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After that first game, Kent finds himself watching any and all interviews involving Alexei Mashkov.

From this, he gleans that Mashkov is charming and witty and has a bashful smile that’s as big as he is. Mashkov talks candidly about being an android, about how America differs from Russia and what he likes about each. He carefully skirts explicit political questions without coming off as callous, and gushes over his teammates, the Falcs organization, and the fans. Mashkov’s interviews are a master class in how to handle PR. It’s like the guy was made for press—and hell, for all Kent knows, he could have been.

What he was not made for, shockingly, is hockey.

“My series, we’re be made strong for hard work, yeah?” Mashkov says in a radio interview for a local channel in Providence. “So, construction, warehouse, um—don’t know how to say, is like, break?”

“Demolition?”

“Yes, is it! Sorry, my English not so good. Language not in program, you know?”

“I guess hockey is easier to learn than English, huh?”

So much easy. Sorry, I like you, but if I can play hockey and never interview, I’m do.”

This comment earns plenty of laughs. Most of Mashkov’s interviews end in laughter. Whatever else the country at large thinks of him, the media loves him, and the city of Providence fucking adores him, soft hands and broken English and all. The goodwill is infections, it seems, because the Falconers are playing incredibly well.

Meanwhile, the Aces aren’t doing so bad, either. They’re not on fire, but they’re a far cry better than last year. The locker room mood is a bit tense, since Carl won’t speak to Kent directly and a few other guys are keeping their distance as well, but it hasn’t affected their gameplay at all, so Kent ignores it and focuses on putting up points.

He doesn’t forget about the upcoming Falcs game, but he doesn’t let himself dwell on it, either. And then, one night, his phone pings with another message from the unknown number.

Hey, so this is last minute but we’re playing you guys in Vegas tomorrow, and not leaving ‘til the next evening. You wanna get a drink after the game?

Kent squints. He’d thought this number was Mashkov’s, but the text is unexpectedly fluent.

... Who is this?

The reply comes with a selfie. Alexei Mashkov, #7 for the Providence Falconers. This is Kent Parson, right?

Kent throws up a peace sign and sends a selfie in return.

Mashkov sends, Great. So, drinks?

Reality feels like it’s bending. Sure. Drinks. Where do you want to go?

I’ve never been to Vegas. Where’s good?

Kent takes a bit of time to think, then sends the name and address of a bar that’s android-friendly (or at least not android-hostile) and not crawling with tourists. Locals are more likely to leave famous people alone.

Sounds great, Mashkov says. Meet you there.

Kent thinks that’s the end of it, and then his phone pings one more time:

Winner pays.

Kent smiles.

The Falcs win. Carl doesn’t pull any shit, and neither does anyone else. The post-game media frenzy is lengthy but thankfully free of politics.

Kent arrives at the bar later than planned. He sees Mashkov standing outside the door, texting. He’s dressed down in a t-shirt and shorts, with a ballcap on. His shaggy hair curls out from under it, obscuring his ears and eyebrows—and, Kent realizes, any light from the little circular LED on his right temple. It’s the most noticeable difference between American and Russian-made androids. American androids can pry off their LEDs and pass as human. Russian androids have LEDs that are much more firmly implanted and glow brighter, so they’re harder to take out or hide. Kent always looked at Mashkov’s long hair and wondered why he kept it unprofessionally messy, when he was so clean-cut everywhere else. It never occurred to him that maybe the hair was strategic.

With the LED out of sight, Mashkov just looks like a big guy standing outside a bar.

Kent approaches him. “Hey, Mashkov.”

Mashkov looks up from his phone. He smiles, and slips the phone in his pocket so he can shake Kent’s hand. “Hey, Parson. Nice to finally meet you in person off the ice.”

The accent is flawless. If Kent wasn’t so familiar with his voice, he’d think this was an entirely different person. He shakes Mashkov’s hand and needs a second to get words out. “Yeah, same. Sorry I’m late. My post-game went on forever.”

“It’s fine. You wanna go in?”

Where the hell is that perfect midwestern accent coming from? “Sure.”

They go in. The place is small and half-full, and despite the TVs on the walls playing two different sports games and the scattered LVA paraphernalia on the walls, nobody gives them a second look. The bartender makes eye contact with Kent and side-eyes Mashkov as they order, but he takes Mashkov’s credit card when it’s offered. Both Kent and Alexei get beer. Kent can’t help eyeing the contraction of Mashkov's throat as he tips his bottle back and swallows.

Mashkov catches him looking, and grins. “Go on, you can ask.”

Kent only hesitates for a second before deciding he may as well. “Can you even get drunk?”

“Nope. It just goes to a storage compartment.”

“Then why bother drinking?”

Mashkov turns sideways on his barstool, one foot hooked on a rung and the other on the floor. He’s so fucking tall. “I like to. I like the taste. And it helps me blend in. People look at you funny if you go to a bar and don’t drink.”

“You like the taste,” Kent repeats, and eyes the label on Mashkov’s bottle. “Of Budweiser.”

“I don’t think a guy drinking Corona gets to throw stones.”

“At least I’m getting a buzz from it. I’m just saying, if I was drinking for the taste alone, I’d buy something better.”

“Then buy something better.”

“As soon as I finish this, I will,” Kent says, waving his bottle. “And so will you.”

Mashkov snorts a laugh. “Sure. I’m buying, anyway.”

There’s a brief pause as they both sip their beers.

Mashkov breaks it with, “Thanks for meeting me. I wasn’t sure you would.”

“Why did you wanna meet up with me?” Kent asks.

“I wanted to talk to you, in person. You seem interesting.”

Kent swallows, fingers fiddling with the neck of his beer. “You mean because I put my own guy in the box for checking you.”

Mashkov looks at his bottle, then the bar counter, and then meets Kent’s gaze. “Well, yeah.”

Kent takes the opportunity to really look at Mashkov. There’s no trace of artificiality in him anywhere. His eyes are a natural brown and framed with lashes and hairline wrinkles. His nose is imperfect, and his lips look chapped. He’s even got pores, for Christ’s sake. Kent wonders if Mashkov’s skin feels warm, if it’s soft, if it has any give to it or just feels like a coat of paint over plastic.

Kent tears his gaze away from Mashkov’s eyes to somewhere past his ear. “That’s not enough reason to get a drink with me.”

“Sure it is. Take a wild guess how many humans have stood up for me in the six years I’ve been active.”

The number in that statement is what gets Kent’s attention. “Wait, you’ve only been—for six years?”

Mashkov nods, eyes squinting in amusement. “How old did you think I was?”

Kent drains his beer and waves his hand for the bartender. “Is there a right answer to that question?” He orders a tequila sunrise, because he can already tell he needs to be at least partially drunk for this conversation, and fruity drinks always go down fast.

“It’s not as bad as it sounds,” Mashkov says, and requests a neat whiskey for himself. The bartender leaves, and Mashkov continues, “I was already mentally mature when I was activated. It’s just the lived experiences and the increased emotional cognizance that change us over time. I think it’s the same for androids here in America.”

Their drinks arrive. Kent sips his radioactive-orange cocktail slowly. “When did you start playing hockey?”

“Two years ago.”

And he’s already in the NHL. Damn. “Why come here? Why not the KHL?”

Mashkov’s mouth twists, like he’s mulling over his word choices. When the silence stretches too long, Kent backtracks. “Forget it. Tell me this, then. Why is your English perfect all of a sudden? You don’t sound like this with the press.”

Mashkov laughs. “Media like accent,” he says, Russian vowels suddenly thickening his words like molasses, his voice dropping deep and matching the chocolate of his eyes. “Is fit their idea, you know? All human Russian player have accent, so they expect.”

For no fucking reason, Kent’s heart is pounding. “I guess the ‘language barrier’ gets you out of questions you don’t like, too, huh?”

Mashkov laughs again. “Yes, is do that too.” He switches to perfect English with a heavy Russian accent, his words undercut with a throaty growl. “It also makes me more likable. Humans can’t download a language in two minutes, so it makes them feel better to hear me struggle with it.”

Kent sucks down more tequila, so he can pretend that’s the reason for the heat in his gut. “How many languages can you speak?”

“Two hundred.”

Shit.”

Mashkov’s smirk is self-satisfied. “How many languages can you speak?”

“Fuck off, Mashkov.”

Mashkov just grins wider. “Alexei. You can call me Alexei, I don’t mind.”

“Alexei.” Kent tries it out.

“Or my nickname, Alyosha,” Alexei adds. “If you can get your mouth around it.”

Kent freezes with his straw halfway out of his mouth. Was that innuendo?

Alexei deepens Kent’s confusion by winking.

Kent puts his drink down. “Are you flirting with me?”

Maybe it’s Kent’s imagination, but he thinks there might be a yellow tint to the curls on the right side of Alexei’s face. It’s the color his LED would make when he’s processing more data than usual. “Is that alright?”

Kent stares at him. He feels like he’s processing more data than usual. “It’s...”

Alexei’s expression sobers with comprehension. He drops the accent and slips back into Midwestern-tinted English. “Too weird.”

It is, but not in the way Alexei makes it sound. “No. I just... don’t know what the fuck to do with that information. I guess my only question is, why?”

Alexei shrugs. “Why do humans flirt?”

The question is clearly rhetorical, intended to be a point in itself, but Kent replies, “To get laid.”

Glacially slow and heavy with intention, Alexei raises an eyebrow.

Kent is floored. “You literally just met me.”

“So? I can’t like you already?”

“You like me enough to want to sleep with me?” Can you even have sex? Kent thinks but abso-fucking-lutely does not ask. Sex androids exist, at least in America, but who knows what parts and programs were considered necessary on androids in Russia? If Alexei is dropping hints about Kent sucking cock, does that mean he’s got one?

And now Kent is thinking about that, fuck.

Alexei ducks his head and turns back to the bar. “I…I guess so.”

“You guess so?”

“I’m not good at this yet, okay?” Alexei’s shoulders hike up to his ears. “I wasn’t programmed for feelings—obviously—so having them and reacting to them on the spot is hard. You’re aesthetically pleasing and I wanted to tease you. I can tell that I was too forward. I’m sorry.”

Kent turns back to the bar, too. He finishes his cocktail and pushes the leftover ice around in the glass with his straw. He sneaks a peek at Alexei while he does. Alexei is big, and cute, and Kent likes his smile. He likes Alexei’s awkwardness, too. It gives him a sense of common ground.

“You know, people have hit on me a lotta different ways, but I’ve never been called ‘aesthetically pleasing’ before,” Kent says.

Alexei looks up, hazarding a smile. “Your face is very symmetrical.”

Kent nearly replies, Thanks, so is yours. But he’s not sure if it’d be rude to comment on Alexei’s appearance since he didn’t have a choice in how he was made. So Kent just says, “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

Kent sucks up some of the melted water at the bottom of his glass. “Listen,” he says. “I’m really flattered, but… I think we better not…flirt, or…or anything. It’s not you,” he adds. “It’s—fuck, it sounds cliché, but it’s me. I’ve got more people I’ve fucked than I’m friends with. And you’re…” Emotions suck. “I feel like we could be friends, or some shit.” He dares to check how that goes over with Alexei, and is relieved to see a smile.

“I think we could be friends, too.”

“Good. Awesome.” Kent pushes his empty glass away. “I’m getting another drink. You want anything?”

“If I say ‘Budweiser,’ are you gonna make fun of me?”

“You’re goddamn right I am.”

“You’re an asshole.” Alexei sounds pleased.

Kent orders their beers. Meanwhile, Alexei looks over his shoulder, checking out the rest of the bar.

“Hey. Have you ever played darts?”

Kent twists in his seat to see where Alexei is looking. “Yeah, but I’m not playing you.”

“Of course not. You’d lose.”

Kent flips him off.

“You can play against yourself. For every dart that hits inside the outer ring, you can ask me a question.”

Kent snorts and rolls his eyes. “Isn’t that just called ‘having a conversation’?”

“Sure. But this is more fun.”

“Fun for whom?” Kent demands, but he grabs his beer and hops off his stool. The dartboard is in a corner of the bar, as far from bystanders as possible. With his head already fuzzy, Kent is thankful he’ll be aiming away from people. He can make a wrist shot at a goal in his sleep. Free handing it with a sharp object while tipsy is way more dangerous.

Alexei retrieves the darts and holds one out. Kent takes it, squints at the board, and shoots.

He hits the wall.

Alexei chuckles.

“Just warming up,” Kent says.

“Oh, is that what that was?”

“Shut up and give me another dart.”

Alexei does. Kent’s next shot hits the wall on board’s other side.

Alexei’s pursed lips do nothing to hide his amusement.

“This was your idea,” Kent grumbles. He takes another dart and fiddles with it. The paint is chipping and the tips look scuffed. “The weight of these is probably off, with everybody using ‘em.”

In reply, Alexei takes a dart for himself, aims, and throws. It hits the board’s bullseye, dead center.

Kent’s jaw drops, but he quickly snaps it shut when he sees the smug grin on Alexei’s face. “Jesus, do you actually have a targeting system in your brain?” he demands, before remembering that he was trying not to ask android questions.

But Alexei doesn’t look offended. He holds out the darts with a grin. “Make a shot and I’ll answer you.”

With more focus than Kent has ever shown a sticky bar wall in his entire life, he weighs, calculates... shoots…hits! Not center, not even close, but inside the outer ring. It counts. “Fuck, yes!”

“Nice,” Alexei says, and then adds, “No.”

 “No...?”

"No, I don’t have a targeting system in my brain.”

When nothing else follows, Kent prompts, “But you can, like, calculate trajectories and shit, right?”

“That sounds like a question,” Alexei sing-songs.

Kent groans. “God, for real? You’re gonna play that way?”

“I think I made the terms of this pretty clear,” Alexei says cheerfully.

“Yeah, well, with my inebriation and general shitty aim, this is gonna get boring real fuckin’ quick.”

“Alright,” Alexei allows. “How about this. Every time you miss, I get to ask you something.” The way he says it, Kent thinks the questions won’t be about his favorite foods and colors.

“Sure,” he agrees. Fuck, why does that make him nervous? “You’re on.” He makes his next shot, luckily. “Okay, next question. Does your hair grow?”

Alexei blinks, surprised, but then he smiles. “Not on its own. It’s fabricated from artificial proteins, like my skin and nails. I could activate a hair growth protocol to make it longer right now, but it itches, and I’d have to cut it, so I’d rather not.” His smile grows. “I can change the color, though. That’s easy.”

“Really?”

In reply, a cascade of color flows through Alexei’s hair follicles until he’s bleach-blonde.

Kent gapes. “That’s sick. Do another.”

Alexei does, this time changing to black.

“Fuck me, I wish I could do that. Can you go blue? Or green, show me green.”

Alexei shakes his head, and as he does so, the color rushes back to his normal chestnut brown. “I can only do natural colors. I’d have to download a special program and install different biocomponents for anything else. But I can do this.” His hair changes again, slowly, and when it’s done, half his hair is white, the other half black. When Kent doesn’t react, he smiles and says, “Aces colors, yeah?”

Kent swallows, warmth bubbling up under his breastbone. “Yeah. I wouldn’t show that in the Falcs locker room, though.”

“God, no.” Alexei shifts his hair to brown again. “Some of those guys are actually tall enough to put me in a headlock and give me a noogie.”

Alexei’s voice is light, but Kent still thinks of the Aces’ locker room atmosphere, how his bit of activism on the ice drove a wedge into the easy camaraderie they’d shared. Guys who’d been civil when he came out to the team have become distant and professionally polite. It’s mind-boggling to him, that guys who used to say “faggot” made an effort to curb the language when he came out, but equal treatment of androids is where they draw the line.

“How is it over there?” Kent asks, looking at the dartboard instead of Alexei so he can pretend his question is casual. “With the Falcs, I mean. Any, you know... issues?”

Alexei taps him on the shoulder. When Kent turns, Alexei hands him a dart. “That sounds like a question.”

Kent sighs, squares up, and throws. He misses. “Shit.”

“Rules are rules,” Alexei says. “My turn. Did you ever own an android?”

Kent winces. “And he comes out swinging.”

“You don’t have to answer, you know. It’s just a game.”

“Yeah, right,” Kent mutters. “No. I never did. I... I thought about it, though.” And he feels awful for having done so, which he should, but at the same time he also thinks that’s not fair. Cyberlife, the company that made androids, had advertised them as pure machines without thoughts or feelings of their own. The whole point of an android was that it could function like a human but was incapable of being hurt like one. It couldn’t get tired or frustrated or suffer from stress. It didn’t yell or cry, it couldn’t be disappointed in you, it wasn’t lonely when you were gone.

Finding out that androids could hurt, that they could laugh and love and cry and had been suffocating under humanity’s indifference for years, had been hard to take.

Alexei doesn’t appear to expect Kent to explain himself further, but dammit, Kent feels like he should. “Growing up, I was a latchkey kid—um, I don’t know if you know what that means...?”

“I do.”

“Good. Okay. So, even when I came home to an empty house as a kid, it always felt full, right? Like my mom was still kinda there. My apartment in Vegas was new and, like, professionally decorated, so it didn’t have that…that warmth. And I thought... maybe if I got an android, there’d at least be someone to greet me when I got home.”

“Why didn’t you, then?”

Kent almost replies, That sounds like a question, but refrains. “I found a stray cat. I wasn’t gonna keep her, until I did.”

“Aww,” Alexei says, and from the mushy look on his face, it’s clear he actually means that. “What’s her name?”

Now Kent gets to be a smartass. “That sounds like a question.”

“Fine then. Here’s your dart. Miss another shot for me.”

“You wish.” Kent’s talking out his ass, but he manages to hit the target this time. “Same question as before. What’s it like on the Falcs team? Are they cool?”

“They’re cool.”

“Everyone? The whole team, the trainers, management?”

“That sounds like a question.”

Kent groans, loud enough that he sees a couple people glance over at them. “Come on, Alexei.”

Alexei hesitates, then sighs. “It’s... it’s better than I expected. Russian media focuses on the unrest in America, so I thought things were a lot worse than they are. I had no idea the disassembly camps had been shut down.”

“That was two years ago.”

“I know that now,” Alexei replies, frowning. “And it’s not like I thought America was still shooting androids in the street. Markus—” He stops, rethinks. “I was reliably informed that things had quieted down enough not to be so dangerous. I researched the Falconers before I came, and I had someone trustworthy and legal-savvy review my contract before I signed it. But I still didn’t know what to expect.”

“Jesus,” Kent breathes. “You thought it’d be that bad and you came anyway? Why?”

“I wanted to play hockey.”

Suddenly, Kent understands. “The KHL would never have put you on the ice, would they?”

Alexei’s gaze drops to the side. “No, they would have. A few minutes here, a couple there, just enough so they could say that they had. But not when it counted. Not in OT or a shootout, or on powerplays and PKs. Never in the playoffs.”

Kent feels sick just imagining a whole season of sitting on the bench, skates on and a stick in his hand, knowing he was dead weight. “Fuck.”

“Yeah.”

Fuck,” Kent says again. “I think I’m gonna punch Carl at practice tomorrow.”

“Carl…? Oh. Number eight. Don’t punch him, it’s not worth it. I’ve had worse.”

“What if I wanna punch him for me?” Kent says. “Dammit. I’m sorry you worked so hard to get here and people are being shitty.”

“It’s okay. Well—no, it’s not,” Alexei amends, because Kent screws up his entire face to produce the most incredulous expression he can. “But I’m playing full shifts, on a team that supports me, with guys who’ll give me the puck. And you saw Zimmermann when I got hit—he went straight for the ref. I’m glad I’ve got a captain who’ll do that.”

Alexei sounds so grateful, and that’s what hurts Kent the most. “Man, that’s like… the bare minimum expectation for a team.”

“Not for me, it wasn’t. Bare minimum expectation was being allowed to want to play hockey at all.”

Kent has to grab his beer and chug half of it. He chooses alcohol because he’s at a loss for words.

Alexei takes pity on him. “Anyway. Want a dart?”

Kent really does. He takes his shot and makes it. “What’s your favorite animal?”

“That’s your question?”

“You got an answer?”

A nod. “Dogs.”

For some reason, Kent is thrown. “Dogs? Really?” It’s so… normal. Kent can’t believe a supercomputer capable of retaining 200 languages and reviewing every animal in the world would settle on an animal so mundane.

Alexei shrugs. “I like dogs. Next question.”

Kent throws a dart and hits the board. He’s on a roll. “Favorite color?”

Alexei thinks about it. “Butterscotch.”

“That’s a food.”

“It’s also a color.”

The next dart goes wide.

“My turn!” Alexei finishes his beer and puts the bottle aside. “What’s your favorite color?”

“Before I tell you, I want you to acknowledge that I don’t have a fifty-terabyte supercomputer for a brain and do not actually know the name of every single damn color.”

“My brain holds more like five hundred terabytes, which is around fifty times the capacity of a human brain.”

“So you agree you can’t make fun of my basic-bitch favorite color, right?”

“I’ll refrain.”

“Fantastic.” And then Kent hesitates, because—“Blue.” Like Jack’s eyes. Like cold lips when they stayed outside too long. Like the pills in Jack’s bottle. Like the jersey on Jack’s back. Like the ice under Kent’s feet. Like the guilt and regrets he has piled up and can’t quite seem to pull himself out from under. “Why are you making that face?”

“I guess I expected… I don’t know. Red, maybe. Orange. Something bold and passionate, like how you are on the ice.”

Kent turns away, hiding the heat in his cheeks with the pretense of reaching for his beer. “That’s just how I play. That’s not me.”

“Isn’t it?”

Kent is so uncomfortable with this conversation. “How many more darts?”

“Two.” Alexei holds them out.

“Great.” Kent takes both, and throws them one after another. He’s off balance from the alcohol and Alexei’s gentle eyes watching him, so he hits the wall with one and sends the other clattering to the ground. “Fucking shit.”

Alexei snorts. “I guess the questions are mine.”

Kent walks over to retrieve the darts while waving behind him. “Fire away.”

“Yeah.” But Alexei is quiet, and Kent tries not to feel that brown gaze on him while he yanks darts from the pockmarked wall. Alexei still hasn’t said anything by the time Kent walks back with all the darts in his hand.

“Well?”

Alexei licks his lips. Kent’s eyes follow the motion. Does Alexei even need to do that? “If you didn’t play hockey,” Alexei says at last. “What would you do?”

“Like… as a career?”

“Yeah.”

That’s... huh. Kent hasn’t given that any thought in a long, long time. “I don’t know. I probably would have studied something math-related if I’d gone to college, since my scores were okay in high school. I stopped thinking about it once I was in the Q. Dunno what I’d have actually done with it.” He shrugs and chuckles self-consciously. “Hockey’s the only thing I’ve ever been really good at, or cared about.”

Alexei nods.

“What’s your last question?”

Kent is bracing himself, in all honesty, but what Alexei asks is, “Do you like Vegas?”

It surprises Kent, that he’d even ask, because everyone asks, so everyone already knows. The media-ready answer is on the tip of his tongue.

But he rethinks it. This isn’t a presser; it’s just Alexei. It’s crazy how safe Kent feels around someone he finds so emotionally intimidating. “Sure,” he says. “I like that it’s not boring. Boring places will just… leave you alone with your thoughts, and crush you with silence. Vegas is huge and busy, it’s impossible to forget that the whole world is still out there.”

Alexei nods.

“But I mean,” Kent continues, “Vegas is also the worst place to live. It’s always full of tourists who treat the city like a theme park. Not just the casinos and bars, but like, the grocery stores and schools and neighborhoods where actual people live. Tourists leave their trash all over public parks, like there aren’t kids who use it during the day. It gets old and it pisses me off.”

“The good with the bad, I guess.”

Kent shrugs. “Yeah. Not that anyone wants to hear that in an interview, you know? ‘Thanks for visiting our city, now get the fuck out, you drunken assholes.’”

Alexei snorts a laugh. And, to Kent’s mortification, a woman at a table nearby raises her beer to him and calls, “Fuckin’ preach, man.”

Kent ducks his head, his face on fire, while Alexei just laughs. In a bid to get the attention off himself, Kent asks, “What about you? Do you like Providence?”

“I do.” A smile floods Alexei’s face, happiness spilling out through his eyes. “It’s nice. Homey. There are lots of locally owned shops near my apartment. Bookstores, coffee shops, an antique mall, a few bakeries.”

“Do you actually go in the coffee shops, or just, like, appreciate the aesthetic as you walk by?”

“Both. I can’t eat, obviously, but I can get coffee and enjoy the smells. And bookstores are fun, especially the secondhand ones. The guys make fun of me for how much I read,” he says, though his tone is fond, the way a person reminisces about good times among friends. “Because I don’t have to, technically. I could just scan the pages into my memory or download the whole text at once if it’s available online. But I like to.”

Kent thinks about Swoops, who always teased him good-naturedly about his Britney playlists, and then stole an earbud so he could listen. Fuck, Kent misses him. Despite nearly a decade of watching teammates come and go, he’d gotten it into his head that the two of them would play on the Aces together forever. Seeing Swoops get traded—and to Detroit, of all fucking places, not a year before all the shit went down—had gutted him.

“Sounds like it’s good over there,” Kent says. He realizes they’re just standing around, five feet from an empty dartboard, holding a conversation and empty beer bottles, but he doesn’t feel like sitting. Sitting down means being settled, and Kent is anything but. “I’m glad they’re a good team for you.”

“They are. I’m glad, too.” Alexei blinks, then says, “It’s eleven fifty-two. Do you need to get home? For your cat?”

“I fed her before I left for the game,” Kent replies. “But I’ve got morning skate, so…”

“Right. You need sleep.”

“…You seem to be implying that you don’t.”

“I go into standby. It’s similar.” Alexei heads for the bar, taking his and Kent’s beer bottles with him, and waving for the bartender so he can close out his tab.

“Yeah? Do you dream?”

Alexei makes a face. “Not… really. I don’t remember anything, at least not actively. I get a list of system checks that were run while I was in standby. Memory defragged, errors fixed, updates installed.”

“How long’s all that take?”

“An hour, maybe two.” The bartender returns with Alexei’s credit card and a receipt for him to sign. It’s fascinating to watch Alexei do it, the way his fingers move through the signature with a fluid, robotic perfection that’s absent from the rest of his movements. Kent catches a glimpse of the end result; it looks as loopy and illegible as any human’s. But Kent’s own signature ends up that way because he doesn’t bother to write cursive correctly. He can tell that Alexei has to purposely control every stroke to intentionally make it incoherent.

It’s jarring, because despite the 200 languages and changing hair color and perfect aim with darts, Alexei comes across as human. Kent wonders how much of “Alexei” is ingrained in his program, how much of him evolved from deviancy, and how much he manufactures for the sake of appearances.

How hard does Alexei have to work just to fit in?

Alexei puts his card away and Kent pulls on his jacket.

“This was fun,” Alexei says as they walk to the door. “We could do it again, if you want.”

“I do. Wanna do it again.” Kent goes to push open the door and stops with his hand on the knob. “Look, I...” He’s not entirely sure what he suddenly feels the need to express, only that there’s something lodged in his conscience that needs to get out. “I know I asked a lot of... personal questions. About you. Android stuff,” he clarifies, when Alexei’s eyebrows scrunch in confusion. “And I probably shouldn’t have. I know you answered, but it feels like I...didn’t respect your boundaries.”

There’s no immediate response. Alexei’s eyes are wider, his mouth parted in surprise—and is it an authentic reaction, or presented for Kent’s benefit? Kent doesn’t doubt Alexei’s feelings, but he is plagued with new and unshakeable guilt that Alexei feels like he has to act a certain way to make Kent more comfortable.

“I—” Alexei starts to speak, and then the door opens under Kent’s hand. They both have to step back to allow new patrons in. Once the door is clear, Alexei leads them outside. The air is cold; shockingly so. Kent shivers in his thin jacket and wishes he’d had the foresight to wear more. His heart is hammering in his chest, in prolonged anticipation of what Alexei is about to say.

“I didn’t mind.”

Kent squints at him, trying to see through the dim light if there’s any trace of a white lie in Alexei’s eyes.

“I mean it,” Alexei insists. “People ask all the time now. It’s funny, because androids have been around for years but nobody cared before how we operated. They only paid attention when we broke.”

“Sorry,” Kent murmurs.

Alexei shrugs, and Kent is relieved he doesn’t offer empty platitudes of, “It’s fine,” or “It’s not your fault,” because neither would be true. Passive acceptance of the status quo can be as damning as actively reinforcing it. After all, Kent had never owned an android, but plenty of his friends and teammates had. Swoops had owned one, a PL600 model, which Kent had seen plenty of times when they’d hung out. The android had run away not long after Swoops moved to Detroit.

Alexei adds, “My comfort with the questions depends on who’s asking. Reporters ask personal questions because they want something they can sell. They don’t care about my answer, or my privacy. Regular people, they’ll usually ask because they’re curious, which can be invasive, because they’re thinking about their curiosity, not me. But then there are people like you. People who are asking because they want to understand me.” He smiles at Kent, soft and confiding. It’s a look that Kent doesn’t feel like he deserves. “I like people like you.”

Fucking hell. Kent aims his eyes at the street, at the cars and people going by, because doesn’t trust the expression on his face. How does he feel so hot when the night is so cold? He can’t help noticing that Alexei doesn’t look bothered at all. “Christ, I’m freezing,” he complains, rubbing his hands together.

“You should get home,” Alexei says. “You didn’t drive, did you?”

“Nah, took a cab. I’ll get one back. You’re going back to your hotel, right?”

“Yeah. Just down the street from the arena.”

That’s in the complete opposite direction of where Kent needs to go. So much for his half-formed hope of sharing a cab. It’s cold and he’s tired and he really needs to get home, but he doesn’t want to go. Tonight has been… fuck, it’s been fun. Uncomfortable in places, but something he wouldn’t mind repeating.

“We should do this again,” Kent says. He pulls out his phone and taps an app to call a cab. A notification alerts him that a car will arrive in two minutes. “If you want.”

“I do.” There’s a pause. “Our next game is in five weeks.”

“That long?”

“January tenth,” Alexei confirms.

“Fuck.” Kent sighs. “I guess we’ll text until then.” He catches Alexei looking at him with a big grin and feels himself flush. “What?”

Alexei’s grin grows. “Nothing. Your taxi is here.”

So it is. “What about you? Do you need me to call you one, too?”

“I already did.” Alexei taps his right temple. “It says it’ll be here soon.”

“Damn. That’s handy.”

“Wonders of technology,” Alexei recites, like it’s something he heard somewhere and enjoyed the sound of. “Get back safe.”

“Yeah, you too.”

Kent climbs haphazardly into his taxi and slumps into the seat as it pulls away from the curb. It’s one of those self-driving models—nobody in the front seat to recognize him or attempt small talk. He hates how many people have lost their jobs to automation, but there’s something to be said for having privacy when he wants it most.

Like when his phone buzzes with a new text and it’s Alexei. He knows now that Alexei sends texts straight from his superpowered computer mind, and he imagines Alexei standing on the curb and sending his thoughts directly to Kent’s phone. There’s something terribly intimate about that.

See you in five weeks! Drinks again, or…?

Kent hesitates, and then lets the alcohol and the memory of Alexei’s smile make him stupid. Surprise me, he sends.

;)

Jesus Christ. What has Kent gotten himself into?