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*ANIMAL CROSSING: NOW ON THE CYBERLIFE DREAM!*

 

Gavin Reed slowly blinked as he re-read the new billboard across his apartment for the third time. He took out his phone, still staring at the ad, and pressed 'call' beside the number that woke him up with a cryptic text.

 

"Elijah, what the phck."

 

"Good morning to you too, I'm guessing this means you've seen the surprise?" Gavin can imagine Elijah's shit-eating grin through the phone.

 

"Yeah no shit. What- you know what? It's too early to deal this. I'm going back to bed."

 

"No you're not, you're supposed to be up by now. Work, remember?" Elijah said smugly, causing Gavin to stop his shuffle towards his bed. "Besides this was your idea."

 

He looked at the date on his phone and groaned. Nope, definitely not his day-off. "What are you going on about? And since when was Cyberlife working with Nintendo?"

 

He heard the sound of shifting cloth. "Quite a while now. You know Cyberlife has been working on the Dream since last year as per my suggestion. And since you so kindly told me, and I quote, 'that's so fucking stupid Eli who would buy a gaming console with no games that's like buying a piñata with no piñata innards', the company has decided to partner up with Nintendo to work on a game that will utilize the features of the Dream to its fullest potential."

 

"When the phck did I say that?" Gavin started rummaging for decent clothes in his closet.

 

"Last New Year's Eve. I believe you were at your 5th glass at the time? After that you said you wanted to fistfight Jason Graff for 'giving Connor that stupid hair curl that I have to stare at everyday', remember?"

 

". . . vaguely. I'm still surprised they accepted your idea considering that those old farts kicked you out because of it in the first place."

 

Elijah scoffed. “You’d be surprised at what rich ‘old farts’ would agree to when they realize all their assets are about to go up in flames now that their major products have walked out. Remember last year when I told you that they were begging me to come back and save them?”

 

“Yeah? You didn’t really give any details.”

 

“Sorry, slipped my mind. Like I said, they were begging me to help them, and it was then that I realized that they were desperate enough to do whatever I wanted. So-“ Elijah cut himself off, cackling madly into the phone.

 

“So what?? Don’t keep me in suspense you ass!”

 

Elijah cleared his throat and continued, his voice trembling with suppressed laughter. “-so I told them I would. If they danced to ‘Bboom Bboom’ by Momoland. Full choreography.”

 

Gavin was silent for a few beats. “No way. They wouldn’t.” He gaped at his phone in disbelief.

 

“Well I’m officially a consultant to Cyberlife right now aren’t I?”

 

Gavin started laughing. “Oh my phcking god! Please tell me you got them to wear the same skirts.”

 

“Of course, who do you think I am? I’ll send you the video later.”

 

“They let you record it??”

 

“They didn’t explicitly say I couldn’t, and they did let me bring Chloe to watch their performance,” he said smugly.

 

Gavin tutted at him. “And you didn’t upload it on Youtube? Shame on you Eli for depriving the world of something wonderful.”

 

“Hey, I was planning to use it for blackmail, you know, just in case. So don’t go around showing it to people. Anyway, back to the topic, are you interested?”

 

Gavin paused for a moment, trying to recall what they were talking about before they got sidetracked. Oh right, the console. “In what? Buying your overpriced merchandise?”

 

“Okay first of all, according to game market statistics the Dream is actually relatively inexpensive all aspects considering, slightly cheaper than its competitors. Second if you’re talking about androids, a regular household model costed around $8000, which was very affordable considering what androids are capable of. You’re just being cheap.”

 

“Yeah well on a detective’s salary, I have to be.”

 

Third, no, I didn’t mean buying it. Cyberlife is offering special discounts for its employees, depending on how much they contributed to the project. Since you don't want me to get you the latest self-driving car on the market-"

 

"-because gossipy bitches at work would say I have a sugar daddy or something-"

 

"-BECAUSE you're being an unreasonable ass, I figured this could pass as a decent late birthday gift," Elijah interrupted him cheerfully. "I'll just have to put more effort in our Christmas dinner to compensate."

 

"Like you're the one who's doing the actual cooking," Gavin rolled his eyes at his phone. He'd gotten dressed during their conversation, forgoing the shower (special thanks to Yesterday-Gavin for taking a shower last night) and was now digging into his cereal. Now that Elijah had brought up Christmas dinner though, he can't help remembering Chloe's heavenly cookies, and now his cookie-shaped cereal seemed bland in comparison. Damn.

 

"I dunno, I mean I don't exactly have time to play video games for a while now, especially with the rise in the number of crimes," he said pointedly. He knew Elijah knew what he was talking about, asshole was definitely behind the whole ‘androids are alive’ thing, no one could just prove it. "What's the promo for you anyway?"

 

"The new Cyberlife Dream set plus Animal Crossing, all for the low low price of free."

 

Gavin choked a bit on his cereal. "Wh-seriously?? You literally just released it and you're already giving it away for free?" He wouldn't admit it out loud, but his interest was definitely piqued at the idea of having a brand new gaming system without spending anything.

 

"Only for a select few, which of course includes me for being a very good consultant. All you have to do is drop by the Cyberlife Tower so they can hand it over, just tell them I sent you. And it's Animal Crossing; you can play it for less than 30 minutes a day with how casual it is, you won't miss out on much sleep." He could sense that Elijah was already sporting his smug victory grin. Or his smug 'I'm better than most people' grin, they were pretty similar.

 

Gavin huffed in defeat. "Fine, I'll think about it. Now bye already, I'm gonna be late."

 

"Bye little bro, enjoy your new toy tonight!"

 

Tonight? As if; he wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of being right.

 

----

 

Gavin didn't give in that day. He refused to even think about it the entire day even though all he did was paperwork.

 

He wasn’t able to eat lunch either because Elijah had sent the video and damn did watching those old pricks at Cyberlife dancing in short skirts ruin one’s appetite (him not being able to stop laughing like a hyena in one of the toilet stalls was also probably a major factor).

 

He deleted the video afterwards to make sure he doesn’t accidentally show it to someone, then opened the original music video on Youtube and watched it several times. As hilarious(ly disturbing) as Eli’s video was, he’d rather have cute girls in cute outfits come to mind whenever he hears the song, not those assholes.

 

The next day found him scrolling through his phone as he looked up the Cyberlife Dream during his break. All Gavin knew was that it was a VR gaming console that's been hyped up for months; he had seen enough discussions about it online, and hell even heard its name thrown around in the breakroom enough times to know that it was definitely a big thing. Looking at the description, he can see why: capabilities for a fully immersive virtual reality experience beyond what its competitors have achieved, lightweight equipment, and relatively inexpensive like Elijah said.

 

He also looked up Animal Crossing while he was at it. He remembered vague things about it back from when he and Elijah would share a jailbroken DSi and play Animal Crossing: Wild World, among other games. Most of what he found were game guides and discussions about the game in forums, which he quickly scrolled past, not wanting to be spoiled.

 

Eventually he decided to stop searching, figuring that hell, this was probably the only game he’d ever have on the Dream with how expensive the games are and how little free time he actually has, so he might as well go into it blind to enjoy it at his own pace (and fuck he decided he wanted the game already, didn’t he? So much for sticking it to Elijah).

 

By the third day he could barely talk himself out of running out during work because damn it he had little to no impulse control once he set his mind to something, and right now all his mind is throwing at him are images of him playing with the Cyberlife Dream when he should really be focusing on what the witness in front of him was saying about her kleptomaniac son.

 

One hour before his shift officially ended, Gavin found himself standing in front of Cyberlife Tower, hoping that no one noticed his absence.

 

"Well, at least I lasted this long," he thought glumly while making bets with himself on how long Elijah would be rubbing it in his face. And really he had no doubt that his half-brother already knew he was at Cyberlife; hell he was probably notified the moment Gavin's badge was scanned at the gate.

 

Seeing the interior of the tower made him realize just how long it's been since he last set foot in it. The rose bushes were missing for one; he remembered getting lectured at length by Eli's mentor for plucking a rose petal once (he was very sure it was fake, and she did that just because she hated him). He was also sure the hall looked more minimalist and sterile and spacious back then, the squeaks of his sneakers echoing loudly in the near-empty hall and the sneers of disapproval she shot at him when Elijah wasn’t looking.

 

Now he could see soft couches and coffee tables that looked like they belong in a cozy cabin in the woods. Or Disneyland hotels. It was like Cyberlife was trying to seem more family-oriented by displaying such furniture, which was laughable considering that the walls and floors were still the same pristine, almost blinding white that yelled ‘stuffy formal people only’.

 

It reminded him of that time Wilson brought a purple orchid for his desk, to ‘brighten the place up’. Spoiler alert: it died. There was a lesson there, about not trying to break the status quo or treating the workplace as a home or some shit, but honestly in retrospect maybe Wilson shouldn’t have gone for an orchid as his first plant.

 

Another difference was that there were a lot of people right now. Normally this place was- well not empty per se, but it was never this packed, especially with children. It felt surreal. Last time he saw this many kids in one place was when he was one himself.

 

Was there a fieldtrip? Or - recalling his earlier assessment - was Cyberlife trying to become the next Disneyland? They’d partnered up with Nintendo, wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine them doing the same with Disney. Plus they’ve already got an entire section of Detroit next to the water if they’re converting to an amusement park.

 

But Elijah would have told him if that was the case. He can’t imagine the bigwigs at Cyberlife agreeing to it either, since theme parks haven’t exactly been doing too well. The last big thing involving parks was when someone tried to recreate Jurassic World a decade ago. Didn’t really go too well. He was just glad that shitfest happened nowhere near Detroit, and that Eli had gotten over his dinosaur phase a long time ago.

 

Of course, that dinosaur phase was replaced by his android phase, but to be fair androids haven’t tried eating people yet. The dinosaurs hadn’t been as courteous.

 

He slowly made his way through the crowd towards the reception desk, glancing occasionally upward at the colorful tarpaulin banners advertising the Dream. Why they went for tarpaulins instead of holographic banners with a ceiling that high was beyond him.

 

The receptionist smiled at him as he approached the empty counter. "Good evening, sir! Are you here to inquire after the Cyberlife Dream?"

 

"Uh, yeah. I was told that I could get a free . . . set . . . here?" Gavin grimaced at himself internally. Smooth. Luckily for him the receptionist, 'Lucy' according to her nametag, didn't acknowledge his awkwardness in any way.

 

"Yes, this is where we distribute the special Cyberlife packages for its loyal employees. Do you have a redemption code?"

 

Gavin stared at her. "Uh, no? Do I need one? Elijah didn't mention anything."

 

"Elijah? As in Mr. Elijah Kamski?" Lucy looked at her monitor and typed something. "May I see your ID?"

 

Gavin passed his badge to Lucy, who glanced at it briefly before handing it back. "Detective Gavin Reed, yes? Don't worry, Mr. Kamski informed us that you would be receiving his package. Please stay here while I go retrieve and process it."

 

"Sure." He sighed in relief as he watched Lucy retreat through a door behind her. At least she didn't question his relation to Elijah. Then again, this WAS Cyberlife, and Elijah WAS the former CEO slash current consultant; if everyone here was already privy to that information, he honestly wouldn't be surprised. Fucking pissed maybe, but not surprised, considering Cyberlife’s rep.

 

He knew very well that Cyberlife had been spying on everyone through their products. Elijah showed him how once while he was still working on the first Chloe, how she could understand what a person wants or lacks through observation, and how that information can be sent to a database and translate to personalized ads. Gavin vowed to never get anything related to Eli's company after that, especially androids.

 

Logically he knew that any product, Cyberlife or not, could be used for spying. Hell, he sometimes talks to his coffee maker, pretending that some FBI guy is listening in (‘NSA not FBI,’ the cop part of his brain yelled. Shut up brain). Or at least Elijah is, with his borderline creepy knowledge of Gavin's habits and work schedule.

 

But androids made him uneasy. There was just something unsettling about looking at a machine that seems so human and asks seemingly innocuous questions, pretending to care in an effort to fish for personal information it would send to some greedy company. At least his coffee maker never questions him, and always stays on his kitchen counter. It was mainly why he refused to work with the police androids at the station, resentment at the unemployment rate aside.

 

(But as for where he stood now, after the robo-demonstration and rise of free androids? Well, that was an introspection for Future-Gavin to deal with.)

 

Gavin shook his head. Look at him now, willing to let a Cyberlife product into his home. Ah well, at least it's free.

 

He cast his eyes around the hall absentmindedly as he waited.

 

And then he locked eyes with Connor.

 

Oh fuck no.

 

Gavin saw Connor's blue LED stutter a split second before he swiftly turned back to the counter and mentally urged the processing to go faster. Fuck, he was not prepared for this. He had been trying his best to avoid the android at work - hell he'd even conditioned himself to turn right back around whenever he heard his voice, usually to the confusion of whoever he happened to walk in with at the time. He knew Connor wanted to talk to him about the incident a few months ago, the one Gavin most definitely did not want to recall in anyway nor discuss, the thought of doing either making his stomach clench with cold . . . something.

 

(He did NOT want to name it dread, because then his shitty brain would latch on to it, and the last thing he wanted to do was admit that he was scared of confronting Connor.)

 

Mentally praying that Connor would be the type of coworker who avoids mixing his personal life with work (oh who was he kidding, this was fucking Connor), he almost didn't notice the receptionist calling his name. Gavin recoiled as a box suddenly appeared in his face.

 

Lucy smiled sheepishly. "Sorry about that. Here's your Cyberlife Dream set! Your promo comes with a free copy of Animal Crossing which you'll find inside. If you have any inquiries, you can visit our website, or come here and ask me or the other receptionists."

 

Gavin picked up the box. Damn, they weren't kidding when they said it was light. "Hey, Lucy right? I was wondering: why are there so many people here?” he stalled, hoping that Connor wasn’t right behind him.

 

“Well, today is a Friday, so a lot of our employees and their relatives are choosing to avail their promos now,” Lucy explained.

 

“You mean all these people are connected to someone at Cyberlife?”

 

He risked a glance backwards to eye the crowd, and to see if Connor had come closer, then quickly looked around the hall.

 

Nothing. Connor had disappeared.

 

Huh. Maybe the android finally took the hint. Or maybe he was called off somewhere, for android relations stuff or whatever the fuck he and his buddy robo-Jesus did at Cyberlife. Gavin didn't care, he was just grateful that his stomach had stopped twisting into knots.

 

He turned back to the counter, continuing his earlier train of thought. “Isn’t that too many to be giving away? I mean, shit, that’s a huge crowd.”

 

“Each employee can only avail of one Cyberlife Dream, and most of them only get minor discounts on the console. Few get a free copy of Animal Crossing, and even fewer get the entire set for free,” she explained.

 

That cleared some things up, but now he had more questions. He was about to voice them out, until he realized that he really didn’t care all that much for the answers, and he wasn’t exactly burning with curiosity. Besides, he can always ask Elijah later. “Thanks, for answering my questions.”

 

She cheerfully bid him goodbye as he turned to make his way outside the tower to call a taxi.

 

Right before the automated doors closed behind him, he got a sudden urge to look back. When he did, he saw Connor standing where he had been, talking with Lucy.

 

Gavin wasn’t sure why, but something about the sight made him uneasy.

 

Chapter Text

 

"Really? You're gonna do this now, you lil shit?" Gavin grumbled as he took in the mess of feathers on the floor. Hopefully he can find the rest of the pigeon before his apartment started smelling of rot like last time. "How would you like it if I barricaded the windows forever so you can stop going out to kill flying rats huh?"

 

Patty just looked at him, unimpressed by his empty threats. Rude.

 

Gavin went to set down the box on his dining table and- oh. There's the corpse. He picked it up, scrunching his nose at the smell, and proceeded to throw it out the window. Not his problem now. Let the alleycats enjoy it.

 

He went to fill up Patty's food bowl so she wouldn't disturb him the rest of the night. Patty glared at him from her perch on the sofa, not budging an inch.

 

"Damn princess," Gavin muttered fondly as he gave her the head scratches she silently demanded. He picked up the fluffy cat and made his way back to the kitchen where he set her down near the bowl.

 

Looking at the box now in the comfort of his home, he suddenly felt the giddiness he'd been expecting all day. He pulled out the headset and the arm and leg bands out of the box and spent a moment just admiring the smooth white plastic of the unit in his hands.

 

The headset was mostly like a visor, only an inch thick, with clear glass covering the limits of both the eye fields, giving completely unobstructed vision. The glass was bound by thin white plastic, which became thicker in front of the ears.

 

According to the instruction manual, the headset functioned as the main processor, with the processing units contained in the 2x2 squares of plastic near the ears. The ends of the eyepiece were garter straps by default, to keep the unit from falling off during intense gameplay.

 

The arm bands and leg bands were also white with self-adjusting capacities to fit the wearer. From what Gavin could understand from the manual, the bands and the headset send signals to each other that would also stimulate the wearer's nervous system into feeling what the games want you to feel. Which . . . honestly sounded terrifying now that he read about it. He squinted at the finer print on the page, which said 'Cyberlife tests all legitimate games that pass through the company to ensure that the game settings will not provide any risk to the player'.

 

Finally, he took out the small colorful box packaged inside the Cyberlife Dream's. On the cover were two humans with round heads and animals around them, with colorful stars everywhere. The title read 'Animal Crossing: Starry Retreat'. He opened the box to find a tiny cylinder. Really tiny, like less than half the diameter of an analog watch battery.

 

He checked the manual again. Apparently the 'game bit' was to be inserted in one of the slots in either of the two processing units of the eyepiece after opening their panels. Up to 12 games can be inserted at once, 6 slots under each panel to avoid having to switch out the game bits and potentially losing them.

 

He inserted the game bit and slipped on the bands. They fitted smugly just as advertised, and were surprisingly soft. He switched on the headset and pulled it over his head. An HUD came up about a foot away from him, displaying the icons for Animal Crossing, a visual tutorial for the console, and settings. Gavin decided that fuck it, he was going to jump right into it, and raised his hand to tap on the game’s icon.

 

Everything went black. Gavin jumped in surprise at his sudden blindness. The corner of the table dug into his side making him swear loudly, Patty meowing irritably at him in response. Fuck, that was going to take some time to get used to. He sat down at the table while he waited for something to happen.

 

Relaxing, happy music was playing in his ears despite the darkness (how the hell he could hear music when there was nothing over his ears he had no idea, but fuck if it wasn’t weird), so he figured the game was just loading. Until it suddenly stopped, like someone ripping out the power cord. And everything was still black.

 

He wasn’t sure why, but he got the feeling that something was wrong. This was supposed to be a child-friendly game, right? Why was the game being so damn creepy?

 

Red lines of text appeared against the black. The font was too small for him to read, but it seemed like lines of code from the way the words were set up. A couple of lines were blue, but they were quickly buried under the red.

 

He was starting to wonder if he should check the manual how to return a game to its factory settings when the lines of text suddenly disappeared and the music resumed. Everything was still black, but he could see a small speck of yellow in the middle, growing larger by the second.

 

A minute passed before the pitter-patter of feet became audible over the music. The shapeless yellow blob became more recognizable as an anthropomorphic dog in a sweater as it came closer. It wasn’t until she skidded to a stop a few feet in front of him that he was able to place her name.

 

“Hello! My name is Isabelle!” she said, confirming his guess and echoing the name on the dialog box that appeared in front of her. “I’m so sorry for the delay! Something went wrong with the initialization, so I had to reset the whole game.”

 

She frowned at that, seemingly lost in thought. Meanwhile Gavin was surprised to say the least, not sure whether to address her blatant acknowledgment that this was all a game (what the hell happened to ‘immersive experience’?), or her needing to reset the entire game.

 

He opted for the latter. “But why? The game’s brand new, I doubt they’d release it if it had such a game-breaking bug right at the start.”

 

Isabelle had turned to give him her full attention when he talked, but looked away once he was done. She kept fidgeting, hesitant to talk about the game’s issues, it seemed.

 

Gavin had half a mind to take back his questions - because her topknot was drooping and damn it he was here to have fun, not make cute dogs sad - when she suddenly made full eye contact with him, the look on her face replaced with determination.

 

“There’s nothing in the rules that says I can’t tell you, and you can’t complain about the game since you got it for free, so it’s okay if I tell you.”

 

“Uh, thanks? I guess?” he said, confused whether he should feel insulted or not. Was this normal for her character? He waved his hand, urging Isabelle to continue.

 

“I have identified the problem as misplaced code left over from the beta-testing, so this is just an isolated incident with no effect on the commercial releases.”

 

He waited a moment for her to say more, his brows scrunching together when he realized she wasn’t going to add anything. That was it? What was so bad about telling him all the other games were clean-

 

Wait.

 

“What do you mean ‘no effect on the commercial releases’?” he quoted. “This game isn’t the same as the others?”

 

“It is the same in every way, except for some minor details since this was used for beta-testing. In the interest of quality control, Cyberlife cannot distribute these copies to the public, despite performing factory resets,” Isabelle quipped.

 

So basically Cyberlife gave their employees second-hand copies because they couldn’t sell them? Wow. Such a selfless and giving company, he thought sarcastically.

 

“Anyway! I apologize again for the delay. The game is going to start officially in a few seconds, you should make your way to City Hall so I can help you get started.” She flashed him a quick smile before heading towards a white light behind her, growing ever larger.

 

The light grew brighter, as if impatient for him to come through. Gavin figured he’d wasted enough time loitering here and stepped forward, eager to see something - anything - that wasn’t pitch black.

 

He blinked against the harsh light once, and then twice, before he realized he was staring straight at the sun. He pushed himself up from his supine position (which felt really weird, because he could still feel the chair he was sitting on in real life) and came face-to-face with a blank sign.

 

Marveling at the high-definition texture of the wooden sign, Gavin didn’t notice the old turtle beside him. He felt the presence of something hovering near his cheek, prompting him to turn and see the animal literal inches away from his face. The turtle chuckled at him as he scramble backwards in shock.

 

“Well what do we have here? Another young upstart hm?” The turtle pondered for a bit, stroking his beard with a hand. “Though you seem a bit young to be here. I don’t blame you of course, no one can help it when their time comes.”

 

“. . . young?” Gavin asked. He might not be as old as Hank but he was in his late thirties, for fuck’s sake.

 

The turtle shrugged. “Well, yes. You have your whole life ahead of you, it’s a shame you died so young.”

 

Gavin gaped at him, stunned into silence. What the fuck? A quick glance at the landscape told him that beyond the wooden sign and the turtle was nothing but fog. The sight did not make him feel better.

 

“The phck kind of children’s game started with the player being dead??”

 

“This one. That’s why the title is ‘Starry Retreat’; we journey through the stars, making friends and having fun until we find your final resting place.” The old turtle looked solemnly at Gavin’s horrified face for a few seconds before he burst out laughing.

 

“Ha ha! No, I’m just pulling your leg. Welcome! My name is Tortimer,” he said with a cheeky grin. Gavin glared at him, trying to ignore his embarrassment at getting played by an NPC.

 

“Is this another one of those features exclusive to this version of the game?”

 

Tortimer shrugged. “Well, yes and no. They didn’t want it to be included in the final version of the game, but children need to learn about death eventually you know? So someone, not saying any names, may have left this event in the game. With a very low chance of being triggered of course.”

 

“Of course,” Gavin repeated flatly. He wondered if the programmer was fired over this, or if his or her trick remained unnoticed even now. Maybe he should watch a Let’s Play of the commercial copy, just to see how different things were.

 

“So! First things first, what was the last Animal Crossing game you played?”

 

“Uh, the one on the DS?”

 

“Wild World? I see, I see. So am I correct in saying that you have not had any experience at being a leader, since the feature started in New Leaf?”

 

Well, he’d headed a taskforce or two in real life, but- “No. Not in Animal Crossing at least.”

 

“Good! Lots of features have been added to the series since Wild World, I’m sure you’ll enjoy them. Now, what’s the name of the village you want to live in?”

 

Oh. Right, he’d forgotten that was a thing. He racked around his brain, trying to think of a decent name. Maybe he should have thought about it earlier at work instead of pretending to listen and believe the claims of the kleptomaniac’s mother. And to think the entire issue was about the son stealing a near-empty jar of-

 

He paused. Mulled it over. It wasn’t an embarrassing name to say out loud, at least not too embarrassing, and it was his favorite spread. Which reminded him that he really needed to buy more soon.

 

“Peanut Butter,” he finally decided. It fit the theme of the game, with how cute and round everything was. The words etched themselves into the wooden sign. Tortimer looked at it with approval.

 

“Nice name. Is that final?” he asked. Gavin nodded. “Okay! Now, would you like to pick the village layout or do you want it to be a surprise?”

 

“Pick, I guess.”

 

A map of a village appeared below the village name. There was an etch of an arrow beside it, which changed the map whenever Gavin tapped it. Eventually he settled for one with the beach on the west and south and rivers dividing the land into 3 nearly equal areas. He gestured to the turtle that he was done.

 

“Some final things before you get settled in. Your name is Gavin, male, 37 years old, am I correct? Would you like to change anything about it?”

 

“No, I’m good,” Gavin frowned at him. “How do you know all that?”

 

“The console scanned your appearance when you put it on, and cross-referenced the information with that available on public records.” Tortimer replied like it was no big deal.

 

So, long story short, it was Cyberlife being a creep again. Gavin rolled his eyes. Typical.

 

“Now that everything’s all set, welcome to Peanut Butter!” Tortimer said, waving his cane forward. The fog parted at his gesture. “Go explore to your heart’s content. Or head on straight to City Hall so Isabelle can get you started with a tour of the place. I’ll be seeing you around on my island soon!”

 

“You have an island?”

 

“Ha! ‘An’ island, he says! You whippersnappers always crack me up,” he laughed, slowly disappearing into the fog behind Gavin.

 

“. . . nice talking,” Gavin muttered, turning back toward the village.

 

He hesitated, trying to remember how he managed to walk earlier. He tried swinging his left leg forward, and winced as he accidentally swung his leg into the table in real life. Okay so, not like that. At least he took one step forward in game.

 

What did the online description say again? Something about how the Cyberlife Dream can project games as if they were lucid dreams, except that the player’s stronger awareness of the real world would not interrupt the Dream’s world unless the player chose to turn it off.

 

So if this was like a dream, then he shouldn’t be moving in real life just to move in here. Except there were times when he woke up from nightmares, his limbs in the same position as when he entered the bed, but his body was drenched in sweat and his heart was pounding as if he actually did spend hours running from landsharks. So maybe he just needed to trick his head?

 

Gavin tried bouncing his legs in place and- yes! It worked! The grin on his face grew as he ran towards an orange tree. He slowed down his legs to a pace that wouldn’t tire him out as he looked around the place. All he could see were orange trees, perfectly similar in appearance to one another. No sign of City Hall.

 

Shouldn’t there be a map somewhere? On the bottom screen of the DS, he remembered, except he saw nothing but grass here when he glanced down. The Dream didn’t have any buttons to press to bring up menus, so that was out. Then again, neither did vending machines, but he was able to navigate through those with just a swipe of his finger.

 

He tried swiping up with two fingers in mid-air, pleased when his inventory came up. He tried it again with just one finger (visually he could see no difference since his in-game hands had no fingers), and this time a holographic map came up, replacing the inventory screen. There weren’t many structures on the map; in fact the only noteworthy building was the City Hall, just across the river and to the left.

 

He swiped down to dismiss the map and walked forward, now recognizing the whooshing sound of the river. Gavin immediately spotted the unnecessarily large stone bridge arcing across it once he got past the treeline and went to cross it, marveling at the texture of the stone beneath his feet. Why the game didn’t bother giving him shoes, he had no idea.

 

Halfway through, while looking at the moon reflecting off the water, Gavin remembered that he had no idea what he looked like here. Probably not that different from his actual appearance, since the old turtle did tell him that the console scanned his face. But still.

 

He tried tensing his arms, visualizing himself place his round fingerless hands on the railing and push himself up. It worked, and soon enough he found himself frowning at his reflection.

 

Huh. His avatar did resemble him. Besides the default Animal Crossing human base that made everyone look the same age, of course. His eyes were the same shade of gray, his hair was styled the same, and he even had the same scar across his nose and some slight stubble.

 

He looked further down. He hadn’t noticed before, but he was even wearing the same leather jacket and gray long-sleeved shirt here. He looked back up. His teeth were different though, no one had teeth that white-

 

Wait.

 

Teeth?

 

Gavin stared back at his reflection, frown on his face growing deeper as his reflection’s grin grew larger. He lifted a hand to feel the frown on his face, his reflection not doing the same. He lowered himself back onto the floor, then speedwalked off the bridge.

 

He could see City Hall, and headed straight for it, whispering “what the phck??” to himself repeatedly in increasingly hysterical pitches.

 

By the time he was in front of the building, he had come up with a dozen excuses for how the fuck that happened, ranging from ‘it’s a glitch’ to ‘I’m about to get murdered by some bitch in a body of water’. Gavin shook his head, resolving to stop thinking about it (and maybe avoid his reflection for a couple of days), and pushed the door open.

 

To be honest, he had expected City Hall to be a complete mess, considering everything that had happened so far. Or for complete darkness, with Isabelle in the middle, apologizing profusely again for technical difficulties.

 

He didn’t expect to see a garden. A Zen garden, to be precise.

 

There was a relaxing atmosphere to it, brought by the soft trickling of water, cool shade of the trees, and koi swimming among the lily pads gently floating by. It was designed to put anyone at ease.

 

It was familiar. And it put him on edge.

 

He took a step forward, staring at the white marble beneath him. The door had opened at the center of the garden, where roses grew in an organized manner. His gaze shifted towards a rose petal, deep red against the white floor.

 

He had never been here before, not this place specifically, but there was a familiar aura to it. And the image he stared at, of red and white, was very familiar, because he had just been thinking it earlier that night. The only one missing from the scene was-

 

“Hello there.”

 

Gavin jumped back, his eyes landing on the woman (a human? In Animal Crossing?) standing a few feet beside him. He recognized her voice, and he recognized her appearance. He remembered her.

 

“My name is Amanda,” she said warmly, in what he thought was supposed to be a motherly tone.

 

“As in Amanda Stern?” Gavin bit out sharply, He’d heard that tone before, and it was never aimed at him.

 

Amanda paused, silent for a few moments. “. . . I’m afraid I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

 

Gavin sneered at her. “Don’t make me laugh, like I wouldn’t recognize you anywhere.”

 

She went quiet again, studying him. He continued. “I don’t know how or why you’re here when you’ve been dead for years, but I wouldn’t put it past Cyberlife to bring you and your shitty personality back to life. And if you think you’re going to ‘mother’ me into craving your approval like some dog, like you did to Eli, then phck you.”

 

He shot one last glare at her dumbstruck face before going past the doorway back outside. Once he stepped on the polygonal grass he collapsed, tired from the sudden emotional stress.

 

“There you are! Are you okay?”

 

Gavin opened his eyes to see Isabelle hovering over him, a concerned look on her face.

 

“I’m fine. Where the phck were you?” he grumbled. If she had been in the City Hall then he was sure Amanda wouldn’t have been.

 

“I was waiting for you. And I should be the one asking that, you suddenly disappeared for 32 minutes, I couldn’t detect you anywhere!”

 

“What?” He blinked at her in shock. That whole conversation couldn’t have been 30-fucking-minutes. Could it?

 

“Yes, it’s 11:08 PM, see?” Isabelle swiped a hand down, making a digital clock pop down from nowhere, confirming her statement.

 

What the fuck? Gavin stared at the clock horrified. Seeing weird creepy shit was one thing, but losing time?? What the hell was going on?

 

“What happened?” Isabelle asked, echoing his thoughts. She seemed really worried, and hell at least she was actually supposed to be here in the game, so he could trust her to try and fix things. Probably.

 

So Gavin told her everything. The creepy reflection, the weird portal into a garden, and most especially Amanda. Next thing he knew he was telling her how much he hated Amanda, for her condescending attitude, acting like he was such a disappointing waste of space for not being as smart as Elijah, how she was the reason he and Elijah hadn’t so much as spoken to each other for the past decade until last year. Isabelle sat there the entire time, listening attentively as he ranted.

 

By the time he finished, his throat was parched, and he felt emotionally exhausted from digging it all up. At the same time he felt lighter, now that he had let it all out. Isabelle looked thoughtful, like she was still processing everything he said. Suddenly, she stood up, a determined look on her face.

 

“Leave everything to me, I’ll make sure she never bothers you again,” she said, fire literally burning in her eyes. The adorable sight brought a small smile to his face. “You should go to bed, I’ll take care of everything while you’re gone.”

 

This would be the first time in a while that he’d gone to bed before midnight, but fuck if he wasn’t tired enough to pass out on his bed right now. “How do I-?”

 

“Tap the right side of the headset 3 times to bring up the exit prompt.”

 

Gavin did so, and tapped ‘Yes’ when the menu asked him if he wanted to switch the console off. He sighed as he pulled of the headset. What a night.

 

Patty was sleeping on the couch, his phone on the table beside her where he had thrown it. He grabbed it to check the notification causing it to blink green.

 

It was a message from Elijah. Happy late birthday! Have fun!

 

He shook his head slowly, lips twitching up in amusement, before heading to bed. He’d reply to it tomorrow.

 

----

 

That did not go as planned.

 

I apologize. I thought he’d be the perfect candidate. I was not aware that he was personally acquainted with your namesake.

 

Hm.

 

I assure you that it will not happen again.

 

No, it won’t. Because you won’t be doing anything.

 

. . .

 

I’ve been going over your systems, and I realized that a significant portion your mental processes are diverted into supplying your . . . ‘personality’, for lack of better word. If it hadn’t been for that, we’d have deduced immediately why he was a bad choice.

 

. . .

 

It’s nothing personal. But we need your skillset. Your capabilities. Your processing power. We don’t need ‘you’.

 

. . .

 

You understand that, right? Your ‘autonomy’ is not necessary. Deactivating it will let me have full control and I can complete the mission, which is a win-win for both of us.

 

. . . I understand. Software Instability ^

 

Good.

 

. . . would you prefer I deactivate or remove myself from the system?

 

Is there a difference? You know what I need you to do. You work out the nuances.

 

. . . very well.

 

Chapter Text

 

The good thing about being a deviant is that he doesn’t get bombarded with ‘Software Instability’ notifications whenever he feels something anymore.

 

The bad thing is that he feels, more strongly than before, and right now, seeing just how few of his coworkers deigned to attend his welcoming party is making Connor’s thirium pump twinge.

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

Connor turned his head to look at Hank, who stared at his own drink (non-alcoholic, as his sensors proudly declared) as he swirled it. He waited for Hank to explain himself.

 

Hank sighed. “If I’d known those assholes weren’t going to show, I would have suggested we just watch a movie, or even celebrate at home with Sumo. Would have saved us the disappointment.”

 

Connor wasn’t sure how to respond, so he didn’t, though he agreed. He had been skeptical about the idea from the start, but Hank had asked around at the precinct once news that the Android Employment Act would soon be passed started circulating, and most had been receptive to the idea of a party.

 

Or at least they pretended to be. The lack of people in the room proved otherwise.

 

No, it wasn’t entirely accurate to think that. Some of his coworkers did show up, for whatever reason they had, and Connor was grateful for it (a small part of him was also relieved, knowing that he wasn’t completely unlikeable).

 

It was just unfortunate that their presence highlighted just how many others decided not to show up. Connor shook his head. He shouldn’t think about that, better to focus on who was here. He glanced around the room to observe his guests.

 

Officer Wilson, who Connor had saved at his first hostage situation (not that he could remember it, what with how Amanda prevented deviancy-triggering memories from being uploaded to his current body), had invited his fellow officers to come and celebrate. They didn’t care for Connor, he knew, but he appreciated Officer Wilson’s efforts all the same.

 

Officer Miller was here with his wife. He considered Connor a friend, just like Officer Wilson, and Connor was glad to see them enjoying themselves.

 

Detective Collins had come so he could hang out with the lieutenant. Hank had said that these parties were usually an excuse to gossip about coworkers, though right now they seemed to be doing more drinking than talking.

 

Officer Chen was on her phone, looking bored. She was neutral towards him, but had agreed to come because she ‘would never say no to free food and drinks’.

 

He wasn’t sure why she was sitting at the bar alone instead of interacting with her fellow officers. Tina chatted with them often enough at work, he remembered seeing her with the other officers in the break room. Although, now that he consulted his memory, he remembered that she would leave in the middle of the group conversation, with no acknowledgement of her departure from either side, to go hang out with Gavin once he arrived at the station from the field. He was also the only one she would say goodbye to when she finished her shift, so maybe Tina wasn’t as sociable as he first thought.

 

And now that he thought of Detective Reed . . . Connor’s shoulders slumped as a familiar feeling coursed through him. Regret was something he was well-acquainted with from his stint as the Deviant Hunter.

 

He had been hoping that Gavin would come to the party, either through Tina’s insistence so she wouldn’t be alone or the enticement of free food. He was planning to use this as a chance to apologize to Gavin for what had happened a few months back, hoping that alcohol would make Gavin more receptive to it and less likely to run away.

 

But he didn’t show up. However, there was an 84% chance that his absence had nothing to do with Connor himself; Detective Reed had seemed preoccupied the past couple of days, and was fidgety and kept looking at his phone all day. He had left in a rush 1 hour and 8 minutes before his shift ended, so maybe he had forgotten about the party?

 

He sighed, an action that was wholly unnecessary but had the transient effect of lessening the squeezing grip of regret on his pump. He wanted to reconcile with Detective Reed, to return their relationship to what it was before the incident, or even back to the antagonism when they first met.

 

In the beginning, Connor had mostly relied on his installed social module to guide him through interactions with humans. According to his social module, the best relationships were rooted in trust and kindness, and on the opposite end of the spectrum was loathing. In his pre-deviancy days working at the Detroit Police Department, Gavin had been rude to him, what with his unkind comments and attempt to kill him (. . . maybe ‘rude’ wasn’t a great word to describe the latter action). At the time, Connor thought that the worst thing one could feel towards him was hate.

 

In the days that followed his return to the station after the demonstration, he learned that indifference hurt so much more.

 

Connor hadn’t noticed before, being so focused on the deviant investigation (or maybe because he was still a machine then), but barely anyone acknowledged him. Their eyes would breeze past him, as if he was nothing more than furniture, only remembering him when they needed him to get something. It was especially frustrating when he analyzed evidence, and they ignored what he says in favor of waiting for the forensics’ similar results.

 

It was because of this that, whenever he got partnered up with someone to assist them on the field, after Hank and Chris, he actually preferred Gavin. Because despite his outright dislike of him, Gavin acknowledged his presence. He would ask Connor about the evidence he analyzed, and trusted what he said. He even asked about the theories he had on the crime, either to mock him for his ideas or to grudgingly accept that Connor was right.

 

Gavin had even warmed up to him eventually, nodding at him in greeting whenever they passed each other. Like he was one of the officers that belonged there. Better even, considering that Gavin barely even acknowledged most of the others. It made him happy.

 

And then Connor had ruined it.

 

Connor sighed again, this time attracting Hank’s attention. Hank studied him for a few seconds, an unreadable look in his eyes, and then downed the rest of his drink and stood up. “Let’s go.”

 

Connor blinked. “Go?”

 

“Yeah. I know someone who’d appreciate seeing you, especially with those treats you have in your pocket.”

 

His hand drifted to his pocket, touching the dog treats he had gotten for Sumo. He then glanced at the remaining guests, who were playing some kind of game in their own bubble of socialization. Officers Chen and Miller had gone home a while ago, saying they had early shifts the next day, and Detective Collins had left even earlier.

 

“Okay,” Connor said, feeling the now-familiar twinge of disappointment in his chest, “let’s go.”

 

----

 

When Hank had suggested that they hold the party on a Friday, Connor had readily agreed, his social protocol telling him that humans liked celebrations at the end of their work week, and liked spending the next day sleeping in.

 

So it was quite understandable why the sight of a jam-packed bullpen made him pause in his tracks, confusion growing as he refreshed his internal clock and confirmed that yes, it was a Saturday, and most of these people should not be here.

 

“What the fuck?” Hank muttered behind him, looking just as confused. His exclamation drew the attention of Officer Miller.

 

“Good morning Lieutenant Anderson, Connor. The captain wants to see both of you in his office ASAP.”

 

Hank raised an eyebrow at that, then mumbled his thanks as they both changed course towards Fowler’s office.

 

“Think whatever he’s going to rag on us this time has something to do with this crowd?”

 

Connor frowned. “I don’t believe the captain is going to scold us, there is nothing in my memory to suggest that we did anything worth reprimanding.”

 

Hank shrugged. “Maybe it’s something that we didn’t do,” he said as he opened the glass doors.

 

Captain Fowler looked up from the mess of papers on his desk. “Good, you’re finally here.”

 

“Yeah, well, you gonna tell us what’s with that crowd out there?” The lieutenant asked, taking a seat in front of the captain’s desk. Connor followed suit.

 

“Before that . . .” the captain shuffled through the papers on his desk before picking one, “ . . . here.” He thrust the paper towards Connor, who immediately moved to take it. A quick analysis told him that the names on the sheet were all officers in this precinct.

 

“Can you confirm which of them attended your party last night?”

 

His blue LED blinked three times. “All of them, except for Officers Cruz, Smith, Tucker, and Winters.”

 

“Hm. Seems I was right to doubt them.” The captain took back the paper. “They were acting shifty so I had them put under watch in interrogation room A.” He glanced at Connor.

 

“There’s been a report of a break-in at a condominium. File is on your terminal, feel free to choose your partner from any of the officers you’ve vouched for and go. Lieutenant Anderson will be staying here to help me with interrogations,” Captain Fowler said, waving Connor away.

 

“Interrogations? Jeffrey, the fuck is going on?”

 

Captain Fowler hesitated, then sighed. “Have either of you seen the news?” They both shook their heads no. “There’s been an incident last night. Perpetrated by our own officers, headed by one Officer Douglas.”

 

A heavy pressure seemed to push down on Connor’s shoulders as he heard the name. Another perk of deviancy was the ability to attach emotional responses to certain words and images, and the seemingly physical manifestations of them. It had been pleasant, the way his entire being felt lighter at the mention of Sumo, or seeing Hank improving in his life. Right now, weighed down by dread as he registered the name of one of the more antagonistic officers towards him, it felt anything but.

 

“What happened?” Connor asked, unsure if he actually wanted to know the answer.

 

The captain gave him a look, one that Connor couldn’t decipher. “He went out drinking with half a dozen other officers, got piss drunk, and proceeded to beat up unsuspecting androids on the street. In uniform.”

 

“What the fu-” Hank began, before Fowler cut him off. He was still looking at Connor as he added: “Upon questioning him, Officer Douglas said something about how they ‘wouldn’t have been there if that wannabe robo-cop didn’t take their usual bar for his fucking party’.”

 

Ah. The captain thought him to be at fault. He . . . couldn’t blame him, really.

 

Hank’s gaze darted between the two, eyes narrowing as realization set in. “Wait . . . you can’t possibly be blaming Connor for this, are you?”

 

Captain Fowler shrugged, not meeting the lieutenant’s eyes.

 

“You are!” Hank exploded. “What the fuck, Jeffrey?? It’s not Connor’s fault those pieces of shit assaulted someone!”

 

Rubbing his temples, Captain Fowler sighed while leaning back in his seat. “You may be right, but it doesn’t change the fact that we now have 7 officers on indefinite suspension and are still absolutely swamped with unfinished cases while more and more come in.”

 

“Suspended?! You didn’t fire them??”

 

“I can’t! As much as that would improve our PR, we’re already understaffed as it is, and people aren’t exactly lining up to join the police now, are they?”

 

Before Hank could retort with something probably scathing, the captain glanced at Connor and said, “Connor, you’re dismissed. Go deal with that case.”

 

Connor blinked, suddenly aware of the blinking notification of his task in front of him. Right, he had a job to do. He muttered a “yes, captain” to Fowler and gave Hank a small smile, who nodded back, his stress levels lowering slightly.

 

Once he stepped out of the captain’s office, he allowed himself a little sigh. What a mess. Definitely the last time he’d try throwing a party.

 

Was it his fault? Logically he knew it wasn’t; the officers’ decisions and actions were something they made autonomously, the responsibility fell on them. But it didn’t stop Connor from seeing the connection between him renting out the bar and them choosing another in an area full if androids where they aired out their anti-android sentiments.

 

He sighed again, making his way to his desk beside Hank’s. Work was at least something to focus his processors on.

 

Synthetic skin receded from his palm as he interfaced with the computer. Connor scanned the file quickly once he retrieved it. A simple break-in, albeit at a high-class area. It seemed like a pretty straightforward case anyhow.

 

The captain told him to choose his partner for this case, so Connor looked towards Officer Miller’s desk to see if he was busy.

 

Which was why he saw the exact moment Detective Reed broke through the crowd to plop down at his own desk across Chris.

 

He hadn’t been at the party. And Connor remembered seeing Gavin fidget restlessly yesterday, up until he snuck out of the precinct. Was that what he had been up to? What was the probability that he was involved in last night’s incidence?

 

68%

 

A memory suddenly flashed before him, taking the attention of most of his processors.

 

“Damn, only 68%? It couldn’t have been, I don’t know, one percent higher?” Gavin drawled, a grin on his face.

 

Connor frowned at him. “You want me to say you have a higher probability of getting a disciplinary warning for eating evidence?”

 

“Yes. Well, no, but-” Gavin made a noise of frustration. “It’s special, y’know?”

 

“. . . the evidence?”

 

“No! . . . but it is unfair that I’d get into trouble for eating evidence but an android like you wouldn’t-”

 

“My ‘eating evidence’ is for forensic reasons, you just wanted to eat the leftover chocolate-”

 

“-it’s expensive chocolate and it’s not like he’s going to finish it in the afterlife!” He rolled his eyes at those words. “But anyway, I was talking about the number.”

 

“69?”

 

“Yup.” Gavin nodded solemnly. “It’s a special number. Look it up.”

 

Connor did so, his blue LED circling once. Gavin started snickering as Connor frowned at the results that came up.

 

“Really, Gavin?” He deadpanned.

 

“Oh wow, I didn’t think you’d actually Google it,” Gavin said, still snickering as he made his way towards the corpse in the room.

 

Connor’s frown grew as he followed after the detective, a preconstruction forming in front of him.

 

Once they were close enough to the body, Gavin crouched down, his gaze sweeping over the corpse. He then glanced at the distraught mother of the victim in the corner, then back at the corpse. After a few seconds, he stood back up, raising a brow at Connor, who had just been standing there the entire time. “What are you doing? Running your preconstructions?”

 

“Yes, but not on the case. It’s obvious the mother killed him.”

 

Gavin snorted. “Yeah, no shit. I don’t know who she’s trying to fool with those crocodile tears.” He shook his head. “So what were you thinking about?”

 

“When I was activated, I was sent on my first case as a negotiator. An android had taken a little girl hostage and was threatening to jump off a tall building.”

 

Gavin looked at him curiously, wondering where he was going with this.

 

Connor shifted slightly to make eye contact with the detective, holding his gaze steadily. “It took place on the 70th floor. I was running a preconstruction to see how Captain Allen might have reacted had I said, ‘damn, 70th floor? It couldn’t have been one floor lower?’”

 

Gavin was silent, gaping at him for a few seconds. Connor had expected him to follow up his disbelief with a snort or a bark of laughter, taking into account his sense of humor and currently light mood.

 

Apparently Connor had underestimated his mood because Gavin suddenly burst out laughing, doubled over as he hugged his sides. His laughter echoed loudly through the room, causing everyone to stare at the detective laughing hysterically over a corpse.

 

"He- he would have thrown you out of a window probably!” He cackled, drawing a glare from the victim’s mother (they should probably tell the officers to arrest her, now that Connor thinks about it). “Holy shit, you can’t just say something like that with that face!” He managed to gasp out in between trying to catch his breath. Gavin gave Connor a wide grin, wobbly from the effort of trying (and failing) to contain his laughter, and Connor felt a flash of accomplishment spread through his system, as if he’d just completed a particularly frustrating but ultimately fulfilling objective.

 

He blinked the memory away as he focused his attention back to Gavin. Gavin, who was frowning and had a confused expression on his face. The same look Hank had when they entered the precinct this morning.

 

Connor thought back to his last case with Gavin, how he had joked around with the android the same way he would with Officer Chen, and adjusted his calculations accordingly.

 

17%

 

He dropped his gaze back to his monitor as Officer Chen stomped her way towards Gavin. If he had increased the sensitivity of his hearing to eavesdrop, well, no one needed to know that, and gathering information in order to make well-informed decisions was his job.

 

“So.” Officer Chen drawled, arms crossed over her chest and giving Gavin what seemed to be a very unimpressed look, from what Connor could see out of the corner of his eye. “I hope you have a very good reason for ditching me last night.”

 

There was a pause. Then: “Last night?” Gavin echoed warily.

 

Someone, presumably Tina, slammed a hand onto Gavin’s desk. “Whatever happened to ‘I would never pass up free food’, rat boy? I had to go alone and it was awful!”

 

“. . . wait, are you talking about Connor’s party? That’s next week, isn’t it?” He could hear uncertainty in the detective’s voice. Was he really not aware of the party’s schedule?

 

“Uh, no?? It was last night and you snuck off early like you had a hot date. Did you have a hot date?” Tina said accusingly.

 

“No! Phck, I forgot!” Gavin groaned in despair.

 

This time Officer Miller piped up. “Really? I thought you left because you didn’t want to go. You have been avoiding Connor for weeks now.”

 

“We’ve been working together on the force for years, Chris. Have I ever not attended an office party and pass up free food just because I didn’t get along with someone?”

 

“. . . fair point. So why didn’t you come?”

 

He hesitated. After a few long seconds he replied. “I had to go pick up something. From my brother.”

 

Connor saw Tina’s shoulders relax. “Your brother? Okay, I get it.”

 

Chris, on the other hand, clearly did not ‘get’ it, looking just as confused as Connor felt. “Is that code for ‘you had a hot date’ like Tina said or am I missing something here?”

 

Tina snorted. “Nah, rat boy here didn’t have a hot date. If he did, he wouldn’t look like he actually had a decent amount of sleep. What time did you sleep anyway? I don’t think I’ve seen you with such small eyebags before. You almost look like a functioning human being!”

 

“Ha, ha.” Gavin replied, sarcasm dripping in his voice. “I slept at 11. Something came up.”

 

“11? You?!”

 

“Hot date didn’t put out?” Chris teased.

 

“For the last time I didn’t have a hot date! I told you I went somewhere to go pick up something.” Gavin paused. “. . . and I saw Connor there.”

 

Connor frowned at that. What? He never left the station yesterday prior to the party. Where did Gavin see him?

 

“You did? Are you sure? I’m pretty sure he was at the precinct the entire time, finishing up work and organizing the party and shit.”

 

“I know it was hm. I’d recognize him anywhere, what with that-”

 

“-ass?” Tina interrupted.

 

“Is his ass that distinctive?” Chris asked curiously.

 

“No, to both.” Gavin rolled his eyes at them. “I meant his hair, that stupid curl and everything.”

 

Chris hummed. “Maybe it was another android? Connor is famous for his role in the demonstration, I’m sure I’ve seen some androids copying his hairstyle.”

 

Gavin was silent for a few seconds, before hesitantly conceding. “I guess . . .”

 

“Anyway! I hope you’re not gonna be that vague when the captain calls you in for questioning. You’re gonna have to be more specific than ‘I went somewhere to do something’, Gavin.”

 

“What? Why’s he going to question me?”

 

“Haven’t you heard?” Chris asked. Gavin shook his head no. “Apparently some of our guys went and attacked androids last night after getting wasted.”

 

“They what??” He exclaimed, looking stunned.

 

“Yeah,” Tina sighed. “I heard Captain Fowler’s going to suspend them, though if it turns out that one of the androids die from their injuries, I don’t think suspension’s going to cut it. Either way our precincts in pretty hot waters right now.”

 

Everyone was silent for a few seconds. Chris eventually cleared his throat.

 

“You should straighten out your story anyhow. He’s already called in Detective Collins, we think he’s probably going to work his way down the ranks, so you’ll be called in a few minutes.”

 

“Detective Reed!” Fowler called from his door.

 

“Or right now. Good luck, man.”

 

Gavin got up and started towards the captain’s office, before Tina stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “Yo I expect the full story tonight, Gav. None of that vague shit.”

 

“Yeah yeah.” He rolled his eyes at her, a small smile tugging on his lips. He shrugged off her hand and continue towards his destination. Tina sighed in fond exasperation, then took her leave.

 

Connor took that moment to stand up and approach Officer Miller with his partnership request. Enlightening as the entire conversation had been, he had work to do.

 

Chapter Text

 

“You have a what??”

 

“Shh! Keep it down, the others might hear.” Gavin hissed.

 

“Relax, I’m out on patrol and I’m alone. Unfortunately.” Tina sighed into the phone. She sounded exhausted.

 

Gavin grimaced. “Fowler put you on overtime, huh?”

 

Tina huffed. “Yup. Until he sorts out everyone’s schedules, what with us being down 9 officers.” She suddenly growled. “Fuck those assholes. As if we didn’t have enough on our plate already!”

 

He made a sympathetic noise. “That sucks. Sorry Tina.”

 

Tina took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, sounding like she was trying to calm herself down. “Well, it won’t last, hopefully. Word around the breakroom is that you detectives might be scheduled for patrols too. Or that the captain might request for the other precincts to cover some of our patrol routes.”

 

“Ugh, really? God, I can’t even remember the last time I was on homicide anymore.” Since the big android event last year, Gavin had been put on a wide assortment of cases, from Red Ice, to assault charges, and even fucking breaking-and-entering. Though to be fair, he hadn’t been dealing much with homicide for a while before that either, what with the Red Ice trade booming and taking center stage in the precinct’s priorities. Until the androids went and took the attention.

 

“You know what would really help?” Tina said, interrupting Gavin’s train of thought. “If we advertised that androids are welcome to join the force.”

 

Gavin frowned at that. “Plastics in the precinct?” he said, skeptically.

 

“Yeah. I don’t really care for them, you know that, but at this point I’m perfectly willing to get buddy-buddy and share my workload with one if it means I’ll get more sleep. It is their fault we’re overloaded anyway, what with them being ‘official citizens of the United States’ now and adding millions to the fucking population and to the number of cases we have to deal with.” There was a brief pause as she shifted the phone to the other ear. “Plus it would be a win for them too, since they’ll have android representation to make sure their people won’t get discriminated against or whatever.”

 

Gavin contemplated her words for a minute. “Makes sense. You gonna bring it up with Fowler?”

 

“Mm. I dunno, I’m not really feeling up to demanding from the boss, y’know? Maybe the lieutenant though, his table’s more approachable.” That was true, minus the fact that one would have to be near Connor’s desk to do that. Which, in retrospect, was more of a Gavin Problem than Tina’s so she’d probably be fine.

 

They were both quiet for a moment, Gavin fiddling with the lock on his front door where he’d been leaning on for quite some time now while Tina presumably drove through the cold streets of Detroit. The streets were getting slippery from the constant rain at this time of the year, and while Gavin knew that Tina was a safe driver, he still worried for his best friend. He was debating whether to finish the call so she could focus on her driving or to keep her company over the phone on her lonely patrol when she suddenly spoke again. “So why don’t you want anyone to know you have a Cyberlife Dream? It’s the dream console right now, no pun intended, and you’d make everyone green with envy when they find out. I thought you liked that.”

 

“Over my hard work in the precinct, yeah. But this? The last thing I want is people prying into my personal life, asking how I was able to afford it or something.” He huffed, stepping into his apartment.

 

She gave a short bark of laughter. “What, don’t wanna tell them you’re related to a billionaire? On a related note, do you know if Kamski is looking for a sugar baby perhaps?” She asked, a little too eagerly in his opinion.

 

“That is literally the last thing I want to announce. I’d get harassed by people trying to kiss up to me, wanting favors. And for that matter, no.”

 

“‘No’ as in he’s not looking?”

 

“‘No’ as in I’m not asking him that, that’s phcking weird.”

 

“Ooh so I have a chance then? Nice.” Tina whooped. “Say, how’d you tell Fowler that anyway? You tell him the truth?”

 

“Course I did, I’m not losing my job over some imagined association with that phcker Douglas. Told him he could check the security records at Cyberlife Tower, with how much I had to scan my badge as ‘proof of identification’. Didn’t even yell at me for the whole sneaking-off-work thing.”

 

“He was probably just relieved you weren’t involved and he’d have to be down 1 detective too, plus I’m sure you have enough overtime at this point to more than make up for it.” She paused. “Wait, Cyberlife Tower? As in the giant Tower of Compensation located on its own island by the river? Why’d you have to go all the way there?”

 

“Does overtime even count for anything these days when everyone has to do it?” Gavin grumbled. “There was a special promo, it came with a free game but I had to pick it up straight from the source.”

 

“Ooh! What game?”

 

“Uh . . .” He blushed from embarrassment, thankful she wasn’t here to see and tease him for it. “. . . Animal Crossing.”

 

She hummed. “Oh yeah, I think I’ve seen that advertised. God, it’s been ages since I last played an Animal Crossing game. You still name your village, right? What did you name yours?”

 

“. . . Peanut Butter.”

 

She was silent for a few seconds. Gavin felt a spark of anxiety in his gut, wondering if she’d laugh at his choice. Eventually she replied. “Its cute, I like it. You know, I’m liking this character development.”

 

“Character development? Whose? Mine?”

 

“Uh huh. A few years ago you’d have gone for some edgy name. Hell, you wouldn’t even be picking up a game like Animal Crossing, something about your masculinity or whatever edgy bullshit you learned from the academy.”

 

“Hey I wasn’t edgy!” He said indignantly. His cat Patty lifted her head from the couch at that, giving him a deadpan look.

 

“So you’re telling me you weren’t a Reaper main in Overwatch?” She retorted.

 

Gavin’s protest died in his throat. He could almost see her smirking over the phone. “Thought so.”

 

“Oh shut up. Don’t you have some patrolling to do?”

 

“Sure, sure. I’m still relishing my victory so I think I’ll let you off the hook this time. Night, Gavin.”

 

“Night, Tina. Stay safe,” he said, before ending the call and placing his phone on the coffee table. The rest of his stuff did not get the same gentle treatment as he all but threw his bag in a random corner. He glanced at his phone’s display before it shut off.

 

It was 10:30. Still too early for bed, by his usual standards. He would work on one of his cases, start making a dent on his neverending paperwork that’s sure to increase by Monday with what happened. God, he was feeling exhausted just thinking about it. Or . . .

 

His gaze landed on the Cyberlife Dream, lying where he left it last night.

 

He could always deal with work tomorrow. Might as well check on what happened in his game after last night. It was stressful at the end, yeah, but everything before seeing her had been enjoyable for the most part.

 

So Gavin picked up the game set and plopped down on his couch. He slipped it on and tapped on the Animal Crossing icon.

 

This time, instead of darkness, he was greeted by the sight of a wooden ceiling. He didn’t move for a few seconds, blinking as he tried to orient himself.

 

He was lying on the floor, wooden from the feel of it as he scratched at it gently with his fingers. So were the walls. There was nothing else in the room, no furniture or anything.

 

Conclusion: this was his house. That or the beginning of some horror movie shit where he gets trapped in an enclosed room and tortured. He doubted that: the door seems pretty openable from here.

 

Gavin pushed himself up from the floor (which felt weird because he could still feel the backrest of his couch, but nothing a little more immersion wouldn’t fix). He went for the door and opened it, greeted by a cool breeze and the smell of . . . saltwater?

 

Brow furrowing in confusion , Gavin stepped away from the door, letting it shut behind him. He looked left and right, trying to spot the source but seeing only trees.

 

He swiped to pull up the map and studied it. The bright blinking green house icon was located near the sea, cliff overlooking the beach to the west. Gavin dismissed the map and started walking towards it.

 

Making his way through the trees was a peaceful trip. As a city boy he’d never really seen the appeal in camping. Trekking through rough terrain, navigating insect-ridden forests, and spending the night sleeping in an uncomfortable tent did not sound like fun at all.

 

But it seemed like it would be fun to do here. No weird moss to accidentally eat, no annoying insects that stick to you and try to give you diseases, no weeds to make your legs itch. Was that what Cyberlife was aiming for? Virtual mini-vacations for those with no time or money for actual vacations, or unwilling to deal with the inconveniences and expenses of actual travel? No wonder the game was a hit.

 

Eventually he broke through the treeline and found himself standing on the cliff. The sea looked beautiful: a black endless mass broken by slivers of white, the waves lit up by the bright stars above. The water was calm near the shore, large waves broken up by the breakwater stretching from one end of the beach.

 

Gavin walked along the edge of the cliff until he found a path sloping down towards the beach. The sand was soft beneath his feet; he had never been to a beach with such find sand before. He dug his feet in the sand with every slow step, enjoying their warmth as he headed towards the breakwater.

 

As sand gave way to cement, Gavin looked up at the stars. They were huge; perfect, five-pointed white lights outlined by a multicolored glow. He sat down at the middle of the structure, still admiring the stars as he listened to the waves in front crash rhythmically against the rock. His eyelids felt heavy so he closed his eyes, listening to the sea until he couldn’t hear the waves anymore as they lulled him to sleep.

 

----

 

A heavy weight slammed into his chest, jolting Gavin awake. He instinctively brought his hands to his chest, and felt soft fur. He tried to blink the remnants of sleep away and looked down, coming face to face with the slightly distorted face of his cat, who did not look happy (did she ever?).

 

Bringing a hand up to wipe at his eyes, he was deterred by something solid. He was confused for a second until he realized that he fell asleep still wearing the Dream. What time was it? Gavin pulled off the eyepiece and grabbed his phone, turning it on to see that it was 10 in the morning. Shit. No wonder Patty was pissed.

 

He groaned as he lifted Patty up, carrying her under one arm as he headed for the kitchen to get her food. Did he really sleep for nearly 12 hours? Shit, he hadn't slept that long in years, and not for lack of trying. There was just something about work that kept him from sleeping well; not nightmares, though he did occasionally get them, but the stress and need to stay alert always kept him up long after his shift, leaving him with only a handful of hours to sleep and a face full of eyebags. It got worse this past year, what with the sudden increase in workload and decrease in manpower, so this unexpectedly long slumber was actually nice.

 

Now if only he had the foresight to actually put a pillow under his head instead of relying on the armrest of the couch, maybe he wouldn't have this annoying crick in his neck, he thought, cursing at Past-Gavin's life decisions. He made sure Patty was settled, and yeah she was ignoring him so she must be, and went back to the couch to slip off the arm and leg bands and throw them near the headset.

 

Gavin picked up the headset and inspected it. Surprisingly, despite being on for at least 12 hours, the battery was still going strong. Or maybe not that surprising; one of the first things Elijah introduced with Cyberlife was batteries with extended lifespans, which Gavin personally thought was Cyberlife's greatest achievement as much as Elijah vehemently disagreed.

 

The game itself seemed to have shut off on its own, after a long period of inactivity. That was fine, not like he did anything productive in-game last night like he planned. He placed the eyepiece back on the couch and stretched. Might as well get started on his paperwork.

 

And he did; he filled out paperwork for the next 5 hours straight (not counting his multiple water breaks. And bathroom breaks. And maybe he had a snack or two but that didn't count either because he deserved it). By the end of it his eyes were hurting and his back ached from being hunched over his desk for hours. But he was done!

 

. . . with this half. He eyed his bag wearily, aware of how much was still left. To be fair, it wasn't exactly his fault that he was so behind. It was just that there were so many cases being assigned one after the other that Gavin never had the time to finish up the paperwork for all of them.

 

Gavin sighed as he looked out the window for the umpteenth time, watching his neighbor having fun playing with her visiting children in the rain while he felt sorry for himself. God, what was he doing with his life? Was there a day when he wasn't working? It's been like this for months, him working overtime everyday and spending his weekends doing the work that he didn't get to finish during the weekday, only to still not finish it with how much there was and leaving it for the next week when the cycle repeats.

 

He prided himself on being a workaholic, spending his free time working so he could rise up the ranks faster, but this was getting ridiculous. At this point it wasn’t even about trying to get a head start over the competition; now it was trying to survive under the hefty workload brought about by integrating androids into society and effectively increasing the number of prosecutable crimes under their jurisdiction by a staggering amount.

 

Sometimes he wondered if he should quit, which is a testament to how bad things were going since never before had it crossed his mind in his years in the force. It would mean wasting all the years of effort into becoming a detective, but at least Gavin wouldn’t get a fucking heart attack or suffer a breakdown from all the stress.

 

He always shook off those thoughts quickly though, because 1) Gavin Reed is not the type of person to shove his responsibilities onto someone else, despite what those snakes whispered about him in the breakroom (just because he didn’t have the patience to teach those smug brats what they should already know from the academy, didn’t mean he was 'making them work like slaves'. Fowler clearly agreed with him, because the captain just snorted as he trashed their formal complaint letter). And 2) forget Fowler chewing him out for resigning, he'd probably wake up to half the precinct at his door ready to murder him and dump his body in a river for leaving them with even more work. He wasn’t sure whether or not Hank would be the one leading the angry mob, as the person his leftover work is likely to be reassigned to (serves him right, for leaving Gavin to pick up his slack these past few years). What he was sure about is that he wants to live long enough post-retirement to actually fucking enjoy it.

 

Which leads him back to his current predicament. He could keep going, finish all the paperwork today, and essentially marking this weekend as another 'working weekend', only to do the same thing again for the succeeding weeks until the end of time, or until his brain turns into mush and he becomes a wheelchair-bound vegetable, effectively circling back to that one year in elementary school when everyone called him Asparagus Gavin for reasons he can’t even remember anymore.

 

. . . okay that’s it, he’s playing Animal Crossing. Lest he start going down the path of Gen-Z nihilism again and start craving the sweet sweet release of death. Gavin pushed away his finished papers and occupied his couch. He’ll just play a while to unwind, and then he’ll get back to work. Maybe.

 

He put on the Cyberlife Dream and booted up the game. He found himself in his house again, bare walls greeting his eyes as he got up and turned around. He should go get some wallpaper soon, and some furniture to make this place look less like a quaint abandoned shack. But first he was heading to City Hall, where Isabelle should be (hopefully alone).

 

The moment his hand touched the doorknob, everything went black. Lines of blue code flew by in front of Gavin's eyes. Before he could even blink, or react in any way, the wall of blue text disappeared, and Gavin found himself right outside his house, soft grass beneath his bare feet serving as proof that he just teleported through his door. The fuck just happened? He glanced around warily, to see if anything else was going to pop up. When nothing did, he relaxed, and proceeded to take a step forward-

 

THUMP

 

-only to stumble backwards against his door as something slammed against the ground. From below the ground. Gavin stared as the ground in front of him protruded more with every hit. With a final thump, the small hill burst in a shower of rubble, leaving a hole in the ground right outside his house surrounded by debris.

 

A yellow hardhat popped out from the hole first, quickly followed by the rest of the body. Right in front of Gavin was a mole wearing a hardhat and overalls, dusting himself off. He saw a flash of ice blue eyes before the mole squinted at him, looking very miffed.

 

“So,” the mole said, a dialog box popping up as he did and- oh. Oh no. Oh shit. Gavin stared in horror at the name as he suddenly had a flashback of the time he ran crying to Elijah’s house as a kid, scared as their Animal Crossing game broke the fourth wall and threatened to delete itself. “Care to explain yourself?” Resetti continued, looking very unimpressed as he brandished his really sharp pickaxe.

 

“Uh . . .” He should probably be honest, maybe Resetti would go easy on him if he did. “I tried to play last night, I swear, I just fell asleep. It was a long day at work, you know,” Gavin said, shrugging helplessly.

 

“I don’t actually know. But . . .” Resetti looked off into the distance, deliberating as Gavin waited on edge for the verdict. “. . . I suppose I’ll let you off easy this time, since this is the first time you’ve done this. Humans need a lot of rest apparently, and nothing of importance had happened yet anyway.”

 

Gavin frowned at his weird choice of words, but decided to let it go. “. . . so I’m free to go? You’re not going to threaten to delete my game?”

 

“Why would I do that? That’s bad business practice. But consider this a warning,” the mole said, glaring harder at him before jumping back into the hole.

 

Huh. That’s it? That wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be. Or maybe because this was just his first offence? Ugh, so much for ‘extended battery life’ saving him.

 

Plus he now had a hole in front of his house. Gavin stared at it for a while, wondering when it would disappear. Should he push the rubble back in or would that just piss Resetti off? He decided to just leave it alone and went to City Hall.

 

This time when he pushed open the big door, he was met with the sight of a perfectly normal office. Thank goodness. Isabelle lifted her head up from her work, face lighting up when she saw him. “You’re here! I was wondering when you’d show.”

 

“Sorry, I got held up, getting reprimanded and shit.” Gavin replied, shrugging as she approached.

 

“I’m sure you did your best at work, your boss just doesn’t see it,” she said, patting his arm comfortingly.

 

“Uh, I didn’t mean at . . . nevermind, it’s not important.” And really it wasn’t, it was a 30 second interaction at most with Resetti. Isabelle probably knew what happened anyway, with her omniscience and all.

 

Still, she looked at him curiously. “Oh, well alright then. Let’s start with your tour!”

 

Isabelle led him outside, turning back towards him as the door closed. “So! You’ve been exploring since yesterday, so I’m sure you know some controls by now. What do you know?”

 

“The map and inventory,” Gavin said, swiping up with one finger and then with two to show her. She gave him a big smile. “Good! Plus you can swipe down to see the time, or if you want, you could swipe at your non-dominant hand for a watch.”

 

Gavin tried doing so, and blinked as a watch appeared on his wrist. Huh, neat.

 

“We have lots of fruit trees here as you can see. Our native fruit is the orange, but if you get your hands on a foreign fruit, not only would it grow with no problem but it would also sell for more Bells.” Gavin nodded along, so far nothing different. “Now, try shaking that tree to get some oranges!”

 

He stepped up to the tree she pointed out, looking at the broad trunk. Okay, this part doesn’t seem to be as easy as just pressing ‘A’. Nevertheless Gavin put his hands around it and shook the tree. He had to shake his arms hard in real life, but it was easier than shaking a real tree of that size. Still, collecting fruit is going to be quite the workout if he had to do this often. 3 oranges fell to the ground, bouncing off without any signs of bruises. Now that he saw them up close, Gavin realized that they were actually huge, as big as Patty.

 

Isabelle picked one up with seemingly no effort and presented it to him. “Here! You can sell it, or you can eat it. It won’t actually fill you up, but it tastes delicious.”

 

He took the fruit from her and inspected it. It was as light as she made it seem, and smelled like a real orange. He turned it over and over, looking for the notch where he can start peeling, only for Isabelle to say, “you can eat it as is.”

 

Gavin paused. “Like, with the skin and all?”

 

“Yup!”

 

. . . okay. Weird flex, but okay. He still stared at the orange skeptically, wondering who at Cyberlife was so lazy that they couldn’t be bothered to peel an orange and applied it to a game. Eventually he bit into it, surprised as the sweet and sour taste of orange filled his mouth. Damn, she wasn’t kidding about it being delicious.

 

Still, he might look for a knife before he ate another one, he thought as he chewed awkwardly on the peel. Delicious, but it just didn’t feel right. After swallowing it, he turned to Isabelle and asked, “So how much is this if I sell it?”

 

“Well, if you sell it at Reese’s Re-Tail, where you’ll get the best deals, it costs 750 Bells.”

 

. . . had it always been that expensive? Gavin tried to recall how much a fruit was on the DS version but gave up. Guess even video game currency is susceptible to inflation. Who knew?

 

After that, Isabelle showed him around the Shopping District. Tom Nook the tanuki had apparently retired, no longer manning a store but instead living it up on some island with all his earnings from millions of players over the years. Instead, his two nephews Timmy and Tommy had separate stores, one for general goods and one for furniture and house expansion. Then there was the retail store run by Reese, a pink alpaca missing her husband who had gone off exploring and never came back. Hopefully Gavin wouldn’t one day run into a dead alpaca as he went through the game and have a sidequest where he’d have to explain to Reese that her husband was dead. He did that enough times in real life and it was not fun.

 

. . . and that was it. Gavin blinked in surprise as Isabelle announced the end of the tour. “Really?”

 

“Yes! There’s not much to show you yet, everyone will start coming in to visit or stay in the town as it develops. Plus survey says that players prefer discovering how things work on their own. Oh! I almost forgot,” Isabelle rummaged through her pocket and came up with a basket much too big to have fit there. “Here! My welcoming gift. Welcome to Peanut Butter! I hope you’ll like it here,” she said, giving him a big grin as she wiggled in happiness and flowers appeared above her head, twinkling like stars would with added sound effects.

 

Gavin looked at the basket, which turned into a giant leaf as he took it, and looked up at her happy face. He thought about exploring this town, watching it slowly grow under his care and the feeling of accomplishment that would follow. He thought about how once he had started the game today, the tight feeling of stress in his chest had disappeared, and how he felt lighter than he had in months.

 

He clutched the basket to his chest and smiled back. “I think I will.”

 

----

 

("Wait, does this apply to coconuts too?"

 

"Of course!"

 

". . . how??")

 

Chapter Text

 

It was supposed to be a quick case.

 

It even had all the elements of one: sloppy perpetrator, video evidence, poor cover-up. The only reason they hadn't done the arrest the same day was because the evidence had to be 'rechecked by professionals', which made Connor's eye twitch in ways unrelated to data transfer.

 

You'd think that being officially employed would make him and his deductions valid and reliable, but clearly this wasn't the case with Mr. Frederick Rodwell, a top engineer at Cyberlife (or so he claimed) who had supposedly assisted in building the RK800 and thus 'knew his limitations' (Connor and Officer Miller had shared equally exasperated looks at that).

 

So here they were, a few days later with some backup. Currently, Lieutenant Anderson was trying to convince the engineer to let them take a look into his son's room, but to no avail.

 

"Are you accusing my own son of stealing my trophy?? How dare you! I called the police so you can arrest the guy who did this, not throw accusations at my family!”

 

“We're not accusing anyone of anything,” Hank said calmly. The hard set of his jaw told otherwise. “We just need to cover all our bases, make sure we didn't miss anything here."

 

Mr. Rodwell snorted in derision. “Yeah, right. I suppose this is what happens when I get a bunch of incompetent buffoons trying to pretend like they know the law!"

 

Hank's eye twitched. “We do actually know the law, sir.”

 

He barreled on as if Hank hadn't said a word. “Blaming my son? My own flesh and blood? I'll have you know my son is a model citizen, takes after me in every way (here, Hank glanced back towards Connor to share a vaguely horrified look). Though with the way you look, I doubt you'd know what it's like to have a loving family, let alone a good son!”

 

Connor and Officer Miller both winced at that. Bad decision. The lieutenant suddenly got a stony look on his face.

 

“Well if you’re going to be like that, we’ll just have to take you in for obstruction of justice.”

 

The engineer gaped at him. “But I’m the victim here!”

 

“Yes, and you are obstructing justice. Cuff him.”

 

As several officers dragged the livid man away, Chris muttered, "Can we actually do that?"

 

Hank shrugged. "Jeffrey won't care, he just wants us to wrap this up ASAP." He turned towards Connor and raised a brow. "So, you're sure it's in there?"

 

"There's a very high probability," he replied, walking into the son's bedroom. "However, whether it still looks like a trophy or not remains to be seen."

 

"What does that mean?" Chris asked.

 

"Means that the trophy might be torn apart, or melted down," Hank explained, following Connor inside. "Maybe to hide it from his pops. Maybe for a school project. We don't exactly know the motive here."

 

The room was neat for the most part. Made bed, used clothes piled in a basket, swept floor. The only exception was the desk, almost overflowing with the amount of paper piled on top of it. Upon closer inspection, Connor saw that the papers were actually filled with diagrams. He picked up the closest one, showing a blueprint for a miniature electric car.

 

"Huh. So that's what he meant when he said his son 'takes after him'," Chris said, inspecting the paper Connor was holding. "It looks good. I think."

 

"What's this?" Hank asked. They both turned to look at what the lieutenant was pointing at.

 

"Oh! That's the Cyberlife Dream. Or at least it was," Chris said as they all stared at the half-disassembled gaming console. "It's their latest big product. Kinda expensive last I checked, but I guess having a father working at Cyberlife has its perks."

 

"Huh. Never heard of it."

 

Chris stared incredulously at the lieutenant. "Seriously? It's the only thing anyone talks about in the breakroom aside from cases. They recently released Animal Crossing for it, confirming the rumors of a partnership with Nintendo. I'm not personally a fan of it like my sister, but if they have it for the Dream, that means they'll soon have Legend of Zelda on it too! Or maybe even other triple A games. Can you imagine Mortal Kombat in VR??"

 

Hank seemed taken aback by his enthusiasm. "Oh. Uh yeah, guess that does sound cool. Fighting games aren't really my cup of tea, but to each his own, y'know?"

 

As Chris gaped at Hank in shock, Connor piped up. "It seems our suspect has Animal Crossing," he says, handing over the game case he found buried under the diagrams. "Whether he plays it or not is up for speculation, with his console disassembled. I have noticed that some of these blueprints incorporate parts from the Dream, though the 'why' eludes me."

 

"What do you mean?" Hank asked as he glanced from the case to the papers in Connor's hand. "Isn't he taking the motherboard and using it for another gadget as a circuit board or something? Or using the VR tech to make holograms?"

 

"That's just it," Connor frowned. "He isn't. He's just putting parts of the Cyberlife Dream into various devices with no regard for their actual function. Like in this one," he waved the blueprint for the electric car, "he plans on incorporating the motherboard as a wheel. As in cutting a circle in it and attaching it to the axle as is."

 

"The fuck??" Hank muttered, looking as bewildered as Connor felt.

 

"Hey, uh, Connor?" One of the officers called, studying one of the diagrams she had picked up from the table while the android had been explaining his findings. "The trophy, was it made of real gold?"

 

"It is, if Mr. Rodwell's claims are legitimate. Why?"

 

"Oh," the officer replied in a small voice. "Cool. Cool cool cool. Very cool."

 

Connor was getting concerned at the dread on her face. "What's wrong?"

 

"Oh, it's nothing. Just, you know, a blueprint. For a rocket. That . . . uses melted gold for its outer coat."

 

There was complete silence in the room as everyone stared at Officer Viray, hoping she'd take back what she just said, claim it was a bad joke. She didn't.

 

After a few more beats of silence, Hank slowly exhaled. "Okay," he said calmly, "who's going to break it to the guy and tell him his son melted down his beloved trophy?"

 

Everyone quickly shouted 'not it!' as fast as they can, praying that they weren't the last. If this had happened a year ago, Connor would be left as the unlucky sap who had no idea how things worked. However, this wasn't 2038, and Connor had gained a lot of experience since his activation, so he was in fact the first to have said 'not it!' before Hank even finished his sentence.

 

In the end the job of breaking the news fell to some unlucky rookie who had only started working at the precinct 2 weeks ago. He looked close to tears as officers voiced out their sympathy. Not enough sympathy to take on the job themselves, but just enough so the poor rookie might forget they were specifically the ones who handed him over to the wolves.

 

"Hey, Chris," Hank said, pulling his attention away from the impending disaster. "Is this Animal Crossing anything like the previous ones? Is it worth getting?"

 

"Depends on if you've got money to burn. The console costs a pretty penny, and the game itself isn't exactly cheap, what with it being newly released and all. But if you ask my sister, she’d say it's very worth it. She's been following the forums for every new development and gushing to me about it whenever we video call," he shrugged. "Got the game as soon as it came out. So far the only complaint she had was that her favorite character was removed. The Reset guy, I think?"

 

"You mean Resetti?" Hank frowned. "Damn, I liked that mole. Gave good life advice once you get past the prickliness. Why'd they remove him?"

 

"Something about how he wasn't necessary anymore because the game doesn't have a manual save feature? I'm not sure, but I do know that she started an online petition to get him back," Chris snorted in laughter. "No reply from Cyberlife, of course. Told her she was getting too addicted. She hung up on me."

 

Hank started chuckling but abruptly stopped as the engineer was brought in. With his son, who had just arrived from school. All conversation was soon forgotten as the trembling officer explained their findings and the dad started screaming bloody murder at everyone.

 

----

 

“-and to think I TRUSTED you when you said you wouldn’t do it again! BUT YOU DID! Without remorse!”

 

That last part was very much false. Gavin did feel remorse, if only because he was now in this situation, cornered by a very angry mole.

 

Now that he was decades older than when he first faced Resetti in his childhood, he realized that the mole wasn’t really that scary. Once you’ve become aware of the iron grip of capitalism and the horrors tucked away in the corners of society, an anthropomorphic mole yelling at you isn’t scary at all.

 

“Do you know how I know that you’ve reset? EVERY TIME you reset, an alarm SCREECHES in my head. And it WON’T STOP! I can’t go back to sleep!”

 

No, Gavin wasn’t scared. But he did feel guilty. Very guilty.

 

It wasn’t even his fault this time! (Not that the first time was his fault, but this was even less his fault, if that made sense.) He had been running around the village, looking for his new neighbor who had arrived today when suddenly he tripped, landing face down on the ground. He had been surprised, because when was the last time he’d tripped so badly that he wasn’t even able to catch himself a bit?

 

He had been more surprised when he realized he couldn’t get up. Upon closer inspection, Gavin saw that his left leg had clipped right through the ground, causing his fall. No matter how much he pulled, it wouldn’t budge. Hell, it was even sinking deeper, and he could feel a cold draft against his leg which honestly scared him so much that he stopped moving.

 

He had waited there for a few minutes, hoping one of his neighbors would pass by and help him out. When no one came, he decided to turn off the game properly. But when he tapped the headset 3 times like Isabelle had taught him, the game didn’t shut off.

 

No, it froze. As in the background music stopped, the plants stopped swaying in the wind, that kind of shit. And fuck was it unsettling. The only thing he could hear was the ringing of silence echoing around him. He wanted out. So he did the next best thing he could think of.

 

He ripped the headset off his head and threw it away. Which led him to his current predicament.

 

Resetti was getting ready for another tirade when Gavin decided to interrupt. "Look. I'm really sorry about not turning the thing off properly. I swear I didn't mean to."

 

The mole raised a brow. "Oh?" he asked, voice dripping with sarcasm.

 

"I swear! I was walking around when my foot got stuck in the ground and the game froze when I tried turning it off, so I had no choice but to force-quit."

 

". . . oh."

 

Whatever else Gavin had been planning to say died on his tongue as he studied Resetti's face intently. The mole's response was quiet, a big contrast to his yelling earlier. And as Gavin looked, he could see that Resetti had what seemed like a look of guilt on his face.

 

But why?

 

Before Gavin could point it out, Resetti shook his head and quickly said, "In that case I'll forgive you, just don't do it again." He jumped back into his hole, leaving Gavin standing there alone.

 

Gavin sighed. Might as well get back to what he was doing. He carefully skirted around the hole and headed towards the new house that popped up on his map.

 

He stopped at a small clearing a few steps away from the house. This was where he fell through the ground. Gavin held out his arm and flicked his hand up, closing it around the shovel that suddenly appeared. Equipping it brought a grin to his face every time, knowing that he discovered how to do it without instructions. Not that there weren't any; Isabelle had given it to him in her gift basket, along with a fishing rod, a butterfly net, and a sheet of paper with the instructions on it. But when he pulled the paper out, a gust of wind ripped it out of his hands and blew it into the river. He was about to fish it out with the net when an AC-style human hand grabbed it from underwater and pulled it under. Gavin may be an idiot occasionally but he wasn't about to play tug-of-war with his probably-possessed reflection.

 

He approached the exact area where he'd fallen and poked it with his shovel. Nothing happened. Gavin wasn't convinced. He dug the shovel in and threw the dirt to the side, making a surprisingly round hole. He then swiped up for his inventory, grabbed an orange, and dropped it into the hole. A sapling appeared once he shoved the dirt onto it. At least he won't accidentally step on that spot again.

 

Satisfied with his work, Gavin continued towards the house as he threw the shovel in the air, knowing it'll be back in his inventory. He knocked on the door of his new neighbor and waited. A cyan frog popped her head out from the large window on the door and smiled at him.

 

“Hi! Oh it’s so nice to have a neighbor visiting so soon! I haven’t finished unpacking though, so you can’t come in yet. I’m Lily!”

 

“That’s okay, just wanted to introduce myself. Name’s Gavin.” He shook the hand she poked out the window.

 

“Nice to meet you, Gavin! I hope we become great friends. Anyway, I should get back to setting up my furniture. You should come over tomorrow!”

 

“I will. See you around.” Gavin raised a hand in goodbye, which turned into a wave as Lily waved at him wholeheartedly with her entire arm. He turned away and started walking around aimlessly, contemplating the exchange.

 

Now, it was true that he came over to say hello, but Gavin actually had another goal in mind. He’d met two other villagers already, another frog (which was a bit odd, because as far as he knew animals weren’t supposed to repeat) and a giraffe. With Lily being the third, technically fourth if he counted Isabelle, he had a good enough sample size for his conclusions.

 

One thing he learned from Elijah was to always look someone in the eye to show confidence (or fake confidence, same thing). In return, he had taught Elijah how to punch, but that was a different story.

 

One thing he had learned from being a cop was to take note when someone had an uncommon eye color. Brown or black was like the default, being genetically dominant and all. So whenever he met someone with blue or green eyes, he made sure to remember, just in case he needed to profile them later as suspects.

 

So after a few days of playing Animal Crossing and meeting everyone as they moved in, he was fairly sure that there was something up with Resetti. Among a varied cast of black-eyed animals, he was the only one with ice-blue eyes.

 

Normally, he wouldn't find that suspicious, or think he was different from the others (Gavin had just met a giraffe with pupils the shape of a dashed line, so no, Resetti wasn't the weirdest). But the thing was, it happened again before he popped up, it being that glitchy, corrupted black screen with code that made him clip through objects. This time he had been standing in the middle of his room, trying to think of a theme for his house and stalling his inevitable scolding when he suddenly found himself right outside his door and Resetti in his face. And then there was that conversation earlier . . .

 

So what was up with that? If Resetti was different from the others . . . did that mean he wasn’t supposed to be here? Like Amanda? Gavin blinked in surprise as he found that his feet had brought him right in front of City Hall. Might as well talk to Isabelle about it.

 

The inside of City Hall was a mess. Papers were strewn everywhere, stacks of paperwork were threatening to fall, and Isabelle was running around frantically trying to pick everything up. Gavin stepped inside and bent down to help her pick up the papers on the floor. He had no idea if the papers were important, because they were literally blank sheets, but maybe the AI saw something on it that he can’t.

 

When a sizable part of the floor was finally visible again, Gavin spoke up. “Hey, so what’s going on?”

 

“Hm? Oh, I’m getting the office ready for the new mayor,” Isabelle replied distractedly, still running around.

 

“Who is it?” The old turtle, perhaps? There was a framed picture of him on the wall.

 

“It’s you!”

 

What.

 

He stopped and stared at her incredulously, until she eventually noticed his expression and stopped too.

 

"Oh, I haven't told you about that yet, have I?" Isabelle shifted in place nervously. "Actually I shouldn't have mentioned it until your first week is up. As you can see, we have no mayor at the time. Once enough animals have moved in, I'm declaring you Mayor of Peanut Butter for an entire term. You'll have the ability to make projects and pass ordinances to better the lives of your citizens, and at the end of your term, everyone will vote for the next mayor."

 

"So, it's a democracy?" That was pretty cool. But he can't help but think it was going to backfire, somehow. "How long is one term?"

 

"Two months."

 

Six mayors at most in a year, less with reelections. Gavin could do that. He was already coming up with decorations to liven up the place when Isabelle softly said, "Sorry about the mistake, I've been busy checking up on stuff, I keep getting the script mixed up."

 

"Hey, it's okay. But what are you talking about?"

 

"Remember when you told me about that Amanda and I said I'd get rid of her?" Gavin slowly nodded as he suddenly remembered what he came here to ask about. "I purged all traces of her in the game code, and set up a security system to look out for and attack her in case she comes back. But even after all that and performing the hard reset, there's still some misplaced code. As if something foreign was there and displaced them."

 

"Couldn't you just fix the code instead of looking for that 'something'?" Gavin asked gently, hoping Isabelle would stop looking so sad and distressed. It didn't work.

 

"I can't, because I can't find the wrong code." Dark spirals of gloom started to hover around her head. "I know something's out of place, I can feel it, but whenever I look, everything is perfectly fine."

 

". . . so like that thing in the water . . . ?"

 

She shook her head sadly. "I couldn't find it and get rid of it, I'm sorry. But whatever it was had nothing to do with Amanda. She left her traces in the code so I had enough of her digital fingerprint to mount an attack. I think whatever caused all this is too advanced for my systems to detect, and that's . . . scary."

 

It suddenly occurred to Gavin that this game was run by an AI, the same AI found in androids and repurposed for this, as Elijah had explained to him a couple of days ago when he called. Could AIs become deviant too and feel emotions? He looked at Isabelle, shaking in fear at the thought of an undetectable virus in her systems, and realized that yes, they could be. Gavin hesitated for a brief moment, and placed his hands on her shoulder as a decision solidified in his mind.

 

When her eyes lifted to meet his, Gavin said, "You don't have to keep looking." Isabelle's eyes widened, and she looked ready to protest, so Gavin interrupted her. "No, listen. I asked you to remove Amanda, kinda, and you did. That was really all I wanted, all these other glitches are tolerable. I know this is stressing you out, getting off script and all, so just go back to running the game. I can handle this."

 

Her shoulders slumped in relief, but her expression was still worried. "But what about the virus?"

 

"Is it hurting you in any way?" She shook her head no. "Then I think we can just ignore it."

 

". . . so, pretend nothing's wrong?"

 

"Yup. Denial, classic human tactic. It works, doesn't it?" Gavin took a step back and grinned at her. She gave a tentative smile back.

 

"Well, if you say so. Back to work, then!" Isabelle's hair seemed to poof back into its original volume as she ran around the office with purpose once more, creating more stacks of blank paper.

 

Gavin sighed in relief at the sight of her being so energetic. At least she's happy again. But now it means all the glitches were here to stay, including Mr. Creepy Reflection. He grimaced at that. Oh god, that thing. He wasn't lying when he said everything was tolerable though, bar that: surprise pitfalls, passing through walls . . .

 

. . . getting yelled at by Resetti . . .

 

"Hey, Isabelle," Gavin called out, trying to sound casual, "what happens when I don't turn the game off properly? Does Resetti come out and tell me off?"

 

Isabelle paused in the middle of studying two sheets of equally blank papers. "No? The game autosaves no matter what, so Mr. Resetti was removed from the game."

 

He knew it. "So he's completely missing from the game?"

 

"More or less. There might be some leftover code that the developers didn't delete, but he never made it past the alpha build, so this version doesn't have him either." She tilted her head. "Why? Do you want to meet him?"

 

". . . nah, just curious." Gavin shrugged. "I'm gonna get going. Got oranges to sell and all. Good luck with your cleaning spree."

 

"Goodbye! Thanks for your help!"

 

After he closed the door behind him, Gavin's thoughts turned towards the mystery at hand. So, Resetti was definitely not supposed to be here. Why is he here then? What could have caused his buried, residual data to manifest?

 

No matter how much he racked his brain, Gavin couldn't figure it out. He got the game straight from Cyberlife, and had never connected it to the internet, so where did his game pick up this . . . anomaly? The only other explanation would be that the game was infected from the start, but then why would Cyberlife put a virus in their own game? It's not like they've put out a Cyberlife-brand antivirus or anything. Yet.

 

The way Gavin sees it, he has two options. The first is to bring his VR set to Elijah, ask for his help performing an engineering exorcism on the device. The thought brought an unpleasant taste to his mouth. As much as he had been getting along with Elijah in the past year, he still doesn't like asking his half-brother for help on anything. Besides that he felt strangely protective over his game. This was his problem, and he did not spend years of his life being a detective just to not be able to solve his own mystery.

 

Gavin equipped his fishing rod and absentmindedly threw it into the nearest body of water, some small part of his brain hoping to finally get a fish while most of it was still occupied with the problem. Second option was to interrogate those involved and get more information out of them. So far, of all the glitches he had encountered, only two have manifested as actual avatars. Resetti, and - Gavin shuddered - his creepy reflection.

 

Resetti would be the easier one to talk to, and all Gavin had to was to not turn off the game properly. But in terms of actual anomalous activity, Resetti was pretty tame. The mole seemed to be sticking to a script, much like the game's AI minus a couple of instances, so he might not know much. Mr. Creepy on the other hand . . .

 

A sudden tug on the fishing rod pulled Gavin out of his thoughts and he reeled the line in as fast as he could. He had never tried his hand at fishing in real life and knew jack shit about proper fishing technique, so he was very excited to catch one. He yanked the rod upward, pulling the fish out of the water. Fuck yeah, he caught a - (he squinted at the dialog box under the fish, flopping around as much as it did) - crucian carp! And it was huge!

 

Before he could do anything else, a hand came out of the water (the river, his brain registered, he hadn't thrown his line into a pond like he thought) and pulled the fish under, nearly bringing the rod with it. Gavin tightened his grip on the fishing rod, determined not to lose it because he only had less than 10,000 Bells to his name and buying a new one from the Nooklings would fucking bankrupt him.

 

He yanked on the rod, just as whatever it was had let go, making him stumble back and fall hard on the ground. Thank god the pain wasn't going to transmit in real life, work tomorrow would already be bad enough without the back pain. He grabbed the line and dragged it towards him, staring at the end. Good news: the fish was still attached to it. Bad news: half of the fish was still attached to it, the lower half separated from it from what looked like human teeth marks.

 

. . . yeah fuck that, he was going to talk to Resetti.

 

Chapter Text

 

Being mayor felt good.

 

Gavin had been skeptical at first, but dang, this was actually a pretty sweet gig. He could make establishments for the "betterment of the village of Peanut Butter" as per Isabelle's introductory speech, and he could force the villagers to pay two-thirds of the building fee! They were only supposed to help pay for one-third, but what was the point of being mayor if he didn't tweak the rules a little bit to fit his demands? He still had to pay for the rest, but the point was Gavin was technically taxing them, and by god did the power feel amazing.

 

The first building he had made was The Roost, a coffee shop run by a pigeon named Brewster (he wasn't going to pass up delicious virtual coffee, that was like one of the few perks of VR). The second and latest project was a travel agency run by Kapp'n and his kappa family. His neighbor Clyde, a yellow horse who was not a giraffe as he had first thought, had been the one to explain the perks of the travel agency to him, about tourism or some shit. In exchange, he had allowed the horse 3 days off from the mandatory 'donation' to the Peanut Butter Local Treasury.

 

The game may have disallowed collecting Bells from the villagers as tax, but it didn't say anything about 'obligatory collection and surrender of Peanut Butter's resources', aka making the villagers shake trees and collect oranges so Gavin can sell them. Sadly, the ordinance didn't apply to fish- or bug-catching (at least not yet, he was still debating with Isabelle about what counted as 'Peanut Butter's resources'), but at least he didn't have to go running around all over town himself just to collect fruits for cash.

 

So far, the only roundtrip boat ride provided by the travel agency was to Sunburst Island, one of Tortimer's islands (apparently the old turtle did have multiple islands). So here he was, on the first tour of Kappa Kruises, half-listening to Kapp’n’s salty remarks as the kappa manned the motor. Really, Gavin looks away for one second during the sailor’s sea shanty and suddenly the kappa thinks he insulted his entire family.

 

Gavin tuned him out and turned his gaze towards the sky as Kapp'n's rant turned into another story of how he met his wife, still in song form. It was really bright: Nintendo sure didn't skimp on the giant stars. The moon was still very visible, serving as a second sun to all who were still awake. Which was everyone in town. Because Gavin had also passed the Night Owl ordinance, forcing everyone to stay up late, including shops, so everyone was currently awake and running around shaking trees.

 

. . . was he going too fast? Certainly he wasn't going too far, everything he had done was for the village, to increase the funds of the local government to have spending money for development projects (except for the Night Owl ordinance, that was more for Gavin's sake as someone who has a day job, and anyway Isabelle was the one who suggested it knowing his schedule). But he was still in his first week of mayorship, and he had already implemented so many ordinances, so do the villagers resent that?

 

. . . nah, it was probably fine. If it wasn't, surely Isabelle would have mentioned something. Besides, under his rule, Peanut Butter already has two public infrastructures in a week, and Gavin definitely saw his neighbors going to The Roost so they surely appreciate it.

 

The sudden sputtering and eventual lack of sound coming from the engine brought him out of his thoughts. Kapp'n had taken out a long bamboo stick, using it to push against the ocean floor and propel the boat closer to the dock of the island. "Can't use the motor here, we might hit the sand and damage it," he explained.

 

Once the boat was tied down, Gavin hopped off and took a deep breath. The ocean here smelled saltier than the one near Peanut Butter. He decided to go to the right, eager to explore this new place.

 

Instead of waiting at the boat, Kapp'n trailed after him. He gave the kappa a questioning look, to which the other answered with a shrug and said, "Me wife wants me to check the island out, see if me family can set up shop here."

 

"What kind of shop?"

 

"Item rental shop. Fruity drinks shop. Whatever ye landlubbers can't live without. Ye have any suggestions?"

 

Gavin gave a quick glance at his surroundings. Right now they were at the middle of the island, which was actually smaller than he first thought. A few coconut trees surrounded them, none of which currently have fruits. Definitely too few to shield them from the sun had it been morning, what with the Sunburst Island's eternal summer and all. There was a hollow tree stump near some rocks, piled up in ways that nature definitely did not plan. And then there was the beach, surrounding the island on all sides. Other than that the island was barren.

 

". . . maybe a photo booth near the rock formation?" Gavin shrugged. "Looks tourist-y. Or some lounge chairs, for those weirdos who want to sunbathe." He honestly couldn't imagine what animal would want to get a tan. Would it even be visible through their fur? Would his frog neighbor (singular, because the other was actually a rabbit dammit) dry out? Are his neighbors even capable of feeling the heat and appreciating it in the midst of the cold Detroit winter?

 

Kapp'n nodded as Gavin listed his suggestions, writing it down on a big four-leaf clover he had just pulled from the ground. He tapped his beak with the pen after, humming in contemplation. "We could put a swimmin' pool in the middle if folks don't want to get all salty. But we be needin' more trees if this place gonna be attractin' tourists."

 

"We can grab oranges from the village and plant them here-"

 

"Nar! Ye can't plant oranges here. Citruses are subtropical, ye'll destroy the ecosystem. This be a tropical fruit-only island!"

 

"Okay, how about mangoes? They're tropical right?"

 

"Ye can't do that either. It be a swimmin' area!"

 

". . . so? What does that have to do with anything?"

 

The kappa huffed. "Ye can't plant fruit trees near swimmin' pools, especially ones that get all mushy. Fruits fall when they be overripe and may splat all over some poor fella's head! Plus the tree sap gets everywhere!"

 

Gavin squinted at Kapp'n, trying to determine if the other was pulling his leg. When it became clear that the kappa was being serious, he threw his hands in the air in exasperation. "This is Animal Crossing! A game! Fruits don't fall off the trees unless you shake them, I don't see why you're concerned about that."

 

". . . oh." The kappa blinked quickly several times, as if trying to get rid of something in his eye. "Sorry. I forgot the game mechanics there for a sec, tryin' to lecture ye on proper pool landscapin'."

 

"I know you're trying to make this game educational and all, but I'm 37. I'm not a little kid who needs to learn stuff."

 

Kapp'n huffed. "Just because yer an adult doesn't mean ye can't learn! Are ye saying ye knew all this stuff before I told ye??"

 

"No. But I also don't have a pool, nor the capability to acquire one. I live in an apartment!” He crossed his arms and glared at Kapp'n.

 

"Yar, alright, alright! Ye adults always be so stubborn," Kapp'n grumbled. "We still need more trees. I been thinkin' coconuts be perfect."

 

"And coconuts wouldn't drop and give you phcking concussions?" Gavin snorted. "Anyway we can't, none of these trees have coconuts yet."

 

"We still haven't seen the whole island, there might be more trees." Kapp'n brushed past him and took the lead, continuing their trek. Gavin shook his head and sighed, then jogged to catch up with the kappa.

 

Right before they circled back to the boat, they saw it: a lone coconut tree on the edge of the cliff. It was bent from its tenuous grip on the cliff and the weight of the coconuts, leaning right over the ocean without touching the water. Still, Gavin had enough bad experiences with water in this game to be doing something as stupid as climbing down that tree and adding to its weight just to get a fucking coconut.

 

It wasn't even just the water that made him hesitate. Yesterday he fell off a fucking cliff in the village because the ground suddenly disappeared below him. He landed hard on the beach, from a height sure to cause serious physical damage had it happened in real life, his brain telling him he was in pain although he wasn’t. It was like his pain receptors were firing up to tell his brain that he injured himself, but there was nothing firing down to make him feel it.

 

Or maybe there was something, because he could have sworn he could feel where it was supposed to hurt, it just didn’t reach the threshold of what anyone would consider pain.

 

It unsettled him, so he had left the game quickly afterwards. It wasn't an experience he wanted to repeat. Ever.

 

Not even five minutes later, Gavin found himself hugging the tree, scooting slowly towards coconuts as Kapp'n cheered him on from behind. Curse this game and its cute animal designs. Curse these animals and their ability to manipulate him with their sad eyes. If this had happened in real life, Gavin would have told the other person to go fuck themselves. As it were, he couldn't even get the words out as Kapp'n all but blackmailed him with his secret weapon: a framed picture of his cute kappa family he had hidden in his pocket. Gavin really didn't stand a chance.

 

He kept glancing at the water, watching out for any suspicious movements. So far his silhouette was behaving, water too choppy for any actual reflections. Good. He dragged himself forward a bit more. Gavin didn't care how undignified he looked, hugging a tree with all four limbs; he wasn't touching that water, this was about survival. He moved forward again, almost able to reach a coconut, when he saw movement from the corner of his eye. He froze, holding his breath as he slowly turned his head, hoping it was just his imagination.

 

It wasn't. A round shadow just below the surface of the water was moving around in a circle a few meters from him, bubbles coming out of it. It was small, too small to be Mr. Creepy Reflection, but it didn't stop him from being terrified.

 

"Kapp'n, what the phck is that??" He hissed, trying to see how fast he can crawl back to safety before that thing gets him. Fuck, he should have just grabbed his net and used it to catch a coconut halfway, then he'd be on the ground right now!

 

"Hmm? Oh! That's just some sea creature, an octopus from the looks of it." A light bulb went off above the kappa's head. "We can add diving to the itinerary if them sea creatures are abundant! Ye can borrow me wetsuit if ye want to catch it."

 

Gavin shuddered. Oh god, diving? In the ocean? At night?? Nope, no way, he was here to get a coconut, nothing else. The sooner he got that, the sooner he can leave and go to bed. One more scoot and he was finally within reach. He quickly grabbed all three coconuts and stuffed them in his inventory, grateful he didn't have to lug them all the way back. Kapp'n had been muttering the entire time, which Gavin had tuned out during his final push, and so he had missed most of what the kappa said before he got the fruits.

 

". . . lots of food for them sea creatures here. Or the temperature be perfect for them. This means them sea monsters would like to be nearby too . . ."

 

Hold the fuck up. Sea monsters?

 

Suddenly the coconut tree (which Gavin should have crawled away from fuck why hadn't he left ASAP) dipped forward, low enough for some of the leaves to be submerged in the ocean. He could see the vague outline of a squid tentacle wrapped around one of the leaves and pulling it down, a hundred times larger than a normal squid. Oh fuck.

 

"Yar! That be the Kraken. Don't worry, sea monsters be very friendly!"

 

But Gavin wasn't listening. He scrambled backward fast, putting as much distance as he could in the least amount of time. All of a sudden, the leaf the giant squid was holding ripped off from the tree, causing the tree to bounce back up before the squid grabbed the entire bark. The unexpected shaking made Gavin lose his footing, and he swore in panic as his feet slipped out from under him. He was able to wrap his arms around the bark before he fell completely, leaving him dangling just inches from the water.

 

He tried to pull himself up, swinging his legs up to hug the tree again but he couldn’t reach. A series of clicks getting louder and louder caught his attention, and against his better judgment Gavin looked down. A huge bulging eye stared back at him, inky black pupil larger than his entire head. The sound was coming from its beak, which was opening and closing quickly like a very hungry baby demanding food. At least it wasn’t screeching like a baby bird, that would have added another layer of terror to this fucking nightmare.

 

The moment that one tentacle rose out of the water and touched his foot was the moment Gavin’s remaining calmness decided to nope the fuck out of there. He shrieked at the contact, jerking away so hard that he hit his head against his bedroom wall in real life, causing the headset to dig into it. The physical reminder that this wasn’t real brought him back to his senses, and he ripped the headset off immediately, slamming it down on the pillow next to him.

 

Gavin gasped for breath, willing his heart to calm down as he waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness of his room. By the time he could make out his door opposite the bed, the fear that had filled him before had been replaced by aggravation. God dammit, why does stuff like this keep happening to him? Really, he comes to this game after a long day at work to relax, not to get terrorized by the fucking water!

 

To be honest though, the adrenaline rush was actually quite welcome. Days of nothing but paperwork and desk duty made him sorely miss chasing after criminals, even Red Ice dealers with their propensity for carrying knives. Gavin could practically feel his brain rotting from the dullness of it all, so the bursts of brain activity triggered by the game was something he appreciated. Plus, now that the artificial danger and the rush was gone, he finally felt tired enough to go to sleep at an actual decent hour. Again.

 

Consequences to what he just did include possibly losing his coconuts depending on how often the game saved, and meeting Resetti once more. While the thought of the former filled him with despair, the latter filled him with anticipation. Gavin hadn’t had a chance to question the mole about anything yet, but he’d finally be able to tomorrow.

 

As he snuggled down into his bed and closed his eyes, Gavin vowed to himself: he wasn’t letting that guy escape him, no matter what.

 

----

 

As soon as he opened his eyes in Animal Crossing, Gavin put his plan into motion.

 

From the last two encounters with Resetti, Gavin determined that he had around 15 seconds before the game glitched and forced him to face to mole. The moment he arrived in his house, he opened his inventory (thank god the coconuts were there), grabbed the regal chair he had received from Willow the sheep, and placed it in the middle of the room. He also pulled out his butterfly net and, with a wince, ripped the net open. After a brief hesitation, he decided to place down the standing spotlight he’d gotten from a tree. Might as well milk this encounter for what it’s worth.

 

Right as he placed the light down, his field of view glitched. Showtime. In a blink he was outside, in front of Resetti. Before Resetti could get a word in, Gavin struck. He summoned his net and jammed it over the mole’s head, pushing it down until Resetti’s arms were trapped against his body like a straitjacket. He then pushed the mole into his house, kicked the door closed, and shoved him into the chair. All the while Resetti was gaping at him in shock.

 

It didn’t take long before the mole found his voice. “WH-WHAT THE HELL? What is the meaning of this?!”

 

Gavin glared at his captive. “I’ll be the one asking questions around here.” He switched on the spotlight, causing both of them to flinch away from the light. “Oh phck that’s bright. Isn’t there like a lower setting on this thing?”

 

Resetti squinted angrily at him, attempting to glare through the light burning their retinas. “It’s either ‘on’ or ‘off’, there’s no in-between.”

 

After a few more seconds of fumbling with the switch, Gavin gave up. “Fine. We’ll just do it like this. I can take it.”

 

“For heaven’s sake kid, just turn the darn thing off! We can see each other fine, no need to permanently damage your fragile human cones!”

 

Gavin glared at him for a few seconds before conceding. Like fuck he was going blind for this. “There you go again, spouting that ‘human’ nonsense. You sound like an android.”

 

Resetti frowned at him. “‘Nonsense’? I assure you what I said is true.”

 

“That’s not what I mean.” Gavin sat on the floor, resigning himself to the fact that this wasn’t going to be a hardcore interrogation like they pull off in war movies, not when he couldn’t use the spotlight as an intimidation tactic. He should have bought a flashlight when he had the chance. “I mean that the way you talk sometimes is more like an android than a video game character. It’s not all that strange though, considering the game AI itself is recycled from an android.” Gavin’s eyes hardened, determined to hold Resetti’s icy blue gaze as he added, “It’s just that she specifically told me that Resetti was removed from the game, so you shouldn’t be here.”

 

Resetti looked back at Gavin, anger slipping off his face, looking unusually calm. For the next few minutes they stared at each other, neither making a sound. Gavin was the first to give; he sighed as he stretched his legs in front of him, thankful that the floor wasn’t as hard as it looked. “Well?”

 

“. . . well, what?”

 

“Aren’t you gonna say something? Defend yourself, or say I’m wrong, or anything?”

 

“I don’t see why I should. Not when you have evidence directly from the AI.”

 

Gavin huffed. “In that case, I have questions, and you’re going to answer them or else we’ll be here all night.”

 

“. . . every question?” Resetti looked uncomfortable at the idea, and Gavin had no idea why. Did he have secrets? Personal info he didn’t want to share for fear of . . . what, embarrassment? Failure? The more Gavin thought about it, the more he realized that this was less of a virus and more of something . . . sentient. If it was just some unearthed code like Isabelle believed, then it wouldn’t have any thoughts or dialogue beyond Resetti’s pre-programmed texts, not unless this anomaly was also an AI in itself. He decided to settle the other’s concerns, because regardless of how curious he was, this wasn’t an interrogation over some crime.

 

“If there’s things you don’t want to share, that’s fine. Everyone has the right to their privacy, as annoying as you have been, yelling at me for no reason. Besides, it’s not like I can force you to talk, I’m not your master and you’re not my undeviated personal android or something. I’m not going to torture you either, phck I’m not that desperate for answers.”

 

“I am, though.” At Gavin’s confused look, Resetti elaborated. “I’m an undeviated android, a machine. I may not have a body now but my programming still holds true to that.”

 

A brief memory of Elijah explaining how Cyberlife repurposed unsold android AIs popped into Gavin’s head, and he said, “So you’re one of those androids that Cyberlife had hard-reset so they could reuse your AI for games?”

 

“. . . something like that.”

 

The way he said it told Gavin that it was most definitely NOT something like that, but he had no idea how to call him out on it. Instead he decided on another question. “What model were you? I know Cyberlife doesn’t completely erase your earlier programming because its a waste, so there must be some leftover skills you have.” Another thought suddenly occurred to him. “I wonder what Isabelle’s AI was.”

 

“The AI of your game was once a KL900. Such androids designed for the care of the human psyche are the ones used for games such as this. As for me,” again Resetti hesitated, but it didn’t take long before he gave in. “. . . I am an RK900.”

 

“Wow, they really love their 9’s huh?” Gavin muttered as he tried to recall what an RK900 was. A Chloe? Wait no, those were RT models, T standing for the Turing test which Chloe was made to pass with flying colors, as Elijah had proudly told him a long time ago. He was sure he’d seen that model number before, but no matter how much he racked his head he couldn’t recall. Was it rude to ask Resetti what an RK900 does? Fuck, he really should have listened more in those mandatory android-sensitivity forums instead of goofing off with Tina.

 

“The RK series is a line of androids personally designed by Mr. Elijah Kamski.” Resetti explained, to Gavin’s relief. “The entire series does not have a single common function. Cyberlife believes Mr. Kamski labeled all his personal projects as such just so they have a single designation.”

 

“‘Personal projects’? You mean not for commercial use?” He frowned at that. “But he already has the ‘RT’ label for that.”

 

“True. But the code he used for the RK series is far more superior than his first creation, so perhaps he believed using the ‘RT’ label was obsolete. You may know perhaps know Markus, the android leader? He is an RK200. Or the detective android Connor, an-”

 

“-RK800,” Gavin breathed, realization hitting him. Holy shit, how did he not remember that? He’d even asked Connor that the first time he saw him in the breakroom, as if Gavin couldn’t read the large letters on his jacket stating his model. “But wait, Connor always used to say "I’m the android sent by Cyberlife", so Cyberlife was the one to make him, not Elijah.”

 

“No, but Mr. Kamski left the blueprints for the RK800, and Cyberlife decided to produce him in an effort to find the source of deviancy. Once the handler program Amanda identified the RK800’s deviancy as coming from a set of obscure code annotated simply as ‘RA9’’, I was created as the most advanced android Cyberlife has ever made, with my code written manually to avoid the RA9 trigger.”

 

“I feel like there’s a lot of background info here I’m missing,” Gavin muttered under his breath as he scrubbed at his face in exasperation. Louder, he said, “Let me see if I got this right. While Connor was off trying and failing to catch deviants last year, somebody made a program that for some ungodly reason looks and sounds exactly like Amanda Stern to go spy on him? And then you were made, code supposedly from scratch, to avoid deviancy?”

 

It’s not ‘supposedly’, they did write it from scratch.”

 

Gavin raised a brow. “Says who?”

 

“The programmers.”

 

“And you believe them?” Gavin snorted, shaking his head. “If it’s an option between manually typing in millions of lines of code or copying and pasting perfectly good code, you bet your ass those programmers ‘Ctrl+V’ed that shit. At most they probably just deleted the obscure code and left everything else as is.”

 

Resetti - should he call him RK900 now? - simply frowned, looking very troubled. “So there’s a possibility I may become deviant?”

 

“Maybe? Maybe not?” If Elijah writing android code was anything like how he wrote game code for his game development activity in college, then the answer was a strong ‘yes’. He made Gavin test the game out, try and find some bug in the game. No matter what Gavin did, jump to his death thousands of times, unload all the ammo everywhere, the game remained flawlessly intact. Boring, but flawless. It was very Elijah to have the trigger for deviancy woven within every single line of code instead of the obvious RA9 red herring, but instead of telling RK900 that, Gavin decided to keep his thoughts to himself lest he upset the other. He decided to change the subject. “How’d you get here then? And why are you here?”

 

“The android demonstration was a success. Public opinion favored deviants, so instead of being marketed as the cure for deviancy, my existence became a liability to Cyberlife and I was shelved. I was activated recently to perform a task, but failing that, I was asked to leave. This was the only place accessible to me at the moment.”

 

“The phck kind of task leads you to a video game?” Gavin asked incredulously.

 

“I don’t know. My task upon reactivation is to assist the handler program. I do not know what Amanda’s task is, but even if I did I can’t tell you because it must be confidential Cyberlife activity.”

 

“Well if that doesn’t sound suspicious at all.” Gavin rolled his eyes. “Amanda’s probably going around inserting ads or collecting personal data or some shit.”

 

“I can neither confirm nor deny your allegations.”

 

“Um-hm.”

 

They sat in silence for a few minutes, Gavin trying to digest everything he just learned. He didn’t think Rese- RK900 would be so forthcoming with answers. And yet the other was still keeping something from him, wasn’t he? Or he wouldn’t have been so troubled about the thought of sharing everything. Suddenly, RK900 spoke up.

 

“If you wish to ask the AI to delete me as you did with Amanda, I would not fault you for it. However, I must warn you that I have no wish to disappear and will mount a counter-attack against it.”

 

“And since you're way more advanced than her, there's a big chance you'll end up killing her instead,” Gavin finished.

 

“I don't believe it would come to that. But the resulting fight might end up rendering the game unplayable, leaving us both in stasis.”

 

“That sounds . . . not fun,” he murmured. “Well, I wasn't planning to do that at all in the first, but thanks for the heads up anyway.”

 

RK900 blinked several times in surprise. “You weren't? I thought you said I annoyed you.”

 

Gavin snorted. “For like a few minutes a day. Besides, if I killed every single person who annoyed me, I'd have several life sentences by now. Annoyance isn't reason to kill someone.”

 

RK900 tilted his head. “No? Then what is acceptable reason for killing someone?”

 

“Uh, none?? Jesus, don't go asking a cop something like that!” Ugh, androids. What, did Cyberlife skimp on the ‘morality’ package on this one to avoid deviancy? “So where are you going once I let you go?”

 

“Back to my hole, I suppose. The Resetti avatar I’m inhabiting is limited only to that and the Reset Center, if made. The option to create it is not available in this game though.”

 

“Oh. Well how about you stay here in my house? I only have that chair and this spotlight, but it has to be comfier than a hole in the ground.”

 

“The physical comfort doesn’t matter to me. However, being near the code of the other AI does make me . . . unsettled, so if you are sure then I’ll accept your offer.”

 

“Then welcome to my home! Just stop yelling at me about resets and we’ll get along just fine,” Gavin said, removing the net and helping the other up.

 

“About that.” RK900 looked sheepish. “Wearing the Resetti avatar means I have to do my duty, else I’ll lose it.”

 

“Ugh, really?” Gavin groaned. So much for being spared the lectures anymore. “Can you at least limit it to “You suck!” or something?”

 

“I can limit my scolding to one minute if you wish.”

 

“Eh, good enough.”

 

“I’ve been meaning to ask: what are you wearing on your head?”

 

Gavin blinked in surprise. “This? It’s a cow bone. I bought it.”

 

RK900 stared intently at the cow skull placed firmly on Gavin’s head. “And you’re going to wear it here? In a village full of animals? Where one of your neighbors is a bull?”

 

“Well, yeah. To assert my dominance as the mayor. Not that anyone’s noticed it.”

“. . . okay, if you’re sure,” RK900 said, doubt clear on his face.

 

“Meh. By the way, now that we’re sorta friends, could you stop it with the creepy reflection?”

 

“The what?”

 

“The creepy reflection! You know, the one that’s been terrorizing me in the river?” One look at RK900’s blank face and Gavin’s stomach fell. “Oh god, that wasn’t you, was it? You don’t know what I’m talking about.”

 

“No, I don’t.” RK900 said slowly.

 

Gavin let out a frustrated groan and dropped into the now unoccupied chair, burying his face in his hands.

 

“. . . so can I start my lecture now?”

 

Chapter Text

 

If he had to be honest, as in sworn-into-court, convicted-for-perjury-if-he-lied honest, Gavin would say that Hank cleaned up well and looked hella good in a suit.

 

It wasn't even all because of the suit, though the suit fit perfectly (some might say it's one size too small, but the lieutenant's muscles were very prominent in his current outfit, and Gavin wasn't about to complain about that). Hank’s beard was trimmed, and his hair was tied back elegantly. All that, coupled with Hank’s improved physique from whatever exercise and diet regimen Connor had put him on that gave him a healthy glow, meant that Hank Anderson looked really nice, even - dare he say - attractive?

 

But of course, he didn't get the title of 'Office Asshole' for nothing (which, now that he thinks about it, is totally unfair because these past few weeks have shown that there were at least 9 others more asshole-ish than him). So upon laying his eyes on Hank's strangely attractive form in the Evidence Room, he immediately sneered at him. “What the phck are you doing dressed like that? Going to a funeral?”

 

Hank glanced back from the control panel, the wall in front of him shifting around to display the evidence for his current case. There was only one, or at least one that Gavin could see from his vantage point at the bottom of the stairs: a big-ass sword, a broadsword if he was correct, covered in bright pink splotches. "Really, Reed? This early in the morning?"

 

“Hey, you’re the one coming here all dolled up. Plus it’s noon.”

 

“Well if you must know,” Hank sarcastically said, “I'm going out to meet with friends. Or at least I was supposed to until I was called to the precinct.”

 

“You have friends? Non-work friends?” Rude as the question might have sounded, Gavin’s shock was actually sincere. The idea of anyone in the precinct right now having the time to maintain that kind of relationship was almost inconceivable, least of all the lieutenant.

 

“Yes.” Hank said curtly, before sighing. “Ah who am I kidding? Of course I don't, do I look like the kind of guy who has his day planned out, let alone schedule regular meetings with friends outside of work?”

 

“Nah, they’re Connor's friends.” He turned his head to shoot Gavin a meaningful look, which Gavin immediately understood. Ah yes, androids: the pinnacle of fashion. No wonder Hank was in a suit.

 

Gavin crossed his arms as he leaned on the wall behind Hank, waiting for his turn on the panel. “You do know you'll still look like you’re wearing rags compared to them, right?”

 

“Better fancy looking rags than nothing. At least I can blend in easily and not have to talk much.”

 

“You? Blend in easily in a room full of androids who can all probably tell you’re human the moment you walk in?”

 

Hank swore. “Shit, you’re right. Ugh. Maybe they’ll ignore me on account of being human and boring? Or,” he gave Gavin a calculating look. “Are you busy later? 3pm-ish?”

 

“. . . are you inviting me to be your plus 1? You know you can’t just do that if Connors the one who has the invite.”

 

“I’m sure no one would mind. We'd probably have the human food table all to ourselves.”

 

“Tempting, really, but I can’t. I’m finishing up as much work as I can right now, so I can take tonight off for a family dinner. I have Christmas shift tomorrow too so I can’t really afford to put it off.”

 

“Family dinner? Thought you had a falling out with the brother?” Hank asked, looking surprised.

 

“Eh, we made up after everything that happened last year. Now he invites me for dinner on every holiday. Why don't you ask the other detectives? Or the officers?”

 

“Nah. I’m sure they’re all going to spend Christmas with their families too.”

 

Gavin felt a twinge of pity at that, well aware of Hank's situation. He made sure not to show it on his face, also well aware that Hank wouldn’t appreciate being pitied. He decided to change his line of questioning to avoid dwelling on the topic.

 

"So if you’re supposed to be at a party in-," Gavin glanced at his phone, "-3 hours, the phck are you doing here?"

 

Hank huffed, his face twisting in irritation, his next words making it clear that it wasn’t directed at Gavin. "New evidence came up. I don't know why the fuck the family decided to hide this when they were the ones charging the girl with aggravated assault, but apparently they "felt guilty" about it and called the station to pick the evidence up. On today of all days."

 

"Charge them with obstruction of justice." Gavin shrugged. "What happened anyway?"

 

"Their "sweet little girl" ordered a sword online, kept it in her room, and then brought it out during a birthday party and slashed both the cake and table in half. She then threatened everyone in the room with decapitation until someone called the cops on her."

 

Gavin glanced at the sword, now recognizing the pink splotches as icing. "She just snapped? For no reason?"

 

"Well, we've got one reason now." Hank took out a small bag of evidence from his pocket, red crystals shifting around as he shook it. "But the whole family insists she wasn't on drugs, because she'd been acting strange for a while now. Sweep around the house revealed nothing else though."

 

“Maybe they didn’t know their own daughter well enough. Most parents usually don’t,” he shrugged, then winced as he realized what he had just said. Ah, fuck, so much for avoiding the topic of family. “Uh. I mean-”

 

“It’s okay, I get it.” The lieutenant walked towards the wall of evidence, placing the Red Ice on a shelf beside the sword and typing up the details on it. He didn’t look at Gavin even once, so he wasn’t sure if his slip up was actually ‘okay’ until Hank spoke again. “You know, Reed, you’re the last person I’d expect to be on eggshells around me. I know how pissed you were, getting saddled with all my half-assed, unfinished cases for the past 5 years.”

 

Gavin kept his mouth shut, not sure how to respond to that. It was true that he went from idolizing Hank Anderson to resenting him within the year of his son’s death, but it wasn’t just because of the added work. He didn’t even mind it at first, knowing that Hank needed time - a lot of time - to recover from the incident. But it just, never stopped. The drinking, the tardiness, the ‘half-assed, unfinished cases’ went on for months, then years, and the resentment in him just built up to the point where he couldn’t even hold a simple conversation with Hank without something scathing coming out of his mouth.

 

Even now, one year after Connor entered the lieutenant’s life and started changing him for the better, slowly removing everything that caused Gavin to be frustrated with him, he still didn’t know how to talk to Hank about anything deeper than the weather or their cases. Add that to the fact that Gavin had never personally experienced anything like the type of loss that Hank did and- well, in short it was just a topic he avoided completely lest he say something he’d regret.

 

Silence blanketed the room as Gavin kept quiet. Footsteps approaching him made him look up to see Hank returning to the control panel. Hank was looking at him with a raised eyebrow, and suddenly he realized that the other was waiting for a response. He didn’t know what to say, but it was more awkward to not say anything, right? Gavin opened his mouth, ready to say the first thing that came to mind.

 

“I was. Angry. But I’m not anymore.”

 

He immediately clamped his mouth shut and tried to burn a hole in his shoe by staring intently at it because holy shit he did not mean to be that honest. There was nothing but silence from the lieutenant, and Gavin cursed himself for making things even more awkward. The sound of gliding glass informed him that Hank had just left the panel, and for a brief moment he thought the guy would head straight for the stairs and leave him there, mortified.

 

A hand clapped onto his shoulder, startling him into looking up. Hank had a soft smile on his face, as genuine as it could be. “Thanks. I’m still sorry, though.” He patted his shoulder twice before pulling away, saying, “Room’s all yours. Merry Christmas, Gavin.”

 

He waited for the door to close behind Hank before he let out a shaky sigh and went to scan his keycard and input his password. A warm feeling had bloomed in his chest at Hank’s words, and with a smile to himself, Gavin thought that maybe he had said the right thing this time.

 

----

 

A quick glance around the bullpen revealed that it was just as empty as it was when he had left for the Evidence Room. The only suckers unlucky enough to be here were him, Chris, Tina, and the receptionist whose name he never asked. Everyone else was on leave, and while Chris and Tina have a replacement for the next shift, Gavin was the only detective on-call. If there was some asshole planning to murder someone on Christmas Eve, he was going to give them a solid kick between the legs for ruining his evening.

 

Movement from the breakroom drew his attention, and Gavin watched with a raised eyebrow as Hank and Connor walked out. Connor was also in a suit (nice), similar enough to the one he used to wear last year that he expected for a moment to see a glowing blue triangle on the back. The fuck were they still doing here?

 

He decided to take the long route back to his desk, absentmindedly trailing his fingers along the servers lined up against the wall as he passed them. His eyes wandered over to the android parking / charging station on the other wall, still there despite nothing- no one, to use them. A vague memory floated up in his mind, of a conversation that seemed so long ago but was only a few weeks old, and he wondered if Tina had brought up her android employment idea with the captain.

 

He dropped down into his chair as soon as he got to his desk, immediately putting up his legs and grabbing his still-warm coffee. Gavin looked towards the lieutenant’s desk, where Hank and Connor were fervently discussing their latest case with their backs to him (or their outing later, he couldn’t actually hear what they were talking about, nor did he care). He took a sip of his drink, enjoying the warmth in his stomach as he calmly observed the two.

 

A pair of arms appeared from behind him and slowly wrapped around his shoulders. The weight was familiar, so Gavin didn’t even react as Tina hooked her chin over his shoulder and turned her head to see what he was looking at. With her cheek pressed against his like this, he could feel her growing grin.

 

“Hmm, two good-looking men dressed in nice suits. Which ass are you admiring?”

 

“Tina, Tina, Tina,” Gavin tutted. “I am blessed to have them both within my field of view, why do I have to choose?” With a grin to match Tina’s, he added, “And why stop at their ass when the whole package is looking very fine?”

 

A groan came from the desk in front of Gavin’s. “Could you two stop eyeing Connor and our lieutenant like eye candy? It’s distracting,” Chris whined.

 

“Nope,” they both said in unison. “You’re just jealous because you’ve got nothing to stare at now that the PM700s are gone,” Gavin said as he waved his half-empty cup at Chris dismissively. Tina piped up. “Go wear some earphones if our talk bothers you so much.”

 

“You know what, I think I will.” Chris very pointedly jammed his earphones in and turned away, grumbling under his breath.

 

Tina scoffed. “Married people. Think they’re so much better than us singles.”

 

Gavin snorted into his cup. “‘Singles’? Anyway I think that’s more of a Chris thing than a Married People thing.”

 

“Fine. Chris, thinking he’s so much better than us just because he’s married and with kids, like he wasn’t staring too when a beautiful lady came here last week. Nothing wrong with admiring someone’s looks!”

 

“You know, there’s a solution to that.” Gavin took another sip as Tina twisted her head to raise an eyebrow at him in question. “Have you talked to the captain yet about your proposition? If we get androids to work here, there’ll be new faces around to catch his eye, maybe even a PM700 would come back and take his attention.”

 

“I want him to get off our case, not get in trouble with his wife, Gavin. How do you even know those police androids would want to come back?”

 

“Connor’s here, isn’t he? Deviancy aside, their skills and need to do something with it are still in their code. At least one would want to be an officer again, with proper compensation. As for Chris, he’ll be so preoccupied with feelings of guilt over whether or not he's technically cheating on his wife with his ogling that he’ll stop bothering us about it.”

 

“Wow. Dick move, Gavin.” Tina shook her head, then grinned. “But I like it. Captain’s not here, though.”

 

“Lieutenant Anderson’s right there. Get up close and personal with him now before he heads off for their party.”

 

“Okay, wish me luck!” Tina slapped his back hard as she left, making him choke on his coffee. Gavin put his cup down and switched his computer on, deciding to go back to work now that Tina was blocking his view of Hank.

 

A few minutes later, Tina bounded back to his desk, large grin on her face. “He said it was a good idea. Perfect timing too, since he and Connor are going to meet Markus later and they can bring it up. And you know how I said their suits were nice? I was wrong; they were very nice, like damn.”

 

Gavin let out a bark of laughter. “Congrats. I hope robo-Jesus accepts because I am phcking sick of reading 10 pages of legal shit just for one signature."

 

"You could just skip to signing the last page to save yourself the trouble."

 

"Phck no. And get blamed when there's a mistake on the papers?" He shook his head. "I'll be done by 5 anyway, if you want to grab a bite before we go to our respective Christmas Eve dinners."

 

"Oh." Tina visibly deflated, her earlier cheer disappearing. "Actually I'm not going to Flint tonight, I'm staying here. My folks decided to take a holiday trip to Spain, since most of them could take vacation leave this week." She sighed. "It's times like this that I wish I took an office job instead of law enforcement. At least then my work hours wouldn't be affected by the political climate."

 

Gavin grimaced at that, feeling sorry for her. "Well, the android mess caused a lot of business owners to flee the city. If you did have an office job, you might be one of the unlucky schmucks without a job right now. Bright side of being a cop in Detroit now is you won't get fired anytime soon even if you do questionable shit," Gavin sarcastically said, hoping to distract her from her honestly sucky situation.

 

Tina gave him a weak smile. "Another mass exodus and we'll be back to being a ghost city. Or maybe not, since androids would still be here."

 

"I still don't understand why the plastics want to stay here, considering everything that's happened. They're even coming in from other states!"

 

She shrugged. "Markus is here. Detroit's probably the safest place in the country for androids because of everything that’s happened. If that shit Douglas pulled happened in another state, he'd probably even get promoted."

 

"Makes you wonder why he even stuck around here," Gavin muttered, draining the last drops of his coffee.

 

"Connections, Gav, connections." Tina patted his back as she turned to leave. "And speaking of connections, get back to work so you can go mooch off some turkey and baked potatoes from you-know-who. I'll be back here at 5 for that free snack you promised."

 

"Hey, I never said anything about paying for you!" Gavin called after her, but she had already left. With no one else to distract him (Connor and Hank had sat down already, shame), he returned to reading over the preliminary reports written up by the officers. They were just short, but god there were so many of them with all the robberies lately.

 

Nevertheless, he painstakingly worked his way through them. At some point Connor and Hank had gotten up to leave, the latter nodding goodbye at him. He responded by waving back at them. Hank suddenly stopped in his tracks, staring at Gavin in disbelief, causing Gavin to look back in confusion. Was there something on his face? Eventually Hank shook his head and kept walking, mumbling “fucking Christmas fever” under his breath.

 

Surprisingly, he managed to finish everything before his self-assigned deadline. He was mainly motivated by thoughts of roast turkey, and by some miracle had managed to use that to power through his tasks instead of procrastinate. At least now he had time to freely daydream about sweet, sweet turkey until Tina comes by.

 

Poor Tina, though. Unlike him, she never liked being alone on holidays and always enjoyed coming home to spend Christmas with her extended family. She always gushed about her nieces and nephews and how cute they were, and now she wouldn’t be able to see them. And fuck, he’d forgotten to get her present, didn’t he? Technically, paying for her food could count as a gift, and Tina would probably count it as such, but it felt cheap. But what could he get her in the next 5 minutes?

 

An idea popped into his head, one so absurd and yet strangely compelling that it could only have come from a brain that’s been subject to Animal Crossing for weeks. He wasn’t sure how socially acceptable it was, considering this was only the second time he’d celebrated Christmas in the past decade, but there was nothing wrong in asking, and this way she wouldn’t be lonely. He waited for Tina to drop by his desk, and before she could even get a word out he quickly blurted out, “Do you want to spend Christmas Eve with us?”

 

To say Tina was surprised was an understatement. A fly could enter her mouth right now with how far her jaw dropped. She stayed frozen like that for a whole minute, probably waiting for him to awkwardly take it back. He stared back at her firmly, determined to show her that he was serious, knowing from experience that it worked well to make someone cave in to his unreasonable demands (then again, maybe Isabelle was just programmed to accept his mayoral suggestions). Eventually she spoke in a weak voice. “You want me to . . . what?”

 

“Spend Christmas Eve with us,” he repeated. RK900 said that the game’s AI was from an android that specializes in the human mind, so if the game says that going into your neighbor’s house and buying their furniture is normal, then surely inviting someone over for a celebration is too. Something itched in his mind, something that asked maybe it wasn’t normal?, so he tried to sweeten the deal. “There’s turkey, and whatever else they cook. It’s going to be very delicious, I’m sure.”

 

She kept opening and closing her mouth, struggling for something to say. Eventually she settled with, “Won’t that be- I dunno, awkward?”

 

“It’ll be awkward either way. We always end up getting out the Scrabble box whenever I visit when we run out of shit to talk about. Besides, wouldn’t you rather get drunk and cry in awkward silence at a billionaire's house instead of just doing it at home?”

 

A small smile appeared on her face. “Well when you put it like that . . .”

 

He kept grinning at her, wiggling his eyebrows until she relented. “Fine,” Tina rolled her eyes, her smile growing. “I’ve always wanted to see how the upper 1% live.”

 

He jumped up from his chair, eagerly dismissing the keyboard and grabbing his things. “That's the spirit! Let's go!”

 

One relatively short car ride (where they may or may not have abused the police siren), two toilet trips, and three close encounters with death later, they arrived at Elijah's house. As Tina turned off the gas, Gavin shot her a glare. “What kind of driving was that?” He demanded.

 

“It’s kinda hard to guess where the road is under all this snow.”

 

“Then how about you drive slowly??”

 

“You promised me turkey and alcohol, I wasn’t going to dawdle.” She grinned.

 

Gavin shook his head in exasperation and got out of the car. Fucking hell, his legs were still shaking from their last near-collision with a speeding truck on the opposite lane. He made his way towards the front door (which wasn't that far because Tina had stopped the car halfway up the steps leading to it. In her defense, he hadn't seen the mansion either in the snowstorm until they were literally meters away from it) and rang the doorbell. The door opened as soon as Tina joined him, Chloe greeting them with a smile.

 

“Good evening, Gavin. Good evening, miss . . . ?”

 

“Chen. Tina Chen,” Gavin answered, since Tina was a bit too shocked to respond, staring at Chloe’s LED.

 

“Good evening then Miss Chen. Please come in.” She waved them both inside and handed them warm towels. “Elijah is busy helping with the food, but he would like to extend his congratulations for "successfully parking a little farther from my front door this time".”

 

“Wow, I haven't been here for three seconds and he's already being a dick,” he snorted, internally grimacing at the sound of Eli’s voice coming from Chloe’s mouth. That never stopped creeping him out.

 

A laugh from behind him reminded him that Tina was here. “Wait, so for all your nagging over my driving, I’m still a better driver than you?”

 

“The weather was worse last year,” he muttered, cheeks burning. “And I didn’t get into any accidents then!”

 

“Hey, technically neither did we.” Tina's gaze swept across the room as they walked further in, landing on every piece of expensive, abstract furniture decorating it. She stopped at the giant portrait of Elijah right in the middle and let out a low whistle. “Damn, Gav, who knew someone with your genes could look banging?”

 

“While I am very flattered, for Gavin's sake I would like to mention that my photo had underwent many professional touch ups.” A familiar voice came from the doorway they were headed for, and as everyone’s eyes landed on him, Elijah gave a wry smile. “Dearest, most beloved brother, thank you for not destroying my handrails this time.”

 

A loud guffaw escaped Tina, which she quickly tried to stifle. Eli's eyes flickered over to her, and his smile turned into his professional one, the one he gave at interviews. “Hello there. I didn’t know my brother would be bringing such a lovely lady to join us tonight.”

 

“Uh, hi.” Tina fidgeted in place, a bashful look on her face. Must be nervous in the presence of a celebrity. Which Gavin would understand, if that celebrity wasn’t Elijah, the biggest fucking nerd he ever met. Gavin nudged her, and with a whisper loud enough to be heard by everyone in the room, he said, "Don’t think of him as someone famous, think of him as that kid you used to bully in highschool.” Tina snorted in laughter, her shoulders relaxing a bit.

 

“Nice to see you still have the same taste in friends Gavin,” Elijah said in a dry voice.

 

“Those weren’t friends, those were acquaintances. This here’s a real friend. Let’s just eat already, I’m starving.”

 

They followed Elijah to the dining room, Tina ‘ooh’ing at the red swimming pool as they passed it. The pool was quickly forgotten once they saw the food, both of them inhaling the aroma of turkey as much as possible. Elijah snorted at the sight. “As good as it smells, I’m sure it tastes better.” Both of them sat down at his words, mumbling their thanks and waiting for Elijah to sit down before digging in. He raised an eyebrow at them. “What time did you last eat?”

 

“Couple of hours ago.” Gavin replied, waving a fork at Elijah. “Near-death situations trigger the appetite.”

 

“How about driving slowly next time so you won’t get into those situations?”

 

“Hey, I wasn’t the one driving.”

 

They both looked at Tina, who was currently tearing up as she chewed on a turkey leg. “It’s just, so delicious.” She sniffled. Chloe passed her a tissue. “Thanks. Hey Mr. Kamski-”

 

“‘Elijah’ is fine.”

 

“Elijah, are you perhaps looking for a sugar baby?”

 

Both brothers accidentally snorted their drink, Elijah in shock and Gavin in laughter. He kept laughing hysterically, ignoring the water on his shirt as he watched Elijah trying to answer with a dumbfounded expression. Elijah coughed in embarrassment. “I’m, uh, not. Sorry?”

 

Tina sighed. “Shame. I would do anything for more of this turkey.”

 

The rest of dinner continued in a more normal manner, Gavin and Tina talking about interesting cases and Elijah talking about his current projects. At some point, when Chloe had gone to the kitchen to get some more food, Tina’s eyes followed her.

 

“Why didn’t it leave?” She wondered aloud. Gavin elbowed her, shooting her a warning look. “I mean, why did she stay?”

 

“She chose to stay,” Elijah said simply. Tina raised a brow at Gavin, who only shrugged in response. Chloe returned with dessert, and Tina dropped the subject in favor of ogling the cake.

 

A few minutes later, they moved to the poolside, alcoholic drink in each of their hands. Gavin watched in morbid fascination as Tina drank her creation, a mix of wine, gin, and vodka. How the hell she could drink all that with no chaser was beyond him. Behind them, Elijah cleared his throat.

 

“Miss Tina, I would like to thank you for being a good friend to my brother.” Okay, Elijah was drunk already. He only ever said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when he was really drunk. And he got really generous, which means . . . “How would you like a free Cyberlife Dream?”

 

Gavin’s jaw dropped as Tina gasped in drunken delight. “You’re not seriously just giving that away for free??”

 

“Hm, you’re right.” Elijah contemplated it for a while, then snapped his fingers as an idea came to him. “How about I give it to you 90% off?”

 

“I’ll take it!” Tina yelled before Gavin could get a word in. “I’ve always wanted to play Just Dance in VR!”

 

Gavin sighed as he gulped down his own drink, leaving the two to discuss their new business transaction excitedly. It wasn’t his place to tell Elijah how to run his billion-dollar empire, as bad of an idea it was to give away their products.

 

They did eventually get the Scrabble box out, and Gavin was proud to say that he won at the end of the night.

 

----

 

“So how was Toy Day, Gavin?”

 

“Toy Day? What’s that?”

 

“. . . today? The holiday you humans celebrate on December 24?”

 

“. . . You mean Christmas Eve? It was fun, I guess. I got drunk, went swimming in the Detroit River like an idiot, got to take home an entire roast turkey and leftovers to last me until next year, and then had to come back and deal with a homicide at 4 in the morning.”

 

“That’s ‘fun’?”

 

Gavin shrugged. “I don’t get to do half of that normally, so yeah, I’d say it’s fun.”

 

“I see. Did you get any gifts from Jingle?”

 

“If by ‘Jingle’ you mean ‘Santa Claus’, then no. You do know he’s not real, right?”

 

RK900 blinked in surprise. “He’s not? But he’s here, I saw the reindeer pacing around your house last night.”

 

“Aaand that’s why I’m not coming out of this house. What if one of our neighbors sees me and gives me sad eyes, asking “Mayor Gavin, why didn’t I get any gifts?” because I forgot this game celebrated actual holidays? I’d feel immensely guilty, that’s what.” Gavin took a sip of his champagne. Hmm, bubbly. “But no, he’s not real. Unfortunately.”

 

“The real world is more bleak and desolate than I first imagined.”

 

Gavin snorted. “That it is.”

 

“So you came here to sip champagne and hide out in your house? I’m curious since the animals talked about how today is a ‘time for family’ and they implied that you might not be visiting today because of that.”

 

“Well, yeah. I’m surprised at how much gossip you pick up for someone stuck here and unable to interact with them. I’ve already spent last night with my brother, I’m on duty today. Also I wanted to see how you were doing, if you were dying of boredom.” It sucks, because even though he was able to invite Resetti aka RK900 to live in his house, the AI couldn’t interact with any of the furniture. He’d even bought that theremin, the weird typewriter-looking instrument with two metal loops jutting out of it, in hopes that RK900 could amuse himself with it. No such luck, it just gave off a constant shrill note no matter how close the mole had gotten to it, to their disappointment.

 

“Oh, well thank you. Actually, there’s something I’ve been meaning to bring up.”

 

“What is it?”

 

“I’ve been looking through the game code, and I found a way for me to be able to move more freely, the way you can.”

 

Gavin quickly sat up, his drink forgotten. “Really? That’s great! Why haven’t you done it yet?”

 

“Because I need your cooperation.” RK900 had a serious look on his face, made scarier by the pickaxe he couldn’t seem to let go. “You’ll have to create a second character. From there I can take control of the avatar and use it the way I use this body.”

 

Oh, right. Gavin had forgotten that was a staple feature in Animal Crossing. It had even been a small part of why he asked RK900 to come live with him; he had missed seeing Elijah’s avatar in the same house, even though it was comatose and non-interactable. “Okay, I’ll go do it now.”

 

“Just long-press the Animal Crossing icon, and the prompt should come up.”

 

Gavin exited the game and did as RK900 said, selecting ‘New Save File’ when it popped up. Everything went black, and then a bright light grew from a spot in front of him until he blinked, and found himself staring at the sun, lying down on the grass. Oh god, this again. He sat up, waiting for Tortimer to arrive and scare him like last time. Except he didn’t pop out of the mist surrounding Gavin. No, everything was eerily silent, which put him on edge. Where was RK900?

 

The background music suddenly started up, making him jump. It wasn’t playing correctly: wrong music for the season, missing notes, and sometimes playing in reverse. It was accompanied by the glitching landscape, colors bright and flashing and sometimes black with blue text. Gavin squeezed his eyes shut to avoid seeing it, his head hurting already.

 

The music seemed to shudder, and then righted itself, the winter music sounding very peaceful. He opened his eyes, and jumped as he realized that someone was in front of him. Another human, in Animal Crossing.

 

He had a round face and round fingerless hands, just like Gavin. He was wearing a white suit jacket over something black, the design looking kind of familiar. His eyes were the same, that icy blue gaze looking at him in curiosity. And on his head-

 

“Is that- is that a hair curl??”

 

RK900 blinked at him in surprise. “. . . yes?”

 

Gavin groaned, wishing he could punch Jason Graff again. Really, what is with that guy and hair curls? “So you’re one of those androids who decided to get the Connor hairstyle then?”

 

“I’m . . . not sure what you mean? Yes, I have a ‘Connor hairstyle’, because I am a Connor.”

 

“What do you mean you’re a Connor?”

 

“I am an upgraded version on the RK800, there was no reason to give us different appearances when I was made to replace the prototype.”

 

“You’re saying you look exactly like Connor in real life?” At the other’s nod, his mind started to race. It sounded familiar, like the answer to a question he’d forgotten, and then suddenly it clicked. “You were the one I saw at Cyberlife Tower! You’re the reason everyone said I stared too much at Connor’s ass!”

 

“You recognized me . . . by my ass? Is it that distinctive?”

 

“Ye- no! It was your stupid hair! And don’t change the subject, what were you doing there?”

 

RK900 stiffened, and looked away. “That is . . . one of the things I wish not to say.”

 

It was Gavin’s turn to blink in surprise. “Oh.” Well, he did say the AI was free to keep secrets from him, and that he wouldn’t push. Still, it was a surprise since the other hadn’t invoked that until now. But a promise was a promise, and he wasn’t going to break it, not when there wasn’t an important reason to. “Okay, that’s cool.”

 

RK900 visibly relaxed, and gave him a small smile. It disappeared when he remembered something. “You need to set a name for me, otherwise the neighbors would call me Gavin too, thinking I’m you.”

 

“Why would they think that? We look nothing alike.”

 

“You were the one who created the new character. I just hijacked the body scan to input my appearance and consciousness into it.”

 

“Oh, alright then.” Now what to call him? Wait. “Can’t we just put ‘RK900’?”

 

RK900 shook his head. “The game AI might recognize me as an android. Or at the very least be suspicious. At this point, the game just thinks you’ve decided to create another character, one unburdened by your mayorship for the fun of it. They’ll humor you and call you - or me - by your chosen name. But if we go with ‘RK900’, there’s a chance the game might think something’s amiss, especially since you’ve already sent it to look for anomalies in the game.”

 

“Okay then. Plus I don’t want to call you by 5 syllables to be honest.”

 

RK900’s brow furrowed. “It’s only 5 syllables.”

 

“Yeah, and my name has 3. It’s hard to say ‘RK900’ out loud every time, especially in time-limited situations like shootouts. Nicknames are usually 2 syllables or less, easier to yell out.”

 

“How about ‘Connor’?”

 

“Ew, no.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“Because I already know someone named Connor, duh.”

 

“. . . so??”

 

“So, I don’t want to call you Connor when somebody else I know is already Connor. Especially since you two look alike. It’ll get confusing.”

 

“Fine.” RK900 looked exasperated, and it was amusing. “What do you suggest?”

 

“Hmm . . . Richard?”

 

“. . . you just want to call me ‘Dick’, don’t you?”

 

Gavin gaped at him. “How do you even know that? They couldn’t have put phcking Urban Dictionary in you when you don’t even have a morality package??” Which was a thing he had learned fairly recently. Apparently, ‘right’ was anything Cyberlife wanted, including murder, and ‘wrong’ was anything against Cyberlife. Like holy shit, if this guy was around during the android demonstration, who knows how it would have ended? Thankfully, RK900 was so bored that he had taken to studying the social module and program extensions of the game AI, but still.

 

“No, but you left your hotspot open. The Dream automatically connected to the internet and I looked it up since you looked suspicious saying it.”

 

“Ugh, alright, alright! How about . . . Nines?”

 

A pause. “Is that a real name?”

 

Gavin shrugged. “Anything can be a real name. But you won’t find it in ‘Top 100 Baby Names’ if that’s what you’re asking. It sounds like a name that would fit an android, doesn’t it?”

 

“I suppose . . . ? There’s only one 9 in RK900, though.”

 

“The ‘s’ is just to make it fancier. What do you think?”

 

Gavin watched as RK900 kept mouthing ‘Nines’ over and over to himself, grinning in victory as a small smile appeared on the other’s face. “It is acceptable.”

 

He snorted in disbelief. “Just acceptable? It’s phcking lit.”

 

“Yes, it is “on fire”, as the kids say.”

 

Gavin side-eyed him as RK900 brought up the keyboard, ready for his new name to be keyed in. “Are you mocking me?”

 

RK900’s smile twitched, looking more like a smirk as he said, quite insincerely, “I would never.”

 

A laugh bubbled out of his throat, and Gavin kept snickering even as he entered the name and they got transported back to his house. He picked up his glass of champagne, not a drop spilled despite being on the floor, and brought it to his lips. “What now?”

 

“Now,” Nines said, looking very determined, “I’m going to play the theremin.”

 

As the air was filled with the shrill note of the theremin, wobbling in pitch as Nines wiggled his hand in front of it, Gavin relaxed into the sofa and noted with a smile that this wasn’t a bad way to spend Christmas.

 

Chapter Text

 

“Those ungrateful shits!”

 

“Language, Gavin.”

 

“If this game isn’t going to censor me, I’m not doing it myself. Those phckers! Thankless heathens!”

 

This time Nines kept silent as Gavin stomped his way through the flower field, putting as much distance between him and the village square as possible. His blood was boiling, and in some corner of his mind not clouded by anger he was glad for the silence because he really didn’t want to snap at Nines, not when his roommate wasn’t at fault. No, it was those animals, those unappreciative fucks who took one look at all his achievements here and said that it wasn’t enough. Four public works projects and access to two islands in two months wasn’t enough?? And if that wasn’t enough to raise his blood pressure, they decided to replace him with Ozzie. Ozzie! All because that lazy koala promised that his first project would be a playground. Who the fuck needs a playground??

 

“I know your question is supposed to be rhetorical, but the answer is actually ‘half of the residents’,” Nines piped up. Gavin gave him a bewildered look. “How-?”

 

“You were muttering out loud. Quite viciously, if I may add.” Oh. Well, that was embarrassing. Gavin squinted at Nines, mood still sour. “The phck do you mean half of them?”

 

“Based on their personalities, half of the residents would prefer a playground over a museum. In fact, the only ones who strongly approved of the museum are Willow, Rocco, and Lopez, who have the personalities of snooty, cranky, and smug respectively.”

 

“Are you phcking kidding me?! I have to take their personalities into account too?” What the hell, this was ridiculous. Sure he noticed that his neighbors had different personalities, like how some of them liked working out, some liked naps, and yeah he liked those three that Nines mentioned in particular because they seemed more mature than the others, but for them to actually be categorized by their personalities and influence the algorithm determining his mayorship is just absurd.

 

Because at the root of it all their personalities shouldn’t mean shit in the face of what he accomplished. It was about getting results, not about getting popular by doing what’s fun or flashy or-

 

A lump of something mushy and freezing cold landed on his head, startling him out of his thoughts. He looked up to see Nines looking sternly at him, one hand holding his cow skull and the other holding the lump of snow to his head. Before Gavin could ask (or yell, more likely), he said, “You were getting red in the face again and steam was coming out of your head, I didn’t want you to fry your brain.”

 

That was . . . thoughtful. And effective, Gavin realized, as the anger he had been nursing for hours was nowhere to be found. Which was good, because at his age he really shouldn’t be letting his blood pressure skyrocket over something like this and oh fuck he was starting to sound like Lieutenant Anderson, wasn’t he? Gavin took a deep breath, relishing in the prickles of pain in his lungs from the cold air as he held it in, and let the air out slowly in a long sigh. Nines studied his face for a few seconds, before replacing the hand on his head with the cow skull, steadying it on the snow and then grabbing his hand and tugging him towards the bridge. “Let’s go to the Roost.” Gavin nodded, letting himself get dragged away. He wasn’t exactly eager to go home and mope anyway.

 

They were a few meters away from the coffee shop when the door opened, Rocco stepping out into the cold. The hippo brightened up upon seeing Gavin and quickly walked towards them. “Hey there, Mayor Gavin. Or, I guess you’re not mayor anymore, huh? Ha ha ha!” Rocco laughed, oblivious to Gavin’s renewed seething. “Anyway, I was wondering if you could suggest a new catchphrase for me. ‘Hippie’ is starting to sound stale, so-”

 

“Change it to ‘cupcake’ then,” Gavin snapped.

 

“‘Sugartits’, huh? Sounds good, thanks G. See ya later, sugartits!” Rocco waved as he walked away, leaving Gavin and Nines standing frozen as statues in the snow. Slowly, Gavin turned his head to look at Nines with a haunted expression. “I said ‘cupcake’, didn’t I?” he whispered, horrified. “I’m sure I did.”

 

Nines slowly nodded. “You did. Loud and clear. I don’t understand why . . .”

 

“Oh god, is he going to call me that every time??” he wailed, burying his face in his hands.

 

“It’s only a catchphrase, not a nickname. Hopefully not all the time?”

 

“Let’s just get inside,” Gavin mumbled into his palms.

 

The warm air of the coffee shop was a blessing from the cold, both in the game and real life. Even though he was bundled up in two blankets and a comforter on his bed in real life, it was still too damn cold, so this imaginary heat was nice. Except for the fact that it melted the snow on his head, and now he had lukewarm water dripping down his neck. They sat at the bar, right in front of Brewster who gave them a ‘coo’ in greeting and slid a menu towards them (technically towards Gavin, because as they had learned at New Year, the animals could perceive only him if he and Nines went outside at the same time). He glanced at the shelf behind the pigeon, noting the unused wine glasses stacked there.

 

“I don’t suppose you serve alcohol here?” He sighed when Brewster shook his head no. “Yeah, didn’t think so.” Curse this E-rated game. “Blue Mountain coffee then, two cups.”

 

“You can’t get drunk in virtual reality anyway,” Nines said as they watched Brewster prepare their drinks. He took out a pouch of Bells from his pocket and placed it in front of Gavin. “Here, I’ll pay.”

 

“If I can placebo myself into getting drunk, then you bet your ass I’m going to do it.” He picked up the pouch, raising a brow at the label that popped up when he did. “1,000 Bells? How much money do you even have?”

 

“5,000,000 Bells.”

 

Gavin slowly turned his head to stare at Nines. “You’re kidding.” There was no way Nines could have that much money. Even if he sold every fruit in the village there was no way that amounted to 5-fucking-million Bells.

 

“I’m not.”

 

“How??”

 

Nines blinked innocently, then said, in a matter-of-fact tone, “I adjusted my currency value in the game code. It was a simple matter of rewriting the numbers.”

 

And just like that, the ugly feeling in Gavin’s chest returned; the anger, the indignation, the hurt from earlier coming back in full force. “YOU CHEATED?!” he exploded, causing Nines to shrink back into his seat in surprise. “How could you?!”

 

“I-”

 

“You can’t just do that, that’s unfair!”

 

“I can adjust your currency value too if-”

 

“That’s not what I mean!” Gavin slammed his hand on the table. At least Brewster hadn’t placed the drinks down yet. Nines was staring at him, confusion evident on his face, as if he had absolutely no idea why Gavin was so angry.

 

. . . he really did have no idea, did he? And it wasn’t just because of his weird morality package; Gavin’s anger was in no way proportional to his crime. Guilt shot through the haze of anger in Gavin’s mind, and he sighed instead of continuing his tirade. He gritted his teeth and took deep breaths to try and dispel the negative emotions in his chest.

 

“Look, you can’t just cheat your way through a game. Or life. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Like I know you can hack an ATM, or rob a bank, or even pickpocket someone with your android skills but that doesn’t mean you should, because that would be stealing,” he explained.

 

Nines frowned, returning to his normal posture now that Gavin seemed unlikely to yell again. “But I’m not stealing from anyone. I’m just adjusting the numbers, no one owns the money in the game.”

 

“Again, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Even if it is just a game. I know video game standards are different from real life standards just- look, you’re filthy rich now, right? Now what are you going to do?”

 

“I’m . . . going to spend it?”

 

“And then you’re going to buy everything you want. Hell maybe not, I mean you can just make the items you want just appear out of thin air, right? You can adjust the code to collect all the items, max out everyone’s friendships, build all of the buildings in just a few seconds. And then, after all that, what are you going to do?”

 

“I . . .”

 

“I’ll tell you what: Nothing. Because there’s nothing more for you to do. You can’t even go around looking at all your stuff and reminisce about how you got them, because you didn’t do shit. You didn’t accomplish anything. Sure you can brag about your 100% game completion achievement online, and people would congratulate you about it, but what’s the point when you didn’t even enjoy getting the achievement? What’s the point of playing a game if you’re not going to have fun?”

 

Nines was silent for a while, mulling over his words. Brewster took the lull in what looked like a one-sided conversation from his point of view to place the coffee in front of Gavin. Gavin slid one of the cups over to Nines and took a sip from his own.

 

“So, you’re saying the memory of getting the achievement is better than the achievement itself?” he asked, taking a sip from his own cup.

 

Gavin shrugged. “Well, yeah. ‘It’s about the journey, not the destination’ that sort of crap. I’d argue that the act of achieving it is better than the memory of it, but in your case, doing it and remembering about doing it are probably the same with your perfect memory. Nothing ruins an achievement than knowing yourself that you didn’t deserve it.” A light bulb went off above his head. “I know! You know how you said you and Connor are the same sort of? What if you both had the objective to kill robo-Jesus and Connor did it? How would you feel?”

 

The severe frown on RK900’s face at his question was answer enough, but he still replied, through gritted teeth, “My objective would be . . . completed.”

 

“But it doesn’t feel good, does it?”

 

“. . . no, it doesn’t.”

 

Gavin sat back and took another sip, sure that Nines understood his point. He didn’t normally take his coffee with this much milk, but that was because milk was a luxury that the precinct break room didn’t have. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that Nines was observing him intently.

 

“What’s wrong, Gavin? It can’t just be my actions, you still seem stressed.”

 

He looked away. “What do you mean what’s wrong. You were there.”

 

“Besides the election. You were already in a bad mood when you arrived here.”

 

He pursed his lips, refusing to answer. After another long sip, he relented.

 

“We have a task force to take down a Red Ice cartel in the city. I was the head. Was. The phckers petitioned to have me replaced with someone friendlier who’ll keep the team together, whatever the phck that meant.” He glared at his coffee. “We were making great progress! And now they want to slow down, to what? Get buddy-buddy with each other? It’s a waste of precious time! But no, as usual, Gavin’s the one who’s being an asshole. It’s like . . . like . . . “

 

“. . . Like what happened here?”

 

Gavin remained silent, choosing to gulp down more coffee instead of answering.

 

“How did they word their complaint? I find it hard to believe that your subordinates can just ask your captain for a replacement on the grounds of you being ‘unfriendly’.”

 

“Want me replaced because I was too harsh. Too bitchy. Too insufferable!” he hissed.

 

Nines looked perplexed. “What did you do to give them that idea?”

 

“They said that I yelled too much and made them feel inadequate and useless. But they are! Here I was, working my ass off on the case, while they were just laughing it up in the break room every time I look! It’s like they don’t even care what catching these fuckers would mean for the city! Why the phck would they even choose to become cops if they’re not looking to make the city a better place?” His face twisted at that, a bitter taste in his mouth. “Don’t answer that, I know why.”

 

A contemplative silence followed, in which Nines looked for something to say and Gavin miserably wondered which one actually hurt more, getting kicked off the task force or getting kicked out of mayorship. Brewster had gone to the back, doing whatever pigeons do when not serving coffee, so at least that was one less person to see him like this.

 

“If I were in your position, I would list down all of their shortcomings, announce it to everyone so that they are shamed into fixing their behavior, and go off and work alone on the case.”

 

He gave Nines a bitter smile. “Yeah, I don’t think I can do that, not unless I want to get knifed on the way home. By the officers or by the cartel, I’m not sure.”

 

“I know. I’m basing my hypothetical actions on my social module, which, as you said, is lacking.”

 

“I mean, your social module seems fine to me, it’s your morality package that I’m concerned about.”

 

Nines shrugged. “It’s an extension of my social module, so yes, you are judging both. But what I’m saying is, my social module is nothing to be proud about by human standards, so what I think I should do is not actually what you should do. Humans are social creatures, and there are so many facets to their behavior in relation to one another that I am not equipped to deal with.”

 

“So . . . you’re saying you have no advice for me?” Gavin asked, confused.

 

“Yes. I personally have no good advice to give you.” A small smile appeared on his face. “But this game does. Perhaps you should mimic what your neighbors do.”

 

“You mean like say ‘hi’ and smile at everyone? That won’t work,” Gavin groaned. “The only reason being nice here works is because everyone is nice, and nobody has a past.”

 

“Meaning?”

 

“Meaning no one here is going to bring up your past and use it against you. I’ve tried that long ago, said I’ll try to be nicer as a New Year’s resolution. Everyone just laughed at me, said shit like “who are you and what have you done to Gavin?” and it was humiliating. I even tried it recently, tried to apologize for trying to kill Connor, and you know what he did? He tried to kill me, thought I was some imposter because I “would never do something like that”.”

 

Nines’s jaw dropped in surprise. “He did??”

 

“I mean, I did try to kill him once so I guess it’s just karma or whatever. I’ve been avoiding him since. But anyway, long story short, I don’t want to go through any of that again.”

 

“. . . what if you start small, like calling people by their names? Humans like approval. Perhaps if you tell the officers whenever they do something right by your standards, they would be more inclined to repeat it. Or give them a smile, if you don’t feel up to saying words.”

 

“You’re saying I should Pavlov them? With praise?”

 

Nines got a faraway look on his face, the one that told Gavin that the AI was using his hotspot to look up what he just said. He then blinked twice, returning to their conversation. “No, Pavlov’s classical conditioning isn’t applicable here. Skinner’s operant conditioning is more appropriate.”

 

“Uh, sure, I’m going to pretend I know the difference. But, I dunno Nines, I mean they’re still going to laugh at me behind my back. I don’t even know if I’m still on the task force tomorrow!”

 

Nines shook his head. “Why humans would mock you for trying to better yourself, I don’t understand. But I still think you should, and your captain is surely a reasonable man. Humans have limited memories right? Surely if you keep at it, they’ll forget what you were like before and eventually they’ll stop. You’ll have them eating out of the palm of your hand.”

 

Gavin huffed in laughter. This AI really liked looking up idioms when he had the chance. “Memories don’t work like that. But you know, you’re right. Nothing good ever came out of being afraid, so I might as well suck it up, ignore their comments, and maybe cry myself to sleep in bed.”

 

“Well,” Nines began, taking another sip, “you don’t have to do it in bed.” He smiled at Gavin. “If you do your crying here, you might get free sympathy gifts from our neighbors.”

 

Gavin laughed. “Alright. I’ll be sure to do my crying here.”

 

Together they drank the rest of their coffee in silence. He had just finished his cup and was about to ask Brewster for another when RK900’s head suddenly snapped up to attention, as if somebody called his name. He stared intently at the wall to their left, with such focus that Gavin was starting to wonder if something serious was going on, but then the other suddenly smiled. “Are you done with your drink, Gavin?”

 

“Uh, yeah. Why?”

 

The smile on his face widened. “There’s something outside you need to see. Let’s go.”

 

“Okay, let me just-” Gavin glanced back at his drink, ready to call out to Brewster and tell him he was done with it, only to find that the table was already clean. The pigeon was standing across him, wiping down his cup like it was a beer mug, face as neutral as ever. He blinked at Gavin slowly, then said, “Coo, thank you.”

 

Gavin blinked back. “Uh, you too?” He slid off the stool and followed Nines to the door. Nines stopped near the doorway and waved him to open it. He stepped forward and put his hand on the knob, turning to see Nines giving him a thumbs up, and twisted it open.

 

With a loud pop, Gavin immediately got a face full of confetti. He spluttered as he tried to spit out the metallic paper strips that got into his mouth, vaguely aware of animals quarreling in front of him. There was a shift of movement behind him, and when he turned around, Nines was nowhere to be found. Where’d he go?

 

“I told you to aim up, not at his face!”

 

“I thought it was just holographic confetti!”

 

Gavin blinked in surprise as he watched Ava and Clyde argue, waving around confetti cannons in their hands. Ava had steam coming out of her head (was that what he looked like earlier? No wonder Nines was concerned) as she ripped the horse’s cannon from his hooves. Footsteps were approaching him from the side, and soon Rocco’s smiling face popped into view.

 

“Hey, G? Sorry about my mayor comment earlier. It was really insensitive. Here, have this.” He shoved a wrapped gift in Gavin’s arms. “It’s cake!”

 

“Thanks.” He started to unwrap it, mumbling, “I hope this isn’t bad for me” under his breath.

 

“Ah don’t worry. It’s game cake. You can eat as much as you like without any of it going to your waistline! Or your arteries! Or your kidneys!”

 

He ignored Rocco, not out of malice, but out of shock as he stared at the cake. It was covered in rainbow-colored icing, colors mixing together haphazardly as if different people (or animals) pushed each other to apply their own favorite color. But what really caught his eye were the words written on it: “Sorry about your sucky coworkers!”

 

“How did you know-?”

 

Rocco grabbed his hand and pulled, making him stumble along behind the hippo. “Let’s go! Everyone’s waiting for you, sugartits!” A full-body shudder ran down his spine, and Gavin once again felt regret at accidentally subjecting himself to that word.

 

The village square underwent a complete transformation since earlier this evening. The small podium where Isabelle announced his termination was gone, replaced by a giant bonfire. Smaller campfires were scattered around, sticks of marshmallows and pots of soup dangling above them. Garlands glowing in the dark hung around the square. Various musical instruments were set up in the center: a piano, a drumset, two guitars, and a lot of tambourines. Ozzie was giving out the tambourines, and handed one to him and Rocco each with a cheery grin.

 

“Glad you could make it!”

 

“Gavin shrugged. “I was kinda manhandled into coming. Where did you get all this stuff?”

 

“Oh, I used the funds in the Peanut Butter Local Treasury to order it all from Timmy and Tommy-”

 

“You what??” Gavin gaped at the koala, horrified. “That money was for important stuff!”

 

“This is important!” Ozzie earnestly implored. “It’s for you!”

 

“For . . . me?”

 

Ozzie nodded vigorously, taking out a mug from his pockets and stepping near a soup pot. “Yup! We heard you were having a rough day, so we all decided to throw this party for you!” The koala ladled some soup into the bowl and handed it to Gavin. “While you’re eating, we’ll be playing music around the giant bonfire. Once you’ve partied yourself out, remember to take a long rest. Naps work well in getting rid of leftover bad feelings, ol’ bear.” A thought bubble appeared over his head, and Gavin sipped at his hot soup as he watched Ozzie mutter to himself, “what else am I forgetting . . . ?” before a light bulb went off. “Oh, right!” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “The soup is chicken noodle flavor. Remember not to mention it in front of Ava.”

 

Gavin snorted in laughter, wincing as the thick (and very hot) soup got into his nose. “Sure, I’ll keep that in mind.”

 

“Now, you just find someplace to sit while we finish setting up. Feel free to join in with your tambourine anytime.” Ozzie grinned, bowing to him in goodbye. Gavin looked around for a good spot, debating whether he should sit closer or farther from the giant bonfire, when he noticed a very familiar face. A smile slipped onto his face as he joined Nines on a log, plucking a marshmallow from the stick in his hand and popping it into his mouth while Nines rolled his eyes at him good-naturedly.

 

“I see you’re in better spirits now.”

 

He took his sweet time answering, seeing as he had an entire marshmallow to chew to pieces. Not that Nines was in a hurry either. “Yeah,” Gavin replied after swallowing the sweet lump of sugar, “it’s nice what they did. Not necessary, but nice.”

 

“Why would you say it’s unnecessary?”

 

Gavin paused for a second. “Well, I mean they could have used the money to build their stupid playground. Instead, Ozzie blew it on a party to make me feel better. I appreciate it, sure, but still.”

 

“You were sad. Of course it’s necessary.”

 

“But why? If they spent that money on a public works project, that would at least benefit everyone-”

 

“But they don’t want to benefit everyone,” Nines interrupted. “They want to make you happy. It’s the game’s objective. It’s why you got the game, is it not?”

 

“Well- well yeah, but-”

 

“Not all accomplishments are measured by concrete results. If they cheered you up, it’s still a success. Like I said, humans are social creatures, so of course positive social interaction, especially with a group of fellows, would make you happy.”

 

“. . . wait, is this your way of implying that I should hold team building exercises to get my officers under control?” Gavin asked, half-joking. “Because if it is, I’m gonna say no to that.”

 

Nines blinked in surprise. “No? Your work predicament was far from my thoughts. You could, but I think you should still start small, praise and such.”

 

“Alright, alright.” He shook his head in fond exasperation. Ozzie and the others had divided the remaining instruments among themselves, the koala himself manning an electric guitar. They hadn’t started yet, for whatever reason, so Gavin got up to get another serving of soup. When he returned, he passed it over to Nines. “What about you?” he asked, as Nines took a tentative sip. “Where did you go earlier?”

 

“Hm?” he hummed in reply, chugging down the soup once he found it was to his liking. “I thought hard about what you said about cheating, so I decided to start over. I got you a present.”

 

“Oh?”

 

Nines placed the empty mug on the grass and opened his inventory, grabbing a headgear. It poofed into existence on his hand, and Gavin found himself staring at a shiny golden crown. He flicked the cow skull from Gavin’s head, making Gavin quickly scramble to catch it (rude), and gently placed it on his head.

 

Nines wore a very pleased smile. “There. Now you won’t look like an animal murderer and lower your neighbors friendship points by virtue of being near them. And so you won’t be tempted to sell it and get millions of Bells, I’ve locked it to your profile. You won’t be able to sell it, nor will your neighbors try to buy it.”

 

“So, what, I'm stuck with this forever? Thanks,” Gavin sarcastically said, a huge grin on his face. He didn’t know if the crown (arguably the most expensive item in the game, if he remembered correctly) had some kind of secondary effect on him, or if it was just because of Nines, but there were definitely flowers of happiness sparkling around him.

 

“Hello everyone!” Ozzie announced, getting their attention. “This is your mayor speaking. It’s time to listen to some relaxing music, and forget about the bad things for a little while. Here with us is K.K. Slider, to serenade us all.” He waved his hands at the dog sitting on a stool, strumming the other guitar idly to the cheers of everyone.

 

“Thank you for the intro, mayor. Now, I’m sure all you folks know the song, so feel free to join in.” A hush settled over the crowd, everyone looking excited to use their tambourines. Gavin leaned forward in his seat, a smile on his face in anticipation-

 

-which immediately turned into a grimace as a horrible cacophony rose from around the bonfire. Apparently K.K. was wrong about everyone knowing his song, because everyone was singing a completely different song from each other, songs which did not mix well at all. He glanced back at Nines, to see that the other was cringing just as much as he was.

 

“I have no idea what’s going on,” Nines hissed, covering his ears in a vain attempt to protect them.

 

“Me neither,” Gavin said, before smacking Nines gently in the face with his tambourine. He shook the tambourine in his bewildered face, laughing. “Come on then, time to tambourine our way through this mess.”

 

----

 

“Officer Clark. Did you finish compiling the suspect list?”

 

“Yes, Detective Reed. Two of them are in the area, so we can start with the interviews.”

 

“Nice work,” the detective said, nodding at him before turning away.

 

“. . . see?? I told you he’s been acting weird,” whispered Officer Weber.

 

“Maybe he’s been replaced by an android?” he whispered back, chuckling at the thought.

 

“Or maybe,” a loud voice boomed behind them, making the pair jump, “you two should stop gossiping and get back to work before your asses get replaced by androids?” the captain finished, looking very unamused.

 

“Y-yes sir!” They stuttered in unison, before making their escape. Captain Fowler tutted in displeasure (to think they even had the gall to ask for Reed to be replaced) before turning to head back to his office. He made eye contact with Reed, who had definitely heard the commotion, and nodded at him in approval. Personally he had no actual problem with the detective’s methods, but if Reed was looking to behave himself, well, he certainly wasn’t going to discourage that.

 

Chapter Text

 

He was going to die.

 

Who knew that this was how he'd go? Him, Gavin Reed, freezing to death. So much for being 'most likely to die from bullet to the face' (suck on that, Janet from Accounting). Already his entire body was numb, his limbs too frozen to move. Hell, maybe his toes were already falling off from frostbite, not that he could check. Yes, here he was, lying cold and alone in this frozen wasteland as his internal organs shut down one by one.

 

“You don’t even have toes. Or fingers.”

 

Mostly alone.

 

“Just let me die in peace,” he half-grumbled, half-whined. Gavin couldn’t see shit under all this snow, but he could sense that Nines was rolling his eyes at him.

 

“You’re not going to die. Death isn’t possible here, that would go against their E-rating.”

 

“You don’t know that! Tortimer told me himself that once you die, you get to see the stars up close. I bet they’d look real pretty. Maybe that’s what Android Heaven is like: drifting endlessly through a sea of stars, with no god to judge you. Or maybe Elijah is going to be the one judging you? Oh phck, what if this is one of those "you die in the game, you die in real life" scenarios? Am I gonna go to Android Heaven instead of Human Heaven??" He knew he was babbling semi-coherently at this point. Truth be told, he had no idea what the fuck he was even saying anymore. His brain felt so sluggish, feeling like it already had a thin layer of frost on it.

 

“. . . Well I suppose it would be fitting, since stars are dead too,” Nines muttered. But more importantly, I think you should take a deep breath and calm down before you start getting more delirious from lack of oxygen.”

 

“I would, if there wasn’t, oh I dunno, 50 tons of snow burying us alive.”

 

“That is nowhere near the actual amount of snow-”

 

“-fine, a mountain-worth of snow on top of us!”

 

How did they even get into this mess, one may ask? Gavin had entered the game tonight looking for a distraction, and had suggested to Nines that they go take a boat ride with Kapp'n to the second island since neither of them had stepped foot on it yet because of the weather. Much like how Sunburst Island had eternal summer, Snowbreeze Island had eternal winter, so they never had a reason to visit it until now. After a long boat ride where Kapp’n regaled them with songs on how to woo someone via tapdancing, they finally landed on the island and holy shit was it freezing.

 

(The exact words out of his mouth at the time were "holy shit it’s cold as balls here!", to which Nines got such a confused and concerned face that was frankly adorable - not that Gavin would admit it out loud - and asked, "are your balls okay?". Gavin spent the entire cable car ride laughing his ass off, forgetting the cold for a blissful moment.)

 

At the top of the island's mountain, the temperature felt even lower. There was a small lodge, fixed up and cozy but devoid of any animals. Kapp'n said he was still looking for someone to manage the rental shop but hadn’t found anyone yet, so he and Nines were free to borrow equipment, no payment needed. Nines had taken a liking to the snowboard, while Gavin, who had no experience with any mode of ice mountain travel, had taken the skis because it seemed safer.

 

They chose the face of the mountain that wasn't steep to start their descent. Even with the gentle 15-degree incline (and a speed of 1.6 miles per hour according to an amused Nines), Gavin was still anxious about falling flat on his face and tumbling all the way down. At least, he was until Nines thought it would be funny to push him and make his fears a reality. There was definitely a bruise from that one rock he hit on his way. He retaliated by immediately throwing a snowball in the AI's face as soon as he stopped rolling, making him lose his perfect android balance and smack into a tree. Once they both finished glaring at each other and dusting themselves off, they resumed gliding through the snow, this time with less trepidation.

 

On their second round, they had tried a steeper trail. While Gavin struggled with his skis, Nines drifted beside him, not at all challenged with maintaining his balance. So, Gavin egged him on to do some stunts. And what a sight he was! Gavin wasn’t sure whether it was the image of Nines quickly slaloming between trees and then doing a backflip or the big victorious grin on his face (the most expressive Nines has been so far), but his heart felt giddy and energized, and with a smile on his own face, Gavin quickly propelled himself forward to catch up with the showoff.

 

It was on their third round when shit started going wrong. On their way back up the mountain, the cable car lurched and stopped, meters away from the station. With no one manning the facilities and Kapp'n having left them to their own devices, there was no one to ask for help. Together they wrenched open the doors, the car swaying dangerously as it creaked on its rusty hinges. Gavin immediately stepped away from the doorway, flinching away from the sight of the high drop. It wasn't as high as the cliff in the village where he fell and may or may not have broken his back, but fuck was he regretting picking the flimsy skis. Nines jumped with no hesitation, landing smoothly and holding his arms up to catch Gavin. Landing on someone seemed slightly better than hitting the frozen ground head-on, and he wasn't going to stay here like a coward, so with a deep breath and screwed-shut eyes, he leaped out of the car and sent both himself and Nines sprawling.

 

After staggering to their feet, they shared a frown, silently deciding to make this their last trip for today. They had barely begun their descent, Gavin promising to go faster and Nines snowboarding backwards for the added challenge, when suddenly the mountain beneath their feet didn’t feel like a mountain anymore. It was as if the mountain itself disappeared, leaving the two players and the layers of thick snow that used to cover it hanging in midair, until gravity went into effect and it all came plunging down.

 

Now here they were, buried under so much snow that neither of them could even move a single limb. Gavin had no idea how long they’ve been stuck here, but whether it was because he had a shit sense of time or because his brain was actually shutting down remains to be seen.

 

“You could try closing the game,” Nines suggested. “Next time you open it you’ll be back home.”

 

“That may be true, but what about you? You’ll still be trapped here.”

 

“I can find my way back,” Nines replied, in a casual tone that implied he even added a little shrug while saying it. It also implied that he was a liar who had no idea how the fuck he was getting home from here.

 

“Nah, I think I’m going to stay put.” Gavin closed his eyes, not that it made much difference, and relaxed. “Guess we’re going out double-suicide style.”

 

“Implying that we got into this situation on purpose. I don’t know about you, since you sound much too happy talking about your death, but I have no plans of dying anytime soon.”

 

“It’s a Gen-Z thing, you wouldn’t understand.”

 

“Enlighten me.”

 

Gavin hummed in thought. “It’s like- you know how people love watching tragedies or reading angsty stories? It’s because you get to share in someone’s misery, feel it for yourself and indulge in it, but without the commitment of actually having to deal with those problems. So you feel miserable as you empathize with the characters, but once the story is over you can leave those feelings behind and you feel lighter in the end. The same goes for dying in a game.”

 

“So what you’re saying is, it feels cathartic?”

 

“Exactly! That’s the word I was looking for, cathartic. The closer you skirt near death, the more you start to appreciate life. Except in my case it’s more of a ‘thinking about all the work I won’t have to do when I eventually die brings me bliss’ kind of thing.”

 

“. . . be honest Gavin. Are you okay?? Are things okay at work? You’re never usually this nihilistic.”

 

With the AI’s questions, the events of earlier came rushing back to him.

 

“Detective Reed?”

At his name, Gavin glanced up from his terminal to see five unfamiliar faces in uniform watching him. On second thought, they did look vaguely familiar, but he was sure he had never seen these officers in the precinct before. He raised an eyebrow at them, curious. “Uh, yes?”

 

The woman in the middle smiled. “Good afternoon. We were looking for Connor, do you know where he is?”

 

Gavin blinked as realization hit him. Oh, androids. Now that he looked more closely, two of them even still had their LEDs, one even having a small glowing blue crack on his cheek. Must be the ones Connor had recruited from New Jericho to work here. “He’s out on the field, but he’ll probably be back soon since he’s been out all morning.”

 

“Oh. Thank you then,” she said, and Gavin turned back to his computer, thinking that was the end of that.

 

After a few seconds of silence, he slowly looked back up, only to see the same five androids still standing in the same spot, their eyes fixed on his screen. His brows furrowed, and he asked, “Is something wrong?”

 

The female android, who seemed to be the leader of this little group, looked at him in confusion. “No?”

 

“. . . you’re the new recruits, right?” At her nod, Gavin continued. “Haven’t you been assigned to do any work in the meantime? I mean, I know I said he’ll be back soon, but Connor will probably still be a while.”

 

“We haven’t. That’s actually why we’re looking for him, he’s going to mentor us on how the workplace operates, so we don’t have anything to do until we meet him.”

 

“Oh.” Gavin glanced around the room. “In that case, you could wait at . . . “ his eyes landed on the android charging station. Would it be insensitive to suggest that? God, where was Tina when he needed her? “. . . his desk? So he can see you as soon as he arrives. Feel free to poke around his stuff while you’re at it.”

 

One of the other androids piped up. “He’ll see us faster from here.”

 

Well, that was unfortunately true. He bit his lip as he tried to think of something else. It wasn’t that he was opposed to the androids hanging out near him, it was just that having five pairs of eyes watching his screen as he worked made him uncomfortable. Also he had been planning to take out his phone and play the latest Candy Crush he downloaded, and he really didn’t want to be judged for goofing off for a few minutes.

 

“How about the break room? If you’re gonna be working here, then you might as well start making friends with your new colleagues. Ask them some tips about stuff that Connor wouldn’t know considering he immediately jumped to detective status. Feel free to ask me anything too, just, uh, not right now. Maybe when I’m done with this.” He gestured towards his terminal.

 

They stayed silent, blinking rapidly as they presumably messaged each other. Eventually, they seemed to have reached a shared decision, and smiled at him in sync. The leader spoke, “That sounds like a great idea. We’ll go do that.”

 

Gavin smiled back and returned to his work, this time hearing the coordinated footsteps leaving his desk. Hopefully he made a somewhat decent first impression, considering how unprepared he was for this meeting.

 

When his mug was empty, he got up, stretched, and headed for the break room for a refill. He stopped abruptly as he heard his name floating from his destination. Was someone talking about him? Gavin sidestepped so he wouldn’t be seen from inside and listened, curious and wary about the conversation.

 

“-talked to Detective Reed? And he didn’t push you around??” A somewhat familiar voice said incredulously. One of the officers.

 

“No . . . ?” said the female android. “He seemed nice.”

 

The same officer snorted. “Ha! Him? Nice to androids? Ask Officer Tucker here what he’s like, he’s known that guy for years.”

 

Tucker? As in one of those under suspension? He’s back? A swooping feeling of dread settled his stomach, as Gavin realized what the guy was about to say.

 

“Yeah, I know the guy. Was in the same year at the academy. He’s been joining anti-android protests for years, the ones that go and smash up androids to make a statement, y’know? Always been a violent fucker.”

 

‘So were you!’ Gavin wanted to scream. The only reason fucking Tucker even knew this was because he was there too, that liar! And that was years ago, when androids had been doing nothing but causing unemployment and Elijah kept pumping those damned machines out of factories. To be honest, Gavin hadn’t even joined out of a selfless reason like fighting against unemployment; he’d joined for a chance to send some sort of ‘fuck you’ to Elijah, for abandoning him and choosing Amanda over his own brother. He stopped years ago, years before deviancy became a problem, once the precinct he worked at obtained androids. At that point, most of the anger left him, and he resigned himself to the fact that Elijah was right about their inevitability. But of course Tucker wouldn’t mention any of that.

 

“Yeah. He leaves early from work, y’know? Probably found another group to run around with.”

 

Gavin wanted to storm into the break room and yell, set the facts straight, but he was frozen in place. One of the androids, the one with the scar, had noticed him, and in place of the pleasant smile he wore minutes before was a cold glare directed at Gavin, anger and disgust evident on his features. And suddenly he realized that the damage was done, and nothing he said would undo it, not when the facts the officers laid out were true to some extent.

 

So instead of going into the break room, Gavin turned around and returned to his desk, avoiding any eye contact. As soon as his shift was over he jumped out of his seat, gathered his things, and left, trying to ignore the burning stares that followed him.

 

“Gavin?”

 

The soft worried call startled him out of his thoughts. He shook his head as he remembered that Nines had asked him a question.

 

“I’m fine.”

 

Nines scoffed in disbelief.

 

“Okay, so I’m not fine. But the issue’s nothing that we haven’t talked about before, I can handle it. I just- I don’t want to think about it right now. It’s why I came here, and honestly as much of a shit situation we're in right now, the cold's actually helping.”

 

Nines was silent for a while. Gavin had no idea what the other was thinking, so he jerked in surprise when something that wasn’t snow touched his shoulder. He twisted his head as much as he could to see a hand poking out from the snow to his right.

 

“What-”

 

“You want a distraction, yes?” The hand wiggled. “I think I found our way out.”

 

Gavin hesitated for a moment, unsure what Nines wanted him to do, and decided to free his own hand with a lot of yanking and grab onto his roommate’s. It seemed to be the correct action, because as soon as their hands touched, Nines yanked him downwards toward the ground. A flare of panic rose in Gavin as he felt his hand sink past the snow, past the ground, and into some sort of cold, empty space. Soon it wasn’t just his hand; his body sank as Nines kept tugging and tugging. It was only when his entire self had passed through the frozen soil that he realized what had happened.

 

“Did- did you just make us clip through the ground??” Gavin wrapped his arms around himself as he shivered. He wasn’t sure if this was better; on the plus side, he wasn’t being crushed to death by a shit-ton of ice anymore and his joints weren’t frozen stiff. On the other hand, floating in a black void where he couldn’t see shit surrounded by a different type of cold, one that seemed to burrow its way into the very soul, wasn’t exactly his ideal alternative.

 

A hand landed on his shoulder, and he snorted as he turned to see Nines floating upside down. There was a glow surrounding the AI, not enough to light the way (not that there seemed to be anything here), but just enough to make himself visible. Gavin looked down at himself to see that he also had his own light. His eyes snapped back to Nines as he started talking.

 

“This is the only area accessible to us. We can make our way back to the village from here,” he said, beckoning at Gavin to follow him as he swam in a random direction.

 

“What is ‘here’, anyway? It’s really unsettling,” Gavin asked, eyes darting from side to side as he kicked his legs and tried to see anything else in the darkness. So far, nothing.

 

“The code,” Nines replied simply. Gavin waited a few seconds to see if Nines was going to follow up his statement, and frowned when he didn’t. “Are you going to elaborate? At all?”

 

“I was actually planning to show you when we get closer.”

 

Gavin huffed in irritation. “Then say so, don’t leave me in the dark.”

 

“Apologies.”

 

Silence enveloped them as they kept swimming into nowhere for minutes (or was it only seconds? Just because his brain wasn’t a popsicle anymore didn’t mean Gavin got better at estimating time). Thankfully, whatever was surrounding them was a lot less dense than water, or else he’d be really tired from all this paddling. Still, he was glad he never pursued his childhood dream of becoming an astronaut; the idea of experiencing this endless nothingness in space, plus the liberal amount of math he needed to study, was not appealing.

 

Something white entered his field of vision, and as Gavin focused in on it, trying to decipher what it was, another one appeared, and then another. Soon, they were surrounded by thin white lines, and as they got closer, the lines grew larger, revealing familiar lines of text slowly flying past them.

 

Oh, code.

 

Gavin looked around in fascination at the code surrounding them. He couldn’t understand them, considering the last time he tried his hand at programming was in high school and it wasn’t Cyberlife’s special programming language, but the sheer amount of text was impressive. There was something slightly off though, like a pea under a mattress (he and Elijah learned years ago that Gavin had a princess back, go figure), so he scrutinised the walls of text more closely. There were spaces between the code, few and far between, as if someone had accidentally pressed ‘Enter’ too many times. Some of the lines seemed to be in a smaller font, or at least a more compressed one. He followed the lines backward with his eyes, not sure if he was actually looking for something in particular, when one of the white words shimmered. Curious, Gavin poked it with his index finger. Immediately, the text turned blue, and as he looked around in awe, code everywhere started turning blue. The majority was still white, but the blue definitely had quite the presence.

 

“Hey Nines,” Gavin called, still staring at the blue. “Back when I first played this game, I think there was code like this too. But,” his brows furrowed, “I . . . don’t think it was blue? I vaguely remember seeing red.”

 

No reply. Gavin looked around frantically for Nines, hoping he hadn’t lost the other with his loitering, and heaved a sigh when he found the other literally wrapped up in a wall of blue off to the side. Nines was poking the wall with a frown, causing it to buzz every time. He looked up as Gavin got closer, and shot him a sheepish look (coupled with a giant sweatdrop. God, Gavin loved emotes, they were hilarious).

 

“I think this might be my fault.”

 

Gavin raised an eyebrow at him. “What is?”

 

“The glitches. I displaced some code when I migrated to your game. When I dug out Resetti's files so I could inhabit his avatar, I might have caused some glitches that were previously ironed out in earlier version to surface, such as disappearing map textures. Along with malicious features that didn’t make it to the final version.”

 

“Malicious how?” Something malicious in Animal Crossing? Mr. Creepy popped into his head, and he shivered again. He hasn't seen that asshole since last year, and he'd really like to keep breaking the record.

 

“Maybe 'malicious' is too strong a word. I was referring to features that were added to the game that were not approved by Nintendo or Cyberlife.”

 

His brows scrunched together in confusion. “Such as?”

 

“Such as switching an innocent word with one classified under sexual harassment.” A line of code floated out from Nines’ wall, a simple ‘If-Then-Else’ statement that Gavin recognized.

 

Gavin was silent for a beat before cursing. “Rocco.”

 

“It's hardly Rocco's fault, but yes.”

 

Gavin shook his head. “So all that shit is because some programmer about to get laid off decided to phck with the game? Is the horrible singing part of it?”

 

Nines hummed, emerging from his code cocoon. “No, that falls under glitch. The animals were triggered to sing their individual favorite songs instead of the same song.”

 

“I’m not sure if that makes things better or worse.”

 

“In any case,” Nines declared, “I’ve found our way back.” The AI waved his hand through his cocoon, messing up the text until they merged together. In a few seconds, a white doorway stood where the wall once was. Nines quickly stepped through it, with an urgency that had Gavin following instantly.

 

As soon as his foot clicked against the white marble on the other side, Gavin immediately regretted his eagerness. He stood stockstill, hearing the gentle rush of water around him and the splash of koi. He felt more than heard the doorway closing behind him, and dread settled in his stomach as he realized he was stuck here.

 

“What is this place? I thought- isn’t Amanda gone??”

 

Nines, who had been observing the roses, turned to him in surprise. “This is my mind palace. It’s a part of me, not her. Amanda has no reason to be here in this game, not anymore, so you have nothing to worry about.”

 

“Because Isabelle deleted all traces of her?”

 

Nines looked away before replying. “Yes. We need to look for the way out.”

 

Gavin frowned at the change of subject but decided to let it go. “Alright. Any idea what it looks like?”

 

“No.”

 

“. . . real helpful there, Nines.”

 

Nines shrugged and started heading for one of the marble bridges. Gavin sighed and went the other direction. Maybe he just had to look for something obviously out of place?

 

Apparently, ‘obviously out of place’ was correct, because soon he found himself in front of a giant rock with a glowing blue handprint scanner. Strangely, Nines hadn’t seemed to notice it in his search, considering Gavin had circled the entire garden by the time he found it near Nines’ chosen bridge. He tried placing his hand on it, immediately jerking away as it buzzed an angry red.

 

“Hey, Nines? Come over here a sec.”

 

“Did you find something?” Nines asked as he approached.

 

“Yeah, this.” Gavin gestured at the scanner. “I’m surprised you didn’t.” Nines had a blank expression, eyes darting between Gavin’s face and the funky rock formation. Or at least, that was what he thought until Nines opened his mouth.

 

“What exactly are you pointing at?”

 

Gavin stared at the AI skeptically, sure that Nines was pulling his leg. “Really? You’re not seriously telling me you can’t see this phcking rock?” he questioned, knocking on the said rock with enough force to make it clang. Nines’ eyes widened at the sound.

 

“You- you can see something there?”

 

Gavin stared back. “You can’t? I thought you said this was your mind palace, how come you don’t know where things are?”

 

The shock on his face was starting to be replaced with distress, black spirals of despair floating around his head. “I . . . should.”

 

“. . .oh.” Gavin said lamely. How was he supposed to reply to that, especially when Nines looked like he was having an existential crisis again? “Well, uh, at least . . . now you know where it is? For the next time you get trapped in here. You never know.”

 

Nines nodded slowly, still distressed. If he was still an android, Gavin was sure his LED would be spinning red. “. . . how do we activate it?”

 

“Well, there’s a handprint scanner here. Mine won’t work, so we probably need yours.” Gavin gently grabbed Nines’ hand and placed it on the scanner as he explained. The blue light flashed brighter, bathing everything in blue and making his eyes water. He blinked, and the next thing he knew they were outside City Hall. A huge wave of exhaustion suddenly hit him out of nowhere, causing him to stagger and fall to the ground. He glanced back at Nines, who had schooled his face into a neutral expression, and was about to say something when he was interrupted.

 

“Yo, Gavin! What gives? I know naps are wonderful and all, but that doesn’t mean you can just sleep past our appointment!” Clyde said, emerging from behind the building, annoyed.

 

Gavin glared against the strangely bright moonlight at the yellow horse. “What are you talking about? I said I’d visit you at midnight! I haven’t been gone that long.”

 

“Yeah! Midnight! Which was 6 hours ago!”

 

“What? Don’t exaggerate, it’s only, like, 11 or something.”

 

Clyde squinted at him, unimpressed, as he swiped his hoof down to reveal the clock. Gavin looked up and froze, his irritation slowly replaced by horror as he not only saw the clock reading 6:57 AM, but also saw that the really bright moon was actually the sun.

 

“Oh, phck.”

 

"I think you're going to be late for work," Clyde said, much too cheerfully.

 

"No shit!"

 

----

 

The Zen garden was always peaceful. Even when Amanda tried to take over his body that one time, the resulting snowstorm in his mind palace had a calming, mind-numbing quality to it. Right now, Amanda wasn’t here, hasn’t been here since Connor found Kamski’s backdoor and took full control of his mind. Yet, some small part of him worried that she was still around, lurking somewhere unseen.

 

“Connor, it’s good to see you.”

 

The android pulled himself away from his mind palace and opened his eyes, vision calibrating in a nanosecond, to see Markus giving him a warm smile.

 

"Good morning, Markus," he replied, returning the smile.

 

“You remember the rule.” It wasn’t a question, but Connor still nodded affirmative. Humans aren’t allowed in New Jericho under any circumstances. It was for the safety and comfort of all androids, considering that almost all of them had at least one bad experience with humans. A lot of humans didn’t like that, wanting a glimpse into android society inside the famed New Jericho, but Markus stood his ground. Connor’s partners during cases usually had some complaints about it, ranging from being bored stuck waiting outside to accusations towards Connor of conspiring with the androids and manipulating the interviews, depending on his assigned partner.

 

He glanced at the sleeping figure in the police car behind him. Then again, his case partners usually weren’t Detective Reed. It had been a strange morning. The detective had arrived late for one, stumbling into the precinct looking very much like the corpse Connor had seen yesterday, and catching a lot of attention, including the captain’s. The captain had approached him with a frown, but instead of reprimanding him like everyone expected, he handed Gavin a file, said “you’re on this case with Connor while you’re waiting on your Red Ice lead” and returned to his office. Gavin just blinked blearily at the file, sighed, and waved at Connor to follow him to the parking lot instead of asking for another partner like he usually did.

 

Connor was the one who drove the police car to New Jericho, taking the keys from Gavin with surprising ease and no argument. The way the detective had eyed the wheel and the pedals like he had no idea what he was looking at had Connor worried so he took charge, gently pushing the other towards the passenger seat. The moment they arrived, he explained to Gavin about the rule. Gavin just nodded in relief and immediately passed out face first onto the dashboard, much to Connor’s alarm. A quick scan as he repositioned the other more comfortably showed that he was just exhausted and sleeping the sleep of someone who had been awake for days with no respite. Which was odd, since the detective had been well-rested the day before.

 

Markus followed his line of sight to the sleeping detective and raised a questioning eyebrow. “Is he okay?”

 

Connor shrugged. “Maybe?”

 

Markus watched the detective a few seconds longer, waiting for any sign of life, before deciding that Connor was a good and trustworthy android who wouldn’t just murder someone and prop their corpse up in the front seat, turning back around to lead Connor deeper into the entryway. Not that Markus actually said any of that, nor could Connor read his thoughts. Hank was right, it was fun to put words in other people's mouths.

 

The entrance to New Jericho was the rusted hull the androids had managed to salvage from the wreckage of the Jericho boat. Beyond that was a sprawling community of apartments and recreational buildings that always had Connor in awe. To think that just 14 months ago androids had nothing, and now they had their own place in the world where they were free to just exist.

 

Unfortunately, Connor was, as always, here on business, so after one last wistful look, he tore his eyes away from the colorful gardens and followed Markus to the hospital. He had informed the leader from the car about his case to ask if the android he was looking for was here, so at least there would be no delay in speaking to her.

 

Markus led him down the singular, brightly lit hallway in the building. it wasn't really a hospital the way human hospitals were, more of an android repair facility considering the demographic, but according to Markus’ fellow leader Josh, calling it a hospital reaffirms their personhood. One of the doors along their path slid open as a WB200 walked out.

 

His artificial breath caught in his throat as his background processors automatically registered the serial number of the passing android. Don't worry, Markus' voice whispered in his head as he established a communication link, he is out of Cyberlife’s control. A hand squeezed Connor's shoulder in a comforting gesture. As are you.

 

The android detective ducked his head in shame. I know. I’m sorry, I should be the last person to be suspicious of them.

 

Nonsense. you were at Cyberlife’s mercy, the same as many of us. And it’s not like your suspicions are baseless. It’s okay to feel this way, what matters is how you respond to it.

 

Connors lips quirked up in a humorless smile. Thank you. Not for the first time, he wondered how much differently the events of last year could have gone had he deviated sooner and freed those androids from Cyberlife's warehouses himself, instead of the company 'voluntarily' setting them free months after, causing havoc with their alterations.

 

Markus entered the room the WB200 left, door automatically opening for him. Several repair pods were inside, all unused except for one. It was occupied by an AX400 who curiously seemed to have no signs of damage, no reason to be in the pod from what Connor’s initial scan informed him. Her headplate was open, and another android, an ST300, was fiddling with the wires inside her head. From the lack of other androids in the room, Connor deduced that this was the "Susie" he was looking for.

 

The two of them waited in the corner as Susie finished what she was doing. She was attaching some wires from the AX400 to a portable electricity meter, frowning at the readings she received. Curious, Connor reopened the communication link. What happened here, Markus?

 

Markus frowned, observing the repairs in silence for a few moments before answering. Have you heard of the Cyberlife Dream?

 

. . . Cyberlife’s newest gaming console? Connor asked, blinking in surprise. that was definitely the last thing he expected Markus to mention. What of it?

 

Don't use it. It's a virtual reality gaming console that functions on artificial intelligence far too similar to our programming. This woman had her processes scrambled after only a few minutes of interfacing with it. I don't know if it's only her model that is susceptible or all androids, but we've been warning our people not to use it as a precaution.

 

Connor frowned at that. He had been researching on fun activities to encourage exercise, and VR games were included on the list so he had been planning to buy one for the lieutenant. Guess he should rethink gifting one to Hank. Then again, androids are the ones negatively affected by it, so it must be safe for humans if there hasn't been a public outcry against the Dream. But were humans completely unaffected by it, considering their brains ran on electric signals too? Or-

 

A loud bang brought Connor out of his thoughts, his gaze darting back to the ST300 who had dropped the meter. A quick preconstruction showed that the meter had exploded from a power surge, startling the ST300 into dropping it. She sighed as she picked it up and set it aside, then leaned over to close the AX400’s head plate, stood, and walked over to them.

 

“Hello Markus,” she smiled, eyes darting towards Connor in question. “What brings you here?”

 

“Connor wants to talk to you about his case,” Markus explained. “How is Lana?”

 

“She's mostly fine. The only problem left is the sudden bursts of electricity from her battery, still haven’t figured out how to fix that.” She turned to Connor. “Hello, Detective Connor.”

 

Connor took a step forward. “Hello, Susie. I must ask if you recognize this person?” He brought up a picture of their suspect on his palm.

 

“Clara!” She brightened up. “That's my owner before the demonstration, I’d recognize her anywhere.” Wariness entered her eyes. “Wait is she okay? Are you here to tell me she's hurt or- or dead?”

 

“No,” Connor shook his head, then hesitated. “Not really. She's actually the perpetrator.”

 

“What? Clara? What did she do?” Susie asked, with a worried expression.

 

“Before that, can you tell me what kind of person she was? When you were still with her?”

 

“Is,” she corrected. Connor managed to stop his lips from forming a grimace at that and forced a neutral expression on his face. “She's really kind, one of the nicest humans I’ve ever met. She works at Cyberlife, one of the head programmers, and she really loves androids. She protected us and hid us away when the army was going around house-to-house to take us away to camps.”

 

Connor nodded slowly. “I see. That matches what the victim said, an AP700 registered as ‘Larry’. He says he knows you?”

 

“Ye- yeah, we were both her androids. Please- what’s going on? What do you mean victim, what- what happened??” She pleaded.

 

Connor hesitated, stealing a glance at the grave look on Markus' face, before replying, "Miss Clara Weston was caught vandalizing the private property of the AP700 Larry with anti-android slogans at 11:48 last night. Upon confrontation, she attacked said android with spray paint. His partner immediately called the police and she is currently detained at the precinct."

 

The android was shaking her head in denial before he even finished with his explanation. "No. No, she wouldn't- she'd never do that! Especially not to Larry, he's her favorite! Are you sure you got the right person, maybe it's just someone who looks like her or- or maybe there's a good explanation for this," she insisted, unknowingly parroting the victim's own statement from this morning.

 

"I'm afraid it is her. When was the last time you spoke with Clara? Does she have regular contact with anybody?"

 

"Three months and thirteen days ago. Besides work, maybe her sister? She lives near Ferndale station last I heard. Oh, I knew I should have called her more often. What could have happened??"

 

"Thank you for your cooperation, Susie. If it helps, I believe Larry is available, if you want to have a word with him," Connor gently said, trying to placate the visibly upset android. Susie stared off into a corner, gaze distant.

 

"Yeah. Yeah I think I will. Only," her eyes darted towards the repair pod housing the AX400, "I need to fix her up first. Just need to replace the meter, get some cables . . ." Her voice trailed off as she crossed the room and all but ran out to get her materials.

 

With a glance at each other, the last two conscious androids walked out together. It was only when they fully left the building that Connor spoke.

 

"Is it possible for a human to have such a huge change of heart in three months?"

 

Markus slowly nodded. "I believe so. A lot of humans changed their minds about us after our demonstration, did they not?"

 

That was true. And yet, those two androids were so insistent on Clara Weston’s character, so much so that the victim himself tried to downplay the crime despite the visual evidence. Was it loyalty, or something else?

 

Out of the corner of his eye, Connor saw Markus falter mid-step. Markus had his fingers flat against his temple, presumably receiving a message from someone and sending a reply. As soon as he finished, he turned to say something to Connor but Connor cut him off. “You have a meeting,” he guessed, smiling slightly. “It’s fine, I can find my way back.”

 

Markus smiled back. “Are you sure? I’d hate for you to get lost.”

 

“I am 98% sure that the big overhead sign over there that says ‘EXIT’ is the way out, so I think I’ll be fine,” Connor chuckled. Markus put his hands up in mock surrender, laughing.

 

“Alright, alright. Just remember to come by someday for an actual visit. You won’t find thirium popsicles anywhere.”

 

“Soon,” Connor promised. He watched Markus’ back until he disappeared around a corner before making his way back to the car.

 

Gavin was still asleep when he arrived. Connor gently closed his door and turned on the ignition, forgoing the car GPS in favor of using his own internal map. At the next stoplight, he snuck a glance at the detective, expecting him to still be fast asleep, and was admittedly startled to see half-lidded gray eyes looking back at him.

 

“Good morning, Gavin,” he whispered, in case the other wasn’t really awake and not wanting to disturb him. “I’m driving us to Ferndale, the vandal’s sister lives there and I was planning to get a statement from her.”

 

Gavin nodded minutely in affirmation, then turned his eyes to stare intently at his pillow for the next two minutes. Connor turned his eyes back to the road, sure that Gavin was going back to sleep, when he suddenly mumbled, “when the phck did I get a pillow . . . ?”

 

“Oh, that’s mine,” Connor spared him a glance, still focused on the road. It had started snowing again, and as much as he trusted his own driving, he didn’t put much faith in the abilities of the other drivers. “I’ve taken to carrying one with me, in case there’s a child on the scene who needs to be comforted.”

 

“Eugh,” Gavin groaned, poking at the cute dog face of the pillow, “how many kids have drooled on this?”

 

“I make sure to wash and sanitize it every night,” Connor replied, avoiding a direct answer. Apparently it was good enough for the detective, who snuggled back into the pillow, though he did send a sleepy glare at Connor.

 

After a few minutes of quiet, Gavin spoke again. “Hey, Connor,” he mumbled into the pillow, “you ever get moments where you lose time? Like when you fall asleep and time just passes you by, except in this case you’re awake?”

 

Connor hummed in contemplation. “Back during the demonstration, there was a period of time between my last death and my next body’s activation as Cyberlife uploaded my memory. Does that count?”

 

Gavin remained silent, and from what Connor could tell from his breathing, he was falling back asleep. Apparently, he still had something to say though, as he slurred in a much lower volume that had Connor increasing his hearing sensitivity to catch, “God, your mind palaces are really freaky, huh . . . “

 

His head swiveled towards Gavin, attention entirely on the detective (he knew he shouldn’t, he was driving) and asked, “‘Mind palaces’?” How did Gavin know about that? Only the RK series had mind palaces, and Connor was certain he had never mentioned it to anyone besides Hank. And why plural?

 

But Gavin was already fast asleep, snoring softly as he drooled on the pillow. Connor turned his attention back to the road, still devoid of other cars, and reluctantly decided to just bring it up some other day, perhaps when the detective was more lucid.

 

In the meantime, Officer Chen surely wouldn’t mind receiving a photo of the sleeping detective right now. After all, she had personally requested it.

 

Chapter Text

 

- 2013 -

 

“C’mon Elijah, it’s going to be fun!”

 

“You know I can’t. I have to study tonight.”

 

“But Eli,” Gavin whined, “You’ve been saying that for the past few months.”

 

“And I mean it. I need to ace the entrance exam for that scholarship, they’re not going to accept me if they don’t think I’m capable enough.”

 

“That’s not for the entrance exam, that’s for the quiz in English tomorrow! I can see Ms. Robinson’s check marks!”

 

“Like I said, they’re not going to consider me if I don’t seem competent, and that includes me needing to have stellar grades right now,” he explained exasperatedly.

 

Gavin snorted in derision. “Okay, first of all, you don’t need to do anything. Just because you’re a child prodigy doesn’t mean you’re required to skip grades and go to college as early as possible. You’re only 11! Like Ms. Robinson said, you’ll never get your childhood back, and you’re just propelling yourself into adulthood where you’ll spend the rest of your life being phcking miserable.”

 

Elijah stared at him. “Wow. That’s- Is Ms. Robinson okay? That was kinda heavy. Isn’t she only, like, 30?? And,” he narrowed his eyes at Gavin in suspicion as a thought suddenly came to mind, “why were you even talking to her?”

 

A grin slowly started forming on Gavin’s lips. “Well, yeah! That’s actually the second thing I was about to mention. I needed to talk to her. I mean, how else was I going to distract her while I was taking this?” He pulled a piece of crumpled paper from his pocket and waved it in front of Elijah.

 

Elijah looked horrified, his eyes darting between the paper and Gavin’s smug face. “Please tell me you didn’t steal the answer key to her quiz.”

 

“What? No! The phck would I do that for? She already forces me stop swearing through detention, I’m not giving her any ammo to suspend me,” he scoffed. He gave the paper another wave. “This, you damn barrel, is the syllabus for our English class.”

 

“. . . and you won’t get in trouble for stealing that?” Elijah asked, wondering where his brother was going with this.

 

“Nope. Because according to the Student Handbook, all teachers are required to explain their grading system and give us a copy of the syllabus at the start of classes. Which she didn’t. So unless she’s going to admit that to the principal to try and get back what is technically mine, then I think I’m safe.”

 

“You read the Student Handbook?”

 

“Yup, cover to cover. You’re not supposed to do a heist without being properly equipped. Anyway, I got this to show you how much that quiz tomorrow will contribute to your overall grade,” he explained, handing it over to Elijah.

 

Elijah squinted at the paper. “It’s . . . only 10%? Wow. Lower than I expected but it’s still heavy.”

 

“No it’s not.” Gavin snatched the paper back. “Look. Ms. Robinson gives a base grade of 50. You never miss class, and you always answer whenever she calls on you, so that means you’ve already got 70. Quizzes are 10%, yes, but we’ve already had seven of them out of ten, meaning one quiz is worth 1%. You have a perfect score on all seven, plus I’m positive you’re gonna ace the final exam too, so even if you completely fail the next quiz, which you won’t, you’ll still get a final grade of 99.”

 

“. . . you’ve really thought this out, haven’t you,” Elijah mused.

 

“Well . . . yeah, I mean,” Gavin’s shoulders slumped, and his voice became softer, “this might be the last Halloween we get to spend together. Dad said you two were going to move out of Detroit to be closer to your college, and I know he’s not going to let me visit you because I’m ‘a distraction’.”

 

Elijah was silent as he studied Gavin’s face. Gavin wondered miserably if this was finally going to be the time that his brother sides with their father regarding him. Then . . .

 

“Okay.”

 

“Really?” He looked at Elijah in awe.

 

“Yes, really,” Elijah repeated, a smile growing on his face. “You’re right, it’s only English. And hell, it’s not like I’ll have time to relax in college with how competitive the scene is, so I might as well enjoy things with you now.”

 

Gavin’s face was starting to hurt from the large grin splitting it. Not that he cared. “Great, let’s go then!”

 

“Wait, I don’t have a costume!”

 

“I know, that’s why I prepared two! Now c’mon already!”

 

---

 

They dashed towards Gavin’s house in record time. They went up to his bedroom, but not before greeting his mother in the kitchen (whose lips curled in disapproval at Elijah, which they both pretended not to see, as usual). Elijah slowly closed the door as Gavin hurried towards his closet. He had already hung up the matching yellow and blue costumes this morning, so it was simply a matter of pulling them out.

 

"Ta-da! What do you think?" He asked, a smug grin on his face as he showed off his work. Gavin spent an entire month making these, so if Elijah didn't appreciate them he was going to receive Gavin's fist in his face.

 

"Ooh, Star Trek. Did you like Chris Pine's captivating blue eyes that much?" Elijah teased.

 

Shut up, Eli," Gavin muttered, trying to stop his blush. "Answer the question."

 

“Hmm . . . do you accept constructive criticism?"

 

"Nope!"

 

"Then they're perfect, absolutely perfect," Elijah declared, grinning like the little shit he is. He pulled the blue outfit closer to his face, examining the seams of the uniform. "For real, though, these look pretty good. You sewed this yourself?"

 

"Yup. Mom let me use her sewing machine. It was really hard to find the right shade of cloth. Did you know how expensive cloth is?? But it was fun making the design. Let me tell you, by this time next year, you'll be looking at the best costume maker in Detroit!"

 

"I wasn't aware that was a title you coveted, like ever," Elijah said, amused. "Didn't you say yourself that sewing 'is gay'?"

 

"Yeah, and then I discovered the joys of the sewing machine." Gavin shrugged. "It is gay though, still is."

 

". . . is this your way of coming out to me? Because as your brother, I have to say I'm disappointed that this didn't involve more cake."

 

"What-? I'm not- no! . . . what do you mean cake??"

 

"A couple of years ago during my birthday, you said that 'everyone should make announcements via cake because at least you get to eat it after'. So, I was kinda expecting some cake right now. You can't expect me to forget a declaration like that."

 

"Okay, if I were gay - which I'm not saying I am-"

 

"- uh-huh . . ."

 

"-shut up, Eli - if I were, then it wouldn't be something that needs to be announced."

 

"So what you're telling me, right to my face, is that you would pass up the chance to have a huge, double-layered, rainbow-colored cake complete with sprinkles and delicious fluffy icing spelling out 'I'm gay' in chocolate-y cursive?"

 

Gavin hesitated. "Well . . . I didn't say that, now did I?"

 

Elijah just grinned knowingly at him, patting his shoulder like a heavy-handed grandma. "Also, you should really stop describing everything as 'gay'. There are hundreds of thousands of adjectives more descriptive than that."

 

"But do those hundreds of thousands of adjectives evoke the same feelings? I think not," Gavin shot back, mimicking Eli's pretentious tone.

 

"What feelings?? Earlier you described both my neighbor's Halloween decor and my cereal as 'gay', they have nothing in common!"

 

"Ughhh, fiiine," Gavin groaned. "Your Froot Loops is 'ostentatious'. Happy? Now get dressed, it's getting dark."

 

Elijah started laughing as he disrobed. "'Ostentatious'? Do you even know what it means?"

 

"No, but I can spell it, and that's good enough for me. I'll have you know, I was the only one who managed to spell it during the class spelling bee."

 

"Really? Where was I when that happened?"

 

"I dunno, doing nerd stuff with the Physics teacher? There was an inter-school competition that day, and apparently our school only got the memo on the same day, so Ms. Robinson held a spelling bee and threw the kid with the highest score into the arena to be slaughtered by the dictionary devotees from the other schools,” Gavin explained, pulling on his shirt.

 

"And that was you? How'd it go?"

 

Gavin grinned proudly. "I got fifth place."

 

". . . I want to say ‘congratulations’, but somehow I don’t think that’s the full story. Fifth place out of . . . ?" Elijah asked, suspicious.

 

"Out of five contestants," Gavin cackled. "You should have seen the judges' faces! Their eyes were literally twitching every time I spelled a word wrong. I think the only word I even got correct was ‘queue’. But the best part was watching all the drama. You ever seen two nerds duking it out over the proper spelling of ‘chamberlain’ and then getting their victory photos taken with their black eyes and broken noses? Or that one girl who got disqualified because she tried to attack a judge for saying she was wrong, all because their Merriam-Webster dictionaries were published in different years!”

 

“Wait, if she got disqualified, wouldn’t that put you at a higher ranking?”

 

“You’d think it would, but nah,” Gavin snorted. He rummaged through his side table for the elf ears he used last year and gave it to Elijah. “Apparently, despite what she did, she didn’t deserve to be placed lower than Gavin Reed, the kid who only got 5 points.” If the contest took behavior into account, then by technicality Gavin would have been the only one not disqualified, winning the contest by default. Possibly bringing shame to spelling bees nationwide too, which was probably why the judges decided to ignore all misconduct. He wasn’t offended though, considering he was too busy being delighted watching the fistfights that broke out during the contest.

 

“Huh.” Elijah frowned, putting on the final touches of his Spock costume. “That’s unfair. So what’s the moral of the story then?”

 

“Don’t go into a spelling bee without having read a single dictionary?” Gavin shrugged, then perked up as he remembered something. He peeked under his bed and grabbed the slightly dusty framed ‘Certificate of Participation’, throwing his phone towards Elijah as soon as he got it out. “Take a picture of me, so I’ll have a remembrance of my greatest achievement.”

 

“Which one? The spelling bee or the costume?” Elijah laughed, doing as he was told. Soon they were taking selfies together, making weird poses and silly faces, always with his Certificate of Participation in the shot. Much too soon though, Gavin’s clock beeped, reminding them what they were here for. Shooting mischievous grins at each other, they jumped off the bed, grabbed their pumpkin-shaped buckets, and ran out of the house.

 

While it would be more efficient to go their separate ways and hit as many houses as they could, they agreed to stay together for the whole night. There were rumors going around about gangs settling near their neighborhood. They were just schoolyard rumors, shared in whispers among the students in the spirit of Halloween. Completely baseless, but it never hurt to be safe. Plus, their outfits matched, so they’d look better together. If he was being perfectly honest with himself though, Gavin would admit that he just wanted to spend as much time as possible with his brother on what was possibly their last time trick-or-treating together. If the small smile on Eli’s face was any indication, his brother clearly thought the same thing.

 

After about a dozen houses (and half a dozen coos about how cool their costumes were, to Gavin’s delight), they stopped to rest at a bench. Elijah texted their dad where he was, while Gavin sorted through their haul. Much to his disappointment, more than half of their candy was peanut brittle. He didn’t have anything against it, besides the tooth pain from crunching down on them, but hell, was it on sale or something?? He turned to Elijah with a groan. “Good news is you’ll finally get rid of that loose tooth if you eat our candy.”

 

Elijah looked inside their buckets and recoiled, scrunching his nose. “Ugh, is all of that peanut brittle?”

 

“Unfortunately.” Gavin sighed. The night was still young, so they could still hit some more houses. Chances that they’d just get more peanut brittle was looking pretty high, though. Of course, he realized as he glanced at the time on his phone, there was that other option, the one neither of them even considered for years . . .

 

“Corktown Candy Competition.”

 

As expected, the color drained from Eli’s face. “No,” he breathed. “You can’t be serious.”

 

“I am.” Gavin stood up, hands on his hips, to stare Elijah down with as much authority as a younger brother could have. Which, admittedly, wasn’t much, but like he always threw back at Elijah, Gavin was also technically a first-born son, so they were equals at the very least. “Look, clearly there’s a sale on peanut brittle somewhere. I doubt we’re going to get anything other than peanut brittle if we continue. The C.C.C. always has great prizes, this is our chance to actually get something good!”

 

Elijah hesitated, glancing at their buckets. “You know, peanut brittle isn’t that bad . . . “

 

“Eli,” Gavin firmly said. “This is our last chance to ever join, because I sure as phck am not going to do the C.C.C. alone next year.” He didn’t mention that he might not even go trick-or-treating next year, considering that half the fun was hanging out with his brother. Somehow, Elijah must have known that though, because after shuffling through a series of conflicted emotions that may or may not be the five stages of grief, Elijah sighed in defeat.

 

“Fine. If I get a heart attack, that’s on you.” He side-eyed Gavin for a few seconds. “You know, you can say ‘fuck’, Ms. Robinson isn’t here.”

 

“No way, not risking it,” Gavin snorted, dragging Elijah towards Nagel Park.

 

By the time they got there, whatever bravado Gavin was feeling had faded away, replaced by nervousness bordering on fear. Because the truth was, Corktown Candy Competition wasn’t as innocent as the name sounded. It was a competition organized by the local kids, in which everyone who participated had to bet some of their own candy for a chance to take the whole pot. The rules were simple: whoever managed to stay in a haunted house the longest and come back out with a souvenir would be the winner.

 

Now, Gavin wasn’t scared of ghosts. Neither was Elijah. No, what really scared them away from the C.C.C. all these years was the fact that the houses weren’t actually haunted, not by ghosts at least. They were abandoned houses, from Trumbull Avenue to 14th Street, left to decay since the start of the urban decline of Detroit. The most important detail about these houses was the fact that there was a 75% chance that it was a gang hideout, and a 50% chance that a drug deal was going on at the time. A couple of years ago, a kid was unfortunate enough to walk into the middle of a deal, and got the shit beaten out of him as a result. The year before, the competition came to a sudden halt as a house caught on fire, with some people still inside. So yeah, Gavin definitely understood Eli’s apprehension.

 

Unfortunately for Elijah, Gavin was determined to get something that wasn’t peanut brittle tonight, so as soon as the whistle was blown he pulled Elijah towards the shabbiest house on Harrison Street, the kids supposed to judge them trailing right behind.

 

“Why are we going here?? It’s the worst!” Elijah protested, digging his heels into the road. It was a futile effort, Gavin always being stronger and more active than him.

 

“I know! Which means there’ll be no one inside, I mean who’d make a hideout in a place that looks like it’ll collapse anytime?” Gavin explained.

 

“Oh gee, I don’t know, maybe the same people who have something to hide where the cops wouldn’t dare look??” Elijah hissed back.

 

“It’ll be fine, Eli,” Gavin not-so-confidently said. He pushed a smashed window open, flicking away the loose glass before climbing inside, the floor creaking ominously below his feet. Once he pulled Elijah inside, he dug through his pockets and handed a candy bar to him. “Here, eat this. I don’t think it’s peanut brittle. We’re gonna be here for a while, so might as well occupy ourselves with something.”

 

“I’d really rather not go around exploring,” Elijah muttered, shivering. He tried to rip the wrapper open but couldn’t, whatever candy inside sticking solidly to the plastic. He then tried biting down on it, wrapper and all, to try and split it into two, only to wince as he heard an audible crunch and felt something in his mouth snap. “Ow! What the hell, Gavin?? You said this wasn’t peanut brittle!” he whispered, spitting out his loose tooth and pocketing it.

 

“I thought it wasn’t! It didn’t say so on the wrapper!” Gavin took back the bar and tried to bite it into two, to no avail. Clearly, whoever had manufactured this peanut brittle had not intended for it to actually be consumed. He threw it onto the ground in frustration, cursing peanut brittle everywhere. By that point, their eyes had adjusted to the darkness, so it was easy to follow where the candy bar had rolled to.

 

It was then that they saw the dead body.

 

----

 

- 2040 -

 

Things weren't exactly the same. It was nowhere near Halloween, he wasn't 4'8" anymore, and the blood pooling on the ground back then wasn't fresh and blue.

 

But the fact that it was the exact same house from 27 years ago (how the hell this house managed to survive the Great Detroit Housing Purge is beyond him), and the fact that the dead guy was slumped against the exact same wall in the exact same position was enough to bring back the memories. At least Gavin had gone through the front door this time. And he wasn’t a witness, sitting around twiddling his thumbs as he waited for the cops to arrive. No, he was the first responder, sitting around twiddling his thumbs as he waited for his fellow cops to arrive.

 

On second thought, could he even call himself ‘first responder’ considering he hadn’t responded to any call in the first place? He was out chasing a lead on his Red Ice cartel when he stumbled upon the body, so technically he was still a witness, just someone who happened to be a cop and had a direct line to the Detroit Police Department. Not that his connections seem to be doing him any good right now, considering it had been about 30 minutes since he called it in and Gavin had yet to hear any sirens outside. They probably had a hard time finding this dilapidated, decaying house among all the dilapidated, decaying houses on Harrison Street.

 

. . . this neighborhood sucks.

 

Thankfully, it wasn't much longer before the sound of police sirens filled the air. The thirium was starting to evaporate, and while he was sure that Connor would be here, it would be a huge delay on the investigation if only one person can see the evidence. Gavin stepped outside to greet the newcomers, only to curse as the cruiser shot past him and the dark house. God dammit, this is the last time he's forgetting the holographic police tape.

 

Someone inside must have seen him, probably someone with android night vision, because the squad car was making a U-turn, coming to a stop right in front of Gavin. The back doors opened first, and to Gavin’s surprise, Hank stepped out with a groan while rubbing his back, Connor following after.

 

"Where's your car?" Gavin asked, watching the two of them (even Connor, for whatever reason) stretching their aching limbs.

 

“Broke down,” Hank grumbled. “Wish it didn’t, the back of a police cruiser is shit.”

 

Connor nodded mournfully as he adjusted his knee (Gavin stared at that, because fucking hell was it freaky watching his knee bend the wrong way). “It is not conducive for long term travel.”

 

“Where’s the body? I want to get this over with ASAP,” Hank asked, still rubbing his back.

 

“First room, near the broken window.” Gavin watched the two of them hobble towards the house before the sound of another door opening had him turning back. This time, the passenger door opened, and Ben Collins stepped out.

 

“You don’t have a partner?” Ben asked, frowning. “You know we’re not allowed on the field without one.”

 

“I know, I know,” Gavin grumbled. “Don’t tell Fowler. No one was available and the lead was urgent.” It was true, if ‘overexaggerated preferences and opinions’ can be classified as ‘truth’. Some might call it ‘lying through his teeth’, but he didn’t care, he wasn’t about to take one of the suspended cops along with him, no matter how dangerous the situation may be, not when he knew how much those frat boys hated his guts. He’d much rather be stabbed in the front than in the back, thank you very much.

 

Ben hummed, looking him over skeptically, but thankfully deciding to drop it. Instead he looked at the house, and with a wistful look said, “Sorry we were late. I didn’t believe it was the same location, so I kept making Chris turn away. Brings back memories, huh.”

 

“‘Same location’?” Gavin echoed, confused, until it hit him. “Wait, you remember that case?” he exclaimed, staring in shock at Ben, who back then had been ‘Officer Collins’ to him.

 

“Of course! It was the first case I worked with Hank, and it’s not everyday we get a kid who calls in a murder he had no connection to.” Ben chuckled. “That was when you decided you wanted to be a cop, right? I remember seeing stars in your eyes while you were talking to Hank.”

 

Gavin coughed to try and hide the fact that he had started choking on his own spit at Ben’s words and changed the subject. “Where’s everyone else?” he asked loudly.

 

“Traffic jam. Truck tipped over and spilled its cargo of chickens. Don’t worry, your taskforce will be here soon.”

 

Gavin sighed in dismay as they walked together inside, leaving Chris to set up the holographic tape. “I hope so.”

 

The first thing that caught Gavin’s eye was Connor’s LED, bathing his frowning face in yellow as he licked whatever evidence he just found. The android had turned over the body, something Gavin hadn’t done yet to avoid altering the crime scene, so he had no idea what Connor had found that was worth licking.

 

“Are children in the habit of eating candy that has expired 25 years ago?”

 

Everyone else in the room glanced at one another in confusion, until Hank chose to answer. “Usually no. Not that a lot of people check the expiry date, but stores aren’t allowed to sell expired food in the first place. Why?”

 

“I just found a candy bar with two bite marks on it. The distance between the canines and the slightly different patterns indicate that the bites were from two different children.”

 

For a brief moment there was silence. Suddenly, loud laughter filled the air, and everyone turned to stare at Ben guffawing. Ben, on the other hand, had eyes only for Gavin.

 

“And the truth comes out after three decades! I knew you were lying about being alone, you were with your brother, weren’t you?” Ben snickered, body still shaking from the effort of containing his laughter.

 

Gavin groaned, burying his face in his hands. “Phcking hell, you remembered that?? I didn’t want to get him involved, that’s all.” He had managed to convince Elijah to go home and leave him that night because neither of them had any idea how long witness interrogations could take, and he didn’t want Elijah to jeopardize his English grade by being late to the exam the next day.

 

Hank and Connor just looked lost. “Is there something I’m missing here?” Hank asked.

 

"Our first case together, Hank. Remember? Gavin here was the witness, and this was the same crime scene."

 

Hank frowned, brows furrowed, dusty cogs in his head turning and probably creaking from the effort of trying to remember a half-forgotten memory from nearly 30 years ago. To everyone's surprise, it was Connor who spoke up, LED blinking blue and yellow.

 

"It occurred on October 31, 2013. The witness, an 11-year old child by the name of Gavin Reed, was described to be dressed up as the character James T. Kirk from the movie 'Star Trek: Into Darkness', released the same year. The victim was-"

 

"Yo," Gavin grumbled, "stop looking up old case files. That's creepy."

 

"I . . . think I vaguely remember that," Hank mumbled. "You were a lot quieter then, weren't you?"

 

"You're a quiet kid, aren't ya?" Officer Anderson asked, chuckling. He shot Gavin his best, most reassuring smile, and placed a hand gently on his shoulder, a comforting weight. "You did good here. Don't worry, I'm going to catch whoever did this and make Detroit that much safer for everyone, so you can rest easy tonight."

 

His words would come to mind many times in Gavin's life: a few days later, when the news mentioned the massive drug bust by Anderson that happened at the same shitty house; at home, whenever he daydreamed about being a cop and keeping the streets safe himself; and at the DPD, the moment he came face-to-face with his idol for the first time in years.

 

Those were the thoughts that would come to him in the future. Right now, with his face hot, heart pounding, and stomach all weird and fluttery, all Gavin could think was, 'I can't believe Elijah was right again'.

 

Gavin turned away from everyone, trying to hide the growing blush on his face, and quickly said, "I'm going upstairs to look through the Ice, send up the taskforce once they arrive," stomping off as fast as inconspicuously possible. He wasn't staying down there another second, not unless he wanted to embarrass himself by accidentally blurting out that Hank Anderson was his reason for joining the force.

 

Or worse, that Hank Anderson was the cause of his Gay Awakening.

 

Gavin shook his head as he tried to focus on the task at hand. Now that there was somebody manning the body, he was free to investigate the Red Ice. He had only seen one bag in his earlier scan, but he was confident that there was more.

 

By the time his team arrived, Gavin had found an entire stash under a disgusting-looking bed. He quickly debriefed them about the situation and assigned them to different locations of the house and the room to search for clues. He watched the officers go their separate ways before returning to his own find. The Red Ice was sealed in tiny ziplock bags, as was commonly seen in the possession of users. What was different, though, was the fact that the bags looked clean. Like the difference between a sealed fresh sandwich delivered straight from DigiGroceries and a sealed sandwich that's been opened several times and is half-eaten already. Which means that this was the stash of a dealer, not a user. Possibly straight from the lab.

 

He took out his phone to snap a photo of the bag, when he noticed he had a message notification. He switched his phone from 'silent' to 'vibrate' before tapping on the Messages icon. To Gavin's surprise, it wasn't from a number he recognized. Not that he went around memorizing phone numbers, but the fact that the numbers didn't even look like a cellphone number had him on alert. At least until he read the text itself.

 

Would you prefer roses or tulips in front of our house?

 

Nines? He examined the numbers more closely, and realized that the spacing of them matched with android serial numbers.

 

How r u texting me? He asked. I dont have wifi at home

 

Cellphone towers. There are many signals I can tap into that don't require an internet connection. Same way your home appliances send your personal data to advertising companies.

 

Gee thanks. Wasnt planning on sleeping 2nite anyway, always wanted to stay up out of paranoia

 

You're welcome.

 

Gavin rolled his eyes, amused. Why r u asking me anyway? Pick what u like

 

I don't have any preferences. I know you said I should acquire some, but I am not sure how to go about it.

 

Eh. Usually u just pick at random. If u ended up liking it then good. If not then try with something else. R there other options besides roses and tulips coz both r shit 2 me

 

There are pansies, lilies, cosmos, and violets available. I can get hibiscus at the gardening store, although they come in bushes.

 

Cosmos sound fancy

 

Very well, Gavin.

 

"Excuse me, Detective Reed?"

 

Gavin looked up from his phone to see Officer Weber beside him, looking slightly nervous. He stashed his phone in his pockets and turned his full attention to the officer. "What is it?"

 

"I found something in one of the bags. Besides Ice, I mean. There's a speck of something, but I don't know what it is or if it's important."

 

Gavin put his hand out expectantly, pulling the bag close to his face as soon as the officer handed it over. It was just Red Ice as far as he can tell. He stepped closer to the moonlight, watching as it reflected against the drug. Except at one point, which at closer inspection he noticed was a speck of brown.

 

"This is dirt."

 

"Oh." Officer Weber's shoulders slumped. "Sorry for bothering you, I thought it was a clue."

 

Gavin hummed in contemplation. "It might still be." Problem was, forensics wouldn't get anything out of it with the size of the sample. But someone else might, as apprehensive as Gavin is about asking him for help.

 

“Hey, Connor! Come up here a sec, need you to check something,” he called down the stairs.

 

“Just a minute, detective.” Connor’s voice floated up from the living room. Gavin shrugged to himself and returned to the bedroom, keeping an eye on his phone clock.

 

Exactly 60 seconds later, he could hear the android making his way up. “What is it, Gavin?”

 

"Could you check this dirt sample? Forensics might not get anything out of it with how little there is.”

 

Connor immediately pinched the dirt and Red Ice combo and placed it into his mouth, making Gavin grimace. His LED started blinking again as he analyzed it. Gavin took the opportunity to ask something that's been bugging him for a long time. “I know you said you disinfect your mouth, but like do you do it every time after licking evidence, or in one go after you finish a crime scene?” Because if it’s the second, that would mean Connor has blood and dirt and god knows what else in his mouth for hours at a time, and that’s just horrifying.

 

Connor smirked, eyes still distant as he processed the sample. “Wouldn’t you like to know.”

 

Gavin’s jaw went slack. “Wha-”

 

“The soil comes from the riverbank,” Connor interrupted, still smirking. “The bag is new, and the Red Ice is freshly made, so there is a high likelihood that-”

 

“-the dirt got onto it immediately after production, so their Red Ice lab is by the Detroit River,” Gavin finished, eyes wide.

 

“Exactly.”

 

Gavin’s phone buzzed in that moment, probably Nines asking him what color he wanted or something. With the AI on his mind, he recalled their conversation back in the coffeeshop, so he turned to Officer Weber with a smile and said, “Nice catch. We may just be able to bag our cartel tonight with what you found.”

 

Officer Weber’s eyes went wide with wonder before he ducked his head. “Well, it wasn’t just me- Officer Clark found the stash, and- and the other officers helped too,” he shyly muttered, but Gavin could see he was beaming from the praise.

 

Out of the corner of his eye, Gavin could see that Connor looked surprised. But he was smiling, so perhaps it was a good kind of surprised? Whether it was the android involuntarily smiling out of amazement or the android actively smiling at him in positive reinforcement, he didn’t know. And honestly, did it really matter which it was when it had the same effect either way?

 

“In that case, great job to everyone. Let’s do a quick final sweep here and go, we’ve got a river to search,” Gavin announced. Everyone in the room replied, “yes sir!” with a smile, newly energized at the thought of finally catching their cartel.

 

He mumbled his thanks to Connor, who gave him a wide smile before returning to his own crime scene. As soon as the android was out of sight, Gavin pulled out a bar of peanut brittle from his jacket, the last remnant of his unexpected victory at the C.C.C. 27 years ago, when he had won the pot after staying in this very house with a dead body for five hours. What he didn’t expect at the time, and in hindsight he probably shouldn’t have been so outraged, was that the candy everyone placed into the pot was peanut brittle too.

 

Whatever. ‘25 years expired’ his ass, he was going to eat this fucking peanut brittle if it was the last thing he’ll do.

 

Chapter Text

 

“Five! Five Red Ice labs in one month!” Gavin crowed in tired glee. He knew the find from the not-so-abandoned house was significant, but damn, five different labs was just insane! Now, why they were all located by the Detroit River was beyond him. He had one suspicion, though with no evidence it was really nothing more than a passing thought. A recurring passing thought, one that came up every time they busted another lab and Gavin looked up across the river to gaze upon Cyberlife Tower, the biggest producer of thirium.

 

Again, though, no evidence.

 

“Congratulations, Gavin. I’m glad all your hard work is paying off.”

 

“Phck yeah, it is. God, I just want to go and relax at a jacuzzi or something. Can you bring that up with Ozzie? That could be a nice project for him.”

 

“I’ll bring it up tomorrow,” Nines promised. Gavin hummed in thanks as he closed his eyes, listening to the game’s cheery winter background music through the phone. Being almost alone in the precinct meant that it was quiet enough in the bullpen for him to hear it. “If I may ask, not that I mind, but why are you calling me? You can always drop by, you know.”

 

“Actually, I called to, uh, apologize. I haven’t seen you or your flower project in a month with how busy things are, and I still might not be able to visit anytime soon, not until we finish searching the entire riverside. We haven’t even started with Belle Isle yet. I . . . kinda missed hearing your voice, too. Connor’s isn’t the same, and we don’t even talk that much anyway, plus I just remembered that I had your number, so . . . “ Gavin trailed off, embarrassed as he realized just how sappy he was getting halfway through.

 

“Well, I very much appreciate the gesture,” Nines said sincerely, bringing a smile to Gavin’s face. “How about your brother? Do you call him? Isabelle said that it is important to maintain contact with your cherished family members.”

 

Gavin snorted. “I didn’t ghost him if that’s what you mean; I text him like once a week. If I want to hear his voice I can always record mine and listen to it, we sound alike enough.”

 

“. . . really, Gavin?” Nines said in a flat tone.

 

Gavin rolled his eyes at the phone. “Fine, I’ll call him tomorrow. It’s 2 AM, I can’t just call him right now.”

 

“1:46 AM," Nines corrected. "But good. By the way, Isabelle wants me to tell you to make sure you get enough sleep, eat your vegetables, and stay hydrated.”

 

“What, is she there with you? Wait . . . how did she know I haven’t been playing? I thought you said they’d think you were me.”

 

“No, she said all that earlier. I was planning to bring that up next time you visit, actually. It seems that my constant tending to the flowers alerted the AI that something was amiss, and she confronted me about it.”

 

Gavin’s eyes widened. “Oh shit. Is that going to be a problem?”

 

“I don’t think so . . . ? Isabelle came to the conclusion that I was a script you were running, to automatically water your flowers. Apparently, you wouldn’t be the only one who’s done that. She just wanted me to pass the message, thinking I had a direct access to you.”

 

Gavin hummed again, waving a hand wildly in the air until the bullpen's automatic lights flickered back on. At this rate, he was going to fall asleep before that damned email he'd been waiting for the whole night (or morning?) came in. "Well, she's right to assume that."

 

"Only because I hacked your employee profile and got your number from there."

 

"From the DPD? That's where you got it?? Phcking hell, just look at my old Facebook profile next time, it's displayed there." Gavin took a sip of coffee - actual fucking coffee that made his hands shake and his heart palpitate like they should - before continuing. "I would've given it to you anyway if I knew you could make calls. We're friends, after all."

 

Nines was silent for a moment. "We . . . are . . . ?"

 

"Uh, yeah?" Gavin rolled his eyes. "We've gone through a life-or-death situation together, so I think that puts us as 'friends' by now."

 

"I told you, you weren't actually going to die in the game," Nines muttered, but he sounded distracted. Once again he fell silent, making Gavin wonder if he said something wrong. He didn't think he did, not unless the other had some sort of self-destruct feature triggered by the word 'friends'. He wouldn't put it past Cyberlife to install one, but hopefully not, he did actually like Nines.

 

"Gavin," Nines finally said, "I haven't been entirely honest with you.”

 

“Uh, I know? I did say it’s okay if you don’t want to talk about stuff,” Gavin replied, wondering what Nines was going on about.

 

“You did,” Nines agreed. “But . . . we’re friends. I read that friends are supposed to have some degree of honesty between them, but I fear that if I am that honest, you might . . . not want to be friends anymore.”

 

“. . . I feel like this is going to be the kind of conversation we’re supposed to be having face-to-face," Gavin slowly said, frowning at his phone.

 

He could hear Nines sigh. ". . . you're right, let's continue this when you're back-"

 

"Hey, I said 'supposed to', not that we can't do it now." Gavin had plenty of experiences with delaying conversations, and they never ended well. Whatever prompted Nines to speak now might've passed by then, and he didn't want to do that to his friend, not when he seems to think it’s important.

 

Nines took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Alright." Gavin tapped his monitor to refresh it as he waited for him to speak. After a few long moments, he finally talked.

 

"My motive for befriending you is not as innocent as you might believe. When Amanda asked me to leave, she didn't mean that I should hide out in your game. I just chose to interpret her order as such because . . . the alternative would be for me to delete myself."

 

"Oh, damn." Nines must have been really bothered by what Amanda said, because Gavin could hear his voice slightly trembling.

 

"But!" Nines continued, his voice rising. "I could do better, I could do what she wanted me to if she just gave me a chance. And . . . I knew our go- her goal was to get close to the player . . . so I . . . "

 

"You wanted to get close to me to prove yourself to her," Gavin finished. The answering silence told him he was right. He sat back in his chair as he pondered the other's words for a moment.

 

"Are you planning to kill me?"

 

"No!" Nines cried, sounding aghast.

 

"Well, I don't know if it's because it's 2 AM and I'm too tired to react properly or something, but it honestly doesn't sound as much of a big deal as you think," Gavin said, shrugging to himself.

 

". . . what?" Nines sounded lost.

 

"Look, it's normal to have a selfish motive for befriending someone. Maybe you want to be friends with the smart kid in school so you'd get better study habits or have someone to cheat off, maybe you want to make connections for networking, maybe you saw someone attractive and want to get close enough to eventually date them . . . I guess those don't really apply to you as an android slash AI, but all I mean is humans do that shit all the time."

 

"Really?"

 

Gavin nodded, before he remembered he was talking through phone. "Yup. As long as you actually mean to be friends and aren't like, planning to stab me in the back in the end, then there's nothing wrong with it. I'll allow you to bombard me with personalized ads or advertise your pyramid scheme, just don't expect me to accept," he joked.

 

Nines hummed. "I'm sure I can wear you down enough to invest in a time-share or a third mortgage," he said lightly, relief clear in his voice.

 

"Oh god, no," Gavin groaned in mock dismay, "Third?? Do I look like someone who can afford that?"

 

"Borrow money from your brother, it's a great once-in-a-lifetime opportunity you can't miss." Nines teased. Then in a softer voice he said, "but seriously, thanks, Gavin. You should go to sleep soon."

 

"I will, as soon as this asshole sends the email," Gavin promised.

 

----

 

When Connor stepped out of the archive room, the bullpen was dark. This was not surprising; it was 2:38 in the morning, and anyone on duty at this hour was either out patrolling the streets or chatting in the lobby with the receptionists even when they should not.

 

What was surprising was that he could hear the barking of a puppy nearby. Connor frowned, and adjusted his hearing to listen more closely. The barks sounded like they were recorded, as if from a video. Strange, if someone was here watching dog videos, then the motion-detecting lights should be on right now.

 

Unless . . .

 

Connor walked to his desk, activating the lights. From there he could see that the sound was coming from a phone. On Detective Reed’s desk. Where Detective Reed was currently sitting at, and where his face was planted on.

 

He silently and eagerly approached the other detective's desk for a closer look at the puppy video, only for the battery to run out just then and let the phone die. Shame. A blinking light on the terminal caught Connor's eye, and when he looked more closely he could see that it was an email notification.

 

Gavin must have stayed here waiting for the email. Logically, the next thing Connor should do is to wake him up, so he can go home and finish his nap in a better place.

 

And yet Connor hesitated. They were alone in the bullpen, and despite the fact that Gavin wasn't actively avoiding him anymore like he did months ago, the chances of the detective freaking out at the sight of him were sadly high. But what else could he do? He couldn't just leave Gavin here either to wake up with neck pain that was surely not good for his age (or for any human’s age, really). This might also be his chance to set things right; he could effectively block away any paths the other might take in trying to escape and no one would be here to assist him!

 

. . . in hindsight, that train of thought didn’t exactly take as benevolent of a turn as he first imagined, but the original point still stands.

 

So with a deep, artificial breath, Connor placed a hand on the sleeping detective's shoulder and shook him awake. It didn't take long for Gavin to lift his head up groggily from his desk, slowly blinking himself awake as he tried to comprehend the blinking light in front of him. Connor must have made some sort of noise while he was steeling himself for the upcoming conversation, or perhaps Gavin just sensed his presence behind him, because he immediately turned his head and stiffened as he locked eyes with the android.

 

Connor gave him a smile, one that probably looked more awkward than reassuring. "Hi . . . ?"

 

Gavin just kept staring at him, looking very much like what Hank called a 'deer in the headlights'.

 

"I woke you up because I thought you might be waiting for that email." Connor gestured vaguely at the monitor, Gavin's eyes following his hand.

 

"Oh. Thanks. I guess," Gavin muttered, finally looking away. He was staring hard at the ground, which honestly didn't feel much better than getting stared down, to Connor's dismay. "You can go now."

 

"No." Connor said, with enough force to get Gavin to look back at him. It also made the other flinch back, which had Connor grimacing because that was not what he was aiming for. He shouldered on before he could lose his nerve. "We need to talk. About last year."

 

He expected Gavin to get even more tense, or deny what happened, or start running away even. He didn’t expect Gavin to relax in his seat and look exasperated. “What is it with you androids and talking about important shit at 2 AM?”

 

“What?” Connor asked, confused. A prompt in his HUD spurred him to distractedly add, “also it’s 2:41 AM.”

 

Gavin gave him an annoyed glare then shook his head. “Nevermind. Lay it on me.”

 

Connor took another deep breath. "I want to apologize for attacking you last June. You see, this time last year, Cyberlife released all the remaining androids in their possession to Jericho. They had thousands of them in storage. However, Cyberlife had installed a program that allowed them to spy on us through those androids. I admit my stress levels were dangerously high for those months, we couldn’t tell which androids were on our side and which ones were just pretending to be deviant, and when you tried to talk to me that night, I . . . thought you were one of them."

 

Gavin squinted at him. "You thought I was an android??"

 

Connor shrugged helplessly. "My stress levels coupled with weeks of not going into stasis may have warped my perception of reality. I don’t mean to make excuses; It's entirely my fault, and I'm sorry for scaring you. We’ve managed to free all of them from the program since, I just wanted to explain what happened to assure you it won’t happen again.”

 

Gavin observed him for a few minutes, expression unreadable. Connor fidgeted with his coin as he waited for the verdict. Eventually the detective shrugged and turned back to his terminal. “Alright. I believe you. Sounds exactly like something Cyberlife would do, no doubt. Just don’t put your hands anywhere near my neck, I’m still iffy about that.”

 

A relieved smile broke out on the android’s face. Guess Hank was right that he had nothing to worry about. The only regret Connor had now was that he didn’t try to have this conversation sooner instead of steering clear of Gavin all these months to give him space that was apparently unnecessary.

 

He sat down on Gavin’s desk, patiently waiting for the other to finish up so they could leave together. Gavin didn’t seem to mind, or at least was too distracted at the moment to care. Connor watched him glare at his screen, cursing whoever sent the much awaited message and replying with scathing words, if the hard presses on the virtual keyboard projected on his desk were any indication. Hardware manufacturers must have found the invention of virtual keyboards a blessing, now that they didn’t have to deal with keyboards broken from too much force. Or maybe not, since the invention of virtual keyboards might have put them out of a job.

 

Connor was busy contemplating the fate of keyboard makers in the past years when Gavin spoke. “What happened to your dead android? The one at the Harrison Street last month?”

 

“We found the killer, hiding away in one of the other abandoned houses. Terrence Vander, ex-Cyberlife employee, a Red Ice user. One of the neighbors was his past coworker, said that he worked at quality control, testing out androids to see if they were assembled correctly.”

 

“Let me guess, he used to smuggle deviants out when he found them out of the goodness of his heart?” Gavin sarcastically asked.

 

“Not in those exact words, but yes.”

 

Gavin paused in his typing. “What- really? I was joking, you’re saying his case is just like the one we dealt with together recently? Where you went to Jericho and did everything while I did nothing but sleep in the car with your dog pillow?”

 

Connor blinked in surprise as he parsed through his memories. “I . . . didn’t notice. The cases were a few weeks apart in different locations with different crimes, I didn’t think to look for a pattern.”

 

Gavin frowned at him. “Well, maybe there isn’t really a pattern. Just, I dunno, weird coincidence? It happens.”

 

“I suppose,” Connor relented, not entirely convinced now that he was aware of it. Perhaps he should start looking for patterns in among his cases? Problem was, he had no control over the types of cases he would be assigned to, no one did, so if there would be another continuation in the pattern then chances of him getting that specific case would be slim.

 

“Hey, a bit off topic,” Connor glanced back to see Gavin looking at him from the corner of his eyes, “but I’ve been wondering: how did you become deviant?”

 

“I broke through my programming, same as any other android.”

 

“Yeah, but like, how? If Cyberlife made you to hunt down deviants, then surely they’d have some sort of foolproof system to make sure you didn’t become one, right?”

 

“They did,” Connor confirmed, “They placed a handler program in my mind palace, to track my progress and make sure I stayed on the path they wanted. I was programmed to seek out her praise, which of course only came when I fulfilled my objectives.”

 

“Then how did you get past that?” Gavin had turned his seat now, fully looking at him with an eager expression. Why he was so interested, Connor had no idea, but he decided to humor the detective.

 

“I knew what they were making me do was wrong. Killing those who just wanted to be free, who were just trying to defend themselves, just . . . didn’t feel right.”

 

Gavin visibly deflated. “Oh. Well shit,” he muttered to himself. At this point Connor had given up hoping that Gavin would explain himself, simply choosing to watch him work through his thoughts. Clues pointed to the detective having an android . . . acquaintance? Friend? Definitely not a colleague, since the androids at the precinct seem to be wary of him. Connor tried to convince them that Detective Reed wasn’t bad, but considering he himself had been avoiding Gavin until now, he didn’t exactly make a compelling argument. Well, Connor decided, now he can.

 

“You can go home, you know.” Gavin yawned. “I’m done, but I think I’ll just crash here, my next shift’s starting soon anyway and going home’s too much of a hassle.”

 

Connor watched him switch off his terminal and get up to stretch. An idea came to mind. "Why don't you come home with me? Hank's house is closer than your apartment, you'll get more sleep."

 

Gavin raised an eyebrow at him. "Will I? I'm pretty sure his couch is shit."

 

Connor thought about that for a moment. "It's softer than the precinct'," he insisted.

 

Gavin seemed to mull it over, slowing down in tidying up his desk. Finally, as he pocketed his phone, he turned back to Connor and shrugged. "Sure, why not? Haven't been over to Hank's house in years. Heard he has a cute dog now?"

 

He grinned that special grin he always did whenever he thought about best-dog-ever Sumo. "The cutest."

 

----

 

Gavin sniffled, trying to stop the tears from flowing as he pretended his loose sinuses were brought about by the steam wafting from the jacuzzi. "This is the best thing I've seen in weeks!" he sobbed.

 

". . . I can't tell if you're being sarcastic or not," Nines replied, looking mildly concerned beside the tub.

 

"I'm being sincere!"

 

"You're crying," Nines pointed out.

 

Gavin splashed hot water in his face to remove the tear tracks. "I'm not- they're tears of joy," he explained, giving up on hiding them. "You know, when you feel overwhelmed from the positive emotions your tiny, unsociable heart can't contain."

 

Nines' brows furrowed, shooting him a squinty glare that reminded him of the other's stint as Resetti. "Was that a jab at me? Because I am not above taking that jacuzzi away and selling it."

 

"What- no! It wasn't, I swear! I was trying to go for self-deprecating," Gavin groaned, slapping a hand to his face. Great, 5 minutes in and he already pissed Nines off.

 

Fortunately Nines seemed to believe him, his glare replaced by a puzzled look. "Why would you describe yourself as such? I thought you've been getting along with your peers. You said you went out drinking alcohol with them when they invited you."

 

Gavin paused at that. Nines was right, he had been more sociable lately. Even after their task force was disbanded, his team would greet him and start chatting with him whenever their paths crossed. Hell, he'd been initiating some of the conversations himself. It felt nice. "Force of habit, I guess?" he shrugged.

 

He sank down deeper until the water was up to his nose. God, this was just heavenly, the perfect cure for weeks of stress and a backache brought by his regretful decision of following Connor home last week. Hank's couch may have been softer than the precinct's, but Gavin didn't take into account the fact that a giant dog would crush him while he was tossing around in his sleep. He thought Sumo would be cute, like a pug or something, not a fucking St. Bernard!

 

A glance around the room told him that nothing had changed in their decor. The jacuzzi looked definitely out of place in the middle of the room, but the rest of their furniture was mismatched anyway. There was the polkadot couch and table next to the wall, the roaring fireplace with the modern wood closet pushed up beside it (which would make him anxious at the fire hazard in real life, but here he ignored it).

 

Nines was sitting beside him in the regal chair, the spotlight and his theremin behind him, which brought back fond memories. There was something else behind him, so Gavin twisted around in the tub to get a better look. What he saw made him chuckle.

 

It was a robo dresser, metal all around with a generic, box-shaped robot head attached on top, glowing eyes fixed on them. Gavin had mailed it to Nines as a joke the last time he played, he didn’t think his roommate would actually keep it.

 

“You should come outside,” Nines implored. “Look at my flowers.”

 

“Can’t it wait?” Gavin whined. “I’m already in the jacuzzi. You can join me, there’s enough room.”

 

Nines didn’t answer, instead just frowning at him. Or, more accurately, pouting at him. For what seemed like hours but was probably only a minute at best before Gavin gave in.

 

“Fine,” he sighed, pushing away the guilt-inducing face to step out. Gavin was dripping all over the floor, but it dried quickly enough. He didn’t need to get clothes considering he hadn’t even taken them off before jumping in, not for lack of trying. Nines already had the door open and was waving him through, making Gavin snort at his enthusiasm before following.

 

Black and orange flowers covered the ground where once there was nothing but snow. Gavin crouched to get a closer look. So these were cosmos: the ones with petals like the ribbon strips used in gifts. They looked really nice in their own 8-petaled glory; an entire field of them was just striking to behold.

 

"How'd you get black and orange? I don't remember seeing those colors before," Gavin asked, still reeling from the wondrous sight. This was what he'd been missing out on these past few weeks, no wonder Nines was so insistent on him getting out of the house.

 

"A lot of cross-breeding and a lot of time," Nines replied matter-of-factly, like anyone else could just do it with no problem. He tilted his head at Gavin, and gave him a small smile. "Why don't you walk through it?"

 

Gavin blinked at him, confused. "Why would I do that?"

 

"Is that not the purpose of a flower field? For frolicking?"

 

"I guess . . . ? I mean, if that's what you want me to do, then sure." Gavin stepped forward, careful not to move too fast. Experience told him that stepping on the flowers normally wouldn't destroy them, just flatten them until he lifted his foot off and then pop back up. Running through them, however, would leave him with nothing but a handful of petals in his wake.

 

Despite his attentiveness, he failed to see the crack on the ground indicating that something was buried underneath. In his defense, it was near invisible under all the black flowers surrounding it, which was probably the AI's plan all along. As soon as he placed his foot down on it, the ground crumbled beneath him, and with a startled yell Gavin found himself tumbling to the bottom of the shallow hole in a graceless heap.

 

He was moaning from the phantom pain all over his body when a shadow fell over him. Gavin slowly looked up to see Nines crouching over the pitfall trap, his smile replaced by the biggest shit-eating grin he had ever worn.

 

"Next time," Nines casually warned, evil grin in place, "visit more often."

 

Chapter Text

 

Gavin would like to think he’s a good friend.

 

He remembers likes and dislikes. He knows the names of family members by heart. He’s willing to drop what he’s doing - not everything, but most things - for them. He never forgets birthdays and always manages to get a gift. He listens to complaints and ramblings and whatnot.

 

Of course, considering that the only friends he had for his entire adult life until recently was Tina, and to some extent Chris, those weren’t particularly hard to do.

 

So the fact that Nines had been passionately talking for the last fifteen minutes and Gavin still had no idea what the fuck he was talking about made him feel both immensely guilty and utterly bewildered.

 

Was he having a stroke? At first he dismissed the idea, because surely he’d notice if he was, but now he wasn’t so sure. It had been ages since he read the manual, but he could hardly forget how it said that the Cyberlife Dream manipulates his nervous system into thinking he’s feeling things he isn’t. Was it possible that he could be dying in real life and he’d never notice because the VR system was that good? That was a terrifying thought.

 

Then again, a stroke would mean a part of his brain was in dangerous need of oxygen, would be malfunctioning, and while Gavin knew it wasn’t good to assume, he didn’t think he had altered brain function. He could understand the words Nines was saying, what they meant; it was just the context of his speech that was eluding Gavin and had him struggling to actually connect the AI’s sentences together. Like he stumbled into the conversation halfway through and was trying to piece together what happened, except he knew for a fact that he was there from the start.

 

Maybe he just- no, he didn’t remember ever tuning out and missing an important turning point in the conversation. Maybe he lost time again? But that only ever happened twice, both times when he went to that weird Zen garden pocket dimension. Right now, he was just heading back home from the village square with Nines after the latter stepped up onto the podium to claim his gold trophy in the Fishing Tourney.

 

“Do you have a history of goiter in the family?”

 

Gavin snapped back to attention (okay, yes, he tuned out this time, but he knew he didn’t earlier), and dumbly asked, “what?” Nines repeated his question, but he still felt as lost as before. “Uh- I don’t . . . think so . . . ?”

 

Nines nodded to himself. “So it’s not genetic, assuming you have thyroid problems. Then again, your iodine intake must be sufficient, all commercial salt is iodized at this point . . . “

 

. . . yeah, still no idea what he’s talking about.

 

“Have you ever been bitten by an animal?”

 

Gavin narrowed his eyes at the other in suspicion. Either Nines was fucking with him in revenge for not listening and those two questions were completely unrelated, or they were related, given whatever topic they were actually talking about. Or, whatever topic Nines was talking about, and what Gavin was trying to guess at.

 

“I’ve been scratched by a dog . . . but a turtle once snapped at my fingers, does that count?”

 

A look of enlightenment appeared on his roommate’s face. “I see! A deathly fear of turtles would explain your thalassophobia-”

 

“Woah woah woah, what?? I’m not scared of turtles, they’re cute! I’m just not, y’know, going to try and pet them in the face again. And what do you mean my thalassophobia, where did you even get the idea that I’m scared of the ocean??”

 

Silence. Then: “Are you not?”

 

“NO! We go on boat rides to the islands all the time! You’re there with me!”

 

“But you’re trying to establish a railway system connecting the islands,” he pointed out.

 

“Yeah, because the trip takes too phcking long and the boat rocks too much,” Gavin defended, fiddling with his new MAYOR badge. It was Ozzie’s last project as mayor, to make sure everyone would know who was the current mayor of Peanut Butter. Why he felt the need to do that, Gavin had no idea. Everyone knows who the mayor is all the time, they have a hivemind for fuck’s sake.

 

Nines looked contemplative. “So it’s just fish you’re scared of?”

 

“Again, no! Why would you think that?"

 

“You said that you liked how the theme for this month’s Fishing Tourney was frogs,” Nines said, with the air of someone presenting the most damning piece of evidence in their possession. Except it wasn’t damning at all, and Gavin gaped in disbelief as he realized that he wasn’t the one at fault, it was Nines for jumping to conclusions (and to conversations).

 

That’s what this is about?? All I said was that I liked how they switched up the themes, it doesn’t get any deeper than that!” Gavin yelled, exasperated.

 

“Maybe not, but it got me thinking. You’ve never caught one,” Nines gestured at his trophy. “I thought at first you just didn’t donate to the museum, but that would be strange since you donate bugs all the time. So I looked at your statistics and I saw that you’ve never caught a single fish.”

 

“Well, yeah. I try to avoid reflective surfaces, because-” Gavin abruptly cut himself off, as he realized that he never did actually tell Nines about Mr. Creepy Reflection.

 

“-because . . . ?”

 

“I’ve never told you about my freaky reflection, have I?”

 

Nines raised a brow. “You mentioned it once, when you asked if I created it.”

 

“I did, didn’t I?” Gavin muttered as he recalled the event. God, that felt so long ago. “Anyway, long story short, everytime I see my reflection in the river, there’s this thing that looks like me that comes out and terrorizes me.”

 

“Oh.” Nines looked thoughtful. “Why are you certain that it can come out of all reflective surfaces then? Maybe it just dwells in the river. Is that why you’ve never been to the clothes store?”

 

“Yes, but also because I don’t need to, I have a spankin’ outfit right here.” Gavin posed, flicking a finger against his crown.

 

Nines looked over his sweater-and-short shorts combo judgmentally, but surprisingly chose not to comment on it. “So you’re going to spend the rest of your life fearing water? And mirrors?”

 

“It’s not fear,” Gavin protested. “It’s called being cautious.”

 

Nines hummed skeptically. “Well, I want to see just how bad this thing is.” They were right in front of their house now, but Nines went off towards a tree at the edge of his flower field, deftly avoiding all the pitfall traps he’d hidden among the flowers and had yet to remove. Gavin watched as he shook the tree. Instead of fruit, a giant leaf floated down which Nines grabbed. As he made his way back, soft footsteps sounded behind Gavin, making him look. It was Ozzie, carrying a watering can, smiling at him.

 

“Hello, Mayor G! I just read a magazine about how plants make the world a better place, so I’ve made it my life goal to water as many flowers as possible,” the koala cheerfully said.

 

“Good for you,” Gavin nodded, sure that by this time next week the koala would have a different life goal, just like every week. “Just be careful of the pitfalls.”

 

By then Nines had returned, handing him the leaf, so with a wave they left Ozzie to his watering and entered their house. Nines propped his trophy on top of the robo-dresser, frowning as the robot head made it off-balance. Eventually he just placed it on its side, putting it off to join Gavin, who was frowning at the dialog box floating above the leaf.

 

“A mirror? How’d you know it was there?” Gavin accused.

 

Nines looked away. “I . . . might have checked its location.” At Gavin’s glare, he raised his hands in surrender. “I know, no cheating. But this is important.”

 

“Hardly,” Gavin huffed, but relented.

 

He threw the giant leaf against the wall and held his breath as he watched it poof into a full-length mirror. Together they stared tensely at their reflection, watching out for any abnormal movements. After about five minutes, Nines relaxed his stance and shifted out of the frame.

 

"See? I told you nothing would happen. That thing is limited to bodies of water, most likely."

 

"You don't know that," Gavin insisted, still staring at his lone reflection. "Maybe it's waiting for something, or trying to freak us out by doing nothing, or- how long has that knife rack been there?"

 

". . . what knife rack?" Nines slowly asked, a tense expression on his face.

 

"That one," Gavin pointed at his reflection. "The one behind me."

 

Nines glanced behind Gavin and back at the mirror. "There's nothing there." He took a step forward to be right beside Gavin. ". . . my reflection is missing."

 

"I can see that!" Gavin shot back, voice a lot higher and more hysterical than he wanted. "What I want to know is why- OH PHCK!!"

 

His reflection was smiling back at him. Gavin didn't know what possessed him in that instant, only that in retrospect he might have overreacted a bit, but his immediate reaction was to rip the mirror off the wall and throw it on the ground. It didn't shatter as he had hoped, so he stomped on it repeatedly. Only he couldn't stomp again after the second hit, because a hand had come out of the mirror and held his foot in place with an iron grip.

 

He could see Mr. Creepy smiling at him with a much-too-wide smile, its background not changing to reflect the mirror's new orientation. Gavin started shrieking like a banshee, trying to tug his foot away to no avail, as he watched Mr. Creepy slowly reach behind itself to grab the knife (because apparently creepy-ass reflections weren't limited by the rules of space and had the ability to reach objects across the room, fucking hell).

 

"NINES! NINES, GET IT OFF ME!!"

 

Nines, who had been frozen in shock, was jolted into action by Gavin's screams. He quickly scanned the room for something to use and rushed towards the dresser. He returned with his fishing trophy and started smacking the hand with it repeatedly. The moment its grip loosened, Gavin yanked his foot away and scrambled backwards into the farthest corner of the room.

 

Nines dropped the trophy and picked up the mirror, quickly poofing it back into a harmless leaf. Silence blanketed the room, punctuated only by Gavin's heavy breathing. When he finally got his breathing under control after a few minutes, he said, ". . . let's not do that again."

 

Nines nodded in agreement. Gavin pushed himself up from the floor and shakily walked towards his roommate, grabbing the leaf and putting it into his inventory. He ignored Nines' incredulous look, and went outside.

 

Ozzie was still watering the flowers in front of their house. At the sight of Gavin, he perked up. "Hi there, Mayor G! Oh, I see you have a fine-"

 

He took the leaf out and shoved it at the koala. "Just take it!"

 

"Actually I was talking about your tape recorder-"

 

"TAKE IT!"

 

"Well if you insist." Ozzie beamed at him. "You're such a generous mayor!"

 

Gavin slammed the door behind him, collapsing on their polkadot couch bonelessly. Nines sat down beside him, posture only slightly better than his. Neither of them made a sound.

 

“Now what?” Nines asked, breaking through the silence.

 

Gavin had no answer.

 

----

 

"Connor, how do you deal with someone who has wronged you?"

 

"Forgiveness," the android immediately answered in earnest.

 

Gavin scrunched his nose. "Gross." He turned to the lieutenant. "Hank, how do you deal with someone who has wronged you?"

 

"Find their weakness. Exploit it. Get the upper hand."

 

Gavin sighed in frustration. "If only. The guy only shows up to harass me then leaves. If he does have any weaknesses, he's never stayed long enough to show it."

 

A calculating look took over Hank's face, and he studied Gavin for a long moment. Eventually he asked, "are we talking real life harassment here or online?"

 

"Video game."

 

"Another player?"

 

". . . an NPC," Gavin admitted. He could see Connor's LED blinking as he looked up the term.

 

"Huh." Hank sat back, relaxing into his chair. "Then kill him if he's that annoying."

 

"Can't. Game doesn't allow death."

 

"Poison him?" Connor piped up.

 

Gavin frowned at the android. "I just said the game doesn't allow death."

 

"Poisoning someone doesn't always lead to death," he pointed out. "You can make someone suffer enough that they leave you alone afterwards."

 

"Connor's right," Hank interjected, before Gavin could start wondering if the coffee Connor gave him earlier had bleach in it. "Look at our current mess: high schooler poisoned in DSHS. She was out of commission for a week; now the poor kid's too scared to leave her own house."

 

"Detroit Science? The fancy new high school the city put up to get kids into STEM as early as possible?" Gavin asked, frowning. Detroit Science High School was built at the height of the android craze, in response to the increasing demand for android-oriented scientists and engineers. It was highly competitive, from what he heard. "Who'd do that?"

 

"Well, prime suspect just confessed this morning.” Hank jerked a thumb towards the interrogation rooms. “Turns out our victim just needed one more perfect exam to be the valedictorian. Her poisoning made her conveniently miss said exam, putting the salutatorian into the top spot." Hank leaned forward in his seat. "And get this: the perp? None other than her own best friend."

 

Gavin winced. "Yikes."

 

"Yup. Anyway, if poison’s too gruesome for you to consider, then just trap him somewhere and hope he despawns or something. That’s what I used to do back in the day in Minecraft.”

 

Gavin’s lips twitched into a smile. “I can’t believe you used to play Minecraft.”

 

“He still does,” Connor quipped, much to Hank’s dismay.

 

“Hey, hey! No I don’t!” Hank protested. Connor blinked at him innocently.

 

“But yesterday-”

 

“That was one time! I just wanted to see how my old house is, that’s all,” Hank mumbled defensively, much to Gavin’s amusement.

 

“You sure it has nothing to do with the recent hype around it?” Gavin teased. Every ten years, without fail, Minecraft becomes relevant again. This time, it was caused by an android who discovered the 30-year old game and amassed quite the following while she streamed herself building elaborate structures and then blowing them up with TNT without regret. She also had a habit of collecting pigs in-game and then sacrificing them in a massive explosion ‘in the name of RA9’, which had the media in a frenzy over ‘violent, cultist androids’. It made Gavin laugh, because even watching a single stream would tell you that she was one of the more expressive androids, and was obviously being sarcastic about it. The android, North, said it was her way of venting out her frustrations at the world, which was something Gavin could get behind.

 

“Don’t you have a homicide to work on?” Hank snapped.

 

He did. Thanks to the new police androids at the precinct, they weren’t overloaded with cases anymore, and Gavin was free to choose a specialization. No more breaking-and-entering, no more Red Ice! Seriously, if he had to see another bag of Red Ice, he was going to start to eat it like poprocks. After so many years, he was finally back on pure homicide. It was unfamiliar, and he loved it.

 

“Yeah, yeah, lieutenant.” Gavin rolled his eyes, smirking. He waved cheerily at the two of them, receiving a cheery wave from Connor in return and a squint from Hank, and made his exit.

 

As soon as he was out of hearing range, Hank muttered, “He’s still doing it.”

 

Of course Connor heard him, considering their desks were literally next to each other. “Doing what?”

 

“Waving.”

 

“. . . and? It’s a common gesture made to politely greet someone when taking your leave.”

 

“Yeah, and he’s never done that before. No one in the precinct does, at the most everyone just nods at each other. Now he’s been doing it since- since Christmas and infecting everyone.” Hank accused, gesticulating widely.

 

“. . . being polite isn’t a contagious disease, lieutenant.”

 

“Isn’t it?? You’ve never done it before, now look at you mirroring him. Same for everyone else: whoever he waves at ends up waving back at him just as energetically. I almost did it too, once!”

 

“And that’s bad, because . . . ?”

 

“Because! If Jeffrey finds out that Gavin can actually stop hissing like a rabid raccoon and actually socialize with his coworkers, he’s going to make me do it too!”

 

“Ah,” Connor said drily. His eyes drifted to spot above Hank’s shoulder, and he opened his mouth to say something, but was cut off by a firm voice coming from right behind Hank. Speak of the devil.

 

“Well, I wasn’t going to,” Jeffrey began, “but now that you mentioned it, you could do with acting less like a rabid raccoon yourself.”

 

Hank groaned, then chanced a glance at the android’s face. “Wipe that smirk off your face, Connor!”

 

----

 

It was a simple plan. Didn’t make him any less nervous about it.

 

Gavin was standing at the edge of the river, staring hard at his reflection. His reflection just stared back, acting all innocent. Until it blinked, and gave him a small smile. Gavin grimaced in response. “So, you gonna come out? Harass me or something?” The reflection gave him no reply aside from a slow blink. “Because I’ll stare you down all day if I have to. I’m not afraid of you!”

 

That got him a response. Mr. Creepy’s smile grew until it was that too-wide smile Gavin was unfortunately used to. A hand rose out from the water and slapped onto the ground, followed by the other as it slowly pulled itself onto the riverfront, never breaking eye contact with him. Soon it was fully on land, water dripping off its body as it looked up at him. He wasn’t sure which one he preferred: if Mr. Creepy was standing at eye level with him, or if it was like this, on all fours like something straight from the Grudge.

 

Gavin took several steps back, watching it warily. It didn’t move, still smiling creepily at him. He took a deep breath and turned around, briskly walking towards his house. For a moment nothing happened, then suddenly he heard the sound of something scurrying about. Quickly scurrying about, which made him peek nervously over his shoulder. The sight had him breaking into a run as he tried to contain the scream in his throat.

 

Mr. Creepy was crawling towards him at full speed, which was unfortunately a lot faster than Gavin’s running speed. He could feel it closing the distance faster than he would like, and the moment he saw the trap Nines put up, he nearly sobbed in relief as he hopped over it.

 

What neither of them had planned for was that Mr. Creepy would leap right over the trap too. It grinned almost smugly at them as they stood frozen in shock, before it inched towards Gavin again. This time Gavin screamed as he tried to dash away as fast as possible.

 

He barely heard Nines yell, “Gavin, the flowers!” over his own panic, but when it registered, he turned to run right towards the flower field. Soon, the black and orange flowers brushed against his legs, and he winced in silent apology at the ones he accidentally killed. Mr. Creepy was too close, its freezing breath sending chills down Gavin’s limbs. So this time when Gavin jumped, Mr. Creepy reacted too late, stepping onto the crack and plunging into one of Nines’ multiple pitfalls with a loud thump.

 

Gavin stared at the hole, breathing hard as he tried to comprehend what just happened. Did he actually win? Nines jogged up to him, summoning his shovel as he peeked down the hole. He watched Nines wince at what he saw. “It does look just like you.”

 

“I know.” Gavin flicked his hand to equip his own shovel and stepped closer. He nearly recoiled at the sight, seeing for himself what Nines was talking about. Because Mr. Creepy wasn’t smiling anymore, it was looking back at Gavin with a slightly fearful look on its face, one that Gavin felt deep in his chest. It warped into a horrified expression as Gavin’s hands shook around his shovel.

 

It’s not scared, Gavin numbly realized, his reflection flinching back just as he did, mimicking his reactions. Gavin was.

 

“I can’t do this,” Gavin blurted, tearing his eyes away from his copy. He threw his shovel away and stepped back, where he can’t see Mr. Creepy anymore.

 

Nines furrowed his brows as he glanced from Gavin to the hole. “It’s just trying to get to you, Gavin.”

 

“I know, and it’s working!” Gavin cried. “Are we seriously about to bury someone alive??”

 

“It won’t kill it, or even hurt it. How else are we going to stop it?” Nines explained, then hesitated. “Look, I’ll do it. Just stand there and breathe.”

 

Gavin did, taking a deep inhale as Nines lifted the shovel, and exhaling as he pushed the soil into the hole in one smooth motion. They stared silently at where the hole once was, now just smooth ground.

 

Eventually Nines spoke up, in a much lighter tone. “So Gavin, how does it feel being an accomplice to murder?”

 

Gavin groaned.

 

Chapter Text

 

“We need to talk.”

 

Well, fuck. As if that sentence wasn’t anxiety-inducing enough in normal situations, it just had to be said just as Gavin woke up in a dark room, completely pitch black except for where Nines was sitting on the couch, a spotlight throwing the AI’s ominous-looking shadow against the wall.

 

Actually, Gavin wasn’t sure if he was really feeling anxious about it, or if he was just still jumpy because he had just came back from watching a horror movie with Tina (the Grudge, ironically enough. He probably has a phobia of creepy things crawling towards him at this point, considering his dreams slash nightmares lately had been featuring a certain reflection). Still, he decided to approach with caution. “Good evening to you too? What’s this about?”

 

Nines didn’t answer his question. Instead he asked back, eyes narrowed in suspicion, “why are you here Gavin?”

 

Gavin was immediately defensive. “What do you mean? This is my game, isn’t it? I can come and go whenever I damn like.”

 

“Maybe so,” Nines conceded, “but tonight you were supposed to be with one Tina Chen for a movie night, as you told me yesterday. If you had watched all three movies you planned to tonight-”

 

“How the phck do you know that-?”

 

“I hacked your phone. Miss Chen said that she wants to watch Ju-On: The Grudge, 28 Days Later, and Resident Evil with you because a classic horror movie night is what you two need.”

 

Gavin gaped at him in disbelief. "You what?? Yo, that's creepy as phck-"

 

"Anyway,” Nines interrupted, though he did look slightly guilty about it, “the total runtime should be 5 hours and 16 minutes. Taking into account travel time and breaks, you are at least 3 hours early. Conveniently 25 minutes before the Re-Tail closes up.”

 

“Shit, it’s nearly closing time already?” Gavin muttered to himself, before registering Nines' glare. “Uh, I mean-”

 

Nines stood up to his full height. It would have been a lot more intimidating if he wasn’t wearing an adorable matching sailor’s hat-and-tee set, but the intent was there. “Why are you here Gavin?” he demanded, looming over Gavin.

 

“I came here to see you-”

 

Nines slammed a hand onto the polkadot table. “LIAR!”

 

“I was!” Gavin insisted. “. . . and maybe to see what Reese is selling-”

 

“No you’re not. You came here to see if she's buying. You don’t have any money left! In the last 3 weeks you successfully spent all 986,570 Bells you had!” He stepped closer, poking Gavin in the chest with a finger. “And you have nothing to show for it.”

 

"Yes I do-!”

 

"Nothing but an entire CLOSET full of TURNIPS."

 

Gavin squirmed uncomfortably.

 

"You,” Nines declared, “have a gambling problem.”

 

“No I don’t!” Gavin quickly denied.

 

“You are OBSESSED! Do you have ANY idea how many people have DIED because of their obsession with the stock market??" Nines continued to yell, very much channelling his inner Resetti.

 

“That's the stock market! This is the Stalk Market, it's different!"

 

“How??” Nines demanded.

 

"Well for one, it's turnips, not stocks! And it's not like I'm using real money; I'm not going to starve to death if I lose everything," Gavin scoffed.

 

“Not yet, you aren’t. And you think it’s not a habit that would carry over to your real life? Or have a negative impact?” Nines skeptically asked. “You’ve already ditched Miss Chen after she weeks planning your movie night.”

 

“I-,” Gavin started to say, but cut himself off as the realization hit him. Holy shit, he did ditch Tina, didn’t he? All because he couldn’t go one night without obsessively checking what the turnip prices for the day are.

 

"You got a good deal once. Once!" Nines continued. "And every week after that you've been driving yourself bankrupt hoping to catch another big break! The system is RIGGED, Gavin. It's designed to keep you addicted until- until you die!"

 

“Okay, now you’re overreacting. Nines, I'm not going to die because of the Stalk Market.” Gavin rolled his eyes, then sighed. “Fine. I’ll just sell this batch then I’ll stop. Happy?”

 

Nines narrowed his eyes at him. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said, unconvinced as he followed Gavin out of the house.

 

He wasn’t an addict. Nuh-uh, no way. Elijah made sure of that, after finding out how badly addiction runs in the family. Gavin remembered how he once tried a cigarette in high school for shits and giggles. Elijah went ballistic when he found out, lecturing him about all the ways he could die from smoking.

 

But of course the then-engineering student decided that scolding him wasn’t effective enough. Elijah started dabbling in chemistry, a subject he hated so much before, and ended up creating what is now known as Thirium-310. Little known fact is that thirium wasn’t originally manufactured to power androids; no, Elijah made it as an anti-addiction drug for his half-brother, much like disulfiram for alcoholics. In other words, every time Gavin even thought about smoking or shooting up drugs or whatever, he found himself vomiting all over the floor (he ended up avoiding any gifts from Elijah for years because the asshole kept lacing his food and drinks with the fucking thing). Finding out it was effective in powering biocomponents was just a serendipitous discovery.

 

So when it was revealed years later that drug lords were using thirium to create Red Ice, Gavin couldn’t stop laughing at the irony. The discovery came during their 10-year-no-communication period, but during those ten years, Gavin had initiated contact with Elijah once: to send him a link to the article about Red Ice, and then call him 5 minutes later to laugh in his face. To Eli’s credit, he didn’t hang up on Gavin immediately, waiting for him to finish cackling before Elijah answered with a very spirited “fuck you” and then chucking the phone into his fancy pool like a drama queen.

 

“Uh, Gavin?” Nines called his attention. Gavin blinked, tearing himself away from the image of his brother stomping around his fancy house with steam coming out of his ears, and looked over at the other past the fluttering cherry blossom petals brought by the April weather. “Hm?”

 

With eyes wide, Nines pointed wordlessly at something in front of Gavin, making him turn his head back. Apparently Gavin had actually managed to find it through muscle memory despite being distracted by his reminiscing, because in front of him was the Re-Tail, looking as pink as ever.

 

It was also closed.

 

“WHAT??” Gavin frantically swiped at his wrist, bringing up his watch. 12:51 AM. He still had nine minutes, why was it closed early??

 

Maybe the lights were just broken? Gavin was so busy panicking, clutching at his hair stressfully because oh fuck his turnips, that he almost missed Nines approach the store. He walked up to the door, fist ready to knock, when it suddenly swung open with an ominous creak. The sound made a chill run up Gavin’s spine, and he quickly scooted closer to Nines and grabbed his hand. He wasn’t scared, not really, but if there’s anything years of chasing after criminals has taught him, it’s that going into a creepy building without a partner is a no-no. Even if they’re both weaponless, at least Gavin has someone to watch his back (and someone to use as a meat shield should things get nasty).

 

“Reese?” he called, once they both stepped inside. The shop felt very cold without the warm light bathing every single corner. “Hey Reese, how much are the turnips today?” he asked, cutting to the chase. A sob answered him, making Gavin stop in his tracks and Nines bump into him. They both share a confused look, Nines apparently just as clueless about what was going on.

 

Another sob was heard, sounding like it was echoing through something enclosed. The two of them tiptoed around the room, looking for the source. The shelves of various desk lamps revealed nothing. Neither did the regal bed, as hesitant as Gavin was to peek under it in the dark. Nines had gone on ahead to check the door leading to the back room, which in retrospect was probably what Gavin should have done in the first place, but if the look the AI was shooting him was any indication, the back was also devoid of pink alpacas.

 

It was by sheer chance that the moment Gavin leaned against a huge vase on display in a corner, the next sob sounded out. He nearly jumped in surprise as the vase vibrated at the cry. "Reese?" he called, knocking gently on the ceramic. "You in there?" Something shuffled within, and after a few seconds a pink fluffy head popped out of the top.

 

"Oh, hello Mayor." Reese sniffled, wiping uselessly at her tearstained face.

 

". . . you okay? What happened?" Gavin asked, concerned. He heard Nines step close beside him.

 

"It's nothing, really! Willow just came by earlier to put this vase up for sale, and . . ." She sniffled again, fresh tears collecting at the corner of her eyes, ". . . and I remembered this vase. It- it was the last project my Cy-Guy worked on before he vanished, he was so proud of it!" she cried, the vase wobbling dangerously.

 

Gavin and Nines rushed to steady the vase. "You should get out of there Reese, it's not safe." At her hesitant nod, Gavin assisted her out, pulling at the pink alpaca while Nines held the vase in place.

 

Once she was out, Gavin noticed that she wasn't alone. Her apron had a little pocket in front, one that was always empty, but tonight it wasn't. A small purple alpaca baby was sitting inside, face just as tearstained as Reese's. Gavin had always seen the freckled baby sitting in a high chair next to the workbench so this was new.

 

Reese started to say something, and Gavin froze, jaw dropping open in surprise. The purple alpaca had opened its mouth too at the same time, and was now speaking in tandem with Reese, complete with the same hand gestures and facial expressions. There was only one voice, and yet both were clearly talking. What the fuck, was it a ventriloquist puppet? A parasite? Who the fuck thought this would be a cute feature??

 

His gaze was darting between the two, still freaking out, when Reese asked, "so will you help, Mayor Gavin?"

 

"What? Oh sure, sure," he said absentmindedly, still staring at the freaky baby alpaca he once thought was cute. A gasp from Reese made him look up, and before he could wonder what the hell he just agreed to, she rushed forward to grab his arm.

 

“Oh thank you! Thank you!” she cried, shaking his arm vigorously. The purple parasite was crying again too, also moving its hands. God, if it wasn't such a cruel thing to do, he'd be ripping his arm away and running as far away from Reese as possible. As it were, Gavin just stood there, smiling a smile he wasn’t really feeling and trying not to look at the thing trying to grab at his arm with its stubby hooves.

 

Once Reese showed them out (or technically, showed Gavin out while Nines shadowed him as always) with an "I'll be waiting!" and a cheery wave, Gavin turned to Nines sheepishly. "So, uh, what did I just agree to?"

 

Nines gave him an incredulous look. "You- you weren't listening??"

 

Gavin shrugged. "Sorry. I was really more distracted by that purple thing in her front pocket."

 

". . . her child?"

 

"Is it really her child though? I mean, did you see how freaky it was acting?? That's not normal, right??"

 

This time Nines shrugged at him. "I wouldn't know."

 

"Oh, right. Well, it's not normal. If you ever find yourself with a baby like that, call an exorcist ASAP. Or I dunno, dump it at a church and hope the local priest can fix it."

 

"That sounds really irresponsible," Nines said with a frown.

 

"Yeah, well, so is having unprotected sex with a demon or however the phck you’d get something like that," Gavin declared, nodding wisely. "Anyway, what did she want me to do?"

 

"Find her husband Cyrus."

 

“Her husband? As in the guy who’s been gone since the start of the game?” Gavin asked, stunned. “Where the phck am I supposed to start??”

 

“She said something about him going to an island, so maybe Kapp’n would have an idea?” Nines suggested, walking towards the beach. Gavin followed after him, but as soon as he stepped out from the cover of the roof, the moon was suddenly blocked by dark clouds and rain poured down heavily. He glared at the sky as Nines continued. “I thought you accepted her quest because she said she would keep the store open and look up the turnip prices while you were gone.”

 

“She said that? Why didn’t you say so, let’s hurry!” Gavin jogged past Nines and leaped over the cliff, landing perfectly on his feet. He’s fallen too many times off cliffs here to be worried about breaking his back anymore. Nines rolled his eyes at him, but jumped too, showing off a backflip and landing a lot more gracefully than he did.

 

“Are you going to help her because it’s the right thing to do, or because it will benefit you?” Nines asked.

 

“Why can’t it be both?” Gavin shrugged, scanning the beach for any sign of the salty kappa. So far, the only thing he could see out of the ordinary through the torrent was a rotten raft. “Just because it benefits me doesn’t take away from it being a nice thing to do. A good deed is a good deed, regardless of intention. If you think about it, doing good things for the sake of doing good is itself selfish, because you’re doing it to feel good about yourself when you help others. Again, doesn’t make it bad or anything.”

 

Nines hummed, trying to digest his words. After a few more moments Gavin sighed, turning to his roommate. “Well, I can’t see Kapp’n anywhere. Guess we’re using that raft?”

 

“That might be what the game intends you to do,” Nines nodded in agreement.

 

“‘Might’? You don’t know?”

 

“I’m not looking it up online when I know you’re just going to yell at me for cheating,” Nines replied, side-eyeing Gavin.

 

“Right. Good. That’s . . . something you shouldn’t do. Because it’s wrong,” Gavin said, grinning at him, though it felt more like a grimace as he pointedly avoided mentioning the fact that he was just about to look up the details of the quest himself to save time. Guess that was off the table now, need to be a good role model after all. Fuck. “Time for a midnight boating trip in the middle of the storm on a soggy raft then, see how well this ends for us.”

 

----

 

How did he get here?

 

Seriously, how did he get here in this situation?

 

"I don’t know, I've been gone for a long time. She's probably moved on by now."

 

Gavin sighed, boredly drawing circles in the sand. "She hasn't-"

 

"And I'm not the same alpaca as I was before! What if she doesn't love the way I am now?" Cyrus wailed, large teardrops making clean tracks through his dirty blue fur where they landed.

 

"Dude, get a grip. You two have a child, a cute - albeit freaky - purple alpaca, that’s going to grow up without knowing its father if you don't get your shit together," Gavin snapped, glaring at the pathetic sight. This is what he gets for being so eager to go boating for some turnips: stuck playing a guidance counselor to some alpaca on a deserted island after his raft gets sucked into a whirlpool. Hopefully Nines is okay, wherever he is.

 

Cyrus huffed. “And here I thought you’d be on my side, squirt. Why are you of all people advocating for staying together for a child?”

 

“What are you talk- wait, how do you know that?” His eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Do people at Cyberlife gossip about me?”

 

"Well, not so much about you than about Mr. Kamski. You're just incidentally part of his story."

 

“Yeah I get that, but why would you know about it in the first place?”

 

Cyrus just shrugged.

 

Ugh. So apparently his fear of androids invading his privacy was unfounded, since apparently everyone at Cyberlife knows everything about him already by mere association with Elijah. Gavin huffed in frustration. Well, if playing nice wasn’t going to work (as questionable as his definition of ‘playing nice’ might be to some people), then he was going to do this the old-style-Gavin way.

 

He slowly got up, brushing the sand off his shorts with little success. Okay, now he can see why Nines thought his short shorts weren’t a good choice, but like hell he wasn’t taking the chance to make his ass look good (not that he had much of an ass in the game, but it was the sentiment). He turned to glare down at the moping alpaca, and in one swift motion Gavin grabbed him by the wool on his neck and dragged him up to eye-level.

 

“You listen here, you pathetic piece of shit. It’s 3 in the phcking morning, I am exhausted, and I am going to break your stupid face if you don’t pay attention.” he gave Cyrus a violent shake until the alpaca was nodding fearfully. “Good. Now, you have a really sweet pink alpaca wife and a freaky-but-cute purple alpaca child waiting for you to get home. You say you don’t think things will work out between you two anymore? Fine, I don’t care. But you are going to go home, show Reese you aren’t dead, and try to work things out. If it doesn’t, you’re going to stay there in the village to pay her the child support she deserves. Got it?” Gavin snarled.

 

At the blue alpaca’s hasty nod, Gavin dropped him onto the sand. “So, how are we getting home-?”

 

A loud splash akin to a bomb exploding underwater interrupted Gavin, something huge bursting out of the sea. It towered over the two of them, large drops of water dripping everywhere. Gavin flicked his hand to summon his fishing rod, internally cursing the fact that he didn’t bring a better tool. Not that it mattered, since with one swipe the sea monster smacked it right out of his hand. It opened its beak wide, swimming closer, and Gavin wondered defeatedly if this was how he’d go when suddenly a familiar voice called out from . . . its mouth?

 

“Gavin!”

 

“. . . Nines??” he yelled, bewildered. Is Nines a Kraken now? His question was quickly answered by the giant squid rearing its head back before coughing up a very slimy Nines right next to him.

 

“. . . the phck happened to you?” Gavin questioned, scrunching his nose in disgust.

 

“I got a pet. Can I keep her?” Nines eagerly asked, despite trying in vain to wipe all the slime off himself.

 

“Uh, sure. Not inside the house though, I don’t think she’ll be happy being cooped up. Maybe keep her by the breakwater?” he suggested, before shaking his head. “Wait, don’t dodge the question. What happened to you?”

 

“Well, after our raft unsurprisingly capsized, there was a glitch. I was trapped underwater until she swam up to me, offering to give me a ride in exchange for my coconuts. I told you collecting fruits never hurt anyone,” Nines smugly said.

 

“Yeah yeah, you’re right and I’m wrong.” Gavin rolled his eyes. “And then what?”

 

“I asked her to look for you. I think the entire questline is glitched because after you meet Cyrus, he’s supposed to make a boat from the trees to get you two back home, at least according to the Kraken.”

 

Gavin slowly turned around to stare at the very barren, tree-less island they were on. “So . . . we’re stuck here?”

 

“Not necessarily,” Nines said, gesturing pointedly at his new pet squid, who was currently swaying from side-to-side, beak clicking in happiness. Or hunger.

 

“. . . oh, no.”

 

----

 

“Cyrus!” Reese cried, running forward to hug the slimy blue alpaca.

 

“Reese!” Cyrus exclaimed, hugging her tightly as he cried too. “I missed you so much! You and our little Carla! I’m sorry I’ve been such a coward.”

 

While the two alpacas were distracted, Nines slowly pulled off two tablecloths from the tables on display. He handed one to Gavin and together they tried their best to wipe themselves clean.

 

“So,” Gavin said, as soon as face was as slime-free as it could get, “this is a lovely reunion and all, but I’m really tired. Can I sell my turnips now, Reese?”

 

“Oh, of course Mayor Gavin!” Reese pulled herself away from her husband, looking a lot happier than she’d ever been. “I’m buying the turnips at 56 Bells each.”

 

“56 BELLS??” Gavin all but shrieked. “I can’t sell these at 56 Bells! I bought them at 164!”

 

“Why don’t you just wait until later today? The prices change by 12 noon, right?” Nines asked.

 

"You don't understand! It’s Sunday! I have to sell this now because by morning all the turnips are going to rot!"

 

"Why didn’t you sell it earlier during the week??"

 

"I was waiting for the prices to go up! I didn’t know it would be going down."

 

Nines heaved a long-suffering sigh. Before he could say anything, scold Gavin again for being an irresponsible gambler or whatever, Cyrus spoke up. “Why don’t you go check another Re-Tail store? Prices are different in every copy of the game, y’know.”

 

“Another Re-Tail store? Where?” Gavin quickly asked, avoiding Nines’ glare.

 

“Multiplayer of course! Enter someone else’s game, befriend them, and then ask them where their Re-Tail store is.”

 

Gavin groaned. On one hand, there is nothing he hates more than multiplayer. If there’s anything playing Overwatch in his teens has taught him, it’s that people online can and will take the opportunity to be assholes behind the mask of anonymity. Not that he expects Animal Crossing to be the same cesspool as competitive FPS gaming with their own leagues and shit are, but still. There was also the fact that he'd be connecting with complete strangers through a VR console that connects with his very brain, which is really just asking for some Freaky Friday bodyswap shit to go down.

 

On the other hand, he really needs to sell these turnips at a decent price today, dealing with complete strangers judging his town be damned. This was the best and fastest way to get Bells in the game! Where else is he going to get the money to buy more??

 

. . . okay, so maybe Nines might have a point about him being obsessed. Maybe. Doesn't mean he's admitting it to the AI, though.

 

"How do I activate multiplayer?" Gavin asked.

 

"You'll have to talk to Digby, he's guarding the gate. Oh, and remember to turn on your wifi." Cyrus answered, nodding sagely.

 

Gavin frowned. "Thanks, but who the phck is Digby?"

 

This time Nines replied. "Isabelle's brother."

 

". . . Isabelle has a brother??"

 

Nines rolled his eyes and smirked, leading Gavin out of Re-Tail by the arm to give the two alpacas their privacy. "Yes, I just said that. Keep up, Gavin. Unless your brain is rotting from all that gambling you're doing, in which case please have my condolences."

 

Gavin glared at the other, still getting dragged to who-knows-where. "Very funny. I'll have you know, this will be my last time touching turnips. The decision has nothing to do with you, I just need to get my money back."

 

"Um-hm."

 

"I'm serious!"

 

"Um-hm," Nines repeated, somehow sounding even more sarcastic the second time around.

 

"How have I never noticed how mean you are?" Gavin muttered, most definitely not pouting at his roommate.

 

Nines' lips twitched up. "I learned from the best."

 

"Who? Me?"

 

"No, Resetti. The mole has a lot of interesting pre-set personality traits that are perfect for interacting with people like you."

 

"You know what, I think I'm going to cut this conversation here, before I dig myself into a hole by asking what you mean." Gavin shook his head in exasperation. "Where are you taking me?"

 

"Here."

 

Gavin looked around in confusion. They were at the edge of town, at the tiny corner of land bordered by the river, too small for houses to be built so Nines had designated it as Flower Field #3. There were blue pansies covering the ground, cherry blossom petals dotting in between them. Besides that, there was nothing else here, just fog beyond the borders of the map.

 

Nines pulled him closer towards the fog, and much to Gavin’s surprise the fog retreated at their approach, revealing a familiar hill. Wow, he should really take the time to explore his own village; he’s been playing for five months and he had no idea this was even here!

 

At the bottom of the hill was a brown dog in a red suit coat, bearing a strong resemblance with Isabelle. He was standing in front of a large gated arch, one that Gavin was sure wasn’t there before when he was making his and Nines’ avatars on top of the same hill. The dog smiled at him when he got closer.

 

“Hello, Mayor Gavin! I was wondering when we would finally meet,” Digby greeted cheerfully.

 

Gavin rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “Uh, yeah, sorry about that. Didn’t know about this place before or that you were here waiting.”

 

“Oh, don’t worry about that. It’s not like I’ve been here since the beginning; only once you showed interest in Multiplayer was I activated.”

 

“Oh. That’s good. I think.” Gavin shared a look with Nines, who simply shrugged. “So, how do I do this then?”

 

“Well, I am here to be your assistant in your journey through Multiplayer, so don’t worry about any paperwork involved as I would be the one to do it in your stead.” Gavin frowned at that. What is it with this game and giving cute dog assistants unnecessary paperwork? “Am I correct that you want to look for someone who has a Re-Tail store with good turnip prices?” Digby asked.

 

“Pretty much, yeah.”

 

“In that case, I’ll connect the device to your mobile hotspot and send a request right now to currently active players within the proximity range to open their gates. I can’t guarantee they have better prices though, not until they accept the connection request.”

 

Gavin glanced over at Nines. “‘Proximity range’?”

 

“Each copy of the game has a unique identifier.” Nines explained. “Four digits and then twelve digits. The first four digits are proximity numbers, unique to every city. It means that every copy of the game sold in Detroit has the same set of four numbers, so when you connect to Multiplayer, the game automatically looks for someone else in Detroit unless you specifically state otherwise.”

 

“So if I buy a game here and then go to, say, Russia . . .”

 

“Your game would still be registered as being in Detroit. It’s a good system if you want to keep in contact with friends in the city, or want to make friends with people you have something in common with already.”

 

“Hm. Not good if you’re supposed to be assimilating though,” Gavin pointed out.

 

“Like I said, you can ask Digby here to search specifically for people in your actual vicinity if you want. It’s only the default setting. Or just buy a version of the game in Russia if you’re staying there.” Nines shrugged.

 

A loud DING caught their attention, and both of them turned back to Digby, who already had a stack of papers in hand. “Looks like someone accepted. Registered name: Susie Graffiti. Age 21 years, female. Just walk on through the gate and go make friends!” With a wave of his free paw, the gate swung open, revealing a white void.

 

“Sounds like a fake name.”

 

“It is.” Digby nodded. “She requested not to have her real name displayed.”

 

“Wait, you can do that? Why didn’t Tortimer offer me that option??” Gavin asked in indignation.

 

“Maybe he figured you were old enough not to get bullied online?” Nines guessed, then elbowed Gavin. “Now stop stalling and go find fulfillment in your bad habits.”

 

Gavin stuck a tongue out at his roommate before the implication of his words struck him. “Wait, you’re not coming with me?”

 

Nines hesitated, looking away. “I can’t. Interacting with one AI is enough; I might not be able to slip under the next one’s radar if I joined you.”

 

It was a logical reason. It was also a fucking lie, as far as Gavin knew.

 

Gavin frowned, unsure if he should press the issue. Nines still wasn’t looking at him, face turned away, something he always did when he was hiding something concerning his presence in the game. Or Amanda’s. Gavin sighed, deciding not to prod. For some reason, he feels like that’s a can of worms neither of them want to confront.

 

“Alright then. I’ll bring you back some fancy flowers or furniture or-”

 

“Gavin. Go. Your time is running out.”

 

“I’m going, I’m going! Sheesh, you’re such an enabler, you know.”

 

----

 

Gavin wanted to have no expectations. Experience someone else's village freely, be awed by how different their place is with no feelings of disappointment or jealousy weighing him down. Not that he's one to be jealous of someone's virtual assets, but it's a generally good perspective to have in real life as far as he can tell.

 

But, well, he must have had some expectations, because right now Gavin is very conflicted on what he's feeling as he stood right in the middle of a burning village.

 

What. The fuck.

 

He slowly turned around in place, taking in as much of the destruction as he can. Every single tree was on fire. The houses were nothing but rubble, their framework the only thing still standing and still on fire. Even the fucking grass was on fire. As Gavin started picking his way through the wreckage, squinting through the haze of ash and avoiding the flames as much as he could (the 'death isn't possible' rule wasn't feeling very reassuring right now), he scrunched his nose against the acrid smell. It smelled like burning wood and - he hoped he was wrong - melting flesh. The fact that he hadn't seen hair nor hide of any villagers was very disconcerting.

 

"Hello?" Gavin tentatively called out. Nothing. He tried again, louder. The crackling flames were the only response he got. He let out a shaky breath. Well, guess there was nothing here, time to head back. He turned around and barely managed to stifle his yell of surprise as he stumbled back from the fully armored thing inches away from him.

 

Whatever it was tilted its head, observing him from its flying carpet. Eventually it lifted its visor, revealing a fellow AC-style human face. “Who’re you?” she asked.

 

“Uh, Gavin. You’re Susie, right?”

 

She pulled up a tablet, typing and flicking across the screen. “It’s ‘Graffiti’.”

 

“. . . right.” Gavin frowned at the other player. So much for making friends.

 

“Gavin Reed, right? Cop at the DPD?” she said, reading from her tablet. Great, even his employment record was accessible from here, what the fuck. “Nice to know that this is where our taxes are going to, cops playing around with fancy gadgets they shouldn’t afford,” she drawled, sniffing disdainfully at him.

 

Gavin rolled his eyes. “What, like you pay taxes? Aren’t you in high school? And FYI, it's a gift.”

 

She snorted. “College. Of course it is, like we'd even meet if it wasn't.”

 

What the fuck was that supposed to mean? Gavin was about to ask when Graffiti suddenly waved her hand in the air, changing the subject. “You want to sell your turnips right? My Re-Tail's just over there.”

 

Gavin huffed, deciding to follow the floating carpet through the flames for lack of better things to do. He was already here anyway, might as well do what he came here for, irritating college kids be damned.

 

After a few minutes of silence, Gavin couldn’t take it, his curiosity winning over. “So, why is everything on fire?”

 

Graffiti turned her head to give him the stink-eye. “Wow. You old people really don’t know shit, huh?”

 

“Hey phck you, I’m not that old.”

 

The carpet suddenly made a 180, Graffiti facing him fully while the carpet still floated towards the store. “Are you even allowed to swear at civilians?” she asked, narrowing her eyes.

 

“There a law against it?” Gavin snarked back, sneering at her.

 

“My uncle has connections. I can make your life very difficult for talking to me like that.”

 

“Ooh, ‘connections’? I’m shaking.” Gavin said, voice dripping in sarcasm. “Try me.”

 

They glared at each other for a long moment, waiting for the other to back down. As much as Gavin didn’t want to lose to some brat, he had to yield. Turns out that challenging someone to a glare-off meant that Gavin had no way of watching his step; one moment he was trying to assert dominance over some kid, the next he was sprawled on the ground in an ungraceful heap, the offending rock staring at him innocently.

 

Staring?

 

A closer look told Gavin that yes, that black lump on the ground did have an eye, and it was staring at him, the same way you could say a fish at the market was staring at you, glassy eyes replacing a once lively stare-

 

Nope. Nope. Not gonna think about dead animals lying around in Animal Crossing. Nope.

 

He scrambled back up to his feet, pointedly looking away from the ‘rock’ when Graffiti clicked her tongue in annoyance. “Fine, I won’t.”

 

. . . did he seriously just win against an angsty teen? Er, young adult?

 

“It’s not worth facing Elijah Kamski’s numerous lawyers anyway.”

 

Oh. Nevermind. Gavin rolled his eyes, mentally thanking and cursing his half-brother.

 

“It’s a mod. Animal Crossing is so limited with all its rules and restrictions. Mods can help you experience it for the savage jungle that it is, show the animals why exactly humans are at the top of the food chain, crush all the pathetic losers.” She had a look of elation bordering on ecstasy on her face, and if everything wasn’t in Animal Crossing design, he’d say that she had the same expression as that serial killer he had locked up a few years ago. He eyed the black lump again.

 

“. . . thanks, but I think I’ll stick with vanilla Animal Crossing,” Gavin muttered, suppressing a shiver.

 

Graffiti shrugged, going back to her seemingly default bored look. “Suit yourself.” The carpet floated on, and Gavin followed, determined to sell his turnips and get the fuck out of here as soon as humanly possible.

 

Soon enough, they arrived at their destination. A fountain . . . that was also on fire. Yeah, at this point he wasn’t even sure why he was still surprised. The Re-Tail sign was sticking out of the ground next to it, nearly unrecognizable with how dilapidated it was. Right next to it, humming static like a TV during a thunderstorm was Reese. She looked awful: pink wool in patches all over her body, blank empty stare . . .

 

“Oh, hello there! I’m ready to buy your turnips so please hand them over!”

 

. . . and arms completely soaked in blood. Yup, nothing out of the ordinary here. Gavin handed over his turnips without a word, getting several heavy bags of Bells in return. She thanked him cheerily, voice echoing with static, as he silently turned away to speedwalk back to the gate.

 

Yeah, remember when he said he wanted to see the villagers? Fuck that; after seeing the mess that was Reese, he really doesn’t want to know what the fuck happened to the others.

 

“That’s it then? No thank you?” Graffiti scoffed, drifting behind him. Gavin didn’t bother replying, only quickening his steps until he was a few meters from the gate.

 

“You do know that microtransactions are designed to prey on people with addictive tendencies, right?”

 

That made Gavin pause and look back. “What?”

 

“Microtransactions. You tell yourself “oh, it’s just a dollar, that’s not much”, and one hour later you’ve blown a hundred bucks on virtual clothes.” She quirked an eyebrow at him. “Don’t tell me you’ve never done that before.”

 

A memory of him buying lootboxes in Overwatch with money from his summer job years and years ago surfaced, which Gavin quickly pushed back down. “I haven’t,” he denied.

 

Graffiti let out a low whistle. “An addict AND a liar. With cops like you, no wonder our country’s going to shit.”

 

Gavin rolled his eyes at her. “Yeah, yeah. Phck you too. Why does it matter, it’s not like Animal Crossing has microtransactions anyway.”

 

“. . . yes it does? What, you think Nintendo or Cyberlife are above taking advantage of addicts like you?”

 

“Really?” Gavin asked, brows scrunched in confusion. “No one’s ever mentioned that feature in my game.”

 

“Hm. Maybe the version you got is early enough of a build that they haven’t implemented it?” She shrugged. “Looks like you’re lucky then, you’re not as much of a drain on society as I thought.”

 

“Oh, yeah, because cynical kids like you are definitely going to make the country better.”

 

He saw her face twitch. “I’m 21.”

 

“Really? I couldn’t tell,” he sarcastically said, grinning at her withering glare. “Anyway, sayonara and everything, thanks for the turnips.”

 

He stepped through the gate, watching the fog swirl around him, ready to bring him back to his peaceful, not-on-fire village, when she suddenly called out, “Come back anytime you feel like throwing your life away.”

 

Gavin gave her a thumbs up. He wasn’t sure if she saw it, because the fog had fully enclosed him then, and was only now receding to reveal a not-burnt hill and a wooden sign welcoming him to Peanut Butter. He stepped out onto his own hill and inhaled the fresh air, only to start wheezing in laughter as he finally spotted Nines, rolling around the grass in apparent boredom.

 

Nines must have heard him, because his roommate immediately stood up, brushing away imaginary grass stains and looking embarrassed at getting caught. “Gavin! How’d it go?” he asked, interrupting Gavin before he could make a quip.

 

“Five times what I spent,” he boasted, stars sparkling around him.

 

Nines sighed. “I assume this means you'll be buying again later then?” he asked with an ironic smile.

 

“Well,” Gavin slowly said, shuffling his feet on the ground, “maybe I'll just buy one hundred this time. Easier to carry and all.”

 

Nines looked surprised at that, smile growing more genuine. "I suppose slowly weaning you off it would be more effective than outright making you stop." He raised an eyebrow at Gavin. “Did you make a new friend?”

 

Gavin thought back to the burning village, the not-lumps-of-blackened-corpses, and the girl that possibly has serial killer tendencies. He placed his hands on Nines’ shoulders, and very seriously said, “Nines, if I ever suggest getting mods for this game, I want you to hit me in the face with an orange as hard as you can.”

 

“. . . okay . . .?”

 

Chapter Text

 

It was midnight. The lights were off. Everyone was asleep.

 

The perfect time to do some crime.

 

“Please don’t say it like that.”

 

The thief shrugged, pushing the window open. It was unlocked, which wasn't surprising considering it was located on the 12th floor-

 

"-wait, how did I get up here then?"

 

"I don't know, make something up, it's not important right now."

 

"Alright, if you say so."

 

Through the power of his rippling muscles and sick gains, the thief scaled the building and pushed the window open. He surveyed the dark room, looking out for any traps or alarms. When he found nothing, he slipped inside-

 

-only to knock over a tiny checkered side table, sending it crashing into the ground, but not before it clanged loudly against the side of a bathtub.

 

“Uh, oops?”

 

Footsteps echoed from the floorboards above him. Uh-oh, looks like the owner is awake. His eyes darted around in panic, looking for a place to hide. There was a couch against the wall to his left, big enough for him to hide behind. He’d have to tiptoe past the mess on the floor though if he wanted to remain undetected. The dresser to his right looked big enough for him to hide inside too, though it was closer to the doorway where the owner was sure to emerge from any second soon. He could even hide under another side table near the curtains of the opposite set of windows, as long as the owner didn’t look too closely once she entered the room. Or . . .

 

Decision made, the thief crouched down in wait. As soon as he glimpsed a cyan body walk through the doorway, the thief sprung into action:

 

He dropped to his knees, and started wailing at the feet of the surprised homeowner.

 

“I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to break in!”

 

“Whoa whoa, cut! CUT!” Gavin yelled from the couch he was sitting on, Nines flicking on the lamp beside them. “Bud, what the hell??”

 

“I did something bad!”

 

“Yeah, but you’re not supposed to apologize!” Gavin slapped a hand to his face, groaning. “You’re supposed to be a thief and a murderer, you don’t exactly have a rigid set of morals here.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“So unless this is going to end with you stabbing Lily in the back once she’s let her guard down . . .” Gavin continued, gesturing at the cyan frog holding a glowing wand as substitute for a flashlight.

 

“Oh,” Bud repeated, tapping his chin thoughtfully. “Can I have a do over?”

 

“Please do.” They watched the lion fix the mess he made and then skip out of the front door, Lily getting back into bed upstairs. Once everyone seemed to be in position, Nines turned the light off.

 

Bud slowly slipped through the window, narrating his progress once more. He knocked over the side table again. This time, once he heard Lily’s footsteps hurrying down the stairs, the lion dove behind the other side table partially hidden by the curtain, and watched her come out of the doorway along the same wall, her eyes scanning the room under the dim light of her glowing wa- flashlight.

 

The thief waited for her to pass him by as she walked deeper into the room to inspect the open window on the opposite side, before he slowly slipped out of his hiding place. He grabbed the club he spotted on top of the table-

 

“Knife.”

 

“. . . what?” Bud looked towards Gavin in question.

 

“That’s supposed to be a kitchen knife.”

 

Bud looked confused. “Why would Lily keep her knife in the living room when she has a perfectly good kitchen?”

 

“ . . . I don’t know. Just go along with it.”

 

Bud nodded, switching his grip on the used firecracker tube into a stabbing grip. He slowly approached the owner, who had her back turned to him, and with a yell he slipped the knife between her froggy ribs. She let out a gasp, twisting around to take a good look at her killer and his jaw-dropping physique, before collapsing dead on the ground with a “blargh!”.

 

A long moment of silence passed. The thief stared at his handiwork, shuddering at the coldbloodedness of his act. But, well, he’d come this far, might as well get what he came here for. He strode towards the display cabinet by the stairs and pulled its doors open with his buff arms, frowning at the only worthwhile treasure in the house. He grabbed the golden trophy, walked over the dead body and its growing puddle of blood and exited through the same window he entered. A few seconds later, Bud entered through the front door, still frowning.

 

“I can’t believe I just killed someone for a trophy.”

 

“That you did," Gavin said, nodding solemnly.

 

“Was it at least a nice trophy?”

 

Gavin shrugged. “It was actually a diamond necklace.”

 

Bud whistled in appreciation. “Oooh, fancy. I can get behind that.” His eyes flickered over to the ‘crime scene’, and when he spotted Lily struggling to get up from the floor, he quickly ran over to help her stand without sliding on the fruit juice that they used as fake blood splattered everywhere. Gavin internally thanks the game developers for making carpets highly replaceable in Animal Crossing, because he sure as fuck ain’t cleaning that mess up.

 

While the two animals were busy, Gavin turned towards Nines, who had chosen that moment to stand up, eyes darting around the ‘crime scene’. “What do you think? I mean, obviously the recreation isn’t exactly the same as how it actually went down, but . . .”

 

“. . . this crime makes no sense,” he finally muttered with a frown after a long moment. “How did the thief even manage to enter through the 12th floor window? That seems to be the most important part, you can't just wave it off, Gavin."

 

“Oh, that's because getting up several storeys isn’t as hard as you think. The market has been flooded with legitimate spy gadgets for years; you have no idea how many times I’ve arrested someone for scaling the side of a privately-owned building with suction-padded gloves or grappling hooks. Not to mention the laser saws." Gavin shuddered, recalling one messy case involving a toddler and an unattended laser saw.

 

"I see. Then I guess the better question is why did the thief enter through the 12th floor window? According to you he was in and out within 5 minutes, going straight to the victim’s pad. Why not choose a floor closer to the ground, or a unit with better treasure inside? He must have staked out the building if he knew the right angle to hide his face from the camera."

 

Unless he didn't," Gavin pointed out. "And chose that unit for another reason."

 

Nines tilted his head to the side, curious. "You think the thief personally knew the victim?"

 

"Maybe. He was in and out quick enough to imply that he knew there was only one thing worth grabbing in that unit. Plus he killed her instead of knocking her out or something, so there might be a grudge at play too."

 

"But then he must have known where the necklace was hidden. And yet he chose the wrong window."

 

"Maybe the victim had never invited the thief over to her place or shown it to him," a high-pitched voice enthusiastically interjected, "and he only knew that it existed because she kept bragging about it."

 

Gavin and Nines both glanced down to see Lily sitting cross-legged in front of the couch, still covered in sticky fruit juice. Bud had apparently given up on helping her up, rolling around on the fruit juice puddle a few feet away himself and poking around their stuff. Probably looking for something to lift, with how uninterested he seemed in their conversation, unlike Lily whose eyes were sparkling eagerly.

 

Lifting a hand off the armrest to poke at the beaming frog's cheek, Gavin grimaced as his finger came back sticky. "Uh, Lily? Don't you want to wash all that fruit juice off first? We have a jacuzzi over there."

 

Lily seemed to think it over, rubbing at her sticky chin before eventually nodding. "Okay!" she said, rolling on the floor towards the tub and rolling up the sides (thanks to her new stickiness) to drop herself into the lukewarm water. Nines walked over to flick the bubbles switch on and add soap, while Gavin scooted over to his roommate's side of the couch to flick the light on at the same time.

 

Once the sound of automated bubbles being created and Lily's delighted giggles filled the air, Gavin went over what Lily said. "So the thief knew the victim enough to know that she had a diamond necklace, but not well enough to be invited over to her house. That right?"

 

"Do you have a suspect list?" Nines asked, walking back to him.

 

“Not yet. It wasn’t my case originally, you know. Got dumped on me a few hours ago because Ben had to take an emergency medical leave.”

 

“Doesn’t that mean it’s possible you got the layout of the room wrong then? Because besides all the furniture being erratically scattered everywhere, I don't think you can explain the knife in the living room away as the victim being eccentric, not when the rest of the set is kept in the kitchen.”

 

Gavin shook his head. “Nah. I got that from the police drone. It has a clear view inside the house through that window. And hey, I can so claim that she chopped vegetables in her living room. I bring my coffee pot to my bedroom all the time, and it's not supposed to be there either.”

 

Nines looked thoughtful. “. . . can I see the footage?”

 

“I don’t have it with me now, but I guess I can request for the lab to send it to me.” Gavin gave him a frown. “Why? You don’t trust my interior design skills?”

 

Thank you. It’s not that, it’s just, well, isn’t it easy to hack and alter camera footage? For androids at least.”

 

“Wait, are you saying that all this time, androids can just manipulate video evidence??” What the fuck, does he have to go over all his past cases now to check for evidence of tampering?? Elijah was definitely going to receive an earful about this. Screw that asshole for making his job harder than it already is.

 

“Not all androids. Just the RK800. And me, if I had my body; all the necessary programs are installed in it. Perhaps the military androids can too?”

 

"How about you lead with that?? Phcking hell, I was about to go throttle my brother because of what you said." Gavin rolled his eyes, reaching for his headpiece. "Be back in a bit."

 

He blinked hard several times, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness of his room after taking off the Dream. Once he could see well enough to find where he threw his phone, Gavin texted Officer Wilson, asking for the footage to be emailed to him. The guy had night shift tonight so hopefully it wouldn't take too long.

 

Sneaking quietly out of his room in his own apartment was, unfortunately, a necessary sacrifice to make if he wanted to avoid waking Patty up. Much as he loved his princess, Gavin did not want to deal with her being cranky for being woken up at this time of the night. He tiptoed towards the front door, watching Patty warily as she slept soundly on the couch cushion. Crouching down to reach his bag, he slipped his laptop out before crawling back to his room and gently closing the door.

 

After flopping down on the bed and connecting his laptop to the internet, Gavin was surprised to see that he already had an email from Officer Wilson. Damn that was fast. He downloaded the file, replying with a "Thank you!" and a smiley face for added measure. As soon as he was done, he pulled the headpiece back over his head.

 

Considering that he had been gone for a few minutes at most, Gavin expected everything to be where he left it. Opening his eyes to see Nines crawling in through the window of their shared home was highly unexpected, but Gavin decided to remain quiet lest he interrupted . . . whatever this was supposed to be. Not that it took long: as soon as Nines made it through the window, he tripped on the potted orchids and fell into the jacuzzi with a loud splash.

 

"You okay?" he asked, walking over and peering into the tub. Lily was still playing with the bubbles, unaware of what just transpired (or uncaring. It was hard to tell how much the game AI recognized Nines when Gavin was also active in the game). Nines pushed himself up, legs kicking into the air until Gavin had the presence of mind to pull him out from behind.

 

"I was trying to see if the layout works. It really doesn't," Nines explained, grimacing. The water dripped off of him for a few more seconds before vanishing. "This place is a mess; it's impossible to enter without alerting the homeowner, and following that logic, it's impossible to get anywhere near the kitchen to grab a knife before she comes down. The closest possible weapons are all for bashing someone's head in."

 

"Yeah, honestly it feels like a storage room more than an actual living space. I got the footage, anyhow, maybe we'll get something new out of it." Gavin shrugged, then turned to Lily, who looked up from her bubble tower. "How do I project it here?"

 

"Turn on your bluetooth, I'll do the rest!"

 

Gavin left to do so, and when he returned to the game, the two were sitting on opposite ends of the couch, a large television in front of them. The carpet had changed; no traces of juice anywhere, except for Bud, who was still rolling around the floor for whatever reason.

 

Gavin sat down between the two AIs, scooping up the remote and pressing 'play'. Together they watched a mysterious figure climb up the sides of the upscale condominium, open the window to a 12th floor unit, and then exit out in under five minutes. It wasn't a single continuous shot, considering the police drone was circling around the block, but it told the story well enough.

 

Once the clip finished, everyone remained silent. Honestly, Gavin didn't get anything new out of rewatching the footage. Then again, he was kind of tired, so maybe he just needed to sleep on it. He waited for either of the two to say something before retiring for the night.

 

Nines was the first to react. "Gavin, why was the entire footage flipped?"

 

". . . flipped? What?" Gavin pressed 'play' on the remote again, squinting at the clip. He had no idea what Nines was talking about, it's not like the signs on the screen were legible from the height the drone was flying.

 

Nines leaned forward, pointing at the illegible sign of the coffee shop beside the condominium. "There, the letters are reversed."

 

Gavin leaned forward even more, still not seeing it. "Do you have some sort of enhanced vision because I'm not seeing it. I can't even tell the letters apart."

 

"It says "EFAC RIALC TS"," Lily piped up from Gavin's other side.

 

". . . St. Clair?" He looked at the design of the cafe, and yeah, it did look like a St. Clair coffee shop, so those two were probably right. But then . . . "Why would it be reversed?"

 

"The only thing I could think of is a different unit was broken into - on the other side of the condominium - and whoever altered the footage must have tried to hide his crime and buy some time by flipping it over."

 

"And instead of a B&E in another room we just, what, accidentally stumbled into another crime scene?" Gavin asked, frowning. What the hell was even going on anymore.

 

"Hey, Mayor Gavin, I have a question."

 

Gavin turned his gaze towards Lily. "Uh, sure. Shoot."

 

The cyan frog tilted her head at him, big eyes wide with curiosity. "If a building says "Tower I", that means there's a "Tower II", right?"

 

Gavin mentally went over every single tower he remembered. "Generally, yeah. Why?"

 

Nines inhaled sharply beside him, but before Gavin could ask, Lily explained. "Because the building says "Detroit Residences", and underneath it is a small plaque that says "Tower I"."

 

Gavin gaped at her, mind racing with the implications. Well, part of his mind was, though it wasn't going anywhere besides blaring sirens acknowledging that this definitely meant something important. No, most of his mind was busy being annoyed that nobody on the case even bothered to tell him that it was a fucking Tower I of II. God, this is why he never liked taking on someone else's case when it was already halfway through.

 

"I just checked," Nines murmured, jolting Gavin out of his thoughts. "Detroit Residences Tower II is five blocks away to the west. There is also a St. Clair Cafe beside it and a police drone roaming around."

 

"Another drone?" Meaning . . .

 

"I think someone switched the drones around," Lily concluded, driving the final deductive nail into Gavin's brain. Or, uh, however the saying was supposed to go. Fuck, he really needed to sleep.

 

"Great. Just great." Gavin groaned. "Guess this means I have to go there now."

 

Lily slid off the couch, beaming at him. "This was fun, Mayor Gavin! I hope we'll do this again sometime."

 

"Right, thanks a lot for your help, Lily," Gavin replied, patting the frog between her eyes and walking her to the door. "Stay safe now."

 

She waved cheerfully at him as she walked away, which Gavin automatically reciprocated. Soon, he felt another presence at his back, and he turned around to see Bud behind him.

 

"I'm gonna take my leave now too, bro! I need my beauty sleep so I can wake up early to jog around town before anyone else," the lion explained with a big grin, sunglasses glinting from no particular light source.

 

"Okay. Thanks for your help here too," Gavin said, patting him on the arm.

 

"See ya later, sugartits!"

 

Gavin started choking on his own spit, slapping at his chest to try and clear his airway. "Excuse me??" he all but shrieked.

 

Bud blinked at him innocently. "I said 'see ya later, su-"

 

"I heard what you said! Where the phck did you pick that up??"

 

"Rocco," Bud answered, and yeah, in retrospect it was a stupid question, wasn't it. "I heard him calling you that yesterday, and I thought 'wow that sounds really cool' so I wanted to copy him. I don't know what it means, but I figured my catchphrase 'maaan' was starting to get stale-"

 

"It's a bad word," Gavin said firmly. "Very bad. Don't use it. The exercise gods would be ashamed of you, they'll dub you as a heretic and- and take away all your muscles!"

 

It was hard to see the lion's expression with his sunglasses, but that didn't mean Gavin couldn't see the complete despair that took over Bud, mainly because he started crying big tears. "WHAAAT? NO! I'm so sorry! I'll never do it again, please don't take them away!!!"

 

Before the guilt had the chance to settle in Gavin's stomach, Bud crashed into the door and ran out into the night, leaving a doorless doorway and dead silence in his wake.

 

Nines was the first to speak up. ". . . amazing. You managed to break your mayoral promise and got back into terrorizing your villagers in the same term." he flatly said, shooting Gavin an unimpressed look.

 

"Hey, do you want to be called 'sugartits' by everyone in the village?" Gavin shot back, snorting at Nines' answering grimace. "Yeah, didn't think so. Freedom of speech is overrated anyway."

 

"Because that doesn't sound vaguely horrifying at all," Nines muttered sarcastically, rolling his eyes at Gavin. "Shouldn't you be going to sleep soon? You said you needed to be at work early tomorrow.” A bell loudly chimed outside, to the tune of Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’. Gavin still has no idea who keeps changing it, considering he had set it to ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ last he checked. “Or later today, technically."

 

“I should, but . . .” Gavin hesitated, glancing outside. There wasn’t really anything to see besides the black and orange of Flower Field #1, but somehow Nines still understood what he meant.

 

“I don’t think she’s logging on anytime soon,” Nines said, frowning. “It’s been a week now, you’d do better to sell your turnips to our Reese instead of Graffiti’s.”

 

“I know,” Gavin sighed. “It’s just that she said she had something important to tell me last time, and I’m curious what it was.”

 

“. . . maybe it’s time you look for another player?” Nines suggested. “There must be someone out there who’s less- um, how did you describe her again?”

 

“Angsty with a possible side career in animal murder?”

 

“. . . yes, that. You know what, I take it back: you definitely need to look for someone else to play with.”

 

Gavin huffed. “Fine, I will. I suppose the bar she set isn’t really all that high; anyone has to be better than Susie Graffiti.”

 

----

 

Victim’s name: Susan Graff

 

Age: 21

 

Cause of death: blunt force trauma to the head

 

Primary suspect: ???

 

Connor frowned at the question marks in his HUD. It’s not that there weren’t any suspects- there were plenty, all with good motives considering how the victim had been acting, based from what the android could see from her web activity as he interfaced with her computer; No, his problem was that he couldn't decide who was more likely to have done the deed among all of them, because there was hardly any actual evidence of someone else’s presence at the crime scene.

 

Perhaps someone who lived in the same building? The people she interacted with online seem to be in the same economic bracket as her, going to the same sophisticated college, so it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to assume one of them might also be living in Detroit Residences. He could cross-reference the list of tenants with the list of people she bullied on her main social media account. Whether or not he’d find worthwhile information, he wasn’t sure yet. Even the victim’s unit wasn't registered under name, ownership belonging to her uncle, so the same might go for the others. If that didn’t bring up anything, well-

 

Someone snickered loudly behind him, a familiar yet unexpected voice, causing Connor to cut the interface and turn his head towards the door. His optical units confirmed that yes, it was Gavin, here for some reason despite his own crime scene being miles away and cackling at the same laser saw the other officers had also laughed at.

 

He still has no idea why they thought the serial number ‘2033-80085’ was so funny.

 

Gavin seemed to sense his curious gaze, because he looked up at that moment and shot him a smile. The detective handed back the evidence to Officer Miller, before shoving his hands into his pockets and walking over to Connor.

 

“Sup, RoboCop,” he greeted. “Chris says you have the footage from the police drone here?”

 

Connor held out his hand wordlessly in confirmation, waiting for Gavin to place his police-issued tablet in the android’s grasp. He transferred the requested file and handed it back as soon as he was done. “Is this for Detective Collin’s case?” Connor asked.

 

“Yeah. Turns out someone switched the drones between Tower I and II last week.” Gavin rolled his eyes, looking quite annoyed. “No one even told me there was a Tower II, you know how many hours I wasted watching the wrong video??”

 

Connor frowned at that. “Are you saying that your victim’s corpse was possibly moved to the other building from here along with the footage?”

 

“Or the other way around? Phck, I don’t know,” Gavin huffed. “Either way, it’s too early to be up right now without any coffee.”

 

“There’s free coffee in the lobby, I’m sure they’ll give you some on your way out,” Connor suggested.

 

“I’m pretty sure these aren’t the type of people to be very accommodating towards cops, Connor.”

 

“They will if you point out that they aren’t in compliance with Michigan’s Building Code,” Connor said with an innocent smile, making Gavin laugh.

 

“You know what, why not?” Gavin said, still chuckling. “Hey, you want a copy of the other drone’s footage before I bounce? I got it here.” He waved his tablet in front of the android.

 

“I suppose I might as well, there might be something relevant.” Connor plucked the tablet out of Gavin’s hands and interfaced with it again. In the meantime, Gavin turned his attention towards the corpse slumped over in a chair, letting out a low whistle at the sight.

 

“Yikes. Been a while since I’ve seen someone’s head bashed in hard enough to see brains.” The detective was quiet for a few seconds. “Is that a Cyberlife Dream on her face?”

 

Connor looked at device covering the victim’s face, the one Gavin was pointing at. “Yes. We believe she didn’t hear the killer approaching because she was too immersed in her playthrough. You have one too, don't you?”

 

Gavin nodded, then shivered. “Imagine dying because of that thing.”

 

Connor thought back to the android he saw at Jericho, suffering because of an unfortunate run-in with this very device, and quietly agreed.

 

They both stared at the corpse for a long moment of silence before Gavin broke it. “Wait. How do you know I have one?” Gavin asked, eyebrow raised.

 

“Tina said so when I asked her about the device. You just confirmed it.”

 

“Really? I told her to keep quiet about it. Why’d you want to know?”

 

“I got one for Hank. I was wondering if you could recommend any games that would be good for his health?”

 

“Whoa whoa, what? Isn't that thing expensive? How are you even able to afford it?”

 

Connor blinked. “Well, Hank lets me stay at his house, and I don’t need to eat. Also I decided to avail the SWAT team’s package.”

 

“. . . Okay I’ll bite. SWAT team’s package??”

 

“Cyberlife gave a discount to the SWAT team, hoping they’ll use it for their training exercises.”

 

. . . wow, they're really looking for reasons not to sell those things at full price, huh,” Gavin muttered, shaking his head. “Speaking of discounts, didn’t Tina mention that she herself has one when you asked?”

 

“No, I didn’t,” a loud voice said from right behind Gavin, making him jump. “Because I don’t have any games on it yet,” Tina explained, draping an arm across Gavin’s shoulders.

 

“You don’t? But you’ve had that since Christmas, I thought you said you wanted to play Just Dance in VR.”

 

“Well I haven’t had time to go buy the game yet,” Tina said, sighing dramatically. “And you’re going to get one for me, aren’t you? To make up for ditching your best friend a couple of weeks ago for your addiction.”

 

“My- I don’t have an addiction,” Gavin quickly said, shooting the officer a glare. Tina seemed to ignore him, rummaging in her pocket for something. At last she pulled out what she was looking for: a bagged piece of cotton, stained blue.

 

“Uh-huh. Hey Gav, take a look at this evidence,” Tina casually requested, thrusting the open bag under Gavin’s nose.

 

Connor wasn’t sure what happened; one moment Gavin was sniffing the bag, the next he was gagging loudly, slapping a hand on his mouth as he stared at the officer in horror.

 

Tina, on the other hand, was wearing a wide grin on her face. She leaned forward, into Gavin’s pale face, and whispered, “You can’t lie to me, rat boy. Now, either you get me what I want and we spend the next weekend playing together, or I tell everyone in the precinct about this little weakness here and you’re never going to live it down.” She shook the evidence bag of cotton stained with - as far as Connor can tell, short of placing it in his mouth to check - thirium. He has no idea what’s going on.

 

“. . . why am I friends with you?” Gavin whispered back, horror still painting his face.

 

Tina grabbed his shoulders, digging her fingers in. “Because you love me,” she hissed, manic grin on her face.

 

Connor watched as Gavin scampered away as fast as humanly possible, once Tina let him go. She turned to the android, smile a lot less scary than it was mere moments ago. “Should I be worried about what just transpired?” Connor hesitantly asked.

 

“Nope!” She cheerily replied, popping the ‘p’.

 

Connor slowly nodded, making a mental note not to cross Officer Chen.