same.

“Eli and I had different mothers,” I jump in headfirst. “Our dad was married to his mom but didn’t really... They weren’t exactly good for each other. He took more from her than he gave back, and it wore her down until she caught some nasty sickness that put her in bed for the remainder of her life. He’d been cheating on her for a while, and when Eli’s birth killed her, he turned right around and married my mother, who was already some six months pregnant with me. She was a lot stronger than Eli’s mother, and she kept Dad in line; broke him of a lotta shitty habits and kept him from cheating on her too. Honestly, I don’t think she ever really forgave him for driving Eli’s mother to the grave; she definitely punished him for it.”

“She sounds like quite the woman,” Sadie smiles.

“She was,” I agree softly, trying not to let the ache in my chest overwhelm me. “Right up to the day she died; some rare strain of breast cancer or something that went undetected until it was too late.”

“Sorry,” Sadie winces, squeezing my hand gently.

“Don’t be,” I return, a tiny smile quirking at my lips when I realise we just switched places. “She only died maybe... ten years ago? Eleven? What is it, February now?”

“January twenty-ninth,” Sadie corrects with a faint grin.

“So, almost twelve years ago. She was around for our childhoods and most of our greatest successes.” I hesitate then, not wanting to go any deeper but feeling compelled to tell the whole truth. “She... I was the runt of the family. A black sheep, I guess... Mom didn't... She didn't have a lot, but she didn't write me into her will for any of it. I think... I disappointed her more than I made her proud. Eli grew up so fast; he got his smarts from his mother's side of the family, and it made him practically a man by the time we reached high school. I could never keep up with him, and it drove me mad to see Mom doting on him whenever she and the teachers got to gushing about whatever fucking extra curricular project he'd finished that week. And Dad... Dad was worse. The clearest memories I have of him from my youth are disappointed looks and irritable sighs because I was only slightly better than average in all my classes.”

“Only slightly?” Sadie echoes, seeming surprised. “I mean, yeah, maybe you ain't on Eli's level, but yer a hell of a lot smarter than most people I met in my life.” I'm not sure how to respond to that, and she continues without thought or hesitation, making my blush a bit. “You just got a different kinda smart; geniuses like Eli oft’ get from point A to point B by way o’ the rest of the alphabet, and that's okay when yer lookin’ for new solutions to age old problems, but sometimes ya gotta go with a faster route, straight from A to B, and you see the simplest, most logical paths.”

Well fuck. What am I supposed to say to that?

“I, er... Most of that is what I've learned over time,” I say unsteadily, excusing myself so I don't start wishing many more than I already do that I had done things differently as a teenager. “I mean, thirty-some-odd years is a long time to pick things up, especially in law enforcement.”

“Fair,” she cedes, though her smile says she's entirely convinced I was a smart kid.

“Anyway, it doesn't really matter; most of my high school life was fucked up because I hit my rebellious years early and hung out with bad crowds just to get attention. I was on a fast track to prison until I met Hank.”

“Hank?” She shifts a bit, facing me more with keen interest.

“Yeah,” I admit, a bit sheepishly. “He was a beat cop at the time, and more than once, he dragged me into the station after breaking up a fight or catching the guys and me in some trouble or another. He was the reason I became a cop; he was the only person who genuinely seemed to care about me, about my future, and he never put much of anything on my record except a bunch of warnings. Instead, he'd sit me down for an hour or so and just lecture me about being better than the world.”

“Hard to imagine Hank bein’ that concerned about anybody,” she noted, brow raised. “‘Cept maybe Connor.”

“...He didn't use to be so distant,” I explain quietly, a niggle of painful nostalgia eating at my chest. “He was a great guy before... He was on a drug task force later that focused almost exclusively on Red Ice when it really started hitting the streets, and it made him a little jaded, so when his kid died... He took it hard. It all but derailed his career.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. After Mom died and Hank got caught up in the task force, I kinda... gave up on the world. I was determined to go as far as I could in law enforcement, to put as many bastards away as I could, just so I'd have something that was mine; after Eli founded CyberLife, everybody started looking to me, expecting me to do something big too. After all, we're related, so it must be the same for both of us.” I pause for a moment to get the venom out of my tone and calm down a bit. “I wanted to be the best at what I do, so that maybe I could finally step out of Eli's shadow, and I was willing to do anything to get ahead, even if I stepped on other people. In hindsight, not the best idea I've ever had... I made a lot of enemies, even among my coworkers. Tina was one of the only people I ever really connected with; she was ambitious too, in a different way, but I think she understood me a lot better than most did, and she stuck around. She... It nearly killed me when she warped and attacked us; I didn't even notice it happening until she went for my throat.”

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck... Don't cry, damnit; don't fucking cry.

“You had to stop her, didn't you?” Sadie squeezes my hand gently between hers, comforting, and I lean against her, welcoming it.

“Yeah. She almost killed Hank. We were just starting to repair our relationship after Connor helped him get back some of his zest for life, and I kinda realised that I'd really miss him if he died.”

“Kinda?” she smiles, nudging me teasingly. I can't help but smile back as the ache in my chest eases and the burn behind my eyes subsides.

“Just a little.”

“So when did Nines come into the picture?” she asks suddenly, nearly making my heart leap out of my throat.

“Uh... Not... It wasn't... I... Just after- just after the Pulse, I guess,” I stutter, trying really hard and utterly failing not to blush. Heat burns up my neck into my cheeks as she grins at me.

“Yer a sucker for that boy, ain't ya?” she snickers, letting go of my hand to poke at my side. “Downright kettle over teapot for him.”

“I- No I'm not,” I scoff, swatting her hands away. “I just happen to think he's worth dating for a bit.”

“Uh huh. You say, as you blush redder ‘n a sunburn.”

Well shit. This didn't go at all as expected.

Chapter Text

By the time Connor and Hank get back a few days later, I’m already tired of how long it takes to go back and forth between here and Jericho. Between avoiding Scavs and having to do some hardcore parkour just to reach Jericho, it takes a good thirty-five to forty hours one way.

Fortunately, Sadie must have anticipated the issue, because she doesn’t even let them report what’s going on at Jericho before dragging everybody outside, including Elijah, and presenting... a car.

“Uh... What?” I honestly don’t see the point of all this until she snorts and opens the driver side door, leaning inside to turn it on. It hardly makes a sound, the engine turning over flawlessly.

“You fixed it?” Eli’s brows are raised, but I’m not entirely sure whether he’s surprised or impressed.

“Easy,” Sadie grins. “Just had to replace a coupla parts and reconfigure the wiring; made it entirely solar powered too, so no need for gas or batteries or anything. But I will be addin’ storage cells tomorrow so y’all can use it at night too. Not that we’ll need it much; I finally got my mail-bot rebuilt, so we can use that to communicate with Jericho ‘n not have to make a trip in person.”

“And on that note, let’s go inside,” Elijah shivers, not that I blame him; even bundled up as we are, it’s fucking freezing out here.

Welcome to February in Michigan.

Oddly, Sadie doesn’t seem to notice that much. At least, she’s not shivering like the rest of us humans.

“Are you cold?” Connor asks Hank as we get back inside. Hank doesn’t answer except to wrap his arms around Connor’s shoulders and pull the twink-bot back against his chest. Smiling, Connor visibly heats up.

Ugh, romance.

Then strong arms curl around my shoulders, warmth pressing against my back, and for a split second, I lean into it, until I realise it’s not Nines’ embrace. Almost at the same instant, Nines growls loudly in warning, and Buttermilk butts in behind me, pushing his way between me and Erik.

“Back off,” Nines snaps, grabbing me and pulling me close.

“Apologies,” Erik says easily, raising his hands. “He appeared cold.”

I catch Elijah snickering through suppressed shivers, and an evil idea occurs to me.

“I’m actually fine,” I lie casually, leaning into Nines anyway, “but you know who really looks cold?” Elijah freezes, and I can’t help a wide grin. “Eli.” Erik casts him a curious glance, inspecting him, and he immediately starts backing away.

“No! I’m fine! Fuck you, Gavin!” Everyone else laughs, and I preen with success while Chloe patiently herds us into the parlour.

“So what’s new in Jericho?” Sadie asks, flopping down on the floor and laying out next to Crystal, who was napping by the fire with the kittens and starts purring when Sadie absently pets her.

Nines pulls me into his lap when I go to sit beside him on the couch, and I give him a mildly annoyed look. I’d move, but Erik is standing by the door, and as long as he’s in sight, Nines is going to be a jealous child, so I don’t bother.

“A lot, actually,” Connor answers, settling between Hank’s legs on the armchair closest to the fireplace. “They’ve already improved access to and from the ship, and they’re working nonstop to renovate an entire section for human inhabitants. They moved Ariel from her holding cell into a room of her own, and she was surprisingly timid when I met with her alone. Paranoid and fearful, but far more cooperative than expected.”

“In three days?” Gotta say, I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of something that moves so quickly; guess in the apocalypse, nobody cares about red tape.

“I was shocked too,” Hank humphs, “but they’re serious about this. Markus already had plans nailed down for rounding up some Scavs by the time we left.”

“Amazing whatcha can get done without worryin’ about money-grubbin’ bureaucrats,” Sadie scoffs, idly fanning her hair out with her fingers.

“Took the words right out of my mouth,” I huff in agreement, grabbing Nines’ wrist when his hand strays a little too far down my back. “If your... mail-bot is really ready, you should go ahead and send it over to Jericho so they can let us know when they’ve got a Scav Colony set up.”

“Anything new from the Scav?” Eli asks, fidgeting near the door. He clearly wants to get back to his lab and whatever he’s doing there.

“Nothing important to tracing the source,” Connor sighs. Hank raises a hand to the back of his neck and digs his thumb in lightly, making the ‘droid practically melt.

I swear to Christ, if they start getting touchy-feely right here...

“I managed to get a little more of her history, though,” he goes on, eyes falling closed under Hank’s touch.

Do I look that sappy in bed with Nines? I sure as hell hope not.

“Turns out, you were right on the dot, Reed,” Hank picks up. “She was a hardcore user before she warped. Mostly cocaine, but from the sound of it, she dabbled in other stuff; meth, oxy... and Red Ice.”

“So there could be a connection,” I note. “Probably not much of one, though; Fowler and Tina would never have touched the stuff.”

“True,” Hank nods, “but we can’t rule it out; a lead is a lead.”

Damn. Feels pretty good to be working a case again, even one so informal.

“Then the next step,” I say, standing, “is to get our hands on some Red Ice. And unless anyone has any better ideas, I can think of only one place to get a big enough stash.”

“The DPD evidence room,” Hank grins.

“Exactly,” I smirk, and glance at Nines, who’s already grabbing my coat for me. “Ready for another round of B and E, partner?”

“After you... partner.”

Chapter Text

Good fucking God, my head hurts...

The hell...? What’d I do, have too many shots last night?

Right; apocalypse, duh... Like I'd be able to even find a bar that hasn't been raided to shit by now.

So why the fuck is my head killing me?

I can't move my hands...

Ow! Fuck my shoulder.

Why. Just... Why.

Fucking- I can't even open my eyes!

Oh, wait... My ribs...

Oh my fucking hell; I know this feeling...

I got the living shit beat out of me.

God damn, it's been a long time since I last felt like this. Think the last time was... A stakeout gone bust, if I remember right... But that time was with whatshisname, Gerald? Gary? Something with a G. This time...

Oh fuck.

“Ni-” My throat can't even handle that; I break off in a wheezing cough.

God, Nines... What happened to you?

If that goddamn tin can isn't okay, I don't know what the fuck I'm gonna do.

Fuck this; one thing at a time.

First, what the fuck happened?

What's the last thing I remember? Sadie; she was showing us something... Hank and Connor were back! They gave us an update on Jericho...

That's it. Red Ice. Nines and I were going to the evidence room in the DPD to get a bunch of Red Ice.

We were almost there, too. Good thing, because we couldn't get the car closer than a couple blocks away and it was fucking cold out.

That's February in Michigan for you; goddamn... fucking hate this place sometimes...

We were almost there, and... what?

God, my head! Some fucker clocked me upside the head when we passed an alley!

I remember... fighting... Nines shouting something... fuck ton of blood, mine and his... four assailants? Five? At least two huge androids; TR400s, if I had to guess.

Oh my fu-

Did we get fucking kidnapped?? What the absolute fuck??

Gotta look around; gotta figure out where the hell I am, where Nines is, and where the nearest fucking exit-

“Rise and shine, Sleeping Beauty,” a cold, slimy voice croons somewhere to my left.

Ugh... Can you feel like you need a million baths just from listening to someone speak?

“Now, now,” they purr when I flinch away from them. “Is that anyway to treat your host?”

“F-fckyoo...”

“Tsk tsk...” I really flinch now; motherfucker's right in my goddamn ear!

And touching me!!

Motherfucker, get your oily fucking fingers off my cheek!!

Why can't I open my goddamn eyes??

“Look at you... such a... perfect specimen...”

“Stah- st- don'touch me...”

Someone... Anyone!

Nines! Where the hell is Nines??

That icy, nasty finger trails along my jaw and I snap at it reactively, teeth clacking harshly on empty air. Pain explodes through the side of my head a split second later, the collision of flesh on flesh echoing through the room and through my head.

“Ohhohoho...” Sharp fingers grab my jaw, yanking me back around. Nasty breath oozes across my nose and mouth as they get right up in my face. “I'm going to enjoy breaking you, feisty little rat. Watching you fall apart in my hands, mind melting into a primordial ooze of base, animal instinct... Oh, I have the perfect thing in mind for you...”

Try some spit in your face, asswipe.

They jolt back with an inhuman screech, and I get maybe two seconds reprieve before something slams into my ribs, knocking the air from my lungs and throwing me to the ground.

Oh, I'm apparently tied to a chair as well...

No wonder I couldn't move my arms.

Ah fuck, now my shoulder hurts even more!

“Put him upright, you louse!” the voice shrieks. “And then beat him some more so he loses some of that godforsaken gumption!”

Oh fuck me.

――

“Hey... Are you even alive? Wake up.” Something pokes my cheek and I absently swat it away, wanting to go back to sleep.

Ow, fuck! Okay, bad idea; my entire body is killing me now.

“He's alive, I guess.” Another poke to the cheek. “Hey, can you talk?”

“Fckof...”

“That's a yes.” A snicker. “He's funny; I like him.”

“Shut up already!”

Oh, there's two of them. Man, I really hope I don't have to fight them both off to get out of here.

Assuming I can even gather myself to look around.

“Hey, hey, Abner, do you think he's next?”

“I said shut up.”

The first voice is higher, more excitable; I can't quite tell if it's man or woman, but it's younger either way, probably a teenager or young adult. The other one, Abner, is definitely older male, black, and likely from Chicago, if the accent is anything to go by.

Then again, I'm not exactly the linguistics expert or whatever, so I could be wrong.

If I could just see...

Oh wait, my hands are free now. I reach up and touch my face.

Well shit. Even if I wasn't blindfolded, my left eye is useless right now, swollen shut and tender as fuck from being beaten so many times.

Fucking hell...

And once I get the blindfold off, wincing at every movement that grinds my shoulder bones together, things aren't much better.

“Ooh, that's a nasty black eye you got there,” the younger voice chirps, entirely too cheerful. It's attached to an equally androgynous kid no older than seventeen or eighteen, with the spiked hair and dark makeup of a wannabe punk.

“Said fuck off,” I growl, giving the kid as sharp a glare as I can manage in my current condition.

“Leave ‘im alone, brat,” Abner grumbles from a dark corner of the giant cage we're stuck in.

“But I'm bored!” the kid whines, squatting with their chin braced on their fists and pouting. “I get antsy when you don't let me play with you, and it's been two days since that guy made us tussle!”

Abner doesn't respond, and I get the feeling I won't be getting any answers out of him, so I don't even try. Besides, the ‘brat’ seems talkative enough.

“Where am I?” My throat protests, but holds up, thankfully.

“Underground somewhere,” the kid replies without hesitation. “Dunno where. That greasy guy owns us now, like pets. He even wants us to call him ‘Master,’ but I only do that when he makes us tussle.”

“Tussle?”

“Yeah, for Knockout.” The kid stands and laces their hands behind their head, not a care in the world as they continue. “I don't really get it, but I guess that guy was some kind of black market slave trader or something back before the world went to shit.”

“Teagan. Language,” Abner scolds gruffly from his corner.

“He doesn't do it anymore,” Teagan goes on blithely, “but he still kidnaps people and makes them perform. Records it, I guess.”

A chill slides down my spine.

“What do you mean, perform?” I'm dreading the answer already.

“Duh, fight or fuck.”

Oh hell no.

“Teagan!”

“Chill out, Daddy,” Teagan snickers. “You don't complain about my choice of words when we play.”

“You're screwing with me,” I choke out, still reeling.

“Nope. Not yet anyway.” Teagan grins, eyeing me up and down. “I'll probably get paired up with you next time since you're younger than Abner. We can fight if you want, but I wouldn't mind being your pet either. You're a master dom if I've ever seen one.”

Not even close; I'm Nines’ bitch all the way.

Oh fuck.

Where's Nines?

“Hey, brat,” I cut in, pushing myself carefully upright. “Are there any androids like us?”

“You mean captive?” Teagan shrugs. “Yeah, I guess so. They only fight for Knockout, though. Unless that guy needs a partner for one of us. Like, Abner's been here a while, and before me, I guess he always had to fight or fuck a ‘droid. But they're stored somewhere else, probably shut down in a storage room or something and only powered up when it's time for Knockout.”

Nines? Shut down?

No. No no no no no.

Fuck this creepy ass, black market slimy guy! I'm going to find my Nines, and we're getting the fuck out of this hell hole!

Chapter Text

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” Teagan’s warning comes a split second too late, and a numbing burst of electricity bursts through my fingers and all the way up to my elbow, even making my already aching shoulder throb.

“OW! Fucking- You couldn’t have warned me before??” I snap, glaring at the kid sitting on the edge of the cot where I woke up.

“Didn’t think you’d be dumb enough,” Teagan snorts, lips twitching in a smirk. “Nobody touches the cage except the Maestro.”

“You mean ‘Master’?” I mutter, twisting the word with more venomous sarcasm than I’ve tasted in a long while.

Damn, it feels good to be so coarse again.

“I mean Maestro,” Teagan insists, crossing their legs and leaning back on their hands in a careless manner.

Three days and I still don’t know if Teagan is male or female.

Not like I really care, but it’s one of those tiny little details that just drives you crazy, always tantalisingly close but just barely out of reach.

I’m leaning toward male because of some of the mannerisms, not to mention the fact that they’ve got no curves whatsoever, but the flirtations are distinctly feminine, and they always demand privacy when we change for bed, so who knows?

“Okay,” I sigh, “I’ll bite. Who’s the Maestro?”

“The warden,” Teagan yawns. “A chimera android made from at least three different models. He’s in charge of pairing us up and getting us to and from the arena.”

“He’s here.” I glance over at Abner, who nods beyond me. When I turn to look, I really wish I hadn’t.

Chimera is right, and not in a good way; I’ve seen some seriously mutilated androids in my time, but hell... How is this thing even standing?

Also, I don’t buy it as coincidence that he just happens to appear the first time Teagan decides to mention him.

“Back on the wall,” the Maestro orders, deep voice warped and tinny. Abner and Teagan obey without hesitation, going to the wall separating the main area of our cage from the pitiful bathroom; the only cement portion of the cage.

I don’t.

“Back on the wall, newbie,” the Maestro repeats, hitting the chainlink with a thin metal rod. The chainlink sparks and snaps with the same electricity that just made my fingers momentarily useless a second ago.

Honestly, I’m not surprised that when I finally healed enough to stand and move around on my own, I immediately go and hurt myself again.

“Why?” I challenge, crossing my arms.

“Hey,” Teagan calls, a far more serious note in their voice than I’ve heard yet. “Don’t make a scene; just do what he says.”

I really, really don’t want to. In fact, every recalcitrant bone in my body wants to make the biggest scene I can, just to give Mr. Slime-ball the finger.

But that won’t get me to Nines.

I wait a second more, just to show the Maestro that I could be that dick if I wanted to, and then backstep to the wall next to Abner.

I called it, by the way; he’s a good twenty years older than me, and the blackest man I’ve ever seen. Seriously, the shock of silver curls on his head look snow white against his pure ebony skin.

“Shadow, step forward,” the Maestro orders.

Abner obeys, calm and quiet as ever. The chimera ‘droid turns to a small pedestal I didn’t notice before and presses a button. A metal grate slides down just in front of us, cutting us off from Abner and the rest of the cage, and then the chainlink between him and the Maestro slides up. Without even waiting for direction, Abner strides up to the ‘droid and lifts his head, baring his neck for a thin metal collar that gets snapped into place like a choker. While he steps meekly to the side, the chainlink comes back down and the metal grate goes up.

“Storm, step forward.” I glance at Teagan, but they don’t move. They look up at me and jerk their chin toward the Maestro.

“That’s you,” they mutter softly. “My Knockout name is Phoenix, just like Abner’s is Shadow.”

You have got to be kidding me...

Fuck it. If I play along, I’ll get a better idea of the layout, maybe even figure out where Nines is being held.

Holding up my hands, just in case, I step forward. Grate down, chainlink up; I follow Abner’s example and bare my neck for the collar, even though it galls me to do so.

I hate playing by other people’s rules, especially underworld scumlords like this bastard.

Just bear with it... Just long enough to find Nines and figure out an escape.

Chainlink down, grate up. Teagan comes over to the side closest to us, careful not to touch the fence.

“Hey, Storm. Don’t do anything stupid, okay? Do what Abner does. You don’t wanna know what happens to the rebels.”

So ominous a warning from a normally annoyingly chipper brat unsettles me, and it hovers over me like a ghost as the Maestro leads us through a dimly lit tunnel to a huge chamber flooded with light through huge skylights high above. The dirt floor of the chamber is maybe six or seven feet lower than the floor of the tunnel, and as far as I can see, the tunnel we just came through is the only way in or out of the chamber.

The Maestro shoves us both into the chamber and I barely catch myself so I don’t faceplant. Abner doesn’t get quite so lucky; he sits down hard, grimacing. Sympathetic for once, I offer a hand and help him to his feet.

Oh boy. He’s not much taller than me, but if his grip is anything to go by, he’s a hell of a lot stronger.

I really, really hope we don’t have to fight.

Ooh, and I was wrong; right next to the tunnel we just came out of, there’s another tunnel just like it, guarded by a slightly damaged TR400. I’ll bet anything I have to go that way to find Nines.

“Welcome to Knockout, boys!”

Mr. Slime-ball. Yay.

He’s nowhere to be seen, but as soon as he speaks again, I trace the source to a couple of speakers rigged to the brick walls, high up out of reach.

“For our... esteemed guest... I’ll go over the rules again,” the bastard purrs, entirely too satisfied with himself. “Rule one: No weapons. Makes for poor sportsmanship, you see. Rule two: In the arena, anything goes, but out of it, be on your best behaviour. We don’t want to lose any more contestants, now do we, Shadow?” Abner flinches visibly, and my hatred of this scum-bastard goes up; I may be an ass, but even I know where to draw the line. “Rule three, and this one especially is for you, Storm... Escape. Equals. Death. You get one strike, and the next time you make an attempt, you answer to me.”

For a moment, the threat hangs in the air, and then there’s a snap, like a quick clap of hands.

“Right! On with the show, then!” he urges. Abner faces me.

“Your choice, newbie,” he offers. “As Teagan put it, fight or fuck?”

We get to choose? Well hell... Between that and the pathetic attempt at a death threat by Mr. Ooze, I’m feeling a lot more confident already.

Chapter Text

“I’m assuming ‘fuck’ is to orgasm,” I muse aloud, eying Abner head to toe. “How far is ‘fight’?”

“Till one of us can’t get up again.”

I can’t tell, under the thick turtleneck and loose jeans, just how much muscle he has, but judging by the scarring around his mouth from consistent split lips, the crook in his permanently broken nose, and the jagged curve of his brow, I’d say he’s been in more than his fair share of fights. Which means he’s got all kinds of experience that I don’t have; even with my training, I’m not a hundred percent confident in my ability to take him down without eating a good amount of pain in the process.

But considering the alternative...

Yeah, I’m not ‘tussling’ for dominance with this guy. Not like that. I’d lose, and no one gets my ass but Nines.

“Well, I guess this is going to be a long fight then,” I say, popping my knuckles, rolling my shoulders, and basically just checking my current range of mobility. A small grin of respect twitches at the corner of Abner’s scarred lips, and he shifts into a defensive stance.

“We’ll see,” he hums simply, giving off an easy confidence that makes me wonder if I made the right choice.

Then he’s suddenly in my space, one hand catching the wrist of the arm I jerk up reactively, the other snapping across my jaw and sending me stumbling back. He follows, almost too quick to guard against, knee coming up toward my side with a spray of sand. I dive to the side, rolling to my feet just in time to block a serious roundhouse that would have laid me out.

Fuck, this guy is good. Too good; there’s no way he doesn’t have training of his own. Or else he’s been here a long damn time...

I’m gonna have to reevaluate my situation here.

I just manage to slip a jab through his guard and hit his sternum, barely a tap compared to the blow I took to the jaw a moment ago, but enough to unbalance him and make him step back for a second.

Alright. Game face, Gavin; time to really use those skills you spent ten, fifteen years refining.

Jump in. Uppercut. Dodge. Parry. Move back. Block. Retaliate...

It all comes back so easily, pulling me into a steady flow that has just a bit more of an edge than I’m used to; I’m instinctively pulling my punches because I’ve sparred with coworkers so many times that it’s straight up habit.

“You’re pulling,” Abner pants when we break apart for a second to catch our breaths. I manage a short laugh, lungs already burning and the rest of my body loudly protesting the mistreatment.

“Not trying to,” I huff, rubbing at my shoulder; I swear one of his kicks there nearly dislocated it. “‘S habit; haven’t fought this hard in... don’t even know how long.”

“Better figure out how to stop,” he nods, raising his fists, “or this round is mine.”

Darting forward, he goes for my gut, switching at the last second to my bad shoulder. I just knock the blow aside, using the opening I’ve created to swing in and elbow him hard in the ribs. He grunts and shoves me away. I’m turning just as he kicks at my knee, and I almost catch his ankle. A last second shift brings his heel down on my instep instead; he uses the momentum to box the hell out of my ear, only a quick jolt back preventing any real damage.

God, is it bad that I’m actually having fun?

Abner is seriously good, and the mutual respect between us is just... I can’t get enough of this.

When was the last time I actually got excited about something? I can’t even remember!

“Guessing that means you’re enjoying yourself,” Abner chuckles breathlessly when I catch him up against the wall with a laugh.

“Enjoying myself?” I grin. “Suppose you could say that.”

I try to move my arm across his throat and he promptly headbutts me. White fire explodes through my skull from my nose and I fall back, tripping over my own feet and hitting the dirt. He’s on top of me before I can move, and I catch another blow to the head before I get my arms up.

“Sorry, but this round’s mine,” he says, raising his fists over his head to bring them down on mine; if that connects, I’m out for sure. I don’t even hesitate; it’s dirty, but I snap a sharp jab to his balls, and he yelps, rolling quickly off me and cupping himself. I scramble to my feet while he struggles to do the same.

“Sorry,” I return, “but not this time.” A fierce kick to his face knocks him flat and he just lays there for a moment. Then he rolls to his side and curls up with a groan, on hand between his legs and the other covering his nose and mouth.

Ooh... We’re both pretty bloody, but the amount of red trickling through his fingers is a little concerning.

“Ah gib...” he coughs, blood splattering across the sand.

Well shit... I don’t even wait for whatever signals the end of the fight; crouching next to Abner, I carefully grab his arm.

“You okay?” I ask, trying to help him sit up. “Man, I’m sorry...”

“Don’ b...” He moves his hand for a moment to spit out a huge glob of blood and... is that a tooth?

Whoops.

A bell rings, like the kind you hear at wrestling matches, and the Maestro drops into the arena as Abner gives me a weak grin, an upper incisor missing.

“Bee’ a while si’ce ah los’,” he slurs, pleased in spite of the damage I did to him. How anyone could be happy to lose is beyond me, but hell if I can’t share his enthusiasm at the moment.

I’m still going to get the hell out of here as quickly as I can, but who says I can’t enjoy myself along the way?

Chapter Text

“Oh my God, Abner,” Teagan blurts, jumping up from their cot not far from mine and rushing over as close to the fence as they dare. The shock on their face would be hilarious if I wasn’t still minorly concerned by the amount of blood Abner’s lost by now.

“Back against the wall,” the Maestro orders, knocking his stick-thing against the fence near Teagan. They flinch back from the sparks and scurry back to the wall.

Grate down, fence up. I’m about to help Abner to his cot when the Maestro grabs my arm in a tight grip.

“Easy, microwave,” I growl, baring my teeth at him to hide the grimace of pain he caused. He doesn’t react, just reaches over and unclips the collar from around my neck. He does the same to Abner before letting me go.

I don’t even get Abner seated on his cot before the fence goes down behind us and the grate slides up. Teagan is beside us in an instant, cloth in hand.

“You’re a hell of a fighter, I guess,” they say, shaking their head at me as they press the cloth to Abner’s face. He takes it with an appreciative grunt. “You have got to have some kind of training; what, a boxer? Wrestler? No, never mind; you’re too small to be a wrestler. Unless you’re like, a featherweight or whatever. I don’t know wrestling...”

“Me neither,” I scoff, sitting heavily on the end of their cot, which is closer than mine. “Cop. Detective. Or I was, before.”

“No kidding.” A small, interested smile lights across Teagan’s features and they cast a quick, appraising glance at me as they settle next to Abner to help him clean up. “So that ‘droid you got caught with; they your partner?”

Uh, what? I tense up immediately, wary.

“What makes you think that?”

“Lucky guess?” Teagan shrugs, satisfied little smirk giving them away. I just glare at them for a moment until they laugh, shifting over a bit and tugging at Abner’s shoulder to get him to lie down on their lap. “Okay, seriously, it was pretty obvious; you were asking about androids earlier, so it’s not a huge leap to assume you were with one when that guy caught you. And if you were a cop before, well... that part really was just a guess.”

“...He wasn’t my partner before the Pulse,” I admit after a moment. “Our partnership is... more recent.”

Teagan looks up from cleaning blood off Abner’s face, bright eyes searching mine for a brief but startlingly intense moment. Then a slow, intrigued smirk curls across their lips as they go back to cleaning.

“I won’t pry,” they hum, amused. “Don’t ask, don’t tell and all that.”

It takes me a moment to place the oddly familiar phrase, and when I do, heat explodes in my face.

Shit, I’m not that obvious, am I? After Sadie hit the nail on the head, and now this kid... Geez, I must be a piece of fucking glass if it’s that easy to see through me.

“Leaf hib alone, Deagan,” Abner mutters, tapping their shoulder in reproach. Teagan chuckles, tipping his chin up and inspecting his nose and mouth.

“Can’t help myself sometimes,” they say shamelessly. “Open. Anyway, it’s so easy to mess with people that don’t know.”

That gets my attention real quick.

“Don’t know what?” I ask, not caring that my suspicion is obvious as fuck. Teagan just grins at me, unbothered.

“That I’m...” Their eyes widen and they wiggle their fingers. “...psychic!”

...Seriously? I give them a dry stare, unimpressed and highly annoyed that I almost let them get me. They laugh.

“Your face...” Leaning back and idly threading their hand through Abner’s curls, they let their mirth melt into a tolerant smile. “I’m serious, though. I really do have some abilities. I dunno that you’d call it ‘psychic,’ but since I don’t really know what else to call it, that works.”

“Uh huh,” I nod, playing along as obviously as I can. “What, can you read my mind, is that it?”

“Not even if I wanted to,” they scoff, amused. “Not that kind of ability. I just get a sense for things. I can read between the lines better than most people. Things click for me like that ― ” they snap their fingers ― “and I just know things that others have to be told.”

“Is that all?” I say sarcastically. They just keep smiling.

“I can hear, smell and see things sooner than people around me. Doctor said it was just hypersensitivity or something when I was young, that I’d grow out of it; never did.”

“So I should be quieter? Bathe regularly? Not use any bright lights?” You could cut yourself on the edge of my snark.

“Nah,” Teagan chuckles. “That’s just what the doctor said; I have the same tolerances as the next person, I just see farther and better, and I can differentiate scents more easily, and I can hear things that others can’t.”

“Do you hear voices too?” I snort. “Do they tell you to kill people?” Teagan’s amusement turns brittle.

“You really don’t believe me, do you?”

“Why should I?” I retort, glad to be back to reality. “Stuff like that only happens in movies and books, brat; this is the real world! Put away your fantasies before you get yourself killed.”

That must have struck a chord, because they flinch and scowl, but when they open their mouth to say something, Abner reaches up and grips their shoulder.

“Fo’ged id, Deagan; he’s dod worth the efford.”

I’m not sure why that ticks me off. Maybe because Teagan backs down so easily, pointedly ignoring me and turning their attention wholly to playing with Abner’s short curls. Maybe because despite the spark of connection we had in the arena, Abner’s suddenly against me now and it rubs me wrong.

Whatever the case, I give up and go to my cot, wincing at the new aches and pains that flare up and into the forefront of my attention when I go to lay down.

I don’t even know why I bothered; I really should just focus on finding Nines and getting the hell out of here.

Chapter Text

Teagan was taken away for a round earlier this morning, presumably with one of the androids, since Abner and I are still here, slowly recovering from our match. Hardly ten minutes after they leave, I’m already pacing the length of the cage, trying to distract myself by wondering why Mr. Slimy-guts didn’t see fit to take my watch.

Really, what kind of idiot doesn’t completely strip search a captive? He took my gun, but everything else...

Hold on just one fucking second.

My hand slaps hard against my hip, and I scrabble into my pocket, searching for-

YES!! Sadie’s dog tag!

Oh, thank God!

I don’t even hesitate to drop to my knees and tap the tag hard against the concrete floor; dih-dih-dih dah-dah-dah dih-dih-dih.

SOS, bitch! Hah! Stop me from escaping now, fucking scuzz-ball!

Wait, Sadie mentioned Morse Code... Can I send an entire message to her this way? Will she actually get it? I don’t know, but I have to try; just gotta remember my Morse.

It takes me a moment to dig through my memory, and I make several false starts before I manage to get out a complete message without messing up.

KIDNAPPED BY SLAVER / HELD UNDERGROUND / SEPARATE FROM 9 / COME CAREFUL AND PREPARED

Sitting back, I hold my breath, clutching the tag in my hands and hoping desperately for some sign, any sign, that she got it.

“What was that?” I about jump out of my skin at the sudden, sharp sound of Abner’s voice.

“Jesus fucking Christ!”

“Morse code?” Abner presses, ignoring my startled reaction. “To whom?”

“What?” I gasp, still on the adrenaline edge of panic and trying to slow my skyrocketing heartbeat.

“You were tapping the floor. Morse? But there’s no one to hear it.” He’s staring at me intently, black eyes pinning me down and demanding an answer. I’m so used to seeing him as the calm, passive one that it completely unnerves me.

“I- It’s... Uh...” While I’m struggling to explain, his gaze snaps to the tunnel and then back to me. Shooting forward, he grabs my arm and drags me into his corner.

“Voice down,” he whispers fiercely. “That guy has mics in the tunnels, but they’re pathetic little things; so long as you don’t raise your voice, they won’t pick it up. Who else is with you?”

“Who else...?”

“You said ‘separate from nine’; are they all androids?”

“Wh- No; Nines. He’s my partner,” I answer automatically, too stunned to censor myself. “How did y-”

“You didn’t say where underground,” he points out. “Do you have a tracker implanted? That guy would have picked it up with a scan.”

“I- Not in me; it’s in the dog tag. And it isn’t active until I tap SOS.”

“Then it would have made it past the scan; good.” Releasing my arm, he sits back, a shrewd gleam in his eye that sends a shiver down my spine.

I’m glad I’m not on the opposing side of that stare.

“How long until your backup arrives?” he asks suddenly.

“Dunno,” I shrug, still a little off-balance. “I’m not even entirely sure the message made it through. My-” The tag vibrates in my hand, cutting me off. “Oh. Oh! She got it!”

“Put it away,” Abner hisses. I flick a glare his way, but the instant I see that his stare is on the tunnel now, I obey without question, shoving the still vibrating tag back into my pocket just as the Maestro comes around a bend in the tunnel, carrying Teagan.

We both stand up instantly, and Abner sucks a sharp breath in between his teeth; even from here, it looks like Teagan got straight up mauled.

“Back against the wall.” He doesn’t even need to say it; we’re already by the wall.

As soon as the grate goes back up, Abner darts over to Teagan’s cot, and I follow uneasily, not wanting to witness another death.

“Hell, Teagan... What happened?” he breathes, reaching for Teagan’s hand and stopping before he actually touches them.

“Fight,” Teagan coughs, taking the remaining distance themselves and grabbing Abner’s hand in a tight grip.

So maybe they won’t die just yet.

With luck, not anytime soon either.

“With what, a chainsaw?”

“Nah,” Teagan grins weakly. “One of those things. The zombies. Killed it, too. Looks like we got a third option in the arena: fight, fuck, or kill.”

No. Fucking. Way.

This bastard...

“Oh Teagan,” Abner sighs heavily, looking over them. “Alright, just stay still, okay? I’ll get you cleaned up; they’ll bring supper soon, and hopefully some more bandages with it.”

I move out of the way when he stands and goes to his cot and gets the first aid box out from under it. Teagan starts to sit up, and I go to stop them, but they just wave me back.

“You’re sweet, but I’m fine.” They spit a glob of bloody saliva toward the fence and work their jaw, grimacing. “Damn... my chin hurts.”

“What’d you hit?” Abner asks lightly, sitting beside them with the box and reaching for their jaw to inspect it himself.

I sit across from them on my cot, watching.

“Her elbow, I think,” Teagan winces, pushing his hand away. “Be gentle, would you? I ache in places I didn’t know I had!”

“You mean your boobs?” Abner deadpans, startling me.

First off, how oddly crass for someone who was scolding Teagan about their language not an hour ago. And second... what?

Teagan bursts out laughing, grabbing their sides and almost falling over. Probably would have if not for Abner’s steadying hand on their shoulder. He’s got this funny little smirk now, and I make the connection that it’s an inside joke of some kind, so I don’t bother asking.

“Oh, Jesus, it hurts!” Teagan gasps. “Don’t make me laugh, you jerk! But yes, my boobs totally ache right now.”

“Take off your shirt already, brat,” Abner scoffs, shaking his head.

“Uh, should I... like, turn around?” I ask hesitantly, heat creeping up my neck.

“Nah,” Teagan chuckles, pulling their t-shirt from their pants and tugging it up gingerly. “As much as I wish it otherwise, I’m biologically male. Never got the chance to start my transition. I was actually on my way to a specialist when the zombie apocalypse began, and after that, it was day after day of running while it was light out, and hiding when it got dark, going wherever the supplies were. Then I ended up here, and well. The rest, as they say, is history.”

Oh. I guess Teagan’s a she then.

I turn around anyway.

The shift makes the buzzing in my pocket more prominent, and I take out the tag, laying it on my palm. It takes me only a few buzzes to realise it’s Morse, not just a signal that it’s active, and I start piecing out the letters.

GAIN REPEAT SEND AGAIN REPEAT SEND AGAIN...

Same thing, over and over. It’s probably been going on for a good five minutes by now, and I feel terrible for making her repeat herself again and again, probably worrying her ass off.

Oh shit... And after Abigail, she’s probably outright panicking, wondering if I only managed to get out one message before dying.

God, I’m an ass...

Immediately, I feel for the frame of the cot and tap the tag against it.

OKAY / SAFE FOR NOW / KIDNAPPED / UNDERGROUND / SEPARATE FROM 9 / COME CAREFUL / OVER

Hardly do I finish the last letter than it begins vibrating again.

SIT TIGHT / EN ROUTE / ETA 10 HRS / FIND 9 QUICK / OVER

“Hey Abner,” I speak up, a slow grin tugging at my lips unbidden. “It’s through. We got ten hours.” When I glance back over my shoulder, Teagan is looking curiously between us and Abner’s got a smirk that mimics mine.

“That long? Well, we might as well get some sleep then, eh Storm?”

Chapter Text

“How.” I can’t even put in the effort to make it a question, I’m that speechless.

“Pretty cool, huh?” Teagan laughs, twisting and stretching like it’s no big deal. “I heal way faster than most people. Didn’t even realise it was weird until Abner commented on it after our first tussle.”

“I’m still pissed at you, by the way,” Abner hums easily, gathering up the bandages he just took off Teagan.

“What, for not telling you I was a virgin before we fucked?” she snickers. “Please. Like it really matters when you’re the one that got it.”

Whoa! Hold on!

“WHAT??” And I naively thought she couldn’t make me any more surprised than I already was.

“Aw, did you think I was a pretty little bottom?” Teagan coos, fluttering long lashes and curling in on herself with utterly fake innocence. “A tiny, meek sub spreading for Daddy?” I glance at Abner, but he keeps his gaze down, an odd colouring to his ears that I realise must be him blushing. Teagan bursts into cackles. “Oh he’s a Daddy alright, but God does it make it that much more fun to pin him down.”

“But y-”

“But I’m a girl?” She scoffs, flipping her hand at her shoulder. If she had longer hair, the effect would have been better. “Bitch, I’m everything.”

“Including a mouthy brat,” Abner humphs, putting the first aid box away. He didn’t need it, but from the way he handled her while he was removing the bandages earlier, he expected to.

He really does care about her; even I can see it. I almost feel like I’m intruding on something private whenever they start bantering like this.

Fuck, I miss Tina... She was the only person I could sharpen my wit with.

No, that’s not entirely true. Sadie’s getting there. And every now and then, Nines has his moments.

God, Nines... I really hope he’s okay. I’m banking everything on the belief that he’ll be just as he was when I find him again; I can’t afford to let myself think otherwise, or else I’ll break down.

These past few months, I’ve been safer and more comfortable than the rest of my life combined, and it’s allowed me to fall apart a little here and there. I couldn’t do that before; there was always another case to work on at the DPD, and before that, I was constantly working hard to get there. Before that... well. I don’t have a lot of fond childhood memories.

Always holding myself together, taping over the little cracks that life tried to chip out of me. Never letting myself show any weakness around anyone if I could help it, even when I’d bottled up so many emotions that it leaked through the cracks. Always shoving people away with a barbed wire fence of sarcasm and snark so they wouldn’t see the leaks.

And then came the storm drain.

Geez, now that I think about it, that was the first time I’ve truly let go of my emotions since I was a child.

And it was for Nines.

I guess I owe him a lot more than I thought.

“Hey, Storm!” I jolt back from Teagan’s snapping fingers right in my face. “Man, it’s hard to get your attention when you zone out. I asked you three times how long we have left.”

“Wh- Oh, sorry,” I mumble, pushing my thoughts into a box and putting it aside while I check my watch and calculate. “Uh... Four... Three and a half more hours.”

“...You were thinking about him, weren’t you?” She squats in front of me, chin on her fists and bright eyes boring into mine. “Your partner. He’s pretty special to you.”

“Is that a question?” I scoff, trying to brush her off.

“Observation,” she corrects, relentless. She could give Sadie a run for her money, except that Sadie is a hell of a lot more gentle. “He’s still alive, you know. And worried about you.”

“That your psychic sense?” I ask sarcastically, standing and stepping past her to pace a bit; if I occupy my body, then I can think better.

“Sure, maybe,” she shrugs, crossing her arms over her knees and watching me. “I just know it. Like I know that you love him enough to die for him, and you’ll tear this place apart brick by brick if that guy does anything to him.”

My heart stops for a split second, and my chest feels like it’s in a vice, but somehow I manage to sound disturbingly casual when I reply.

“Now you’re just making shit up like those freaky fortune tellers.”

“Actually, those ‘freaky fortune tellers’ are making educated guesses based on body language, expression, clothes, et cetera. So, yes, I’m like them, but no, I’m not making shit up. The fact that you won’t look at me right now is proof enough that I’m right.”

I face her, just to put a crack in the facade, but the moment she sees my face, she smiles knowingly.

“It’s the eyes,” she explains, tapping just off her temple. “As they say, the eyes are the window to the soul, and yours burn with a love like I haven’t seen in... I don’t even know how long. Honestly, I didn’t know it was possible to be so in love.”

“I’m not in love,” I say, as casually as I can. “If anything, you’re seeing my determination to get the fuck out of this hell hole; that’s it.”

“Alright,” she chuckles, standing and raising her hands in surrender. “I won’t out you anymore; I just thought you needed to hear it. Not everyone knows themselves well enough to realise when they’re actually in love and when it’s just infatuation. Sometimes just hearing confirmation can unlock parts of you that you didn’t know existed. A lot of people would kill for the kind of love you have, Storm. Don’t let it slip through your fingers.”

Turning, she laces her fingers behind her head and starts whistling as she meandres over toward Abner’s corner, where he’s laying out on his cot with his hands folded over his chest, staring absently at the ceiling.

Damn. I must really be glass. A glass bottle threatening to burst with a tsunami of emotions.

Jesus fucking Christ... I swear I’m going to destroy the scumbag that put me here, but first I’m gonna have to thank him. Not just for a fitting nickname; he might just have given me the one thing I truly needed by introducing me to Teagan.

She was right; hearing that confirmation has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me, and now I’m all the more desperate to find Nines and get out of this dump, if only because there’s something I need to tell him.

Chapter Text

It starts with a bang. A really, really big bang.

A total of three enormous crashing sounds precede a huge chunk of the ceiling just outside the cage collapsing and filling the tunnel with dust and rubble. Teagan throws herself behind her cot, and Abner launches over to her side, crouching over her. I’m huddling out of the way by the wall, blinking against the dust.

“What the-?” Teagan pokes her head up, bright eyes wide with awe. “What is that?” Coughing and waving away dust from my face, I stand and look over at the ruinous mess just as a familiar growl reaches my ears.

“That,” I say, grinning like a madman, “is my lion.” Going over to the fence, I smirk at Erik, who’s casually dusting bits of rubble from his shoulders while Buttermilk paces anxiously just beyond the fence. “I never thought I’d say this, buddy, but man am I glad to see you.”

“The sentiment is appreciated, Detective,” he replies lightly, stepping closer. “But hold your gratitude until we are safely away from here. Where is Richard?”

“I don’t know,” I scowl. “I never got a chance to find him. I couldn’t exactly get out.” I gesture at the fence, and he promptly reaches out. “Wait; it-”

The fence snaps with electricity, and sparks flicker all the way up his arms, but he doesn’t even seem to notice as he literally rips open a hole in it, tearing the metal apart as easily as paper.

“Come. Miss Morgan is aboveground, waiting for you,” he says as Butter bounds through the hole with a delighted yowl and almost knocks me over. “I will take Buttermilk and find Richard.”

“Wh- Wait, no; you get Teagan and Abner out of here and then follow after me,” I counter, patting Butter’s flank. “I’ve got a score to settle anyway.” He frowns, head cocked slightly, and it does wonders for his appeal; Jesus, if I wasn’t already sold out on Nines, the fact that he’s finally showing emotion would kill my heart.

“You are weaponless,” he points out. “And injured. I cannot allow you to go alone.”

“That’s what Butter’s for, idiot,” I scoff, slipping carefully through the hole and tapping his arm in passing. “Hey, I’m counting on you to be my backup; don’t let me down, Erik.”

Without waiting for a response, I whistle at Butter and take off down the tunnel. He catches up easily, tongue lolling in gleeful excitement. We’re almost at the arena when the Maestro appears in front of us, blocking the path.

“Get him, Butter!” I don’t even slow down; he shoots past me, pouncing on the Maestro and taking the chimera ‘droid to the ground while I leap over them, kicking off the wall for a little extra length before I hit the floor again, not having lost almost any momentum.

Butter catches up again as I turn in the arena and make a running leap up into the other tunnel, dragging myself up and rolling to my feet with a slight wince as my body protests the maltreatment while I’m still healing.

“Showoff,” I chuckle when Butter makes the leap with ease, graceful as the feline he is. “Find Nines, Butter-ball; find Richard.” He goes still, nose twitching as great gold eyes scan our surroundings. Then he takes off down the tunnel, and I follow.

This tunnel doesn’t lead directly to a cage, like the other one; it opens up into a huge cavern, a hastily converted subway station that looks like it was abandoned long before the Pulse. Across the tracks from the tunnel we just exited, there’s another tunnel, and a metal plank crosses from one platform to the other. I’m about to go across when I realise that’s not the way Butter’s going; he’s trotting along the platform on this side. Confused, I trail along after him, and he pauses beside the service door.

Locked, of course. And that door isn’t coming down easy.

Looks like I get to deal with Mr. Greasy first.

“Come on, Butter.” I head across the tracks and go down the tunnel on the other side.

Holy fucking hell...

All along the length of it, deactivated androids are lined up in two neat rows, most of them damaged, some severely so.

About halfway down, I hear shrieking ahead, and scowl; I know that sound: Scavs.

This bastard is really collecting people and machines for his own sick entertainment.

I pass the grate-covered pit where bloody, skeletal Scav hands are poking up, clawing in my direction, and hurry to the door at the end, behind which is a staircase to the next floor up. The door at the top of the stairs is also locked, but not nearly so sturdy, and with a good strong kick next to the lock, it crashes open.

“Looks like I got here just in time,” I growl at the sleazy figure across the room who looks up sharply from its frantic packing.

“Oh my...” the dirtbag breathes, cowering. “I knew you had a fighting spirit... Should have taken better precautions...”

“Damn straight. Where’s my android?” I demand, taking a step toward him. He flinches and scrambles around to put the table between us.

“Wh- What android?”

“DON’T. Play dumb with me, bastard!” I snarl, taking another menacing step. Butter growls loudly, backing me up, and the slimy asshole yelps. “The android that was with me when you decided to ambush me on the street in broad daylight!”

“I don- It wasn’t...”

“I can’t hear you,” I snap. Another step. “Speak up, scumbag!”

“Please! I didn’t take him!” he shrieks, shrinking down behind the table. “I left him there!”

“What do you mean, you left him?” Another step.

“He was damaged! Beyond use! Taking him would have been more trouble than repairing him was worth!”

This... motherfucking bastard!

With a roar, I flip the table out of my way, ready to snap his fucking pencil neck!

And I’m abruptly staring down the muzzle of a gun.

MY gun. My Morgansmith.

“Heh. Ah, how the tables turn,” the grease-wad smirks when I freeze, confidence oozing out of him now as he stands.

Wow, he’s actually really tall... What, six and a half feet? Maybe a little more. Thin as a damn rod, but... uh, not un-muscled, actually...

Well shit. I’ve really underestimated this asshole.

“Look at you,” he scoffs, beady little eyes flicking down and back up, staring down his nose at me. “A zappy little storm cloud all on your own, threatening me with a little rainfall. Did you really believe I was unprepared for such an event? I know how to use my opponent’s misconceptions against them. You aren’t anything new.” He twitches the muzzle slightly to the side, gesturing for me to move. “Over there, by the computer. Don’t bother trying anything; you’ll get a bullet between your eyes before you can even think to regret it. Quite the gun, by the way; a custom piece, of course, so I won’t bother asking where you got it. I think I shall simply take it for myself. And do keep your pet in check, unless you want to see its brains splattered across the room.”

“Fuck you, bastard,” I snarl, unable to help myself. He gives a disgusting chuckle, clicking his suitcase closed without looking and taking it with him as he circles around me and Butter toward the door.

“Oh, before I go... I lied. Your android is quite the fighter; I see the appeal for someone like you. He’s somewhere in the facility, if you think you can find him.” Without warning, he shoots.

“FUCK!” I drop to the floor, certain I’ve been hit and I’ll bleed out in a few minutes. But I feel no pain, and a quick check reveals no new holes in my body. Perplexed, I look up. He’s smirking, and he jerks his chin at something beyond me.

Oh, hell... He must have shot that lever over there. There’s a huge countdown displayed on the monitors lining the wall.

I don’t even have to ask; it’s all gonna blow in less than five minutes.

“You certainly won’t have time to find him and come after me,” he cackles. “Farewell, Storm!”

“Butter, fetch!” I don’t know how well it’s gonna work, but I throw myself behind the overturned table as Butter lunges forward. Two shots go off, and I really hope neither of them went through Butter’s pump or central processor.

Unfortunately, one of them absolutely does some damage to the computer, and half of the monitors turn red with giant ERROR messages. A klaxon starts blaring, and the lights flicker.

Well, shit.

Jumping out from behind cover, I almost trip over Butter, who was coming my way. I barely catch myself against the table and look up in time to see the grease ball staggering out the door with the suitcase clutched tight to his chest by one arm, the other half torn off. He pauses to turn a death glare back my way and then vanishes.

Butter gives an eager whine and drops the Morgansmith at my feet, along with a couple of fingers and half a palm.

“Okay, that’s gross,” I grimace. “But you did what I asked, so I can’t really be mad. Good job, Butter.” I ruffle his mane and lean down to gingerly pick up the Morgansmith, brushing the handle against the leg of my jeans to get some of the blood off it.

And I promptly drop it as an explosion shakes the earth, almost knocking me on my ass. Dust shifts down from the cracked ceiling, and the lights flicker out completely. Cursing, I find the gun using the light of the ERROR messages and the glitching countdown.

“Come on, Butter; we’ve got to find Nines and get out of here before the whole place comes down!”

Chapter Text

Explosions underground are terrible. I just want to make that clear.

I absolutely hate this.

On the plus side, the door is open now.

When I reach it, the service door I couldn’t open before is twisted half-off its moorings, and the frame is broken away on one side. It’s difficult, especially with chunks of ceiling raining down at irregular intervals, threatening to crush my skull if I’m not careful, but I manage to wrench the door open enough to squeeze through. Buttermilk gives a throaty whine and paws at the rubble blocking him from being able to follow.

“It’s okay, Butter,” I smile, reaching back through to scratch him behind the ear. “Stay here; I’ll be right back.”

This has to be where that scuzzball is keeping Nines; there’s nowhere else he could be, and this was where Butter was trying to go earlier.

Shit, it’s too dark to see anything...

“Nines!” I call, feeling my way forward in the darkness. “Nines, can you hear me?”

God, I wish I had some kind of light.

I keep calling out, one hand waving around in front of my knees and the other shielding my face as I take slow, cautious steps forward. When my shin rams into something my hand missed, I hiss a curse, almost tripping. My hand smacks something hard when I go to steady myself, and I snarl another curse, feeling for whatever I hit and hoping it’s the wall so I have something to guide me.

...That’s a weirdly curved wall... A support pillar, maybe?

No... It’s a body.

The lights flicker on for a fraction of a second, but it’s long enough; my breath catches in my lungs and my heart skips under the tight tension gripping my chest.

“Nines..!” Sliding my hands up his chest, I cup his jaw, unease rising in my throat. “Nines, open your eyes; look at me... I can’t see anything without your weird lights, tin can...” I can’t stop the waver in my voice, and my hands won’t stop trembling.

Fucking shit... I’m about to have another goddamn panic attack.

“Not here; God, not here!” I gasp at myself, forcing my hands to move across his shoulders and along his arms, which are spread above his head.

I realise then that he’s taller than he should be. When I find one of his wrists, I understand why; he’s chained up, off the ground.

The lights flicker back on for a moment, and I see that I’m right; a chain cuffed to each wrist leads up to the ceiling, and two more stretch from his ankles to the floor, holding him spread eagle.

Dear God, his face...

It’s bad enough that he’s completely skinless, and I’m so frazzled that I can’t think of one reason why that might be, but the damage to his face makes my gut twist, bile forcing up my throat when I see that it’s not just his face; there’s just as much damage to his chest and across his sides. Threads of thirium trickle from the deepest wounds, but there’s very little thirium to be seen, and it terrifies me to think that it’s been long enough for that much to have evaporated already.

There was only a split second of light, but it was enough, and my knees give way as my stomach pours its contents off my tongue. Wave after wave drags out of me, perpetuated by the scent, and by the image still seared to my retinas. A ragged sob tears from my burning throat between heaves, and hot tears streak my face with cool wet trails.

“Nines...” The word chokes me as I struggle not to think about the dump, and the storm drain; even remembering when he collapsed from the virus makes me want to fall apart.

I can't breathe. I can't think. All I can do is hold myself together as best I can and try not to scream at the desperate need to hide from everything.

“Detective!” An instant of terror rips through me with a viciousness that leaves me reeling even as I recognise Erik's voice and look up into the blinding glare of a flashlight.

“Erik... Help him... Please...”

“Miss Morgan! In here!”

I’m vaguely aware of clattering and cursing, but I’m still caught up in just trying to breathe and I almost don’t even notice Sadie grabbing my arm and hauling me to my feet until I’m standing upright already.

“Shit... Keep lookin’ at me, cowboy,” she mutters gently. “Erik, get Nines; I’ll take care o’ Gavin. Buttermilk, find us a way out!”

My head is spinning; I’d faceplant without Sadie’s arm around my waist. I don’t pay any attention to where we’re going or how we get there. I can’t; my focus is entirely on not breaking down while we’re still in danger. Once we’re clear? All bets are off.

“There!” Sadie shouts. “Good job, Butter; just a li’l more, cowboy. That’s it; almost there... A few more steps; come on...”

I tune her out.

Safety won’t change what I saw.

It makes things worse, in fact; once we’re out in the sun, perched on the edge of the hole that collapsed mere moments after we’re clear, there’s nothing to hide the damage done to Nines, who hangs loosely from Erik’s arms.

“Nines...” The panic I’ve been holding back wells up and breaks free in a ragged scream, bringing me to my knees. I clutch at Sadie’s hands, trying desperately to ground myself, but I can’t stop staring at him.

Dead.

Again.

“-in... Gavin!” Sadie slaps me, hard, for a moment jolting me out of my panic. “Calm down; he’ll be okay. I’ll fix him. He’s not dead. Do you hear me? Nines is still alive!”

“Sadie...” The panic pushes back, and my vision swims. “You don’t know that... I can’t... I c-”

“I know,” she whispers, pulling me into her shoulder. “I know. I’ll fix him. Erik, put him in the car. Butter-”

“Incoming!” Teagan yells.

“Sadie, there’s a whole horde swarming this way,” Abner snaps. “We need to leave now.”

“I got it; get in the car.” Standing, she drags me up again. “Butter, come! Uncle, can you still drive?”

“Can I still- Of course I can still drive; I’m not that old! Everyone in; quickly. Just tell me where to go, Sadie.”

Chapter Text

By the time we get back to Eli’s, the panic is over and I’ve managed to stop crying, but now I’m just... tired. Physically, emotionally, mentally...

I can’t handle this again; it’s killing me.

Everyone’s quiet as we get inside. Too quiet; it’s like a funeral, and it just makes things worse. I can’t watch Erik take Nines to the lab; without a word to anyone, I go straight to my room.

Chloe must have done the laundry while we were gone; a pile of neatly folded clothes rests on the foot of the freshly made bed.

One of Nines’ shirts is on top.

Grabbing it, I go into the bathroom and take a shower, standing under the spray until it goes cold, and then standing a little longer. After drying off, I pull on his shirt and a pair of briefs and curl up in bed, wishing he had a scent so I could wrap myself up in it and at least pretend he’s here.

But he’s not. And he may never be again.

Sadie said she’d fix him, but is it even possible to fix what I saw? And even if it is, will he still be my Nines?

What’s worse, not having him at all, or having an empty version of him that doesn’t love me anymore?

Oh God...

I barely make it to the bathroom in time to empty out whatever’s left in my stomach. There’s so little left that after a moment, I’m just dry heaving, unable to breathe between the heaves and the sobs.

When the heaving stops and it’s just sobs, I sit back against the wall, pulling the collar of the turtleneck up to cover my face as much as possible.

Can I just...? For a just a minute... Can I cease to exist? Will that stop the pain?

No. I should know better than that by now; nothing will stop the pain. It’s always there, hovering in the corner, waiting to ambush me like this, when I’m at my weakest.

Crystal meows loudly at me, startling me out of my stupor for a moment. She’s sitting primly by the door, giving me a reproving look, and the kittens are ambling in with the cutest little mews, tails sticking straight up like little antennae.

“I’m sorry, Crystal,” I rasp, tugging the collar down and rubbing at my face. “Come here; I’ll pet you now.” Her look doesn’t get any less reproving, and she turns her tail to me, ushering the kittens out of the bathroom, casting a glance over her shoulder like she’s scolding me for being such a mess.

Feeling like a kitten myself, I push to my feet and wash my face and hands before going out to the bed, where Crystal is already curled up on one side of my pillow with the kittens clambering over each other against her stomach to get comfortable. Laying next to them, I pull Nines’ pillow to my chest and then reach up to bury my fingers in Crystal’s neck. She immediately starts purring, and within moments, I fall asleep.

――

The listlessness doesn’t end. I can hardly bring myself to get out of bed just to go to the bathroom, and after vomiting up whatever I manage to force myself to eat, I give up on eating altogether.

Teagan came in once to try and convince me to eat ― it didn’t work ― and then comes again the next day to say goodbye. I rouse myself enough to ask why she’s leaving, and she gives me the saddest smile.

“I don’t belong here,” she says quietly. “I tried to convince Abner to stay, since he and Sadie are family, but I failed, so he’s coming with me. He didn’t want to say goodbye; he’s actually pretty shy when it comes to expressing himself.” Her smile turns wistful, and faintly familiar. “Oh, and he asked me to tell you that he’s looking forward to a rematch, if we ever meet again and you’re up to it then.”

“Yeah...” At this point, I don’t know if I’ll ever be up to doing anything again.

“...He’s looking better,” she says suddenly, sitting on the edge of the bed and absently petting Journey, who mewls happily and preens under the attention. “Sadie thinks he’ll be fully repaired and functional by the day after tomorrow, and your brother hasn’t stopped running diagnostics and playing with code except to eat and sleep when Chloe forces him to.”

I sense it, and it makes my empty gut clench painfully.

“But...?” I prompt, needing to hear it even though I don’t want to.

“But... They’re giving off uneasy vibes,” she admits softly, hesitant. “I think they’re both worried that it won’t matter in the end, that they won’t be able to make him the same as he was.”

I knew it was coming, but it doesn’t hurt any less.

“I know,” I whisper, staring blankly at Crystal’s back. “Thank you.”

“Storm...”

“Gavin,” I correct her. “Gavin Reed.”

“Storm suits you better,” she replies with a quirk of a smile. Then it fades and she moves Journey out of the way to scoot a little closer and take my hand. “I’m sorry. I know what it’s like to lose a loved one, to stand by feeling helpless while others try to save them. My father never accepted me, but I still loved him, and when he had a heart attack, there was nothing I could do. Nothing the paramedics could do. There was a lot I never got to say, a lot he held back. I know exactly what you’re going through, and I’m sorry that I can’t help you. I wish I could say that it’s going to get better, but... You’re cracked. I feel it. You’re so full of cracks, and I’m worried that if this continues, you’ll shatter. And I don’t know what to do to help you. I have all these fantastic abilities, and I can’t do a damn thing.” Taking a deep, shuddering breath, she squeezes my hand and stands. “So I’m going. I’m gonna find a way to help you. To actually make use of these stupid psychic powers that I can’t use properly. I’m going to keep trying until I get it. And then I’ll come back. I want you to do something for me in the meantime; I want you to hold on. I want you to promise that no matter what happens, you won’t give up. Can you do that? For me, Storm?”

I raise my gaze to meet hers.

She’s just one of hundreds, thousands... One of the countless faces I’ve met and passed without another thought. I could easily forget her by next year.

But to her, I’m unique. I can see it in the determination etched into her features. It’s no stretch of the imagination to think she has no one in the world but Abner, and now she’s choosing not to forget me. Choosing to make me important to her life.

Am I terrible not to care?

But she won’t leave until I promise, so I lie.

“Promise,” I murmur, letting my gaze fall back to Crystal. I still see the sharp tension in Teagan’s frame, the hurt in her expression, giving way to fierce resolve; she knows I lied, but she’s not giving up.

“Good.” The word hangs bitterly in the air between us. “Good... I’ll be back, Storm. Someday soon.”

Chapter Text

A gentle knock stirs me from a restless doze in the window. We just got hit with a surge from the polar vortex that's turned the entire area into a frozen wasteland, and only the fact that half of Eli's utilities run because of the same batteries that power Chloe and Erik keeps this place from being colder than the Arctic, but it does make for a beautiful view, and I've taken to watching the horizons when I'm most uneasy.

“Gavin?” Chloe steps in, and I don't even bother to look over at her.

“Not hungry,” I murmur automatically, knowing she'll just sigh and feed the cats, or let them outside for a quick minute; I've already lost track of their schedule.

“Nines has been fully repaired,” she says instead. “Elijah is preparing to reactivate him.”

That gets my attention. Hope bursts in my chest, giving me energy I haven't had in days, and I almost trip in my effort to yank on some pants and get to the lab. Chloe follows, closing doors behind me.

Sadie and Eli look about as exhausted as I feel, and it abruptly occurs to me that they've been working almost nonstop for the past few days to repair Nines.

For me.

“Hey there, cowboy,” Sadie greets with a tired smile, standing and spreading her arms. I only hesitate for an instant before giving her a tight hug, putting all of my gratitude into it, for everything.

Honestly, where would I be without Sadie? Still tussling in the Knockout arena, at the very least. Certainly I wouldn't have nearly so good a relationship with Nines.

“Here goes nothing,” Eli says when I finally gather myself to leave the comfort of Sadie's embrace. He taps a command into his computer and presses enter.

“I’m sorry, Elijah, but you’ve input an invalid command.” He gives a resigned growl and rubs his hands over his face.

“Come on, Orchid; you know what I’m trying to do,” he sighs. “Just start the reboot sequence, please.”

“Understood. Reboot sequence initiated. Completion in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1... Complete.” A jolt runs through Nines, and my heart stops for the split second that follows.

Please...

He blinks, the stiffness going out of his frame, and my breath catches as he sits up and disengages the cable from the back of his neck.

“Richard?” Elijah steps forward, getting his attention. “Self-diagnostics status report.”

“All systems clear,” Nines answers plainly, and the bottom drops out of my gut.

He’s not the same.

“What... How do you feel?” Eli asks hesitantly, a flicker of disappointment crossing his features. Nines doesn’t reply right away this time, and I hold my breath, desperately hoping...

“...Hurt,” Nines says finally. “I lied; a piece of my memory is corrupted. I’m missing something, and it hurts.”

Oh God no...

“Nines.” I can’t stop myself. He flinches and turns, looking perplexed.

No. No, I can’t...

The only emotion in his crystalline ice gaze is confusion, and I very nearly break down right then and there. Unable to stand it, I leave without another word.

“Gav- WAIT!” Ignoring him, I go straight to my room and lock the door, dropping on the bed and covering my face in a vain effort to stop the tears.

He really did lose his love for me.

Why did it have to be that? Why? Of all the things to lose, why that?

“Gavin, open the door, please!” Nines.

“Go away,” I snap at the door, hating him for forgetting me, and hating myself for falling apart so easily.

“Gavin, please! Just let me explain!”

“I said, Go. Away!

For a long moment, there’s silence, and I roll onto my side, grabbing his pillow and curling up around it so I can cry the last tears I have for this and be done with emotions. Hopefully permanently.

Then the door explodes open with a deafening crash. I lunge up, adrenaline surging, and my heart leaps to my throat when I see a furious Nines suddenly going eerily calm as he steps past the ruined door into the room.

Behind him, Sadie stares blankly for a moment before turning and pushing Erik and Chloe away with sharp whispers. I vaguely hear her call for Buttermilk, but my focus is back on Nines as he strides toward me. Extremely unsettled, I scramble across the bed to put something between us.

“Stop right there!” I warn, like it’ll make any difference.

“I told you to let me explain,” he says coolly, thankfully stopping at the foot of the bed.

“Explain what?” I return, letting my frustration rise a bit. “That you forgot me? Yeah, I figured that out; nothing to explain!”

“I didn’t forget you,” he growls, anger bleeding through the chill.

“Sure you didn’t. Your memory was just a little corrupted, that’s all.”

“Gavin-” He breaks off with an irritated scowl, looking away like he’s searching for a reason not to punch something. Or me. “You fucking moron; you’re not the part that was corrupted! I lost whatever happened after we were ambushed outside the DPD; that’s it!”

I’m not sure what surprises me more, the fact that he actually cussed me out, or that he still remembers me. Still loves me.

“That’s... it?” I echo stupidly.

“Yes, that’s it,” he agrees, exasperated. “But you wouldn’t let me explain before jumping to conclusions and running off for whatever idiotic reason!”

“Idi-” All the anger surges back, and I snatch the first thing I lay my hands on, throwing it at him. He just catches the pillow, and that pisses me off more. “Do you have ANY idea what you’ve fucking put me through, you goddamn shit-can?? For days I’ve been on the edge of fucking suicide because I was so fucking certain you were never coming back! Or that if you did, it’d be wiped clean of everything! How many goddamned times do I have to watch you die, Nines?? And I’m the idiot?? I fucking hate you!!”

Chapter Text

“Don't you come anywhere near me!” I snap at him when he starts rounding the bed, expression unreadable. He keeps coming, so I scramble over the bed to get away, only to have him catch my ankle and yank me back. “Let go of me, you selfish prick!”

“I'm sorry,” he whispers, pulling me against his chest. “I didn't mean to scare you.”

“Fuck off me, asshole!” I snarl, trying to wriggle free. “You don't get to just apologise and suddenly everything's better! I'm done watching people die; done opening myself up and just getting more fucking scars from it!”

“Gavin...”

Pissed off, I twist around and slap him hard, wanting to punch him but knowing that if I try, I'll just break my fingers without doing anything to him. The crack of skin on skin echoes loudly in the quiet room, and for a moment, he stares blankly at me, stunned.

Then irritated determination filters into his features and a chill runs up my spine. I renew my efforts to escape, but he easily puts me on my back and pins me to the bed, catching my wrists and holding them with one hand over my head while the other goes straight to my groin.

I realise rather abruptly that I never properly fastened my pants, and in spite of my thrashing, he has no trouble getting to my dick.

“Stop it, Nines! Let go; I don't want it!” He cuts me off with a rough, forceful kiss, and biting his tongue does nothing to dissuade him, merely filling my mouth with the oddly sweet metallic taste of thirium.

This is really happening, isn't it? I can't stop him; all that training and it's worth nothing against his pure strength.

“You say you don't want it,” he murmurs against my cheek, licking up a trail of something wet; saliva or thirium, I don't know or care. “But you're already hard and leaking just from a kiss.”

“Anyone would get hard from being touched by someone who knows what they like, bastard,” I growl at him, re-evaluating my situation. Since I obviously can't get free on my own, I'll just have to fight back another way. In following with that line of thought, I punctuate my statement by spitting at him. A glob of blue-streaked saliva hits his cheek and he jolts back slightly, scowling.

“...You want to play dirty? Fine; I'll play dirty.” There's a note of frustration in his tone, but I refuse to allow myself to think about it.

Not that I can when he flips me onto my stomach and yanks my pants off. I try to use the opportunity to escape, but he catches my hips and drags me back again, snatching my elbow just when I go to hit him with it. Everything I do, he's ready for, and when he tugs my hand up between my shoulder blades, I stop trying to fight; in the mood he's in, I don't trust him not to break my arm, even on accident.

“Don't you fucking dare!” I scream when he slides my briefs off my hips and down past my knees. I try to twist my body to the side, to make it more difficult for him, but he simply grabs my leg and lifts it over his shoulder, holding it in place while he rocks the bulge in his pants against my ass, which sends an inadvertent shudder through me.

God, why? I really don't want this, so why is my body so eager to accept him?

“Give up, Gavin,” he rumbles, leaning over me so that the weight of his body keeps my leg in place while his hand slides down my thigh to ruck up the shirt and find a perked nipple.

Does he even realise it's his shirt?

“Fuck you,” I snap, hating that my voice is weak and breathy now. “Stop touching me!” Expression tight with anger, he ignores me completely, shifting to undo his pants and pull out his own dick so he can rub it against mine.

It's surprisingly hot, and that, combined with the expert touch of his hand stroking me, brings me nearly to the edge in a matter of moments. I fight it, trying desperately not to find any pleasure in this, but it's so, so hard...

Why?? Why can't I just hate him? I don't want to love someone that's just going to keep hurting me!

As much as I fight it, the pulse of hot pleasure sweeps over me anyway, but it's weak, unsatisfactory, and simply leaves me exhausted. When he rolls me over, pulls up my hips, and nudges my legs together, I don't bother trying to fight him anymore; let him do what he wants, and when he's done, I'm leaving.

Then his dick slides between my thighs, pushing against my balls and rubbing along the length of my cock with every stroke, and for a moment, I'm too startled to move.

He didn't go for my ass. Even as pissed off as he is, he won't rape me, and I don't know how to feel about it.

I want to be angry; I want to hold on to the rage and the hatred, and everything else... but I can't. I can't, and I hate that I'm so weak willed, that all it took was one little detail to break it all down.

“Gavin? Are you... crying?” Horror floods his voice on the last word, and immediately he pulls away, letting go of my arm. I pull my knees up and curl into a tight ball, hiding my face in a pillow so he can't see the mess I've become.

Enough, please... I've had it with emotion already; I just want it to be done.

“Oh, Gavin... I'm so sorry... What was I thinking? I'm sorry; there's no excuse for my behaviour.” I get the sense he wants to say more, but he doesn't, and after a moment, the bed creaks and the dip moves away.

I don't want him to go, but stopping him would mean forgiving him, and I'm not ready to do that yet. Honestly, I don't know when I'll ever be ready.

Chapter Text

I will never admit this aloud, but Sadie is my rock.

After a fitful, restless doze prompted by literal days of being exhausted but unable to sleep, I wake up starving, both for food and touch. Even though I head for the kitchen first, I end up in front of the door to the converted storage room that Sadie's claimed as hers, and before I can stop myself, I give a timid little knock. Nervous anxiety bubbles up as seconds tick by, and I'm just about to bolt when the door glides slowly open and Sadie leans against the frame, yawning.

“I jus’ got t’ sleep...” she grumbles, still drowsy. “Wha-” Blinking, she frowns, but I'm already burning with embarrassment.

“Sorry; go back to bed...” I mutter, hoping to get away before...

“No, wait, Gavin.” She catches my arm and pulls me back, lopsided gaze skimming head to toe, no doubt taking in everything from the tear-stains on my face to the fact that while I did manage to pull on briefs, I didn't bother with pants.

Releasing a sigh that's somewhere between pity and amusement, she pulls me into the room and fumbles for the light switch before gesturing to the pile of pillows, blankets and cushions in the corner.

“What's wrong, darlin’?” she asks gently after I burrow into her bed so I don't have to look at her. “Did we miss somethin’ with Nines?”

It's almost funny; after everything that's happened, that's what she's worried about. I get it ― she spent countless hours working to fix him ― but right now, I've got a slightly more pressing concern.

“No,” I mutter quietly, trying and failing to come up with words for what I want to say.

“...does this have anythin’ t'do with the screamin’ we heard durin’ your reunion?” she concludes, sitting cross legged in front of me and yawning casually. “I'm guessin’ that weren't none o’ your weird role-playing kinks or whatever, huh? How far'd he push you?”

It will never fail to surprise me how perceptive she can be.

And her accent gets incredibly thick when she's tired. It's as oddly comforting as the two-toned warp of her laugh.

“...He stopped after I came...” I answer vaguely, barely above a whisper.

“Well, good,” she humphed, idly scratching at her messy hair. “Hate ta have ta rip ‘m apart so soon after fixin’m. Not that it'd be easy... Boy broke that door like it weren't a reinforced damn fire door. What were y'all fightin’ about anyhow? Couldn't sleep with all you screamin’ n hollerin’...”

I don't want to answer that, but I came here for something, and the only way to get whatever it is, is by going along with her.

“...I told him I'm done, and that he doesn't get to apologise and pretend everything is alright now.”

“...and...?” she prompts persistently.

“And...” I continue reluctantly, “he assaulted me.” She scowls, but doesn’t push for anything else at the moment. I can practically hear her thinking, but whatever she’s got going on in her head, she keeps it to herself.

“Ya hungry, cowboy?” she hums finally, standing and offering me a hand up. “Chloe said y’ain’t eaten since... we got back.”

How tactful.

I nod, letting her pull me up and following her to the kitchen. She gestures to the table and immediately starts rummaging through the cupboards.

“Have a sit; I’ll make ya some’n.”

The silence is only broken by the soft clatters of whatever she’s doing while I’m letting everything sink in now that my brain isn’t too dead to process it. I’m recounting the last few days in my head when a thought occurs to me.

“How are you and Abner related?”

“Eh?” Sadie stops what she’s doing and gives me a blank look, blinking owlishly.

“You and Abner,” I repeat. “You called him ‘Uncle,’ and I thought it was just a thing; you know, like me calling Hank ‘old man.’ But Teagan said you guys were related.”

“Oh! Yeah,” she chuckles, continuing. “Not by blood, obviously. He’s Abby’s uncle. Her namesake. Met him a time or two when she and Mike were datin’, and again at the wedding. Took to him pretty quick; he’s quiet, little intimidatin’ and ain’t the best at small talk, but I always thought he’s good folk. Up and vanished a couple years ‘fore the Pulse; was a bit of a black sheep ― no pun intended ― so nobody really made a fuss ‘cept Abby, but she couldn’t do nothin’ about it. She always believed he was alive, somewhere out there.” A rough edge sneaks into her voice then and she breaks off for a moment, focusing on whatever she’s making.

“...Did you tell him?” I find myself asking, a sympathetic ache tugging at my chest.

“Yeah,” she whispers. “Told him where to find her too. He, ah...” She clears her throat and surreptitiously swipes at her cheek, shifting restlessly. “Promised to pay respects for both of us.”

It’s strange; back before the Pulse, if I’d met Sadie, we might have talked a bit, maybe shared a drink and swapped stories or something, but our paths would probably have touched and split without ever meeting again, and neither of us would have cared.

But that was an entirely different world, and in this one, I can’t imagine my life without her. These little moments, when we share the darkest parts of ourselves, our weaknesses... These are the moments I cherish. And I will die before I’ll say it aloud, but I love her for it.

Standing, I cross the kitchen and pull her away from the counter to give her a tight hug.

Chapter Text

“ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME??”

“God- There go my ears,” Eli growls, covering them and giving me a dark look. Ignoring him, I kick at the nearest chair, rage burning in my veins.

“That was my mission, fucking-!” I cut myself off before I take a stab at Sadie; I’m not really angry at her, or at Elijah, even though he’s the one that sent Nines and Erik to get the Red Ice stash from the DPD.

“You were in no condition to go anywhere or do anything, Gavin,” Eli says shortly. “And Richard specifically asked to go without you.”

“Fuck that!” I snap. “The DPD is my domain!”

“And? If Hank hadn’t gone to get his things, and I’d sent him off instead, you’d still be here pitching a fit like a damn two year old!”

“It was my mission!” I repeat stubbornly, unwilling to give even a little.

“It’s everyone’s!!” Elijah roars, bolting to his feet and setting me back. “This isn’t about you, Gavin! This is about the Scavs! About th- finding a cure! Figuring out what the fuck happened in the first place so we can reverse it, o-or at least contain it! We don’t know if this... this... thing is even over!! Just because nobody’s warped in months doesn’t mean it won’t happen again someday, and I want to be fucking ready when it does!” He pauses for a breath, and I can only stare at him, completely off balanced by his fury.

“You’re so- so wrapped up in ‘me, me, me’; you think I give a damn who picks up the fucking drug?? You think I care that your robo-boyfriend dumped you?? Get a fucking grip already!”

“Elijah!” Sadie snaps, cutting in coolly. “That’s enough.”

“Enough??” he squawks, already red in the face. “I’m not even started!! I’m so fucking over you and all your melodrama, Gavin! Oh you had a lonely childhood? Boohoo; so did I! I didn’t get the luxury of ever having peers like you. I had to be a step above the rest, a step above the entirety of humanity! I couldn’t come home and play with my little brother after school. I couldn’t go out to parties and get a girlfriend to pass the weekends. I couldn’t do anything like anyone else because God forbid I mingle with people of lesser intelligence! You talk about Mom and Dad ignoring you, but at least when they did talk to you they treated you like a fucking human; I didn’t even get that much! I had to be perfect, in everything. Might as well have been a damn robot!” He flings his arm vaguely at Chloe, who jolts sharply and drops Crystal. The cat lands fine on her paws and gives a disdainful meow before trotting over to Buttermilk, but the android looks like someone just ripped out her thirium pump.

Elijah doesn’t even notice... His attention is solely on me, and he’s still ranting.

“You raged at me for giving you Richard, for saving your goddamn life with that stupid patch, for getting you involved in all this shit when you’re the one that stayed, damnit!! You’re fine with demanding that I fix your robo-toy and then you get pissed at me for something- some stupid fucking shit like this??”

“Eli,” I speak up lowly when I realise Chloe is struggling to hold back tears.

“I’m sick of dealing with your bipolar crap!” he barrels on, bowling over me. “I have done everything I could think of for you! Everything I could to try and patch things up with your sorry ass! I’m over it! Take your fucking- fuck toy and get out! Take both of them! Take your mangy furballs too!”

“ELIJAH!” I bellow, slamming my hand on the table to really get his attention. “Be mad at me; scream, curse, fucking hit me if you want you, I don’t give a flying fuck. But don’t you fucking dare make Chloe cry.”

He doesn’t get it at first; his features scrunch up in irritated confusion, like he can’t even fathom the possibility of doing such a thing. Then I guess he realises what he’s said, and how it might sound to an android; his expression goes blank with horror and he whirls to look at her.

“Chloe...” She shakes her head mutely and exits the room, leaving an oppressive silence behind.

“The wound won’t heal,” Sadie says finally, “if you don’t bandage it.” Eli only hesitates a moment longer before charging after Chloe, calling out to her as he goes.

Without the anger that bolstered me earlier, I just feel worn out now, and I lean heavily on the table, sighing.

“Gavin-”

“He’s right,” I interrupt. “I’ve been clinging so long to the things he’s done to me that I don’t know how to let go anymore. I couldn’t even see the things I did to him.” Grimacing, I push out the admission; “Or maybe... I didn’t want to.”

“Well, you are a bit of a drama queen,” she says lightly, a note of teasing in her voice. It succeeds in drawing a smirk to my lips, but I push down the humour.

“Doesn’t make it right.”

“No, it doesn’t,” she agrees, leaning her elbow on my shoulder. “But it don’t mean ya can’t try.”

Chapter Text

The look Crystal is giving me... I swear you could dry up an ocean with it.

“Don’t look at me like that,” I huff, scooping up Journey before he can jump off the bed. “I was in a highly emotional state. I’m playing with them now, see?” She just keeps staring at me, blinking slowly.

“You really love ‘em cats, don’t you?” Sadie chuckles from the door. I look up in surprise.

“I thought you were gonna work on the... whatever you’re making now.”

“Scav Oral Containment Unit,” she grins.

“Sounds like a sex toy,” I scoff, making her laugh. She pushes off the doorframe and comes over to sit on the edge of the bed. Butter perks up, standing and coming over to bump against her knee, and Cora bounds over her brothers to go get some attention as well.

“Guess it kinda does, huh?” Sadie hums, amused, burying one hand in Butter’s mane and plucking at Cora’s tail with the other. “It’s a muzzle o’ sorts; trynna keep the Scav from biting, but still let ‘em talk. Gonna test it soon as Marcus has the Colony settled.”

“Heard from him yet?” I ask, wiggling my fingers for the last kitten to swat at.

He still doesn’t have a name, and it kinda bothers me. It bothers me more that I want to wait until Nines is here to decide on a name with me.

Ah, I’m still pissed at him! Why can’t I get him out of my thoughts right now??

“Yeah, drone just arrived,” Sadie answers, cutting into my thoughts before I go too far down the rabbit hole. “Pretty good looking for a ‘droid, if I do say so.” She laughs at my quizzical look, gently tossing Cora onto my lap and scooting further onto the bed to lay down across the foot. “I equipped the drone with holographic recording; almost good as a video call.”

“Why am I even surprised at this point?” I snort, rolling my eyes. “But I wouldn’t even bother to think about it, if I were you; you must have turned on my gaydar because I’m ninety percent sure Marcus is gay as fuck for Simon, one of his... I dunno, co-leaders or whatever.” She bursts out laughing, a full blown guffaw that sounds so raw I’d be worried if not for the untainted mirth in her expression and the fact that she can’t seem to stop. It’s infectious, and I can’t help chuckling as she struggles to get a hold of herself, wiping at the corner of her right eye.

“G-gaydar?” she manages, and promptly dissolves into cackles again.

“Well, what else am I supposed to call it?” I ask, surprised to find I’m not at all embarrassed or ashamed of something I wouldn’t even have considered saying before the Pulse.

“You crack me up, cowboy,” she gasps, rolling onto her side and shoving lightly at my shoulder. I shove her right back, grinning madly.

Fuck, it feels good to laugh so freely like this. After what happened with Nines, and then Eli blowing up at me... I dunno, it’s just nice to know I still have someone I can trust and confide in.

I don’t notice him for a long moment, until the back of my neck prickles with someone’s eyes on me, but when I glance up, I immediately lock gazes with crystalline ice.

For a split second, the glowing warmth of the shared humour with Sadie spills over and I welcome his presence, but then the second is over and I remember the cold intent in his expression when he stalked toward me before.

Just like that, the mirth shrinks into a tiny bubble and pops, vanishing, and I look away even as disappointed hurt flickers through his expression.

“I’m, uh...” I clear my throat and slide off the bed, tucking Journey into my jacket pocket and picking up the other two. “I’m gonna take the cats out one more time before I start packing.”

“Packing?” They say it at the same time, but only Sadie gets it. She’s on her feet in an instant, grabbing my arm. “Gavin, he didn’t mean that... He was angry; wasn’t thinkin’ straight.”

“He was angry because of me,” I point out, easing out of her grip. “It’s probably better if I go back to being a Treader for a while. I’ll have your tag, so it’s not like I’m gonna be in any real danger; if I get in trouble I can’t handle, I’ll use it.”

“Gavin-”

“Shut up,” I snap at Nines, not even looking at him. “I’m not talking to you.”

“Hey!” Sadie scolds, grabbing my shoulders and making me meet her sharp, uneven gaze. “Ya ain’t goin’ nowhere, Gavin Reed. If Eli don’t take it back himself, I’ll give him a talkin’ to, but you are stayin’ right here; you hear me? We’re in this together, for better or worse, so you’d best see it through. And for starters...” She takes the kittens from me, ignoring my efforts to stop her.

“Hey, Sadie..!” Swatting my hands away from the felines, she forcibly turns me around to face a startled Nines and pushes me a couple steps toward him.

“Y’all got some talkin’ to do,” she says firmly, leaving no room for argument. “I’ll take the cats out.”

And just like that, she’s gone. She even coaxed Butter out of the room, closing the new door she put in herself with a click of finality and leaving me alone with Nines.

Seconds tick by, making the tension thicker with every breath, but I refuse to be the first to give; I don’t want to be here in the first place, so fuck if I’m gonna crack first.

“Say something,” he says finally, so softly I almost miss it. “Please.”

“Something,” I spit snidely, crossing my arms. He flinches and rubs at his wrist, not looking at me.

“Gavin...” he pleads quietly.

“Like wha- What do you want me to say, Nines?” I snap, throwing up my hands.

“That you forgive me,” he whispers.

Oh hell to the fucking no.

“Are you fucking shitting me right now?” I snarl, fury bursting through my veins and burning me from head to toe in an instant. It takes everything I have just to keep a level tone. “You want me... to forgive you? Just like that? After everything you put me through; everything you did to me?” He really flinches now, fingers digging into his arm.

“I just wanted to-”

“To what??” I cut in sharply. “To fucking rape me? Because that’s what you did, Nines; you fucking raped me!”

“That’s not- I didn’t...”

“Didn’t what? Didn’t penetrate? Still rape, bastard!”

“That’s not what I was going to say; I just didn’t... I didn’t think-”

“No, you really didn’t,” I scoff.

“Would you stop putting words in my mouth??” he bursts out, frustrated and... something else; I can’t quite put words to it.

“Fine,” I cede coldly, flipping my hands up. “Whatever. Knock yourself out.” He relaxes minutely, suddenly looking small and ashamed, and I hate myself for the shred of sympathy that tugs at my heart.

“I didn’t realise,” he starts again, choosing his words with care and still not looking at me, “how much you’d gone through. I... You have to understand, Gavin; for me, it was all a matter of minutes. One second I was struggling to maintain consciousness on the sidewalk, and the next I was waking up on that table. I didn’t have any memory of anything that happened in between those moments; I didn’t even realise there was an in between! I thought... I thought that you had fought off our attackers and brought me back. I thought...” He cringes, but pushes himself to quietly admit, “I thought you were overreacting... And I hoped that if... if we... connected... I hoped it would reassure you... Gavin, I’m so, so sorry...” When he breaks off with a choked sob, I swear my heart breaks.

God-fucking-damnit, why. Why can’t I just keep being angry at him?

“I can’t...” Unsure how to put what I’m feeling to words, I falter, and he tenses, preparing for the worst. “Who told you?”

“...Erik.”

Seriously? Hell.

“Ahh, I guess I owe that dishwasher for this,” I sigh, rubbing a hand over my face. “I don’t overreact, Nines, not about death.” Recalling Sadie’s statement about being a drama queen, I amend myself. “Ah, okay, let me rephrase that; I don’t exaggerate. And... I didn’t know you were missing that much. It was pretty clear when I found you that that sleazebag had been torturing you, so I thought... I guess I thought... Never mind; I don’t know what I thought.”

I sit heavily on the foot of the bed, abruptly tired.

Why does being in a relationship have to be so hard?

“...Is... there a way...?” He trails off, and I look up to find him fidgety and nervous. It’s so unusual a sight for someone who’s normally so calm and collected that I almost laugh. “Is it even possible... to make it right?” He finally manages to peek at me, and I can’t help feeling a little lost in his eyes.

“There’s nothing to make right,” I scoff. “We both fucked up. It was just a great big... clusterfuck of a misunderstanding.” His relief is almost palpable; I didn’t realise how tense the room still was until it drains away.

“Then...” Stepping closer, he kneels in front of me, laying a hand ever so lightly on my knee. “May I kiss you?”

In answer, I grab his collar and drag him forward for a firm but closed-lip kiss.

“Promise me,” I breathe, resting my forehead on his. “Promise you won’t die again.”

“If I have any say, I swear I will never leave your side.”

Chapter Text

I’m not a hundred percent sure how we got here, but when I wake up, we’re both stripped and half-tangled in the sheets, I’ve got blue and white stickiness all over my stomach, and my entire body aches. And Nines is curled against my side.

Hell, if I’m being honest, this ain’t a bad way to wake up.

“Are you alive?” he hums against my shoulder, touching a soft kiss to my skin and then nuzzling into my neck.

“Ugh... Lemme get back to you on that,” I mutter, certain that if I even try to move, something is gonna break. A low groan escapes me as I shift to find his hand and pull it away from my chest. “Jesus Christ, it hurts to move... You’re a goddamn workout.”

“Sorry,” he chuckles, pushing up to his elbow and watching me struggle into a sitting position on the edge of the bed. “I get started with you and I just can’t stop. Ooh, hold on...” Grabbing my arm, he stops me from standing.

“What?” I twist as far as I can to look at him as he sits up and brushes his fingers over a sensitive spot on my upper back.

“Mm. I was worried I’d cut too deep.”

Oh yeah. We did another round of really rough sex last night, knife included.

“What’d you carve this time?” I grump, swatting at his hand and easing to my feet.

“Nothing,” he sings.

Liar.

“That smirk says you’re lying,” I accuse lightly, making my way to the bathroom to relieve myself. After washing my hands, I feel a little less achy and just plain sore, which makes it a bit easier to return to bed. “If I find out later that you cut a dick into my back...”

“Relax,” he laughs, opening his arms and cuddling close when I snuggle up to his chest. “Just letters.”

“What letters?” I press, sighing against his collarbone.

“NGR. Nines, Gavin, Reed.”

“Nines Reed, huh?” I scoff. “First of all, terrible name. Second, this had better not be your way of asking me to marry you, because the answer is no.”

I expected a quip right back, but it doesn’t come. When I shift back to look at him, he meets my gaze easily, a thoughtful frown furrowing his brow.

“Why no?” he asks, not seeming particularly bothered, just curious.

Did I want him to be bothered?

“I’m against marriage on principle,” I huff. “The idea of tying yourself down to one person with total exclusivity is prison, not love. I’m not into bondage, thank you very much.”

“You think it’s restricting?”

“That’s putting it lightly. Most people joke when they call it a ball and chain; I don’t.”

“You don’t believe in professing undying love and pledging eternal loyalty?” There’s a faint note of teasing now, and it eases the tension crawling up my spine.

“No. People fall out of love all the time, cheat on their spouses, go behind their backs; you know the divorce rate was something like 72 percent before the Pulse? I don’t want to be another statistic, thanks.”

“So it’s not marriage itself that you’re afraid of, but the possibility of divorce.”

“Wh- Okay, no; one, I’m not scared of anything,” I protest, scowling at him, “and two, only twenty-some percent of marriages work, so yeah, it’s more than likely it’ll end up in divorce. I’d just as soon not go through all the legal bullshit that entails.”

“With what government?” he snorts, really amused now. “Whatever skeletal structure remained after the Pulse was completely bulldozed by the zombie apocalypse.” I can’t help it; the way he says it makes me laugh, and he smiles, pleased. “Really, the only marriages that exist now are the ones that can and will withstand the end of the world, and even if somehow it does end in divorce, it’s up to the involved parties themselves to decide how to split. There is no legal bullshit ― not anymore ― so what are you afraid of now?”

“I told you; I’m not-” I break off; there’s no point in repeating myself on this. Instead, I brace myself for an answer I don’t want to hear; “Are you proposing?”

“No,” he replies instantly, a soft, sad smile smoothing his features. He lifts a hand to my jaw, rubbing his thumb gently over the corner of my lips. “You’ve come a long way from hating me just for being an android, but I know you’re not ready for that kind of commitment, so I won’t push. This is enough for now.” His hand slides down my neck and over my shoulder so his fingertips just touch the edge of the new mark on my back.

It occurs to me rather suddenly that he’s made up his mind; he fully intends to love me for the rest of my life. Maybe the rest of his.

I’m the one that might change. I’m the one that even thought about divorce. He’s ready to commit for life, and I’m already thinking about when this might end.

I don’t want it to end.

Is that crazy? Is it stupid that I don’t want to stop loving Nines?

But I can’t control my feelings forever.

Can I?

I’ve heard people say love is a choice, one we make daily. I don’t know that I’ve had much of a choice up to now, but maybe... just maybe, I can make that choice from now on?

Fuck. I’m gonna try, anyway. If Nines is all in, I owe it to him to try.

“You’re really not giving up on me, are you?” I meant to make it a joke, but it comes out quiet, solemn, and his smile warms.

“I won’t give up on you to the day you die.” He says it with such conviction; I can’t help but hope that I won’t have to watch him die again.

Then it hits me like a fucking freight train between the eyes.

He can’t really die.

I mean, yeah, he can be severely damaged, and I’ve watched him shut down several times, but he constantly backs up his memory, and so long as his, what was it, black box? As long as it isn’t damaged, he will literally never lose anything.

On the other hand, I’m human. I’ll grow old, I’ll forget things, and eventually, I’ll die. If I don’t get shot or torn up by Scavs first. Either way, I’m finite; when I die, there’s no recovering ‘me.’ Not like Nines.

Sure, his ‘deaths’ are traumatising, and I don’t ever want to see it again, but at least I know that’s not the end of him. But me...

“Gavin? What’s wrong?” Nines shifts and cups my jaw with both hands, crystalline ice intense with concern. “Talk to me; what are you thinking?”

I realise then that my eyes are burning and my throat aches.

“I...” Swallowing past the lump, I blink back tears and take a shaky breath. “I’m sorry...”

“Sor- No. No, Gavin, don’t be sorry; I know you’re not ready, there’s nothing to be sorry for.”

“No-not that... I d- I don’t wanna die,” I whisper hoarsely, gripping his wrists with trembling fingers and struggling not to break down completely. “I don’t wanna leave you alone...”

He goes eerily still, and then suddenly yanks me toward him, almost crushing me in a tight embrace. It hurts, especially with how sore I am, but it’s a good kind of hurt, and I welcome it.

“I’m sorry; I shouldn’t be so happy to hear that, but I am.” Pulling back slightly, he kisses my cheek and presses his forehead to mine. “I love you so much, I can’t handle it... I’m gonna need a new pump to keep up with all of the emotion that swells up inside me whenever I’m near you.”

“So fucking cheesy...” I mutter, but I’m glad he said it; it helps me calm down, somehow. Knowing I don’t have to worry about anything but right this moment is enough for now; I’ll figure out the rest later.

“Be glad it wasn’t worse,” he chuckles softly, hand gliding down my arm to bring my hand to where his pump thrums under his chest plate. “I could have said something more stereotypical, like ‘You make my circuits hot,’ or ‘Be my thirium and I’ll be your pump,’ or something equally atrocious.”

“What th- Those are all fucking shit, first of all,” I snort, feeling much better. “Second, don’t ever say ‘atrocious’ again. And thirdly, stereotypical of what?” He tips his head back a bit to give me a funny look.

“Valentine’s Day,” he answers, as though it’s obvious.

“...What about it?” I prompt, mildly perplexed about his sudden change of-

Oh. Fuck.

“It’s today,” he replies, amused by whatever expression I’m making. “You didn’t know?”

“No, I didn’t know,” I scowl, pinching his hip, which does nothing. “I don’t have a goddamn calendar in my brain like you do, fucking tin can.”

“Then I’ll just have to remind you of upcoming holidays,” he chuckles, pulling me closer and tipping my chin up for a light kiss. “Happy Valentine’s Day, my love.”

“If you ever call me that again, I will have Eli castrate you.” I smother his laughter with a rough, demanding kiss and pretend my heart didn’t just skip a beat.

Chapter Text

Dear God, that is not the first thing I want to see in the morning, even if I was doing worse all day yesterday when I locked the door and refused to leave my room except once for food when Nines insisted I eat before the next round.

Hey, at least they aren't fucking on the counter this time.

“Oh my fucking God,” I scowl, raising a hand to block the view of Hank and Connor flirting shamelessly by the kitchen sink. “I don't care if you're married or engaged or whatever; save that shit for the bedroom, fucking pervs.”

“Watch it, Reed,” Hank scoffs, touching a quick kiss to Connor's forehead, which makes the twink-bot blush a soft indigo. “You were into a lot worse when we met, remember?”

“If you start holding that shit over my head now...”

“Only if you keep giving me shit about my husband-to-be.” Connor's blush blossoms deeper and sweeps over the rest of his face at Hank's easy statement, and God help me if he doesn't look like a frantic, ecstatic little puppy.

“Ugh... Valentine's was yesterday,” I point out, letting my annoyance surface a little. “Tone it down a bit.”

“Ya say that like you ain't screamin up a hot ‘n bothered storm locked in your room all day, cowboy,” Sadie cackles as she comes in and helps herself to a glass of water, shooing the flirty couple away from the sink.

“That was once!” I protest, hoping the heat crawling up my neck isn't visible. “I didn't scream after that!”

“Not loud enough for human ears to hear, maybe,” Sadie smirks, wiggling her brow teasingly over the rim of her glass.

Now I know my blush is visible.

“Could you hear him?” Hank asks, cocking a brow at Connor, who's practically navy now, and fidgeting sheepishly.

“Oh my- kill me. Just end my life.”

“Aww, come on now, cowboy,” Sadie ribs relentlessly, elbowing me lightly. “You clearly know how to ride ‘em; got some mad skills for such a grouchy little shit.”

“Fuck you,” I grumble, not looking at her; a petulant attempt at payback.

“Maybe if I was interested in that kinda thing, and you weren't so clearly taken, lover boy.” Hank bursts out laughing and even Connor stifles a chuckle at my indignation. But even as they bow out of the conversation and leave the room, presumably to go hole up in the guest room again, I latch on to something and push aside my embarrassment to focus on it.

“You're not interested?” I question, mildly intrigued.

“You kiddin?” she snorts, downing the last of her water and setting her glass upside down in the sink. “I may be stronger than most humans, but I ain't got nothin’ on androids, and Nines is a helluva lot more deadly than most ‘droids. I think I'll pass on touchin’ his man.”

“That's not... I meant in sex,” I clarify, trying not to blush again at the idea of belonging to Nines.

“Oh, gotcha. Yeah, I never really understood the point; never had the desire to try nothin’ either. Now, if I had a special someone, you know, I wouldn't mind sharing a little pleasure, if that floats their boat, but it ain't my go to, and it sure as hell ain't somethin’ that'll make or break a relationship, you get me? Way I see it, it's nothin’ but a bonus for my partner.” She hesitates then, and it doesn't take much to guess the reasoning behind her next words; “Assuming I ever find someone...”

“You'll find someone,” I say, reaching over to grip her hand reassuringly. I'm not sure where the confidence comes from, but I know it as surely as I know my own name. “You're too good a catch not to find someone. I, uh... I might have considered it... if I wasn't....”

“Flattery will get you nowhere fast, cowboy,” she chuckles, flicking my nose. But she looks a bit more content, more self-assured. “But thanks anyway. Go get your boy-toy and bring him to the lab; now that the boys are back, we can talk about the Red Ice.”

Uh oh. I don't like the way she said that.

“You found something?”

“See you in the lab,” is all the reply I get as she leaves.

――

“I hope you’re all listening,” Elijah says abruptly, without any sort of preamble, and I almost miss it. “Because this is the first and last time I will ever say this... but Gavin was right.”

“Whoa, whoa!” Hank raises his hands in mock surprise. “Can you repeat that for my old man ears? I could have sworn I just heard you say Gavin, of all people, was right.”

“Fuck you, Hank,” Eli deadpans.

“Mood,” I snort, flipping Hank off.

“Right about what?” Connor asks, leaning against the table. “The Red Ice?”

“Yahtzee,” Sadie smirks, giving him a finger gun. “Turns out, when the trace elements of thirium used to create the drug interact in certain combinations with hormones produced in the adrenal gland, particularly in instances of adrenal disorders, such as pheo- phe-” Pausing, she cocks her head at Eli.

“Pheochromocytoma,” he supplies. “It’s a tumor on the gland that causes an increase in hormone production and can lead to high blood pressure.”

“That,” Sadie nods, and continues right on with no regard for the fact that I barely understood two words of what she’s said so far. “When combined in ideal circumstances with adrenal hormones, particularly aldosterone, it creates a highly volatile compound that causes a breakdown of... the cerebellum?”

“The cerebrum,” Elijah corrects, tapping his forehead. “Specifically, the frontal cortex.”

“Right, and it leads to a state of mild psychosis and delirium characterised by violence.”

I glance at Hank, but he looks as lost as me. Connor, Nines and Erik, on the other hand... None of them look very happy with this.

“Uh, English please?” I request, raising a hand.

“Simply put,” Eli replies, casting a quick, approving glance at Sadie, “thirium destabilises hormone production and breaks down parts of the brain, making Red Ice users violent and irrational, as you know. I knew this already when I began studying the mixed blood concoction we found in Greyling.” Erik stiffens visibly, and Eli breaks off quickly, no doubt remembering our first encounter with the ‘droid.

“Detective Reed,” Erik speaks up, looking oddly perplexed and slightly frustrated. “You are safe in this room, correct?”

“Um... Yeah?” I frown at him. “We’re just... talking.”

“I am afraid I may be forced to end your discussion if the Greyling facility continues to be a focal point,” he explains bluntly. “I will remove myself from the room and return when you have reached a conclusion. Excuse me.”

“Is it bad that I’m mildly relieved?” Eli huffs as soon as Erik’s gone.

“If it is, I’m damned too,” I mutter, rubbing my jaw.

“He has definitely changed,” Nines agrees.

“Did some’n happen in Greyling?” Sadie asks, her accent full throttle again and her confused interest mimicked in Connor and Hank’s expressions. “Before I found y'all, I mean, obviously."

“Let’s just say our first meeting was... captivating,” Eli answers.

“Really?” I give him the driest of looks.

“What?” he shrugs innocently, a grin tugging at his lips. “I thought it was funny.”

“Fuck you. We’ll talk later, Sadie; continue.”

“Okay.” Shaking herself, she picks up where Elijah left off. “Well, if thirium is so detrimental to human health, we wondered why anyone would wanna use it in such a concentrated form, even for... people like me.” She still can’t say ‘cyborgs.’ Can’t really blame her though. “Turns out, the other ingredients in Red Ice help create the ideal environment for thirium to do its thing.”

“Specifically,” Eli takes over solemnly, “and Hank, tell me if you know where this is going, the element lithium.”

A dark look clouds Hanks expression, one I’m extremely familiar with, and I get it before he says a word.

“Depression. Lithium is used to treat depression.”

“Exactly,” Eli nods. “We think ― this is just our preliminary hypothesis, but we think that everyone who warped into Scavengers either used Red Ice, or were clinically depressed and being treated with lithium when they somehow got exposed to thirium.”

Chapter Text

“This is straight up bat-shit crazy,” I mutter, running a hand through my hair and scratching absently. “Wait, so, why did the scientists or whatever in Greyling start experimenting with thirium if it’s so bad for humans?”

“Just getting to that,” Elijah says, sitting on the edge of his chair and leaning forward on his elbows. I haven’t seen him this serious in a while. But then, I haven’t really waited around to hear him gush about androids or his research. “Thirium on its own is just a poisonous substance that, if ingested or injected into a human, would be processed and expelled like any other poison; it would probably be highly painful and make the person extremely sick, but they wouldn’t die from it, or necessarily suffer any permanent damage, unless they have any hormonal disorders that would lead to breakdown of brain matter.”

“But, the components Eli created only work properly with the feedback and conductivity provided by thirium,” Sadie picks up. “Without it, androids can’t function, period. And people like me don’t suddenly gain super strength just because somebody perfected the science of makin’ android components compatible with human body parts. The real reason this works ―” she puts her hands out, palms up ― “is because somebody went a step further and perfected the science of makin’ thirium compatible with blood.”

“I can’t speak for what the morons who started this were thinking,” Eli sighs, “but I can only imagine it began because someone looked at cyborgs and stupidly wondered if it was possible. I can’t say I necessarily hate it either.”

“If all this nonsense is all that was going on in Greyling,” Hank pipes, waving his hand absently at Sadie and the container of Red Ice on the table behind her, “why was it classified? And why put such a powerful android on guard?”

“The hole,” Connor states. “Forgive me, Hank; I saw a first-hand review from Nines’ databanks. A door was blown out of the wall, and the storage area was destroyed in a line between the door and a hole in the outer wall, suggesting something large and powerful broke out. That must have been whatever Erik was directed to guard.”

“I’m not saying I doubt that,” I scoff, “but if that’s the case, then where is it? Why is Erik here instead of out there, finding it and guarding it, whatever it is?”

“It could be dead,” Elijah offers. “Lab specimens often don’t survive outside a controlled environment.”

“Are you kidding me?” I bark a mirthless laugh. “You saw the damage this thing did, and you think it died? Bitch please.”

“I’m saying it’s a possibility,” he snaps shortly.

“Yeah, and it’s just as possible that I’m gonna drop dead from looking at your face,” I retort. “Between the two, I’d prefer the latter.”

“Okay, boys!” Sadie cuts in just as Elijah opens his mouth to lay into me. “Enough! Y’all actin’ like goddamn children, for Chrissakes... Whatever it is, or was, it ain’t our problem right now. We just made an enormous breakthrough in regards to the origin of the damn apocalypse, and you two are over here squabblin’ like swans over bread. At least save it ‘til after we figure out our next step? Please?” Scoffing, I roll my eyes, but bite my tongue because she’s right.

“Shouldn’t our next step be to test this hypothesis?” Nines offers. “By now, we probably have an entire Colony of test subjects; Marcus is clearly determined to make this work.”

“Good idea,” Sadie nods. “I’ll send word for him to separate one out to get some blood and skin samples, and if we need more, I’ll head down myself to get it. Me and Eli’ll get to workin’ on that, and meanwhile, why don’t you boys head to the nearest human Colony and see about preparations for a wedding, eh?”

Hank and Connor both blush, and I’ll admit, I didn’t think it was possible to make Hank blush like that anymore. Nines grins at his older model, elbowing him lightly, and Connor swats him away in embarrassment.

“Sure, why the hell not?” I humph; I’d rather be out and surrounded by the nauseating cheer of wedding preparations than stuck around here trying to figure out how to make things right with Elijah when he’s clearly not ready to do the same.

――

If all the Colonies are looking as good now as this one is, I can hope for the future of humanity; the last time I was in a Colony, it was little more than an enclosure created by makeshift barriers around a couple buildings. This one is far more advanced; wheel-less cars, stacks of cement blocks, and electric fences are lined up in rows around a good four or five buildings, maybe seven or eight feet tall in most places, and taller in some. Guards are posted every couple hundred yards, and every single one of them is armed with some kind of rifle.

I don’t even want to know where they get all the ammunition for that.

Oh look; they even have dogs on patrol.

I catch a look of nostalgic sorrow on Hank’s face as we wait at the entrance for one of the dogs to be brought over. It greets us cheerfully while the guards check us over.

“Clear! No weapons inside; disarm, please, and keep your androids under control.”

“I’m not leaving my gun anywhere,” I scoff.

“I’m sorry, sir; I can’t le-”

“You got any former DPD officers in there?” I cut in. “I wanna talk to them.”

It takes a bit of stubborn persistence and waiting, but eventually they get someone out to talk to me; a buff jock-type that I recognise as a beat cop who was aiming for detective but didn’t make it before the Pulse. Paul Something, I think?

“Lieutenant Anderson!” he beams. “And... Detective Reed, right? Wow, what an honour! I’ve heard a lot about you. Both of you.” He offers a hand to Hank and then to me, giddy as a schoolboy. “Ah, it’s alright, Danny; I’ll vouch for them on the arms. Right this way.”

He leads us through the barricades and toward what looks like an outdoor market, complete with the muted roar of hagglers and children.

“So what brings you guys to the Downtown Colony?” Paul-Something asks eagerly.

“Marriage,” Hank answers with a small smile. “We’re looking for a priest and some decorations, mostly.”

“No kidding! Who’s getting hitched?”

“We are,” Connor pipes up hesitantly, taking Hank’s hand and watching Paul-Something for his reaction; his eyes widen, and his jaw drops.

“Oh. Uh... Wow, um... Right. I- Congrats?”

“Don’t tell me you’re a homophobe,” Hank says evenly, cocking a scolding brow.

Ah, it’s been a while since I last saw that look. Nice to not be on the receiving end this time.

“Wh- No, I- I mean, I wasn’t... I didn’t mean...” the officer stammers, a faint blush of shame colouring his face. “Sorry, I just wasn’t expecting... I mean, everybody heard about your divorce, and after Cole, er... Ah, s-sorry, I- I’ll shut up now.”

“Anyone can move on,” Hank says softly, pulling Connor against his side and making the twink-bot blush pale indigo. “Just need the right partner.”

Ugh. I could gag on the sappiness.

“If you say you don’t agree,” Nines whispers in my ear, sending shivers up my spine, “you’re lying.”

“Fuck you, tin can,” I mutter back, hoping the heat creeping up my neck isn’t visible.

“Later,” he promises with a smirk.

Chapter Text

So his name is actually Peter. But it doesn't really matter because I'm not gonna remember it anyway; he gives us the condensed tour and then leaves us to our own with a hint to find someone named Baxter for help with decorations and organisation. Hank and Connor ask around the market area, and I meander a bit, looking for potential presents while Nines hangs around at my elbow like a friggin leech.

“Any ideas?” I ask him finally, giving him a mild glare when I get sick of how close he's getting without actually touching me.

“For...?” he prompts, unbothered by my annoyance.

“Presents, moron; what else?”

“Connor hinted rather strongly that he wanted no gifts,” he states simply, “so what would Hank want?”

“A beer,” I scoff. “Guy practically lived in a bottle after his kid died. Just him and...” I break off as it suddenly clicks that I know exactly what to get them. “Oh... Hey, Nines...”

“Yes?”

“I need your help with something...” After explaining my idea, he grins approvingly. “You think we can do that without them finding out until we give it to them?”

“I think we can,” he agrees, a glimmer of pride in crystalline ice that warms me unexpectedly to the core, chasing away the lingering chill of the false spring that's sure to give way to another round of winter before things really start warming up.

“Good; see what you can find, and come get me when you're done.”

“Will do.” He starts to turn away and pauses, hand going to his collar and fingers hooking a chain there. I realise a split second later that it's the mistletoe necklace, just as he pulls it out from under his clothes and leans forward to kiss the corner of my mouth.

“Nines...!” I protest, burning with embarrassment as I shove him back.

“I have mistletoe,” he reminds me with a smirk, tapping the pendant on my nose. “I can do that whenever I like.”

“Do it again and you'll be sleeping in the library!” I snap, forcibly turning him around and pushing him forward. To really drive it in, I give him a boot to the ass, just to punctuate the following, “Fucking tin can...”

“I'm going, I'm going,” he chuckles, heading back in the direction of the gate.

Jesus Christ, this guy drives me nuts...

A bunch of shouting catches my attention, and I'm moving before I even realise it, arriving just in time to see a very angry man take a swing at Hank. I launch forward at the same time that Connor bursts into action; he shoves Hank out of the way and takes a nasty blow to the jaw half a second before I grab the guy's wrist and yank him away from Connor. With quick, easy moves that are more muscle memory than conscious thought, I slam the guy face-first into the wall with his arm twisted up behind him.

“Who the- let go of me!!” he snarls, writhing uselessly while I glance over my shoulder to check on Hank, who's helping Connor stand.

Good; they're okay.

“The fuck is your problem??” the douches demands, still trying to get free.

My problem?” I hiss at him, wrenching his arm up a little harder and making him yelp. “Fucker, you'd better be glad it's postapocalypse rules, or I'd have you in cuffs in the back of my squad car right now. The hell you get off on assaulting my partners?”

“Partners?” he sneers over his shoulder, giving me the most disgusted look I think I've ever seen. “You mean you actually work with that piece of garbage? You support a relationship with a fucking bucket of bolts and wiring?”

That's what this is about?

Shit, it's like looking in a mirror that reflects the past.

“Whether I do or not doesn't matter,” I snap back, grinding his face into the bricks for good measure. “It's not my business who wants to fuck who; it's not yours either, you get me?”

“Fuck you!”

“What was that? I couldn't hear you over the sound of screaming,” I say, yanking his arm up more and knocking his head against the wall. He cries out but stubbornly refuses to give in.

“It's nothing but a goddamn program!” he insists.

“Gavin...!”

“Bunch of code that makes it act like a lover,” he scoffs. “Might as well be fucking himself!”

Something snaps inside me and I lose any control I might have had over myself; I watch with a dissociative interest while my body moves, wrenching him away from the wall to spin him around and deck him, hard. His head whips back, cracking against the brick, and bright red spurts from his nose, which is bent unnaturally now.

I manage maybe two or three more highly satisfying blows before someone catches my arms and drags me away from the bloody pulp I've made of his face.

“Let go! I'm not done with him yet!” I roar, trying to get at him again as he slides down the wall, only half conscious now.

“Gavin! Gavin, calm down! Relax; I've got you.” It takes me maybe a half second to recognise Nines’ voice, and a flood of calm pours through me, washing away the inexplicable rage. But to my surprise, a jolt of unease spikes through the calm and I pull away from him quickly, not quite understanding myself why I don't want his touch at the moment. He gives me an odd, confused look, but doesn't question it, thankfully.

“Really, Reed?” Hank scolds, scowling at me.

“What?” I start innocently, breaking off as a group of four or five guards burst through the gathered crowd of onlookers.

“What's going on here?” an older guy demands sternly.

“That guy attacked Marvin!” someone shouts.

“Marvin started it!” another adds.

“No he didn't!”

“He did!”

I lose track of the shouts then as everyone overlaps one another. The guards try to restore order but it's hard to be heard over the noise.

I glance at Nines, but he's staring into the crowd, a faint frown on his features. When I touch his wrist to get his attention, he startles slightly and looks at me, then smiles reassuringly and threads his fingers through mine, squeezing gently.

“I said ENOUGH!” the older guy bellows, finally heard. The noise dies quickly, but he glares around for a moment more to make sure no one's going to talk again. Then he jabs a finger at one of the people checking on the guy I beat up, Marvin. “You. Tell me what happened.”

“Me? Oh, um... Well, I didn't see what started it, but Marvin was trying to get those two away from his stall, and then that guy came up and pushed him against the wall, and then a minute later started beating the hell out of him.”

Oh fuck that. I open my mouth to interject, but Nines tugs on my hand in clear disapproval, so I close it with a scowl.

“You.” The older guy points at Hank. “What happened?”

“Basically what she said,” he answers easily. “Except your guy Marvin there took a swing at me, and that's why my man attacked him.”

The old guy's gaze fixes on me, and for a moment I feel like a kid again, getting the staredown from my principal for starting another fight.

“Wanna explain yourself, son?” I bristle at the patronising choice of words, but rein myself in when Nines squeezes my hand again.

“You heard him,” I reply as casually as I can, ignoring the growing tingle in my knuckles that warns me the adrenaline in my body is wearing off and I'll be in pain soon. “Bastard took a swing at Hank, and I got him back for it.”

“Hannah said you attacked him twice; what was the second time for?”

“Because I'm an ornery son of a bitch and I didn't like the way he was talking about Hank's android.” That sparks murmured conversation, and the old guy raises a hand.

“Quiet! Since you boys obviously aren't from here, and Marvin's a pain in the ass anyway, I'll let you off with a warning this time. But we don't tolerate violence around here, you hear me? We can't afford it with those monsters running around outside. And speaking of, it's getting dark, so you'd better finish up your business and hurry home.”

Totally not subtle at all, but whatever.

Not like it was really my fault. That bastard had it coming; I'm almost amazed nobody did that to me before I changed.

Talking about Connor being a bucket of bolts and wiring.

Pffeh. Yeah right. Of all the androids I know, only Erik still holds any resemblance to the purely robotic android he was before; everyone else is a deviant. Connor, Chloe, Nines, Markus... I didn't even know Nines was an android at first.

Oh. Shit.

I get it now; I know why I didn't want Nines to touch me, why I snapped and let loose on the douchebag in the first place.

He said it was all code. All of it. And even Nines himself admitted before ― not to my face, but still ― that his need to be with me was programmed into him by Elijah.

As much as I try to fight it down with the same logic that banished them in the first place, the old fears that Nines’ love is purely code rise up again with a vengeance, and I don't know how the hell I'm gonna make it back home without breaking down completely.

Chapter Text

I don't know how the hell I managed to make it this long without exploding from all the stress, but I do know that I can't handle it anymore; I need an outlet, and I don't have any cigs, or anywhere to work out safely, or anyone to spar with.

No, I'm not sparring with Nines. And Erik would whoop my ass with ease. Hank hates sparring with me, and no way is he gonna let me spar with Connor. Chloe's not built for it, and Eli...

Let's stop there.

That leaves Sadie. Come to think of it, is she any good at hand-to-hand? Obviously she can handle a gun like nobody's business, but even with the precision of mechanical limbs, she'd need practice to be a worthwhile training partner.

Well, can't hurt to ask, and even if she's no good for that, maybe she can help me talk it out.

Doubt it, but who knows?

I feed Crystal and the kittens before I leave the room, Buttermilk trailing after me and continuously butting against my hand for pets. At Sadie's room, I have to balance myself against the frame with one hand to knock because Butter keeps rubbing his entire side against my thighs.

“Would you quit it?” I mutter at him.

A soft thump inside directly precedes a rushed, “Just a minute!” which is promptly followed by a small clunking sound. Then silence.

The door opens suddenly, almost startling me, and Sadie gives me the most forced smile I've ever seen on her face.

“Whatcha need, cowboy?” she asks, voice just faintly strained. I know immediately that she's uneasy about something, but I can't tell what; she doesn't seem guilty, like she's hiding anything, or upset, like she was just crying about something, but I can think what else it could be.

“..Are you okay?” I ask warily, eying her closely for any tells.

She blinks, and her cyber-eye twists open and closed, adjusting far more than it needs to for this situation. Grimacing, she ducks her head and rubs at it, messing around with it a little.

“Ah, yeah. Yeah! No, I'm fine,” she blurts, too insistently. “What can I do ya for?”

“Sadie, I'm a goddamn cop,” I push, scowling and crossing my arms. “Don't fucking lie to me; it doesn't work.”

For a moment, I think she might clam up and shut me out; she's tense from head to toe, and the wood of the door creaks faintly under her fingers.

It's still somewhat odd to see flesh on her hands and arms, and across her face. I should be used to it by now, but for whatever reason, the mental image I have of her is always pre-serum.

“...You're right,” she sighs finally, letting her unease show now. “I... Sorry, Nines.” I don't get a chance to register shock when she swings the door open wide to reveal Nines sitting crosslegged in the corner beside a pile of scrap; she takes a deep, raspy breath and lets it out, running her fingers through her hair and mussing it. “Somethin’ happened, Gavin... Guess it's better you know sooner than later.... Watch.”

As if cued, Nines stands and offers his hand, palm forward, his expression unnervingly blank. Sadie hesitantly reaches out and lays her palm against his. Their skin melts back to the wrist, and Sadie jolts sharply, flushing scarlet and trembling. Then she yanks her hand back to her chest, breathing heavily and shaking.

“Wh- What. The hell. Did I just see?” I manage, not having a clue how to react.

Honestly, I'm still stuck on the fact that Nines is here.

“We linked,” he explains simply, watching me closely, like I might explode at any moment; at this point, it's a possibility, but who knows?

“Linked?” I echo, the first spark of emotion blinking into existence in my chest. “Like... that... android connection thing?”

“Yes.” He's still watching, wary now.

What the actual fuck. I came here hoping for some kind of resolution to the annoyance of constantly second-guessing myself, maybe even an answer for how to find out if Nines’ emotions are all merely code, but no. Instead I get more confusion and irritation and fucking jealousy to deal with.

I wanna do it. I wanna go absolute bat-shit crazy on him. On them both. I want to unleash all of the pent-up anxiety and anger and depression, and watch them shrink in mortified apology.

Turning, I start walking. Buttermilk pauses, and then starts to follow me.

“STAY,” I snap at him, glaring over my shoulder. He stops and promptly lays down, big golden eyes staring pleadingly at me.

I keep walking. I don't listen to anyone calling after me, and I don't stop until I find Erik sitting in a circle in the library with Hank, Connor and Chloe, playing a card game and chatting about wedding plans.

“Erik,” I cut in bluntly. “Come with me; we're sparring.” The chatter ends curiously, but no one seems to dare ask, and Erik doesn't hesitate to stand and follow me; whether it's because he doesn't want to aggravate me or because I gave him an order is anyone's guess.

The only really good place to fight is in the lobby area at the front; there's plenty of open space, and rugs to cushion any falls, which I expect to be doing a lot.

I don't give Erik any warning before attacking, but he reacts instantaneously, and we fall into an easy but quick rhythm. He must be holding back; I can't hit him but he hasn't put me on the floor yet.

I would have thought the denial of beating up or being beat up would annoy me more, but instead it just... changes my perspective.

There's only so much I can do against any given problem; I can keep trying to come at it from any direction I want, but at some point, I just have to accept that I'm simply not equipped to handle some things on my own. And yeah, it can be frustrating to be unable to make any progress, but at least it shows me where my limits are and gives me a chance to explore them so I know what I have to do to get past them.

I should spar with Erik more often; I've never come to a conclusion so easily or quickly, and to be honest, it's actually kinda fun to try and land even one hit on him.

Chapter Text

“Who’s that?” North leans against Markus’ back, arms draped over his shoulders and chin resting on his head as she stares at the paused holographic recording of a very pretty blonde with a specialised android component for an eye and another at her neck.

“Sadie Morgan,” he answers absently, his attention focused primarily on whatever he’s writing. “She’s a member of Connor’s team, investigating the Scav origin. She’s an engineer of sorts and has an incredible mind.”

“She’s a cyborg,” North notes simply.

“Yes.”

“...Are you going to tell them?” she presses when he doesn’t say anything else. He stays quiet, but his pen stops moving, and she gives him a moment to consider before prompting him again. “Are you?”

“Tell them what, North,” he says shortly, pushing her back so he can turn in his seat and look up with that narrow look he gets when he can’t find a solution to a problem. “That we have a rabid cyborg on our hands who’s just human enough still to trick people into thinking it’s alright so we’ll let it free to wreak havoc again? That if Sadie warps, she’ll be the same? That they should lock her up or at least keep a close eye on her?”

“How about all of the above?” North pushes sternly. “Or better, that they should kill her now; if she really does warp, even that 900 model won’t be able to do much against her.”

“Always with the killing...” Markus says tiredly. He rubs his hands over his face, bracing his elbows on the table. “Sadie is intelligent, North. Extremely so. Elijah may be a genius, but even he has limits, and where he fails, she can step in. They’re going to need her if we want to know how this all began in the first place.”

“But she’s a danger to them, Markus,” North growls, crossing her arms and glaring at the holograph. “To all of us. We finally have a chance to make the humans see we’re more than machines or tools, and all it takes is one misstep to screw that all up for us.”

“I’m not telling them to kill her!” Markus snaps, coming abruptly to his feet and slamming his hands on the table. The drone projecting the holograph jumps and blinks off, and the pen falls to the floor, rolling away under a box.

Simon, who entered just in time to hear the outburst, pauses in the door, uneasy.

“Markus? Should I come back?” He glances at North, worried that she might explode too, but she just glares back at him.

“No,” Markus sighs, anger draining out of him and leaving him exhausted. “No, it’s alright; come in, Si.” Sitting heavily in his chair, he gestures for Simon to come to him. Tentatively obeying, Simon gives North a wide berth to put his hand in Markus’, skin retracting automatically to link their minds and souls.

Markus takes comfort in the ever calm flow of Simon’s thoughts and emotions, his loyalty and love; so much is going on all at once, and he’s expected to take care of everything, and at times, it just overwhelms him. But connected to Simon, none of it matters anymore; humanity could declare war on androids and he wouldn't be fazed in the slightest, so long as his existence in Simon's heart continued.

He conveys that with a soft kiss to Simon's knuckles, and the household android flushes indigo in embarrassed joy, replying with a wordless promise of companionship.

“You need to reconsider, Markus,” North says harshly, cutting into the moment. “That cyborg will be the end of us.”

“North. Enough.” He meets her gaze and stares her down until she looks away, scowling. “Go find Josh and see how he's coming along with the Scav Colony.”

“...We have person of interest on that,” Simon says after North storms out, grumbling. Wordlessly, he shifts his memories to Markus’ mind for review, showing him a slip of a girl with short hair screaming at Angel and Tank, who can barely keep a hold of her for all her writhing.

“I’m not a Scav, you assholes! Let me go!” she shrieked, kicking her feet up and almost knocking Tank over. “He’s gonna die!”

“You were found covered in blood and eating a human, and you really think we’re going to believe that?” Francis scoffed. “Not likely.”

“I wasn’t eating him, you stupid bucket of bolts, I was trying to sa-” She was cut off when Angel and Tank pushed her unceremoniously into one of the holding cells.

“Was that really necessary?” Simon asked, disapproving.

“As squirmy as she was?” Angel grunted. “Could have been worse.” Tank jolted as the girl pounded on the door, making it clank.

“Let me out of here! You left him out there to die, you fuckers!”

“Where’s the human she was with?” Simon asked, facing Francis, who looked away, fidgeting.

“Angel found them... Said there was too much blood for him to still be alive.”

“So you just left him?” Simon turned to Angel now, who didn’t even have the decency to look ashamed.

“He’s not dead!” the girl cried, pounding on the door again. “But he will be soon; you left him covered in blood in Scav territory, you... fucking... assholes...”

She trails off in sobs, and the memory ends there.

“I sent Haley and Serena to see if they can find the human,” Simon explains, anxiety etched into his features and his emotions, “but Francis refused to let the girl out, so I came to you.” Markus scowls, shielding his anger from his lover as he stands.

“I’ll take care of Francis,” he says, pressing a gentle kiss to the corner of Simon’s lips. “Check on the girl and make sure she’s fed, and let me know as soon as Serena and Haley return.”

“I will,” Simon nods, flushed and eager; he steps into Markus and draws him down for a deeper kiss, shivering under the intensity of love and adoration flooding back and forth between them. “Be careful with Francis; he’s more violent than North.”

“Not an easy feat,” Markus smiles, brushing his thumb lightly over Simon’s cheek. “Don’t worry; just take care of the girl.”

As he turns to leave, the moment his hand slips away from Simon’s, his expression hardens to barely suppressed fury, and Simon’s pump skips for a moment when he suddenly remembers that of all the androids he’s ever met, none were quite so capable of handling themselves as Markus.

Chapter Text

“Are you really not going to let me explain?”

“Nope.” I pointedly avoid looking at him while I take Cora from Chloe and give her Crystal, who doesn’t stop purring but to give a half-mew of protest at leaving the comfort of my arms.

“Gavin...”

“Would you take her outside for a minute while I bathe the kittens?” I ask Chloe, cutting him off.

“Of course,” she smiles lightly, gently setting the unnamed kitten in my arms so she can hold Crystal properly. “Watch out for Journey; he’s been skittish lately.”

“No surprise,” I chuckle, using my foot to keep him from running off. “Thanks.” Buttermilk bounces after her as she leaves, and I wrangle the two kittens into one arm so I can pick up Journey before he gets away.

“Gavin, please,” Nines tries again.

“Unless you’re going to help me bathe the kittens, go away.” I’m still not looking at him. He gives a small growl of annoyance, but wordlessly takes Journey and follows me to the bathroom, closing the door to keep the kittens confined if they get away.

We manage to get through most of the process without talking, and I’m just beginning to hope he’s given up when...

“It’s not going to stop bothering you if you just pretend it didn’t happen.”

“Fucking- So close,” I sigh, flicking suds from my hand and giving him a dark look. “You just can’t let it go, can you?”

“Because I know it’s going to bother you and you’ll start sulking, and then you’ll do something stupid,” he retorts, returning my look with one of his own. “Whatever you thought happened, I can almost guarantee you’re wrong.”

“It doesn’t matter what I think happened,” I grumble, holding Cora under the spray of water to rinse her fur.

“Yes, it does,” he insists. When I don’t reply, he catches my wrist, getting my attention. “Gavin, what you think matters; I don’t ever want to just dismiss it. But I don’t want you to have the wrong idea either.”

I can’t reply to that. I can’t say what’s on my mind; I refuse. So I don’t say anything, just pull my hand from his grip and stand to get a towel to dry the kittens.

“It was an accident,” Nines tries, carefully holding Journey out of the water because even though Cora and the other one seem to like bathing, he seems to think water is of the devil.

“I'm sure it was,” I say blandly, kneeling again and laying the towel in my lap while I gently squeeze water from Cora's legs and tail.

“It was,” Nines insists, setting Journey on my lap, to my annoyance. “We were talking, and she took my hand, and it just... happened. We didn't even get a chance to discuss it before you showed up.”

“Before I interrupted,” I correct, pointedly moving Journey back into his hands so I can dry off Cora.

“There was nothing to interrupt!” he exclaims, frustrated. “It was nothing!”

“I know!” I snap finally, glaring at him. “But that doesn't make it any easier!” He stares at me as I heave a heavy sigh and finish drying Cora, letting her wander around the bathroom while I move on to the other one.

“I'm not angry at you, Nines,” I admit quietly, giving up. “Or Sadie. I'm just... I'm angry at myself. Because I’m jealous and I shouldn’t be. I know that... thing doesn’t have to mean anything, that it’s just a... a connection, like a cable between two computers. But I also know that you can share emotion through it, and I just... don’t... I can’t do that. Sadie, and Connor... They got to see a part of you that I can’t. Got to feel you in a way I can’t, and never will. I’m not an android; I can’t link with you. I have no reason to be jealous, and it pisses me off that I am anyway.”

Focusing on the other kitten, I finish drying him off and let him roam with Cora, reaching for Journey next. Nines grabs my wrist and drags me close to give me an awkward half-hug and press a light kiss to my ear.

“Don’t take this wrong, but I’m glad you’re jealous,” he says softly, letting go and sitting back so he can lay his hand on my jaw. “There’s nothing that I’ve shared with Sadie or Connor that you haven’t seen for yourself; I swear it. I don’t share the deepest parts of me with anyone else.”

“Stop it,” I scoff, pushing his hands away. “You sound like a schoolgirl.”

“And you blush like one,” he teases lightly, standing and draining the tub. I punch at his leg, but he moves out of the way, laughing, and scoops up Cora and the other kitten, taking them out into the room while I’m left to finish the task of drying Journey.

“Gavin,” Nines calls from the room just as I’m tossing the towel in the basket of dirty clothes in the corner. There’s a low, serious note in his voice that puts me on edge as I exit the bathroom, flicking off the light behind me.

“Erik,” I nod in greeting, and glance between him and Nines, not liking the look on the latter’s face. “What’s going on?”

“Markus sent word about a Scav they just caught,” he says grimly.

“...And...?” I prompt, a pit of unease growing in my gut as I slowly set Journey down with his siblings on the bed, where Crystal is purring up a storm while she rebathes them herself.

“The Scavenger is asking for you by name,” Erik fills in. “Markus has asked us to relay to you that she claims to know you.”

“Know me?” The pit tightens and I taste the metallic edge of panic on my tongue.

“Correct,” he nods simply. “Does the term ‘Knockout’ mean anything to you?”

Oh fucking hell...

Teagan warped.

Chapter Text

“Where is she?”

“Nice to see you too, Detective,” Markus replies dryly, but turns and beckons as he enters the modified hole in the side of the ship. “This way.”

They really have done a shit ton to make this place accessible; there’s a path to the base of the dry dock, a newly opened and functional entrance, and a straight corridor leading directly into the bowels of the ship, to the open chamber where androids still mill about in groups. The place is better lit now, though, and there are signs of recent human inhabitants; unfinished food, blankets and coats near heat lamps, and regular lamps turned up bright enough to actually see.

“The Scavengers are locked in their rooms,” Markus explains, leading us through the main chamber toward the same area where we met with Ariel the last time we were here. “We haven’t yet perfected a system of separation that would allow them to roam while humans are present.” That last word is almost drowned out by a screeching howl so close and so sudden that I jolt and almost trip, knocking against Nines, who chuckles softly but thankfully says nothing.

I’d hate to bruise my shin on his balls.

“Tell me what happened,” I demand shortly.

“Simon was supervising the... cataloguing, shall we say, of the newest members of Jericho,” Markus answers easily. “We’ve learned that many want exactly what we’re providing, a safe community away from humans, where they no longer fear killing others. Because of this, we’ve stopped capturing them and simply started spreading word. Mostly. There are a few instances in which we have to intervene, to stop Scavs from killing humans and unfortunately drag them here until they’ve settled down. Angel and Tank brought this girl in covered in blood and said they’d found her eating an unconscious, presumably recently dead, human man. She fought, so they put her in a cell. However, she kept screaming that the man wasn’t dead and that she wasn’t a Scav, so Simon brought her to my attention. I went to see her myself, but the moment she saw me, she simply demanded that I, quote “tell that detective guy, Gavin Reed, to get his ass over here,” and then refused to say anything else, except to tell me to use the word ‘Knockout’ if you had any doubts. I’m guessing you understand what that means?”

By now, he’s stopped beside a door, and he looks at me, hand resting on the valve-looking handle. I scowl.

“I know exactly what it means,” I say shortly. “It’s none of your business. Let me see her.”

“One moment, please.” Turning the handle, he slips into the room, closing the door behind him. There’s a thump, a shout, and then a series of seriously pissed off curses that doesn’t end when the door opens and Markus waves for us to enter.

“Teagan?” I call, stepping in. It’s darker in here than out in the main chamber, only a sheltered candle in the corner giving any real light, and it takes my eyes a moment to adjust, even with the extra light spilling in from the corridor.

“Storm! Thank fuck!” A jangle of chains draws my attention to the side of the room, where Teagan sits, rather irritated, with her chained hands in her lap, wrists chafed and bleeding where she’s obviously been struggling to get free. “Tell those goddamn batteries I’m not a fucking Scav!”

Relief bursts in my chest, overwhelming me for a moment, and then I feel the strangest urge to slap her for being an idiot.

“Jesus, Teagan... What happened to Abner?” I ask, crouching next to her. She flinches like I did slap her, and blinks quickly, but not before I catch the welling of tears in her eyes.

“It... It was a snake,” she says, quieter now. “A fucking snake, Storm... I was so focused on sensing Scavs and avoiding them that I didn’t even thin- I didn’t...” She breaks off, takes a breath, tries again. “I didn’t think to keep an eye out for other dangers, and I missed a goddamn rattlesnake, of all things. He took the bite for me, and I panicked. I didn’t kill it quick it enough, and then when I did kill it, I hit Abner, and I j- There was so much blood, but I kept thinking how if I didn’t get the venom out of him, he’d die, but I didn’t know how to... I just... I didn’t know what else to do, so I tried to suck it out of him, but all I tasted was blood, blood, blood; nothing but blood, and then he passed out and I just...” This time she breaks off in a sob, chains clinking softly from the shaking of her hands.

Again with the crying women... Regardless of biology, they’re so damn emotional.

I’m at a complete loss. Really. All I can think to do is sit down next to her and wrap an arm around her shoulders, pulling her against my side. She resists for a half second, and then leans into me, burying her face in my shoulder and choking out sobs while she clings to me, fingers clutching at my shirt. I give Nines a helpless look and he just shrugs, a faint smirk giving away his amusement.

“Uh, I... Is he... still alive?” I try awkwardly.

“I don’t know!” she wails into my neck.

Markus clears his throat politely and I give him a dark look; if it’s not good news...

“Simon sent a team to find the man, but they returned empty-handed,” he reports gently. “They found the site, but there was no sign of him save for a patch of blood. No indication of him walking or being dragged away from the site, but no indication that he was ―” he glanced at Teagan ― “discovered by Scavengers either.”

Well. At least he didn’t say ‘eaten.’

“Teagan,” I ask hesitantly after a moment, “if we go back there, you think... you think you’ll be able to... track him down?”

“I don’t know,” she repeats miserably.

Jesus Christ... What even is my life right now?

“Well,” I sigh, “since we pretty much have nothing else to do, we might as well try.” Teagan bolts upright, knocking her head against my jaw. I give a half yelp and jerk back from the pain, rubbing the offended spot.

“Really?” she exclaims, apparently not feeling anything other than extreme hopeful excitement. “Seriously?? You mean it??”

“Yeah, really, seriously, I mean it,” I grumble, silently cursing Sadie for unlocking this caring side of me. I don’t need it and I’d really like to give it back. Now.

“Fuck, Storm!!” she squeals, somehow managing to loop her arms around my neck and yanking me into an unexpected, surprisingly deep kiss.

“Teagan!!” I snap when I finally get a chance to breathe. She laughs and plants a light peck on my cheek before jumping up and holding out her hands toward Markus.

“Now you believe me, you broken ass lightbulb?”

Chapter Text

He left her alone again. How dare he. After all the effort she put into claiming and training him, he keeps up and leaving.

Oh, she has plenty to occupy her; the little kits he gifted to her are quite the pawful, but oh how it drives her crazy that her human keeps running off like an excitable kitten himself.

Even the gentle not-human is gone.

Oh well. She has other not-humans to play with. The long-furred one especially is quite pleasant, always stroking her and feeding her and letting her out to relieve herself.

Thank goodness the weather is finally turning; the cold was too much this time.

But it held off the scary monster-humans, the ones that attacked her human, and now that it's warmer, they might come back.

This is why she's so upset with her human; he can't go running off with so many dangerous monsters out there!

She's going to have to take some drastic measures to protect him when he returns. For now, she wanders around the house, rubbing up against everything and leaving her scent everywhere. With luck, whatever made those humans into monsters has also given them a better sense of smell and they won't come into her territory.

“Queen.”

Ah, her partner.

“Buttermilk,” she greets in return, raising her nose, whiskers extended. He drops his great head to touch noses, whiskers mingling pleasantly.

He is not-cat, like the not-humans; he acts like a big cat, the way they act like humans, but he has no flesh, no blood, no need to eat as she does. It makes him the perfect partner.

“Any sign of my human and his not-human?” she asks, whiskers twitching.

“No,” he whines, laying down. His ears flick in worry. “Did you think he's in danger again?”

“If he was,” she purrs assuringly, “his littermate and the halfling human would give off the scent of fear. They haven't scented fear since that time.”

“Yes, you're right.” He brightens, rising. “He's safe.”

“Of course,” she agrees patiently. “Come; the kittens will wake soon.”

――

Gavin returns finally, and Buttermilk greets him enthusiastically, delighted to find him safe.

“You see?” purrs Queen. Gavin may call her Crystal, but Butter knows her name is Queen. He also knows she's far more relieved than she lets on. “He's safe, just as I said he'd be.”

“Human! Human! Human!” the kittens mewl loudly at Gavin, who picks up two of them and hands them off to Richard before picking up the other one and Queen.

“He is far too handsy,” Queen complains, but she purrs loudly in approval as Gavin turns the kitten over to the funny human ― the one who scents male but acts female ― and focuses much of his attention on Queen, kissing her head and cooing something quietly.

Jealous, Buttermilk bumps against his side, and he laughs lightly, dropping a hand to bury his fingers in Butter's mane.

“Stay here, Butter; I'll be right back,” he commands, much to Butter's annoyance.

“Always stay,” he grumbles to himself, sitting on his haunches. “How am I supposed to protect him if he keeps telling me to stay?” He looks up at Richard, wondering why he isn't following Gavin, and Richard looks back, a faint smile quirking at his lips.

Then the funny human says something to Richard, making him blush lightly as he responds. Butter ignores them, yawning and lying down to wait for Gavin.

He doesn't have to wait long; Gavin returns within minutes, scenting anger and irritation, and it doesn't take a human mind to know that he fought with his littermate, Elijah. They always fight. Butter would bite Elijah for him, but he wouldn't like that, so Butter won't.

Gavin and the funny human ― Teagan, wasn't it? ― talk for a moment, and Richard chimes in, making Gavin's scent soften to contentment and even happiness. After the talk, they split up, Teagan taking the kittens toward Gavin's sleeping room with Queen hurrying after so she won't lose sight of her adopted babies, while Richard goes off toward the eating room and Gavin goes to the room with all the books.

Erik is in there, with the halfling human, Sadie; they were doing weird little touching things earlier, and Butter didn't care to stick around, especially while Gavin wasn't there. He waits patiently where he is in hopes that Gavin will tell him to “come” again.

Teagan returns first, crouching beside Butter and scratching his back nicely. He leans into it, loving being touched. Then Gavin returns and he perks up.

“Good boy, Butter!” Gavin croons, bending to scrub the sides of his face and kiss his head. “You're such a good boy! My good kitty.” Butter preens under the attention until Richard returns with a bag on his back, and he and Gavin exchange a few more words before heading for the door again.

For a moment, Buttermilk is sure he's going to be left behind again, and already he hates it. But he doesn't even get a chance to plop down with his muzzle on his paws before Gavin whistles lightly at him and gestures for him to “come.” Delighted, Buttermilk bounds after them, eager to get outside, to run around, and most importantly, to protect Gavin.

――

“You didn't hold up your end of the deal,” says the faceless silhouette glitching on the screen, masked voice cold enough to make the sly, weasley man shiver, just a bit.

“It is hardly my fault the facility was destroyed before I could finished enacting the changes required to complete your experiment,” he returns, a touched annoyed. “And really, I lost just as much in this as you did; more, even, because I no longer have viable human candidates!”

“The old man you just picked up is no longer viable?” the silhouette asks blandly through the static, seeing right through his bullshit. He scowls, but does his best to keep his distaste and suspicion out of his voice.

“Not as yet,” he hedges cautiously. “I won't ask how you know about him at all.”

“Good; keep your filthy nose to the work you've been given, and we'll have fewer problems in the future.”

There's a threat there, buried in the cruel admonishment, and it takes everything he has not to bristle and fight back. But this person is not only funding the research he's supposed to be completing, but also his own exploits, both with Knockout and the formation of a new black market. Neither will be possible without this person's money and backing, so for now, he'll play nice.

“Of course,” he says demurely, pretending to be sufficiently chastened. “My apologies.”

“You're a smart man,” the silhouette warns once more. “Don't make anymore stupid decisions. I'll contact you again in a week, and I expect progress to be made with the serum, or else you can say goodbye to funding for your pathetic little arena.”

“I understand.”

The screen clicks off with a faint electric snap, and he has to resist the urge to throw it at the wall. Setting it down deliberately, he moves away before letting his temper rampage, which results in torn up knuckles, a bloodied dent in the wall, and two overturned chairs.

“Just you wait... I'll get you... And that bastard, Storm!”

Chapter Text

I hate it. I hate the cold. Even though it's starting to hint at getting warmer, it's still ball-shrinkingly freezing out here and I absolutely hate it.

“Anything?” I ask irritable, trying not to let my teeth chatter.

“Nothing worthwhile,” Teagan sighs, standing. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think she’s unaffected by all this crap. But I do know better, and I can see the tension in her jaw, the tightness around her eyes, the press of her lips... This is driving her crazy.

“Well, what do you have?” I prompt impatiently.

“...Someone picked him up,” she answers reluctantly. “Scav, human; I can’t tell. There’s no blood trail, so they either wrapped him up in something, or put him on a cart or trailer or something like that.”

“Anyone could figure that much out,” I grumble. Nines jabs me hard in the ribs. “Ow!” I cast a glare at him and get one in return.

Right.

Forgot how scary crystalline ice can be.

“Er, sorry,” I mutter.

“You still don’t believe me, huh.” It’s a statement, not a question, and she doesn’t wait for a reply anyway, sighing again, heavily this time. “I can’t make you believe me, Storm, but you could at least suspend your disbelief a bit more.”

“I’m not exactly the type to believe in stuff I can’t see,” I retort defensively, shaking violently as the shivers get too hard to control and too annoying to keep up with. “Jesus fucking Christ, how are you not freezing your ass off?” A dim thought occurs and I blandly add, “Or your boobs.”

“Gavin,” Nines scolds sharply, but my words have the desired effect, and the unease melts from Teagan’s expression as she bursts into high, almost contagious laughter.

She really looks better without that dark makeup around her eyes. She smudged it to hell crying at Jericho, and used a patch of dirty snow on the way back to clean off most of the rest, and honestly, she’d almost be cute if she was about twelve years older. Or I was twelve years younger. And if she didn’t have a dick.

Then again ― I glance at Nines ― I don’t really have room to talk, do I? Anyway, I prefer women with breasts I can actually fondle, not those non-existent A-cups.

Why is this even a thought I’m entertaining?? I have enough jealousy to deal with just because of Erik without adding to it by fantasising about big boobs and thick asses.

God help me...

“Jesus, Storm,” Teagan cackles, wiping the corners of her eyes. “And I thought I was bad.”

“Abner did it first,” I huff. She snorts, and then her humour fades out, leaving a forlorn look of loss on her pixie-ish face.

“Yeah...” she says softly, dropping her gaze to her shoes, where ruddy brown stains the asphalt.

“Hey.” I reach out and grip her shoulder to get her attention. “We’ll find him, okay? Don’t worry.”

“...He was worried about me,” she whispers after a moment. “The last residual thoughts he left behind. He was worried because I was gone. Storm, I... I can’t lose him; he’s all I have left. Fuck...” Sniffing, she looks up at the sky, blinking quickly. “Fucking- I swore I wasn’t going to cry...”

Well, shit. I still can’t deal with waterworks.

To my surprise, before I can figure out what to do, Nines steps past me and pulls her into a tight hug. She stiffens for a moment, tensing to break free, but he just holds her, resting his chin on the top of her head.

“I know we’re not close,” he says softly, “but Gavin still has trouble with the whole comforting thing, so let me hug you for him.”

“Hey,” I growl, offended. He cocks a challenging brow at me, daring me to say he’s wrong, and I shut up.

She’s leaning into him now, so whatever.

I glance around to see where Buttermilk is and, finding him by my legs, sit on his back, keeping part of my weight locked in my knees so I’m not putting undue stress on his components. I mean, we could be here a while if Nines is taking time to comfort her, so I might as well relax a bit.

If only it wasn’t so goddamn cold!

I shiver, and suddenly, Butter starts warming up. He turns his head and nuzzles my knee with a low rumble, nudging into me. Surprised but grateful, I carefully lower my weight onto him and scrub a hand through his warm mane.

“So,” I speak up finally, when the silence is too oppressive to handle anymore. “If we have no idea where he is, or where to start looking, what next?”

“I don’t know,” Teagan says softly, slowly withdrawing from Nines’ chest and wiping her cheeks. “I was hoping...” She lets out a little puff of white breath and shakes her head, swallowing back more tears. “I was hoping I’d pick up something, but all I feel is worry, and unease, and concern, and a little bit of fear, but...”

“...But...?” I prompt after a second, because it sounded like she was going to say more.

“Shh-shh!” she hushes sharply, slicing a hand through the air as though she can physically cut me off. Brow furrowed, she stares hard at the middle distance beyond me, biting her lip. Then her gaze focuses and flicks to me, the furrow disappearing as stunned horror appears in her eyes.

I glance quickly over my shoulder, thinking for second that maybe she saw a Scav, but Nines hasn’t moved for his gun, so that’s not it. And the horror is growing.

“What?” I ask, dreading the answer without having a clue what it might be.

“It’s him,” she breathes, a new furrow creasing her bow, this time in desperate fear. “Storm, he did it; he found Abner!”

“He?” I scowl, perplexed. “He, who? What-” Then it hits me, like a headbutt to the nose, and my gut twists, threatening to let go of everything I’ve eaten today. “Oh, fuck no. I’ll kill him. I swear to God, I really will kill him this time.”

“Gavin?” Nines frowns, cocking his head in confusion, and I remember then that he doesn’t, that his memory of all that shit is blank, thank God.

“It’s the same bastard that kidnapped us the first time,” I grind out through gritted teeth, white-knuckling my Morgansmith. “He had Abner first, maybe for years, before he grabbed Teagan, and then us. And now he’s got Abner again. This fucker just does not know when to quit; I can’t wait to put a bullet between his slimy, beady little fucking eyes.”

Chapter Text

“Calm down, Gavin,” Nines says firmly, putting out a hand to stop me from pacing. I shrug him off, too pissed to stop moving unless I’m going to punch something, and I don’t want that something to be him, if only because I don’t want to break my hand on his face.

“Calm down, my ass,” I growl, head full of little more than getting my hands around that bastard’s neck and squeezing until he stops kicking.

“Gavin...” he tries again, voice soothing, but not enough.

“He nearly killed you, Nines!” I snap, whipping around and getting in his space to make my point. “He tore you apart! Shredded your body and ruined your memory; I thought I lost you, you fucking prick. Again! And I let him get away! Before the Pulse, I would have tracked this guy to the end of the fucking earth just for being a rat bastard with a sick fucking fetish, and you want me to just, what, walk away??”

“No!” he cuts in sharply, fire in his eyes. “I want you to calm down and think for one damn minute! Before the Pulse, you would have had an entire department behind you for backup, ready to go at a moment’s notice to raid whatever hole this rat bastard has crawled into. You don’t have that now, Gavin, and if you just go charging around blindly, you’re going to get yourself killed!” I’m still pissed, but he has a point, and not one I can argue at the moment, so I stay quiet, and he sighs, reaching up to brush a hand over my jaw. “I get it; I do... If it was the other way around, I’d be furious; nothing on earth would stop me from tearing him limb from limb... But neither of us can do anything until we figure out where he is. We find him first, figure out a plan, then we can destroy him. But we have to have a plan, okay?”

“...Okay,” I say quietly, nodding reluctantly and resting my hand on his wrist. “Okay... I’m still pissed.” He smiles now, leaning his forehead on mine.

“You wouldn’t be you if you weren’t.”

“You’re ridiculous,” I snort, trying hard not to grin at him.

Teagan clears her throat loudly.

“Hey, lovebirds. While you two were busy making out, I got us a hint.”

“Another feeling?” I ask sceptically, pulling away from Nines and hoping the heat crawling up my neck isn’t visible. She gives me a dry look, arms crossed and hip cocked, and doesn’t even bother to answer except to point a finger at Nines.

“Me?” he frowns.

“You remember more than you think you do,” she explains, not really explaining anything.

“About what happened?”

“No, it’s something else.” She eyes him hard for a long moment. “I’m not entirely sure what it is, but your... aura, your energy, whatever; it went haywire when Storm mentioned what Mister Master did to you.”

“Yeah, it’s called ‘anger,’” I sass at her. “It’s a pretty common emotion.”

If looks could kill...

“I think I know the difference between anger and a realisation, asshole,” she snarks back. “And you, big dick, just had a realisation. Maybe not in your conscious processing or whatever, but some synapse or something fired just now.”

I still don’t quite believe her, but I glance at Nines anyway, hoping maybe she at least triggered something. He’s still frowning, but now it’s more thoughtful than confused.

“...I think...” he begins after a moment, hesitant. “...When we visited the Downtown Colony...”

“And got kicked out ‘cause I started a fight?” I offer helpfully. He gives me a bland look, but the corner of his mouth tips up.

“Yes. In the crowd... In the crowd that gathered, I saw someone... someone oddly familiar. But I couldn’t tie his face to anyone in my databanks; I’d never seen him before. Yet, somehow, I was sure I knew him.”

A chill swept through me, and not from the cold breeze.

“Nines... What did he look like?”

“Tall, maybe two or three inches taller than me, black hair, dark eyes, pale skin, slender with lean muscle,” he answers promptly, frown turning to confusion again. “Why?”

Oh. My. Fucking fuck...

Rage practically explodes inside me and I barely hold back a roar of fury, spinning around and looking for something to hit.

“MOTHERFUCKER!!” An old power line post serves well enough, and I punch it as hard as I can, trying to both release some anger and hurt myself with the first blow so I don’t do any worse by repeatedly punching it. I swear I break a finger, and jolt back with a yelp, cradling my throbbing hand to my chest.

“Yikes... Anger issues much?”

“Gavin, what...?” Nines touches my shoulder lightly, trying to pull me around to get a look at my hand while Buttermilk whimpers beside us. I shrug him off again and crouch beside Butter, burying my face in his mane and breathing in his faint wet-dog scent to calm down.

“That was him,” I grit out finally. “That was the fucker who kidnapped us.” I feel more than see Nines go still, and when he moves away, I glance up to see him staring at the solid grey sky, fists clenched tight at his sides and jaw working.

“...Well,” Teagan speaks up quietly after a long moment. “We have a starting point now. Where’s the Downtown Colony?”

Chapter Text

That guy Peter is actually the one at the gate when we arrive. He’s got a big old German shepherd on a leash at his side, and he’s wearing a vest and stuff now, but he still lights up like a kid at Christmas when he sees us.

“Hi!” he greets enthusiastically, meeting us just in front of the barricade. “Still need some supplies for the wedding?”

“Not this time,” I grunt, barely managing to keep the anger out of my voice. “We’re looking for someone, and he was last seen in your Colony.”

“Looking for...?” Frowning in confusion, Peter glances over his shoulder. “Uh... Look, Detective, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but Jack said you aren’t really, er... allowed back in the Colony... Unless you’re just quick grabbing some supplies, I mean...”

“Hey, Mister,” Teagan speaks up before I can say anything. She smiles sweetly at him, stepping into his space. “We won’t take long, sir; promise. We’re just gonna look around a little and see if we can find our guy, then we’ll be out of your hair; easy as that.”

“I dunno...”

“Please?” She gives him the most practiced puppy eyes I have ever seen, and he crumbles like a house of cards.

How many times has she done that to Abner?

“...Alright, but make it quick, you hear me?” Peter says sternly. “I could get in serious trouble just for letting you in. Just... keep it holstered, okay?”

I don’t even bother dignifying that with a response as I slip past him and weave through the barricade, Nines and Teagan on my heels. I head for the market area, which is empty right now, because that had to be where Nines saw the bastard.

“Where was he headed, Nines?” I call over my shoulder.

“Take a right into that alley,” he answers. “That’s where he went.”

“It’s a dead end,” I growl, glaring around the small alley, as if enough force would make it give up its secrets, just like that. There’s nowhere even to hide, except maybe behind the dumpster, which doesn’t matter now since it’s been days since we were last here.

“Looks like it’s my turn,” Teagan smirks, cracking her knuckles and rolling her shoulders. “Stand aside, boys, and watch the master work.” I can’t help but roll my eyes at her, but I move out of the way and give her some room to do whatever she’s going to do.

I’d swear she doesn’t move an inch to look around, but three seconds later, she strides straight across to the seven-foot wall blocking off the alley and touches a spot to one side, above her head.

“He climbed over,” she says absently. “But then he climbed back.” Shaking her head, she turns and frowns at us. “There’s nothing over there except the barricade. Did he see that you noticed him and try to hide?”

“No; he didn’t even look my way,” Nines answers.

“So maybe he hid something over there,” I say, thinking of the briefcase the bastard refused to leave behind when he blew up his little underground hideout.

“One way to find out,” Teagan says, stepping back from the wall. “Come boost me over, Romeo.” I start to step closer, but her gaze goes to Nines, who promptly goes over and offers her a foothold with his laced hands.

Once she's on the other side, I give Nines my blandest stare.

“Romeo? So what does that make me, Juliet?”

“You are a drama queen,” he smirks.

“I am not!”

“You say as you pout like a child,” he chuckles.

“I'm not- Screw you, tin can!” I scowl, resisting the urge to cross my arms and prove his point.

“Maybe later,” he grins casually, giving me just a hint of a wink that somehow makes my heart leap to my throat.

“I can still hear you, boys,” Teagan calls over the wall. “And bee-tee-dubs, I think I might have found whatever he stashed back here. Coming over; catch.”

A silver briefcase flies up over the wall, right for me, but before I can even open my arms to catch it, Nines grabs it midair.

“I had that,” I grumble at him as he sets it on the ground, takes off the pack to lay next to it, and goes to the wall.

“I'm sure you did,” he chuckles, grabbing the top of the wall and hoisting himself up to sit on it. Leaning over, he reaches down, and a moment later pulls Teagan up beside him. She hops down and grins at me.

“Got the case, Mercutio?”

“...Seriously?”

“What, I can't ship some hot guys?” she snorts. “Hypocrite, much?”

“You're too young to even know what shipping is,” I scoff at her. “Much less who Mercutio is.”

“Says who?”

“Alright, ladies,” Nines cuts in, literally stepping between us and pushing the briefcase into my arms. “We can continue this discussion outside the Colony; let's go before we wear out our welcome.”

“She's making fun of me,” I exclaim, following him. “Can you believe this? I'm getting taunted by a damn kid!” Teagan snickers and sticks her tongue at me.

“Oh, I believe it,” Nines says lightly.

“What's that supposed to mean?” I ask, cocking a brow at him.

“It means,” he says, stopping suddenly and pulling me close by the collar to plant a sudden, hot kiss on my mouth. When he lets go, I'm too stunned to do anything more than stumble after him as he smugly continues toward the gate. “That you are so, so easy.”

Teagan bursts out in a fit of giggles, shaking me from my stupor, and embarrassment burns up my neck into into my face.

“RICHARD, YOU MOTHERFUCKER!” I roar, shoving the briefcase at Teagan and lunging for Nines, who spins easily out of reach with a wide grin.

“Too slow, Detective!” he chuckles, dodging out of reach again. “And think; I'm basically just a bunch of spare parts compared to my original body. You'd never catch Erik.”

“Just wait till I get my hands on you, scrap heap!” I'm not really angry, and I know he knows it, but hell if I'm gonna stop playing my part. Besides, it's more fun this way.

Chapter Text

“Eli, could we get your help for a minute?” I hadn't intended on coming back here until we found Abner, but after seeing what was in the case, we unanimously agreed to give Elijah and Sadie a look.

“With what?” Elijah scowls at me, annoyed. If he was as cosy with Chloe as he looks, I don't really blame him.

“Just get your ass out here, dickhead,” I retort, leaving the door of his room open so he has to get out of bed regardless.

“Gavin!” he shouts after me. I ignore him and go back to the parlour, where Nines is just pulling out the papers and laying them out for Sadie to inspect.

“So what do you think?” I ask, squeezing between her and Erik, who's poking over her shoulder in mild curiosity.

“Looks like... data from experiments, maybe?” she replies absently, her attention mostly focused on the papers. She's nibbling on a jerky stick or something too, and it reminds me that I haven't eaten in a while. Since this morning, I think...

Gonna have to get some food in a minute.

“Maybe?” I prompt.

“Not totally sure,” she mumbles around the stick, frowning at a page. “The handwritin’s so messy it's difficult to read as is, ‘n on top of that, it's all vague and scrambled... more like casual notes than actual records o’ data.”

“Erik?” Connor pokes his head into the room while I'm still considering a response. Pausing, the older model android fully enters and comes over to join us. “I didn't realise you had returned, Nines, Detective Reed. Where is Teagan?”

“She's sucking up to Butter,” I scoff.

“He was rather miffed that we left him in a shed while we went into the Downtown Colony,” Nines explains, giving his ‘brother’ room to see what we're looking at.

“Did you require my assistance, Connor?” Erik prompts.

“Ah, yes; I was hoping you might help me with some of the decorations? I can't reach high enough for the streamers.”

“Of course.” Erik follows him out, just in time to hold the door for Elijah, who's wearing a robe and muttering obscenities under his breath.

“Do you realise what time it is?” Eli growls, glaring at me.

“It's only, what, half past ten?” I snort, rolling my eyes.

“Ten-fifty,” Sadie corrects vaguely, still frowning at the papers.

“See? Not even 11 yet.”

“Unlike you, I've had enough all-nighters to last me another month,” Eli grumbles. “What do you want, so I can tell you it can wait till morning and go back to bed?”

“Perhaps some kind of experiment the man who took us was doing,” Nines explains, handing him a page. “If we can figure out what kind of experiment, and what equipment he might need, then maybe we can find him by tracking down places to get that equipment.” Elijah give a long, irritable sigh and takes the page, skimming it.

“You know, you could be helping set up decorations with Erik an- What is it?” I switch tracks the instant he frowns and inspects the paper more closely.

“...It's... Hm.” Stepping closer, he takes another paper to check. Sadie hands him a third, swapping it for one of his.

“Looks kinda like your notes from when ya tested my blood with the serum,” she points out, popping the last inch of jerky into her mouth.

“But there's no mention of cyborgs,” he hums, invested now. “I see... two... three androids subjects?”

“Make that six, ‘less there's overlap,” Sadie corrects. “Oh, seven. And at least five, seven, eight, nine.... what's that, six? So, fifteen Scavs?”

“Nineteen,” Elijah hands over a paper, the two of them rifling through the papers taken from the briefcase, passing things back and forth with practiced ease.

I tune them out, giving Nines an impatient look, but he seems to be listening in, and only spares me enough attention to put his hand on the back of my waist.

It takes me about twenty seconds to realise how natural it feels.

Jesus Christ, I'm in the deep end.

“Hey, Gavin,” Elijah speaks up suddenly, gesturing me closer without looking up. “What is it that kid calls you?”

“Storm?” I offer, frowning. “It's the stupid nickname that rat bastard gave me for his little games. Teagan thought it fit and I can't get her to stop calling me by it.”

“And Shadow and Phoenix?” He glances up, and it takes me a second to recover from my surprise.

“How do you know those....?” A light goes on in my head and I swear my guts drop through the floor. “Oh dear Christ... He was going to use us as test subjects, wasn't he? And now he's got- oh for fuck's- Is there anything in there that gives any sort of hint as to where we can find this fucking asshat?”

“Maybe, but it's going to take time.”

“We don't have time, Elijah,” I snap at him. “That fuck has Abner, and he's experimenting with a serum that we think might turn humans into Scavs!”

“Gavin.” The shortness of Nines’ tone and the press of his fingers into my lower back to get my attention work, cutting me off. He's looking at the door, where Teagan stands silently with Buttermilk at her side.

“Oh sh- Teagan...”

“Were you going to tell me?” she cuts in.

“...I know what it's like,” I begin, “to be afraid of seeing someone you care about warping into a blood-”

“I already knew it was a possibility, Gavin,” she interrupts again, and then adds, more persistently, “Were you going to tell me?”

“I...” If I lie, she'll know, and she'll hate me. “No... No, I wasn't.” She presses her lips together, but I can't tell if she's angry, or disappointed, or distraught, or what.

I must be really screwed.

“Thank you.”

“Teagan, listen; I- Wa- What?” She gives me the saddest smile I've seen since Sadie's new year's injection.

“I said thank you,” she repeats. “For caring. I know I'm just one of a million cases you've worked. But you still care, so... Thank you.”

In that moment, for probably the first time in my life, I have a different reason for being a detective; I'm still in it to fuck up the assholes that dick shit up left and right and make a name for myself as someone other than just Elijah Kamski's brother, but God help me if some tiny part just wants to see this crazy, psychic trans chick smile in gratitude again.