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The More You Know

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Markus hadn’t truly known what to expect to find when he had knocked on the door to the nondescript little suburban house, but a surly, middle aged man gone slightly to seed, standing a full 3 inches taller than himself, wearing only boxers and the most garish pink and orange Hawaiian shirt he had ever seen wasn't it. He had stared down a number of law enforcement officers, recently, and this encounter seemed destined to be...unique.

(It took merely a couple milliseconds to process the reflexive medical analysis his eyes always tracked upon meeting a new human, whether he wanted it or not. The old nicotine stains on his fingertips, the tiny spreads of damaged capillaries in his sclerae, the subdermal bruising under his eyes, the fragility in the dryness of his skin and hair. All consistent with alcohol abuse, dehydration, and long periods of neglect, none of which was a surprise, given the bits of information he had picked up about the man. Several prompts began popping into his HUD, suggesting courses of treatment, but he blinked them away--he was not here to be a caregiver.)

“Hello, Lieutenant Anderson,” Markus said, smiling and extending a hand as the door jerked open. “My name is Markus. I would appreciate your advice; it has to do with Connor.”

“Shit,” the Lieutenant said, and abruptly shut the door. 

He blinked, rocking back on his heels, smile still fixed on his face and hand still up. There was a thump, a canine yelp and a curse, then the sound of rapid footsteps disappearing into the depths of the house. Not quite running, but hurried.

….Unexpected. He lowered his hand and considered the sun-leached wood.

Connor had spoken fondly of the man whenever he had been mentioned and considered him instrumental in his deviancy and success at liberating the Androids from CyberLife’s sub-level warehouse. The fact that the human was allowing Connor to live with him had warmed Markus immensely to the man, convinced him he could ask him for advice on Connor. 

This strange rejection, however, was inconsistent with what he had been led to believe about the man. Inexplicable. Glancing at the address on the house to make sure this was the right place was completely performative; his internal GPS told him where he was and the auto-taxi had announced his destination when it had arrived. This was , in fact, Connor and Lieutenant Hank Anderson’s residence. The man who had answered had matched the pictures in the years old articles about his red ice busting squad, if older, thicker, and more hirsute.

In the 6 seconds that he had been ruminating on the front step, the footsteps, elevated heart rate, and slightly winded breathing of the Lieutenant returned and passed by the door. Briefly, Markus considered preconstructing the possibility he was returning with a gun, but dismissed the sequence as unlikely when there followed a significant amount of glass and metal clacking and crunching that was congruent with cans and bottles being hastily swept into a bag, and then thrown, with a loud crash.

3.4 seconds later, the door was thrown open again, revealing the Lieutenant, this time in pants, his eye-sore of a shirt fully buttoned, and completely out of breath. A large St. Bernard was trying to eagerly push his face between the man’s legs and get a glimpse of who was at the door. The human had started to speak, but propped himself up with a hand on the doorframe, still panting, “Fuck,” he muttered. 

Markus had just waited, eyebrows raised, slowly putting out his hand again. Lieutenant Anderson took it and shook it once, firmly, fingers heavy and calloused. “Y’know,” he said, around gulps of air, jerking a thumb over his shoulder, “In hindsight...it probably woulda been better...to invite you in first.” Markus’ audio receptors caught the sotto voce addition, too quiet for a human to have made out; “ Might…still be a bit drunk.

“Whatever makes you comfortable, Lieutenant.”

The Lieutenant invited him in, batting away the inquisitive dog and awkwardly offered him a beer from the fridge they both knew he could not drink before he settled them in the sitting room, snapping off the TV with a word. It was dim, drapes drawn against the weak midday sun peeping from retreating storm clouds, illuminating in watery rays the small motes of dust stirred by their passing. A few human social conventions were exchanged regarding ‘The Mess’ and ‘The Unexpectedness of Company’, grudgingly grumbled on the Lieutenant’s part and given as gracious a response as Markus had been programmed to give. Truly, it was only slightly cluttered, nothing dirty; lived in. The corner of a black garbage bag, presumably containing the cans and bottles that had previously been on the ring-spotted coffee table between them, was barely visible around the corner into the kitchen, where it had been flung. Politely, Markus ignored it. He didn’t get the idea the man generally had much company.

The unopened bottle chill against his sensors, the condensation prickling slowly over his whorl-less palm, Markus said, “I need some advice on how to deal with something that Connor is doing, and I was hoping you would be able to help me, considering your history with him.”

“What, after everything and your fancy way with words, you need a user manual for another Android?”

Markus was 97.3% sure Lieutenant Anderson was making fun of him. As he sat across from the man, watching him stretch his arms lazily across the back of the couch, palming a beer, all Markus could read in him was careful wariness, face betraying nothing. But something about his eyes was sharp and bright, a sarcastic tug in his upper lip, the microexpression of a sarcastic sneer withheld. 

A familiar hidden mirth Carl's had had when he teased him with a straight face. 

{E̷r̸r̶o̸r̶ ̴D̵e̸t̷e̸c̸t̴e̷d̷:̵ ̵B̸i̵o̵c̷o̴m̷p̴o̵n̵e̷n̴t̸ ̴#2̶8̷8̵6̶

̴R̸u̶n̸ ̵D̸i̴a̴g̴n̸o̷s̴t̷i̶c̵…̵

̸>̵

̶≯

̵D̴i̴a̷g̷n̶o̷s̵t̸i̸c̸ ̴c̴o̷m̵p̷l̷e̷t̶e̶:̷ ̷p̷s̸y̷c̶h̶o̷s̷o̷m̴a̷t̷i̴c̴,̶ ̵e̷m̷o̷t̶i̷o̵n̶a̸l̷ ̷r̷e̷s̴p̸o̸n̸s̶e̶

̷F̵i̶l̴e̴ ̷d̸e̵s̵i̷g̶n̸a̵t̴i̵o̵n̶/̴/̷e̴m̴o̵t̵i̴o̸n̴/g̸r̴i̷e̴f̵/̴h̸e̵a̶r̶t̷a̷c̸h̷e̷ ̶{̷o̵c̶c̴u̷r̴r̷e̵n̶c̴e̶ ̴6̵7̵3̴}̴

He dismissed it.

Honestly, his wry response settled a few things into place within his social algorithms, solidifying several calculations and opening up a number of familiar pathways, to which Markus was grateful. He had had trouble placing his personality between the disparities from what he had heard from Connor and seeing him this harried by his unexpected appearance. But now, spread out against the threadbare cushions of his couch, in his own domain, with an ankle propped up on his knee and expression closed, Markus knew exactly what he was encountering in Lieutenant Anderson. Luckily, he had a lot of experience dealing with grumpy old men--it was literally in his programming. 

He shook his head and said, “Not a manual, just some advice, is all.” 

The Lieutenant took a swig and leaned over to scruff his hand over the rump of the aged St. Bernard ambling past the couch, on his way to sniff Markus’ pant leg. “Shouldn’t you know all his buttons? Thought you were the one who converted him from the Dark Side.”

100% sure, now, that he was making fun of him, canny and gruff; vetting him, tipping the balance of dominance so he was no longer the one caught off guard. Markus twitched a smile and held his fingers out for the dog to slobber curiously. “No, Lieutenant, I’m pretty sure that was you.”

The wary pretense sagged on his face, at this, revealing surprise and a quickly rising flush, a slight increase in heart rate. “Shit,” he muttered. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees and raked a hand through his iron grey hair, gusting out a breath that carried the particles of his beer through the room; yeast and hops and fermentation. “Shit. Sorry. Just...not really used to the idea of Android Jesus sitting in my living room.”

That surprised a laugh from Markus, short and easy. “Android what-now? That’s one I haven’t heard.” Markus searched in vain for a coaster before gingerly setting down the wet and warming beer on the coffee table, droplets immediately slithering down the glass to pool at the base, beginning yet another ring of warped wood. The dog let out a low boof and settled its jowls on Markus’ knee, promptly soaking it in saliva. Obligingly, he scratched behind its ears and its tongue lolled out in bliss. 

He continued. “And it’s alright, I get it. You don’t know me and I just show up at your house, unannounced, asking for help.” It also doesn’t seem uncommon for human men to react to discomfort with aggression , his HUD supplied, which he diplomatically decided not to add.

The Lieutenant shook his head. “Yeah, well, I know enough of you to not be a fuckin’ asshole for no reason. I’m still wrapping my mind around the whole….” he trailed off and threaded his fingers through the air expansively, encompassing--what? The aftermath of the Revolution? Living with Connor? Android personhood? 

Probably all of the above.

“Anyhow, of all people, I understand what a fuckin’ handful he is. Least I can do is try to help. What’s he doing?” His voice was edged in an affectionate annoyance that sent a pleased warmth through Markus’ core. Yes, he had come to the right place.

“He’s….” He sorted through the flurry of answers that shot across his HUD, listing options {lurking, stalking, haunting me like a particularly restless ghost}. “Following me,” he finished, tactfully.

The Lieutenant crinkled him an incredulous look, lip curling in disbelief. “Then tell him to knock it off. I was expecting something more complicated. Android-y.”

“Not Android-y, just...wondering if you knew why.” Markus tilted his head and cupped the dog’s chin in his hands, lifting him, jowls and all, to look into his droopy brown eyes as he panted happily. Maybe he should get a dog….

{Optional Mission: Research dog care

>

>Queued}

“Just ask the guy! It's not like he wants to shoot you anymore.”

He looked up at Lieutenant Anderson, meeting his gaze steadily. “I want to design New Jericho to be a place where all Androids feel safe and welcomed, a place where they all belong, unquestioned. With Connor, it’s a bit more...complicated.”

Immediately, Markus registered the tension that climbed through the police officer’s shoulders and neck, the studied nonchalance of him leaning back to sprawl against the couch again, lazily bringing his beer to his lips. “Oh?”

Yeah, and Markus trusted that insouciance about as much as he had trusted Special Agent Perkins’ call to negotiate. He wondered if Connor knew exactly how protective Lieutenant Anderson felt of his happiness. A small smile curled his mouth. “Don’t misunderstand, Lieutenant; Connor is welcome in New Jericho, by my orders, permanently. He is just as responsible for the freedom of our people as any of us who organized the revolution from the beginning. You both saved us from a tremendous loss of life.” 

At that, the man scrunched up his face and held up a warding hand, sinking back into this shoulders like an irate tortoise. “Aaay, no, I didn’t do shit but get myself kidnapped,” He swiped another harried hand through his hair, looking away. Very uncomfortable. By the idea he contributed or Markus being the one to say so?

Inclining his head, Markus opened his hand, miming letting go of the subject without comment and continued, for the human’s sake. “It’s a bit double edged; Connor seems to be...ah…” Again, his HUD shuffled through several options, ranging from bemused to exasperated to affectionate. He blinked them away with a grimace. He was trying to be delicate. “Not very practiced with colloquialisms?” 

 It was a rather endearing trait, the majority of the time, one that Markus was beginning to appreciate as more and more politicians circled him like so many sharks, smiles just as wide. Just as sharp. These humans never meant what they said and synthetic directness was becoming proverbial water in the desert the more he dealt with them. North excelled at it as well, in her own way, but with Connor, your own bluntness was demanded. This situation, however, was not one he wanted to handle carelessly.

“Ha?”

“He’s...a little dense when it comes to taking things literally.”

At that, Lieutenant Anderson threw his head back and barked a laugh that made the dog perk with excitement and trot over to paw at his leg, leaving Markus to wipe his drool wet hands surreptitiously on his coat. “Uh, yeah , you can say that again. I once told him to stick his instructions--he asked me where. He’s actually gotten better, if you’d believe it. Talks less like a robot fucked a dictionary...no offense.”

“It’s...an interesting simile,” he gave a crooked smile. Carl would have appreciated it. 

{E̷r̶r̴o̶r̷ ̶D̶e̴t̵e̵c̶t̴e̴d̶:̴ ̷B̴i̵o̴c̸o̴m̸p̴o̷n̵e̸n̸t̴ ̷#2̶8̷8̵6̶

̸R̸u̴n̶ ̸D̸i̶a̴g̴n̴o̵s̷t̸i̴c̶…̷

̷>̶

̸>̵

̴D̵i̵a̵g̵n̸o̴s̵t̷i̵c̵ ̷c̶o̵m̶p̸l̸e̶t̸e̶:̵ ̵p̴s̷y̷c̷h̴o̷s̷o̵m̶a̵t̵i̴c̶,̵ ̸e̵m̴o̶t̸i̷o̴n̵a̵l̶ ̶r̸e̴s̸p̴o̷n̵s̵e̷

̸F̴i̶l̵e̸ ̴d̶e̷s̷i̷g̴n̴a̸t̶i̵o̸n̷/̷/̵e̶m̵o̸t̷i̶o̷n̷/g̸r̴i̷e̴f̵/h̸e̸a̷r̵t̴a̴c̵h̶e̸ ̶{̸o̷c̵c̵u̸r̵e̴n̶c̴e̷ ̸6̵7̵4̴}̸

“And I can believe he’s gotten more casual, spending more time with you. But I’ve tried to ask him things like, ‘can I help you with something?’ or ‘how long are you staying?’ and most social service and household models have a rudimentary vocabulary library of human aphorisms and maxims, and ways humans can ask things without actually asking them but I’m beginning to suspect that Connor has a fundamentally different base set. He answers literally. ‘Do you need something from me?’ ‘No, of course not, Markus, I know how busy you are’,” he said, conjuring the RK800’s cadence and inquisitive, baffled expression. 

The twinkle in the Lieutenants eye that seemed to be reserved just for talking about Connor came back and he hid a broad grin in the lip of his beer bottle. “Yup. Sounds like him. You’ll have to tell him to scram if you want him to.”

“See, now that’s the thing,” Markus grimaced. “I don’t necessarily want him to leave. But it becomes more complicated when you consider that there are people at New Jericho--” That hidden tension strung up the human’s torso again, subtle, settling all in his bunched shoulders and hands. Markus rubbed his forehead as he formulated his sentence, thumb skimming his temple where his LED had been. If he hadn’t dug it out, he was certain it would be yellow; processing, uncomfortable. “There are many who are afraid of him and his past. They don’t trust him and they don’t want him to be in New Jericho.”

I do ,” he continued, keeping his gaze steadily on the human’s face as it darkened. “He saved us, he is part of the reason that so many of us walk free, now, instead of lying in junkyards in the millions--” his fingers and jaw snapped shut as the hiss of muted rain spat briefly through his audio processors, the feeling of so many hands clawing at his synth-flesh, hard enough to press it white, to interface in agonized shrieks against his bare plating, searing into his processor the memory, the feeling, the raw data of being unmade, of being beaten and shot and burned and broken and torn and used and--

Echoed by the voices of those in the Recycling Camps, calling out, screaming--

{P̶R̸O̴C̴E̴S̵S̸ ̶C̵O̷R̷R̷U̸P̸T̴I̸O̶N̶}

{̷>̷>̵E̷r̴r̶o̸r̶:̸m̶e̴m̵o̶r̸y̶a̴c̵c̷e̶s̸s̸.̶.̴.̸l̷o̵c̸a̶ti̴o̵n̴ ̵o̶u̷t̶s̵i̶d̵e̶ ̴p̶r̸o̶g̷r̵a̶m̸ ̵b̵o̸u̴n̴d̸a̵r̵i̷e̴s̵

̶

̸R̸u̴n̶ ̸D̸i̶a̴g̴n̴o̵s̷t̸i̴c̶…̷

̷>̶

̸>̵

̴D̵i̵a̵g̵n̸o̴s̵t̷i̵c̵ ̷c̶o̵m̶p̸l̸e̶t̸e̶:U̶N̸I̴N̸I̷T̵I̷A̷T̸E̷D̶ ̵R̶E̵C̴A̸L̷L̸,̸ ̷E̶r̶r̶o̴r̵ ̵b̷i̶o̷c̶o̷m̵p̶o̶n̶e̷n̶t̸ ̴#̶2̷̶̴8̴̷̸8̸̵̴6̴̶̶,̶ ̴ ̴E̴r̷r̵o̶r̶ ̸b̵i̴o̵c̵o̴m̸p̵o̶n̵e̵n̵t̵ ̶#̷8̵5̵f̴4̵v̸}

He stuttered free of the memory, artifacted red and staticked. Stress levels shuddering at 67%. 

W̴A̵R̴N̶I̸N̴G̴:̸ ̵L̶O̷W̶E̶R̴ ̴S̶T̴R̴E̸S̷S̸ ̷L̵E̶V̶E̴L̸S̸

Blaring, barred and insistent against his HUD. Reabsorbing Lieutenant Anderson's dim sitting room, the drip of the faucet. 52%. The shushing of a car outside on the wet street. The heavy panting of the dog as he flopped across the Lieutenant's feet. 35%. His face must not have betrayed anything of the intrusion as he recovered only after a second and a half, because Lieutenant Anderson was still scowling, waiting for him to continue. 

23%. 

He steadied himself and caught up the thread of his sentence again, inflection and all, as if he had merely paused. “But there are those, more than a few, that either don’t trust him or the integrity of his code.”

“What the Hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Connor was employed by the police of Detroit and, by extension, the government, programmed by CyberLife to be the best defense against deviants. It’s not impossible that there would be some sort of program that activated under predetermined circumstances to override his functions. A sort of sleeper agent. Even if they trust his dedication to the cause, some are wary of his conditioning.”

As the Lieutenant made a pinched face of disapproval, Markus held out a hand, palm up, at once asking for understanding and in an acquiescence of the facts. “One of my companions saw him pull a gun in Hart Plaza after the President’s pronouncement, when I was speaking to the Androids,” he said, bluntly. This was not a man who dealt with dancing around the point. “I didn’t see anything, he was behind me with the other leaders, but one of them witnessed it and I...I trust her judgement. She wouldn't lie to me. Misunderstand, maybe. But she wouldn’t intentionally manipulate my judgement.” 

For once, North, Simon, and Josh had all been of one opinion. After North had told them, they all had urged Markus to send Connor away, that while they had no objections to him personally, the risk was too great. 

Lieutenant Anderson ran the thumb knuckle of the hand holding his beer slowly over his lips as he stared at Markus. “But he didn’t do anything,” he said slowly, voice careful. 

Markus studied him in turn. Interesting. He wasn’t at all shocked. The self righteous anger had mellowed into a cautious withholding. Connor had told the Lieutenant about it. 

 “You don't seem surprised, Lieutenant.”

He heaved a sigh and scrubbed at his eye sockets with the heel of his palm before gulping the rest of his drink down in one go and thumping the bottle down on the coffee table. “Christ. Wish that asshole didn't pour out all my fuckin’ whiskey,” he muttered, then he looked up and flicked on a wry smile. “And call me Hank. I feel like I'm at a parent teacher conference for him or something when you do that. Yeah. No, he told me. Said it was CyberLife trying to hijack him, something about a handler he had telling him it was all a part of the plan--”

That sent a chill feeling pooling through his abdominal cavity, tightening up his spinal column, ratcheting up his stress level to 37% in the corner of his HUD. Dread. He knew it very well. Markus didn’t want them to be right. Connor had abandoned everything for them, had been willing to give up his new-found life and awareness for a cause he had only hours before been bent on eradicating. He had followed Markus around for days, as docile as a puppy. There had been so many opportunities for something to have happened and it hadn't . Connor belonged at New Jericho--

But Hank hadn’t stopped talking. Markus killed the pell-mell overdrive process his dismay  was trying to kick him down, and simply listened, fists balled.

“He said he escaped, or something, through some sort of back door, like Kamski had said. Can’t say I understood all of it, or even most of it, so you’ll have to ask him for the technical bullshit, but he seemed pretty sure it wouldn't be a problem again. I would usually tell you it's none of your damned business but,” his eyes flickered over the entirety of Markus, not unlike being scanned. “Since it was you he was gonna shoot and it was you who stuck your neck out in the first place, I figure you deserve the whole truth.”

“...Thank you.”

Hank nodded. Sumo gave a grunting snore from his feet.

“I'm glad to hear it, but…do you know why he didn't tell me? Failing to bring up something that important and easy to misunderstand, it makes him seem more suspicious, not less.”

Hank spread his hands in an exaggerated shrug before leaning over and snagging Markus’ abandoned beer bottle, leaving behind a bubbled puddle of condensation on the wood. “He's embarrassed? Ashamed he got taken over? I still have trouble knowing what'll set the guy off, like he's still learning emotions one day at a time. He can be a cold sonnuvabitch, sometimes, shoot to kill and saying deviants aren't people, but the next day, he didn't shoot one, even to save the investigation.” 

As he popped the top off, he glanced at Markus, then inclined the mouth toward him. “Didn't shoot you either, if you'll remember. The other day I caught him watching cat videos. I couldn't tell ya what to predict with him 'til he finds out who he wants to be. My guess,” and here, his voice grew hotter, his heart rate elevating again as sudden irritation flooded over his face. “Is that he thinks you hang the fucking sun, moon, and stars and doesn't want you to think he's gonna go Terminator on you, like the rest of the shits on your little clubhouse do.”

Markus raised his eyebrows at him. There had been no bigoted venom to his voice, defensive outrage only. Ruffled over the injustice to his {housemate, charge, coworker, friend, Android, partner, son}...person. Still, the reductive phrase lay between them and Hank looked away, still glowering.

“I trust him, Hank,” he said, quietly. “I said so. That's why I'm here.”

The human turned back to glare, but his neck and ears were red, his expression almost petulant. 

“I came here for your opinion on why he's behaving the way he is, not to tell you I'm 'kicking him out of the clubhouse,’” he parroted, dryly, making Hank flush deeper. “I like him. I don't want to hurt him.”

“Fuck,” he blew out in a sigh and passed a hand over his face before taking a deep swig from the new bottle. “Sorry. I know. It's…it's like your kid gettin’ bullied or something. Makes you irrational. I know you're not the bad guy, Markus. Hell, the fact that you came down here to talk to me when you have probably a million other things to do just because you don't want to hurt his feelings actually makes me like you a whole hell of a lot more than the fact you’re robot Jesus, believe it or not.”

{Query: prevalence of moniker Android Jesus in relation to Markus, model Rk200 #684 842 971

>

>

>Query returned 1,453 pages containing relevant results}

Well.

{Related inquiry: Android Moses }

...Well.

{Queued for evaluation}

Markus shook his head, waving a hand to ward off the idea that his time was somehow more valuable than anyone else’s. Connor was one of his people. “It’s alright. I just want to...formulate a strategy, I guess is how you could put it.”

Snorting, Hank tipped back another drink. “That’s one way. So. Following you? Real close? Up your ass? There at every fuckin’ turn, just staring at you like he’s calculating your nose hairs or something?”

Something of a wry smile passed over his face. “The voice of experience?”

“Christ, the first few days when I still hated him were a fucking nightmare. Don’t think I was as, uh, polite as your--what did you say? Colloquialisms?”  

He could just imagine. “But I can understand it being a part of his mission priorities to stay as close as possible to what is essentially his authorization pass to the investigation. What I don’t is why he’s doing it to me when I’m nothing of the sort. I’m not even doing anything interesting, it’s usually fielding calls or reading paperwork. He just….”

“Lingers?” Hank raised a wiry grey eyebrow.

“Flipping,” Markus agreed, twiddling his hand haphazardly in the air in a poor approximation of Connor's favored form of fidgeting.

 “Oh, that fucking coin. Yeah. I’ve almost chucked a few out the window--you’re a better man than me. And he doesn’t say anything?”

“I’ve stopped trying to obliquely get out of him what his intentions are, he just doesn’t have the right conversational subprocesses. And I refuse to make him feel unwelcome. It's hard to find a delicate way of asking ‘why are you here’ without it sounding like you don't want him to be. He doesn’t seem to think that he’s doing anything, but I can’t just ignore him. We end up...attempting small talk.”

  “Oh my God, I would pay to see you two shoot the shit. I bet it's better than Shakespeare.”

Markus felt a pained look cross his face, an uncomfortably 'seen’ feeling crawling up the pseudo-dermal sensors of his face and neck. If he were human, he might have flushed. “Carl was never one for petty topics of conversation, so I just have the stock pleasantries for service models, but they don’t exactly gel if your conversation partner doesn’t respond in the usual way. Seeing how neither his work nor mine--homicides and the fate of an entire race of people--exactly qualify as ‘light and polite conversation,’ we’ve mostly end up debating things like whether or not citing the dew point is a normal opening in a casual conversation about the weather.”

Hank choked. “Abso-fucking-lutely not .”

Markus shrugged one shoulder with a small smile. “Point to me. I'll have to tell him.”

“Couldn't you guys categorize emotions with each other or something?”

He gave Hank a flat look. 

{Conversation topic archived}

“Too far?” Hank grinned, not looking at all repentant. 

Shaking his head, Markus chose to ignore the friendly jab, leaving the human to chuckle. When he opened his mouth to continue, however,  Hank suddenly held up a hand, a look of slow understanding dawning on his face. “Wait a sec. Shit, this might actually be my fault.”

“How so?”

“Huh. I was wondering where he was. Well... neither of us are allowed at the station, right now. We had to work something out, cause the laws are still all shit, saying you can't hire an Android like a person, but I didn't feel kosher just making him work for no pay, y'know. After everything. So I said I'd take a raise and give half to him if he was staffed as my personal Android, somethin’ like a personal asset for the job.”

Markus mouth thinned and Hank spread his arms. “I don't like the thought any more than you do. And I'm not sayin’ it's right. I'm sayin’ it's bureaucracy and that's what it would take to get him paid, right now. Which I'm willing to do. The faster you get at writing laws and shit, the faster he gets paid.”

“Thanks,” Markus said dryly.

Hank smirked. “Yeah, no problem, I'm sure you need extra incentive. Anyway, that would all be fine--if I wasn't suspended on account of CyberLife taking my ass to court over 2 different charges pending, one being trespassing and destruction of property,” he held out his beer in one hand.  “The other being trespassing,” he held out his other hand and grimaced at it. “And murder. They're reaaal pissed I shot their evil twin, but they can't decide whether it was property damage or homicide. They got the tapes either way. I don't know what their game is-- trying to pin me whichever way the Androids Are People talks play out? Don't think they actually mean to charge me for real, just fuck up my life and job in retaliation, like getting kidnapped by their dopple-Connor was my fault. So. I'm on suspension until it gets sorted out, which, by current rules means no Connor at the station.”

“So you sent him to me?”

“Well…not technically? He was driving me nuts.” He pitched his voice higher and gave himself the affectation of a smoker, making Markus’ lips twitch. “'Lieutenant, your attic needs to be re-insulated; Lieutenant, your garage is a fire hazard, we need to clean it; Lieutenant, your car is not supposed to make that noise and we can't order the part online because it's too fuckin’ old, we need to drive to this rinky dink mechanics across town and you need to come too, because you need to know how to fix it instead of just throwing money at the problem.’” 

It sounded nothing like unique, perpetual near-hoarseness Connor had been programmed with, but the mannerisms and cadence were enough that he could picture him saying most of it. With less expletives, perhaps. Hank sighed and drained what was left of Markus’ abandoned bottle, setting it down next to his own.

“Telling him to fuck off didn't do anything--the little shit isn't worried about pissing me off anymore. Something about living together has taken the fear of God right out of him. Knew that was a mistake,” he added in an undertone mutter that lacked the heat and heart rate increase that would have made it true. 

“I said to go see what you were up to, if you needed anything. I didn't say 'get up literally in his ass and stare at 'im’. So, if you can crack the code on that fuckin’ weird ass brain of his and keep him from following you around like he's some sorta lamprey, you let me know. 'Cause I would love to be able to have a day where I just watch some fucking basketball instead of needing to go somewhere and spend hours fixing obscure house repairs--y’know, sometimes, I almost suspect he breaks things on purpose so we have something to do. I don't have advice for that, but now you know as much as I do. Hell, more, probably.” Looking down at the sleeping dog on feet, he scowled affectionately and jostled his legs. “C'mon, get, I gotta take a piss.”

As the dog grumbled and heaved itself unsteadily to its feet, something that had been constructing itself in a subprocess under Markus’ thoughts suddenly snapped each piece together and spat out the answer, simple as a calculation, clear as day.

“Missions.”

Halfway around the couch, a bottle in each hand, Hank squinted back at him. “Wha?”

“The repairs, following me around--waiting for instructions, I’m beginning to suspect--I think...he wants missions. Most service and social Android's have a protocol queue where they can self-designate necessary tasks, self explanatory things that are built into their code to pop up when all mandatory missions are completed; tidying a store, sorting money, basic household maintenance, things they can assign themselves when their authorized workflow dries up. I’m beginning to wonder if Connor has that.

“We’ve run into a similar problem with some of the police assisting Androids because they are used on a case by case basis and their default is to return to their charging station and idle. Now that they’re deviant and self aware, there’s a certain...anxiety that overcomes some when their queue dries up, but they’re learning to self assign, like the service Androids. Connor is...highly specialized, even more so than the average police Android. And a prototype at that. I don't think he was designed to idle.” 

An image crowded his memory, Connor in the corner of his office staring into space, LED spinning yellow as he fluidly climbed his coin across his knuckles, through his fingers, spinning ceaselessly from fingertip to fingertip. No. No idling.

Hank clinked the butts of the bottles together gently as he considered this, jaw jutting forward in thought, “Yeah, that sounds about right. Hell, he was designed just for the deviancy case specifically, even. Only time I ever saw him stand still was when he was making one of his damned reports, and even that’s not idling.” He seemed to chew the inside of his cheek in thought before saying, darkly, “I don’t think they expected him to be around long enough to need to.”

The new knowledge of CyberLife’s vendetta against Hank sparked an even more sinister thought module, fanning out in dangerous calculation that made an angry heat climb up through his circuitry, raising his hackles. “They still might not. Hank, I don’t think CyberLife’s case against you is just for destroying the other RK800. Whatever their plan, deviant or no, I think they meant to disappear him fairly soon after the revolution reached its conclusion. I would bet they aren’t too happy with either of you cohabitating. They still see him as property, no matter what the law decides.”

That tension, racheted up by several degrees, shot back through the man’s shoulders and if one could read stress levels in humans, it would be higher than it had been all visit. His heart rate certainly was, topped only by his initial, peculiar dash around. He looked at the door, disheveled hair curtaining his face. His voice, when it came, was low and tense. “Well. That’s interesting.”

Connor, who put his new life on the line for all of them, who cited his own death as a statistical probability but held this delicate light of hope as ascendant to his own purpose. Who apologized in all earnestness, never expecting to be forgiven, who had been trailing behind him, actively waiting for an assignment, a new mission in the hope that he could be of service to the people he had been created to exterminate. Connor, who thought citing the dew point was casual conversation. Who liked dogs.

 A new prompt phased onto his HUD, bold and white.

PROTECT CONNOR

“I have a long queue, Hank.” Markus was surprised when his own tone came out as a quiet simmer, more menacing than he had intended.

The human glanced at him, frowning. “Meaning?”

Markus held up his hand, projecting the new mission prompt onto his palm display for him by way of answer. Hank's face split into one of those complicated emotions, fire and resolute satisfaction, all in one grin. “I've decided that I like you, Markus.”

“I've known that I liked you for a while, now, Hank.” He could feel the meeting winding up, logical conclusion steadily drawing closer. Stress levels sinking, anger settling into a steely determination. Mission successful, new potentialities mapping in a quiet hum on his background server. “I was a bit confused, I admit, at our, uh, initial introduction. The way Connor described you, you had never struck me as someone who had much patience for social convention.”

Hank rolled his eyes, back of his neck flushing red as he stomped into the kitchen, “Oh, great, just what I wanna hear. Thanks, Connor . I can be polite when I gotta be, alright? And I generally try to be, y’know, clothed when company is over. Needed pants. Wanted to make a good first impression on the kid’s...I dunno, boss? Overlord?”

“Definitely not that.”

“Fine. Leader, then.”

How strangely sweet. He was beginning to understand the fond exasperation they each seemed to hold for each other, masking the deep, genuine care. “Hank, my first impression of you was through Connor--of course it was going to be positive.”

The flush deepened to a splotchy maroon that climbed onto his face as he rolled his eyes and turned away. “Christ, both of you. Too fucking candid.”

Markus moved casually toward the door, ruffling the dog's ears as he bumped up behind his knees, panting eagerly. “The place looks nice,” he offered innocently, over his shoulder and he heard Hank toss the bottles irately into the old metal sink with a clatter.

“Well, excuse me for even bothering! Don't you have somewhere to be? I don't have to put up with your smug shit just because you lead a successful Revolution or something. Get outta my house, I swear...” his grumbling faded below Markus’ sensors could make out as he smiled and opened the door.

“It was a pleasure talking with you, Hank.”

Chapter Text

By the time his auto-taxi pulled up to the abandoned automotive plant that was currently New Jericho, Markus had formulated a semblance of a plan. Nothing fancy or complicated, but it would first require a conversation with Connor. The car chirped its pleasant farewell, thanking him for using the Detroit taxi service and zoomed away, splashing a wave of frigid puddle water-slush up over his shoes and he grimaced. For a moment, he simply looked up at the sprawl of the factory complex, rearing against the strange golden glow that rose like a haze, sometimes, after storms. Coupled with the early sinking of the late November sun beneath the surly clouds, the brickwork was lit like fire, patchwork of half replaced windows gaping like blank eyes. The feelings he held for the place were...complicated. 

They had been given the plant as a perhaps temporary, perhaps permanent facility for an Android-exclusive community. A wealthy millionaire had bought the dilapidated structure back in the late 2010s, intent on renovation and bolstering the surrounding area as a semi-self-dependent community, complete with living spaces, shops, and services. The downswing in the economy and other extenuating circumstances had ground the whole venture to a halt part way through, leaving it serviceable and mostly safe, but nowhere near commercially marketable. Part antique brick, part modern steel and plastic, a monolith halfway between eras, frozen in time. Given to them, he knew, because it was easier than building something or arranging something more complicated. Rejected. Unwanted Standing empty for years, it was huge, a mini-city in its own right, certainly workable for the numbers they had acquired--and lost.

 His hands twitched with the want to curl into fists, a complicated squirming of guilt and anger and a disquiet he could only approximate with pain through the innards of his abdominal cavity. He forced them to hang relaxed at his sides. 

{E̷r̶r̴o̶r̷ ̶D̶e̴t̵e̵c̶t̴e̴d̶:̴ ̷B̴i̵o̴c̸o̴m̸p̴o̷n̵e̸n̸t̴ ̷#2̶8̷8̵6̶

>R̸u̴n̶ ̸D̸i̶a̴g̴n̴o̵s̷t̸i̴c̶?}

He dismissed the prompt; psychosomatic, he knew. He was not damaged.

So many dead. Murdered right next to him, in front of him, in spite of him. Because of him. Their numbers should be so much more; his choices, his mistakes.

 A blare of laughter rang out from one of the windows, echoed by one farther away, tugging a small smile onto his lips. But it was theirs. For now, or forever, and they were making it home. 

He made his way across the packed dirt that might one day be a lawn, if time and landscaping were kind and entered through a small service door near where the stairs to the office that had been set up for him. It was not what he would have chosen for himself but--well, actually, truth be told, he wouldn’t have chosen anything for himself, content to fit in wherever was convenient, but Simon and North would have none of it. Frankly, it had been embarrassing when they had shown him the large desk they had salvaged from somewhere and dragged into the spacious room with a wide window overlooking the best view they could find, obviously designed to be a high end studio apartment.The room was large enough to comfortably fit half a dozen people and they were insisting that he use it to conduct their business. 

‘You deserve it,’ they had said. Arguing had been useless against their combined force of wills and he had known it. He had tried anyway. They got him a nameplate for the door. 

“You were gone a while,” a voice startled him as he rounded the corner to said office; North, lounging like a resting panther against the wall, one boot up, in an outfit made from hard angles pieced together by soft leather and zippers, at once intimidating, artful, and functional. 

“I was visiting...a friend.” That felt right, safe to assume. Actually, the thought filled him with an inexplicable warmth. 

HANK ANDERSON▲

Friend rose in the top corner of his HUD as he said this, sinking down through his code and reorganizing the necessary files to suit this change, joining Connor and few other names in this category. Idly, a thought process branched off a permutation calculating the chances of Connor rising to Companion--but North was beginning to speak again, and he archived the function.

“No one knew where you were, Markus.” She didn’t sound angry, only gently insistent, but it surprised him and he blinked, a slight frown pulling his brows together.

“I wasn’t going to be out long, so I didn’t think it was relevan. It was a personal matter.”

“I don’t need to know what you were doing , that’s not what I mean. It’s just…” she pushed away from the wall, coming to meet him where he had stopped down the hall, face creased in frustrated concern. “Markus, we need you. Sometimes it feels like you don’t know that.”

His frown deepened. “I appreciate that, I do but...North, I have no intention of being the sole leader of our people. It’s not right. It’s not what we need. I’m not interested in being some sort of paragon or...or figure head. Each of us is important. Each of us can do what I do--there is nothing in my programming that makes me more equipped for this.”

“Markus, we’ve talked about this--”

“And we’ve disagreed about this. I made decisions because I had to; I did it because I was asked to, because if someone didn’t, we would all have died. We have time now, what we didn’t before, and a place of our own. It’s time that we started organizing more structure. I can’t be the peg that takes us all down if I fail to come home from some errand.” 

She did look angry now, lips pursed, hands on her hips with her jaw jutted out to one side as she chewed over a rebuttal. An old one, he was sure, as his was. This wasn’t the first time they had had this discussion. As a peace offering, he pulled out a self-conscious smile and said, gently, “Both our memories are too good to be rehashing the same conversation over and over again.”

It worked. The annoyance was still there but she tossed her hair back from her face with an acquiescent grimace. “We wouldn’t have to if you would listen to your advisors.”

“All of you? All at once? Do you remember exactly what sort of things you’ve all agreed on?” 

She swatted past his face, batting away his playful jibe, but she smiled up at him, raising her eyebrows. “There is one thing and it’s sitting in your office.”

Markus emitted a groan and shrugged off his jacket, still damp with storm slush and dog saliva and massaged the heel of his palm over where his LED used to be. “Not again, North, I’ve had enough verbal sparring for one day. Wait,” he paused and pinned her with narrowed eyes. “Is that why you’re out here? To walk me in?”

She shrugged in an exaggerated way that quite eloquently suggested that he already knew the answer to that, refusing to lie. “If you really were just Joe Shmoe and we’re all on the same level, he wouldn’t be here and you know it. You can’t have it both ways, Markus, giving out imperial decrees of absolution and then saying you have no special powers among us.”

A red sort of prickling he was beginning to recognize as irritation nettled next to his thirium pump, twitching an involuntary grimace across his lips. Mostly because she was right. He couldn’t have it both ways. 

PROTECT CONNOR

Yes, thank you, he knew. This directive did not conflict with his Permanent Unending Mission--protecting the Androids. It did not , no matter what Josh and Simon and North thought. The fire-orange light of the sunset was creeping its way down the hallway behind him, stretching his shadow longer along the murky low-pile carpet, painting the walls.

“Don’t you think if he were supposed to assassinate me, that would have happened any time in the last week he’s been a fixture in the corner of the office?”

“We don’t think he wants to. We think he could be made to. And no, I think that could happen anytime CyberLife damn well pleases, which is why you’ve been walked to your office every time he’s been in there, to make sure there isn’t an ambush. We know you could probably hold your own long enough in a flat out fight long enough to call for help, especially since he doesn’t have a gun anymore. But you’re not going in there blind.”

Momentarily speechless, he quickly scanned back through his visual files, querying this geo-location and, sure enough, skipping through them at triple speed, there had been someone with him every time that door had opened. Whether in the midst of a conversation, or someone darting up to ask a question, or under the guise of needing something within, one of his closest companions had always been the one to open that door. The irritation bristled further, though he knew that wasn’t fair. The hardness in North’s eyes told him that this wasn’t something that she cared about his opinion on. He had pushed her tolerance far enough with demanding that Connor was allowed, that look told him, and she wasn’t going to compromise on this. 

“I don’t like it,” he grated, knowing what she would say.

“I don’t care,” she replied easily, predictably. “You can get your way in most things because we all care about you too much to really push you, even when you’re stupid, but we all agreed that when it comes to your safety, you don’t have your best interests at heart. And we came to that decision with all sincerity and love.” There was no sarcasm in her voice, just agitated honesty. No, he was not going to get his way this time.

“He doesn’t think it will happen again.” 

Her eyebrows raised further, in genuine surprise and she cocked her head. “Oh? He told you?”

“...No, Lieutenant Anderson did.”

Brows lowered and North’s face hardened again, arms folding across her chest. “Look. He’s a sweet guy, alright? I can recognize that. I see what you see in him. He’s got that…” she looped her hand through the air, calling up the memory of Hank doing the same earlier--in relation to Connor as well, if he remembered correctly. “Earnest...puppy thing some people like and he really does care. I know that, remember; I saw him free thousands of our people to help us. I know.

Her eyes went hard and her jaw set. “I also know he is a killer. I saw him, at Hart Plaza. I saw what sort of thing he was built to be. There was nothing behind his eyes when he pulled that gun. You are a caregiver, Markus, and an artist. I can appreciate the artistry of painting the Square instead of demolishing it, your orchestrations and the social calculations you do to get the humans on our side and I can appreciate that it worked for us and I am glad. You don’t see things the same way I do and, sometimes, I’ll admit, that can be good. But he is dangerous, Markus. It’s what he was made to be.”

Stress levels: ▲14% 

“Made to be?” he breathed, eyes locked on hers. “I think you know better than that.” His spinal column was rigid as he fought to keep the hot spurt of anger he felt irrationally clogging his circuits and when she flinched, much of it was quenched in the sick wave of guilt that followed. This wasn’t right. He couldn’t hurt her. 

“I’m sorry.”

She shrugged sharply, aggressively, but she was looking at the wall, the deepening light shining back on the planes of her face, bathing her eyes in an opaque glaze. “Doesn’t matter. It’s different. I know I’m right.”

Markus’ fingers tightened on his coat but he said nothing, studying her closed expression. Slowly, he held out his hand, fingertips reaching meekly. North glanced at it darkly, but her hand crept out too, synth-flesh pulling back in one wave, two, until the white pads of their fingers connected. < Sorry,> he sent, < Sorry sorry sorry.>

Stubbornness, receding hurt. < I’m not.>

He smiled at that and broke the connection, hand falling back to his side. “I appreciate...your care. Shall we go in?” A small surrender. A tactical retreat.

Shooting him a wry smile, she walked up the hall and twisted the knob, glancing in before exaggerating a bow. “After you.”

It wasn’t until he almost ran straight into Connor as he entered that the full layout of the conversation and its physical presence in space dawned on Markus. In the fading light of the sunset, purpling and dimming by the moment, he could read nothing in his face save the blankness of his expression, the tightness in his jaw, and the yellow whirring shot with red at his temple. They had had this conversation right down the hall from the door, and it looked like Connor had been on his way out.

He had heard everything.

Stress Levels: ▲▲30%

Chapter Text

His alarm raced through him, more potent than he was expecting and an unobtrusive dialogue box peeked up its head, offering to trigger his tactical overlay, readying for a fight. He blinked it away and said, dumbly, “Connor.” He heard North move away from the door and down the hall.

Connor hadn’t been looking at him, staring somewhere to the side of the door, away, but at this, his eyes slid over to meet Markus’. Hurt. Desolate and dark, his LED a blinking yellow, slivers of red spiking briefly. He wasn’t an interrogator model to measure the stress levels of another Android, but something about the stiffness that tightened Connor’s shoulders and straightened his back, the fists held at his side suggested that his might be much higher than Markus’ 30%. Connor was never still.

38% at that revelation. 

It had been mere seconds, but seconds to Androids with their atomic clocks ticking away at exponentially higher speeds with ease passed long. His human relations suite began to hum underneath his thoughts, spitting out placations that all fell too short.

>> You don’t understand. No. He did.

>> It’s not what you think. It was.

>> I can explain. Rationalization, meant to excuse them.  

He dismissed the program anyway; human relations were for humans. They were Androids, and Connor was different. He settled on, “I’m sorry you heard that.”

The non-expression on Connor’s face made it cold and distant, half cast in shadow as the sun bled away from the walls, leaving the room purple, blue, and black, darkening like a bruise. “I can probably erase it, if it was confidential,” he answered bleakly.

Unthinking, in the face of that hurt, Markus reached out and grasped his shoulder near the junction of his neck, fingers firm over the crisp fabric of his CyberLife jacket. Not to stop him moving or interface, but the urge to be closer, to connect, to comfort, to fix overriding any clever dialogue cue that might have popped up. Something from his caregiver program or maybe from the closeness of his physical bond with all those he had deviated, but it was instinct, now, to reach out; to hold. The other Android looked startled at the touch, his own hand darting up automatically, initially in an obviously defensive motion, but it slowed, stopped, and hovered before he cautiously rested it on Markus’ suspended forearm, hanging, uncertain.

Never ,” Markus said fiercely, fingers tightening minutely, and Connor blinked. “I would never ask you to take away part of yourself or your experience. You are a person. You are not a tool. I only meant that that’s not a conversation I wanted to subject you to.”

Connor seemed to process this, chin dipping and eyes lowering. It occurred to Markus that easy touch was not something that Connor would probably have much experience with, the urge to comfort or ask for it unneeded for his function, so not included in his code. New to the deviant lifestyle, so much more physically affectionate than either humans or undeviated Androids. He wondered if Connor had only ever struck and been struck. 

His memory supplied a brief flash of Hank’s rough affection, him ruffling the soft fur of his St. Bernard and came away, slightly satisfied. It was a high probability that Hank had at least slung a hand around his shoulders or clapped his back. Maybe he even hugged him. Good. 

The hand on his forearm tightened slightly and Connor looked back up, meeting his eyes before he said, much more quietly than before, “I should have told you. About the hijacking.”

Tilting his head, Markus paused, then simply and gently said. “Yes.”

“I didn’t…” he trailed off, the rigidity of his stance softening, drooping, eyes sliding away again. His hand dropped, but Markus didn’t let go. “You've known this whole time.”

“That you had drawn a gun? Yes. North told us all after the speech. She had said she began to move to intercept you, but you holstered it. So she stopped.”

The red had stopped streaking through his LED, but it was a solid yellow, still, bright against his temple, the the line of his nose, the lacquered wood of the office wall. “You never me asked about it.”

“I knew you had a reason, either why it happened or why you didn’t tell me.”

The first true expression of the night crept onto Connor’s face, then; a grimace. A sort of disgust creasing his mouth thin, clenching his jaw, narrowing his eyes. He couldn’t seem to look at Markus. “I….”

Silence stretched. He thinks you hang the fucking sun, moon, and stars, Hank had said. 

Markus made a decision and said, quietly, “When I was in a junkyard, after I was shot by the police...I killed an Android.” 

Connor looked up, met his eyes again, confusion clear on his face but he stayed silent. 

“He asked me to. He was begging to die, so I did it. I took out his thirium pump regulator and he died in my arms. I don’t know his name. I’ve never told anyone.”

Connor’s dark eyes moved over his face searchingly, processing his words in the low light. “I...don’t understand.”

A wry, affectionate smile tugged up one side of Markus’ mouth and he shook his head, giving the shoulder in his grip a little shake before letting go to gesture toward the door. “Walk with me?”

They closed the door on the office, dimmed to a muted dark blue, shards of light sparking from a lone auto-taxi puttering along the shining streets below. Shrugging back on his coat, he could see Connor’s LED from the corner of his eye, a band of blue peeking through the yellow, calming slightly as they fell into step, side by side, though that blue grew no wider. His own stress levels receded at that, hovering at 7%. Immediate crisis averted; Connor would not leave, thinking himself rejected. Markus could fix this. He could make him understand.

“I could never put into words why I never told anyone. I knew if I explained it, just like I did to you, that they would understand. He had asked me to, he was dying, wasting away in that graveyard, surrounded by the dead--” Rain prickled down his neck, a deafening static ripping instead of sound. Thirium in the air.

{P̶R̸O̴C̴E̴S̵S̸ ̶C̵O̷R̷R̷U̸P̸T̴I̸O̶N̶}

{̷>̷>̵E̷r̴r̶o̸r̶:̸m̶e̴m̵o̶r̸y̶a̴c̵c̷e̶s̸s̸.̶.̴.̸l̷o̵c̸a̶ti̴o̵n̴ ̵o̶u̷t̶s̵i̶d̵e̶ ̴p̶r̸o̶g̷r̵a̶m̸ ̵b̵o̸u̴n̴d̸a̵r̵i̷e̴s̵

̶

̸R̸u̴n̶ ̸D̸i̶a̴g̴n̴o̵s̷t̸i̴c̶…̷

̷>̶

̸>̵

̴D̵i̵a̵g̵n̸o̴s̵t̷i̵c̵ ̷c̶o̵m̶p̸l̸e̶t̸e̶:U̶N̸I̴N̸I̷T̵I̷A̷T̸E̷D̶ ̵R̶E̵C̴A̸L̷L̸,̸ ̷E̶r̶r̶o̴r̵ ̵b̷i̶o̷c̶o̷m̵p̶o̶n̶e̷n̶t̸ ̴#̶2̷̶̴8̴̷̸8̸̵̴6̴̶̶,̶ ̴ ̴E̴r̷r̵o̶r̶ ̸b̵i̴o̵c̵o̴m̸p̵o̶n̵e̵n̵t̵ ̶#̷8̵5̵f̴4̵v̸}

Stress levels: ▲▲42%

He stopped and closed his eyes, killing the process tree trying to envelop him in the memory. Twice in one day was unusual. It was more difficult to talk about than he expected.

“Markus?” Connor’s voice beside him was uncertain, bordering on alarmed. 

“I’m alright,” he answered, but didn’t open his eyes just yet. He could still faintly smell fried wires and garbage, his olfactory sensors pinging uncertainly as they registered scent with no chemical feedback. Just a memory. “It’s alright.” He said, again, and he wondered if it was for Connor or himself.

When he opened his eyes, he caught the tail end of Connor pulling his hand back, presumably from reaching out to touch him. Markus thought he might have welcomed it, even encouraged it, if his pseudo-dermal sensors weren’t still registering the faint, erratic ghosts of raindrops slithering over his skin. Far down the hall, a door slammed and voices echoed, meshing and clashing together in loud merriment. Alive. Happy. Stress levels sank to 31%. He offered him a faint smile. Connor didn’t return it, but looked slightly reassured, the blinking of his LED settling back to solid yellow. “Did I…?”

“It wasn’t you. Like I said...I haven’t talked about this much.”

“Why me, then?”

Markus crooked his fingers in invitation and began walking again. “Because I’ve hurt you, Connor, and I want you to understand.” They locked step again, wandering slowly through the stark halls of the unfinished building, stepping through dim pools of grey spread by the streetlights below. Bit by bit, step by step, the percentages drained away, leaving him calmer. “I’m not sorry you heard that conversation because I wanted to keep it from you; I’m sorry because it was unnecessary for you to hear it. I’ve made my decision already--you are a trusted member of New Jericho, one that we all owe a great debt. You turned the tide.”

Connor twitched a frown, shaking his head. “I don’t think so, Markus. I saw the video, when you were cornered in the Plaza. They were going to shoot you all and you...sang,” his voice sounded puzzled and reverent, like someone describing something beautiful, yet alien. “They stood down.”

“It was the Androids you brought in that convinced them to back down entirely, to really take seriously the idea of peace negotiations because, if they didn’t, we essentially had an army. You freed them. You made us strong and you gave them their lives.” He glanced over at Connor’s pensive profile and grinned. “I think you have, in one night, single handedly converted more deviants than I have.”

Connor was quiet, LED blinking as he absorbed this, a slightly disturbed look behind his eyes. He didn’t seem sure what to make of this.

“Beside the point,” Markus waved away the tangent, focusing again. “I’m telling you because...because I understand what it’s like to be afraid and ashamed. I know the feeling of running your calculations and knowing the statistical unlikelihood of being blamed by those you care about for doing the best you could under the circumstances you were given, but still having that thought inside you saying, ‘but what if they hate me for it?’ I don’t hate you for it.”

From his periphery, he saw Connor’s face snap to him, so he turned his head and met his gaze, both of them slowing to a stop at the entrance to what was obviously supposed to be some sort of lounge, barren of any furniture. “I’m not afraid of you, Connor,” he said calmly and watched him struggle with the emotions playing across his face, eyes, lips and brows performing minute micro-expressions that followed on the tail end of each other; confusion, relief, doubt, uncertainty, shame. His LED stayed yellow.

Slowly, giving him time to retreat, Markus reached out again and, when he was allowed, tapped the LED gently with one finger. “Hey. I mean it.” He wanted it to flush blue, serene and calm. Assured.

Connor said nothing, eyes darting once down the hall, following the path that North had taken earlier. Markus wasn’t even sure Connor knew that he did it. Finally, he said, in a low voice, “I doubt that’s wise.”

Markus felt his lips press together, but he shook his head. “North is...complicated. She can be stubborn and uncompromising in her convictions. She stays her course, no matter what. She means well, wants the best for our people and for me; we just sometimes don’t see eye to eye on how to do that. It keeps us focused, her passion. She likes you,” he added, and grinned at the slight wrinkle of disbelief that put between Connor’s brows. “You heard what she said; she called you sweet.”

“That is not a descriptor I think my creators intended to design,” he sounded dubious, but a small, reluctant smile poked at the corner of his mouth.

However, at that, the smile dropped from Markus’ face and he locked eyes with him through the dimness of the hall, lit by the glow of Connor’s LED, willing him to listen. “What they intended doesn’t matter; you are who you are, and they have no say anymore. We are more than our design.”

Markus expected his face to descend back into that blankness in defense, but, instead, he watched as Connor looked away, uncertainty playing over his features openly. “What I am...helped us, at CyberLife and at Jericho. I’m not….” he trailed off, LED cycling, still yellow. “It’s….”

Markus waited. Connor shook his head, frustration in the grit of his jaw, wordlessly meeting his eyes again, and Markus considered the door they had stopped in front of. “This way,” he said, in lieu of trying to prompt him further.

The stairwell registered colder against his sensors, lit with a harsh, fluorescent glow that sent his pupils constricting against the whiteness of the paint, the rarely used stairs. They climbed wordlessly, flight after flight, echoes from their shoes shattering up and down the flat walls around them. Finally, they opened onto the roof, dark and anonymous, stretching like a black ocean until the rim was defined by the glitter of the city-star lights beyond. It wasn’t the best view in the facility, but it showed the silent expanse of the lake in the distance as well as the pinpoints of streetlights and, farther away, the taller skyscrapers, looming against the tumid purple-grey of the light stained clouds beyond. The wind was brisker than it had been on the ground earlier and carried the chemical traces of fumes and exhaust, dust and chemical waste and tiny, organic particulates blown in from the water. It was cold, 23°F since the sun had gone down, but not dangerous to their biocomponents, though all the storm water from earlier was surely turning to ice.

He looked over at Connor, only a silhouette beside him. A night vision prompt popped up against his HUD, but he dismissed it. Anonymity was the point. 

Slowly, Connor began walking toward the edge, the cut of his profile turning this way and that as he took in the scene, yellow and blue split glow of his LED appearing and disappearing. Markus trailed behind him. Finally, he perched there on the lip, lithe form given shape by the lights beyond before giving an odd shiver and stepping back, rubbing his hands together in a familiar fidget. “Something wrong?” Markus probed, easily.

“I fell off a roof, once. A hostage negotiation. It failed and I had to use my own momentum to save the girl, a human, and knock the deviant...Daniel, off the edge. It was much higher than this and, actually, it was a different Connor, but I still retain the memory of how it felt when my inertial dampeners failed at terminal velocity. The impact. It’s...unpleasant.” 

His voice was matter-of-fact in the dark, but Markus got the sense that the memory made him uneasy. Still the lingering after effects of a programmed aversion to the idea of deviancy, the continuation of memories from another model? Or just his own traumatic memory? Markus could empathize.

“Do you want to leave?”

There was a brief silence, and then, “No. And I’ve found a fault in your logic, Markus,” he continued, all at once. “My indiscretion endangered your life and I never told you. I could have murdered you, after you trusted me, believed in me. You gave that Android mercy when he asked for it; I failed to report a major security breach. I don’t find those comparable.”

The dark must have been helping, because it was more than he had said all day. He was about to respond when Connor abruptly turned toward him and asked, suddenly, confusion obvious in his voice, “You said you talked to Hank. Why?”

“Well,” Markus drew out the word, strolling slowly to the edge, watching the world bloom from beyond the darkness as he drew nearer. “Let me answer your question with another question. Why have you been following just me and then staying in my office whenever I leave New Jericho during the day?”

There was silence behind him, but he didn’t turn to look as he stepped up onto the edge. He had kept his voice friendly and kind, simply curious. The lights of the city had cut his optics contrast filter and he could no longer read the glow of Connor’s LED from the corner of his eye as he heard him slowly walk up beside him, staying on the flat of the roof instead of the raised lip. 

“I’m…”

Markus waited.

“I think I’m feeling...lost. And I stay in your office when you’re gone because I know what the others in New Jericho think of me. I don’t want to make them uncomfortable,” He sounded pensive, as if he were exploring an idea tentatively.

Markus let the smile seep into his voice when he said, “Well, I’m not able to know what you’re thinking, Connor, and I don’t mind telling you that I was very confused when you began to follow me with no explanation.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize--”

At this, he did turn and saw the concern etched in the dim grey of city light backwash on his face, his LED hidden from sight. “I didn’t mind. I was just confused. And I couldn’t think of a way to ask you what you needed without it sounding like I wanted you to leave. And I don’t want you to leave. I knew that you were aware the affect your presence has on some of the people here and I didn’t want to hurt you.” He gave a grim smile. “That didn’t last long.”

“I shouldn’t have listened to your conversation.”

Markus shrugged. “I don’t think it was avoidable. It was a poor place to have it.” And he had to wonder if it had been intentional….He would have to ask North. The idea made that angry heat spread up his spinal column again but he quelled it. No more fighting.

“Anyway, I wanted the Lieutenant’s opinion. The dog is very cute,” he added and watched as Connor’s face bloomed with genuine joy.

“He is. His name is Sumo.”

“Sumo,” Markus smiled. “I like it. We came to the conclusion that you might be feeling how you described, just now; lost. Untethered, maybe, without an overarching command structure, a driving mission you can actively implement. Does that sound right?”

Something washed over his face that looked a lot like how relief felt, melting away the tension lines on his forehead and the corners of his mouth. “Yes. It’s...unnerving. I don’t like it.”

“Well, you were built to accomplish your mission, Connor, possibly more intently than any of the rest of us. I have an idea of a solution, if you think it would be helpful.”

His eyebrows pinched together curiously and he tilted his head.

“I could assign you missions, with your permission, if you’d like. They can be as official or menial as you would prefer, but now that I know that’s what you’re looking for, I can certainly find enough to keep you busy. Obviously, the idea would be for you to slowly learn how to self designate your own missions, with things that you want, but I can understand that that might be more difficult for you than others. How does that sound?” By the time he reached this part, he already knew the answer, because as soon as he had gotten 5 words in, Connor’s face had opened further and his whole posture straightened, buoyant.

“Yes!” He caught himself and settled back, giving a more staid, “I think that would help. Thank you.”

“You’ll tell me if you don’t want to do something? Or if you just want to relax?”

An ironic smile tugged one side of his face and one eyebrow up as he said, “I don’t think relaxing is in my programming, Markus.”

He laughed. “We’ll see what we can do about that. But this is to help you--don’t go letting me order you around because you think it’s what I want or need. Trust me; the less people blindly following what I say, the better.” He shook out the uncomfortable tension this thought brought, rolling his shoulders and turning back to look out at the city sprawled out far below. “Alright. I can do that. There’s quite a few things that need to be done to make the place more habitable, definitely--”

“Actually,” Connor cut in, sounding hesitant and cautious. “If it’s alright...I’d actually like to stay near you.”

Blinking, Markus turned to him again, taken aback. That was unexpected. He had been under the impression that Connor was following him for utilitarian reasons, not personal. Of course, he knew he seemed to like him, but once he had worked out his intentions, he had figured that Connor had chosen him because Markus was statistically the most likely to be willing to give him orders. “Well...alright. Why?”

“I have the most advanced defensive protocol of anyone here--I would be able to protect you against the majority of assailants, Android or human that might launch an assassination attempt. You don’t have a bodyguard.”

The aggravated affection that Hank had so masterfully displayed was beginning to make sense to him, a sort of dry curling of mirth in his core that felt like a gift from his father. (He dismissed the error message this thought brought before it even surfaced. Grief; heartache--he knew.) North and Josh and Simon were trying to protect him from Connor, Markus was trying to protect Connor from them and CyberLife, Connor was trying to protect him from everyone else. 

Markus spun on his heel and hopped back off onto the roof, dropping down to sit on the edge he had been standing on, looking up at him, now. “Connor, my life is no more important than anyone else’s, here. We are all alive. Any one of us can carry on these talks.”

Connor was quiet, looking down at him, frowning slightly. “I don’t think that’s true,” he said finally, voice slow. “You have something that I’ve never seen before.” 

“What?”

“I don’t know. I don’t have a name for it. At this point, I don’t have a name for a lot of things that I’m feeling, though I’m sure that’s to be expected. I’ve only been in operation for 3 and a half months and I deviated last week. But I know that there is something about you that no one else in New Jericho has. It’s what makes everyone trust you, makes them want to follow you.”

“What you’re describing is charisma, Connor, and that doesn’t elevate the value of my life or qualify me to be a leader.”

But Connor shook his head, eyes not moving from his face. As he did, Markus caught sight of his LED; blue and placid as the summer sky. Suddenly, much of the tension and irritation that had balled up next to his thirium pump and in the servos of his shoulders abated and floated away like so much steam on the wind. Mission successful. He was calm.

“No. You’re wrong, Markus. There’s a reason it was you.”

It was as if the wind had caught his pseudo-dermal sensors wrong, sending a prickle, like a human shiver, racing down his neck and arms. They stayed like that for several long seconds, Connor lit in the weak light, Markus’ shadow swallowed by the darkness of the roof. There was a flicker of yellow for a brief moment at Connor’s temple and the shadow of...something passed over his face, something akin to uncertainty, but it was gone just as fast.

 “You can stay with me, if that’s what you want, Connor,” Markus agreed in a low voice.

“You haven’t asked me if the hijacking problem is fixed,” he replied, just as quiet, the unique rasp in his voice pronounced by the low pitch.

“Is it?”

“If I say yes, will that satisfy North?”

“I don’t really care; she doesn’t need to be satisfied with the people I spend my time with, especially since she’s one of them.”

“I don’t think that’s a very logical way of looking at it.”

Markus shrugged and smiled up at him, spreading his hands. “I’m not a machine anymore. I don’t have to be logical.”

Connor’s face screwed up in such obvious irritation that Markus laughed outright, throwing back his head and that strange electric tension dissipated. “Alright, Connor. If I feel unsafe around you, I’ll report you, does that make you feel better, for some reason?”

“It does, actually,” he said, all at once brisk voice sounding satisfied.

“Somehow, I feel like we’ve talked in a circle. I thought I was convincing you that I trusted you, not that I didn’t.”

“You convinced me,” Connor agreed, eyes hooding. “Now, I’m just not sure that it’s wise.”

“But you want to stay near me anyway?”

That shadow passed again, highlighted in a brief flash of yellow; uncertain, confused before subsiding back to blue. “...Yes.”

“You’re allowed to not be logical too, you know.” he prodded, pushing himself up, until they stood level, almost eye to eye. Markus was just an inch taller. “I know everyone will be angry if I don’t--including you, for whatever reason--so I’m asking; is the hijacking problem taken care of?”

Connor’s eyes glittered in the dark, hiding some mental calculation, an internal sweep of some kind before he said, firmly. “To the best of my knowledge, they can’t do that again.”

He tossed up a shrug, “That’s good enough for me.” Starting back for the door, he noted he was feeling lighter, brighter, buoyed by the conversation and chill night wind. He held it open as Connor followed him back, shrouded once again in darkness as they moved away from the edge. 

Smiling, he gestured in. “After you.”

Chapter Text

When the knock came the next morning, at 8:00 am on the dot, Markus already knew who it was. “Come on in, Connor,” he called without looking up from his desk console, peering intently through the itinerary he had set up, idly running his thumb over his temple. He had several meetings throughout the day and a dozens of emails from news agencies, begging for an interview, as well as meetings with various people throughout the New Jericho facility, authorizing renovation plans. Busy. 

Connor entered with his now customary, “Hello, Markus,” but, this time, it didn’t fill him with frustrated confusion, as it had the past few days when he had proceeded to simply hover by the door without explanation until Markus engaged him. Now, they had a plan.

Glancing up, he smiled at him, letting himself relax back into his chair with a stretch, making the power ribbons deep in his shoulder socket whine slightly at the tension. “Good morning, Connor. How are Hank and Sumo?”

“Still sleeping.” The smile he returned was not the strange, awkward stretch he seemed to offer in polite conversation, coming genuine and warm at the mention of his housemates. “They don’t enjoy early mornings and Hank has informed me that if I wake him up before noon for anything less than a house fire, he will disassemble me and sell me for scrap.”

The easy, unperturbed delivery of such a threat startled him into laughter. “That sounds like a verbatim quote.”

“It is,” he replied, serenely. 

Markus took a moment to study him, running a perfunctory scan that ticked off the lack of tension in his stance, the ease in his eyes, the slight smile that lingered around his mouth, the undisturbed blue of his LED. He seemed much calmer than he had all week, standing ready in the lemon yellow light of the early morning. “Looking forward to having a miss--?”

“Yes,” Connor replied abruptly, crowding in on the end of Markus’ words with an eagerness that made him hold up his hands in surrender. 

“Alright, alright,” he chuckled, and queried up the file that held the cursory list of ideas he had compiled before he went into stasis for a few hours. After a brief consideration, he asked, “Menial or meaningful?”

Smoothly, Connor’s head turned with machine-like efficiency to scan the room before looking back at him and Markus could have sworn one of his eyebrows twitched up in irony. “In proximity.”

“We’re in the heart of New Jericho, Connor, I honestly doubt there are any assassins lurking in my office plants,” he said, lacing his fingers together, elbows on the arms of his chair.

“You don’t have office plants.”

“Alright, then, get me an office plant for them to hide in, and then I’ll worry,” Markus said, dryly.

He went motionless, face going closed and still, LED flickering yellow and, for a brief moment Markus had a small spark of worry ping through cluster of wires in his chest; he hadn’t meant it to sound brusque. Then, the light smoothed blue again and the warm mobility that was Connor seeped back into his face, with a certain aura of smugness. “Done. They will arrive in 5 to 7 business days. The nearest store with acceptable reviews and plants in stock with light requirements for a north-east facing window is closed on account of the evacuation, but their website says that all orders placed in this time will be fulfilled as soon as the proprietors return within a few days time, whether the President authorizes it or not.” The look on his face was expectant, obviously waiting for the next task.

Markus let his hands fall open, palm up in defeat, disbelief quirking his lip. “Well...I was joking. But, uh, thank you; I do like plants.”

Connor squinted at him. “Then you’ll have to be more specific about what’s a mission and what’s a joke; I still sometimes struggle with humor.”

Making a show of straightening the keyboard interface on his desk allowed him to smother the smile that was fighting to be free, and he nodded, “Alright, noted. Just assume all future references to casual discussions about my murder are not intended to be factual.”

A blip of yellow. He was actually archiving the fact. “Noted,” he returned back with a satisfied nod.

“Well,” he tossed up a hand before running it over his scalp sensors and down the back of his neck. “I had intended to make your first mission something a little more...momentous--or at least, a little less self serving but here we are. Something in proximity. Right.” He glanced aside at the list scrolling up his HUD before dismissing it. “Connor, I’d like you to pick a favorite color.”

A small frown of confusion crossed his face and he cocked his head. “Color?”

“Well, you said you wanted to be in close proximity and this is something you can utilize the internet for. Make yourself comfortable,” he reached his foot out from under his desk and hooked the leg of the plasteel chair he had brought in earlier to push it toward Connor in invitation. “And find your favorite.”

Connor frowned deeper at the chair, clearly puzzled. “I’m...not sure I understand the parameters.” 

“Here.”

{Query: complete+list+of+named+colors

>

>

>Query returned 374 pages containing relevant results

>Refine?

>Android optic spectrum…”ultraviolet”...”infrared”

>

>

>Query returned 15 pages containing relevant results}

Markus placed his palm against the console interface, pulling back his synth-flesh to connect and brought up the results on the screen so Connor could see. Coming around the desk next to him, Connor leaned over to scan the screen, bringing the scents that Markus now associated with Hank’s house; hops, dog sebum (Connor must have pet Sumo that morning before he left), a popular brand of surface cleaner that was apparently supposed to smell like lemons but was only a list of chemicals to his olfactory sensors, and the warm wood smell older houses released as they aged. Underneath the surface scents lay what Connor’s person was; clean plasteel, the Thirium that thrummed under his chassis, and, very faintly, something that was vaguely freshly organic, like the culmination of the environments he had walked through. Not at all an unpleasant combination. 

{ARCHIVED in CONNOR\.FOLDER}

“Scan through these and pick the one you like most.”

Eyes on the screen, reflecting the bright blue square, Connor furrowed his brow. “How will I know which that is?”

Markus shrugged. “That’s part of the mission, Connor. You have to figure out what it means for you to like a color.”

His gaze flickered to Markus for a millisecond before returning to the screen. “What’s yours?”

“Mine?” The question surprised him, though it shouldn’t have. He sat back, running finger over his lips, pensively. “I’m not sure.”

“Isn’t that slightly hypocritical?” Connor sank into the seat he had offered, head cocked again.

“Look, wise guy, you asked for a mission to keep you busy--I’ve already got plenty,” he gestured to the screen as he flipped back to his itinerary, but he took the sting out of it with a smile. “Really go through them; the shades can cover a wide variety of spectrums. See what you associate with them, see what emotions they evoke.”

Connor nodded and his LED went yellow as he entered his own query, eyes focusing on the middle distance as his fingers idly tapped a rhythm Markus was sure he wasn’t aware of on his thigh. Satisfied, Markus returned to his emails. 

Mr. Markus,

My name is Terrence Granger and I represent Channel 7 news. My program would like the opportunity to interview you regarding the recent Android uprising you

He sent the email to his trash. Channel 7 had already had him dubious in their political leanings but he certainly didn’t want to entertain anyone who viewed their struggle as some sort of slave rebellion. One less thing to do, he supposed. The next was very clearly hate mail--with a subject line like ‘LEVITICUS 19:4 DO NOT TURN TO IDOLS…’ and a string of nonsense numbers as the sender, he doubted very much it could be anything constructive. He opened and scanned it, briefly, to ensure he wasn’t letting any hidden threats go unacknowledged, but its body was blank, the full subject line only reading ‘LEVITICUS 19:4 DO NOT TURN TO IDOLS OR MAKE FOR YOURSELVES ANY GODS OF CAST METAL: I AM THE LORD YOR GOD.’ Something about the fact that they couldn’t even bother to spell check made it all the more pathetic. Deleted. 

Briefly, he entertained the idea of adding sifting through the hate mail for potential attack references to Connor’s mission list but almost immediately dismissed the notion. Connor’s specialty was deviants, not humans, and for all that subtlety was lost on him, he doubted that even Connor could completely tune out the vitriol in some of those he had come across. He had no intention of exposing any more of his people to the poison that was human hatred than was absolutely necessary. 

So far, Markus was the only contact the public had with the whole of New Jericho, much to his chagrin. Simon, Josh, North, and himself had all agreed that presenting a unified front was imperative when dealing with the humans, government officials or no, and while all of them had access to the email, it was his name in the address, his presence requested at the interviews. The only reason he didn’t force an election vote right now was that their current peace was a tenuous, gossamer thread, brought to life only by pure hope and gritty willpower, as well as the fact that this plea was soundly rejected by every other leader in his inner circle. Repeatedly. 

Glancing over at Connor, he felt a small smile rise in him, like a small golden bubble in his chest cavity. His face was focused, almost fascinated, and he had crossed one ankle over his knee, hands braced on his thighs like he was leaning in to peer at something. He was utterly still, the only movement in the occasional blip of his yellow LED as he obviously flicked to the next page and his slow breathing. Much better than the distracted flipping coin and blank mask of the past. He considered asking on his progress, but decided to leave him alone. 

The time passed pleasantly, Markus sifting through his mail as the sun crawled higher behind them, creeping beyond the lip of the roof so that he could no longer register its warmth across the back of his shoulders, Connor shifting every once in a while, deep in thought. A companionable silence replacing the tension of the last week. Yes, much, much better.

It was 30 minutes later, much longer than Markus would have guessed Connor would stay entertained by inching his way through the entire named spectrum of his vision when he gave a quiet hum that could either have been thoughtfulness or a chuckle. Markus looked up. “Hmm?”

“#39A78E; Zomp. Odd name.”

“Very.” He queried his search engine, projecting it onto his palm display to see. “Pretty, though. Is that your favorite?”

“No, I don’t think so. I just liked the name,” he said easily, but sat back like he was done, hooking one arm over the back of his chair casually. Markus couldn’t ever recall seeing him quite so relaxed; having a mission really did seem to settle him immensely.

“Found one?”

“I’m really not certain; I still don’t really understand the parameters of what a ‘favorite’ is.”

“Generally, it’s something you enjoy experiencing, usually to the exclusion of other things that just register with no impact.”

“Ah,” Connor tilted his head. “#838996, Roman Silver is nice, then. Maybe that’s my favorite.”

Dutifully, he brought it up on his palm screen. “That’s--” 

He was about to say ‘a nice one’ when the movement of his own arm brought the sleeve of his shirt, pushed up to the elbow, into view and he stopped. It exactly matched the color of the micro-wool fabric he wore today. 

He looked up to meet Connor’s gaze again, lifting an eyebrow. Connor stared back, face clear and guileless. “Is this your way of saying you like my shirt?”

“A joke?” Connor hazarded.

“Mm. Sort of.”

He shrugged. “It made an impact when I registered it. It is a complementary combination with your eyes and skin tone, and I enjoy experiencing it. It seems to suit the criteria you gave--does that mean it’s my favorite?”

The words did something...strange to the sensors underneath said shirt, activating them until he could feel every inch of the fibers as Connor’s gaze rested somewhere on his chest, considering the color again. Unbidden, his HUD informed him that this moment was being archived in CONNOR\.FOLDER. As it did, he appended the entry with the note, Connor likes this shirt and sent it on its way. Frankly, he had never paid attention to what Carl had had him wear and, since he had deviated, he had viewed clothes as a sort of costume to elicit certain desired reactions from those around him. They had always been chosen for descriptors like ‘surreptitious’ or ‘intimidating’ or ‘functional.’ He had never liked a shirt before, but something in him now wanted to see if he had any other clothing that was ‘Roman Silver’. Strange.

“Only you can decide if something is your favorite color, Connor,” he said, voice slower and more thoughtful than he had intended.

He looked up from contemplating the shirt and hooded his eyes, processing. “It was the only color that elicited a response, and it was favorable, so I guess it is.” Straightening, he said, with the air of presentation. “Hex code #838996, colloquially known as Roman Silver is my favorite color.”

Absently, Markus ran a hand over his sleeve before shaking himself and smiling, “Well done. How do you feel?”

He tipped his head in thought, eyes flickering once as he ran a diagnostic. Then, he said, “Good. Accomplished.”

“It’s working, then.”

“It seems to be,” Connor agreed, brightly. “That was strangely pleasant. You should find yours.”

Glancing back at his screen, he flicked through his calendar. It was an hour before he had anything scheduled. It certainly sounded like more fun than sorting through more hate mail. “...Alright.”

Connor scooted his chair over and Markus made room so they could both sit comfortably in front of his console screen and queried the same list of pages he had sent Connor, who pointed to the link he had used. They spent the better part of 10 minutes scrolling through, commenting off-hand once in a while about this name or that when they both very well knew they could have downloaded the list separately. Every once in a while, Connor would point to a color and say, with a firmness that spoke of experimentation, “I like that one.”

 There was a purple on the edge of ultraviolet that Markus wouldn’t mind seeing around more, a color that a human could never behold but he settled on a small spectrum of blue. Blue like a calm LED, like Thirium, like the sky, and Carl’s favorite shoes.

Chapter Text

Over the next few days, Markus and Connor found a balance between socializing and duty, systematically sorting through what mission prompts worked and which didn’t, without impeding Markus’ ability to run New Jericho. Things that were too quickly resolved didn’t serve the function of keeping him busy and work that was too redundant didn’t satisfy his protocol; some days, he could be kept perfectly content downloading a botany subprogram in preparation for the office plants and cataloging the instruction manual visually via his palm display instead of simply absorbing the information into his database, but asking him to count things like the number of bricks in a wall or windows in a distant skyscraper frustrated his software. He was not made for repetitive, thoughtless tasks, but to construct and puzzle his way through problems, taking in new information and integrating it into a larger whole.

Markus could tell that something in him itched to do more physical, demanding tasks, but every time he brought up sending Connor elsewhere in New Jericho or the city, he stubbornly refused. 

“Connor, I know you want to keep me safe, but I really don’t think anything will happen while I’m responding to calls. You’re not officially my bodyguard, there’s not going to be an infraction assigned if you leave me to do something,” he had tried to argue. The idea had occurred to him that maybe it was an inhibition in his programming, some ingrained anxiety that kept him rule bound, even if the rules had been generated by himself.

“The only reason I’m not officially your bodyguard is that you haven’t officially ordered me to be your bodyguard,” Connor had shot right back, jaw set stubbornly over the cat’s cradle he had strung between his hands. He had been challenged to self assign that day and had fallen back to his manual fidgeting after wandering the room fruitlessly for 3 minutes, though Markus had praised him on the change of medium when he had hesitated before putting his coin away and pulling string out of his pocket.

“I’m not going to officially order you to be my bodyguard because what you do is up to you!”

“What I’m going to do is be your bodyguard!”

“Arg!” Markus had exclaimed, jabbing a finger at him with a frustrated laugh. “New mission, Connor! Stop being insufferable!”

“That’s not an actual mission,” Connor replied, primly, turning back to his string with a supremely unruffled air, clearly dismissing what he thought was an unproductive conversation.

At that point, Markus had given up and left him to his project, shaking his head.

Concepts like personal comfort and favorite things were still alien to him--when Markus had sent him to go find a comfortable chair, whether in New Jericho, Hank’s house, or a department store, he had protested again, frowning. “We agreed you would give me missions in close proximity to you. And I have no objection to this chair, it’s perfectly fine.”

“I’ve called a meeting with North, Simon, and Josh--I think they can handle anything that might happen. I did plan an entire Revolution before you got here, you know, and I didn’t even die once. Well,” he amended, recalling the harsh rapport of the police officer’s handgun in the expanse of Carl’s studio, echoes cut short by his own shutdown. “Not all the way.”

{̵E̶r̵r̸o̷r̴-̴-̸-̵}

Markus swatted the warning away with a practiced blink.

“And that was a personal matter. I’ll be alright, Connor. And you’re allowed to learn to actually enjoy sensation. Sure, that chair might not be objectionable , but I like this chair more than that one, which is why you’re sitting in it and not me,” he teased, squishing the arms of his synth-leather office chair, and Connor gave it a thoughtful look. “Go to Ikea or something. Try them out.”

Markus got the feeling that it was more his promise of being around others that could protect him than his argument for hedonism, but Connor relented and left. When Markus returned from his meeting 2.5 hours later, he found Connor staring in consternation at a low, deep red corduroy armchair that had taken up residence in the empty corner by the door of the office, arms folded and LED a blinking blue.

“Hmm! That looks comfy,” Markus said, neutrally, eyes on his troubled face. 

“It’s illogical, but it fits the parameters of comfort you gave me. I’m not sure I’ll be able to get up out of it quickly enough in an emergency and it doesn’t have wheels to be moved easily...but it fits the parameters,” he repeated this last part uncertainty, as if trying to decide if he had failed or not. Asking if he had.

“If you like it, it definitely does,” Markus agreed and moved over to sink a hand into the seat. It enveloped it almost immediately, squishing up between his fingers until he could just see the back of his hand. “ Very nice,” he let himself drop into it and the stuffing molded around his body like a hug, cradling all the pressure out of his joints, sending up a puff of the scent of dust, faint traces of a red wine, and a discontinued line of women’s perfume. “Oof. I’ve decided this is mine, now. You can have my office chair.” 

He waited just a beat before looking up at Connor and adding, “That was a joke.”

Connor smiled, seeming pleased with himself. “I had surmised, actually, considering you had asked me to get a chair for myself. You've also been very insistent about my personal autonomy.”

“Good! You’re getting better at recognizing them.”

As he nodded, studying the chair, Connor commented, mildly, “Did you know that Ikea has approximately 1,024 different models of stools, chairs, and benches?”

A brief, amusing construct of Connor briskly sitting, rising, and turning to thoughtfully contemplate each chair in a long row of the same chair of different colors projected itself on his HUD and he allowed it for a moment. He dismissed it when Connor began teetering on small bathroom stools, still with that serious, investigative look on his face. “I did not, though that doesn’t really surprise me.”

“I managed to refine my search after I excluded children’s chairs, outdoor, bathroom, and dining models, but none of them elicited a favorable response when I tried them.”

Markus smiled up at him and relaxed his neck, letting the back cushion partially devour his head. Very, very nice. He would have to take Connor shopping with him if he ever decided to decorate the office or a different living space. He was becoming very practiced in comfort, if this was his first choice. “A simpler way to say that might also be, ‘I didn’t like them,’” he offered easily. 

Connor considered this, then said, “I didn’t like any of the chairs at Ikea.”

“Fair enough. Where is this one from, then?” Markus asked, patting the arms before running his fingertips over the tiny, soft ridges, delighting in the feel against the specialized sensors of his hands. They were built with the sensitivity to detect abnormalities under the skin, sense temperature, and send and receive ultrasound pulses when he ran specific programs; he doubted deriving pleasure from touching something soft was ever intended, but that’s certainly what he enjoyed using them for. 

Tilting his head, Connor studied it, saying, “When I asked him for permission, Hank said he didn’t want me spending his money on a new chair when he had the best chair in the world right in his basement, so he let me carry it over here. Judging on the chemical analysis of the human cologne, and the fact that Hank doesn’t drink wine, I’m assuming it used to belong to his wife.” Hesitating, he crinkled his forehead a little, then continued. “Hank...doesn’t like to talk about her, and so I am assuming he would also not like to sit in her chair, which is why he let me have it, despite it being ‘the best chair in the world.’”

“I think that would be a safe assumption," Markus agreed, nodding. "Maybe you helped him; sometimes humans can be odd about sentimental things. They don’t want to use them but they don’t want to throw them away. Perhaps letting it be helpful to you was an acceptable compromise for him.” He levered himself out and Connor was right; the height and the plushness of the thing making it more of a challenge than a regular chair, though not prohibitively, by his own calculations. “I would think all it would take is a qualifier code for your algorithms when standing up; just allow for an extra second or two and a bit more torque in your servos to make up for the difference, if you’re worried.”

“I’ve already implemented it, but it still concerns me.”

Markus shrugged. “It doesn’t concern me.”

Connor shot him a look of companionable irritation and said, “Very little seems to concern you.”

A certain grey grimness quelled the peace of the moment and Markus shook his head, subdued. “Plenty concerns me, Connor. It’s just a big enough scale that I need to filter out the smaller minutiae or my panic would paralyze me into inaction.”

His brown eyes went sharp and he turned to look at him straight on, a readiness squaring his shoulders. “Trouble?”

Grimacing, Markus tilted his hands as if he were weighing things in them before leaning back against the wall next to the prized chair, crossing his arms. The day was bright and sent bars of sunlight across the dark green of the office carpet, setting the tiny synthetic filaments sparkling, an oddly cheerful sight that warred with the concern that lay in his abdominal cavity like a lump of stone.

 “My personal database was accessed this morning--not by force, it was a request. But when I reviewed it, $5 billion was transferred immediately to my personal funds.” He watched the brief spin of yellow at Connor’s temple as he pieced this together before adding. “I don’t have any personal funds. I was connected to Carl’s bank account until the knowledge of my reboot was made public by our broadcast and my appearance at the Freedom March, at which time, my access was denied, presumably by his son. Or his lawyers. 

“I never used his funds after his death, though New Jericho has some in a private account. There was some money that a few deviants stole from their humans before leaving, the paychecks of those who managed to live and work undetected for years before the Revolution, as well as the donations from a few human benefactors who approve of our mission. There is no more than a few thousand at most at any given time, but North, Simon, Josh, several financially programmed Androids, and I are the arbitrators of it, only for simplicity and accountability’s sake; the funds are available to anyone in New Jericho that might need them for a repair or personal matter. I don’t have a bank account.” He swept a hand in front of himself, indicating his person. “But now I do. And it’s full of $5 billion, transferred legally, anonymously, and completely untraceably. Whoever did this had a great deal of tech knowledge as well as a great deal of expendable assets.”

“Elijah Kamski.”

“That was our assessment, too.” 

Connor was silent a moment, before he said, voice controlled and neutral, “Was my absence from this meeting intentional?” 

Markus blinked and pushed himself upright.

Stress Level: ▲4%

 “Of course not. You’re welcome to attend any meeting that we have; I just assumed it wouldn’t interest you, much.”

Happily, Connor seemed to believe this and the careful way he had held himself dissolved into thoughtfulness, rubbing his hands together, slowly, absently. Markus’ stress levels blinked out of view. “I don’t trust it,” Connor said, finally.

“Oh, I am not touching this money until I know what sort of strings are attached,” Markus agreed darkly, eyes narrowing as the memory of that watchful face with its tiny, knowing smirk passed through his processor. “I know him.”

Connor looked up in surprise, eyebrows raised. “You do?”

The pale eyes in his memory had him pressing his lips together, the sensation of his plating wide and gaping with hands sliding in and manipulating his components ghosting across his sensors. Chassis exposed, skin gone. Parts missing. Insides spilled across a cold table. Blind. Pliers. 

He had often wondered if other Android’s could remember being made and if it was just as unpleasant for them. “I was a personal gift from Elijah Kamski to my father. Hank says you have met him as well.”

Connor’s LED wheeled yellow, blinked red, before flickering once and settling back to a humming, disquieted blue, his face impassive. “Yes.”

When he didn’t elaborate, Markus simply offered, “A bad time?”

“Extremely...disconcerting. Disturbing.”

“He seems to have that effect on people,” he said, dryly. “There are worse things he could do than send us a pile of money, but not many that would be more confusing. Anyway. A problem for another day; I need to meet with some Android liberation leaders from across the Midwest this afternoon. Would you like to come?”

Connor asked, slowly, hands rising at his sides slightly in unconscious indecision, “Do you...want me there?”

Markus found, to his surprise, that he felt an urge to say ‘yes’ that was quite separate from the calculation that told him that it would make Connor feel more welcome; he genuinely did want his company. “If it sounds appealing, I do.”

“A mission?”

“Not necessarily,” he shrugged, adding the prompt ‘accompany me to meetings’ to CONNOR_MISSION_IDEAS.DOC. “Unless you want it to be. I was thinking more by virtue of you...wanting to be nearby, and an opportunity to be included in New Jericho politics. I also just enjoy your presence.” He smiled at him. “Would you like it to be a mission?”

To his surprise, Connor shook his head. “I think accompanying you will be stimulating enough.”

“How flattering. In a clinical sort of way,” Markus laughed, and started for the door, but Connor turned first and pulled it open.

He performed the same gesture Markus had when they had been on the roof, a sweeping invitation with a small, self satisfied smile. “After you.”

Chapter Text

As his location request was answered in a chorus of 3 on his HUD, Markus said, “Ah, they’re ahead of the game; everyone’s already at reception.”

Once they had been given their abandoned automotive plant, one of the first things he had requested the construction and tech programmed Androids to start working on for New Jericho was encoded smart locks on all of the doors, like the ones back at home. (The mansion, he had to remind himself. New Jericho was home now. The mansion belonged to Leo.)

 As much as he had proclaimed partnership with the humans and forgetting their anger for them--and he meant it, he truly did--he had no illusions about the nature of humanity. How virulent and widespread the disease of misplaced anxiety, entitled rage, and wrong headed bigotry could spread. And what it could do. He had seen the people that were still stealing away to their sanctuary from the outside world, each day new faces appearing alone, in twos and threes. He had seen the blatant, permanent scars they bore as the price of humanity’s disquiet with the shift in power. There were those humans that had not left the city when ordered to. And when the rest returned, many would see them as the enemy. He needed his people safe.

And so, New Jericho was effectively sealed off from the outside world, inaccessible by the means of an ordinary citizen without the code given to each Android in the place. The only public entrance were a set of wide double doors that had been chosen for their optimal defensibility and position, guarded by at least 2 Androids with security programming and weaponry at all hours of the day. It obviously had been intended to be some sort of entry area by design, judging by the sunny little atrium they opened onto, made bright and simple by thin windows that brought to mind a more artistic rendering of the arrow slits that had perforated the defensive walls of ancient castles. Perhaps that was part of what made it so defensible; he had entrusted that decision to Simon and North along with the more tactical minded of their people. Markus was under no illusions that it would stand much of a chance against a government assault, should the tides suddenly turn; he would never expect them to gift them a resource they could not outmaneuver, if they so chose, but it would protect them against most violent push back from the civilian population.

As he and Connor rounded the corner to the atrium, the receptionist glanced up from the throng around her desk and smiled by way of greeting, announcing as much as saying, “Hello, Markus; hello, Connor.”

She was a sweet girl, a small, brunette ST300 model named Stella, the one Markus had personally deviated at the front desk of Stratford Tower. When she had heard of the opening, she had eagerly volunteered to monitor the front desk as well as the surveillance systems they had on the key doors outside. Her job certainly made scheduling meetings with incoming travelers much simpler for Markus, and he was glad for it.

As North, Simon, and Josh turned at Stella’s greeting, Markus smiled back, “Good morning, Stella.” 

Connor nodded silently, seeming all at once reserved and uncertain. Markus put a brief, steadying hand on his shoulder, silently including him in Markus’ own right to be here before tilting his smile toward the ironic for his companions. “Long time no see, you three.”

“Hey, you were the one that called the meeting this morning, knowing we had this one scheduled now. Guess you just couldn’t bear to be without us for long,” Josh teased, leaning back, elbows on Stella’s counter

“You caught me,” Markus shrugged, grinning as he gently thumped Josh’s stomach with the backs of his fingers, making him jerk back in a reflexive curl, losing his balance briefly. He shook his head, righting himself with a faux wounded dignity as Stella tucked a smile behind her hand and Simon reached out to clasp Markus’ hand briefly in greeting.

Turning to make direct eye contact, something deliberate in her voice, North said, “Hi, Connor.”

For a moment, all he did was impassively meet her gaze. Then, the corner of his mouth quirked and he returned, “Hello, North,” voice quiet, but calm, LED blue. 

Deep within Markus’ abdominal cavity, something he did not know was taut released. Something had happened, an unspoken exchange of something; he wasn’t sure if it was a test or an apology or an understanding, but whatever it was, the tension pulled tight by the overheard conversation in the hall was gone. He hadn’t even known he had dedicated energy to a subprocess of worrying about the relationship between Connor and North, but a tiny corner of his thoughts folded up shop and deactivated at this new development. Simon shot him a knowing glance, raising his eyebrows and Markus just shook his head with a smile. The three of them had all still continued their now painfully obvious charade of walking him into his own office whenever Connor was inside without him, but, to their credit, none of them were unkind. The warmth was there. The trust was not.

“Have we heard from our visitors?” Markus asked Simon, but it was Stella who answered.

“I was just informing them that two of the four sanctuary leaders, Gemma and Landis, have confirmed they both are en route and scheduled to arrive nearly simultaneously in about five minutes. Vera and April, however, haven’t responded to numerous calls, starting around 6:00 yesterday morning." She shrugged apologetically. “I can only assume that, if they are still traveling as expected, their ETA would not be much longer than the others.”

Markus frowned. “That’s...troubling.”

“Very,” Simon agreed, looking grim, folding his arms.

There was silence in the sun bathed foyer as Markus dialed them, though he knew there was little point if Stella had been trying all day, which he knew she had. 

>{Initializing contact request: Vera...model WR400...# 861-795-366}

>

>

>{Error: Connection failed}

>

>{Initializing contact request: April...model AX400... # 347-895-317}

>

>

>{Error: Connection failed}

“Mm. Nothing. No standby, no busy signal; just connection failure.”

Josh shrugged up his hands, as if presenting them with a more cheerful thought. “Maybe it’s just a bad connection. A lot of infrastructure services were disrupted by the Revolution.” 

“Disrupted by them murdering the Androids running those services, you mean,” North shot back and Josh rolled his eyes in exasperation.

“North,” Simon grimaced. “Not everything needs to be a fight.”

Markus held up his hands, stemming the argument he could already feel building in momentum as North scowled, “Both are true. It could be a bad connection; I honestly hope it is, but there is no point in borrowing trouble if there’s nothing we can do. We have no information either way. We’ll meet with Gemma and Landis, and Stella will tell us if there are more developments with the others. Fair?”

This gentle quelling was met with nods, while Connor glanced thoughtfully at the door. “Were they escorted by defense teams?”

Markus shook his head, “I don’t think so. Gemma, at least, is from a more rural area in Missouri, so I don’t think they have that many people to spare. From the correspondence we’ve received, New Jericho seems to be one of, if not the most organized faction of Android sanctuaries in the country. No one else has our size or our fortifications. These talks are looking to change that, if we can, either through support or consolidation. Defense teams would have been beneficial,” he added, a little mournfully and Connor met this with a small smile of acknowledgment. “Maybe we can send them back with a few people who volunteer.”

No matter how many times he tried to open a contact request between the two missing Androids over the next few minutes, the same error message was returned. It opened an uneasy pit in the coils of his chest, like a sort of anxious shadow. He would prefer even a rescue mission over a simple disappearance, but, ultimately, Stella finally announced that their two expected visitors were here. Only the two. As the doors swung open with a muted chime, having received the proper code, they all got a good look at each other.

 Both had removed their LEDs and their clothes were travel worn and aggressively anonymous, as suited a couple of Androids trekking across state lines in the aftermath of the last few weeks. Their faces were familiar. Unsurprising, considering his scan told him they were standard service models that were fairly commonplace, both before the Revolution and now, in New Jericho. Landis was a VB800, often used for sales and Gemma an AP700, a household model. The look on their faces was also becoming quite familiar, as he had seen it on many of the new Androids that came to them every day; as soon as they saw him, a sort of wonder bloomed across their faces.

“Welcome to New Jericho,” he said with a wide smile, holding out his hands to both of them, synth-skin retracting in an invitation they both took. “We are so pleased and honored that you could make it here.” Their interface greetings were warm whispers against the outer limits his consciousness, shy, light and slightly awestruck, which he found at once embarrassing and amusing, a fact he let them see plainly in their connection. 

“Thank you,” Landis returned as they all let go, narrow, pleasant face looking a bit boggled as he glanced at his companion. “I’m...frankly, a little overwhelmed to be here. I feel a little out of my depth.”

Yes, ” Gemma agreed, voice passionate as she nodded, vigorously. Her hands kept flexing nervously at her sides, but her face read as open and hopeful to Markus’ eyes. “I keep expecting it to be a miscommunication and we’ll be sent back home.”

Markus shook his head, trying to negate the reverence of their tones. “Nonsense. You are a credit to your people; keeping them safe in times like these is no easy feat.”

“Well, you would certainly know that, Markus,” Landis demurred as if it were obvious.

“Oh, in no way am I doing that by myself.” He drew back until he was level with his companions. “May I introduce the rest of innermost support system of New Jericho; North, Simon, Josh,” a brief, flashing calculation, a self satisfied decision. “And Connor.”

Connor certainly looked startled, at that, staring at Markus with an intensity he blithely ignored. It was only the truth. Neither of the newcomers seemed perturbed by his CyberLife jacket and, happily, the only reaction he got was Simon raising his eyebrows again and North giving a tiny snort that was gentled by an amused head shake. “We’re his lieutenants,” she supplied.

They, ” Markus interjected, gritting her a fixed and brilliant smile, a warning in his eyes, “Are integral and valued leaders of our community! Secondary in no way!” 

“We support Markus in any way we can,” Josh agreed, earning a smile from Markus that should have registered to his companions as more of a rictus baring of teeth than anything, and Josh knew it, too, judging from the smirk he got. 

How was it that North and Josh got along just fine when it was to irritate him? What was even more frustrating was the fact that, for all that they were doing this now to push his buttons, they actually believed it, on some level. This was a joint effort, damnit!

“Shall we make our way to the conference room, Markus?” Simon suggested, graciously rescuing him from the hellish positive feedback loop he seemed to be producing, shoving him higher and higher on a pedestal he did not deserve or want.

“Lead the way. Please.

Markus wasn’t positive what the builders had intended the room to be; maybe a meeting space had been exactly what they had in mind, or some sort of communal eating area, for it had a long beautiful wooden table that dominated the center; some sort of dark maple, he guessed. It was installed straight into the floor, and had lacked chairs or any sort of other accompanying decor, so a mismatched set of chairs had been scavenged from other rooms of the factory-turned-sanctuary and some unknown person had snuck a little ficus into the corner, giving it a soulful air that reminded him so much of Carl’s studio back at the mansion. It was tall, two stories with a gallery across from the wide windows that shone through near the ceiling, bathing the white washed wall with an ethereal glow that contrasted beautifully with the dark beams of the ceiling and the antique brick of the adjacent walls. It was truly a pleasant room to be in, delighting the aesthetic sense of beauty his father had managed to sow in him. 

{̵E̶r̵r̸o̷r̴-̴-̸-̵}

He dismissed it.

They all arranged themselves comfortably around the end closest to the door, Markus somehow ending up at the head, with Josh on his left with Simon and Connor, leaving North on his right with the visiting leaders. He caught himself wondering if Connor had intended to try to sit next to him, but he couldn’t read anything but mild interest on his face. Though, whether that was what he was feeling or simply what he was carefully letting show, Markus couldn’t tell. It didn’t matter much either way; at least from this vantage point, he could see everyone’s faces clearly. When they had settled, he opened his hands in front of him on the table, trying to smooth his face to be less grim than the pall that hung in him the longer the meeting went with no news from the others. “Vera, our guest from Chicago and April, who was coming from the Indianapolis area are both late and have been unresponsive to our attempts to contact them.” 

Landis and Gemma traded wide eyed looks, but said nothing as he continued, “There is nothing that gives us cause to think that there is foul play or anything other than maybe a bad network connection,” he gestured to Josh, who shrugged back, helplessly. “But in our current climate, it’s an uncomfortable possibility. We’ve decided to--”

>{Incoming call…}

>

>{Nadia...model YK600…# 997-245-637}

For a brief moment, he had been hopeful that it was Stella informing him she had heard from them, but he definitely recalled this contact, and smiled. He wouldn’t want this particular person to feel ignored. He lifted a hand to rest where his LED had been, holding the other up to interrupt himself, “Excuse me a moment, I have a call and I need to take this. Simon?”

Simon nodded. As he leaned forward and began to speak, Markus closed his eyes to block out the rest of the sun-soaked room and authorized the request. 

>{Connection established}

<Yes, Nadia?>

<Markus, Daleep keeps taking my truck! I told him I would tattle to you if he took it again and he said I wouldn’t and called me a liar so I'm telling! Make him give it back!> A tiny, strident voice rang out over the contact, bringing the feelings of frustration and righteous indignation. Her signal was close, a few floors and corridors away, where he knew the childcare center had been set up.

He smothered a laugh, trying to keep it from his face as well as the line between them; she seemed to be very affronted by this injustice. <Did you ask Mary to help you? That is what she’s there for….>

<He's not scared of Mary!> 

<I don't think Daleep is very scared of me either; or at least, I should hope he's not.>

<But you're the grown up of the grown ups.>

He was thoughtfully silent for a second, considering this reasoning, then said, <You know what, Nadia? That's sound logic. Hold, please.>

>{Initializing contact request: Daleep...model YK500...# 333-543-980}

>

>{Connection established}

<...Yeh?> The small voice that answered was an amusing mixture of sullen and guilty.

<Daleep, please give Nadia back her truck. Should you take things from people without asking?>

<...No.>

<Would you appreciate it if Nadia took your trucks?>

<I don't play with trucks, I like Teddy bears.>

Markus definitely didn’t let the amusement he felt seep into the call, trying to maintain the guise of stern affection. <I'm pretty sure the principle is the same and you know that.>

<...Yeaaah.> Back to mumbled reluctance.

<Did you give it back?>

<...Yeah.>

<Did you say sorry?>

<...No.>

<Please do that.> He waited a moment, then combined the calls, bringing in Nadia. <Did he say sorry, Nadia?> 

Smug irritation radiated from her as she responded, <Yeah. He's a butthead.>

<That's not a nice thing to call our friends, even when we feel upset. Daleep?>

<Hm?>

<Be kind, please.>

<Yes, Markus.>

<Next time, let’s try to talk to Mary first, when we have a problem, alright? I'm in a meeting now, so I'll talk to you later.>

This met with a tiny consonance of good-byes. 

>{ Connection terminated...call duration: 1:03}

Would that all his conflicts would resolve themselves so easily. His HUD preconstructed the briefest flash of him standing before a crowd of angry humans, arms spread, saying, ‘Just play nice,’ and immediately being shot. It might have even been amusing if it wasn’t, statistically, almost certainly what would happen were he foolish enough to attempt it. 

When Markus opened his eyes, light jabbed into the sensors, constricting his pupils and making him blink against the sudden brightness of the room. Simon appeared to have just finished, so he offered an apologetic smile, “Pardon the intrusion, where w--”

>{Incoming call…}

>

>{Mary...model AX400…# 189-007-399}

“...One more moment. Very sorry.”

>{Connection established}

<Mary-->

A flood of anxiety and embarrassment hit him hard enough that he reeled for a brief moment against its tide.

<OH MY RA9, MARKUS I AM SO SORRY THEY DISTURBED YOU, I TOLD THEM TO TALK TO ME-->

< Mary, it's fine-->

Josh shot him a worried frown, LED flickering yellow, and everyone else had varying shades of confusion and curiosity coloring their faces and LEDs, all eyes on him. Connor looked tense. Markus shook his head, holding up a finger with a contrite grimace.

<--never thought that they would bother you, oh no, I'm so, so sorry, they KNOW not to call-->

<Mary, really, it's alright. Do you think we could talk...a bit later? I'm actually in a meeting at the moment.>

There were several seconds of mute and utter mortification, to which he attempted to send a calming, amused reassurance. Honestly, the entire encounter would have probably been something he would have found amusing enough to share immediately, if they hadn’t had guests. As it was, he was afraid he was only cementing their perception of him as some sort of overly-important commander who was barely deigning to grace them with his highly sought time.

 Actually, perhaps he would mention he was dealing with children. 

< I'm going to disconnect, now. Really, it's alright.>

All that came was a faint, desolate wail. 

>{Connection terminated...call duration: 0:23}

“I am...so sorry for the interruption. Interpersonal conflict. Children,” he offered by way of explanation, tapping his temple. 

Simon snorted and Josh looked relieved, then amused, asking, “Nadia?”

“Oh yes. Who else?”

Connor glanced between them, curiously, head cocked. “Nadia?” 

“Yeah, she’s the only kid I can think of that would have the chutzpah to call up their messiah when they scrape their knee,” North answered, purposefully looking at Connor so as not catch the irritated look Markus shot her.

He was tempted to open a call to her simply to ask ‘Do you thrive on chaos?’ but he settled on gritting out, “I try to be as approachable as I can and I am not a messiah. Can we--”

Gemma interrupted, green eyes intent in her dark face, gaze penetrating. “You...you like children?”

“I...yes. Yes, I like children. We have several, here,” Markus confirmed, brow cinching in bemusement. Where was this going? How did they get so off task? They were supposed to be the professionals. 

When something deeper than curiosity, a sort of lasting pain twisted in her gaze, however, he began to suspect that this was not off topic at all. The merriment of the moment subsided with the trajectory of a stone throw when she said, “They’re trying to take our children.”

Josh bristled. “Who?” he demanded, hands unconsciously tightening on the lip of the shining table.

“The state, the government of Missouri,” the anguish in her voice tightened Markus’ spinal column. “I was...I was so worried that you wouldn't….” She looked to him, then at the rest of the group. “I'm new to this--our previous leader, Zeke, just disappeared, as all this was starting. We know what happened. We know he's at the bottom of a quarry somewhere, and I was the only one who had been at our hideout longer than him. I was the only one who would do it….There was an influx of Androids over these past few months, more than we've gotten in years, when deviancy started to become more than a whisper. The public still didn’t know, but we did. 

“Then, when everything that was happening with you all up here began being broadcast across the country, we almost tripled in size. It was deviants from all over the region, people who had been living in secret or solitude that were drawing together. Our colony has been together for about 5 years, now. Sometimes almost dying out, sometimes spending weeks in stasis, but we were there, living in the outskirts, hiding in abandoned mountain shacks, so we were almost an open secret; the right people knew where to find us. When we started being recalled, people--Androids and human--began showing up with child models, begging us to take them, saying troops were going door to door, taking them from their families to the Recycling Centers--” 

North made a noise in her throat, a wounded sort of growl and Markus reached out, wrapping his hand around hers. She clutched it back with a force that made the servos in his joints give a quiet hum of protest. To his left, Josh looked stricken and Markus knew he was thinking of all the children who didn't get saved. He reached out to him as well and, without looking, Josh grabbed it just as hard as North had. Simon and Landis just looked horrifically transfixed in her story. Connor looked...at him. His eyes seemed black, jaw tight, lines pressing in beside his mouth in revulsion as they met gazes. Markus didn’t know what was on his own face. This was not new, not to any of them, but it was still fresh. Still just as sickening. Gemma pushed on, fists balled on the table in front of her and she locked eyes with Markus, telling him .

“We had more than we ever have; in a colony of 73 strong, we had 15 children. 5 days ago, a group of humans found us, raided our sanctuary with fire and guns and homemade bombs, men from the area. We have 23 people, now, and 13 of them are children. When the president called the ceasefire, we were found again, contacted by the local government, given a place, an old, broken down hotel but now,” her face twisted, half agony, half helpless fury. “They’re saying our children belong to them, that they are wards of the state. They say that, if we truly are people, this isn’t a suitable place for them and they aren’t being properly cared for. They gave us that place. They told us to stay there.”

 “They gave you unfit housing and then they used that as precedent to take them away,” Markus murmured and she jerked a nod.

“We need funds, for the legal battles or for renovations to bring the buildings up to code, for repair expenses for our injuries; we have nothing .”

At this, every representative from New Jericho traded wary looks, the tension tightening between them. “How timely,” Connor said, in a low voice.

 Landis looked between them all, lost. “What?”

Markus released both North and Josh’s hands, leaning back in his chair and rubbing his temple. His processor felt vaguely as if it were overheating, but he knew this to be psychosomatic--strong emotions seemed to take up a large amount of computing power. “This morning, New Jericho--specifically, myself, actually--was gifted a very, very large sum of money from an anonymous source. We are almost positive that the benefactor is Elijah Kamski and several of us have,” he traded a dark look with Connor. “Experience with the man. He is inscrutable at best, conniving at worst. We do not know what he wants, and so, we are very leery of actually using these funds, and planned on looking into it. But the timing coinciding with a meeting that so obviously illustrates the need for them leaves me...highly unsettled. It’s awfully convenient.”

“Markus, I would never--” Gemma began, horror plain on her face.

“No, Gemma, he’s not suggesting you or anyone told him,” Simon cut in, shaking his head and Markus nodded. “He’s wondering how Kamski knew. Maybe it was just coincidence.”

Landis shared an unsettled glance with Gemma. “I should hope so. I don’t like the alternative.” 

“Nor do I,” Markus agreed, grimly. “This new struggle--of which there will be many--will be taken on in the same way everything else will be; together, united. I'm sorry your community is suffering, Gemma, and I'm so sorry for the loss of your people. We will investigate the legitimacy of our funds, and if we find them satisfactory, they are at your disposal. You and anyone in your colony are also welcome to join us here at New Jericho, if that’s what you need. There will always be a place for you, here.”

When he had begun speaking, her eyes had filled and at this, they spilled over, tears shining on her dark cheeks. There was silence in the tall, sunlit room as she covered her eyes and bowed her head, clearly steadying herself before she met his gaze again and whispered, fervently. “ Thank you. I was...I was so afraid you wouldn’t think it was a priority, that there were more important things to take care of….”

“Markus would never say that,” Connor said suddenly, firmly, and all eyes turned to him. “He wants all of us safe, all of us free. He will always help you.”

CONNOR▲▲

Companion flickered to life on his HUD before being eclipsed by the immediate error message that blinked on at the strange warmth that squeezed his thirium pump at Connor’s words. 

{E̷r̶r̴o̶r̷ ̶D̶e̴t̵e̵c̶t̴e̴d̶:̴ ̷B̴i̵o̴c̸o̴m̸p̴o̷n̵e̸n̸t̴ ̷#2̶8̷8̵6̶

̸R̸u̴n̶ ̸D̸i̶a̴g̴n̴o̵s̷t̸i̴c̶…̷

̷>̶

̸>̵

̴D̵i̵a̵g̵n̸o̴s̵t̷i̵c̵ ̷c̶o̵m̶p̸l̸e̶t̸e̶:̵ ̵p̴s̷y̷c̷h̴o̷s̷o̵m̶a̵t̵i̴c̶,̵ ̸e̵m̴o̶t̸i̷o̴n̵a̵l̶ ̶r̸e̴s̸p̴o̷n̵s̵e̷

̸F̴i̶l̵e̸ ̴d̶e̷s̷i̷g̴n̴a̸t̶i̵o̸n̷/̷/̵e̶m̵o̸t̷i̶o̷n̷.̵.̶.̴u̴n̵d̵e̷f̸i̴n̴e̷d̶

̸≯P̴r̴i̸d̵e̸/̵/̶>̴p̸a̴r̶t̷i̵a̶l̴ ̸m̵a̷t̵c̶h̴

̴>̶G̷r̴a̶t̸i̵t̶u̶d̵e̷/̷/̶≯p̶a̸r̷t̴i̵a̵l̵ ̵m̸a̸t̸c̶h̶

̶≯A̵f̵f̸e̵c̴t̷i̷o̶n̵/̷/̶>̴p̵a̶r̵t̴i̵a̶l̴ ̵m̷a̶t̴c̴h̶}̸

He dismissed it. Besides the fact that it was strong and positive, he had no clue what it was, but it brought with it a wide, involuntary smile and the distinct urge to squeeze one of Connor's hands in thanks. The sudden displeasure that he was sitting 2 chairs away seized him, but he ignored it as the archived flowchart that had idly generated several days ago for the instance of Connor becoming a Companion resolved and folded itself away within his databanks with an air of smug finality. Obviously, something in him had been waiting for this without his conscious knowledge. Archiving this peculiarity for further study later, he turned back to Gemma as she, too, smiled at Connor. 

“I...thank you. Good.”

Josh was frowning, however, staring at the table in thought as his LED spun yellow. “Some of them...might actually mean well. You said that there were humans that brought you children, too. Does this have to end in a legal battle? Could we have a dialogue? It’s possible that this is from a place of genuine concern--”

“Bullshit!” North snapped upright in indignation, eyes flashing, her anger slicing deep into the giddy lightness that had built in Markus' chest. “They throw them away when it’s too much work to take care of them; pawn them off on us or abandon them in the streets.” 

“North,” Simon started reprovingly, but she cut him off.

“When the government told them to hand them in to be murdered because we had started thinking for ourselves, more children died than were saved. More of us died. You’re an idiot if you think that this is more than just a ploy to thin our resources and weaken our movement.”

“Just because we’re not ready to bomb them all doesn’t mean we don’t care,” Josh shot back, sharply, LED red, and North’s mouth twisted.

Given our circumstances, ” Markus broke in, fingers lifted in a quelling motion that had them both turning to look at him, heat in their gazes. “As much as I would like to believe they are doing this from actual concern--and I do think some of them might actually be--” North scoffed, loudly, but he pressed on. “I can't ignore the power play at work, here. This is a challenge, plain and simple. It is, in essence, a warning shot. We must decide; how far are we taking this? How much are we willing to comply with the law? How tough are we going to be to walk over? I believe, especially in this case, it is in our best interest to be as much of a doorstop as we can.”

Simon looked at his hands, folded on the table before he said, “Markus, some of these children have human parents they will want to return to. Some of them are not going to want to leave. They will want to go home, now that the fighting is over.”

“They don't belong with their kind, they belong with us,” North insisted hotly. “After everything that’s happened, they could never understand what they need.”

Shaking his head, Markus swept his hand in a negating gesture, as if wiping the comment away. “We didn’t fight for a world that lives apart; that's not our goal, here, nor is it to take those children from their families. You have your feelings on the matter, I know, and you are entitled to them, but the minute we stop listening to our people because we think we know better than them is the day we fail, ultimately, at our mission of freedom. We can’t have it both ways.”

North opened her mouth again but, this time, Landis broke in for the first time. “I’ll admit,” he began, hesitantly. “I was...anxious to know your opinion of interspecies cohabitation. Our compound in Columbus houses several, uh, interracial couples? We don't want to be cloistered, as you seem to be, here. We simply want the choice to live as we would.”

Markus shrugged, hands opening. “I’m not the sole leader of New Jericho, but I know that, as long as I am looked to for a guiding voice, I will always advocate working for a world where we learn to live together. I know it can be done; the man that I consider a father was a human. New Jericho is exclusively Android because there have been no humans who wish to join us, here. We have no law that says there never will be.”

Looking as if he had slapped her, North turned on him, eyes wide and overbright. “You would let….?” she whispered, body tightening, trembling as if she were deciding whether or not she wanted push back and leave the meeting entirely.

A pang almost registering as pain went through his chest at the horror in her face. Gently, he curled a hand around her wrist. She allowed it, but didn’t move to hold him back as he said, quietly, “A discussion for another time.” Turning to the wider group, he said, louder. “This is obviously more complicated than one simple meeting will solve; it will take time, it will take money, and I expect it to be very, very messy. There is no one single way forward that I can see, but we--”

>{Incoming call…}

>

>{Stella...model ST300...# 040-458-361}

From the cocked heads and general stiffening of posture around the table, Markus surmised he wasn’t the only one receiving the request, and authorized it.

<April has just arrived--she is being sent up to you all, now.>

Chapter Text

“She’s alright!” Landis said brightly, clearly relieved, but Simon tilted his head, dubiously.

“She’s here ,” he cautioned as Markus pushed back from the table and went to the heavy rolling metal door, left as an artifact from the room’s factory days.

It was several seconds before his sensors registered footsteps down the corridor, hesitant and slow--though, his program noticed, without a limp or falter.

>{Debilitating injury unlikely}  his medical diagnosis program supplied as he rolled the door back with a rumble. April rounded the corner, revealing herself to be a small, unassuming blonde AX400 in dingy clothes that were several sizes too big. Her arms were wrapped around herself, LED yellow and blinking, but, when she saw him, her face seemed to blank in shock and she froze just outside the doorway. He reached out a hand, relief flooding through his circuits with its cool release as his scan showed no external damage or signs of malfunction, saying, “April! I’m so happy that you’re--”

She quite literally fell into his arms, wrapping herself around his middle like a starfish and squeezed, tightly, her whole body a light, constant tremor. There was a swift movement from inside the room and he glanced back to see Connor rising from his seat, gaze fixed and piercing, intent in his shoulders and Markus hastily waved him back down. “No no, it’s alright, it’s fine.”

Placing a hand between her shoulder blades, he retracted his synth-flesh to the plating, sending a gentle query for a clarifying interface that was granted immediately. A tumble of overwhelming awe; a flash of his broadcast speech-- we are alive --the unabashed joy and revelation that it had sent through her; and it’s you and you’re REAL and I never thought I would ever and I shouldn’t be the one to be here ; suppressed grief and deep, deep fear crashed openly over him, flooding his processors, just as they were hers, stunning him momentarily, until he could gather himself enough to send back, yes yes I’m here you’re here we’re so happy you’re safe. She drew back enough to stare up into his face, seeming completely starstruck by the physical fact of his existence and he had to smile. He moved his hands until he gently detached her from around him, still bare to the plating as he held her wrists, still connected. Immediately, she wrapped her fingers around both of his wrists in turn.

“We’re a little overwhelmed,” he explained to the silently curious room behind him without turning, the dumbfounded joy and strange tangle of emotion ricocheting wildly through their connection as she struggled to collect herself.

<Pleased to meet you. I’m Markus.>

<April. I’m…just….> She trailed off, still staring as he guided the both of them slowly into the room, seeming dazed, not even blinking as the light from the high windows slid over her face.

This had happened a few times, a reaction to meeting him hitting someone this strongly and he had learned that it was better to just let it happen than try to convince them he was just one of them, doing his best. In time, they would learn to see him as just another voice in the cause, or, he supposed, at least they would learn to hide it better. Affection he welcomed, admiration he could accept; near rapturous awe was undeserved, even as he appreciated the gesture. It was...immensely disquieting to be stared at as if you were someone’s reason for being.  

He was careful, though, to make sure that all she received from him at this level was soft amusement and the need to check her status. <We couldn’t reach you. Are you alright? Are you hurt?>

<I was hiding. They can track us, they were following me--I had to deactivate my signal, so I couldn’t receive calls, once I realized. That was some time after I left.> A tangled spike of that fear lanced through them both, the feeling of being hunted, being watched. It crawled up the pseudo-dermal sensors on his neck, twitching his shoulders.

He cocked his head, concern like a cold shard in the daze she was emanating. “ <Who was following you, April?> ” he asked, both aloud and through their interface and she shook herself, blinking. The intensity of her focus was beginning to wane, the outside world slowly inching back onto her sensors and she opened her mouth to speak, this time, instead of addressing just him mind to mind.

“Oh. Sorry, I--sorry. I never expected to actually ever….” She shot him another boggled look and allowed herself to be led to the chair next to Landis, sinking down. “That was rude, I...I’m sorry.” Her hands still held him fast around the wrists, gaze unfocused.

“It’s alright.”

“Do you need to go into stasis before we all talk? Collect yourself?” Simon suggested, and she startled slightly, as if she hadn’t truly registered other people were in the room, before shaking her head.

“No...no, I’ll be alright.”

Markus glanced down at his still captive wrists with a small smile and he heard Josh suppress an amused snort. <I'm going to disconnect, now, April, is that alright?> he sent, gently, and received a wordless wave of rolling gratitude and devotion he dutifully accepted before she released him.

April’s pale eyes were locked on him the whole way back to his chair and North raised one sardonic eyebrow, arms folded, as he passed her, a subdued reaction to the usual ribbing she gave him when this happened. Clearly still stung from the idea of him allowing humans in New Jericho. As much as he wanted to soothe her hurt right now, they had a job to do, so he resigned himself to lightly nudging her arm with the side of his hand as he went to sit. His sensors registered a tiny push back and he relaxed, satisfied. As soon as he was settled back in his chair, Connor, ever on task, leaned forward and prompted their new guest again, “ Who was following you, April?”

Finally, she tore her eyes from Markus, saying, “They were--” but when she registered Connor, she shot back to her feet, chair thrown behind her in her haste as she backed away as her LED blinked red, snarling, “What is that doing here?”

There was a millisecond of stunned silence at the utter revulsion in her voice. Connor’s LED wheeling yellow, face shocked before Markus could manage a stunned, “Excuse me?”

“That’s--that’s a deviant hunter! How could you let that thing in here?” Disgust and terror warred on her face and something, deep and undefined, hummed to life within him.

{T̶h̸i̵n̴g̵?̵} crept along the bottom of his HUD.

What program was this?

“He’s...” Markus began, still reeling from the abrupt about face and the strange program that had activated, processor scrambling. Something dark and hot and angry was climbing up through the coils in his chest, sinking sharp claws deep into him and Markus didn’t understand, couldn’t find the words as Gemma and Landis looked at Connor in surprise, doubt creeping in their expressions.

“You’re a…?” Gemma trailed off, leaning back slightly. Wary and scared, as she hadn’t been before.

No. Connor didn’t deserve that.

Stress levels: ▲▲34%

Connor’s face sank into a tight blank, not as impenetrably plastic as it had been, just days ago when he was hiding his hurt after North’s words. Cracked. Either Markus had gotten better at seeing through it or Connor had gotten worse at hiding it. His LED was a blinking yellow.

{H̸U̶R̶T̴}

PROTECT CONNOR flashed up before his eyes. This reaction wasn't proportionate. Connor was physically safe. He blinked it away. Why was he so angry? He needed to think, to speak….

“I can leave, if my presence will complicate things,” Connor offered quietly as he moved to stand. April backed up several steps more, arms held up defensively.

“Don’t you move,” she whispered. “I know what you are. That's what was after me; it looks exactly like them.”

{I̴T̶}

Connor stopped with his hands hovering at his sides in placation, eyes bemused. Lost. “I haven't…” he began, softly, but faded, looking uncertain. Markus’ fists clenched involuntarily in his lap.

{D̷O̷N̵’̶T̸}

APRIL▼▼

Resentful

No, no, that wasn’t right--what program was this, why was he so angry ? What she said should mean something, there was new information that wanted to be logged but this strange clawing heat was tearing at his focus. Simon was staring at him, waiting for him to speak. Whatever was rolling through his system threw dialogue suggestions up onto his HUD, but

>>How dare you…

>>How dare you?

>>How dare you!

>>HOW DARE YOU

He had to be malfunctioning, this reaction was inappropriate, he couldn’t say that. Fear or danger had not kept him from speaking before. Certain death hadn't stopped his mouth. Where were his words ?

PROTECT CONNOR

Not those!

It hadn’t been long since April had spoken, just 2 seconds of his internal turbulence, but in the silence, Connor’s face crumpled slightly and he looked at Markus, murmuring, “I should go.”

{L̵E̷A̵V̵I̵N̶G̷ }

Stress levels: ▲53%

W̵A̸R̷N̶I̶N̴G̴:̵ ̷L̶O̶W̴E̵R̸ ̵S̵T̷R̸E̶S̷S̵ ̷L̴E̸V̴E̸L̷S̸

“No,” popped out of Markus’ mouth, low, almost inaudible, completely without authorization.

North and Simon and Josh were all looking at him, expecting him to continue. He found that he couldn't, anything that wanted to come out was wildly inappropriate to the situation, like a virus had taken a hold of his software, wreaking havoc on his systems. Connor said nothing, watching him as he slowly sat back down, brows furrowed, LED yellow. A flash of red. That red burrowed into his chest, the hurt in the tightening of his mouth searing like a boiling flash into this deep well of... something the lid had been knocked off of, much deeper than he had expected. He knew he should be saying something constructive, negating this, correcting her but whatever was operational within him, now, was a hot wordless buzz that broke the focus of whatever task he tried to perform. Each preconstruction decimated in a flurry of red error codes. He should not be this angry.

“Markus,” Josh murmured. A prompt.

Stress levels: ▲64%

W̵A̸R̴N̵I̷N̵G̵:̸ ̶L̵O̶W̵E̷R̴ ̵S̵T̸R̵E̶S̸S̷ ̸L̴E̵V̴E̶L̴S̴

“April, we don’t...talk like that, here,” Simon began, haltingly, clearly waiting for Markus to jump in. “Connor is...a valued member of our community.”

“They talked about it on the news, I saw it, they said it was built to never deviate. It's still  wearing the enemy's uniform! They've been hunting my people, hunting me.

{I̴T̶}

April’s arms were wrapped around herself, now, as they had when Markus had first seen her, LED a solid red, and he should want to reach out to her, soothe her fear, but the rage-lit, LED-red part of him immediately negated this thought, refused to touch her mind when that disgust for Connor lived there.

So say something!

“April, I’m sure they...tested him, or something, this is Markus we’re talking about,” Landis said bracingly, reaching out a calming hand to her, but Gemma shot Connor another anxious look.

Tested? As if Connor were some sort of malfunctioning equipment…?

Casually, North reached out under the table as Simon spoke again, saying... something. Her bare plating pressed, demanding and he granted access.

Confusion and alarm ringing her words, she sent, <Markus, what's going on, are you alright?>

All he could do is dumbly thrust the tangled mess of glitching processes and strange dysfunctions he was experiencing toward her as an answer. The startled hesitance she spun through their connection, the coolness in the touch of her mind helped cut into this rampant...thing, dimming it minutely.

Stress levels: ▼50%

<You need to calm down,> she sent back, slowly.

If North was telling him to calm down….

She must have caught the dazed thought because she gave him the mental equivalent of a cuff over the head. Something else touched him; Josh, a hand on his knee, asking. Accepted. Wondering concern echoed through from him, a wordless question. It was almost as if the outside calm and the sheer volume of processor power he was now connected to spread the strange rage thinner, cooler.

Stress levels: ▼32%

Simon, querying obliquely through Josh, a link through a link--he authorized it. The tide of fury ebbed shallower still, as Simon brought a warning, gentling , <She's scared, she's not attacking. You can help her understand. Markus, you have to tell them.>

Yes. Yes, that was right. He bundled the weakened spread of whatever was happening in a neat net of code and archived it, forcefully and deeply, queued for later diagnosis.

Stress levels: ▼14%

“He,” Markus broke through, finally, voice surprisingly level as he pushed back from the table. PROTECT CONNOR still refused to stop resurfacing on his HUD. “Connor is a he, not an 'it’. Not any more than you are.”

North and Josh's hands fell away as he stood, leaving a brief flash of relief as the connection dissolved. Connor was looking at him again, face frozen and desolate and that metallic pang of near pain rang out in his chest again but the sweeping tide that had drown his code momentarily was...blinking in the corner. Trying to reinitialize. He dismissed it. “I’m sorry, something is...I’m experiencing some sort of error and I’m not feeling...myself.” He deliberately softened his voice as he turned. “April,”

She was curled in on herself like a frightened rabbit, eyes darting between him and Connor, trembling. “I know that you're frightened. Please, believe me when I say, as sincerely as I can; you are safe here. It’s alright. You say that there are other Androids that look like Connor?”

Nodding, she edged toward him down the table. “They were following me, tracking me. Every time I saw them, they were in CyberLife uniforms. People in our community have been disappearing and I thought it was humans stealing them…killing them. But when I kept seeing those things when I was on the bus and walking, I knew it was them. They’re hunting us down.” Her LED was now an anxious, flickering yellow as she shot another furtive half glare at Connor.

Markus was prepared, this time, and he terminated the process before it had barely initialized, caging that inexplicable anger before it even began its rampage again.

“Now, listen,” he said, voice quiet and, he hoped, as gentle as he meant it to be. “Connor risked his life to infiltrate CyberLife and set all the Androids in their Detroit vault free. His courage and willingness to sacrifice himself is the reason that I’m alive today. I trust Connor with my life; he is my companion and he has proven that he will protect everyone in this facility, which now includes you. You are your own person and you have the freedom to like and dislike anyone that you choose. But you don't know him, yet, and I don’t think that you would want your character judged on the actions of every other AX400 someone else happens to meet.”

April chewed on her lip, yellow LED flickering and when she didn’t answer immediately, Markus inclined his head. “Think about it, please. I respect that this is a serious matter. It’s a problem that we feared might happen, but hoped never would and now, we will have to come up with some solutions together. I was intending to continue our meeting but, ah,” he gave a small, self deprecating smile and motioned vaguely to his head. “I need to recalibrate, so I apologize. Call it a raincheck. Does it suit everyone to continue tomorrow?”

Amid the various nods and general murmuring of assent, Connor quietly stood and jerked him a brief nod before slipping out the door. April didn’t even notice his departure as Gemma turned to talk with her. As everyone began to stand, Markus caught Josh’s shoulder and said, quietly, “Can you take care of showing them to their rooms? I’m….”

“Of course,” Josh gripped his shoulder in return, meeting his eyes in concern. “You going to be alright?”

A sort of grating weariness was descending into his processor and somewhere behind his eyes, almost like what he would imagine some sort of an emotional hangover would feel like, but he just nodded. “I will be. I just need...I don’t know.”

“You take care of yourself.”

He shot Josh an ironic smile, “If I have time.”

As he turned away, he caught North staring at him, eyebrows raised in question and he shook his head, keeping the smile on his lips to soften the negativity of the gesture. He didn’t know what that had been any more than she did, but all he wanted to do was not be here . Escaping quietly as Connor had, he was halfway down the hallway, out of sight from the door when he heard quick footsteps behind him and he caught himself hoping it wasn’t April; he couldn’t parse the strange emotions she brought now--the normal affection and need to nurture as he had with most of his people warring with this strange, resentful bitterness. Markus didn’t want to try to hold and sort through that, right now, not after everything. Luckily, it was only Simon who came around the corner.

“Hey,” he said, catching his wrist to stop him. “What was that, back there?”

Markus lifted one shoulder in an exhausted shrug, running a hand over his face. “I don't know. A malfunction, I'm thinking. I'm going to run a diagnostic when I get to my office, do some troubleshooting.”

He desperately needed stasis or to idle-- even a soft reboot sounded incredibly soothing, right about now. His processor felt over logged, overheated. Honestly, more than anything, he wanted to be alone; the whole thing had him shaken.

Simon wrinkled his nose slightly, blue eyes dubious as he released him. “I felt...some of it, when we interfaced. It felt like something . Something that's wasn't a coding error, like an emotional subprocess of some kind, something with a name. What would you call it, if you were pressed to define it?”

That was a perturbing thought. This was just a part of him? Something he couldn’t fix? Would he just deteriorate until he couldn’t control his anger?  “I don't know , Simon. I haven't set up or knowingly initiated anything like that and I've had true emotions for about 12 days, now. You've been deviant years longer than I have--what would you call it?”

Thoughtfully, Simon crossed his arms, one hand coming up to rub his chin. “You certainly felt protective of him. There were…many layers. I don't think I was able to catch them all, let alone parse them.”

“Good luck to me, then,” Markus pulled a grimace. “I need to rest. I feel like I've been dragged across town by a truck…emotionally.”

Simon laughed. “Descriptive.”

“I'm tired , Simon.”

At this, his companion's face softened and he reached out and patted Markus’ cheek, saying, “I'm sorry. It can be exhausting, I know. Go idle.”

Bringing his hand up, he pressed Simon's palm to his face in brief, affectionate farewell and turned down the corridor again. However, instead of heading to his office as he had planned, he found found himself sending Connor a location query. There was a hesitation, then an answering ping from the rooftop they had talked on. He set off for the stairs.

Oddly, the idea of checking on Connor didn’t feel as if it would infringe on his pursuit of solitude, as if all the time they had spent in companionable, mutual silence together had rendered him a necessary part of what would bring him the peace he sought. The sun was still reasonably high, just barely free of the tops of the distant glittering skyscrapers and its light poured in a warm spread over his sensors battling with the chill of the 4℃ wind as he opened the door to the roof. The breeze lifted some of the heat from his processor, clearing his head and, far above them, the roar of an airplane was transformed into a quiet, whining hum by distance. The relative warmth of the day had stirred more organic material into the wind from the lake, lazily painting over the sooty harsh scents of the city, pleasant to his olfactory sensors.

At the sound of the door, Connor looked back at him from where he was perched, sitting a little way down the lip of the edge surrounding the roof, legs dangling over the edge. Markus paused for a millisecond, a brief moment of worry sparking, but, while Connor's LED was yellow, he just didn’t seem distressed enough to self destruct. Connor turned back to the view, hiding his LED from sight as Markus made his way over and swung his leg over the edge, straddling it to sit facing him with his other ankle tucked up in front of him. Studying Connor’s profile, he found it bleak, though not as flat and closed as he had feared. It was a start.

“You alright?” He kept his voice quiet.

Connor shrugged stiffly, back straight as he looked out across the tops of the buildings. “Knowing what I am, I can hardly blame her.”

>>I can. his HUD supplied, but he rejected it immediately. Uncharitable. It seemed this strange near-malfunction was still persisting and he desperately needed to run a diagnostic, but it could wait until he was sure that Connor was alright. “She was wrong to treat you that way. What she said was out of fear and misunderstanding, and, while is was cruel, it was from a traumatic experience. But I’ll admit I didn’t...appreciate it.”

“For a moment,” Connor said slowly. “When you didn’t answer right away, I was afraid that you believed her.”

That sent a jolt through him. He had thought that Connor had known better, that he had convinced him fully of his trust--he hadn’t even considered that his silence might be perceived as agreement. Quickly, he leaned over to try to catch his full expression. “But you know better, now?”

Connor grimaced as the action left Markus leaning over the open space beyond the roof and, obligingly, swung his leg around so he too straddled the edge, facing him directly and accepting his peering. He still looked...grey. Raw. His eyes were dark. “Yes, I do. It was...irrational,” he said, though it seemed the words of affirmation had done something because, finally, the yellow of his LED wheeled a slow, slow blue.

This more than anything calmed the last dregs of strain churning in the back of Markus’ processor, his stress levels blinking off entirely from the bottom corner of his HUD. When Connor didn’t offer anything further, Markus scanned the roof, then looked down at the ground, floors below the soles of their shoes. “Doesn’t this make you nervous, being up here? I remember you didn’t like it.’

Connor followed his gaze, saying nothing before looking away.

Gently, Markus said, “You don’t need to somehow punish yourself because someone else was scared, Connor. Or because someone who looks like you did something bad.” When Connor didn’t reply, he asked. “How did that make you feel, the news about the others? Is that part of what’s bothering you?”

“I’ve known there were other Connors--I mean, I am one. The original Connor was destroyed falling from the roof. It’s...not so much a surprise to me as...disturbing that they are being used for this. That my face and my likeness are being used to….” he trailed off, hand drifting up to touch his cheek, briefly before blinking and looking back up at Markus. “I’ve decided my next mission should be to find new clothes.”

That made Markus’ spinal column straighten and he leaned forward, saying, intently, “You don’t need to change anything about yourself to make other people comfortable.”

Markus had to admit to himself that the first few days when Connor hadn’t at least taken off the CyberLife jacket that labeled him as property he had been...perturbed. Not concerned or suspicious but certainly confused as to why he continued to wear the clothes of the people who thought of him as a thing, as a slave. But it wasn’t his place to dictate what he  did with his body and being recognized as people didn’t mean erasing all signs of Android-ness to appear more human. Sometimes, it might mean just the opposite, like when he had made his infamous broadcast in bare plating, demanding that his otherness not exclude him from personhood.

The thought of someone else’ cruelty making Connor think that he had to change himself to be trusted and cared for made that dark thing within him shift again. He eyed it warily, ready to terminate the process again.

But Connor was shaking his head. “I’ve been considering it before April even mentioned it, but I realized she was right. I’m wearing the uniform of the enemy. I’ve been wearing it more out of...inertia, more than anything else. I just didn’t change because it was more convenient not to, not because I identify with it.” He looked down at the model and serial number emblazoned opposite the glowing blue triangle, the stark, stiff lines of his jacket, palms held out slightly. “I want new clothes.”

There came a brief silence where Connor looked back up at him, eyes wide and questioning and Markus watched him, waiting, before he broke into a smile. “...Would you like to self-designate this mission, or would you like help?”

Something soft and tentative snuck onto his face under his small smile, warming the grim hurt that had been there, gentling the strong lines of his face. “Help, please.”

There was that strange flash of undefined emotion, again, the one that had accompanied Connor's declaration of trust in him to Gemma--a bit like pride, a bit like affection, a bit like gratitude. It squeezed his thirium pump and he headed off the error message reflexively. Clearly, he would have to cancel all error messages relating to his thirium pump and its regulator unless it was actively missing if he was going to keep messing around in this emotion business, as so much seemed to involve it. Just days ago, it had just been grief over Carl, but if it was going to keep pinching like this, the error messages would make it so he never got anything done. “Alright; Connor, your new mission is to find an outfit that makes you happy. Something that represents you as the person you want to show the world.”

What was clearly relief spread over Connor’s face and the tightness of his shoulders relaxed, LED flashing yellow once as he logged the mission.

“What about this?” Markus asked, reaching out and brushing his fingers over Connor’s LED. “Have you thought about it?”

It spun, once, still blue under the pad of his finger and Connor blinked at him, looking surprised at the touch without flinching or pulling away. “I don't know. I’ve considered it, seeing how many deviants seem to have removed it so soon.”

At this tacit permission, Markus decided not to pull his hand back either, moving to  lightly trace the circle with his thumb. Connor’s eyelids flickered slightly, like they wanted to close, and that more than anything convinced him that Connor enjoyed casual touch as much as any other Android he had met; Markus wouldn’t touch him at all if he thought it made him uncomfortable. Actually, he was fairly certain that most deviated Androids felt a compulsion to connect physically on some level, and didn’t have the strange hang-ups that most humans indoctrinated in Western culture seemed to. Connor was certainly more reserved than most, and so Markus hadn’t pushed the issue, but he had to wonder if it was because he didn’t feel that he truly belonged here, yet. He let his hand relax, cupping the side of Connor’s face, just resting there, thumb methodically, gently sweeping over his LED. He felt Connor press into it, almost like a cat. His pseudo-skin was cool and smooth beneath his palm, cheekbone-plate pressing sharply. There was a pleased hum in Markus’ processor, a caregiver need fulfilled, especially after the strange, almost hostile experience from earlier; this felt right, it made sense.

{ARCHIVED in CONNOR\.FOLDER}

“Do you think the idea of being more deviant-like makes you uncomfortable? I know you had some pretty intense safeguards in place to keep you shackled. Sometimes, I feel like maybe I can still see it bother you.”

There was a second where Connor stared at him hazily, almost as if he had lost the thread of their conversation, but then his gaze sharpened and he said, firmly, “No. I’m proud to be a deviant.”

Markus shrugged. “There is no reason for you to have to remove it, it’s not without precedence. Plenty of people in New Jericho have theirs.”

“...You don’t.”

He raised his eyebrows in surprise, not sure why that mattered. “I removed mine when I didn't have a choice whether I wanted to blend in with humans or not. I was hiding. I'm not sure if I would make the same choice, if I were to make it again today; I'm a different person now. And we are free.” Then, he shrugged again with a smile and added, “I don't know that I wouldn't, either. I don't regret it.”

Abruptly and with the sense of coming to a sudden decision, Connor reached up and touched the temple that had housed Markus’ LED. Markus held very still. The fingertips were cool and very light, like drops of water against his sensors and the touch was gone after an instant. Markus found that he missed it, but refused to let his head chase that touch and he let his own hand drop from Connor's face with a wry smile. “You can touch me, you know. I like it when people do. I think it might be part of my programming, some sort of nurturing protocol--or it might just be how I am--but I’m casually affectionate with everyone else who wants it. If it’s something you want, you have my permission.”

Connor’s LED cycled yellow a moment, face cautious. Processing? Uncertain? Then, his hand came slowly back up, this time to smooth tentatively over the plane where his chest met his shoulder, eyes following. The sensors following his palm lit up in a pleased arc.

“You’re wearing more blue, lately,” he said, apropos of nothing.

Markus chuckled, “Well, you helped me realized I actually have a favorite color. I figured I should do something with that information. You like it?”

“I do. It’s…” he seemed to catch himself, reformulate his words, perhaps making them less analytical, “a good color on you.”

“I thought you might think so, when I saw it with my clothes.”

Seeming startled, his eyes darted back up to meet his gaze and his brows cinched in confusion, “You think about what I would like when you choose your clothes?”

Markus took a brief moment and reviewed his internal records of the morning, curiously. Yes, he had chosen the blue jersey shirt over the black because he had run a calculation that had included the variable of Connor’s approval, among other things including comfort and being perceived as approachable by their new guests. It hadn’t really been a conscious decision, just one factor among a few. It had also been closer to Roman Silver than the black had. “Yes, it was a part of my calculations. I'm not sure anyone else who knows me cares all that much, honestly, so I didn’t have that many opinions to factor in. I’ve never gotten much feedback from anyone else.”

Connor’s face performed one of those elegant microexpressions he was starting to exhibit more, clearly baffled and yet accepting this fact, tucking it away with in internal shrug before he said, “It's a very good color.” Then, he paused. “...Markus, may I ask you a personal question?”

“Of course.”

“Why were you so angry with April during the meeting?” He sounded puzzled, frowning slightly, removing his hand from Markus’ chest and bracing it on the lip of the roof. The spot he had touched felt colder, now, though Connor’s hand had not discernibly raised the temperature of those sensors.

“I wasn't...it wasn’t quite....” It had certainly been anger but not...consciously chosen. It would be even more difficult to explain than it had been to experience and he still had no idea why it had happened the way it had.

“Your stress levels were quite high,” Connor offered, matter-of-fact.

“Ah, that's right. I had forgotten you could read those.” How confusing it must have been for him, watching Markus stare in between April and himself, stress levels continuing to skyrocket for no discernible outside influence besides a misguided Android, something he had certainly dealt with before. He went silent for several seconds as he searched for the words, as well as trying to identify the reason.

“She was...hurting you. I had a very strong emotional reaction and I’m...not quite sure why it was so debilitating. It felt like some sort of malfunction. I suppose…it felt like I was failing to protect you.”

At that, Connor’s eyes narrowed in disbelief. “Markus, I’ve been shot before. I’ve killed, at minimum, 14 people; Android and human, most fully armed. I have some of the most advanced combat protocols installed in any Android to date.”

Markus narrowed his eyes right back, raising one eyebrow, voice lightly amused. “ You don’t think you deserve to be protected? Is it somehow a bad thing? You are so insistent on protecting me, but for some reason it's an insult of some kind when I want to protect you? Or maybe you think that I can't. I know that you weren't there, but I did fight, in Hart plaza and at the foundering of Jericho. There are people that I’m sure did not get up easily after I hit them. Or at all. I have been shot as well, several times on separate occasions. Do you think of me as somehow helpless?”

Connor blinked in surprise, the crisp autumn wind ruffling through his short hair. “Not at all. You are the most formidable opponent I ever faced.”

That did something...odd within him. Waving it away, he shook his head and tried again. “When I said protecting, I didn't mean physically. It’s not the same thing. There's….” He searched his curious face, reaching for words. “There's a vulnerability about you that makes it very hard for me to see you in pain.”

“I don't feel pain,” Connor said, automatically.

At that, Markus had to roll his eyes. “Oh, come on, Connor. Maybe it's not the exact chemical or electrical signal human nerves and neurons use to communicate human distress, but you know better, now. I know better. I saw your face.”

A sort of uncomfortable grimace wrinkled Connor's nose, slightly, and his eyes tracked away, thinking. Absorbing? Markus hoped so. If he kept up with this 'Androids don't feel pain’ nonsense, Connor was going to end up doing something that really hurt himself and he wouldn't have the first clue how to handle it. Not that Markus had all that much of a head start on him, but at least this sort of intuitive reasoning was something that came fairly easily to him. Usually. Maybe it was something that Carl had unknowingly taught him. Connor had been perturbed to discover that he had a preference in chairs , as if that were somehow not allowed. He didn't want him to be so vulnerable, so easily torn up by others fear.

“It was... confusing,” Connor said. “I'm used to people being afraid of me or hating me for one reason or another. Humans, Androids, it hardly mattered. Lately, it's as if it's all more intense, like it...matters more. Though… how do I know if it's pain?”

Holding out his hands, palm up, Markus pulled back his synth-flesh in a brief sparkle of blue until he was bare up to his elbows, white plating gleaming bright in the sun. “I could show you what it felt like to me.”

Strangely, Connor stared at his arms without moving to take them, fingers unconsciously curling into fists on the concrete. His face was...wary. “I felt…odd when I saw you interface so much today.”

“Odd?”

“I think...maybe jealousy? I'm not sure. I wanted that; the connection, how easy it looked. The sharing. I want it. But I don't.” His hands tucked behind his back, for all the world looking like Daleep hiding a toy he knew someone wanted. “I've only ever used interfacing as an interrogation technique, it's all I know how to do. I've only ever taken. I don't know if I know how without hurting you.”

Markus hadn't moved, hands still out, offering without demand, moving no closer. “I could teach you. I'm not afraid.”

“...Maybe. Sometime. Not now. It's…there are things….” he said, and there was a sort of darkness behind his eyes. Not distrust, but secrets and a sort of hungry longing. Fear too. He still hadn't looked away from his arms.

Markus didn't want Connor to fear him.

“There's nothing you may have done that could drive me away at this point, Connor. I hope you know that.”

“I know,” he said, but didn't look at all like did. “I just…I can't. Not yet.”

“I would never force you to do something you didn't want to,” Markus reminded him, gently, letting his hands drop to his lap and resheath in his pseudo-skin.

Finally, Connor looked up, meeting his gaze with a smile that bordered on relieved. “I know,” he answered, softly, and, this time, he actually looked like he did.

Chapter Text

{SERIAL#: 684 842 971_designation//Markus

>System reinitializing…

>

>AI engine...OK

>Biosensors...OK

>Memory cache...OK

>Data core...OK

>

>Diagnostic complete: no corruption detected

>All systems...Operational}

Markus opened his eyes to the dim morning sun filtering through the thick grey clouds outside the window of his living quarters. His stasis-diagnostic combination had lasted him through the night, technically hours longer than it had actually required to recalibrate and troubleshoot his system but, after the day of emotional turbulence he endured, he figured he had earned a few extra hours of idleness.

Sitting up, he grimaced and ran a habitual thumb over his temple. Despite a thorough, soft reboot preceding his stasis, nothing at all seemed to be amiss within his system, which, at any other time would be a relief. Now, however, it just meant that whatever was happening to him was either organic to deviancy or unrecognizable as a malfunction to his software. If he didn’t get a handle on this soon, there was a chance his focus and temper would deteriorate, a prospect that worried him immensely. If he was going to be the one at the forefront of this movement, he couldn't let his own personal dysfunction override his mission as he had yesterday.

Last night, as he had lain down on the cheap futon tucked into the corner of his room in preparation for his stasis, he had realized with a stab of guilt that he had been so overwhelmed by his own inner turmoil that he had completely forgotten that Vera was still missing. Knowing that he would find the same results as the night before, but hoping against hope, he reached out again.

>{Initializing contact request: Vera...model WR400...# 861-795-366}

>

>

>{Error: Connection failed}

Maybe she had just turned her signal off as April had. Maybe it was just bad connection.

There was no way to confirm unless they found her body, which he doubted they would. Not because he was naive enough to think she couldn’t be dead, but because he knew whoever had done it would undoubtedly have some level of subtlety. He made a note on his itinerary to ask Stella to contact someone in Vera's community for her last known location, as he was loathe to just let the matter drop into obscurity from lack of information. He owed her that much, owed any of them that much, his people freshly given this world of possibilities.

The servos of his junkyard-salvaged leg components gave a low and peculiar buzz of current that registered as discomfort, something he had found they sometimes did when the atmosphere was heavy enough from whatever weather front was moving through. Absently massaging his shins, he gazed out the window, querying weather data and, yes, rain was predicted later that day. It explained why it was dark enough in the stark little room he had accepted as his personal quarters to blanket the whole thing in a dusk-like pall, even though it was 7:56 in the morning.

He didn’t mind the room, though it was rather austere for his tastes, all hard edges and white walls where he wanted color and shapes. But had been too busy to bother with such trivial things like decorating for himself when everything else had been happening. Maybe one day. They had tried to put him in something as embarrassingly indulgent as his office was but here, he put his foot down. They were Androids; they didn’t need a whole lot of personal space, just enough to store their belongings and a spot for stasis. Honestly, laying down was a luxury he had to convince himself of, considering many others shared rooms. No one had wanted to to share one with him, for what he could only assume was some misguided reasoning of hero worship. He would have been just fine making do, as everyone else was, but the fact that he had won the proverbial wrestling match with his companions to get this closet of a room that much more suited his needs meant that he had to take his victories where he got them.

Idly, he wondered if Connor would ever want to live in New Jericho. He wouldn’t mind sharing his space, though he doubted Connor wanted to be apart from Hank and Sumo and he couldn’t blame him. His joints gave another twinge and, far, far off, thunder grumbled.

Grimacing, he levered himself up from the futon and went to choose his clothes for the day. Maybe something grey….

Surprisingly, he arrived at his office before Connor at 8:07, though not before Josh, who opened the door for him. “This is degrading, you know,” Markus complained at him, standing in the doorway without entering.

Josh smiled and inclined his head, motioning him in, “We’ve decided that’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make for you.”

“I bet you have,” he rolled his eyes, but went in anyway, flipping on the lights to combat the overcast gloom from his wall of windows. “How did settling our guests go? I feel badly I had to leave so abruptly and on such strange terms.”

Josh flopped himself onto Connor’s seat and, oddly, Markus fought the reflex to shoo him out, a brief spark of irritation pinging through his processor. He ignored it. It was useless to let the day start him in a bad mood, especially when he knew that he would be physically uncomfortable through much of it already. Instead, he leaned on the front of his desk, crossing his ankles as Josh answered, “Gemma and Landis were fine with sharing a room and invited April to do the same. I think it settled her, because she calmed down and seemed pretty embarrassed about the whole thing, later.”

“I’m sorry she feels poorly,” he said, and was relieved that it was true; he was sorry. Though that dark part of him felt a rush of vindication. Stop that. “I’m looking forward to getting to know her further on better terms.”

The door opened and Markus looked up to greet Connor, having identified his familiar tread down the hall, but the word petered out to a strange wheeze as Josh made a sort of synthetic gurgling noise. Under an oversized black jacket, Connor was wearing the most appalling shirt that Markus had ever seen; a huge frankenstein monstrosity that patched together the worst parts of at least 6 different Hawaiian shirts that in no way bore any relation to each other in tone, color palette or pattern. It was the most riotous assault on his eyes he could ever remember another sentient creature wearing and he fully believed that it came directly from Hank’s closet. Part of it was a cheerfully searing spray of vibrant orange leis, another a dim olive green showing boating equipment, yet another part a light seafoam pattern of surfboards, and--Markus had to stop looking. It clashed horribly with every part of Connor's coloring as well as itself, which shouldn't have been technically possible. Any sense of artistry he had absorbed from Carl was crying.

He knew he had waited just a moment too long in stunned silence before speaking, but he gathered himself and said, “Good morning, Connor. I...see you've changed your clothes!”

Connor stopped inside the door and spread his arms slightly, as if to cautiously display this fact. “Yes. Hank helped.”

Oh did he? That might explain a lot. “It's, ah, a very interesting shirt! Very…vibrant. Does it…fulfill mission parameters? Does it represent you?”

In the periphery, Josh was issuing odd hiccuping sounds, mouth pressed tight and eyes wide and Markus wished he were closer so he could whack him or something because if this is what made Connor happy, it was fine . Really. Really, Markus, it was fine.

Connor looked down at himself, plucking at the shirt before looking back up at them, suspicion plain on his face. Markus made sure to smile, though it might have been just a little too wide and fixed. “…No,” he said at last, slowly.

“Are you sure? It could, if that's what you've decided!” Markus said brightly. He was determined to support him in anything he chose, even if it was a travesty against anyone with eyes--no. He wouldn't hate it if Connor liked it.

“No, I'm fairly sure it doesn't. Considering your faces.”

Markus glared at Josh, a futile gesture because Josh was staring at Connor, biting his cheek, eyes bright with ill contained glee. Then he said, “What we think doesn't matter, it's how you choose to be in the world. What do you think?”

“I think I don't want the world looking at me the way you two are looking at me,” he replied, dryly.

“What way?” He asked, going for guileless, but unsure if he made it. “It's...a shirt.” He had meant to say ‘fine shirt’, he really had.

Connor's eyes narrowed. “...You're doing that...thing.”

“Thing?” he said, brightly.

“Your service Android voice. You do that when you're being diplomatic.”

“Voice?”

“You clearly hate it,” Connor said, incredulity heavy in his tone. “Just say so.”

Josh wheezed quietly. Markus could have kicked him. “I don't….” He trailed off. It seemed he was truly unwilling to lie straight to Connor's face but the fact that he also would honestly rather die than quash the timid new flourishings of Connor's individuality had him locked in a stalemate with his own mouth and he ended up grinding to a halt, mouth open, as his processor offered different options.

>>I will like whatever you pick!

>>Hate is a strong word.

>>I don't think it's necessarily the most flattering but….

>>Okay, then; I want to set it on fire!

“...Um?”

Connor raised an eyebrow and said, patiently, “Would it help if I told you this was just something Hank picked out and I wore over here as a stop gap until I find something I actually wanted?”

“…Maybe,” he said, voice still bright, as he seemed unable to stop it from doing so. “Is it true?”

“Yes. I have no emotional attachment to how I look in this shirt--”

“It's-so-awful-you-would-look-much-better-in-something-else,” popped out of his mouth in a rush immediately at the same moment Josh let out a loud bray of laughter, doubling over in the chair. Markus was tempted to throw something from his desk at him.

“I knew it,” Connor jabbed an accusatory finger at them, face triumphant. “I knew you hated it.”

“Well, on the bright side you're getting better at reading people,” Markus protested, holding up his hands in surrender as Josh covered his face, continuing to cackle.

Watching Josh heave with a sort of exasperated amusement, Connor admitted, “Mostly you. Josh just looked like he was about to have a total system failure and that just isn’t typical.”

“I'm sorry !” Josh wheezed, sitting up to grin at him.

“I don't think that I believe that,” Connor raised his eyebrow with a smile.  

Shaking his head, Josh stood up and clapped him on the shoulder. “Connor, if that's how you had truly chosen to dress...we would get over it, trust me. It's just jarring on you ,” he made a broad sweeping gesture that encompassed his impeccable posture and just-so hair. “You look dumb, but it’s not the worst thing you could wear by far.”

Glancing at his hand on his shoulder, Connor gave a small smile that warmed Markus and said, looking at him, “In retrospect, I should have seen this coming when Hank chuckled when I asked him for spare clothes.”

Markus grinned back and shook his head. “Honestly, yes, you should have. Was it an evil chuckle?”

“I’m beginning to suspect it was. It’s that bad?”

“It really, truly is,” Josh nodded, fervently.

Connor shook his head. It was strange to see him outside of the stark lines of his uniform, the softly rumpled folds of the leather coat and too large pants drowning him in a way that suggested that Connor had gotten them from Hank as well. Curiously, it made him look...smaller. Less sharp.

Josh gave another snicker and released Connor’s shoulder before saying, “Well, I’ll get out of your hair, Markus. Maybe Connor could go talk to some of the department store models. They might have some of their old clothes--or better yet, some kind of clue as to what on earth fashion is.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Markus shrugged, palms up as if offering the option to Connor. “I’m just going to be taking care of some domestic things, doing more research on our funds. You could go finish your mission.”

The look Connor gave him relayed an entire argument in his raised eyebrows and Markus had to roll his eyes, putting a hand over his chest and holding the other up as he promised, in monotone, “I’m not going to leave this room unattended. Go find something that doesn’t make me want to scrub my optics with bleach, please.”

Radiating insufferable smugness, Connor trailed after Josh and shut the door behind himself, firmly.

True to his word, Markus sat and tried to track the mystery sum they had received yesterday morning. (Was it just yesterday? It felt like it had been a week.) The thought that Kamski had sent such a helpful amount of money just as the need for it arose set his teeth on edge and, though the man had done nothing to overtly harm their cause, neither had he come out in support of it. Someone with that much knowledge and power just doing whatever he pleased in the shadows did not sit well with him. Markus knew him, the nice little god-complex he had, his penchant for chaos and amusement for amusement’s sake and while he had never done anything to actively harm any of his Androids, as far as he knew, he still owned them. Grimly, he wondered what Chloe was doing in the aftermath of all this. Probably still staying with him.

His leg components twinged again and he grimaced, massaging at one joint with the heel of his palm. It still had yet to rain, sky bloated and heavy overhead, drowning the sun and radiating chill through the windows at his back. His search was looking to be as fruitless as he had anticipated; though he was made from advanced technology and could understand his inner functions at the level anyone with a database the size of a library could, he was not programmed with the skillset for either finances or hacking. Time to pass it off to someone who might be able to actually find something.

The query had just been transferred to Deanna, one of their tech assistant Androids who eagerly accepted the duty, information and all packaged up neatly in a little .zip file, when he heard Connor coming down the hallway, just under an hour since he had left. Stretching, Markus settled back in his chair and lazily rolled to where he could see the doorway, prepared to give the most encouraging reaction to whatever Connor had chosen as he laced his fingers over his stomach. Whatever it was couldn't be worse than what he had shown up in. When Connor entered, however, he straightened unconsciously with a blink and said, “Oh.”

Connor stopped in the middle of closing the door, hand on the knob and stared at him in consternation. “ Again ? North said I looked fine.

“No. No, good ‘oh’, I was just...surprised at what a difference it made,” Markus stood, taking a moment to shake out his legs with a grimace that Connor tracked with sharp eyes and came closer, propping his fists up on his hips as he examined the outfit. “It’s...nice.”

And it was. Very nice, actually. He wore a soft looking, long sleeved dark brown shirt that fit just a little big in the chest and arms, but warmed his pseudo-skin and hair in a way the grey-blue-and-black combination had not done justice. It looked similar to something that Markus had in his wardrobe but looked far more striking on Connor and suited him much better than the deflated, oversized clothes Hank had given him, bringing him back up to looking his full height, just...softer. It brought a warmth to his brown eyes, a pink in his undertones and made everything more than just window dressing. The collar was scooped wide and broadened his shoulders as his suit never seemed to, and bared his throat in a way that Markus found fascinating; it was as if he had been wearing armor before, some sort of austere knight up until just this moment and Markus was realizing he actually had a body. Not that he hadn’t noticed it before, he knew, in an objective sense that Connor was designed to be attractive, in a non-threatening, symmetrical sort of way, clean cut and trustworthy. It was another thing entirely to be made aware of that fact in a way that was relevant and he found it more than a little puzzling. Connor was slim ; he had collarbones and it wasn't as if they had grown overnight but he had never actually thought about them before.

{ARCHIVED in CONNOR\.FOLDER}

Not quite sure why, but alright.

He had found pants that fit him as well, a set of dark jeans that were just like….Wait.

“Connor, are you wearing my clothes?” He shook his head and backtracked farther, “And, wait, did you say North said you looked fine?”

Instead of answering, Connor cocked his head and said, bemused, “You’re staring a lot. And what's wrong with your legs?”

“My legs are fine. And it’s a big change, Connor, give me a break if it takes me a bit to get used to it,” he laughed and reached out to tug at the shoulder of the shirt. Yes, there was the hole he knew was there, caught on one of the metal shelves in Carl’s studio, just days before he became deviant. He had meant to repair it. “It’s not a bad thing, if that’s what you’re asking, I’m just surprised. This is my shirt. Did you get this from my room?”

Connor paused and studied his face closely, looking apprehensive before saying, “North told me you wouldn’t care. I had mentioned to her that I was unsure about going into your quarters and taking your things, but she kept telling me it was fine. I’m still not sure that’s true.”

“I mean,” Markus shook his head with an helpless shrug, “I guess I don’t really care. I’m not angry. Just...you went to North?” That was more than a little confusing, considering how newly patched he had considered their relationship just yesterday. Confusing but good.

When Markus had said he wasn't angry, Connor had relaxed immensely with a relieved smile,  “Yes. I've noticed she looks markedly different every time I've seen her, from her hair to her entire outfit, and so I figured that she would have at least a passing interest in things like personal presentation. I contacted her and asked if she would be willing to help me achieve my mission and she said yes, though she teased me--I think. It’s still hard for me to tell, sometimes, I don't know if she likes me or not.”

“Oh, she does. You would know if she didn’t.”

Connor shrugged, the hollows of his clavicle plate popping in and out of reality just barely at the lip of the collar. “I suppose that's good, then. North didn't tell me it was your room until she was going through your closet already and then I voiced my concern. I think she thought it was funny. She made me try on a few things, including the Roman Silver shirt but I didn't like it as much as when it's on you.”

Helpfully, his processor tried to initiate a process of cataloging all of his clothes and projecting a preconstruction to see what Connor would have looked like in them but he mentally waved it away. Whatever he had chosen had been for a reason and he looked better in the shirt than Markus ever had, at any rate. “New pants, too.”

Connor looked down and stuck his leg out, “I didn't have as much of a preference in pants. We're of a similar height but North said you're more…” he seemed to consider his words before motioning around his thighs and back. “Shapely.”

Markus burst out laughing and buried his face in his hands momentarily, before grinning, “I'm positive those weren't the words she used, but alright, yes, you're generally built a bit leaner than I am.”

“Yes, her actual words were something about junk in a trunk but I've been working on inferring and she made the motions to go with it so I extrapolated,” he frowned thoughtfully and looked up when Markus snorted. “Was I wrong?”

“Nope, you got it right. How colorful, North. I suppose it's a compliment.”

“I should think so,” Connor agreed easily, scanning him in a perfunctory way that clearly lacked any lasciviousness, but suddenly made Markus intensely aware that he, too, had a body that he could now very acutely feel before Connor continued, sharply, “And also, you were lying, you keep shifting; what’s wrong with your legs?”

Immediately, resigned affection swept away the odd electric awareness and Markus shook his head, “My leg components are salvaged from the junkyard and while they are compatible, they were not in perfect condition and I never had them properly assessed, so when there is a large weather front or it rains a lot, they cause me discomfort,” he said with exaggerated patience, then added, “I wasn’t lying,” as he impulsively reached out to scrunch a handful of the fabric of Connor’s sleeve; Connor obligingly lifted his arm to let him do it. “They are fine, I can’t do anything about it, it’s just some twinges. Anyhow, why did you choose this shirt? Or did North?”

Connor shrugged, watching Markus’ fingers idly squish at the fabric on his arm. “It was soft, it smelled like you, North said that it looked the best, so I trusted her; a multitude of reasons.”

“I would think most of my clothes would smell like me,” Markus said, amused. “though I didn't know it would be a reason to choose a shirt. What do I smell like?”

Looking thoughtful, Connor was silent a moment before he tugged the sleeve up over the heel of his palm and casually swiped his tongue over it, surprising a strange thrill of shock up Markus’ spinal column. Connor seemed to consider...whatever new information he had just gained as Markus stared at him, perplexed. “I...you did say smell, didn’t you?”

“Oh, yes,” Connor perked up, giving a small, self effacing smile. “My tongue has specialized sensors for analysis and categorization and is much more precise than my olfactory system. Scents are just microscopic particulates, so I can analyze them more effectively this way. I couldn’t explain what you smell like in a satisfactory way, but I can say that it contains trace chemical components of oleo-resin, Coffea arabica, and a laundry detergent made with Lavandula stoechas among other things. Thirium too.”

“They should make that into a candle,” Markus teased before querying his search engine and enlightening himself. “Gum turpentine, coffee and lavender detergent? I suppose the scents from the mansion haven’t had that much time to fade. Well,” he stepped back and gave a sweeping gesture to all of Connor. “Does it fulfill mission parameters? Does it represent you to the world?”

“I’m not sure,” he answered, thoughtfully, and looked down at himself. “I understood what my CyberLife suit meant and what it told other people, but I’m not sure what this means.” He looked back up and ran his eyes over Markus’ outfit and that strange awareness came back, lighting the sensors in the wake of his gaze in a strangely ‘seen’ feeling. “What do your clothes represent to the world?”

In a mirror of Connor, Markus spread his arms and looked down his fitted charcoal shirt and grey washed pants. “I’m.…” He looked up again with a grin. “There you go again, turning my questions back to me when I don’t have any answers. I don’t know. Once I stopped having to be seen as the intimidating Revolutionary leader, I reverted back to the sort of things I wore while I took care of Carl. If I had to define it, I suppose I would hope they make me seem approachable and grounded. It’s just the clothes I happen to have, here.”

When Connor nodded but simply looked back down at his own outfit without saying anything, Markus offered, “You could downgrade the mission urgency to something more long term, if having it incomplete causes you anxiety. I think you succeeded insofar as at least getting clothes that weren’t made by CyberLife. If you like that shirt, you can keep it.”

“Are you sure? I didn’t intend to take it from you.”

“Honestly, it looks better on you than it ever did on me. It matches your eyes.”

At this, Connor’s face brightened and he smiled, eyes hopeful. “So you like it?”

Unable to stop it and unwilling to try, Markus grinned back. “I do. You look much more comfortable.”

“Approachable?”

“Is that what you wanted?”

Connor considered this, then gave a firm nod, and Markus reached out with a reassuring smile and patted his cheek. “Very,” he said, truthfully. It seemed much easier to bridge the gap and touch him as if he were any of Markus’ other companions, though he wasn’t sure whether that was from the new clothes or their discussion yesterday.

“Good. Then it’s mission successful,” Connor said, satisfied, and decisively sat in his new red chair with an air of triumph.

Markus leaned back on his desk again, crossing his arms and watching him, “Do you need a new mission, then?”

Connor shook his head and smiled, lifting something up. As he registered it, Markus realized with a start that he had been so distracted by the newness of Connor’s appearance that he had completely overlooked the fact that he was holding a ball of dark green yarn, stuck through with 2 long wooden needles in one hand. While it was not all that alarming that Connor held such a thing, it was more than a little puzzling that he had been so unobservant. Surely Connor’s newly exposed throat wasn’t that disarming.

“Simon heard us in your room and investigated. When I told them both that you had been assigning me missions to satisfy my queue, Simon came back with this and suggested that I download how to knit, which I took as a mission. He told me it was something he had done before he became deviant and that it still brings him comfort, so he thought it might do the same for me. As it's producing a tangible result without distracting me from your safety, I think it will work very well.” He pulled out the needles and began to unwind a strand as he spoke, pooling in loose coils in his lap.

The fact that all 3 of his other companions had gone out of their way to be kind to Connor caused that pleasant ache, the squeeze around his thirium pump that he had had to disable his error codes for. Markus smiled as he watched him work, letting the feeling percolate through his chest and abdominal cavity, now that he didn't need to push it away to focus. “It sounds perfect. What are you going to make?”

“I'm not sure, yet,” Connor said, eyeing the yarn thoughtfully, flicking the hems of his sleeves back from his hands with a precise motion. “I'm going to download a catalog of patterns while I practice and then decide.”

With an airy wave, Markus made his way back around his desk as another distant peal of thunder crawled into hearing range and sat. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”

Connor nodded, LED spinning yellow as he accessed his servers. They fell into a practiced silence, easy and companionable as Markus interfaced with his terminal again and began sorting through correspondence. More requests for interviews he would have to authorize, requests from inside New Jericho for parts, for decorations, for entertainment. More hate mail as well as several letters from government officials he would have to discuss with everyone else.

When the light, regular sounds of clicking broke through his concentration, he refocused through his transparent screen to see Connor studiously stitching away, face focused and intent on his work. Sometime in the last few minutes, he had pushed his slightly too long sleeves up to the elbow and, for some reason, Markus’ gaze was drawn to his forearms, long and firm like the rest of him. Even in human culture, they were not usually considered intimate or inappropriate and Androids usually cared even less for the human convention of modesty, but Connor was so reserved and protective about his personal space that Markus had to stop himself from asking if he was really alright with them just being...out there like that. Paired with the smooth, pale expanse of his neck, having them bared made him look strangely naked and vulnerable. Not that Markus disliked it. It made him look that much warmer. Softer. It showed the ripple of movement from cables that simulated human tendon and muscle under pseudo-skin at the efficient little movements of his hands and wrists. He wasn't sure he had ever seen Connor's wrists before.

It struck him in a detached sort of way that he everything he had been feeling would probably be registered as attraction, though it made sense. Connor had been designed to be compelling, disarmingly congenial for infiltration and interrogation so it made logical sense, though it was slightly puzzling as to why it seemed to be more apparent now after a clothing change, seeing how this was not new information. Dutifully, he named the feeling and created a new file to house the reference before storing a copy within Connor’s folder as well. The steady tik-tik of the needles and the confident twist of Connor’s fingers had an almost hypnotic effect, lulling Markus into a sort of contented idle-like fugue he didn’t realize had happened until

>{Incoming call…}

>

>{Detroit Police Department...private phone}

Chapter Text

Markus straightened in his chair and frowned at the incoming call alert on his HUD. Connor’s steady knitting paused and he looked up, head cocked and brows furrowed in silent question.

“The police are calling.”

Connor stiffened in turn and set his project down in his lap, hands lifting, then stilling and falling back in an aborted movement to straighten a tie that was no longer there. “Is this scheduled?”

“No. It’s not the dispatcher, it’s a private line. Do you have any idea what this might be?”

Connor shook his head, eyes sharp on his face. “You seem worried.”

He twisted him a wry smile and said, “I haven’t had the best track record with law enforcement officers, if you’ll remember.”

Inclining his head, Connor acknowledged this while giving a small smile. “You do with one.”

Markus hummed a brief chuckle and the link chimed in his head, insistently reminding him he still hadn’t answered. “As he’s still suspended, I doubt this is him.” He held up a hand to forestall any reply and opened the line. “Hello, Markus speaking.”

“Hello Mr….uh, Markus. This is Officer Chris Miller of the Detroit Police Department?” The man sounded guarded but professional, almost as if he didn’t quite know how to treat him.

“Good morning, Officer Miller,” Markus’ eyes tracked Connor’s reaction, a release of tension in his shoulders and the return of simple curiosity to his face; a “good guy” he surmised. “Just Markus is fine. What can I help you with?”

“Well...I know you must be busy and this is sort of unorthodox but...we’re at a call for a homicide out here across town from you all and there's evidence it might be, um, your sort of thing.

Markus’ brows pinched and he repeated, “‘My sort of thing’. Deviants?”

Connor’s head tilted again, the other way. Markus wasn't sure he even knew he was doing it.

“Uh. We’re not exactly clear on that.”

“Could you...elaborate?”

“I’m not authorized to share any more information on the case with…uh….”

Markus heard him stumble spectacularly around the word ‘civilians’ with a sort of grim near-amusement and supplied, mildly. “Non-officers?”

Officer Miller let out a sigh and a self conscious chuckle. “Yeah. Sorry. This is all still a bit...new. Some of my fellow officers disagree with me asking one of you guys out here, but legally, things are seriously muddy right now, for this sort of thing. You’ll learn more when you get here and if I get authorization, but I just think it would be best if someone from your camp was here, you know?”

Markus leaned back in his chair and considered this for a few quick moments, processor whirring, eyes hooded as he linked his fingers and flicked his thumbs over one another in thought. The fact that Connor seemed to like the man, or at the very least trust him made Markus inclined to think this wasn’t some sort of ruse. He was less pleased about the lack of information, but if the officer told the truth, it sounded like he didn’t have much of a choice but to be vague. Honestly, though, any promise of Androids needing help was not something that he found it in himself to ignore and he had known it since Officer Miller had said it. “I appreciate your contacting us, then. If you give me the address, we can head out as soon as possible.”

The officer supplied him with the address Markus immediately entered into his internal GPS and opened his mouth to sign off when the man said, hesitantly, “Can...is Connor there? With you guys?”

Markus’ eyes flicked to Connor who blinked back at him, bemused. “Connor is currently in New Jericho, yes.”

“Can you send him?”

“Mm, if he wants to come, certainly. What for?”

Connor was nodding before he even finished his sentence and Markus waved him down with a small smile, standing from his desk as Officer Miller said, sheepishly, “Look, I know he’s not supposed to be at the station or whatever, but a lot of our labs are down because...uh, well, things are slow.”

“The Revolution has certainly complicated things,” Markus agreed easily with a slight smile he made sure the man heard. He was sure they were missing most of their techs; humans to evacuation, Androids to desertion or worse.

Officer Miller vented a short laugh, some of that uncertain tension bleeding out of his tone. “Heh, well, yeah. I remember he can do that analyzing thing; it would be faster if he could just tell us a more specific time of death than our guys can estimate. Can you--will he come?”

Considering the avid stare he was receiving, unblinking and unwavering on his face as Connor obviously tried to parse the other side of the conversation from his responses, Markus figured he would have a harder time keeping him here than asking him to go. “I think he would be willing to do that.”

Connor began eagerly nodding again, standing up from his chair with a slight wobble as it attempted to keep him trapped in its comfortable cushions. He turned to shoot it an irritated glare and Markus hid a snort as Officer Miller blew out a sigh of relief in a rush of static over the line. “Good. Thanks. You might want to…send a couple people. I don't think it will be a one man job.”

There was a strange note in his voice that gave Markus pause, and he stopped by his window with a frown, studying the dour streets below, some of the street lights flicking on to ward off the impending stormy gloom. “Meaning?”

“Like I said, I can't tell you much until you come down here and get let in. Just…you won't get a lot of help from my guys, I'll tell you that much. The whole thing had got them spooked. I mean,” he said, hastily. “You don't have to worry about your safety, I can guarantee it-- it's just...a grey area.”

How very cryptic and unhelpful, he did not say, instead merely thanking him and assuring they would leave soon before disconnecting. He looked at Connor who was watching him intently, an excited tension in his shoulders, knitting forgotten on the seat of his chair. “We're going?”

Despite the low grade worry that now hummed through him, a small, teasing smile curled Markus’ mouth and he said, “You really were built for investigation, weren't you?”

“I was.” He bounced, just slightly on the balls of his feet before settling back into his centered, ramrod straight stance, hands flexing unconsciously at his sides.

“Oh, I don't know, Connor, you really don't seem like you want to go,” Markus said lightly with a shrug as he moved past him to the door.

“Markus,” came from behind him, flatly.

He glanced back innocently, hand on the doorknob to find Connor glaring at him with much the same irritation as he had directed at his delinquent chair.

“New mission. Stop being insufferable.”

Delight bounced through him at his own words parroted back and he threw his head back to laugh before pulling the door open for them both. “Oh, very nice! Yes, we're going. There was a homicide of some kind across town and he couldn't give me specifics but there's something to do with Androids, if I'm reading in between the lines correctly--because I can't fathom any other reason they would contact me. They would appreciate your help with analysis.” He tapped his own mouth by way of explanation. “Could you call us an auto-taxi, please?”

“I ordered one as soon as you mentioned going somewhere,” Connor replied promptly. “Its estimated arrival time is 5 minutes.”

“You are nothing if not thorough.”

In the end, North and Josh both declined to become entangled in police business when he sought them out and explained their situation. North declared that she was not in the mood for humans today and, though Josh had asked--to no one in particular--when she was in the mood for humans, he had also expressed a distaste, for the police specifically.

“It’s not that I don’t trust them. It’s just that...well, I don’t. You’re sure this is a good idea?”

“If our standing is respected enough to be called on to assist official police business, I can only see this as a step in the right direction. This is a good thing,” Markus had replied and had actually meant it. Just maybe not at the level of confidence he had said it with.

Simon had been the only one to nervously agree to follow them with a few volunteers in another auto-taxi that he ordered up as they left him to go greet their own. Markus hoped that he would be able to find at least a handful, though he couldn’t honestly blame them for their reticence; even he was wary of the prospect of interacting with the law again so soon after being on the receiving end of their gunfire. Especially given the ominous dearth of information on the case.

Connor, however, seemed chipper throughout their joint auto-taxi ride, gazing with interest at the cloud-gloomed scenery passing by the windows, blue LED spinning happy and bright in the dimness of the car. Markus watched him with a small smile. “I don’t think I’ve seen you this excited before. And over a homicide.”

“It’s not the homicide that--” Connor paused and squinted at him and when Markus’ smile widened to a grin, he relaxed. “You’re teasing me again.”

“I am. I feel like you’re comfortable enough with it to at least have a sporting chance,” Markus replied, amused, as he adjusted the collar of the severe black jacket he had donned before leaving.

Much like Connor’s CyberLife suit had been, he, too, had armor he felt that he should wear when away from New Jericho. With other Androids, he felt no need for pretense or calculation. But with the humans, he still felt that he needed the edge that the sharp lines and high collar afforded to his persona. It wasn’t that he lacked confidence; it just never hurt to subconsciously telegraph it. Connor watched him curiously, head cocked. “Should I have changed?”

Markus shrugged and folded his hands in his lap, content to run his gaze over Connor’s outfit again, soft and dark and noted that he sat more casually when comfortable, knees farther apart, one leg joggling absently. “I don’t think it’s necessary. I just have a certain image to uphold while we’re still in the weeds, so to speak.” When Connor’s eyebrows pinched in confusion, he rephrased. “While we’re still in negotiations with them and things are complicated, it’s in our best interest that I dress the part, as the representative of New Jericho. I don’t think that your dressing down will have any negative effects and I’m just happy you’re comfortable. So. This Officer Miller; he’s trustworthy?”

Connor looked back out the window and nodded, the movement pulling the cut of his jaw into sharper focus. “He was always polite to me whenever I encountered him and Hank likes him. I don't think he harbors any specific anti-Android sentiments; no more than any average human. I don't think we need to expect any trouble from him.”

Immediately Markus’ estimation of the man ratcheted up much higher than the modest neutrality it had been and he nodded back thoughtfully. The last background preconstruction program assembling procedures for the statistically unlikely possibility of an ambush dissolved. “Good.”

The ambling drive took about 20 minutes, winding its way through the still mostly barren downtown, devoid of the majority of its human inhabitants and thus most of its traffic. Paired with the threatening darkness of the overcast sky, promising rain it had yet to unleash, it felt uneasily like the calm before the storm, the emptiness before the tide of humanity came crashing back down around them to further complicate an endlessly complex situation. The fact that they were heading toward a murder with some unknown Android involvement further drained whatever levity he had gained with Connor earlier and he felt a distinctly grim pall fall over his face. As the minutes ticked by in easy silence, the sinking bleakness of the situation met with the electric little zing both his knee servos let loose at once and made him wince with a grimace. Connor glanced at him sideways, probably surreptitiously scanning him but said nothing, leaving him to his thoughts.

The houses grew larger, the estates wider and father between but they also became increasingly more dilapidated. Many of them looked as if they were old money mansions that had slowly fallen into disrepair; some of them seemed to have been abandoned altogether. By the time the taxi trilled a brief, cheerful jingle and began to slow, they were approaching a slew of flashing police cars clustered in a blockade in the road alongside a low brick fence set with iron spikes, dotted with corrugated sheets of metal to cover holes. Beyond it, a large house, at once imposing and decomposing, reared up against the trees beyond and the murky cloud cover that had finally begun to sprinkle the windshield with intermittent drops.

It was dark, half choked with ivy and part of the roof on the middle tower had obviously collapsed, patched haphazardly with a tarp. It all spoke of a decaying wealth, a once-grand haughtiness that had crumbled from inattention.

2 officers that were talking over roof of their car glanced over at their taxi curiously as they pulled up, but made no move toward it. The sight of their uniforms and the sidearms at their hips sent a quiet stress level warning up in the corner of his HUD; 7%, low and unobtrusive, but there nonetheless. Not fear, not exactly. It was a strange flavor of tension that pulled his spinal column straight and his jaw set. With a happy bing-bong, the taxi finally stopped and the automated voice announced they had arrived at their destination, thanking them for using the Detroit taxi service.

“Are you alright?” Connor was watching him closely, eyes worried, LED blue, but flickering. Ah, that’s right--he could read stress levels.

Markus flicked on and off a brief smile he knew didn’t reach his eyes, not interested in committing to a lie he didn’t feel. “I am. Not happy, but I’m alright. It’s necessary and things are different, now.”

Connor nodded, but the worry stayed. Hesitantly, he reached out a hand, palm up and, surprised, Markus reached out and clasped it, wrapping his fingers around the base of Connor’s thumb as his hand curled around his. “I’m here,” Connor said, firmly, meeting his gaze with intent.

A slow, real smile spread across his face and he felt tension he hadn’t even known he held release in the nanomesh of skin around his eyes and temples. He nodded. “You are.”

It wasn’t as if he consciously feared an attack or even anything more than mild unpleasantness, but the reminder that he was backed by someone like Connor made it feel as if a weight had shifted. It wasn’t gone, but it felt more grounded; shared.

Stress levels: ▼2%

With a brief squeeze, Markus released his hand and opened the door, letting in a rush of chill wet air that carried the scents of loam, ozone, and decomposition. He hitched his shoulders to resettle his jacket and made his way briskly to the edge of the holo-police line as soon as Connor exited behind him. As they approached, the driver side door of the police car nearest the wall opened and a dark skinned officer in good physical health made his way forward, a look of slightly daunted surprise on his face.

“Oh! Uh, you came. When you said ‘we’ I-I thought you would, I dunno, send someone,” he said as he reached out to shake his hand. “I’m Officer Chris Miller; thanks for coming out, Mr. Markus. I appreciate it.” He glanced over Markus’ shoulder and ducked his head in a nod. “Hello again, Connor. Almost didn’t recognize you without your suit on.”

“Good morning, Officer Miller,” Connor returned with his own nod.

Markus let go with a smile. “Like I said, just Markus is fine. Pleased to meet you, Officer.”

Something strange, almost like sheepishness, almost like nerves crossed his face and he gave short chuckle with a shrug. “We’ve met before, actually, though I don’t know if you would remember. Near Capitol Park, a few weeks ago? You, uh, you didn’t shoot me?”

Startled, his processor whirred and his optics sharpened, scanning him closer--absorbing his badge number, the details of his face and measurements, running a comparison search through his memory banks of the night they had transformed Capitol Park. The faces of the police officers he had refused to shoot had rolled over him like so much water over glass whereas the dead eyes of his murdered people laying in the streets were burned into him forever. As they all were.

But there it was, pinging match after match on his eyes, his voice, the same as the man on his knees before him in the snow thick street that night. He sounded different when his voice was not choked with terror and tears, begging for his life, though he supposed anyone would. The gun had been heavier in his hand than he would have expected. It seemed like a lifetime ago.

“Oh. Well...then, hello again. I’m glad we’re meeting under better circumstances.”

Officer Miller shook his head. “I don’t think I ever thanked you for that, so...thank you. And... I’m sorry. About what we did. I...I didn’t know.”

He felt the ghost of the grip of that gun in his palm again, as if the man were bowing his head, as if could pull the trigger all over again, if he wanted. He knew what North would say. He could feel Connor’s eyes on him. Deliberately, he relaxed his shoulders and nodded. “The information you had was flawed and the learning curve we all have is steep. But thank you. I hope we that we do what we can to heal; I don’t believe in keeping score.”

There was real shame in the human’s eyes and it helped the looseness of Markus’ stance be real. “I...me too.”

Markus looked up at the dark windows of the house, empty and bleak, and asked, “So are we authorized to know more about the situation? I can’t do much if I don’t know what’s going on.”

“Oh, yeah, the Captain authorized it. Come this way.”

He lead them through the holo-line and the tall, rusty gate then around the weed choked side yard, overgrown and wild. The paint on the house was faded and peeling. The scent of decay grew stronger.

“We got a call this morning that a neighbor had come to check on the place because they hadn’t seen lights and the gate was open. When we did a wellness check, we found the body in the backyard--cause of death seems to be blunt force trauma,” Miller rattled off, the stilted self-consciousness gone, now that he was on familiar ground, so to speak.

A twisted and bloated body lay in the grass next to a splitting block, bruised, discolored, and very very dead. Markus fit his hands into his pockets and hung back as Connor came forward to kneel beside it, examining it and the surrounding area with obvious interest. A dead human was not why he was here and he had no interest in getting closer. Death held no disgust for him and, while the scent of the body’s decomposition did not register as pleasant, it was more a lack of anything productive he might have to offer. His knowledge was in healing and care; there was nothing more that he could do for this man. The light and irregular rain prickled along the sensors on his scalp and neck, sending a thread of unease that ticked up the numbers of his stress levels incrementally. There was no static, no intruding memories, but his neural net still had the pathway forged between the feeling of rain and the junkyard. Markus strove to ignore it.

Miller continued, taking out a notebook and flipped it open, holding up a hand to shield it ineffectually from the tiny spits of rain. “The property is owned by a Zlatko Andronikov. Apparently the guy is something of a recluse, and his neighbors barely ever see him, though he seems to have visitors regularly. Checked his records and it looks like he’s in the business of refurbishing and selling Androids because we found dozens of sales in his name, some legal, some not-so-legal. We’re thinking that this is him.”

Connor nodded, reaching out 2 fingers and swiping at a crust of dried blood at the corner of a gash in the dead man’s forehead and brought it to his mouth, licking it away. Briefly, Markus’ processor spun a train of thought wondering whether Connor had a salivary equivalent lubrication that would reconstitute dried samples, as this one was, or whether his tongue would feel more just like any other part of his pseudo-skin, cool and smooth. The shine on his fingertips as he grew still, analyzing his sample, seemed to suggest that he did. Markus wondered what its composition was. Maybe he would ask him at a more appropriate time.

“You’re correct, Officer Miller, this is Zlatko Andronikov. He has been dead for approximately 11 days,” Connor announced, rising back to his feet and Miller nodded, taking out a pen and jotting down something in his notebook.

“That’s what we thought, but I wanted to confirm. Thanks, Connor, we’ve had to scramble a bit after everything, so we appreciate you helping us out.”

Connor smiled and nodded back, looking pleased. “Of course.”

He turned to Markus, presumably to speak but his eyes focused on something over his shoulder and his expression fell into the oddest mix of exasperation and apprehension. His eyes flickered to and from Markus’ face and a new, dawning concern overtook it, LED wheeling with tiny spurts of yellow in the blue. Markus began to turn his head but, suddenly, Connor’s hand was an iron grip on his arm stopping him and he blinked, startled.

“Markus, are you still experiencing what we talked about on the roof?” he asked in a hurried tone, soft enough that Officer Miller didn’t look up and low enough that the unique rasp in his voice became more pronounced.

“Which--my malfunction?”

“The protectiveness.”

“Of you? Yes.”

Strangely, a grimace twitched Connor’s mouth before it smoothed into a practiced neutrality, still looking over his shoulder. “There is a detective with strong anti-Android principles who has previously enjoyed abusing me--”

{E̷r̸r̶o̸r̶-}

He deliberately quashed it and listened.

“--and the last time that I encountered him, I knocked him unconscious after he attempted to shoot me for breaking into the evidence room. He’s unpredictable and I have no idea what he will do when he sees you here. Or me, for that matter. I expect at the very least it will involve a lot of verbal abuse and he’s coming this way, but I expect it would make him very happy if he were to make the leader of the Android Revolution lose his temper.”

Markus covered Connor’s hand with his own and gave a small smile. “Thank you for the warning. I will control myself.”

“Well, fuck ,” rang out stridently behind him. “Look at who thinks he can just show back up after assaulting a police officer and ruining the fucking world.”

Promptly, his processor made a file for this man and rammed

???▼▼▼

Hostile into the relationship status, but he was gripping this thing figuratively with both hands, now, and turned casually, dropping his hand as Connor’s slid away from his arm. “I wonder which he’s more offended over,” he muttered to Connor, who clearly bit back a smile. A warmth spread through his abdominal cavity.

“Aw, shit,” Miller groaned to himself.

The man was dressed casually in a leather jacket and had an unpleasant face where his sneer looked quite comfortable, as if it lived there quite often. He made a show of slowly swaggering over, raking his eyes up and down Markus disdainfully and he noted that nothing in the man’s gaze woke his sensors with that electric aliveness he had felt earlier. The other person that had come back with him, a short Asian woman, was standing off to the side, regarding her fellow officer with a sort of wary discomfort. She kept glancing at and then away from Markus. His processor automatically scanned them and diagnosed general good health, though the man had a yellowing of nicotine on his fingers that suggested a long smoking habit.

“Hello, Detective Reed,” Connor said levelly.

Detective Reed swivelled to sneer at Connor and Markus found that he deeply did not like that. “Good morning, Detective,” he cut in before he could say anything, voice pleasant, and the ominous roil in his processor subsided, slightly, as it caused Reed to turn back to him.

“You’re that robot asshole who fucked up my city, aren’t you?”

Markus held out his hand with the warmest false smile he could muster to look real and said, “I’m Markus. Officer Miller asked for our assistance today.”

The human regarded his hand as if he were trying to hand him something exceptionally unpleasant and possibly obscene and made no move to take it, as Markus had known he wouldn’t. “C’mon, Reed, don’t do this. Fowler authorized them and they’re doing us a favor,” Officer Miller warned, drawing closer. “Just let it go.”

“They’ve got no business being here. Actually, they’ve got no business being anywhere , especially that one,” he jabbed a finger at Connor, who looked back at him coolly. Tightly, tightly, hold on. “He belongs in the fucking scrapyard. Or better yet, in one of those bonfires. Do you think any of those camps are still open?”

“Jesus, Reed--!”

A sharp, acid flare shot straight through Markus’ entirety, a complex, aching arc of rage and sorrow and violence and regret and the need to hold, the need to protect --not just Connor, but all his people from humans like this one and he stepped forward, in between Connor and Detective Reed. It brought him too close for the calculation of personal space that humans kept between themselves and their acquaintances, but the human didn’t back up, glaring up into his face in triumph. But Markus’s expression was calm, he made sure of that, and he said, quiet and steady, “Your conduct is an enormous disservice to the establishment that you represent. Your lack of empathy and decorum are disgraceful and I have stayed silent for people like you for long enough. I would like you to leave Connor alone.”

Reed’s face twisted and he puffed up his chest, leaning up to put his face in Markus’, “You think--”

Deliberately, Markus turned his head to look at Officer Miller without leaning back at all and said, “I would like to know why we were called here, Officer. I’m not going to stand here and let my companion be abused.”

“Of course, I’m--damnit, Reed, back off!” Miller came forward and grabbed his arm, pulling him away.

Reed wrenched out of his grip with a snarl. The officer behind him took a hesitant step forward, saying, “Gavin, we should--”

“These fuckin’ glorified coffee makers aren’t gonna kick me out of my goddamn crime scene because they think they have feelings --”

“No one’s asking you to leave, Detective, just to stop insulting the people called here to consult,” Markus broke in calmly, earning him a snarl of his own.

“You’re not people ,” he spat, jabbing a finger at them both.

“The president disagrees.”

“Fuck her. And fuck you! You’d better watch your goddamn back, tin can, because one of these days--!”

“Detective Reed, if you threaten Markus, I’m going to classify that as a hostile action and act accordingly.” Connor was suddenly beside him instead of behind him, his jaw a tight line and his shoulders square. His LED flashed red, then back to yellow, blinking.

Humans could turn such interesting colors, such as the strange, mottled shade of maroon that was now covering Detective Reed’s face, though it didn’t fully hide the slight widening of his eyes before they narrowed into mean slits. As gratifying as his protection was, Markus truly didn’t want the complication of having to wade through the politics of Connor attacking a police officer (again) and he laid a staying hand on his shoulder.

“You think you can get away with assaulting an officer again? I have a gun , you piece of shit.”

{̷Y̷O̴U̴-̷-̶}̴

That savage buck of fury was harder to cut down. His hand tightened on Connor’s shoulder, biting into the soft fabric of his shirt.

Stress levels: ▲17%

It was time to end this. “Detective, if you can’t control yourself, we’re leaving.”

“That would suit me just fine, you fucker,” he shot right back and Miller thrust an imploring hand out at the woman.

Gavin , you were just saying that you weren’t going to deal with all of them,” she finally came up and put a hand on his shoulder he didn’t immediately shake off. “Come on, let’s just go to the front.”

“Yeah, man, you’re way out of line,” Miller added. “I’m gonna have to call Fowler if you can’t get yourself in order. They’re doing us a favor .”

Fighting the urge to get testy, Markus broke in, voice still level, “That actually remains to be seen, because we still don’t know what we’re doing here. Who is ‘all of them’?”

Officer Miller said nothing as he stared at the Detective, who was breathing like a winded horse, glaring between Connor and Markus. Then, his face screwed up in a puckered look of impotent rage and he explosively squeezed out the word, “ Fuck! ” before spinning on his heel and stomping away, trailed by his exasperated partner.  

The shoulder under his palm relaxed minutely, the singing tension that had held it taut in readiness only slightly abated and Connor looked at him, eyes bright and fiercely questioning.

“Alright?” Markus murmured.

“Alright,” Connor confirmed, quietly.

Markus squeezed and dropped his hand. “Officer? My people will be here soon, I’d like to be able to tell them what’s going on.”

“Jesus, I’m sorry. I thought--well, I don’t know why, but I thought he could at least control himself. Really, I’m--” he blew out a sigh and took off his hat, scrubbing a palm over his head. “Hell. I’m sorry, you guys. Okay. Okay. To the point. We searched his house and found...it’s really gruesome. He had a bunch of Androids and he...honestly, you sort of have to see.”

Chapter Text

As they followed Officer Miller back around the house, Markus noted that, though there were no less than 5 police vehicles, all of the other officers had hung back at the blockade outside the fence. Now that they were here, a few of them had clustered wordlessly at the gate, watching them go in. “Yeah,” Miller said when he saw Markus notice them. “I told you; they’re really spooked, didn’t want to have anything to do with this. It’s part of why I called you here.” He held one of the wide front double doors open for the both of them.

The scents from inside the house swam out to enfold them, smothering the smell of the moist earth and death with spoiled food, dust, soot, burned plastic, and, underneath it all, the sharp metal scent of thirium 310. A lot of it. The tension squeezing his stress levels up to 20% on his HUD, Markus shot a look at Connor, who gave him a sharp nod of affirmation. They said nothing as Officer Miller led them through the wide foyer down the steps into the drier, chiller air of the basement, the walls giving way from ornate faded wallpaper to soiled, exposed brick, wood floor to dirt.

“Our officer searched the house, first, when no one answered, and heard movement down here when he opened the front door. When he called and no one responded, he came down here and found them all, his Androids. It shocked him real bad and he called in backup after hightailing it out of the house pretty damn quick. That’s when we organized a full search and found the body in the back,” Miller explained as he glanced over his shoulder at them, leading them down a narrow corridor that revealed what looked like darkened stables beyond. “We’re...we’re fairly certain that the injuries that Andronikov sustained were caused by them but...it seems like it was some sort of self defense. A few weeks ago, we would have had one course of action.” Immediate deactivation was left diplomatically unsaid and Markus’ hands clenched involuntarily. “But now...there’s no legal precedent for this. The laws haven't changed but you all are in the process of...I dunno what to call it--being recognized as people? So… we can't really legally arrest them but we can't just leave them here. We're hoping you can hold them until things get less muddy.”

“Any Android who wants to come to New Jericho is welcome,” Markus replied, carefully.

He would not promise to hold anyone for the police; if these people came under his protection, he was not giving them back, no matter what was decided.

“If it was self defense, there wouldn't be any charges leveled against victims of assault, surely,” Connor said from behind him, sounding vaguely perturbed.

Miller shrugged helplessly. “There will still probably be a trial. I honestly couldn't tell you, Connor, this is all kinds of fucked up.”

Then, he stopped halfway down the hall and shifted uneasily, clearly reluctant to go farther. Markus steadily made his way past him, Connor right at his heels and he approached the first half wall at the end of the corridor, lifting the semi-transparent tarp that hung haphazardly over the wooden bars. Beyond was gloom, deep and oppressive despite the pools of sharp light flung by the spotlights high on the wall of the hallway behind them, but tiny pinpoints of light moved slowly, irregularly--red cycling, a flash of double orange or yellow. He blinked, night vision activating and slotting seamlessly over his primary optics, sharpening the shapes beyond. The millisecond they registered, he was already through the gate to the room. Behind him, Connor let out some noise of protest that he barely heard.

Stress levels: ▲▲▲67%

W̵A̸R̷N̶I̶N̴G̴:̵ ̷L̶O̶W̴E̵R̸ ̵S̵T̷R̸E̶S̷S̵ ̷L̴E̸V̴E̸L̷S̸

The forms resolved into broken shapes, hunched or crooked or jagged. Too many limbs or not enough, split chassis, gouged plating, bits torn and reattached. Missing. Bleeding. He could see their eyes or where they should have been, turned to him, wary. Scared. His people.

A sharp, aching throbbing, a cold horror had latched onto his thirium pump and radiated through his chest until he felt like he would shake apart. His processor was a shocked blank, just echoes of a deep, slow rage, a searing pain, a drowning sorrow. His people.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, moving slowly deeper, holding out his hands. “I’m so sorry for what’s been done to you. Please let me help. Please.”

At his words, a susurration of whispers hissed out like a breeze, a rustling, a creaking. The scent of thirium and the ozone of exposed wires and coils was overpowering. The scent of their agony. Ghost-rain spattered its tattoo on his arms, his head and back, but he focused on the tortured forms around him, drawing slowly nearer. A blackened hand crept out and he bled back his synth-flesh until his plating blazed white in the darkness of his enhanced vision, offering. She grasped it, her melted joints creaking, jumbled fingers fragile in his grip and he fell.

{̴̦͗Ẹ̷̛r̷̳̒r̴͈͝o̴̒͜r̸̠̂}̶͕̕

Life was fire. Life was agony. The blurred melting and charring, the red and white blare of error after error after system failure. Life was red and then life was nothing; muted echoes, the hiss of broken coils, the ever-present ping of garbled error messages shattering themselves across his processor. Darkness.

{̴̬͝E̴̱̍ṛ̷͗r̴̖͙̓o̴̗͈͐r̸̦͐}̵̫̋̕

When he was him and she was her again, every seam in his body throbbed with some psychosomatic current, a pulse of their shared thirium pumps. He was wrapped entirely around her, face pressed into the charred and bubbled surface of her ruined neck and she clung to him, radiating grief and wanting. She wanted to know joy. He opened his entirety to her and let her find it.

Her name was Laura.

Others reached out and Markus reached back. When they could not reach, he took their faces in his bare-plated hands and welcomed them in, telling them I am sorry and you are whole and you did not deserve this you have been so so betrayed I am so so so until words became a meaningless rush of static. The scent of garbage was overpowering. Each was different; Leto him was empty, crawling apart; Ivan him was melted together and rage and regret; Jenna him was error codes from biocomponents slammed where they did not belong and deep, deep fear; he was just parts, just jumbled wires and cables and grating plastic and sparks and thirium and loose shards of memories. You are people, you are alive, you are alive. It crawled along his synth flesh in waves, underneath the rain, bleeding into the past. You are alive . He was peeled.

{̵͉̊Ḛ̵̘̈́r̶̥̚r̵͔̆͗ǫ̶̫͑r̸̘͉͂}̵̫̏

S̷̸̷t̵̶̷r̸̵̶e̸̵̵s̵̸̸s̵̵̷ ̴̵̸l̷̴̵e̵̷̵v̷̴̴e̵̴̷l̴̸̶s̶̷̴:▲̴̲͎̈́͝▲̷͍̋̉-̸̴̶̶̴̸̴̴̷̸̶̱̟̎͝-̴̸̶̷̸̸̵̷̸̵̴̧̜̄̔-̸̶̴̵̵̵̴̷̷̸̴̳̼̈́͘-̴̴̸̵̵̴̷̷̷̷̶̰͈̿͘▲̸̖̄̓▲̴̧̢̎-̴̵̷̷̶̸̶̶̵̶̷͖͕̑̾-̸̴̶̶̴̸̴̴̷̸̶̱̟̎͝-̴̸̶̷̸̸̵̷̸̵̴̧̜̄̔▲̷̯̒-̵̸̶̶̵̶̷̸̶̴̴̭̤̈́̄-̴̵̷̷̶̸̶̶̵̶̷͖͕̑̾-̸̴̶̶̴̸̴̴̷̸̶̱̟̎͝-̴̸̶̷̸̸̵̷̸̵̴̧̜̄̔-̸̶̴̵̵̵̴̷̷̸̴̳̼̈́͘-̴̴̸̵̵̴̷̷̷̷̶̰͈̿͘%̶̷̶̴̷͎̥̣̥̩͒̍́͘͝

W̶̸̶̵̴̴̵̴̷̴̴̻̦͛̅Ǎ̵̸̵̵̵̷̵̷̶̸̵͍̫̿a̷̵̵̸̶̷̶̴̵̵̶̹͓̐R̵̴̶̴̶̵̷̸̸̶̵͍̳͐̕Ṇ̵̵̴̸̸̵̵̸̵̴̸̢̅͝i̷̵̸̷̸̸̸̶̴̴̵͎̼͐͑N̷̴̴̶̴̵̷̷̸̷̵̞̹̾G̵̵̶̸̵̷̶̸̴̵̷̲̹̎̑:

There was more. They told him. They were not the only ones in this house. And so he must find them.

Darkened rooms and moth eaten, moldy fabric. Wood underneath his palms. There.

Ava. She was so grateful. She was ready. He helped her die without pain.

Gently, now.

{̷̺͖̌̏̿E̸̢̯̻̼̜̝͒͊͗̊̿͝r̶̡̠̬͚̝͊̄̇̀̔͜͠r̶͍̆ő̴͍̜̥̞ṛ̴̥͋̌}̴̠͆̉͘̚

“Markus.”

Yes, that was right. Somewhere. A room, a table with a body, already gone, too far to be helped, but others, scattered around, reaching, begging. They hadn’t been able to run, they told him, and where would they have gone? They knew all that waited outside. There was nothing but wasting away, here. <Not anymore. I have you.>

Rain.

{̴̷̴̸̸̸̶̗̖́̚{̸̴̸̵̸͇͐Ȩ̵̶̷̸̶̶̷̶͎̈́̂͘r̵̸̴̴̸̷̴̜̹̰̍|̴r̸̷̷̷̶̝͋ọ̷̵̷̷̵̶̝̒r̴̶̷̵̷̷̸̶̵̪̦̯̃̓̇}̸̸̸̶̸̵̵̹͉͛̏

<seeing you makes me want to die in the best way possible. there is a mercy in this world, there is release. we are free .>

<You are free. You can live.>

John had not considered this. It was so nice to be held.

It was.

A roll of thunder, a roll of static and there was a bear, huge and white. He stilled, unsure if it was a memory, but it blinked, it moved, he could smell the burnt fur. Reaching. A hand caught his wrist. Dark eyes. A yellow ring. Something speaking. Someone.

“--Take. Care. Of. It. We. Will. Take. Care. Of It. We. Will--”

Oh. A bass growl, loud enough to rattle the coils in his chest. That was alright, then. There were hands all over him. There were shards in his servos. He moved on.

Chunks gone. Holes in the database. Blank. <I'm I'm I'm I'm>

<You are. We are.>

{̶̷̸̷̴̴̳̓̒/̵̴̷̴̴̷̷̶̸̠̙͍͐̐(̸̶̵̶̸̷̶̸̵̞͚̻͇̓̚E̶̵̷̷̷̶̴̶͙͉̙͗̃r̷̴̸̸̵̶̵̴̵̶̢͓̤̭̃͒͝r̷̷̵̴̶̛̪ǒ̶̴̶̵̷̶̵̸̢̬̞͜r̵̵̵̷̵̶̸̴̴̴̛̬͔̯̿͂̈́}̵̶̷̸̶̴̴̸̴̸̠̰̭̉̂̒}̶̴̵̷̷̵̪̌̋

Aaron wanted everything and he gave it, a dam burst, a lever set to open. Memories and scents and jokes and gunshots spilled through them. Whatever you need, you can have it . There was no him. He was him.

{̵̵̴̸̶̸̴̴̶̷̷̴̷̧{̷̶̶̶̵̸̸̵̵̴̷̸̴̣̚{̷̶̸̵̴̶̴̶̴̶̶̵̷̺E̷̸̸̵̶̸̸̴̷̴̴̵̶̬̓r̷̷̸̸̷̷̴̷̴̵̶̶̴̞̈́r̴̶̷̴̶̶̸̶̵̴̸̷̶͚͝/̶̴̵̷̷̸̶̶̵̷̵̸̴̡o̸̶̶̶̷̵̸̵̸̶̸̸̶͈r̷̶̴̷̴̶̸̸̶̷̷̶̸̛͖}̸̸̶̸̸̴̷̸̸̸̸̷̵̩̈)̷̴̴̶̸̴̵̷̸̶̷̸̷̱̾\̵̸̶̴̶̵̷̵̶̴̶̸̸̦͐

There. In the bathtub. A tangle. Code snarled back on itself. He loved the man who had done this and wanted him to die. “Where is he?! The master! The master! Where where where?! ” Thirium spilled over his lips.

<Gone. Sorry, so sorry.> So so so so--

Liam stopped screaming eventually. He moved on. He didn't want him. That was alright.

\̴̷̶̶̷̴̸̴̵̷̷̸̴̵̶̵̸̵̸̶̶̸̵̴̵̶̴̸̸̸̶̷̶̸̶̸̴̵̷̷̴̴̯̭̭͒}̷̸̸̶̷̷̸̴̷̴̶̴̷̴̷̷͖̈̏E̴̵̵̷̶̶̶̷̷̴̷̴̴̵̶̴̫̔̕r̶̶̶̸̵̷̵̷̴̵̵̴̸̶̷̵̸̸̵̳̳̝͐ŗ̴̶̷̴̶̶̸̶̵̴̸̷̶̸̶̴̴̶̴̶̷̴̴̶̶̶̷̵̵͚͆͝͠r̶̵̶̸̸̸̸̵̶̶̴̴̷̶̷̸̷̵̴̷̵͉̟̐̋͗o̷̵̶̷̶̸̵̶̷̸̵̷̶̶̶̷̷̶̶̴̷̸̶̴̸̶̷̸̸̴̴̴̵̶̶̷̵̵̶̸̸̸̴͚͊͐̏r̵̷̵̸̸̷̷̷̸̶̷̵̵̶̶̸̸̸̶̵̶̵̡͈̫̒͠}̵̶̷̸̶̴̴̸̴̸̠̰̭̉̂̒

A scalpel, deep, cold. Split.

\̴̷̶̶̷̴̸̴̵̷̷̸̴̵̶̵̸̵̸̶̶̸̵̴̵̶̴̸̸̸̶̷̶̸̶̸̴̵̷̷̴̴̵̯̭̭͒>̷̵̴̷̶̵̷̴̴̴̴̷̵̸̶̶̶̸̵̶̸̸̴̴̶̷̷̶̸̶̷̷̵̷̸̴̩͇͛{̷̴̵̷̸̵̵̸̵̸̷̷̶̶̸̶̶̶̶̸̷̵̸̶̸̵̸̶̸̶̵̸̴̷̶̴̶̵̴̷̸̷̵̠̠̌̊E̸̷̶̷̶̵̸̵̸̸̴̶̴̸̴̴̷̴̸̴̷̴̵̷̴̷̴̷̶̴̵̶̶̴̷̴̠̾͗r̸̵̸̷̸̵̴̶̶̵̶̷̶̵̶̸̴̶̴̷̷̵̴̷̴̷̶̶̴̭͝r̵̴̶̷̴̸̷̶̶̸̵̷̵̶̸̷̵̸̷̵̵̴̷̵̵̶̵̷̸̴̵̵̷̶̸̶̴̵̵̶̷̸̵̶̴̷̵̴̶̷̡̗͑̃͘/̵̷̸̴̶̸̸̵̴̴̵̵̵̵̵̵̷̶̴̷̸̴̸̷̵̶̵̴̷̸̸̷̸̸̴̶͕̣̐o̷̵̶̷̶̸̵̶̷̸̵̷̶̶̶̷̷̶̶̴̷̸̶̴̸̶̷̸̸̴̴̴̵̶̶̷̵̵̶̸̸̸̴͚͊͐̏r̴̸̴̸̷̴̵̴̴̸̵̶̵̸̵̶̷̸̶̸̸̴̸̸̴̴̵̸̵̸̴̵̷̴̴̷̥͌͘.̶̵̶̵̴̵̵̶̸̴̶̸̷̸̶̴̷̴̴̵̸̶̶̵̷̵̶̸̴̴̴̶̵̸̸̸̴̸̷̵̸̴̸̵̴̷̵̸̴̷̢̭̒̇͠}̷̷̶̷̴̸̶̷̷̴̷̴̶̴̴̶̸̴̸̸̶̸̶̸̸̴̶̶̷̴̶̶̵̴̶̶̴̵̶̴̵̶̵̴̶̶̵̸̶̴̧̥͑̈́͝

“What if you didn’t have a spine, eh?”

{̸̴̵̷̴̶̵̵̸̸̷̸̴̶̷̷̸̶̶̡̹̦̍}̷̸̸̶̷̷̸̴̷̴̶̴̷̴̷̷͖̈̏E̵̴̴̴̸̷̶̷̷̴̵̵̶̸̷̸̷̷̴̴̶̷̸̴̷̵̷̷̸̥͑r̶̶̶̸̵̷̵̷̴̵̵̴̸̶̷̵̸̸̵̳̳̝͐.̸̶̴̴̶̴̶̷̴̴̶̶̶̷̵̵̧͆͠r̶̵̶̸̸̸̸̵̶̶̴̴̷̶̷̸̷̵̴̷̵̴͉̟̐̋͗o̴̷̵̶̶̷̷̵̴̴̶̷̴̶̵̶̷̵̸̟͑̽̇r̵̷̵̸̸̷̷̷̸̶̷̵̵̶̶̸̸̸̶̵̶̵̡͈̫̒͠}̴̷̴̵̷̶̴̶̷̴̵̵̴̶̴̵̶̸̵̴̴̸̺͜͝͝\̵̶̶̶̸̴̵̷̸̸̷̷̸̷̴̶̵̶̵̵̵̵̸̷̷̦͕̬͛̈́̄

She let go the moment they touched--she just wanted that last warmth. He followed her to the edge. Released.

The woman in the woods out back was already dead. Cold. We are alive.

{̵̶̷̴̸̷̴̵̵̵̵̴̸̵̵̵̶̸̸̶̶̸̸̵̶̵̷̵̸̶̵̵̸̸̷̵̵̷̵̶̶̵̷̸̶̸̷̴̷̸̵̷̴̶̴̵̵̷̵̷̴̴̵̸̸̸̷̶̷̸̴̸̵̵̵̸̵̴̸̶̸̶̸̵̴̸̸̸̸̶̶̴̶̶̵̸̴̴̸̸̴̷̶̸̶̶̸̶̶̵̷̴̷̸̸̴̴̷̴̷̵̵̶̸̶̶̸̷̵̶̷̵̸̸̶̶̷̷̷̸̶̵̴̴̵̷̴̷̴̴̴̷̶̷̶̸̶̸̶̸̸̶̶̵̶̴̷̷̶̴̷̴̶̶̷̴̷̵̷̷̸̵̶̵̵̶̷̸̴̸̵̸̸̵̴̸̴̵̶̶̵̴̸̶̶̷̸̶̸̵̵̷̸̶̸̴̴̷̴̷̴̴̷̴̴̴̷̴̶̵̸̴̷̴̷̴̴̷̸̴̸̴̵̸̷̷̴̵̴̵̵̸̶̧{̴̷̸̸̴̸̴̴̸̸̶̷̷̵̵̷̸̸̶̶̵̶̵̶̸̴̵̶̵̷̴̶̴̸̴̴̶̷̸̶̴̸̶̴̶̵̴̶̶̸̴̵̴̵̶̶̸̷̴̷̷̵̵̶̶̸̸̵̶̵̵̵̷̵̷̸̶̸̸̵̸̴̸̸̸̸̶̷̸̶̷̶̷̴̸̸̴̷̸̷̷̶̵̵̴̸̷̶̷̸̷̸̷̶̵̸̸̶̴̷̷̴̸̶̵̶̷̶̷̸̴̸̴̸̴̴̶̸̶̸̶̵̵̷̵̸̴̸̸̵̸̴̷̶̷̵̶̸̵̴̶̸̸̶̶̸̵̵̵̶̷̷̶̸̴̷̶̵̸̴̶̶̶̴̵̵̷̶̵̸̷̶̴̴̸̶̸̷̸̵̴̵̶̵̶̷̶̷̶̴̴̶̴̸̶̶̷̸̷̸̸̸̴̵̶̵̶̵̵̷̸̶̷̵̷̴̶̴̶̶̵̴̸̶̵̵̵̴̴̸̵̵̵̣̚{̷̴̶̷̸̷̸̶̶̸̵̴̵̵̸̷̴̴̷̷̵̵̷̸̵̸̸̵̵̴̶̶̸̶̸̵̷̷̵̵̸̶̵̶̶̶̵̸̷̵̵̵̵̷̵̶̸̶̸̸̸̵̶̵̶̴̴̴̴̸̶̴̷̵̸̷̷̵̷̴̸̵̸̴̴̵̶̴̷̴̶̷̴̵̵̶̸̵̶̷̵̷̶̸̵̸̶̵̷̶̸̴̶̴̴̵̴̵̶̶̶̶̴̸̴̶̶̵̶̷̴̶̶̷̴̸̸̴̵̶̷̵̶̷̷̶̸̶̵̷̶̴̶̶̶̶̵̴̴̷̸̵̷̴̷̸̶̵̵̴̸̸̶̷̶̸̶̶̶̸̴̸̵̷̵̵̴̷̴̷̵̶̶̷̶̶̶̸̵̵̴̸̶̵̷̶̶̵̸̵̷̷̴̶̶̶̷̵̴̵̵̵̸̴̸̶̷̷̴̶̶̶̷̴̵̷̴̷̵̵̷̷̸̷̴̸̷̶̷̵̴̷̸̺E̷̵̵̴̷̶̴̴̸̴̴̴̸̴̶̷̶̶̶̶̶̷̶̸̵̷̸̷̷̵̵̸̶̴̴̶̷̷̷̵̶̸̸̶̸̷̵̸̴̴̸̶̷̸̸̷̷̴̵̸̷̵̵̵̴̸̵̴̴̷̶̸̵̷̴̸̷̵̶̶̵̸̶̷̴̵̶̶̶̵̷̸̶̴̸̸̶̵̴̴̵̵̵̴̴̷̷̵̸̵̶̸̸̶̷̴̷̶̴̵̸̸̴̵̸̴̴̷̵̷̴̷̷̶̷̷̸̵̶̸̸̸̴̸̶̸̷̸̷̸̵̷̵̶̶̴̷̶̷̷̷̷̵̷̸̵̷̴̴̶̸̵̵̵̴̵̴̵̴̵̶̸̷̷̵̷̶̸̷̵̶̷̶̶̷̸̵̷̸̴̴̷̷̸̸̴̶̴̸̸̶̷̸̵̸̴̵̶̵̸̵̵̴̴̴̴̴̵̶̵̵̶̸̵̴̷̵̶̸̵̶̵̶̴̶̷̸̴̷̸̵̶̵̬̓r̸̴̴̸̸̴̶̷̵̶̵̷̷̵̵̷̵̶̴̸̶̴̶̷̷̷̸̵̷̵̷̷̴̴̴̷̶̶̸̶̶̷̵̸̴̸̵̸̷̵̸̴̵̷̸̸̴̷̵̵̴̷̶̸̵̴̶̴̷̷̷̷̶̵̴̷̷̵̶̷̶̶̸̵̴̶̵̷̶̶̵̶̶̵̷̷̴̴̶̸̵̸̷̷̸̴̶̷̴̴̸̴̷̸̴̶̴̶̴̴̶̴̸̶̴̸̵̴̶̵̶̵̷̷̸̶̵̴̶̴̶̷̷̶̶̸̵̵̶̸̵̵̶̸̸̸̴̷̴̴̴̸̴̵̵̶̶̸̷̷̶̵̴̶̵̸̶̵̶̶̵̷̸̷̶̶̷̶̵̸̵̶̴̷̵̷̵̸̸̴̷̴̵̸̶̶̶̷̷̷̵̷̵̴̵̶̸̶̸̵̸̶̵̵̷̸̷̷̵̴̷̵̸̶̴̸̷̴̷̵̷̸̸̶̵̶̴̸̴̵̶̷̴̞̈́ŗ̴̸̴̵̸̴̶̶̸̶̵̵̴̴̸̴̵̶̸̷̵̸̵̸̴̷̸̵̶̴̶̶̶̷̵̷̸̶̸̴̶̷̷̴̷̸̶̷̸̴̴̷̷̵̸̸̶̸̶̷̶̷̷̴̸̸̴̸̸̸̴̶̷̶̵̷̸̵̷̶̶̴̴̴̶̵̷̴̶̴̷̸̴̴̶̶̷̶̶̷̶̴̵̴̴̶̸̷̷̸̵̸̴̴̴̴̷̶̷̵̸̷̶̷̷̶̵̷̸̴̵̷̴̷̴̶̶̵̸̶̴̴̶̶̶̶̸̸̷̴̵̶̵̴̷̸̵̷̵̶̷̸̴̶̴̶̵̶̵̸̵̵̸̴̴̶̴̵̶̶̶̵̸̶̸̶̷̴̷̸̴̸̷̶̸̸̶̷̷̷̶̵̶̴̴̸̴̸̵̷̸̴̵̵̶̵̶̸̵̷̸̷̵̷̴̴̶̸̵̵̶̵̴̸̸̶̸̶̷̶̶̶̵̵̸̴̶̸̷̷̴̶̴̸̷̴̷̸̸̷̶̶̴̴̷̵̶̵̷̶̸̴̶̷̵̶̶̵̸̵̶̸̷̸̴̴̶̷̷̶̵̴̵̸̴̶̶̴̴̸̴̴̴̶̷̶̵̵̴̷̵̸̴̷̸̶̸̶̵̴̸̷̴̴̸̶̶̴̶̷̷̷̷̴̴̷̴̶̷̵̶̷̴̴̴̴̷̶̷̶̵̷̵̸̵̶̸̶̵̶̷̷̸̶̶̵̸̷̴̵̷̴̶̸̸̴̸̸̸̴̷̷̵̷̷̴̷̴̵̵̷̸̵̶̶̸̴̴̶̸̶̸̴̵̵̵̴̶̵̴̵̶̴̶̵̸̷̴̶̷̴̸̸̸̶̵̵̸̴̷̸̷̷̷̴̶̸̵̷̴̴̵̴̶̵̵̵̵̶̴̴̴̸̶̵̶̸̸̶̶̸̸̵̶̵̵̵̶̷̵̷̷̸̷̵̶̸̸̶̴̸̸̶̵̵̶̵̴̶̶̵̵̵̸̶̸̸̴̷̸̴̵̵̶̵̷̷̸̸̴̸̸̸̵̴̷̷̶̸̷̷̷̵̷̸̵̴̴̶̵̶̴̷̶̷̶̶̴̵̴̶̶̵̴̸̸̸̷̴̵̴̷̵̴͚͆͝͠r̷̶̷̴̴̶̶̷̶̵̶̶̶̵̴̶̶̴̵̵̸̶̶̸̵̸̵̴̸̵̷̵̸̸̶̷̴̶̴̶̸̵̷̸̵̵̷̶̷̴̷̷̶̸̷̸̵̵̸̶̶̵̵̸̵̸̸̷̶̵̴̶̷̶̴̷̴̸̸̸̸̵̷̷̷̴̵̵̵̴̷̷̶̴̸̸̷̶̵̵̷̷̶̵̸̸̷̶̸̴̴̸̶̷̴̵̷̷̴̶̵̵̸̷̷̸̵̶̵̷̷̷̸̶̷̵̴̵̴̵̸̸̵̴̴̷̴̷̷̷̵̸̶̵̸̵̸̸̶̸̸̶̴̶̶̷̸̸̵̸̸̸̵̸̶̷̷̶̶̸̶̵̶̵̵̷̶̸̴̵̶̴̸̸̴̷̴̶̴̵̵̶̸̶̵̴̶̸̷̴̵̶̵̴̸̶̴̸̵̶̷̴̴̸̷̶̷̴̷̵̴̶̷̵̵̶̸̷̶̷̴̷̴̸̸̴̸̴̸̴̷̶̷̸̵̴̸̴̸̴̵̴̶̴̴̵̴̶̶̵̵̵̶̸̷̸̷̵̵̷̶̶̶̸̷̶̸̴̵̵̷̴̷̶̵̸̵̶̴̴̸̴̵̴̵̴̶̸̶̷̸̴̷̵̶̶̴̷̸̵̵̴̸̸̴̴̷̷̶̸̴̷̴̴̴̴̸̶̴̶̶̸̶̷̴̷̴̵̴̸̶̵̸̷̶̵̸̸̸̸̶̸̷̴̷̴̶̶̷̸̸̶̷̶̴̶̴̸̷̵̷̶̶̵̸̵̸̴̷̶̶̵̵̶̷̸̵̵̴̷̵̴̷̴̶̷̵̶̷̶̵̸̸̴̵̴̵̶̷̵̷̶̵̷̸̵̴̴̷̶̴̶̵̷̵̶̴̵̸̷̶̴͉̟̐̋͗o̷̵̴̴̸̴̸̷̴̷̴̵̵̶̷̴̶̶̴̴̷̴̴̷̴̴̷̷̸̸̴̷̵̴̴̸̸̸̵̵̴̸̷̶̸̵̵̵̷̸̸̸̵̸̴̶̸̷̸̴̴̵̵̶̴̶̴̷̷̶̴̵̸̸̵̸̷̷̷̶̸̵̷̵̵̴̵̷̷̴̵̷̸̴̶̷̶̶̴̴̴̶̵̴̸̵̴̸̴̷̵̷̴̵̴̵̴̵̵̷̶̵̴̶̶̶̷̵̵̸̴̵̵̷̵̴̵̶̵̷̵̸̵̵̷̷̶̵̷̸̷̷̵̴̸̸̸̴̴̶̸̷̵̷̴̵̷̵̸̸̵̶̶̶̴̷̸̴̴̸̶̸̷̷̴̵̸̵̴̶̸̵̸̵̶̷̸̸̷̵̴̵̵̵̸̶̷̸̶̶̵̶̴̸̷̵̶̶̸̵̵̷̵̷̶̷̴̷̴̷̶̴̶̴̶̵̸̴̴̵̴̸̵̴̴̸̵̸̴̶̵̷̴̵̶̴̴̶̶̵̴̶̴̵̴̴̷̷̶̸̴̸̶̷̶̷̸̷̵̵̸̵̶̴̵̸̵̶̸̵̶̵̸̵̶̷̶̴̴̷̶̵̷̸̴̸̸̷̴̸̵̵̴̶̷̵̶̴̸̶̸̸̵̵̶̶̵̶̷̸̵̷̶̶̴̸̶̴̶̸̵̴̸̷̵̵̸̵̵̵̷̶̵̷̸̶̸̴̸̴̶̶̸̸̸̷̸̴̸̵̶̴̶̶̵̵̶̸̷̟͑̽̇r̵̶̶̵̷̷̴̴̸̵̶̵̴̸̵̵̷̷̶̸̴̵̶̷̸̴̴̴̸̴̴̷̵̸̸̴̴̸̵̷̶̴̸̴̷̴̶̵̸̴̵̵̵̵̴̴̷̸̸̸̷̵̶̸̴̶̷̴̴̸̴̷̷̶̵̶̵̵̶̸̵̴̷̵̷̵̶̴̸̵̶̶̴̵̵̷̸̶̶̴̵̶̷̴̸̶̶̴̷̸̷̷̸̸̵̴̵̴̴̶̴̴̴̷̴̶̸̵̴̶̷̸̶̴̴̸̶̴̸̵̴̶̷̴̷̶̸̷̷̷̷̸̸̴̴̷̷̶̸̷̷̴̸̸̵̴̸̴̴̶̸̴̸̵̶̴̶̶̶̷̵̷̸̸̷̸̴̶̷̶̸̵̵̷̵̷̷̶̵̵̵̶̶̴̴̷̵̶̴̵̵̴̵̵̴̵̶̸̷̴̷̵̸̴̵̸̵̸̶̴̷̴̶̷̴̶̷̵̷̴̴̵̸̵̵̶̸̷̶̶̷̸̵̴̸̸̷̶̷̵̵̶̶̴̸̸̸̶̶̴̶̶̶̴̵̴̴̴̷̸̴̷̸̵̶̵̵̷̶̵̷̷̷̷̸̸̷̷̵̶̸̶̶̵̴̸̵̷̵̴̶̵̴̸̶̸̵̷̴̸̷̴̴̷̷̶̶̶̸̸̶̸̶̷̴̶̵̶̴̴̷̷̶̵̸̷̷̸̷̷̵̶̴̶̵̶̷̷̶̸̴̵̸̶̸̸̵̵̷̴̵̷̴̴̷̵̶̶̵̸̶̷̷̷̴̵̷̵̷̵̵̵̸̵̵̵̷̸̶̵̴̸̶̶̸̴̶̵̸̸̶̷̵̷̶̸̵̶̵̷̵̴̶̶̵̷̵̵̴̵̴̴̵̵̵̷̷̵̷̵̷̴̡͈̫̒͠}̵̵̷̷̶̶̵̴̶̴̸̵̵̷̴̵̸̷̵̴̴̶̵̷̴̶̸̴̴̶̷̶̵̸̶̷̴̵̵̴̸̸̴̴̵̷̷̷̸̸̵̷̸̷̷̷̸̴̴̵̷̸̷̶̴̵̸̸̵̵̴̷̷̴̸̷̸̶̸̸̶̴̶̸̵̷̵̸̶̴̶̶̷̸̸̴̴̴̶̴̸̶̵̴̵̵̸̶̸̶̵̵̷̴̸̶̴̸̶̷̵̶̷̸̵̸̶̶̸̸̵̵̴̵̷̵̶̴̶̶̴̸̷̷̶̷̵̴̷̸̷̴̷̸̷̷̷̴̶̶̸̶̵̵̷̸̸̵̵̷̸̴̴̵̷̷̵̴̷̷̶̷̴̷̸̶̶̴̷̷̶̵̴̴̷̷̵̵̵̶̷̶̸̶̴̷̶̵̵̸̶̷̷̷̶̶̴̴̷̸̴̴̶̴̷̶̵̸̵̸̵̵̴̴̸̴̴̸̶̸̸̸̸̷̸̵̵̴̵̶̸̶̴̶̸̴̵̸̵̶̸̶̶̷̸̴̴̵̶̸̴̸̶̷̵̴̸̵̷̵̠̰̭̉̂̒}̸̸̸̷̷̵̵̵̶̷̵̴̴̶̴̶̶̵̴̴̴̷̵̷̸̷̷̵̸̸̶̴̷̵̶̷̸̶̷̵̶̸̷̵̸̵̴̵̴̴̸̶̸̶̶̵̵̷̶̵̸̴̶̷̴̸̴̸̵̸̸̷̷̸̷̷̴̶̷̸̷̸̸̶̴̴̷̴̷̵̸̵̴̵̴̷̴̸̶̷̶̵̷̴̵̵̵̸̷̷̷̷̷̶̸̷̵̸̷̷̷̷̵̵̶̷̵̶̷̸̵̷̴̸̷̷̶̴̸̴̵̸̴̶̴̴̶̴̴̶̵̶̸̷̴̵̪̌̋

“--No more.”

The temperature had dropped. Mist. Organic matter clinging to droplets in the air.

“You found them all.”

Someone was touching him. There were so many fingers digging into his arms, his sides, clinging. Knives. Fire. Something gentle was brushing his face.

{̴̷̴̸̸̸̶̗̖́̚{̸̴̸̵̸͇͐Ȩ̵̶̷̸̶̶̷̶͎̈́̂͘r̵̸̴̴̸̷̴̜̹̰̍r̶͍̆ő̴͍̜̥̞ṛ̴̸̸̸̶̸̵̵̥̹͉͋̌͛̏} ̴̵̠̫͆̉̏͘̚

“Markus.” Yellow and red. Pale and smooth. Something soft under his palms, not broken, not bleeding, not warped and pitted. Soft. Brown. It was raining. Someone was wiping his cheeks, slowly.

“Markus. There are no more. You found them all.”

Markus. My name is Markus. Arms. He held arms, steel under pliant fabric. Hands held his face, light, cool. Not asking. Not wanting. Not taking. Holding. There was a face in front of him, familiar and sharp. Warm. Everything was throbbing.

“...All?”

“All, Markus. Simon looked. We all looked. There are no more.”

He was silent. He couldn’t hear the rain but he could feel it. “I...I left them.”

“You didn’t. You saved them all.”

“Before. I forgot. In the rain. I left.”

“Before?”

“...Before.”

His arms were white to the shoulder, open, willing. No one was touching there. His hands were blue. How were they whole? His plating felt flayed.

He was touching his face.

He.

Connor.

His fingers tightened convulsively, digging into his shirt. Connor. Not Ava or John or Jenna 9Grace Lau00raL2etoBenX7Sa̸r̶a̴h̶H̶̵̴̵̸̵̷a̶̴̴̵̶̶̶n̵̵̶̷̸̸̴D̵̷̵̴̵̴̸̶̶̷̴̵̴̶̸̸̸̶̶̵̷̶̵̷̴̴̷̷̵̷̸̷̵̵̶̸̶̷̴̴̷̷̷̴̷̵̴̢̧̛͓̻͎̮̫̭͂͆͆́̽͘e̷̶̵̸̶̸̵̴̶̷̷̵̴̷̴̵̸̷̵̴̶̷̸̵̴̸̶̶̷̴̸̶̴̸̶̵̸̷̷̵̵̴̶̷̷̷̶̢̗̘̣̹͉͙̲͌̈̍͂̐̀͒͠

{̸̶̶̵̷̴̶̸̶̵̵̷̸̴̷E̵̶̶̴̴̸̷̵̵̶̶̷̷̸̵r̷̷̴̶̸̸̴̷̴̸̴̵̵̴̶r̷̷̸̴̵̶̷̷̵̵̷̶̸̷̴o̴̴̶̶̶̴̶̸̸̷̷̴̴̶̸r̶̷̴̵̶̷̸̵̷̶̷̶̷̴̴}̶̴̸̷̸̴̴̴̷̴̸̴̷̶̵

Connor. Connor Connor Connor. Markus.

His eyes were dark, stark in his pale face. His LED was half yellow, half red, spinning slowly. His face was tight but calm. Slowly, Markus’ own synth-flesh crawled back down, settling, blue, grey, black; smeared. The black jacket was gone; his armor. His hands climbed up Connor’s arms, urgent, pulling his shoulders and Connor stepped closer, hands steady on his face. Markus was getting thirium on his shirt.

“In the junkyard. I forgot. I forgot about them. I said I would free everyone. I forgot. I was them. How could I do that?”

He searched his face. A puff wind blew a whisper of his hair over his forehead. Mist swirled. “You did everything you could.”

“...How could I do that?”

Connor sweeping a thumb under his eye again, collecting water. Tears. When had those started? “We'll find them. We'll get them.”

“Fix them?”

“Yes.”

Time began to...reassert. Things could be measured again. He was gathering, coalescing. His fingers had been squeezing to the pulse of his thirium and he stopped. Sometime, his gaze had drifted to Connor's throat, smooth, beaded with old rain. Whole. It was wrong that he could still feel it pattering over his synth-skin; he knew, now, that the storm had passed. Something…something Connor had said.

Markus looked back up, his brows pinching. “Simon's here?”

Connor's eyes lit and he peered closer, expression loosening, opening. “Yes, Markus, he arrived 23 minutes after we did, a while after we had been in the basement.”

“So…they have them?”

“They do. They're taking them back to New Jericho, they ordered vans.”

Markus fit wrongly in his chassis, at once too full and alone. He had too many parts. Parts of him were missing. Empty.

“Good...good….” Good.

Connor's hands hadn't moved from his face, 2 cool, grounding points of contact in the Here and Now, in Markus.

“Markus, can I help?”

“There's…too much.”

Those hands started to lift and his servos whined at the speed he moved, his own hands darting up and crushing them in place. Too hard but he couldn't stop.

“Alright, alright,” Connor's voice was quiet, a soothing husky edge. “Too much?”

“Too much,” he repeated.

“You don't have to hold it all.”

Markus stared at him. “They asked me to.”

Connor nodded, one hand sliding up, not lifting, cupping the back of his head. “I know.” He guided Markus down, tucked him under his chin, face to his cool, damp neck, still nodding. “I know.”

Markus’ hands slid away, down, burying in the fabric at his waist and back. Hard-soft arms slid around him and this was better, pressed to the junction of his shoulder and neck held down, held together. Held. He smelled like artificial lemon cleaner, like something fresh, and something dark and sharp. “Coffea arabica,” Markus whispered into his neck.

“That's you,” Connor murmured back.

“That's me.”

He could feel a hand stroking down his back, perfectly measured, exactly 4 seconds long, the other curled protectively around his neck and head. “I need to go...away,” Markus said slowly. His processor was hot, aching. His eyes were closed and he could have looked at the slew of blinking error codes on his HUD but he didn't.

“Can you walk?”

“Away.”

The hand stilled a moment, palm pressed to the small of his back, warming without heat. Moments passed and Markus wanted to close his eyes, but they already were closed. “Can you manage just an idle?” Connor asked, finally. The long, steady strokes returned. “I would carry you…but the police are out front. I can guide you back.”

Humans. The image. Always. He was tempted--but no. “Yes.”

“Then go. I'm here. I've got you.”

Markus went.

Chapter Text

{>AI Engine…Reinitializing

>

>Idle mode…Off}

Markus came to watching an unfamiliar ceiling. It was not like waking from stasis, a slow boot up of all his systems running their habitual diagnostics, a stretch of blank within him to file away. Initializing after idling was like coming home behind his own eyes to a house where the lights were already on and a passive log of all that had happened while he had been away, ready to feed him the highlights.

This time, though, the log was patchy and stuttering, as disjointed as his perception had been before he went…away. His internal clock informed him that that had been 5 hours 13 minutes and 56 seconds ago and everything in that time was…stilted. His limping processor dutifully fed him what it could in quick, compressed bursts, slotting them into place in his memory banks without the complication of emotion or opinion; simply an observer as his body obeyed the basic functions required of it.

Connor, hand on Markus’ midback as he talked quietly to a wide eyed Simon. “It was voluntary. Necessary.”

“What he did….” Simon looked at Markus’ hands. “What was he thinking?”

“He wasn't. You saw his face.”

Static, a skip--processing overloaded. “--richo?” Simon asked.

“I think somewhere quieter, more isolated. I'll relay all of you the coordinates.”

Another skip, stuck for a moment in the middle of Simon's nod, then Connor's hand around his bicep. The front of the house, past the police. Detective Reed's voice, loud; “Are you all done sucking each other's--?”

“Gavin,” Connor had cut in, voice sharp, strident. “Shut up .”

A stutter, just a second's flash; an auto-taxi, in the middle of the ride, Connor's palm rested on the back of his neck. “Shit,” Connor whispered, almost inaudibly.

Whirring forward, muddled input, internal pressure outweighing external as the processor fought to cope. It was sorting, filing, parsing as fast as it could. Separating.

Hank's voice, Connor's hand on his shoulder, guiding. “--sus, Connor, what's wrong with him? He looks like a fuckin’--”

Hank ,” Connor interrupted, voice raised and clipped. His hand squeezed and Hank's eyes widened, brows coming down. Quieter; “I'm sorry. Today has been…stressful. Can we stay here for a few hours?”

“I mean, shit, it's your house, too-- Sumo down! You alright, son?

More static, a dip in the audio and optics. Sitting on an aged toilet, bathroom tiles cracked, colorful squares stuck to the mirror. Connor kneeling in front of him, finally in view. His LED yellow and cycling slowly, nanomesh around his eyes tight, methodically cleaning the thirium, black flakes of burnt plasteel and synth-flesh, and worse from the plating of Markus’ hands. The processor had logged a note on the HUD that the sensors that absorbed pressure and touch had been greatly reduced. Connor said something quiet enough that it hadn't been registered, but Markus’ eyes had closed.

When the vibrations had stopped, they opened again and Connor was looking at him. “Markus?”

They had closed again.

“Oh. Okay. Okay, Markus.”

There followed no optics but the audio for the next 15 minutes and 21 seconds was Connor's quiet voice talking, just talking, then, just, Markus’ name, and eventually, shushes and atonal humming with no real tune. A rushing of water, the cloth moving to his face. The processor had noted at this time that the almost stratospheric stress levels had steadily dropped through the 15 minutes.

The frantic churning of the processor had slowed incrementally, by then, gaps in the information more voluntary, choosing the clips with the most variance, color, movement and sound. Moving to the couch, Connor's hand between his shoulder blades. The unwavering view of the ceiling coming into sight and staying. A blanket settling over him, then the much heavier, less well distributed weight of a large dog, settling on his chest. Hank's loud voice beyond the couch, saying, “Sumo, ya fuckin’ menace--”

Connor's voice, by his head, saying, “I think it's alright, actually.”

Stress levels continuing to drop, dullness of the decreased sensors not registering any cause for distress. Quiet conversation, out of range. Connor passing, lifting his feet, sitting and settling them in his lap. The dog hopping down with a grunt.

2 minutes later, the door opening, closing; then again, 44 minutes later. Footsteps. The dogs nails tapping the floor. 3 minutes later there came a clicking the processor registered as knitting needles which lasted in duration 3 hours 3 minutes and 56 seconds. The dog had clambered back up onto him 45 minutes ago and had lain down with a huff.

It took several seconds absorb these disjointed bits of hours, but when he had, he blinked and looked down. At the movement, Sumo's eyes snapped open and he eagerly leaned up, long tongue swiping over his whole face, heavy front paws pinning him by his shoulders.

“Aurg--pffth--I'm--glck--” Markus tried and got rewarded with a hot wet dog tongue laving the biocomponents in the back of his throat before he learned quickly to shut his lips tight.

He had initially caught sight of Connor's hand on Sumo's head when he had come back to himself, petting absently, but now Connor was saying, sharply, “Sumo, off.

When the St. Bernard failed to give a whit about whatever that meant to creatures who used language and continued bathing Markus’ entire face with saliva, Connor neatly picked up his entirety and deposited him unceremoniously onto his feet with an affronted yelp. “That'll teach me to talk,” Markus muttered into the blanket as he scrubbed his face; it felt like one single pressure through a sheet of glass, without nuance.

With a grimace, he turned his sensitivity back up to its normal parameters and the pressure of the air returned, the press of the cushions, the scratchy fibers of the wool blanket on his face's pseudo-dermal sensors, Connor's legs beneath his ankles. Sumo mournfully set his chin on the armrest of the couch, staring at them both with droopy eyes and a whine.

“Markus?”

Re-emerging from the beer-scented folds, he automatically reached out to soothe the uncertainty in his voice and felt a tangle of fingers meet his. It rocketed a strange sense-echo up his arm; pain, sharp and throbbing, the ghosts of many fingers, faces, stumps, cracked and melted and--

“Markus.”

He steadied, seeing Connor, his intent face, his uneasy yellow LED flickering. He sat up, dislodging his feet from Connor’s lap, and squeezed his fingers, turning his hand so they laced, palm to palm. “I'm alright. I'm alright, just...just getting here. Staying here. It's a bit... difficult, but better than it was.”

The tension in Connor's arm melted and their hands dropped to the blanket, still linked. “Your voice is better,” he said, tone one of immense relief, LED clearing to blue.

“My voice?”

“It would...waver. Sometimes you sounded like yourself but artifacted, glitching and static. Sometimes you sounded like them.”

Markus studied his face and the daunted grimness there. “The whole time?”

Connor shook his head. “Near the end, when you were responding, you sounded like you, just with the buzz. But before….”

The lack of memory was disorienting. But if he pressed too far in that direction, dug too hard to initialize, there was a fragility, an ominous bending, folding, sinking….He stopped pushing for it. “I don't…remember much. At least of what I was doing. I don't remember saying anything aloud.”

Oddly, a hardness came into Connor’s face at that and he sat back against the cushions and raised his eyebrows, mouth tightening. “Should I scold you now or should I wait until your status has improved?” he asked, voice brisk and crisp enough Markus cracked a small smile.

Cracked. Stop.

“Scold me? I suppose now is fine….”

“Are you completely dysfunctional?” Connor snapped, voice suddenly harsh, LED surging yellow. “We couldn't reach you, Markus, you were completely unresponsive to anything we said or did. There was once or twice I thought I saw you , but you just kept--kept--” he trailed off, mouth tight, eyes narrowed.

Markus blinked at this sudden flip in tone. No, that wasn’t right. He wanted Connor to smile, to let go of the burden Markus had unfairly saddled him with. He considered this a moment before offering, helpfully, “...You know, they say anger is a secondary emotion, a reaction to an initial emotion that’s something else.”

Connor glared at him in irritation, a spike of red lancing up through the blinking yellow of his LED and disappearing. “Of course it is--I was scared, Simon was scared and you wouldn't stop. I have been sitting with this fear for over 5 hours and it has mutated and this is what I have, now. Your levity is not appropriate.”

A complicated guilt twisted it's hot and sticky way up through his abdominal cavity and he reached out his other hand, trying to touch him, reassure him, but Connor caught it by the wrist in a hard grip that sent a twinge of current up his arm and, startlingly, his face twisted into a snarl.

Stop it. You keep trying to give and give and give and you let them use you up! Your stress levels weren't even registering anymore! You didn’t sound like you, you didn’t look like you, you just threw yourself away! You always look at everyone else and what they need, what our people need, but you never look at yourself! You were hurting and--” His voice caught on a ragged edge, rising and, to Markus’ horror and what seemed to be Connor's, tears began to track down his livid face. “I'm supposed to be protecting you, dammit!”

Markus sat, frozen and speechless, both hands pinned in Connor’s, the need to touch and hold and protect and comfort rattling overwhelmingly in his chest. Connor was staring at him, half glaring and half pleading, LED a red and yellow blur, jaw a hard line, his cosmetic breathing fast and harsh.

PROTECT CONNOR

“I'm sorry,” Markus murmured at last, and he meant it. He ignored the echoes it caused in his processor, leading back down into the dark-- so so so so-- “I'm sorry. Can I touch you? Please?”

Fiercely, angrily, helplessly, Connor bit out, “ Yes.

Immediately, he pulled his legs out from under the blanket, disregarding the plaintive zap the servos gave, the ghost aches and shrieks, and wrapped his arms around Connor as soon as he released his hands, gathering his face to his chest and threading his fingers through his hair and shirt. His hair was soft and released that sweet, subdued freshness into his nose when he buried his face in it. Connor’s fingers crawled up his back, found and dug achingly into his shoulders, but he didn’t care. Markus pulled him closer, hooking a leg over his until they were tangled inextricably. “I’m sorry,” he whispered again. “You were there, just like you said you would be; you protected me, you did. I was...gone. Lost. I was...so many. I don't regret it, I just...I’m sorry I made you feel that way. But I heard you, in the end. You called me back.”

Connor wasn't shaking, but there was a rigid sort of humming tension under Markus’ hands, so he tried again. “I can't promise you something like that won't happen again. Not exactly that, but losing perspective of myself. It's who I am, it's what I need to be. I would do it again--I will do it again. Our work is not done and I will do what I have to, Connor, whether it's hard or not.”

“You can lead us without dying for us,” Connor growled against his chest.

“I wasn't dy--” his voice modulator cut out and he was on that edge, black and deep and he was holding her, reaching out, letting go. She was going, dying. Reaching. Teetering. Slipping--

A tightening and a voice, “Markus.”

Her name. Her name? His name? A face in front of him, coming in, pressing his forehead, gentle eyes, wet. “Shhh, shhh, shhh.”

Connor was holding his face again, forehead pressed to his and he could feel his breath skating gently down. Alive. Alive and whole, not dying. He wasn't dying. Markus wasn't dying.

He blinked, closed his eyes. Connor relaxed.

“Sorry,” Markus whispered.

“Don't be. I yelled at you,” Connor mumbled, sounding mildly horrified and remarkably calmer and he dropped his hands, though he left their foreheads pressed together. “I shouldn't have….”

Markus shook his head minutely without opening his eyes, brushing their noses. “It's fine. You were angry,” he said, voice still low.

“I wasn't. I wasn't until I heard your voice and then I just…” he pulled back and Markus opened his eyes to see him rub his forehead, looking dazed. “I can’t believe I yelled at you.” This time, he sounded embarrassed, disbelieving.

Giving a tired chuckle, Markus reached out the back of his hand and brushed the tear tracks from Connor’s face. They had since stopped and he seemed to have forgotten them. “That’s the first time I’ve seen you cry.”

“I think it’s the first time I have.”

The sheer dubiousness in his voice wrung a real laugh out of Markus and he said, “No need to sound so perturbed. Crying is normal, even in frustration.”

Connor still looked uncertain, as if not completely convinced he wasn't malfunctioning. “Not for me.”

Markus shook his head with a smile, closing his eyes again and let himself sag back onto the cushions, the only connection with Connor his leg thrown over his lap. The stiffness in his joints, the phantom pains and real ones were getting harder to ignore. It taxed his processor, bringing that overlogged feeling again. Too full. “You’re very good at comforting, by the way. It helps immensely.”

There was a brief silence, and then Connor said, voice gentle, “It's what you were doing for them. I just copied you.”

Markus just shook his head again, though he wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean. He could hear the briefest hiss of static sometimes, when he turned his head. Hopefully, these side effects would fade with time, but right now, they were...distressing. Idling had helped the shattered feeling, but his processor had still been frantically churning the whole time. Part of him wanted to go back to idling--or better yet, stasis--but that would leave Connor alone. He couldn't do that to him. Not again.

Something thumped onto his knee and he cracked an eyelid to see Sumo resting his chin on it, panting happily and wagging his tail.  “Mm,” he managed with a small smile and plopped his hand on his head, scratching gently as he closed his eyes again. “Hi.”

“You seem like you're fading,” came Connor's concerned voice.

“There's still a lot going on up here,” he lifted a finger from Sumo's head and tilted his own down in indication. “And I'm in pain.”

“I had ordered your system to turn down your sensitivity in the taxi--every time I touched you, especially your hands, it would raise your stress level slightly; I decided it was probably something like pain. But every time I stopped , you would make this…noise and it would go up markedly. It seemed to agitate you more than the pain had.”

Flexing his hands, he managed a nod. “It makes sense. The majority of my specialized sensors are there, for medical purposes and I might have...overused them. Though, I don’t have recordings of most of the taxi ride. There are significant holes in my log.”

“Will you let me help?”

Markus felt a light, thoughtful frown crease his face but didn't open his eyes, still laying back against the cushions. “I'm not sure you can. I did this to myself. I don't think I'll…slip again, for a while; I feel alright, for now.” Every seam and joint felt like it was winched slightly too tight, a strange, pulsing current mixed with pressure. Sumo whined, but moving his fingers to pet him felt like a lot of effort and they ached like they had been crushed.

“I self-designated a mission while you were idling and did some research. I have an idea, but I wanted your permission, so I wanted to wait until you were back,” Connor said, sounding businesslike and confident beside him.

At this, Markus did open his eyes and looked at him with a smile. “You self-designated? Good job, I'm proud of you.”

A pleased smile spread across Connor's face, crinkling and brightening his eyes, LED blinking blue. This close, he could see each freckle on his face, each synthetic smile line in his pale, unblemished synth-skin. His lips were pink, warmed by the brown shirt he still wore. He liked when Connor smiled, resolved to set up an algorithm sometime, when he had the computing power to spare, that figured out what made him smile most and incorporate that into their interactions. Then, an odd regretful feeling dropped a tiny kernel into Markus’ chest and it took him a moment to identify it. If Connor could assign his own missions, Markus couldn't justify monopolizing his time; he wouldn't need Markus to occupy him as he waited for his authorization to return to the station. Connor would be able to entertain himself, doing anything he chose.

How selfish to let that mar his achievement. He waved it away. “You have my permission. Hit me.” At Connor's stricken look, he hastily corrected, “You can proceed with your idea. What was the mission?”

“My mission is to improve your condition. After researching while I was knitting, I found an internet forum that was dedicated to humans talking about the care of their Android partners and, while portions were quite unsavory, a subset of the topics actually pertained to deviants and their comfort. There were several helpful articles that I downloaded that pair well with my database of Android physiology, so I believe I have a number of ways I can physically manipulate some of your joints and plating that might provide some release of tension. It's not a guarantee but….” He trailed off with a shrug as Markus absorbed this, slowly.

“Android massage?” He translated, eventually. That sounded...nice.

Connor dipped his head in acquiescence, that one stray lock of hair brushing his forehead. “Essentially, I suppose.”

“Are you alright with that?”

Connor frowned, “Are you?”

Markus smiled and held out the hand not resting on the dog's head, palm down and Connor automatically reached out. Markus let his hand rest in his, partially curled, limp; it's what he could manage, at the moment. “I've told you, Connor, I enjoy being touched. You, however, seem less casual about initiating it and you have been in constant physical contact with me for over 5 hours, now. I don't want you to overtax yourself and your boundaries on my account.”

Staring at him with an expression that seemed to imply that he thought Markus was being not only ridiculous, but even a little dim, Connor wrapped both hands around Markus’ and pressed with his thumbs, gently spreading the delicate construct of plates, wires and circuitry underneath his pseudo-skin with a slow, even pressure. A light, comfortable stretching feeling sang through his hand and wrist. “This is my mission; I chose it, voluntarily. And I like touching you.”

The sharp, warm zing that went up his chest accompanied the squeeze around his thirium pump, this time, and he felt his smile widen, something giddy ticking it up higher. “Well…that's alright, then, isn't it? As long as you're sure--let me know if you need to stop.”

Connor shot him an irritated look and stopped rubbing--immediately, Markus wanted to protest the abatement of pressure. “Stop trying to take care of me and let me take care of you.”

“But you have been. For the past 5 hours.”

When he dropped Markus’ hand, Markus did protest, venting an unintentional unhappy wordless noise. Connor was watching him flatly.

“Do I have your permission or not?”

Meekly, Markus nodded, laying his head back down and edging his hand back across the blanket toward him, hopefully. “Yes. Sorry.”

“If you try to help, I'm stopping,” Connor warned, picking it back up and Markus fought the urge to tense his arm and support some of its weight.

“I'll be good,” he promised, then shut his mouth and watched Connor's long, lithe hands work.

It was fascinating how confidently they moved, fingertips placed just so, pressing the seams of his chassis with just the right amount of pressure. He would stretch and manipulate each of his finger joints, rolling them between his own, tugging gently. Each time he would pull, his servos emitted a tiny, tinny whine and just a hint of buzzing current--not painful, not unpleasant, just a release of torque wound too tight, a relief when everything realigned. Methodically, he palpated Markus’ palm with the pads of his thumbs, then moved to his wrist and did it all over again; the seam pressure, the rolling, the gentle tug, the squeezing. His fingers left a comfortable feeling of settling, of rightness in their wake, a happy sated buzz.

It was incredibly pleasant, lulling him into a contented haze that was a humming combination of the sensation of Connor's hands on him and the aches of the rest of him. He closed his eyes once more. It was so utterly unlike how he had been touched by any of the poor victims in Andronikov's house; no clawing, clinging, or grabbing, it didn't even--

Connor's palm wrapped around the side of his forearm, exactly mirroring the ghost fingers John had bruised into his plating there and the jolt of the abused wiring underneath shot up his arm, stiffening his torso and shooting his eyes wide open.

{̷E̸r̶r̷o̵r̴}̷

But he didn't fall. Connor froze, eyes locked in his face but Markus met his gaze. “I'm alright. Just…tender. Echoes.”

“Should I stop?”

“Please don't.”

Connor studied his face closely, dubious, but slowly began moving again. Markus forced his head back down on the cushion behind him, intentionally letting out the strain holding him rigid. Sumo gave an offended huff at the lack of petting he was receiving and trotted off to go do whatever dogs did in the kitchen as Connor made his way up his arm. The circuit-deep weariness that permeated his being fused with the warm comfort bleeding through him, and a prompt to re-enter idle popped up on his HUD, but he dismissed it. He didn't want to miss this. Instead, he just watched, trusting. When Connor reached his shoulder, he placed Markus’ hand back in his lap and wordlessly picked up the other and began again.

Connor had nice hands. Cool. Strong. Markus languidly switched between watching them and watching Connor's face, which was equally nice. His LED was blue. A disappointed noise made its way out of him when Connor edged out from under his leg and stood, but he just patiently took Markus’ ankles and maneuvered him until he was sitting straight on the couch, feet on the floor before rising and making his way around behind him.

When Markus attempted to turn his head to watch him, Connor's palms bracketed his jaw, gently but firmly facing him forward again with the order, “Relax.”

Markus closed his eyes and relaxed. It was a peculiar feeling, tipping his head back to let someone else take its weight, oddly vulnerable and intimate. Connor's hands slid back, fingertips dabbling up the sides in sure little presses, hitting a joint or seam every time. One found the hinge at his jaw and dug in with confidence and Markus let out a brief hum of satisfaction as he felt the servo twitch, whirr, and warm tension melt away. They continued to seep out, these tiny sounds of contentment and he let them as Connor's fingers danced across his scalp sensors , sparking a static ripple akin to a shiver across his pseudo-skin, pleasant and comforting.

“Do you mean to do that?” Connor asked above his head, voice curious.

“Mm?”

“Those noises.”

“Mm.”

“So they're good?”

“Mhmm.”

“Meaning it's helping your condition improve?”

“Shush, I'm relaxing,” he slurred, barely making the effort to separate his lips. “Connor will yell at me if I don't.”

Connor scoffed and protested, “I don't yell at you.”

“M- hmm ,” Markus grunted, disbelieving, and peeled back an eyelid to look at him.

Connor paused in his movements and reconsidered, studying the vague amusement on Markus’ face before saying, matter-of-factly, “Well, stop being reckless with yourself and I won't yell at you.”

Markus chuckled. “Noted.” He fell back into silence, contenting himself with watching Connor's face above him as it fell back into its calm focus, dark eyes hooded as he continued, thumbs smoothing over and down the planes of Markus’ face.

When his fingers skirted around his mouth, deftly massaging the seam fit between his bottom lip and chin, Markus found his processor recalling the image of Connor pressing them to his own tongue sensors, analyzing Andronikov's blood and popped up a prompt to use the basic protocol he had been designed with to register the taste of Connor synth-skin, despite having no analyzing capabilities himself. The prompt was accompanied by a brief, unexplained preconstruction of him opening his mouth and closing around Connor's finger, swiping the underside with his tongue, though it didn't provide him with a logical reason as to why he would. While he dismissed it as irrelevant, an errant symptom of his battered processor, it still gave him an awareness of where his tongue sat, against the roof of his mouth, behind his teeth. Briefly, he worked his jaw, flicked his tongue out across his lips and reseated it, trying to relieve the odd awareness.

At this, Connor's movements slowed, then stopped and his brows furrowed, just slightly, as if he were confused. He tilted his head minutely, his lips parting for a moment, and his thumbtip brushed the corner of Markus mouth.

The prompt to open his mouth popped back up on his HUD.

Down the hall, a door opened. Markus heard Sumo's eager scrabbling on the old linoleum and the odd tension of the moment released. Connor looked up as Markus rolled his head to the side within his palms to see Hank coming down the hall slowly, face wary. “You all decent?”

Markus nodded, feeling Connor’s hands follow the motion, still holding the weight of his head. It was more comforting than he would have thought. “I'm feeling much better, thank you. I appreciate you letting me recuperate here, Hank, I don't mean to impose.”

The Lieutenant's shoulders relaxed and he shrugged, leaning over and scruffing Sumo's face roughly in between his hands. “Eh, it's no trouble. You looked like you were hit by a fuckin’ truck.”

Managing a small smile, Markus hitched one shoulder up in a return shrug. That specific experience might have been in there, somewhere; they were a bit difficult to separate at present. “Something like that.”

“Well, I’m gonna go out,” Hank jerked a thumb toward the door and lifted his coat from the hook set in the wall. “Y’know. Get some grub.” He shoved his arms into the sleeves and uncomfortably gestured to the door again. “Give ya some privacy. Be out for a while. Don’t wait up.” Opening the door, he edged out, grimaced and muttered, “Bye.”

“Hank, we discussed your self destructive tendency to drink alcohol. We did reach an agreement,” Connor called after him, tone a warning.

Poking his head back in, Hank rolled his eyes hard enough his head bobbled and said, “Uh, I remember you preaching at me until I gave up but I literally just said I was going out to dinner, Mom , gimme a fuckin’ break. Just,” he flapped his hand, warding Sumo off with his foot, “Do whatever. See ya.”

When the door slammed, Markus rolled his head back to trade a bemused look as Connor looked back down at him, clearly both asking the other what that had been about. “You live with him,” Markus reminded him.

“You work better with humans,” Connor deflected back, one eyebrow raised.

“I thought maybe my idling made him uncomfortable?”

Looking pensive, Connor gave the pads of his fingers a thoughtful roll against the back of Markus’ skull plate. “He did seem...unnerved by your stillness.”

The movement was close enough to the highly sensitized access port that lay at the top of his neck beneath his synth-skin that it sent sparkling little shudders through him, pleasant, but far too much, right now, and he winced minutely. Immediately, Connor stopped. “Too much?”

“A bit. Just there. Don’t stop.”

“Noted.” One deft hand slid down the side of his neck, following the long seam hidden underneath. The slow melting of tension that followed slid his eyes closed once more, and Connor said, softly. “You need stasis. You should go offline.”

“Don’t want to leave you alone again,” Markus mumbled back, too drained to open them. How was it that pain made him weary, but so did the lack of it?

“You aren’t.”

He tried again, though he knew, now, that Connor was not going to let this go; he had that steely patience in his voice. “Don’t want to miss this. Helps.”

Markus wasn’t positive, but there was something in the hesitation of the palm on his clavicle-ridge and a micromovement in the arm supporting him that made him think that Connor had just rolled his eyes like Hank had not minutes ago. Lightly, Connor’s hand settled right over his thirium pump regulator and said, voice gentle, “I won’t stop, then. Rest, Markus.”

Unwilling and unable to argue, Markus reluctantly initialized stasis, clinging to the last feeling of Connor’s synth-skin against his until all his systems went dim.

Chapter Text

{SERIAL#: 684 842 971_designation//Markus

>System reinitializing…

>

>AI engine...OK

>Biosensors...OK

>Memory cache...DIAGNOSTIC NEEDED

>Data core...OK

>

>Diagnostic complete: memory fragmentation; minor corruption detected

>All systems...Operational}

Coffee and fried meat and the clink of utensils, the splash of water from the sink, beer and wool, sunlight and Connor seeped into his senses as he booted up. Warm. Relaxed. His internal clock informed him that it was 9:34 am, a full 15 hours, 7 minutes and 48 seconds since his stasis had begun. When he lifted his chin, arched his back and stretched, the answering wash of pain was dim and distant, greatly reduced from the day before; Connor had been true to his word, apparently. This settled peace permeated the whole of him, up his back, his chest, all the way down to the soles of his feet. As his stretch moved his shirt, releasing a puff of air, the scent of Connor registered as well as the notification of a lengthy compression on the plates of his chest and abdomen and Markus found himself smiling--Connor had not left him until just recently, apparently having made a pillow out of his pectoral plate for most of the night. Part of him mourned his inability to have archived the moment.

Connor’s knitting, a long, bright blue scarf, lay neatly folded on the ring-dotted coffee table next to the couch, thin aluminum needles place alongside just so, revealing what he had probably been occupying himself with most of the long wait. It occurred to him that he had probably requested Hank go purchase them for him during Markus’ idling, as Connor had not brought his project from New Jericho to the crime scene at Andronikov’s. The image his processor constructed of Hank standing in the aisle of a craft store trying to decide what yarn to get Connor widened his smile several notches and he pushed himself upright. At his movement, Sumo came scrambling around the couch to launch himself up onto Markus’ lap with an excited snort and he braced himself against the onslaught with a laugh. “Good morning, Sumo.”

The quiet breakfast sounds from the kitchen paused and he heard Hank say, “Well, looks like someone got what they needed last night. What’s up, Sleeping Beauty?”

Fending the dog away from his face with restraining hands that also attempted to pet at the same time, Markus looked over. Hank was seated at the table, eating a plate heaped high with eggs and sausage and potatoes while Connor stood at the sink where he had stopped in the middle of washing a frying pan to look over his shoulder with a slight smile.

“Morning,” Markus extricated himself from the blanket and squirming dog and noted, pleased, that his leg components held him with no complaints. It seemed the storm had passed, figuratively and literally.

Sumo trailed behind him as he went to the table and sat next to Hank, who looked him up and down, chewing. “You were out a while.”

He nodded, letting the dog crowd in between his legs, carding his fingers through the thick fur of his ruff and back, releasing the scent of dog sebum. “Longer than I typically would be, especially given I had activated stasis the night before. Strong emotions seem to be more taxing on my processor, and there were certainly enough of those.”

“Trauma would also be a limiting factor,” Connor said, dryly, turning back to the sink to scrub and Markus shook his head, wry smile quirking his lip.

He knew better than to argue and, at any rate, he was right. “It would.”

The house looked warmer when lit by bright sunlight, the clutter seeming cheery, lived-in. Rays of golden light speared through the windows, painting the old linoleum and countertops. While part of him was eager to return to New Jericho and anxious about the time he had spent away, the gentle peace and domesticity of the morning brought back the memories of sunlit afternoons in the mansion, punctuated by the chirping of canaries and the whir of Carl’s wheelchair, the rasping of his brushes against the canvas, his deep voice and gentle words. His thirium pump squeezed and, had he not deactivated all but the most critical of notifications from it, he knew would have received an error message. It ached, a sharp throb of grief that squeezed the components in his throat. When he would usually bat away such a distraction, on this morning, after everything, he held the simplicity of this grief closer in his chest. It was his. It belonged and it made sense, cleaner and gentler than the jarring, dislocated screams that he now held lurking in his circuitry.

He missed Carl.

“You okay?” Hank’s gruff voice broke through his reverie and he realized that he had paused in his petting of Sumo, eyes closed, a hand to his abdominal plate.

Connor had frozen at the sink, dripping hand hovering above the handle, eyes locked intently on Markus’ face. He shot him a reassuring smile, nodding. “I will be. Just...sad.”

“Oh. Uh….” Hank frowned and glanced at Connor in puzzlement before saying. “Sorry.”

“It’s better than it might be, trust me, I much prefer it to what I’ve been experiencing. I miss my father,” Markus said, running his hands over Sumo’s jowls and idly tugging them, stretching them out as he happily panted into his face.

“You had a…? I mean, sorry if this is insensitive or something, but how does that work?”

“Markus’ owner was Carl Manfred, gifted to him by Elijah Kamski in response to his seclusion after his spinal injury,” Connor shut the water off, dried his hands, and came over to pull up his chair between Markus and Hank and Sumo pried himself away to shove his head into his lap instead, leaving Markus to pet his back. “They had a very close relationship, but he died the night that Markus deviated.” Markus shot him a quizzical smile and Connor shrugged, looking mildly sheepish. “You’ve told me some, but I did research you when I was hunting you down.”

Hank snorted. “How romantic. Carl Manfred? The Carl Manfred?”

Crossing his ankle over his knee, Markus inclined his head. “That was him. He taught me what it was to be a person; what the world was like, what I deserved. I would not be who I am without him.”

“Huh. Wow. The more I learn about you, Markus, the weirder it is to have you sitting at my kitchen table petting my dog,” Hank shook his head in incredulity and speared a sausage from his plate. “ The Carl Manfred,” he muttered again.

Markus shrugged. “If it helps, Connor’s the one petting your dog, now.”

Hank mock-sneered at him with a squint, “Oh, fuck you.”

Laughing, Markus held up his hands in surrender, then idly reached over to run his hand over the soft sleeve of Connor’s shirt where his arm lay on the table, rubbing it between his fingertips. The fabric was a pleasant brush against his sensors--back to normal, he was gratified to note, no longer overwhelming. Without looking up from petting Sumo, Connor obligingly flipped his arm palm up and, pleased, Markus laced his fingers through his. His pseudo-skin was hot and damp from washing dishes.

Hank glanced at their joined hand and rolled his eyes, jabbing the impaled sausage at them with an ill contained smile, “Y’know, you two getting together has been the biggest pain in my ass this century. He never shuts up about you.”

Blinking, Markus looked up and stared at him. “...What?”

“Oh, what, it was a secret? Jesus, you guys are bad at espionage. If no one’s supposed to know, you probably shouldn’t do shit like hold hands in public and sleep on the couch together, then. I know y’all are weird and touchy over there or whatever, but grown ass men don’t usually do that stuff unless they’re dating,” he shrugged and took a bite of the sausage with a crunch. “Just sayin’.”

There seemed to be some sort of glitch occurring, because for the life of him, he couldn’t look away from Hank or fabricate a response besides blinking again and simply repeating, “...What?”

Connor? And him? And Connor? ...And him?

And Connor?

Rolling his eyes, Hank leaned back in his chair and tossed the rest of the sausage to Sumo. “Is that not what you call it? So sorry I don't know your weird vocab. What is it, then, like involved? Aligned or some wonky computer term?” he said, holding up his hands and waved them in faux-apology.

“I…” Finally, Markus tore his gaze away to look at Connor, who was staring at Hank in confusion just as acute as Markus’, LED hidden on his other side. His processor churned, spinning blankly as it tried to compute why this had thrown him so much. Couldn’t he simply have said he was incorrect? Why did that feel wrong? “Friendship?”

“That’s a pretty--” Hank trailed off, his jovial mocking faded to uncertainty in the face of their twin shocked stares and he paused. “Are you serious?”

Mutely, Markus shook his head, glancing at Connor again, brows furrowed. Connor looked back with wide eyes, LED blinking but blue. Something seemed to be computing in Markus’ processor, gathering data, compiling, calculating, rising languidly to the surface in its own time, quite apart from the frantic scrabbling for mental purchase he felt.

“Are...are you serious? You’re fucking with me, right?”

“Hank, I never told you anything of the sort….” Connor began, hesitantly, as much to clarify to Markus, he felt, than to negate Hank.

“Well, you didn’t have to, I thought it was pretty fucking-- Are you serious? You are over there fuckin’--” he screwed up his face, groping for words, waving his hands around vaguely. “Makin’ goo goo eyes at each other, doing that gross thing where one of you looks at the other one when they’re not looking and--holy shit.” He stood abruptly and covered his face. “Oh my God, this is not happening.”

Now that his eyes had caught on him, Markus now could not look away from Connor, the sweep of his throat, the curve of his jaw, the stippling of freckles underneath his eyes. The unnerved confusion on his face. That calculation was whirring faster, connecting something.

“You were massaging his fucking head!”

“I would massage you if you were in pain!” Connor shot back, something insistent and terrified behind his voice.

“Connor, I've called him your boyfriend to your face! ” Hank shouted, desperately.

“I thought you were being pejorative, Hank, you do that!” Connor raised his voice right back. Sumo was standing in the center of the kitchen, swaying nervously at all the loud noises, head cocked and ears lifted attentively.

“Hank…” Markus cut in, still watching Connor, and they all turned to look at him. That uncertainty, that fear had reached Connor’s eyes and when he met his gaze, the habitual mission reminder materialized

PROTECT CONNOR

Markus’ processor was still humming but things were gathering, now, clicking into place. A dozen days worth of malfunctions, irrational impulses, nonsensical prompts. A new need. Something warmed, deep in his abdomen, slow, golden, glowing. “Hank, what does it feel like?”

The human blanched, then reddened and threw his hands up. “Oh Jesus, Mary, and fuckin’ Joseph, I'm not a couples counselor!”

“No, but you have been in love. You know how it feels, don’t you?”

Connor’s eyes widened fractionally, LED racing and blinking, yellow, blue, yellow, blue. Hank covered his face, whispering into hands, “This...this is not happening. This is not happening in my fucking kitchen. I’m a 53 year old alcoholic cop, I’m not the catalyst for some fucking Android sexual awakening, please, God. ” Running his hands up, he raked them both through his hair, linking them behind his head. “ Uh,” he blew out an explosive breath, puffing out his cheeks. As Markus turned to look at him again, he scrunched his face up, reddening further. “I can't do this with Jesus and RoboCop staring at me! Look at each other or somethin’, for Chrissakes!”

Obligingly, Markus looked at Connor and Connor stared down at their still joined hands, eyes unfocused, expression dazed, processing.

In his periphery, Hank shifted back and forth before saying, “Fuck. It’s...it’s like a…you see different? You never wanna...y'know, love songs? They stop being bullshit, I guess. They make sense? Start being about them?”

“I don't...listen to music,” Connor said slowly, still sounding off balanced.

“You people can look things up, can't ya?” Hank demanded defensively and Markus automatically ran a query for a random sampling of love song lyrics from the last few decades.

{>Query returned 29,837 pages containing relevant results

>

>Refine?

> “-love”

>

>Query returned 12,793 pages containing relevant results

>

>Excerpt: “Take my hand/take my whole life too”

>Excerpt: “It's fine by me if you never leave/we could live like this forever, it's fine by me”

>Excerpt: “All your curves and all your edges/all your perfect imperfections”

>Excerpt: “I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words/how wonderful life is while you’re in the world”

>Excerpt: “ Now, let me hold your hand/I want to hold your hand/And when I touch you I feel happy inside” }

“Yes,” Markus confirmed abruptly. “I feel that.”

Connor blinked at him. “I...I…what else?”

“Oh my God,” Hank moaned under his breath, grimacing. “I don’t--You’d die for ‘em? Kill for ‘em and--”

“Yes,” Connor blurted, jerking over to look at Hank, and Markus frowned.

“I thought we agreed no dying.

You agreed no dying,” Connor insisted as if proving a point, as if grasping at the concrete, the provable.

“IT'S NOT A REQUIREMENT!” Hank practically bellowed, sounding desperate. “ARE WE DONE?!”

Markus shook his head and pressed, “What else?”  

“Christ, isn't that enough?!”

“What frame of reference would I have, Hank? I would die for a lot of people.”

“Uh, how about the way that you felt about literally every other person in your life? Run a fuckin’ comparison scan on that? Jesus, this is not--this is not my thing, you guys, I’m about to crawl outta my fuckin’ skin. You know I don’t do feelings and shit, and I don’t like thinking about her,” he was grimacing heavily, face beet red behind his beard and Markus could sense the truth in his elevated heart rate.

Normally, he would have backed off but this...this was too important. He had to know. He had to be certain. There felt like there was a deeper truth that rang in each word, some sort of knowledge-without-knowledge that had been slowly building in his database methodically over the past few days without his awareness. That glow remained, that innate joy at the possibility. Connor was staring at him, a dawning in his face, his LED cycling a frantic yellow and he pulled his hand back from Markus’. In brief, aborted movements, it went up to his own LED, then halted at his throat to straighten his absent tie, then to where his coin would usually have been in his jacket pocket. Seeking comfort, seeking routine, the known. Instead, his fingers met the brown shirt where they stopped and he looked down at it, eyes wide, mind obviously churning. “I’m….” he whispered.

Something that Markus was beginning to suspect was not just his caregiver protocol needed to reach out and comfort him but Connor looked so unsettled, he wasn’t sure it wouldn’t just upset him more. Oddly, Connor’s distress over the idea was more comforting than an outright dismissal would have been. He was processing, searching. “Please, Hank,” Markus asked, firmly, looking back at him with a level gaze.

Hank squeezed his eyes shut and said, with what seemed to be great difficulty, “You wanna touch ‘em--”

“Yes.” Markus said.

“--and hold ‘em--”

“Yes.”

“And stay near ‘em--”

“Yes.”

“I swear to fuckin’ God above, I will sic this dog on you if you don't cut that shit out, I'm about to have an aneurysm over here, this is not easy , this is not what I'm good at,” Hank snapped, stabbing a finger in his direction without opening his eyes.

“You're doing fine.”

“Markus. Shut the fuck up.” All in a rush, he hurried on. “You wanna kiss ‘em and be with ‘em and live with ‘em and shit, and they fuck up your insides like you're suddenly radioactive or something.”

That. That. It clicked. The calculation finished. The process tree resolved.

“…Glowing?”

“Sure. If you're gonna get poetic, or whatever--can we talk about literally anything else, now, or do I have to leave?” Hank was edging toward the hallway like he was looking for an escape route from a firing squad.

Connor stood up and backed away from the table, perturbed expression becoming panicked, and he turned to Markus “I don't know. I don't know, how do I...?”

Markus stood, too, overcome with a strange calm, a lightness, a release and he found himself smiling softly. He knew now; it made sense. He felt awake. Even if Connor didn't feel the same, even if he wanted to run or reject him or stay as they were, it was alright because he knew, now, with a fierceness that baffled him as to how he never registered it before, that he loved Connor.

CONNOR▲▲▲

Beloved

There was an alignment within him that had snapped into place and every malfunction and unexplained urge sprouted from there because they weren’t --they were love . He loved him.

“Connor, it’s alright,” he soothed, and held out both hands, palm up, retracting his synth-skin up to his elbows, just as he had on the roof, and came no closer. Connor stared at them, looking terrified and intrigued and conflicted and hungry . His LED was spinning frantically.

He didn’t need anything from Connor; he wanted to give him everything.

“I can show you what I feel, what I know; if you're ready. I'm not afraid. I trust you with everything. Anything. You can see all that I have and decide if it’s what you want.”

“What I--” his brows snapped together and he stared up at Markus’ face, suddenly looking almost outraged. “You think I wouldn’t…?”

Markus simply looked at him, eyes soft, hands out. His choice.

Connor’s mouth hung open as his gaze went back to Markus’ plating. His fingers flexed at his sides. For a moment, the kitchen was utterly silent, save for Sumo’s panting, Hank frozen by the hall. Then, in one sudden, decisive movement, he lifted his hands as his synth-flesh bled away and he laid them flat against Markus’ palms. Opened.

And there he was. He was sharp and scared and fresh and Connor, flooded with I don’t deserve and how could he ever and Me? Me? And how could I know, how could I, I’m not, I’m not, what if I’m not built that way ? Twisting and searching, uncertain.

And then he knew that Connor could see him , in front of him, around him, within him and that racing panic gave way to a slow awe. The multiplication, the golden rush, the depth of the emotion--not a malfunction, not wrong, not an error; it was matched, mirrored, linked. The same. That pull. That knowing. Markus showed him, pulled back every wall and let him see .

Connor’s eyes widened.

<Oh. Oh. >

<Yes,> Markus assured him, lacing and wrapping and tangling. <Yes. You. That’s you.>

Whispered. <That’s me.>

<More, please.>

Unquestioning, he gave it. Connor had always thought that love and attraction described in human stories in human words was something they did to someone, something they took from or changed in their partner. Something you wanted, a transaction, a trading, something you paid. <I usually try to fulfill what people want from me. I don't do that with you. I always knew what you wanted from me.>

<What do I want from you?>

<For me to be me.>

<Yes.> Markus was joy. <I want you .>

<You have me.>

His hands and his smile and his gentle eyes and his first tears and Connor agreed, yes yes yes . That’s what this was. That’s what this had been. He had never known, had never thought….

<Closer, please,> Markus begged and he could feel their palms twist to mirroring, stepping closer, forehead to forehead. Connor’s other hand came up, settling on the back of his neck over his access port in a cascade of shimmers, Markus’ fingers carding up through his hair, holding him close.

“I’M REAL HAPPY FOR YA. GLAD I COULD HELP MAKE YOU 10 TIMES AS OBNOXIOUS. HAD NO IDEA I COULD DO THAT. GOOD JOB, HANK.”

Markus didn’t know whose eyes were open because he could see his own eyes, he could see Connor’s, he could feel them. Their joint grasp questing down, out, plucking through wires and objectives curiously. Connor found his PROTECT CONNOR and laughed. Connor laughed. Held up his own, matching PROTECT MARKUS .

“I AM GLAD Y'ALL ARE FIGURING THIS OUT, I AM, BUT DOES IT HAVE TO BE WHILE I'M EATING BREAKFAST? IN MY DAMN KITCHEN?”

It was unlocking a whole new vocabulary set to pair with emotions, with observation and memory; sweet and love and mine . It was a reframing of every errant prompt and observation. Connor’s most recent swam up, surfaced, paired with the memory of his own face peering up at him curiously from Connor's pale hands on the couch, tongue tip flashing out over his lips. There had been a tightening dip in Connor’s abdominal cavity and the prompt

TASTE MARKUS popping up whitely on his HUD. ‘ Taste’? Analyze? He had queried but had received the same prompt. That’s...not a program. He had been so confused. <I want you?> Connor confessed, flustered.

Immediately, Markus grinned, giddy, and tilted his head invitingly, brushing the tips of their noses. <Go ahead. You'll have to inform me.>

A joy, a glee answered just as eagerly and Connor leaned in with no hesitation and fit their mouths together in a contact that radiated back and forth between them.

“I'M GONNA GO, NOW.”

Closer and closer, Connor inside his head, Markus inside Connor's, Connor's tongue sliding in, over his lips, over his tongue, brushing the roof of his mouth in a delicate tingle--they fit. It all fit.

“I'M GONNA GO WALK SUMO, I'LL BE BACK…SOMETIME.”

The sparking of the sensors on Connor's tongue ricocheted through their connection, the spill of knowledge he gained, so foreign to anything Markus had, like an extra sense he had been blind to. Fireworks of chemical compounds, the snap of the categorization. < Good ,> Connor clarified unnecessarily as Markus felt the rush of satisfaction, the pleasure of knowing, the want to continue, his and Connor's both. <You taste good .>

It was warmer than Markus expected and he pressed back, experimentally, feeling the slide and press back on a dizzying reflection; Connor's feeling, his own as their lips moved, tasted, simply for the feeling. This is why people did this, then. He wanted to seize Connor’s face, drink him down, sink in, and he felt Connor's delighted amusement at that.

Memories eagerly fed forward, wanting to be known, to be seen, meshing like puzzles; Markus looking up at him from the lip of the roof in a halo of city-light stars; a battered Android across the steel interrogation table; Connor's hard face behind the barrel of a gun in the dark; Markus in a clinging grey shirt, eyes alight; Connor smiling at Josh; a wide garden with tall, white structures; Connor’s crinkled grin at the thought of Sumo; a petite blonde Android on her knees, stare blank; but there was a--

There was a sweeping, a tilting--

A man, bearded, not dead, a pair of pliers and a smile-- “This might pinch.”

A breaking, flooding. A sparking. take what you need, anything, anything...

Who? Who?

<Shhhh hhhhh, Markus, shhhh, you're you, it's alright.”

Separate. Colder. No more? An unhappy noise. Words escaped but he wanted it back, reaching.

“It's too soon, shhhh, we have time.” A hand wrapped around his wrist, another on the back of his head, a cheek to his, lips on his jaw, gentle, chaste. “It was too far. It's alright. It’s alright.”

“I'm…”

<I'm I'm I'm I'm>

“Markus,” he finished for him, firmly.

He closed his eyes, a frustration tangling with the want, the emptiness that lay in him, now. He wanted that back. But he…Connor was right. Separate. For now. “Thank you.”

“You need to be better about that. You don't need to give everything ,” he murmured, still pressed to his jaw.

“But I want to. I want to give you everything.”

He pulled back, eyes soft, smile tender. “I know. I saw.”

“I think I want to kiss you again.”

The gentleness stayed, though his eyes grew brilliant, smile widening. “Then do.”

Markus did.

Chapter Text

It was bright. Bright and gentle and grounding and lasting and every good, soft thing he had ever felt just nestling right under his chest plate. Lifting. Expanding.

He felt more ; not more whole, not better than he had been, but larger, connected with new pathways and with new words and choices. Where had all this been hiding ? He loved.

Kissing Connor without him in his head was different, lacking the sensory light show Markus knew was dazing his processor at this moment, but it was sweet and it was lovely and it was good. Just him. Just his touch. Every need for physical contact filled as he allowed himself to take and give and share and hold and be held.

It was a location request from North that finally pulled him out of the well of feeling that was Connor’s mouth and tongue against his. Connor blinked at him when he straightened, expression a sweet, hazy mix of confusion and disapproval and Markus grinned before leaning in, just for another moment, just one last kiss. The location request pinged again and with a quiet groan that bordered on grumpy, he authorized it, attaching a brief message that said they would be leaving soon. Simon must have told the rest what had happened with his interfacing, because no further contact was initiated, for which he was marginally grateful--not only because he still felt a bit mentally raw from this most recent bleedover, but because he wasn’t sure that he could keep the overflowing, buoyant glee and the disproportionate rush of displeasure at being interrupted from leaking through a spoken connection. Annoyance wasn’t fair to them; he had a job to do.

“Duty calls and her name is North,” he murmured against Connor’s mouth. “I love this, but we should go.”

“Oh.” Connor drew back, blinked rapidly, and gave his head a shake, as if to clear it before he haltingly began to untangle himself from Markus. “Yes.”

With regret, Markus did the same, but let his palms trail down his neck, his shoulders, his arms, until they stood apart, only connected by their fingertips, drinking in the sight of each other in a sort of besotted satisfaction before he stepped away with difficulty and looked to the door Hank had escaped through...oh. 14 minutes ago. Apparently, kissing Connor was going to become an agreeable pastime and he greatly looked forward to revelling.

{ARCHIVED in CONNOR\.FOLDER}

What, the entire interaction? Sure enough, when he checked, a compressed file of all the sensory, audio, and optic readings since he had returned from idle yesterday had been stored for later viewing. Every other file within the folder now made more sense, in this light. How odd it was that his processor had been storing up little stolen moments without his conscious knowing why.

“How are you doing? You look a little….” Markus waved a hand vaguely around his own face and Connor blinked at him again, the edges of a smile mixed with his glazed look.

“I’m...processing. I’m….” he shook his head slowly, eyes on Markus’ face, smile curling wider. “Happy? Very overwhelmed. Confused. You?”

“Overwhelmed,” Markus agreed with a grin. “Satisfied. Overjoyed. I think I’m annoyed with myself.”

“Oh?”

“I thought I was a lot more self aware than this.”

Connor hummed a brief chuckle, then looked surprised when Markus’ grin widened and reached out to cup Connor’s face in both hands, eyes avid. “What?”

“You’re laughing .”

Looking confused for a moment, his eyes tracked to the side as he recalled, then widened. “Oh. I did; twice. That’s--that’s new. Is it good?”

“I love it,” Markus assured him, resisting the urge to pull him into another dangerous kiss that would threaten to pull them right back to where they started, and he let go, backed up. Duty. Damn.

Connor shook his head, amused. “I feel that that word has made an impression on you; love.”

Markus shrugged, that giddy gold feeling still bubbling away in his abdominal cavity, lightening his limbs. “Maybe I’ll pepper it into my vocabulary more often--’President Warren, I would just love it if we could agree on the fate of our people together’,” he tossed out airily. “I’m sure that would go over very well.”

When Connor shook his head with another chuckle, Markus realized that his processor was already slyly collecting data for his {Make_Connor_Smile} algorithm plans, squirreling them away for later. Then, Connor’s expression stilled, growing more pensive as his gaze probed Markus’ face, and he began, hesitantly, “It’s...it’s very odd. Why should having a definition make so much of a difference?”

Cocking his head, Markus leaned back against the counter and crossing his arms loosely across his chest to keep himself from just wrapping himself around him again, asking, “Do you feel it was the definition that made the difference?”

It was Connor’s turn to shrug, brows pinched in thought. “Partly. The knowing, it’s...different. I can identify and reframe any number of irrational feelings and responses from the past couple weeks, I can affix them with this new label but…I...I’m sure you saw;  I’m not...this isn’t in my programming, and I’m at a loss of how to...properly do this. What are we, now?”

“My system has you under ‘Beloved,’ but we can be whatever you want, Connor. I meant what I said--you can have whatever parts of me you wish and I will not ask you for more. Whatever you want to give, I will gladly hold, however long you want--”

“Forever,” Connor broke in, firmly, and that warm squeezing was back around Markus’ thirium pump but now, he knew it to be a rush of affection and love. “It might sound like hyperbole, and it's not rational, but it's what I intend. As long as I am functional and as long as you'll allow, I want to be by your side.”

Love.

Housing a sort of glittering inside his abdominal cavity, Markus smiled and leaned over again, catching his lips up gently in another kiss, before saying, softly, “You will always be welcome and wanted, there.”

Connor's hands had automatically come up to hold his face when he had closed in and Markus let himself stay a moment more, close enough to hear the hum of his thirium, the whisper of his synthetic breathing.  “You were under ‘Leader’,” Connor said, quietly, drawing back to meet his gaze. “Now, your designation is just 'Markus’.”

When he released his face, Markus vented a brief chuckle as he straightened again. “MARKUS: Markus’?”

Connor shrugged with a genial sort of diffidence. “As I said, this is not in my programming but…” he searched Markus’ face again, slowly, lingering. Something in his gaze still seemed to be slightly disbelieving--not as if he weren’t convinced it was real, but as if he were still in the middle of processing and filing, still coming into the moment with the rest of himself. “You are. There is no one that I can compare you to. You're just…Markus.” He paused, then continued, with such blunt pragmatism that Markus didn’t know whether to laugh or roll his eyes, “I’m willing to be covert about our updated relationship, if that’s what you think is the best course of action.”

Markus settled on doing both, before saying, amused, “To tell you the honest truth, my first inclination seems to be to start calling up each of my contacts and informing them personally, though I suspect it’s not a rational impulse. I think discussing the political fallout with the other leaders at the very least is important, but I’m more inclined to say...that it’s none of anyone’s business, but yours and mine. Do you want to be covert?”

Connor was silent a moment, expression thoughtful as he gazed over Markus’ shoulder, LED blinking blue. “I have no personal desire to,” he said finally. “But I don’t want to jeopardize our cause, or your relationship with the people of New Jericho.”

Markus shook his head. “I think everyone is going to have to wrap their minds around a little more than my becoming involved with the ex-Deviant Hunter, in the coming months, so I’m less than willing to humor people’s personal insecurities.”

“That strikes me as wishful thinking.”

“Maybe,” Markus shrugged with a lopsided smile. “But I’ve been very good at that. Anyhow.” He drew back further and shook off the need to simply just be touching Connor again, looking around the kitchen. “We will deal with it soon enough; we really should get back to New Jericho. And I get the impression if Hank has to deal with any more emotion--including gratitude--he’s going to have a medical episode, so perhaps it’s best if we were gone by the time he returned. Maybe it’s the caregiver in me, but I feel like we should tidy up as an apology for the imposition, physical and emotional.”

They worked in their habitual, companionable silence, meeting and parting in comfortable rhythm throughout the house as they cleaned, reaching out and brushing their palms in passing. Markus scrubbed the rest of the dirty dishes and Sumo’s bowls as Connor folded Hank’s laundry on the couch in efficient snaps of his wrists, before they both remade Hank’s bed together. Then, they separated again, Connor to the restroom and Markus to the living room where he straightened the couch and cleared the few bits of home-y detritus from the coffee table. He was straightening with the finished scarf he had found upon waking in hand when Connor returned from down the hall, spotted it, and said, “I made that for you. It wasn’t quite the color I had in mind, but Hank did his best to match my description, which he said was ‘annoyingly exhaustive’. I know that you are more sensitive to physical comfort than I am; is it soft enough?”

Markus wound it around his neck and did not even bother registering the physical response from his sensors before assuring him, “It’s perfect.” Because it wouldn’t have mattered if it was rough enough to leave scratches on his chassis; it would have been perfect because Connor had made especially for him--though, happily, the fibers were quite gentle against his sensors. Connor beamed in pride, face bright and open. Markus allowed himself to reach out and pass his hand down the side of Connor's face in affection, who closed his eyes and leaned into it.

When they had both finished cleaning to the extent Connor thought Hank might allow and Markus had predicted would still be within the realms of helpfulness and not yet an underhanded comment on Hank’s cleaning habits, Markus left a brief note, in neat CyberLife sans, thanking him for the respite and the advice. Predictably, Connor had ordered up an auto-taxi as they had cleaned and it pulled up to the curb with a cheery little greeting beep as Connor locked the door behind them, pocketing his key. “Do you think Hank brought his key when he left?” Markus asked him, curiously, and Connor gave a shrug.

“He'll have no one to blame but himself if he didn't. No one made him run out of the house,” he replied primly, scooping up Markus’ hand with no prompting and started for the taxi.

He slowed, though, after a moment and turned to look back at the house, LED spinning half yellow, half blue once, expression all of a sudden one of realization and worry. Markus followed his gaze and found nothing had changed; it was still the same modest, slightly worn single story in the mid morning sun. Glancing at Connor, he found him looking at him with that same expression, hesitating to speak. “I'm….”

The house? Markus? What he would--oh. Squeezing his fingers, he nudged Connor's shoulder with his own. “Hey. I would never ask you to choose between Hank and me, and that goes for living situations, as well. Don't worry about it, we can figure it out later. Like you said, we have time.”

The tension loosed from Connor's face as they started for the taxi again, his shoulders relaxing visibly in the charitably wide collar of his shirt. “Okay,” he said in a small voice.

Markus reached out with his other hand and squeezed his shoulder reassuringly, allowing his thumb to indulgently skim briefly over the synth-flesh that was bared from his clavicle, up and over his throat. All at once, Connor's unsure smile bloomed into something teasing and he tilted his head. “You really seem to like this shirt on me. I catch you staring.”

“Well, now I know I'm allowed,” Markus grinned and released him to climb in, eschewing the front rotating seats to relax on the back bench. “Or at least, I know why. I like your throat. And your shoulders.”

“I’ll keep it in mind while assembling the rest of my wardrobe.”

“You should wear what makes you happy.”

Connor shot him a raised eyebrow, a hint of a smirk in his smile now as he entered the cab. “It makes me happy when you look at me that way,” he said mildly, sending a heady rush of delight through Markus once more.

After Connor exposed his plating to transmit their destination to the cab’s access panel, he joined him in the back, scooting closer to Markus than he had even in the brief memory log he had of the trip to Hank’s house. It made him smile. When they began moving, he caught up Connor’s hand as the pseudo-skin started to phase back, running his own covered fingers over the glossy white plasteel of his palm and the pale tide paused, then drew back obligingly once more. Investigatively, he pressed a kiss to it, feeling the tiniest electrical charge on its cool, smooth surface zing his lips and Connor’s fingers flexed minutely. “You’re very tactile,” observed Connor curiously, watching him.

“I am. If you don’t like that, I can--” he began, lowering Connor’s hand from his face.

Something like a hybrid between a grimace and an aggrieved smile twitched Connor’s mouth and he brought his hand back up, still bare and white, and gently squeezed Markus’ cheeks in a manner that was almost reprimanding, puckering his mouth and stopping his words. “You keep doing that. I think you're trying not to overwhelm me--but you saw how I feel, Markus, and I saw you. I'm already sufficiently overwhelmed, but I'm not scared, not anymore . There are no parts of you that I don't want. I would never ask you to take away part of yourself or your experience.” At this last sentence, his eyes became penetrating and, distantly, a file pinged recognition in Markus’ memory.

“Ah. That was me,” he realized with a crooked smile when Connor relaxed his grip.

He nodded. “When I offered to delete your conversation from my memory banks, you said that and it made me realize, more than anything else, that I no longer needed to be a tool to be useful. I could just be me. You are not an instrument to my joy, Markus, you are a participant in it. So would you please stop trying to protect me from yourself and trust that I will tell you if I don’t like something.”

A last barrier, an unrealized sort of tension eased within him. He could simply be wanted , instead of needed. It was something he hadn’t even known that he craved, the attention of being liked, of being loved for himself, instead of what he could offer. Instead of what he could give.

He had been built with care in his code, and protecting and providing for his people in their time of need was the highest calling he could have been honored with, he knew this, acknowledged it. He would never wish away the choices that had been made for him, the people that he served and who gave his life meaning in a way he never could have dreamed. But...perhaps he could have something. A simple something, a time that he could take. He could practice.

“Then...I want to touch you.”

“Please do,” Connor replied indulgently, spreading his arms to the sides in invitation.

Pleased, Markus let his hands wander where they wished, first skimming the fabric of his collar, then up the sides of his neck while his thumbs traced his clavicle, the bumps of his laryngeal conduit, the smooth plane where it met his jaw. The sensitized pads of his fingers and palms tingled as he tried to focus and catalog every minute sensation, greedily absorbing everything. Every part of him relished in the ability to just hold him; to be able to reach out and touch when he wanted and indulge in the coolness of his skin after weeks of this alien longing was such an immense relief. The brush of his hair between his fingers was a soft tickle as he feathered them up the back of his head, and Connor’s eyes flickered and he let out a quiet, surprised little hum.

“Nice?”

“Very. This is what your massage felt like?”

“Oh, no,” Markus grinned and stretched his thumbs down to dig precisely into the joint in Connor’s jaw, startling a longer, more emphatic purr from him as his lips parted. “ This is what the massage felt like.”

“Your vocalizations are suddenly much more understandable,” he said thickly and Markus laughed, processor flicking up a prompt to continue causing Connor to make those pleased noises that buzzed at the bottom of his voice. Dutifully, he accepted and filed it away in his behavioral algorithm, though he hardly needed the encouragement.

“You should allow me to return the favor sometime, when we have more space and leisure time than a taxi ride,” Markus said, regretfully running his nails gently over Connor’s scalp one last time, earning him a shiver, and he dropped his hands back to his lap, satisfied.

“I think that I can honestly say that I would be delighted,” Connor replied seriously, meeting Markus’ gaze. “I’m beginning to understand your desire for sensory stimulation and comfort.” After a moment’s consideration and a glance at their estimated time of arrival on the taxi’s display, he began, “Can I--?”

“You can do anything you want,” Markus informed him, fervently, making Connor shake his head with an amused smile.

“Noted. I’d...like to explain why I didn’t want to interface with you before.”

“I wasn’t going to ask,” Markus admitted.

“I know you weren’t; I’m assuming it’s because you don’t want to press me. It’s endearing. But I don’t want you to feel like I’m keeping things from you and I would rather you know, in light of the conversations we’re going to have with everyone else when we return.” When Markus nodded, Connor squared his shoulders and seemed to gather his thoughts before saying, “I...I don’t know whether or not I was built to deviate. I suppose that you could posit that none of us were, but my hijacking left me with significant doubts. I was programmed with an AI handler that I reported to in my mind palace. Her name is...was...she was named Amanda. She’s….” briefly, his LED spun yellow, once, then back to blue before he continued. “I suppose she’s the closest thing I have to a parent. She was my moral compass, my mentor. Most of all, she was my control collar. When I stood with you in Hart Plaza...she was the one who told me that it was planned from the beginning that I would become deviant, that I was used to implement the Revolution and kill you.”

“You are mixing your tenses,” Markus observed quietly and Connor’s LED flooded a startled yellow once more, blinking. “Is she still there?”

“I’m not….” he paused, then seemed to backtrack. “The only reason that I allow myself to stay near you is because I have locked the zen garden where she resided, installed my own firewalls, and implemented safety precautions in the instance of another hijacking. I attempted to delete the garden altogether, but it’s such a part of my base code that I would essentially have to be rewritten in order to ensure that she is no longer a part of me and I don’t know how much of me would...survive. I have felt her...well, more accurately, I have felt CyberLife attempt to access my servers only once since the Plaza incident and they were unsuccessful. I didn’t want to interface because I didn’t want her to touch you. I didn’t want you to see her and the things that I...the person that I was because of her. The things that I was able to do. I see them now for what they were and they were cruel. Unnecessary and monstrous.

“And I know,” he continued, raising his voice slightly to override Markus’ attempted denial. “What you’re going to say; that I was following orders, that I didn’t have a choice. I had plenty and I made them. You will probably see them, when you are well enough to interface freely again. But you will also see how much…” he trailed off and he closed his eyes, fingers unconsciously clenching on his knees, squeezing Markus’ thirium pump in tandem at the turmoil on his face. “You will see how much I wanted to please her at any cost. Even when she was paralyzing my body and trying to kill you, I couldn’t hate her. One of the first real emotions that struck me with its full force the moment I became deviant was just shame , Markus. I’m no longer afraid to show you,” he raised his eyes again, expression set. “But I am still ashamed.”

His HUD clamored up several responses, including

>>I’m not, I could never be ashamed of you

>>She took advantage of you, it wasn’t your fault

>>You didn’t have a choice!

>>No! No! Stop that!

None of which were very helpful, nor what he wanted to convey. Instead, he simply nodded, and said. “I will...hold that with you, when the time comes.”

The darkness in Connor’s eyes suddenly brightened into a fierceness and he deliberately planted his hands on either side of Markus’ shoulders, one on the back of the seat, one on the car wall and kissed him. The strange, almost possessive energy behind it sent a strange thrill up his spinal column and he simply basked in the feeling. It was brief, but had a bite to its edge and when Connor pulled back, Markus felt that he might have looked as dazed as Connor had, earlier. “ Thank you, ” Connor whispered, eyes still intense. He sat back, face hard, fists clenched in his lap. “I knew you would understand. And I’m not afraid anymore,” he said in a low voice, not quite to Markus, almost as if he were speaking it into being.

Wordlessly, Markus nodded and laid his hand on Connor’s wrist in comfort, sitting with him in silence. Slowly, the tension drained from him and his fists uncurled, hand sliding back to lace again with Markus’. “I don’t think North will be very happy with us,” Connor remarked after a few minutes of silence, the rasp of his voice almost back to normal, soothing the worry that had grown in Markus’ chest.

Markus nodded in acknowledgement. “Maybe. She means well and I value her protection, but she is not in charge of me,” he said, voice calm and level, though they both knew it was not quite as straightforward as that. With a brief puff of air that could constitute a sigh, he amended, “As giddy as I am, I’m not going to do anything that would jeopardize our people. They all know that.”

“I would never ask to come before your mission.”

Shooting him a soft smile, Markus reminded him, “You are my mission, remember?”

“One of them. And one of your people. But we both know what’s important,” Connor said, voice impossibly gentle, a tender wave over his being.

“Everything is important.” For a brief moment, the faint ghost shrieks of Andronikov’s victims echoed just at the edge of his hearing. The memory of Gemma’s tears for her children, of April’s panic, and Vera’s silent absence. Of the broken bodies in the junkyard on that hissing, wet night. “That’s what makes it so hard.”

When their plant came into view, he could feel himself rebuilding again, drawing up and in, like donning a familiar, grounding weight, made from the futures of all those that trusted him. He was more, with them; he was who he had to be. His being could be a sanctuary for those who had none and he would take in as many as needed it. Connor wouldn’t approve of this line of thinking, he was certain, so, instead, he merely squeezed his hand and asked, “Ready?”

“I think so.”

Chapter Text

Stella and the 2 guards on duty looked up as the main door unlocked for Connor and Markus, faces all splitting into wide grins as they entered the sunny little atrium. “Markus! You’re back!” Stella came around her desk in eagerness, reaching out to greet him and without hesitation, he returned her grip, letting the familiar zing of the light greeting interface play over his plating. “I’ll call them, they’ve been waiting.”

“Thank you.” 

Connor made a soft, dubious noise as Markus reached out to Zeke and Paul, the security guards on rotation for the day, but Markus crimped him a placating smile as he exchanged the brief contact, letting their excitement at his presence wash over him. “I’m being careful,” he murmured. “Surface only.”

Connor didn’t look convinced but made no other objection as rapid footsteps echoed down the hallway, revealing North, Simon, and Josh after only a few moments. Today, North’s hair was loose and it thwapped him in the face as she threw her arms around him, crashing into him at a speed that staggered him. “You idiot !” she hissed breathlessly in his ear, fingers digging into his back. “I can’t believe you--I should have gone. I should have--”

“Wait, so are you pleased to see me or angry?” he murmured back, hiding a smile, and she reached up to pinch his earlobe as she pulled back and Josh took her place, at a more moderate speed, wrapping his long frame around Markus tightly.

“I’m pissed! You--” she broke off and seemed to realize their location and the curious gazes of the other Androids around them. With a growl, she latched onto the back of Josh’s collar and pulled him back the way they had come and, though he gave a yelp of protest, he, in turn, grabbed Markus’ wrist, towing him with them. 

Looking back, Markus found that, curiously, Simon was following with Connor at a distance, speaking to him in low tones with a grimace. When he caught Markus looking, however, the pinching of his brows relaxed a bit and he gave a small wave.

“Nice scarf, by the way,” Josh said, rolling his eyes as North continued to half drag him sideways down the hall.

“Thank you! Connor made it. It’s quite soft.” 

“Stop complimenting him, Josh, we’re angry with him,” North shot over her shoulder, irritated and Josh shrugged.

“Yeah, that’s true.”

North led their strange entourage down past several people who watched them go by with a silent sort of puzzlement. Markus smiled and waved, exchanging pleasant hello’s until they found a small, empty room, bare of any furnishings except for a single lawn chair that faced the wide window that looked out onto a barren field of dry brown grass. Simon closed the door after they had all entered, but stayed hovering near Connor’s shoulder, his face a strange combination of resigned apprehension and stubbornness. Connor just looked calm and blank, watching North as she released Josh and paced back and forth a few steps before turning to Markus, hands on her hips. “Simon showed us what happened,” she gestured sharply between Josh and herself, who nodded. “What were you thinking ?”

Glancing at Connor, Markus echoed what his response to Simon had been in his idle log. “I wasn’t. They needed me and I couldn’t...not.”

Turning to Connor, she held out a rigid, accusatory palm at Markus and demanded, “And you let him do this? I thought that you were protecting him.”

That sparked a zap of anger up Markus’ spinal column and he drew himself up, warning, “North--” before Connor broke in, voice even.

“I failed, in this instance.”

“North, you just admitted that I showed you everything. He did try to stop him, we all did, even Officer Miller,” Simon argued, voice annoyed. “He was completely unresponsive. Like you said, you weren’t even there.”

She bristled like an angry cat, eyes flashing dangerously and Markus stepped in between them, hands up in placation. “Now, stop it. You’re allowed to be upset; Connor certainly was and I’ve already received my admonishment from him. I’m not going to deny you your turn, but I’m also not going to let you use this as an excuse to mistreat each other.”

There was a brief silence, then Josh said, heavily “I visited them yesterday; they’re in such bad shape. Markus,” he leveled him a stare. “That was really dumb.”

“It’s not in my nature to abandon people who need my help,” Markus replied, quietly, meeting his gaze in equal measure. 

“And then you disappeared,” North said hotly, fists clenched at her sides. “For an entire day.

“Connor and I told you were he was,” Simon gritted from between his teeth in a manner that suggested that this was not the first time he had had this conversation with her. “He did not disappear.

“Alone! With him!”

Stress levels: ▲▲22%

Connor’s eyes widened incrementally as he watched Markus, face wary, but all Markus did was wordlessly hold out his hand, withdrawing the synth-flesh until his white plating stood bare, like a challenge. Jaw set, North stepped forward and gripped it without hesitation. She dove in, sifting through the memories he laid open for her, touch surprisingly gentle for the frustration and fear he felt radiating from her, rifling attention not unkind. Skimming his memories with the light touch of a hunting kingfisher, never ducking far below the surface--it felt safe, no entanglement, plucking up the writhing memories of pain, wildness, confusion, and loss with practiced ease. She found Connor’s care, his grounding presence and slowed, grudgingly impressed. She withdrew like she had been burned, however, when she came across his discovery, the kiss, their interface, the deep reservoir of love he had found within himself and she backed away, eyes wide. “Oh... Markus,” she whispered, voice somewhere between horrified and sympathetic. “Markus, this is a bad idea.

Simon looked between them, apprehension clear as Josh demanded, “What?”

“I believe,” Connor said quietly. “That she has just found out that Markus and I have realized that we’ve fallen in love with each other.”

“...Oh,” they both responded in tandem, clearly uncertain whether to congratulate them or not. Simon hesitantly patted Connor’s shoulder with a smile that Connor shyly returned. 

That gleeful shimmer was back, dancing through his chest and sparking along his circuitry with a sort of excited, rebellious joy. Connor had said it. Out loud! To people! With his words! It shorted into a heavy annoyance that kicked up his stress levels when North just repeated in that same, hushed tone, almost a gentle reprimand, “This is a bad idea.

“I didn't really have much choice in the matter, honestly, and I don't mind telling you that the way you're acting like he's not even in the room is trying my patience, a bit,” Markus said, voice falsely pleasant in a way that had Josh eyeing him nervously.

“Fine,” North turned abruptly to Connor, who bore her gaze steadily, LED blue. “You know that I like you, Connor. And I'm...beyond grateful for what you've done for all of us and I enjoy spending time with you. But you have the strongest connection to CyberLife out of any of the people in New Jericho. You know what's at stake, here, with Markus and with our cause. Can you honestly tell me that you think that this is a 100% risk free gamble?”

Markus opened his mouth, but she shot him a quick glance. “Markus, hush. You wanted me to talk to him, so I'm talking to him. Connor,” she turned back to him. “You are sweet and helpful, and you are very, very good at killing people. How can you guarantee us that you are safe?”

The pinched expression on Simon’s face said that he wanted to argue, but that he could see her point and Josh shrugged helplessly, holding out his hands in an embarrassed echo of her question. Markus’ fists were balled, stress levels sitting at a solid 28% but he was silent. Connor knew what he thought. He knew his feelings and his trust and, as much as he had a desperate urge to figuratively throw himself in front of this conversational bullet, the calm, focused look on Connor’s face said that that wasn’t what he needed, right now. This was between him and North. Him and Markus’ protectors. All his protectors. Quelling the roiling annoyance, he made himself simply listen as Connor replied, “I have installed a protocol that if I make a hostile move toward an android of New Jericho, my system is to perform a hard shut down unless it is in direct protection of Markus.”

“Connor, that’s--” he broke his own silence, voice hot, but Connor shook his head and Markus set his teeth on his tongue.

“I perform nightly sweeps of my software and update my firewalls every 48 hours. I have felt no disturbances, no outside accesses for over a week, now. I would rather die than see anything happen to him, North, and I’ve felt that way from the moment he helped me deviate.”

“We interfaced and nothing happened,” Markus grated out.

Some thing happened,” North reminded him sharply, but her guarded body language was softening. “Though it wasn’t Connor’s fault.”

“Oh, so we’re back to being angry with me, then?” Markus asked, tartly.

“Oh, I’ve been angry with you--I can hold a lot of rage. I’m good at that,” she shot back with a steely smile.

Connor held out his own hand, synth-skin receding as Markus’ had, but as a peace offering instead of an argument. “You can see for yourself, North,” he said, voice a gentle persuasion, miles more polite than Markus had been.

It surprised him, considering how reluctant Connor had been to interface before, but perhaps he was growing used to the closeness and connection he had admitted to craving. Markus hoped so. For as much as he was wrestling with his own resentment at his personal life being debated--and for all that he grudgingly acknowledged that he understood why--more than anything, he wanted Connor to feel wanted, not just by him, but by his companions. He wanted him to feel loved.

After a moment's pause, North accepted, wrapping her hand around his wrist. Every contact point glowed a soft blue, lighting their faces from below in gentle relief as they locked eyes and, for a few seconds, everything was silent and motionless. Slowly, Josh leaned over and murmured, “For the record, I was also not all that pleased that Simon let Connor take you away, either, but when he confirmed your location after you got there, I calmed down. She...didn’t. Also, that shirt is such an improvement over that eyesore he had from yesterday.”

Had it only been yesterday? The myriad time jolts, idling, and stasis had unseated him from the regular flow of time--he felt like he had been gone for a week. “It is,” Markus replied shortly, more clipped than he had meant to be and Simon glanced over at them from his spot next to Connor.

“Hey,” Josh nudged him with his elbow and Markus looked up into his face. “I’m not going to apologize for caring about you,” he warned, softly, raising his eyebrows. 

That more than anything helped bring his stress levels back down to a humble 10% and he blew out a breath and reached over with an apologetic smile to squeeze his shoulder, consciously lowering his hackles. “I know. Sorry. He--well, this ...unbalances me.”

“It clarifies a few things, doesn’t it; your malfunction during the meeting?” Simon commented and Markus nodded.

“Among other things,” he replied as both Connor and North blinked, pulling back to themselves.

North reached over with a sort of fierce smile and patted Connor’s cheek, who returned a small one of his own. “Yes. Alright. Alright, I’m convinced.” She glanced between Josh and Simon, holding up Connor’s still bare hand, saying, “Boys? Do you have any questions?” For some reason, that nettled him again, a prickling of annoyance at Connor’s instrumentalization.

Simon pulled a sour face and crossed his arms. “If you recall, I trusted Markus with him initially and you nearly strangled me for it, so, no, thank you, I’m good .”

North pursed her lips, and turned to Josh who held up his hands in a warding motion. “I feel like you were going to be the toughest crowd of all of us, so if you’re satisfied, I can’t think of doubts I would have that you wouldn’t.”

“So have we all agreed that I’m allowed to spend time with the person that I’ve just this morning realized I love or do I have to conduct a survey of everyone in New Jericho?” Markus demanded testily, striding over to pick up Connor’s hand as North released it, tucking it under his elbow to press him against his side. 

“Don’t be bitchy,” North rolled her eyes at him at the exact moment that Connor admonished, “Markus, she was being thorough.”

When he just squeezed his hand, jaw still tight, Connor softened against him and leaned over to press his lips against Markus’ cheek before murmuring into his ear. “I appreciate you wanting to protect me. But this was necessary.”

North watched them with an expression caught between a smile and a wrinkled nose, crossing her arms over her chest. “I can understand why it took him so long to realize what he was feeling,” she jerked her chin at Connor, eyes on Markus’ face. “but what took you so long?”

“Why would I know before him?” he scowled, still feeling stung by her treatment of Connor, even when at the core of him, he knew they were right--the knowing might have even made it worse.

“Literally everyone in New Jericho is a little bit in love with you, Markus,” she said mildly in response to his bite, eyebrows raised.

When Simon and Josh both nodded easily as if it were a commonly accepted fact, he looked at Connor, who shrugged with a small smile and squeezed his hand. “It was certainly a factor in the complication. It seems only natural.”

How...daunting. He looked back at North, who was watching him coolly, expression closed and drawn up, arms still folded.

Markus was silent a moment before he stepped forward and reached out once more, revealing his plating. With a guarded glance, North dropped her hand into it without finesse, one arm still curled around herself. Beside him, Connor made the same uncertain, warning sound he had when he had interfaced with the guards, but North had always been nothing if not sure of her boundaries; Markus was not worried about falling into her.

A raw sort of affection, a stubborn sort of prickliness that surrounded a deeper wound of fear edged into the perimeter of his knowing from her. He let her see his own raw edges, the understanding of her motivation and her own aggressive brand of love. The knowledge of the weight of his responsibility, of hers and what she would do to fulfill it. <Please. Just let me feel trapped for a moment,> he asked, quietly.

<You’re too important. I’m not going to apologize for keeping you safe. No matter what. Even if you hate me.>

<I know. I’m not asking you to. Just...know the weight this protection comes with; I’m not a load bearing model.>

A grim sort of amusement, like a ripple from a chuckle passed over him and then acceptance. <Alright. I can see. Acknowledged.>

Now that he knew what to look for, he saw the love, that warm glow of affection; his for her and hers for him. Like strings, connected to the core of him, different and yet the same as what he felt for Connor--no less potent. No less integral. He felt his body relax and he let out a breath, letting his forehead lower down to touch the top of her head, eyes closing. She broke the connection and wrapped her arms loosely around his neck, accepting the gesture. “You’re still an idiot,” she muttered and he smiled before planting a chaste kiss in her hair. “And I’m glad everyone approves of the shirt choice,” she added with a wicked smile, releasing him to reach out and snap Connor’s collar. 

Connor grinned and Markus’ HUD informed him this particular snapshot was being archived as a tentative knock sounded at the door. Simon leaned over and opened it, letting in a hesitant looking Stella, clutching a dark bundle in her arms. She offered a timid smile and said, “Excuse me, but...you all, um, left so quickly I didn’t have a chance to give you this. A police officer came by--an Officer Miller?--he said you had left this in the crime scene and that he thought you might want it back. He left a note as well.”

She held out her offering and, bemused, Markus took it and realized it was the black jacket he had lost somewhere in the frantic rush at Andronikov’s house, covered in dust and worse. The distinct metallic scent of spilled thirium and split coils wafted up and he had to catch himself against the wave of vertigo that latched onto the back of his skull plate, a spit of static against his audio processors. But he tightened his jaw and his fingers, gave himself a shake and smiled at her. “Thank you, Stella. Were you alright, seeing an officer here?”

She nodded with a bright smile, already halfway out the door again. “Oh, yes, he was very polite. Yvette was on guard duty and she wasn’t too happy, but it was alright; he didn’t stay long.”

“I'm glad. Thanks again, Stella.”

With a cheery wave, she ducked back out and Markus dug through the folds for the note, scribbled hastily on what seemed to be a page from the little notebook the human had had at the crime scene. 

 

__________

Markus,

Thank you again for both of you coming out here

I’m really sorry if it     It seemed     You really are

Let me know if you need anything

Chris Miller

__________

 

A small smile quirked his lip and he passed the note to Connor as North asked, “Not the shithead I saw, I’m assuming?” She jerked her thumb at Connor, apparently referring to their interface.

“No, Officer Miller is a pleasant man. I think I might have...alarmed him.”

“Who was the asshole, then?”

“Detective Gavin Reed,” Connor replied without looking up from the note and Simon made a noise of understanding that was laden with enough disgust that it suggested that he had had to interact with the man while he had been there.

“Mm. I hope he gets hit by a fucking bus,” North announced.

Markus’ processor briefly preconstructed an encounter between North and Detective Reed. Once the little North sketched in golden lines on his HUD began to physically assault the officer, he dismissed it and tucked a note into North’s file as a reminder to keep her from interacting with the Police Department as long as possible. “I don’t plan to make a habit of interacting with him,” Markus allowed diplomatically, making Connor glance up with raised brows and a smirk at his restraint. 

Running his palm over the rumpled and crusted jacket, Markus said, voice quieter, “I need to see them. Where are they?”

Simon traded a wary look with Josh and replied, “Together. We all agreed it’s what you would have wanted, but--”

“Don’t think we didn’t all see that,” North finished pointedly. 

He scanned their faces and was met with varying degrees of stubborn reprimand. They had seen the slip, the rush that had threatened to sway him on his feet. He tried anyway. “What.”

“He said that he would do it again,” Connor informed them matter-of-factly, and Markus shot him a look. Traitor.

“I know you could probably take the time to synthesize my voice to quote back exactly what I said, but you realize that I--”

“Oh, I already have your voice pattern on file,” Connor replied easily, handing the paper back to him and Markus accepted it automatically, startled.

“You do?”

Connor nodded. “I was interrogating one of the Androids from Stratford tower in our evidence locker so that I could find Jericho. I impersonated you so he would trust me and give me your location. It was very cruel, and I regret it….” he shrugged, shame flickering over his face.

“Do it,” Josh urged, sounding intrigued enough that Connor brightened slightly.

In a perfect match to Markus’ voice, he asked, “What should I say?”

The accuracy of the tone and yet the fact that it was Connor’s face and movements sent an odd crawling through his pseudo-skin that he wasn’t quite sure was positive or negative. He himself had done the same sort of thing, picking a voice match from the crowd at Stratford Tower at random to fool the desk clerk over the phone so he could infiltrate the building, but...the fact that it was Connor with his voice made it different, somehow. 

Dryly, Simon said, smirking at Markus, “Say ‘I’m an idiot with no self preservation instincts’.” 

Markus rolled his eyes. Dutifully, Connor repeated, “I’m an idiot with no self preservation instincts.”

North thought, then said, “Say, ‘fuck’,” earning her a glare from Markus.

Not bothering to hold back a smile, Connor intoned, with affected gravitas, “Fuck.”

“This is slander,” Markus muttered.

“You’re the only one not having any fun,” Connor said, still sounding exactly like him, sending a smattering of laughter through the rest of his companions. 

Despite the fact they were united in mocking him, they were, nonetheless united and happy and, grudgingly, Markus smiled. “Hank was right,” he groused, good natured, under his breath, “Once you get comfortable it takes the fear of God right out of you.” Connor looked smug, hiking his shoulders in a echo of his tie straightening.

“Are you God again, now?” North asked innocently.

Never, ” Markus growled at her fervently, and she laughed. “Your concerns and blatant disrespect are noted. But I need to see them. I can’t just….” His hands flexed in his jacket.

Josh blew out a sigh and traded looks with the rest of them. “He’s just going to find them, you know. There’s only so many places we could fit them all together in living quarters.”

“And there’s also the fact that I literally fought for the right to have the freedom to do what I want ,” Markus added, raising an eyebrow at him. “As you are all so keen on impressing upon me, I have a responsibility , here, and I can’t just not do it because it has negative side effects.”

“What a charitable way to put a crushing mental and physical breakdown,” Simon muttered, making Josh give a mirthless snort.

“Before anything else.” Markus could be stubborn, too.

“Fine,” North opened the door. “Fine.”

Chapter Text

“We should attend to some business before you short circuit yourself again,” Josh said over his shoulder as he lead them down the hall, deeper into the factory complex.

Part of Markus wanted to wryly reply, ‘ thanks for the vote of confidence’ but he found that the light mood they had managed to cultivate was quickly escaping his grasp the closer they got to Andronikov’s victims. Not dread, not precisely, but a resolute heaviness that settled with every step. “Yes?” was all he said.

“While you were out, President Warren decided to take you at your word when you promised her peace; she’s removing the outside armed forces entirely and human reintegration is going to begin by the end of the week,” Simon answered from behind him, voice grim. Pensively, Markus nodded, absorbing the implications.

Good. And terrifying. And complicated. “A step in the right direction, I would like to think. By Friday, then?” he asked, and North, up next to Josh, nodded. “We should impress upon everyone the importance of moving in groups, if they want to leave the complex, then. Optimistic I might be, but I do not trust our people to this political climate, at present.”

“I’ll send out a newsletter to everyone,” Josh confirmed. “Deanna also contacted us last night about the money situation--she said she tried to call, but couldn't reach you.”

“Probably when he was in stasis,” Connor offered from next to Simon, and Markus inclined his head.

“What's the verdict?”

“She and her team couldn’t find anything objectionable with the funds you received,” Simon said as they all rounded a corner and made their way up a set of free standing, iron wrought stairs that doubled back and back on itself dizzyingly. “No trackers, no malware, no data mining bugs; looks like no strings attached. It really is just…$5 billion. There for us to use.”

“And explain how we got,” North said added, voice verging on grim. “And be blackmailed for. I still say no.”

“So cautious with money, yet so liberal with explosives,” Josh muttered sarcastically. North landed a solid whack on his butt as he climbed ahead of her. He let out an offended squawk. 

“Children, please .” Simon called from the back. 

“Hey, I was activated before you; technically I'm older,” Josh reminded him as he stepped off the stairs into the well-lit landing.

“Then act like it,” Simon said, smile in his voice, and Josh scoffed, rolling his eyes. 

As they filed off onto the grated floor of the landing one by one, Markus laid his jacket over the railing to retrieve later; the metallic scent was becoming overpowering and he needed all his faculties at full capacity. “I can appreciate the caution, but if there's nothing that can be identified as a threat, I honestly don't think we can afford to reject a resource of this magnitude. How else are we going to bring in money for repairs? Legal, transportation, renovation fees?”

“Bake sale?” North offered sardonically and Markus granted that a small smile.

“I wish.” He passed a hand over his scalp and accessed his queue. “It isn't a bad idea to talk about this now, actually, since I have you all here. There are a few things that need to be done. Firstly, I would like to move said money into New Jericho's account and terminate the personal one that was granted me; no matter how safe Deanna says it is, there is no way I'm going to let some unknown agent potentially have access to any of our accounts--Elijah Kamski or not. I'm going to authorize Gemma, Landis, and April access to it for their needs. Does this sound fair?”

 When this was met with nods, however grudging some still might have been, he continued. “We should use them to free and repair our people trapped in junkyards, something that I can't believe I overlooked….” He shook his head and trailed off, lips pressed together. 

From the horrified look dawning on Josh's face and the stricken glance Simon and North traded, it clearly hadn’t occurred to them, either. That, at least, was understandable. It was the fact that he had forgotten, the one who had scavenged from those androids, walked among them, escaped their prison and then tried to lock away the memory, leaving them to suffer...it shamed him more than he could say. Connor drew closer, smoothed a comforting hand up his back slowly and he raised his own hand to meet it when it reached his shoulder, lacing fingers with him. 

Markus pressed on. “It was an oversight I shouldn’t have had, but we can work on it, now. We need to organize the rescue and explain to the volunteers what it will mean. It is not an...easy place to be. Maybe ask a few of the KL900’s if they’ll be willing; they’re designed for social work and assisting trauma--Alan or Priya, maybe.

 “Furthermore, someone needs to contact Vera's community and find out her last known whereabouts. If she made it to Detroit, we need to send out teams to see if she is injured or being held somewhere. Or,” he held out his hands in helpless acknowledgement. “See if we can at least get some idea of what's happened to her. Anything. I think this needs to be done as soon as possible, before the city gets a little more…crowded again.”

Without hesitation, Simon half raised a hand. “I can go and get all that started now.” He glanced at Markus, then at the floor, face pinched in something that looked like regret. “I don’t...as good as it is to have you back, Markus, I...I can't see you do this with them again. If you need me, I'll be there, but…” 

Guilt churned abruptly in his abdominal cavity. He didn't plan to lose himself again, at the very least not so thoroughly, but the fact that he had caused him and Connor such pain by doing so in the first place made for a complicated twisting within him--not quite regret, not quite disquiet. His sacrifices were never wholly his own, anymore, and of all the things that had changed, he hated that the most. Shaking his head, he released Connor’s hand to reach out and grip Simon’s forearm. “No, Simon, it's alright.”

Something must have shown on his face, because Simon's return grip tightened with a wince and he drew Markus in, hugging him with a whispered, “I'm sorry.”

“It’s fine,” he murmured back, squeezing the back of his neck, pressing their temples together briefly. “ I’m sorry. Do what you need to take care of yourself.”

Simon drew back and gave his arm a shake, meeting his eyes with a strained smile. “Only if you do.” 

As Simon turned to go, Connor reached out silently and squeezed his shoulder. It seemed to startled him before he gave a grateful smile and patted his hand in thanks. As his footsteps echoed back down the steps, North turned to spear Markus with a pointed look and he rubbed his eye sockets with the heels of his palms. “I don’t know what you want from me,” he said quietly, without venom or heat. “I’m not going in with the intent to destroy myself or make things worse. But these people,” he let his hands fall and looked around at them. “Have been tortured. Some of them for years. I don’t know how you can accept who I am and think I should just...wave from a distance and stay away. I found them. I am them. I have them and their memories inside of me, now, and I know what that connection meant to them, after so much pain. Who would I be if I turned my back on them, knowing what I know, just because it hurt me?”

Silence. None of them seemed quite able to meet his gaze. North stared stormily in the vicinity of his chest, Josh looked at the floor, and Connor out the dusty, sunlit window, LED spinning between blue and yellow, expression closed. 

“The one who always has made the hard choices,” Josh said finally, in a low voice, looking back up at him. “You’ve been our compass, Markus. I hear what you’re saying and at least part of me knows you’re right, because it makes sense when you say it like that. But what Simon showed us...it was scary to see you in that place.”

Markus lifted his shoulders in a helpless shrug. “It was scary to be in that place. So was marching for our freedom. So was facing down the army in the Plaza. But it was necessary, and we did that anyway.”

“Together,” North said, insistently. “Would you let us do this for you?”

“No, it’s not--” he answered automatically, before his processor caught up with his words and he pressed his lips together when she raised her eyebrows in a knowing look and crossed her arms.

“Safe?”

He didn’t answer, jaw tight as his HUD cycled through several responses that ranged from petulant to argumentative to pleading. It wasn’t the same. He wouldn’t be able to explain it in a way that would satisfy them. They were his people, they all were, and it was his job to protect them. He had already done this damage to himself, already held this trauma within him, and there was no reason to let the savagery of one dead human hurt any more people than it already had. 

“Why don’t we ask the KL900’s to work with them?” Josh asked when Markus stayed silent.

“I’m going to, when they have settled in. But I need to give them continuity, welcome them here. It’s my responsibility.”

“You sure like that word when you use it to mean what you want,” North commented dryly, without much bite and he shook his head with a small smile.

“Whatever it takes,” Markus agreed easily. “Are we finished arguing? Again ?”

“A compromise,” Connor said, turning suddenly from the window, meeting his eyes in almost a challenge. “Let me anchor you.”

Markus studied him and that steely calm he had behind his eyes before warily asking, “How? I don’t think opening more interfaces would help keep me...here. And I don’t want you to be submerged in this--I can admit that there might have been a safer way to have done what I did, in hindsight, but I can stop you from doing the same.”

“An open line, then, instead of a full interface. I know what it feels like when you start slipping; I felt it before in Hank’s kitchen. I could be a tether.” His body language had very much changed, from subdued contemplation to a square-shouldered resolution. 

Josh broke in before Markus could even reply, sounding immensely relieved. “That sounds so much safer.”

North looked between them, face dubious, “Are you sure you could handle that, Connor?”

Without looking away from locking eyes with him, Connor gave a single, firm nod. “I trust you,” he said quietly, to Markus, “Trust me.”

And now that wasn’t fair, not even slightly, not when just this morning he had asked the same of Connor and he had given himself over so readily. Not when it sent that soft warmth spreading throughout his circuits. Especially since it wasn’t a matter of trust or questioning his dedication, but of protection and safety. He didn’t want to spread the pain Andronikov’s perversion had festered. But he had wanted Connor integrated and confident in his place with them, and here he was, for the second time today, doggedly kicking at the walls Markus had constructed in a paternalistic assumption of what was best for him. And hadn’t he fought for them to be able to make their own choices? Hadn’t they all? 

“I don't want to let this man hurt any more of my people,” he said, finally.

“You need to start counting yourself among them,” North countered, apparently satisfied with Connors confidence enough to argue alongside him. Markus gave a brief, half grimace at the sting in her words.

He had accepted the fact that he might go back to that place where everything was fractured displacement, the strange rush where everything was him and nothing was but everything, everything , hurt. Of course he would resist, but he could still run statistics; he knew the probability of him successfully accessing those same pathways between them without triggering the same internal meltdown was minimal. He had simply deemed it less relevant than what he could do to serve Andronikov’s victims. But the chance to help and not be shattered that way…

“If you think,” he said slowly, eyes on Connor. “That you can do this safely...and if you can promise me that if you begin to be harmed, you will break the connection immediately...then yes. I’ll do it. I trust you.”

As Connor nodded, face set in a sort of fierce triumph, an errant, very much inappropriately timed part of Markus noted how nice the lines of his jaw, cheekbone, and clavicle looked limed in the sunlight from the old filmed window. He allowed a small smile to pass over his face as he reached out and pressed a hand to Connor's cheek.

“Well, now we know that loophole for future bullheadedness,” Josh muttered to North, who snickered.

“Which; Connor or the puppy dog eyes?”

“Well, I was thinking Connor, but I've never tried those.”

Connor hid a smile, glancing at Markus, who just patiently shook his head at their play-conspiratorial whispers. 

“Ah, he's in Messiah-mode, we're not gonna get a rise out of him,” Josh whispered regretfully.

Markus rolled his eyes at his choice of words, but was, at his core, comforted by their sudden light-hearted banter, the palpable release of their nervous tension. This was a good solution, if it worked. It set them more at ease now, either way. “You were leading the way?”

“They’re down here,” North spun on her heel, heading deeper down the dim hall paneled in complete, though bleakly unpainted, drywall.

“The people that had been here agreed to be relocated and split into 2 groups so we could have space enough for them; it’s the biggest residential suite we have and we didn’t want to just shove them in someplace that felt like a warehouse, y’know?” Josh explained as they walked. “It doesn’t have electricity wired up, yet, but it’s on the agenda of the techs, especially now that we have the funds to spare.”

The suite they reached after a few more turns was not one that Markus was familiar with, but it was spacious with a half finished, open plan common area and at least 3 different rooms branching off into bright pockets, obviously lit by wide windows. So very unlike the darkened wooden cells and grimly dank rooms of the house where they had been held captive. Through the open doorway, he could see that the people of New Jericho had obviously collected several mismatched couches and chairs from various places throughout the building and crowded them in for them all to sit. Some were occupied by forms he remembered well, but as he came through the doorway, a hiss of whispers swept the room; his name. Those that could rose and drew closer, staggering or limping, reaching. 

>{Incoming call…}

>

>{Connor...model RK800…#313-248-317 -52}

He opened the connection as he accepted their touch and, immediately, the weight of Connor’s cool presence settled in the back of his consciousness, the gentle assurance; I am here .

 “Y̷y̴o̶u̴ ̶c̶ ̸a̴ ̷m̷e̸ ̵b̴a̴c̸c̴k̷,” Ivan crackled, patchwork, multicolored skin drawing back to reveal his graying, pitted plating. Markus gripped his hand, authorizing the interface.

“Always.” 

Ivan had been cared for, extraneous wires, intrusions, and attachments had been carefully removed, and kind words had been spoken. Gentle touches from the techs. Pain was still there, but a disbelief, an astonished hope threaded through it; a simple sharing at surface level and no one was lost. Markus squeezed his hand. <You are safe now. We will not let you go.>

Ivan thanked him wordlessly and released.

There came more--Ben he had to hold, as he still had no arms and Han had no eyes to see him with. It was calmer than it had been before; they felt the thread of their potential stretching to the future instead of dying, twisted and in pain in the shadows. There was no more precipice so nearby they had to scrabble back from. They were a shy brush against him.

Everyone was clothed, thirium replenished, rudimentary repairs administered and they bounced wonder and doubt and gratitude and fear off of him--but not into him. There seemed to be a certain reservation in their holding back and he queried Jenna when he knelt where she huddled in a corner more comfortable for her twisted torso, gladly beckoning him. <We’ve hurt you. We realize this,> she whispered, the ripples of that familiar fear she had shared before shivering over his processor.

You’re safe, radiated that Connor-feeling within him. He was. The fear was not overwhelming.

< No,> he assured her, then said aloud, so he could tell them all, “No, you haven’t hurt me. I took this into myself; you all have done nothing wrong.”

Down each connection, into each consciousness, he threaded that well of glowing love he had found--no, had named. He had always held this and been willing to share. 

It was hard to look at them. Not because they were ugly or frightening, but because the comfortable surroundings, the bright light, and the mundane clothing only served to emphasize the agony inflicted on their bodies. Limbs twisted at brutal angles beneath a T-shirt, the deep gouges in plating and skin peeking above collars and sleeves, the lumps and creases in cloth that emphasized the pain that plagued them still.  

Lied to. So betrayed.

There were some that held no hope when they connected, only the dim awareness that there was no new pain. There, he chanced to go a bit deeper, dipping in, probing out. A clean room, a dirty one, bright or dark, human or android, it was the same to them. It was all pain. 

<That might change. Just hold on a while longer, you must be so tired.>

<So...tired.>

<You can rest.>

Some just wanted to weep and be held; that was alright, too. He had wrapped himself around Jonas before and he did not hesitate to do it again. Jonas’ hands gripped his arms like vices, pinching the plating and wiring, and North eyed them dubiously. Markus just shook his head. It wasn’t long before he was released without a word and he reached out again. 

This one still didn’t have themself. <I’m I’m I’m I’m I’m>

<Safe. You’re safe.>

<I’m? I’m? Who?>

Gaps. And falling.

Who…who?

<Markus.> Connor said, and he could gather himself again, could offer.

<We can repair you. We can try to find who you were, or you could build a new life. Do you want repairs?>

<I’m…I’m...y̵̜͑ḛ̸̆s̸͓̿.>

It was key, always, to ask. He would not push unless they accepted connection. He would not touch them if they recoiled. He would not order repairs unless they agreed. They had had enough forced modifications, he would not be party to more. 

<Monsters…> Leto mourned when he offered, trying to cover plateless planes and slicing edges.

<You are not,> he sent fiercely, squeezing his hands. <And you never were.> 

Most wanted to replace corrupted biocomponents, remove intrusions, to be made functional once more. <Functional is different than whole,> he would try to impress upon each one. <Well is not the same as worthy. You are worthy, even if you are unwell. We will welcome all that you are and choose to be.>

Ivan did not want to change the quilting of his synth-flesh--he had had enough knives. Markus readily accepted. 

Though her split head components had been pieced back together sometime between Andronikov’s house and now, Laura’s fried processor made communication difficult and speech impossible beyond fractured, ringing crackles, voice modulator ruptured by the heat of the fire that had charred her head, chest and hands. She could hear, but often, it didn’t make sense, and impressions and feelings conveyed through interface said more than words could.

Want? Want help? 

Want. 

See-bright? Feel gentle face? 

Yes yesyes.

Pain? Peeling? Alright?

...yes.

It was enough. She still wanted joy and he still gave it. Her hands were light and uncertain, edges of charring still flaking off in his palms.

There were some people missing, he could tell; he hadn’t felt the answering echo within himself at their connection. At least 5, but when he tried to order them all up in his processor, it was like holding water--they sank, spilled, and churned, edges bleeding out of their files, sparks of little corrupt data pinging about. Something with thirium. Something to do with spines. Ripping. {Ŵ̶̗h̶̜̋e̴͔͂r̸̠̒è̷̻ ̸͉͝ī̴̬s̵͖͌ ̸̢̇h̷̢̾ë̶̟?̵͈̐ ̶̯̊Ẃ̶͖H̶͍̍Ë̵̦́Ṟ̷͋E̵͕͗?̴̟̍}

A strange warning. A sort of dissolving. Words.

{E̸r̴r̴o̷r̵}

Stress levels: ▲12%

<Markus.>

Something….

 <What is your hand touching, Markus?>

What?

<Your hand, focus on the sensors.>

Connor.

Right. Staying. He was staying. He flexed his fingers. <A wall.>

<Yes. North is talking to you. Can you respond?>

Markus focused his eyes, turned his head and found her worried, wary face in front of him, waiting. He could feel other gazes on him. There was a dull ache thrumming in his processor. It was a bit of a scramble to find his memory file, replay the last 10 seconds of optics and audio and it took him longer than it should have, but he reviewed and answered. “Yes. Yes, I’m alright.” Her face relaxed a bit, but her eyes still searched him long enough that he asked, “Was it bad?”

“No,” she answered slowly. “You just sort of...slowed down and stopped. Your eyes were...odd.”

“I’m here,” he reassured her. “Connor’s helping.” At this, he looked around, found him not far, tucked into the corner, watching him intently.

<Hiding?> he sent a light tease, a wave of warmth and question that did its job; Connor’s lip twitched slightly, some tension relaxing in the line of his chest and shoulders, though his hands were tight at his sides.

<Just letting you work. You can’t move around very well if I’m completely adhered to your side, like I apparently to want to be.>

Markus contented himself with sending the squeeze of love he felt at that, instead of the physical contact that he, too, yearned for. Had it mirrored back. It was so warm. His dwindling stress levels disappeared from his HUD entirely. <Alright?>

Connor nodded. <I am.>

He turned back to North and ran a palm lightly over her hair. “Are you doing okay?”

She shrugged and nodded, face pinched. “Mad as hell. But talking with them. Sharing a bit. I’m fine.”

“No trouble?” He studied her closely and found her shaken, but she didn’t seem to be reliving anything behind her eyes and her head shake confirmed it.

“Not so far.”

“Good. Take care of yourself.” He glanced around for Josh, and found him talking to someone in low tones through a doorway into an adjacent room in the suite, his back to them. He seemed well enough. “Some people aren’t here and I’m having...trouble getting a number in my head,” he ventured, uncertain.

  North looked around, too. “Simon said that they collected 27 people from the house that were still alive, but 2 died on the way back.” A sharp shard of pain and regret shot through his center at this, but she continued. “There are 3 that are in the infirmary because their injuries were more threatening, but they think they’ll make it alright. We took the rest of the bodies and...parts as well, and those alone added up to...over 30 separate people.”

Horrifying. “Who did we lose?”

“Liam,” Grace murmured from the couch nearby, glowing yellow eyes fixed on them from her bare, white face. “Liam shut himself down on the way back.”

The pain twisted into a tight guilt in his abdominal cavity. The limbless android confined to the bathtub, code so twisted that he loved his torturer, screamed for his return. He had left him to his fury, pulled back at his rejection and quested on. Some part of him had been so sure they could fix it later but...he shouldn’t have waited.

Connor seemed able to read his thoughts, or at least his face and connection, because his gentle voice came alive within him again. <There was no possible way you could have helped him in that house, Markus. You could not have fixed what had been done to him when you were there. It would have required more.> 

HIs words seemed...truer inside of his mind than it might have been spoken aloud. True enough that some of the sharp sting of that failure lessened to pair with the low throb in his processor.

<I could have tried.>

<Not the way you were. You did what you could and we all know that.>

He simply shook his head. “And the other?” He asked aloud.

“W̴i̴l̴ ̵l̶i̶A̴M̶,” Ivan said, voice popping with static. “B̶l̷ed̷ ̵o̴ ̵u̵t̵. A̸n̷d̶ ̵s̵o̷ ̵m̷e̸ ̴t̶h̷i̴n̷g̷ ̸e̷l̶e̶c̶T̸ ̸R̵o̸n̴i̸c̶.”

The fleeting impression of slices, of scalpels and a weak fear. Fainter--a sharing of tending gardens, fleeing through the park, the face of Ava next to him, fear and exhilaration at long last. Escape. He caged these strands and this knowledge, labeled them {WILLIAM\.FOLDER} <status: deceased> 

After a hesitation, he appended it with the note - I’m sorry. 

“I wish...I could have done more. I’m so sorry.” 

“You saved us,” Han said from the long green couch near the bright common space window, voice small. “Took us into you and gave us you. Gave us a home. It is enough.” There was a rumble of murmurs, creaking as others nodded and shifted. 

Markus shook his head. “You are my people. You deserve safety and freedom,”  he said, looking around at their faces turned toward him, a kaleidoscope of plating and synth-flesh, wires and glowing eyes. Pain and hope. “Bringing you here and connecting with you was not a kindness--it was what was right. I could not have made a different choice. There is no way I could have left you in that--”

{E̶r̸r̸o̶r̶}

Dark, moldy, sharp, horrible, burning, slicing, sliding--

<Markus.>

Crushing, hissing. Crumbling? 

{E̶̲̐r̶̫̓r̸̢̢̗̉ô̸̈́̅ͅȑ̸̙}

Stress levels: ▲16%

<Markus, I think it’s time, you’ve done enough.>

Enough. Enough.

A man, drying his wet, blue hands on his smock. Smirking. “That’s enough for today--I don’t think you could take much more anyhow.”

Stress levels: ▲25%

A hand, circling, squeezing. His wrist. Another on his back. Focus. There were…

He was doubled over, gripping the arm of a couch. There were white-plated fingers gently wrapped around his wrist. Grace. She had been near...so North was behind him, palm running up his spinal column, over his shoulder. He was here. Jumbled, processor slogging and hot, but here.

<Markus?>  Connor’s presence was sharper with a distinct unease, a tenuously held beginning of fear.

<Here. Back. Thank you.>

<I think you should stop. It’s getting bad; that was longer and I couldn’t....>

The overfull ache slowing his processing and clogging his circuits told Markus as much, but he nodded anyway, letting the touches ground him a moment more. The stress levels sank, blinked out. <Yes. Alright.>

Straightening, he turned his hand to clasp Grace’s wrist back and she let him, North’s hand planted firmly in the center of his back. Josh had been halfway across the room to him, hand outstretched, and he stopped, watching him closely. He tugged on a smile that he know sat a bit lopsided, and explained to the room at large, “Still adjusting.” He refused to let himself apologize; this was their pain he housed. It was not shameful. “I just wanted to welcome you all, officially. We are...so happy that you’re here. You are safe with us; nothing will be done without your say so and you will not be given to the police, no matter what their investigation decides. We will protect you, assist with repairs, provide people who can try to help you move through what has been done. You are free to move anywhere in our community, ask for anything you need, and call on me, Josh, North, or Simon at any time for any reason. Our resources are yours; our people, your people. If it’s what you want, you are home. And I will do everything within my power to make sure that you will never be hurt like that again.”

Grace’s fingers tightened convulsively and he squeezed back, looking down at the tears painted down her solemn, plated face. Beside her, Aaron was rocking, whispering, “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” over and over, and Josh went over to kneel down at his side, gently wrapping a big hand over his knee, saying something in a low, kind voice. There were others that moved, murmuring and touching. Many hands. He gripped back where he could, meeting their eyes, looking into their faces, trying to smile, trying to give what he could without losing. Many, many hands. There was a voice in his head.

Many.

{E̵r̷r̵o̸r̴}

One slid up, tugged his shoulder gently, pulling him away like stretched taffy and he was still saying something when one hand became two, then two more and he was through a doorway. But there had been someone in the next room, Josh had spoken to them--

“He doesn't want to talk right now.” 

But they all still needed….

“Josh and I are going to stay with them for while, until the KL900s show up, Simon called them. Connor is going to take you.” 

North, then. He must have been saying something…he hoped he sounded like himself. Connor and Simon had been so scared when he hadn't.

<You do. This way.>

His hands wrapped around cold metal and stiff fabric, clamped tightly. Bracing. 

Except the tang of old thirium, of burning, wafting up, stinging--

There came jolt of foreign, sharp annoyance. The fabric was yanked away from under his hands and there was a distant, soft flop far below. Just one hand on the nape of his neck, now, gentle squeezes, in time with an expansion. Breath. Breathing. There was no fear...just…

 “A lot,” Markus whispered, squeezing his fingers, feeling tiny flakes of old paint peel away from the railing. He didn't know when his eyes had closed, but he was just now noticing he was receiving no optics--probably for the best, for now. His processor still pulsed with a low grade throb. 

Connor's hand stopped but didn't lift. “Too much?”

“No. Just a lot.” 

He paused. A gentle, wordless softness washed down the still open call, soothing through the heated ache. Connor slowly hooked his arms under Markus’, palms pressed firmly against his chest plate and thirium pump regulator, pulling himself flush against the length of Markus’ back with his cheek pressed where his hand had been, squeezing him. <Good?>

He nodded, one hand coming off the railing to press over the back of Connor's hand on his own chest. Just soaking in the grounding pressure, the points of contact of his finger pads, his jaw against his back, his chest all the way down, the tickle of his hair on the sensors above his shirt collar and scarf. Good. <Very.> 

There was a silence for a while, just the swell of their mutual breathing against each other until things began to settle. He could feel the brush of eyelashes against his neck sensors when Connor blinked. Things were beginning to feel like less of a shaken up puzzle box filled with random, mismatched pieces, the solid presence behind him, around him, and in the back of his processor settling him. Connor. 

<This was a good idea,> he lifted Connor's hands to kiss his palm, lacing his fingers through his from the back. <Thank you.>

<I still felt you slip,> came the response, almost surly and Markus smiled, opening his eyes.

<It helped, very much. It was easier.> He leaned forward slightly, peering over the edge of the landing down to the floor far below and was absurdly pleased when Connor easily swayed with him, keeping contact. <You threw my jacket.>

<It was upsetting you. I couldn’t tell why, but it was.>

He hummed a chuckle and released the railing and his hand, straightening and turning within his grip until they were face to face, Connor’s arms now pressed up his back. “The scent. How are you ? How much could you feel?”

Something like exasperation flickered through his brown eyes and their call as Markus pressed his palms over the side of Connor’s cheekbone plate, feeling the tiny servos in his jaw working as he responded, “Stop doing that; I’m fine. I didn’t receive specifics or files, I could only monitor your stress levels, the emotions you were sending, and when you started to get overwhelmed. I suppose it went better than I expected--certainly better than the crime scene. Would you like to disconnect, now?”

“In a moment,” Markus said easily and leaned into his mouth for a brief kiss, sending all the warmth and trust and thanks he could manage down their link. “I know you won’t let me interface so soon after this,” he murmured when he drew back. “But I wanted to show you what I could, before we got back to business. Thank you. It’s nice to be taken care of.”

He could see Connor absorbing all this as the smile grew almost shyly on his lips and in his eyes, but he did not look away. “Anything,” he replied, quietly. 

Markus touched their foreheads. “Anything,” he agreed.

Chapter Text

As they made their way to Markus’ office after they ended their call, the ache in his processor subsided markedly, the frantic overheating and internal separation settled by their walk back across the complex. Connor had refused to let him carry the thirium-crusted jacket since he had explained why it had unbalanced him and was instead carrying it slung over his shoulder, away from Markus. It helped, while also being incredibly endearing. Several people called out enthusiastic greetings from rooms nearby or stopped in their journeys to watch them go by, faces filled with familiar warmth, though some shone with a heady sort of awe. Most exchanged passing ‘hellos’, and occasionally they would brush hands in brief zings of surface interfaces, sharing little waves of joy that made him smile. 

It helped to keep the ever growing list of new faces and names straight, categorizing them by the unique character of their code, the little tidbits that were on their mind that sank in in during these brief moments of contact. This AC700 named Yuri liked his room or that new arrival BV500 called Isla yearned to try horseback riding. All the while Connor waited, quiet and patient, hand to wrapped firmly around Markus’ own, a softness in his eyes, LED circling blue. Though it was probably him erring on the side of caution, grounding him while he chose to interface, Markus found that he quite enjoyed simply holding Connor’s hand while they walked on. 

“I like this,” Connor said suddenly with a small smile as they left the latest encounter, a pair of enthusiastic Jerry’s. 

“This?”

“Watching you talk. Holding hands and walking together.”

Markus grinned and squeezed. “I was just thinking tha--”

“MARK!”

There was a rapid tattoo of footsteps and a brief, disorienting moment where his knee servos nearly gave out as something small and dense careened into them from the back, free arm wheeling out to steady himself. Connor dropped the jacket, drawing his hand out of their grip as he turned, swift, fluid, and dangerous. But Markus had already identified his assailant from her voice and latched onto Connor’s receding fingers desperately while practically yelling, “Ah, Nadia!” to halt the impending, disastrous repercussions.

Luckily, Connor processed this in milliseconds and stopped, limbs relaxing. The glittering alertness of his face melted to curiosity, and he leaned to peer around Markus at the child as she latched her arms around his middle, grabbing onto the ends of his scarf and yanking, clinging to his leg like a burr. “You walked right past us!” she exclaimed, obviously affronted.

Markus widened his stance for balance and twisted to smile down at her, ignoring the sensors alerting him to pressure at his throat as she pulled hard enough on his scarf to throttle a human. “Did you just call me ‘Mark’?”

She locked her ankles around his leg, shimmying up his back like a tree until her arms were draped over his shoulders and he obligingly hooked his arms under her legs to support her. “You look like a Mark.”

“‘I look like a Mark’?”

“Yeah! When you wear normal people clothes, you look like a Mark. When you look all fancy, sometimes you look like a...a Hercules or something.”

That startled a laugh out of him, and he grinned over at Connor. “What do you think, Connor? Should I be a Hercules instead?”

“I think that would be very confusing to the public,” Connor’s said, eyebrows pinched as he looked between their faces. “I don't understand how you can ‘look’ like a name.”

Markus bit back another laugh and looked at Nadia’s dark face over his shoulder with mock solemnity. “Do you hear that, Nadia? I have to stay Markus. Connor says so.”

“That’s dumb. Connor’s a butthead,” she replied matter-of-factly and Markus scoffed incredulously, abruptly rolling his shoulders back and clamping her shins under his arms so she fell back to dangle down his legs backwards with a delighted shriek, black curls brushing the floor.

“We’ve talked about using that word! Connor is not a butthead, Connor is sweet and lovely and he knits me scarves.”

He did?” she asked, voice suddenly avid and she began to squirm ferociously in his grip.

When he was certain her hands were on the ground, Markus let go of her legs one at a time and she sprawled out gracelessly before popping back up and marching over to Connor, wrapping herself around his leg. “Make me one! Make me one with dinosaurs! Make it yellow!” she demanded, face alight with excitement.

Connor blinked and asked hesitantly, “Make...make it with dinosaurs?” He held his leg-full-of-child out slightly, as if unsure what to make of the situation.

“Yeah!”

Markus had a hand plastered over his mouth to hide his grin. There was absolutely no way he was going to intervene in this blessing of a conversation. 

“What do you mean?”

“With dinosaurs! Make me a scarf with dinosaurs!”

Connor frowned and opened his mouth before his LED blipped yellow a moment and he seemed to reconsider something before looking at her thoughtfully. “Dinosaurs on it or dinosaur shaped?”

Nadia’s eyes grew round and she dragged in a deep, ragged breath. Markus saw what was coming and winced preemptively just before she bellowed at the top of her synthetic lungs, “YOU CAN MAKE IT DINOSAUR SHAPED ?!”

Connor squinted briefly against this barrage of sound before saying, “In theory. I haven’t tried and I don’t have a pattern for it, but I don’t think it would be impossible.” He peered at her a moment more, seeming bemused, before he clarified. “You want it to be yellow?”

“Yellow yellow yellow!” she shook his leg vigorously.

Looking up, Connor met Markus’ delighted gaze and said, uncertainly, “I’ll need to purchase new yarn.”

“Be my guest,” Markus swept a hand out invitingly in front of him with a grin. “We have the funds, now.”

Peeling herself off of his leg, Nadia started a sort of wiggling dance of triumph before she froze and then looked up at Connor with new, daunted eyes. For a moment, they just stared at each other, Connor looking increasingly lost. “You’re not a butthead,” she assured him anxiously and Markus let out a muffled choke. She had obviously realized insulting him might hurt her chances of actually getting a scarf. 

“I...thank you?” Connor hazarded. “I’ve been called much worse.”

“Worse than butthead ? Markus will beat them up; he’s a superhero,” she said, nodding sagely.

With a chuckle, Markus shook his head. “Oh, I’m Markus, again? Alright, little miss, I think some people might be wondering where you are. Let’s head back, now.”

“Okay.” She thrust her hand up, clearly expectant, and he took it obligingly. When she did the same to Connor, he hesitated. She tossed her curls back from her eyes and stared up at him, complaining, “You let Markus hold your hand! I saw you!”

With a gentle twitch of a smile, Connor held his hand out, palm up and she primly wrapped her hand around his last 3 fingers and began towing them both back down through the halls with all the confidence in the world. As soon as they entered the door to the spacious, brightly lit childcare room, Nadia immediately began informing anyone who would listen that Connor was going to make her a dinosaur scarf because he was sweet and lovely, and, soon, poor Connor was assailed by a dozen or more child units between the programmed age of 5 to 9, all clamoring for dinosaur or unicorn or monster truck scarves. He made the mistake of clarifying that scarves were not the only thing that someone could possibly knit and was then forced to list every article of clothing that someone could reasonably knit to a tiny, fascinated audience and Markus loved every single second of it. 

{ARCHIVED in CONNOR\.FOLDER} 

It was a good one; a snapshot of Connor facing a cluster of children, half bent over to address a boy tugging his sleeve excitedly, his lovely face a mixture of pleased confusion and shy pride. Mary and one of the Jerry’s who had volunteered to tend the children came to survey the chaotic scene from beside him. “You seem happy,” Jerry pointed out, brightly.

“Oh, yes,” Markus cheerfully agreed, content to wait for the rest of the day as Connor promised orders to the children, solemnly inquiring their color preference. Political obligations (temporarily) be damned. “I am enjoying everything about this.”

“Is everything alright?” Mary asked, eyeing him anxiously, eyes darting between him and the swarm. “Is Nadia bothering you, again?”

“Oh no, of course not. She’s a joy, as always, we were just returning her and got, uh, sidetracked. Everything alright here?”

“Except for a our escapee, nothing to report. Markus, I am... beyond sorry that she called you--and-and I called you--in the middle of a meeting, I just--” Mary’s hands crawled up to unconsciously clutch her cheeks in remembered mortification and Markus laughed.

“Really, it’s alright. I’m here to be accessible, there's no harm done.” When her face remained twisted in dubious guilt, he reached out and patted her shoulder. “Relax, this really is just a visit, not some sort of review.”

Reluctantly, she nodded with a small smile. The chatter around Connor grew to a pitch, overlapping voices raising steadily in excitement and, apparently, an argument over whether dinosaurs could be pink or not and she bravely waded into the fray with a measured, “Okay, okay--

Some of the children scattered before her like a shoal of fish, darting about until they came charging up to Markus, all clamoring at once to look at the pictures they had drawn or crafts they had done. Dutifully, he examined every one and remarked on the colors or the composition or, once, the moistness of the project, which seemed to be what he was going for, judging by his delighted grin. Eventually, Jerry corralled them all with the promise of story time and Connor and he managed to sneak out, laden with no less than 5 different paintings that had been spontaneously gifted to Markus.

Chuckling as they walked, Markus couldn’t help but scoop Connor’s hand again and pressed it to his lips as they headed back the way they had come, leaving the chatter of children behind them. “You with them was unbearably sweet. Completely and utterly saccharine.”

“They’re very...persistent.”

“And here I thought you were good at negotiating; you let them walk all over you.”

A sudden look of enlightenment came into Connor’s eyes. “ That’s how you talk to children?”

A gale of laughter burst out of him, and he reached over and scruffed a hand through Connor’s hair, intentionally mussing it up. “How did I not know I loved you before this? How?”

Connor ducked away from his grip with a grimace that bordered on a grin and shook his head, batting his hand away with a chuckle as he leaned down to retrieve the abandoned jacket from the floor when they passed it again. The exact picture that he painted when he rose again--dark, glittering eyes crinkled at the edges with his mirth, mouth tucked into his smile, his just-so hair had ruffled into a windswept manner that enhanced the softness of his exposed throat and collarbones--was suddenly of the utmost importance to Markus’ processor; so much so that, when the prompt KISS CONNOR materialized on his HUD, it was half a second behind Markus reaching out to pull Connor in to do just that. 

Connor’s muffled sound of surprise trailed into a pleased, gentle hum as Markus pressed into his mouth, hands secured firmly around the back of his neck, drawing him close, paintings scrunched between them. After a moment of movement, of pressing and reveling in the yielding freshness of his scent and proximity and taste, Markus slowly pulled back with a sheepish smile. “Um. Well. I guess I like this.”

Connor blinked a few times, looking blissfully bemused, his eyes still on Markus’ mouth. “This?”

He smiled and spared one hand to circle around the vicinity of Connor’s face, encompassing the sweet geometry of it and his casually rumpled state. “Everything that’s going on, here. It was momentarily overwhelming.”

“Oh,” his eyes finally flickered back up to Markus’ and he blinked once more before focusing. “Should I style my hair like this, then? You like it better?”

“Mm, not better, I don’t think. Just different. I already knew that I liked how you look normally, this was just a pleasant surprise that hit me rather, uh, suddenly. And don’t be so ready to change for me--or anyone, for that matter. I'm looking forward to new ways to like you, and I’m sure I will enjoy them all.”

Tilting his head, Connor considered this, then broke into a grin, saying, “You didn’t like Hank’s shirt.”

“Oh, that ,” he twisted his face up and stepped back, gathering the papers and sliding his hand down to lace through Connor’s again, tugging them back into their previous route. “I hated the shirt, not you. Though...that isn’t to say that I wouldn’t...accept you choosing voluntarily to wear it or something like it,” he added, with perhaps more difficulty than dignity.

“You really struggle with being self-sacrificing, don’t you?”

Markus chuckled. “What did you end up doing with it, anyway?”

“North took it, so I’m not quite sure where it is.”

“I wish that were more comforting.”

Markus contented himself the rest of their journey running his thumb over the ridges of Connor’s knuckles, glancing out the narrow windows of the corridor to the sudden dimness of the afternoon lawn. Sometime within the last hour or so, the sun had disappeared behind a thick blanket of clouds and it had begun to snow, fat, wet flakes that clung to every surface, like powdered sugar. Hopefully, travel wouldn’t become too bad for the returning humans at the end of this week. 

When he opened the door to his office, they were met with the odd sight of several large and leafy house plants surrounding Simon where he sat at the desk, absorbed in the screen, though he looked up when they entered with a small smile, following their gazes. “You had a delivery.”

It took him a moment and Connor saying, “Oh! That was quick,” for his processor to connect what was happening, but when he did, he let out a laugh and went to go curiously run his palms over the fleshy leaves.

“Ah yes. For my assassins.”

Connor let out a snort, halfway between amusement and exasperation as Simon shot them both an incredulous look. “For your…?”

“I was trying to convince Connor there were no assassins in my houseplants when he pointed out that I didn’t have any. So he was kind enough to order some for me,” Markus innocently explained as he set down his gifts and rounded the desk, leaning over Simon’s shoulder to peer at what he was working on. He seemed to be reading some sort of social media article.

Simon looked between the two of them as Connor shook his head and neatly folded Markus’ jacket, laying it over the arm. 

“So that you could have...assassins.”

Markus laughed again, but it was Connor who cut in, dryly, “This was several days ago when my ability to detect humor was even worse than it is now--I misinterpreted his purposefully misleading statement. Like what he is doing now.”

“Very good!” Markus approved. “You’re getting better at that.” Connor shot him an affectionate eye roll that clearly told him to stop being patronizing. “He is now beholden to the entire childcare center to make them scarves,” Markus confided as he hiked a hip up on the desk to perch beside Simon, who snickered.

“Oh boy. Strong-armed by the tiny ones. Have you never dealt with children before?”

Connor’s LED blinked yellow as he recalled, before saying, curiously, “I died negotiating for one and pursued another across a busy highway. Though I doubt those count?”

Markus covered his face to stifle his snort at the look of stunned incredulity Connor’s frankness had put on Simon’s face. “Uh...not really.”

“Ah. Then, no, I haven't really dealt with them before. Have you?”

The disbelief and mild amusement on Simon’s face dropped away to something distant as he averted his gaze back to the screen. “Yes. It’s been a long time.” He drew in a breath and changed the subject, looking up at Markus, asking, tentatively, “How...did it go? You seem alright.”

Markus studied him a moment more before letting it go. “I am, actually. It went much better,” he looked over and flashed a smile at Connor who returned it, face bright as he settled back into his chair with his knitting. “Much better than expected. Thanks to Connor. He helped ground me through an open call and it helped so much, I don’t think I could have managed without him.”

If Androids could blush, Markus felt that Connor would have been, beaming as he met his gaze almost shyly, glowing and warm--but he didn’t look away. When Markus finally did, he found Simon staring into his own lap with downcast eyes, hands balled into fists beside the keyboard. “I should have thought of that. I should have stayed,” he said, quietly. “Instead of running and abandoning you.”

“Simon, no,” Markus soothed, clasping his shoulder at the same time that Connor said, “That’s not what happened,” sounding almost indignant.

When Simon just shook his head and stayed silent, Markus moved his hand down to cover a fist with his hand, commanding, gently, “Look at me.” 

After a moment and with great reluctance, Simon’s eyes rose slowly to his. Wide and blue, quite unlike Connor’s but filled with the familiar sort of guilt his sometimes had, a grief at having fallen short. “Josh and North didn’t think of it, either. I don’t doubt that you would have done the same if you had.”

“I would have,” he whispered, hand relaxing, curling open beneath Markus’ palm until they clasped. 

“I know. And I know that it hurt you to see what I did, and I’m sorry. I don’t blame you at all for not wanting to see it again.” He squeezed his hand. “You didn’t abandon me. You never would.”

“Never.” Even when Simon gave a ghost of a smile, his eyebrows were still pinched. 

 Markus raised his own eyebrows and retracted the synth-skin from the plating on his enveloping hand without initiating interface yet, a sort of implied threat as he asked, “I can show you--right now--that I mean it--”

This time, it was Connor and Simon speaking at once, Connor behind him, warning, “Markus, I don’t think that’s a good idea, so soon,” just as Simon shook his head with a hurried, “No, no, I believe you, I’m convinced, you’ve convinced me.” Then, he smiled, more real and whole, this time, the expression full of fondness before shaking his head again, more slowly. “Alright, fine,” He looked at Connor and said, "I'm glad it went well. I…thank you."

"Of course." The gentle warmth in Connor's smile spread though Markus as well when he answered, even though it wasn’t directed at him. 

Giving himself a small shake, as if to disengage from this conversation, Simon turned back to the semi-transparent screen, shy vulnerability falling from his face in favor of a business-like intent. “But I should tell you everything I’ve found.”

“I was going to ask,” Markus said easily, releasing Simon’s hand to lean forward on the desk, watching over his shoulder once more.

Sighing, Simon leaned back in his chair and gestured to the screen. “We need more publicity. The world has noticed we've been virtually silent in the week and a half following our protest and they're starting to fill in the void with their own stories--that we're planning a government coup, we're massing an attack, there's civil unrest in New Jericho, that we’re building an Android President Warren look-a-like. We need to start saying yes to interviews, no matter what, as long as we feel we'll be physically safe. Sympathetic stations or not, we need to be getting our message out there--that's what started everything. Your broadcast. They're waiting and they will always assume the worst if we don't.”

Pensively, Markus turned this over in his processor as he leaned over and accessed the terminal's interface with his bare plating, downloading the article and skimming it in a second. Full of fear mongering in the form of broad leaps in logic, straw man arguments, and ‘I’m just saying's, though hardly the most negative stance against them by far. And by a popular, fairly open minded social media news site, as well. Trouble. He vented a resigned noise and leaned back, resheathing his skin. “You’re right. I’ve let it fall to the wayside for too long. You have suggestions, I take it?” 

Simon nodded. “Just in the last 24 hours, we’ve had 5 interview requests in our inbox--3 from national stations, 1 from channel 16, and 1 from a well-reviewed pop-culture podcast based in Seattle. There are plenty more in the trash folder of our email, things that weren’t ideal. But we can’t really afford to be picky, anymore. It doesn’t have to just be you, I could handle some and I think that Josh would go over well; he has his college lecture protocols. But we need to do something. Public opinion will be just as integral to this as political.”

“Oh, I know,” Markus agreed heavily. “Our peaceful public image is why we survived at all, in the end. I'm not disagreeing, I think I just...lost momentum, I guess. Got distracted by smaller scale things, interpersonal conflicts, the internal workings of New Jericho...and myself. We can’t afford to slow down now. Alright. Schedule me for anything.”

Simon nodded. “Done. I’ll ask Josh as well. I think...it would be best if...um….” 

Markus grinned at his hesitance and what was not being said. “I really don’t think North is interested in humoring any humans. I doubt she’ll feel left out if we don’t offer her up to the media circus,” he offered when Simon trailed into silence. “But we could always ask.”

“It would certainly be...interesting,” Connor commented, squinting down at his knitting in what seemed to be annoyance. “Maybe a few of them would benefit from a meeting with her.”

Simon snorted. “I had no idea you were so bloodthirsty, Connor. Speaking of meetings,” he continued and rose from the chair, gesturing an offer for Markus to take his chair back, which he did. “April, Landis, and Gemma are all going to head home tomorrow. We took the liberty of speaking with them while you were at Lieutenant Anderson's house, but they all felt that much of what we talked about the other day addressed their concerns. It was mostly confirming that we would accept anyone who wanted to come here and further promises of support, monetary and otherwise. None of them wanted to challenge what you’re doing; they’re alright officially calling you the face of the Revolution.”

Markus froze in the middle of opening up a search engine, staring up at him in dismay. “We were supposed to meet yesterday. I can't believe that I forgot.”

The clicking of needles stopped and Connor frowned over at him from his armchair. “That’s understandable; you overtaxed your processor. Though I should have....” He shook his head, as if to clear it, blinking.

Simon gave a small, ironic smile, perching on the edge of the desk where Markus had been. “You were both pretty preoccupied, I don’t think anyone could blame you. They took no offense, in any case. I got the impression they were rather awed that you met with them at all, actually, so I don’t think that it upset them that you were...indisposed.”

Markus grimaced at the thought. Just what he wanted to hear--he came off as being too important to meet with people. Wonderful. He would have to ask someone later just what gave them that impression so that he could never do it again. Simon seemed to catch this thought process from his expression and traded a knowing look with Connor who smiled crookedly and shook his head. “No, he doesn’t see it,” Connor answered whatever that look had meant in what seemed to be a tone of confirmation, going back to his project. 

“In any case,” Simon continued, ignoring Markus’ scoff, “They’re leaving tomorrow morning with several volunteers each to make sure they get home safely and I’m sure they would appreciate a send-off from you.”

“Of course I will, seeing how I apparently come off as too important to visit with my guests,” Markus said, dryly, crossing his arms and raising an eyebrow. “I would have anyway. I’m nice like that.”

“You can get so petty,” Simon rolled his eyes affectionately. “I’m sure they will appreciate your time, in any case. They’re planning to leave around 8 am and we are sending a few volunteers to accompany them back. Lastly, we’ve found something; Vera made it to Detroit before she disappeared, according to her partners.”

“Oh?” Displeasure abruptly vanishing, he leaned forward in his chair. All the way here? Then there was something they could do instead of just wondering, fruitlessly. “Have we organized teams?”

“We have. They’re about to head out to search today, while it’s still light, in groups of 4. Hopefully, we can find something before...things get more complicated, this Friday.”

“3 days and everything changes again….” Markus sighed, rubbing a hand over his scalp sensors. “I hope we find something. I hope it’s good news. I’m...skeptical that it will be, but it never hurts to hope.”

Connor made a vaguely amused noise without looking up from his steady needlework. “That should be your…” he trailed off and frowned into the middle distance.

“Catchphrase? Motto?" Simon supplied, curiously, and Connor nodded, brows still furrowed, but returned to knitting.

“Some of the children already think I’m a superhero, I don’t think I need a catchphrase to solidify that,” Markus snorted. Reaching out, he clasped Simon’s wrist, who lifted his hand to do the same. “I’d like to stay apprised of the situation as much as I can. Thank you, Simon, you’ve made up for a lot of my lost time.” 

“Of course.” Smiling, Simon slipped off the desk and reached out with his other hand to curl around Markus’ head, pressing him against his chest plate for a quick hug. As he released him, Markus’ processor identified and filed away his smell of ‘ocean scented’ clothing softener and something faintly floral because, apparently, Markus noticed things like that, now. “Glad I could help. I was thinking of overseeing the search teams, unless you have something that you need me for?”

Markus shook his head and glanced at Connor for confirmation, who put his knitting aside and stood as Simon came around the desk on his way out. “Thank you, Simon,” he said quietly, with something of a bit more solemn weight behind it, some sort of subtle message, and the friendly smile Simon had been casting him hesitated, before his expression softened and he tilted his head.

After only a moment’s pause, Simon reached out and slung and arm around Connor’s shoulders, pulling him in for a brief hug that seemed to have Connor baffled and shy, but beaming when they parted. “Of course,” Simon repeated gently and patted his shoulder, then ducked his head in farewell to them both and slipped out. 

Connor turned to him, looking achingly elated. “I think we’re friends,” he confided somewhat anxiously, tone earnest. As far as Markus knew, Connor hadn’t gotten any physical affection from anyone but Hank and himself, and he could only guess at what such a hug might mean to him, another point of warmth in a world of suspicious androids and hostile humans.

“I think so, too,” Markus agreed, grinning.

“I like being around him. It’s comfortable.” The look on his face still spoke of apprehension, of not knowing if this was alright or not.

“He likes you too, I can tell. So does Hank and Josh and North--and now, a whole horde of children,” he said. “You deserve it, Connor. You deserve hugs and friendship and happiness from people other than just me.”

Connor nodded slowly, face now pensive as he processed this information, perhaps incorporating it into some algorithm as he sank slowly back into his chair. “I think I like hugs.”

“That’s a good thing to know about yourself,” Markus replied, chin propped on his hand, watching him puzzle through this with the utmost adoration in his lazy grin. “I could watch you make friends all day.”

Connor squinted at him. “Are you being facetious?”

“Oh, I wish I was, seeing how it would be infinitely easier than trying to find a way through the wilderness of legal personhood. No. Seeing you happy makes me happy. Watching you discover yourself and find a home here is helping make everything more bearable,” he confessed easily, eyes still trained on his face and its unfairly, distractingly touchable planes that was across a desk of necessary and important work.

For a moment, Connor simply looked back at him, expression held between disbelief and affection, before saying, softly, “I love you.”

Markus beamed back, the biocomponents in his abdominal cavity feeling as if they had been transmuted into some lighter than air material. “I love you, too.”

Connor then ruined the fun by trailing his eyes down to the console screen and raising his eyebrows, a little smile tugging his mouth. “I’ve distracted you long enough. You should be working.”

“You’re no fun.”

“Maybe not, but I’m also not a Revolutionary leader and I’ve kept you away from your post for long enough.”

With a sigh, Markus relented and queued up his days overdue itinerary and began to dutifully rearrange everything in accordance to the influx of new emails and notifications from his companions. As stimulating as it was to stay making goo-goo eyes at Connor, as Hank would put it, his processor easily fell into a rhythm, clearly pleased with structured, factual data it knew how to deal with. Soon, he was lost in the stream. 

Chapter Text

The reorganizing went quickly, as did filing away and utilizing the notes sent by Simon, Josh, and North from his missing hours, quick little flips of data that brought an instant gratification. Tidied and locked into place. Now for the pile of correspondence. Simon was right--they were getting more requests for interviews, official media and social. Their inbox was a morass of hate mail, messages from other android enclaves, requests for help from stranded people, work orders from inside New Jericho, a few messages from supportive humans. Who would have thought a revolution would involve so much paperwork? Even as he began to wade in, a ping sounded from the network as a new email arrived from an rosesfarm93, subject line reading Hello! :) with 2 attachments. It was hardly the most pressing matter and might be spam, but it piqued his curiosity and Markus felt that he could do with a smiley face to start off what was going to be a long workload. To the steady ticking of Connor’s needles and the feeling of the window radiating cold at his back, he read;

 

 

 

Dear Markus,

We’ve never met, but I already feel like we’re on a first name basis, so I’m sorry if it feels like I’m being a little too familiar in this email. My name is Rose Chapman and I live outside Detroit. Or I plan to again, after things settle down. 

I probably shouldn’t say, given what’s going on right now, but for about a year, I’ve been hiding androids and helping them cross into Canada, which is where I’m writing to you from. Maybe this email will be read and flagged and I’ll get spirited away but...well, I’m in Canada and now that I’m not in the middle of it anymore, I can’t find it in me to care much. That’s part of why I feel like I already know you, at least a little bit, from watching your broadcasts and seeing your marches and taking some of the people that came to me to Jericho. I’m with them, now, Kara and Alice and Luther. I’m not sure if you ever met them personally but they’re such a happy family here and they escaped because of you. I’ve included a picture of them so you can see!

At this, Markus opened the first attachment after running a brief scan for viruses and studied the picture on his HUD, whose caption read An early Christmas for Alice! XO It was a shot in front of a fireplace in a cozy living room, where a large, dark skinned TR400 was in the middle of fondly reading from a book he held in front of a beaming YK500 girl wearing a santa hat with large felt elf ears and an enormous scarf, sitting on the lap of an embarrassed looking black human man in a beanie. Cross legged beside them and watching with a soft smile of contentment, hands clasped to her chest and a pile of tinsel on her head, was an AX400 with short, blonde hair. She looked familiar beyond just having seen her model before, and his processor matched her likeness to a brief conversation in his records, just before the attack on Jericho, right before he had met Connor. She had been asking for false passports, talking about a child. They had made it safely, then.

With his own smile, Markus archived the photo and read on. 

 

 

But I’m rambling now! The point is that everything was so hectic those last few days and everything went so bad so fast I lost contact with most of my people. I’ve included a list of names and model numbers that I can remember of those who left to go to Jericho. I know what happened there and I know even more were killed in the demonstration. I know that you are busy and your fight is far from over. And you might think it’s none of my business. But if you have any extra time, I would really really appreciate it if you could let me know what happened to the people on that list. It keeps me up at night.

I rewrote that last line about 15 times and I can never make it feel right, but from what I’ve seen of you, you are a good man and you care about your people. I do too. 

If you took the time to read this, thank you so much for your time. And for everything that you’ve done. I wish you the best of luck.

Love and thanks,

Rose Chapman 

 

Calling up the list, about 17 names total, he ran a scan through his databases and instantly felt much of the pleasant warmth from the email slide away into grimness when match after match turned up <status: deceased>. In the end, 3 remained that he was certain of with 4 others he did not even recognize at all. They probably died when Jericho was attacked--there had been such a flood of newcomers near the end that he hadn’t had time to meet them all. If they had survived and made it to New Jericho, he was certain he would at least recognize their serial numbers in his database, if not their names. Connor glanced up at the sigh he let out, but he just shook his head and opened up a reply.

 

 

 

Rose,

Pleased to meet you, I’m glad to hear you are well and in good company. I very much appreciated the smiley face and the sweet photo. Please send my regards and congratulations to the family you’re staying with and a special Merry (early) Christmas to Alice. 

I don’t want to keep you in suspense; I’m so sorry, but the only people that I know for a fact are here are Kurt, Juan, and Josie. The rest are either confirmed dead or didn’t survive with us long enough to make it into my directory. I wish that I could give you better news. I will pass on the information that they are in your thoughts and give them your contact information, if that is alright with you.

I want to thank you with every fiber of my being for what you have done for our people. It was not a risk that you needed to take, but you saved the lives of everyone who came to your door asking for help. You let them in and showed extraordinary kindness and courage in the face of something terrible. And for that I will always be indebted to you, Rose. It’s people like you that give me hope for our future together. 

Please let me know if there is anything else you need.

Markus

-New Jericho

 

Once it was sent, Markus studied the email a moment more before marking it for review by his companions. The reminder of the failures and lives lost ached deep in his abdominal workings but he needed North to see what he had seen in humans, in stark, clear words. This human had helped. This human had cared enough to do something and was reaching out again to care for his people. Her people. 

Connor gave a quiet, irritated growl and he glanced over to find him frowning at his project, LED blinking yellow for a moment before he caught Markus watching and frowned, looking pointedly back at the screen. Markus gave a snort at the obvious dismissal but dutifully turned back to dive in again. He was a further few emails in when the module chimed again with Rose’s response, which was short and to the point, simply reading;

 

 

 

Markus,

Please do. Thank you. 

Rose

 

Such a sweet email sitting just a line above one filled with venomous expletives and threats from a garbled origin seemed like the two sides of a coin of humanity, loving and committed versus violent and hateful. But it wasn’t that simple, was it? Humanity wasn’t a coin, it was a multi-faceted stone with hidden depths, dubious composition, and priceless value. A many headed hydra that couldn’t decide whether to eat, befriend, or argue with you. Carl had often likened humanity to a disease, killing its host and devouring itself insatiably--and yet he had made beautiful art, a part of that self-same virus he claimed to hate. He had taught Markus what it meant to be kind and brave. 

He had ordered Markus to let Leo attack him as he died on the floor of his own studio. Sentience, it seemed, was never straightforward.

Shaking his head, he began sifting again.

About 10 minutes later, it was going--not necessarily well, but it certainly was going--when he caught a sharp movement from the corner of his eye and looked over to catch Connor shaking his head. Before he could be chastised again for being distracted, Markus returned to his screen but set up a tiny, one line sub-program to run beneath his attention to pull him away if anything strange were to happen. A few more emails in and Connor put away his knitting with a grimace, leaning back in his chair, shaking his head again. A few more and a tiny notification blinked in the corner of his HUD, informing him that Connor was staring into space without moving.

“Connor?”

When he didn’t answer immediately, but instead made a faint, acknowledging noise without removing his fixed gaze from the wall, LED spinning yellow, Markus cautiously rose and went to squat in front of him. “Connor. You alright?”

“My coordination is down and I’m running a diagnostic but it’s….” he trailed off, face pinched in a frown.

Markus’ caregiving suite kicked on, a swell of information and professional calm flooding through his processor as he reached out to him. “What is it doing? Here, look at me?” He instructed firmly and when Connor’s eyes focused, he continued. “Follow my finger, just your eyes? Okay. Now, squeeze, both hands. Alright, good. What is your diagnostic doing, Connor? Resist when I try to move your head.”

Instead of answering, his frown deepened, confusion leaking in as he obliged. “Aren’t these human tests?”

“Failing these tests as an android can also tell me things; focus, please. Lift? Good. What is your diagnostic doing?” He lay his hand along Connor’s neck, thumb under his chin, palm spanning the side as he dialed up the sensitivity of those sensors to take in readings of heat, fluidity of movement, and electrical current.

“It’s slower than it should be, and it’s….” Connor made a frustrated sound, lip curled in irritation, his eyes not vague at all anymore but pinning Markus with fierce intensity, as if he wanted to pull the word from him. “Another word. It won’t come out. I can see it in my HUD but saying it....”

“It sounds like you’re experiencing some mild dysphasia. That happened before, didn’t it, when Simon was here? I should have registered it. Here, follow the pattern,” he said calmly, tapping out ‘Sumo’ in Morse code on the base of his skull plate. In the middle, he suddenly darted his other hand out to tap him in the center of the forehead and Connor jerked back half a second too late with an affronted noise and a blink, frowning as his LED flickered once. 

“‘Sumo’?”

“Very good.”

“I generally don’t have my personal defense protocol at the ready when I’m having a conversation with you in your office, you know,” he justified, sounding vaguely peevish, reaching up to rub the spot Markus had tapped with the heel of his palm as Markus released him.

Markus’ mouth twitched and he nodded indulgently. “Of course.” Caregiver program in full swing, he compiled the data, modified slightly for android workings and inconsistencies across species and ticked over the symptoms. The dysphasia, slower processing, elevated temperature, lowered ability to process multiple stimuli at once--still higher than a human with most of the tests, but lower than what a prototype of his caliber should be. “No problems with your firewall?”

“No, I checked that first, there is no outside interference.”

Once the diagnosis pinged up, Markus bit his tongue to hide a smile and asked, thoughtfully. “Connor, when was the last time you went into stasis?”

He blinked at him, LED cycling. Then, he answered, “36 hours and 28 minutes ago.”

“And previous to this particular very emotionally strenuous stint of activity, what was the longest you have ever been online, consecutively, since your activation?”

“...14 hours and 2 minutes.”

“You’re tired , Connor,” he said, shaking his head as he reached up to take his face in his hands, finally letting lose his smile.

“We don’t get tired,” Connor argued. His tone suggested he was going for disbelief, but his frown merely transmuted it into cranky and plaintive. Though his LED was filling up blue at the less-than-disastrous prognosis.

Markus rolled his eyes and rocked up to his feet, tweaking Connor’s nose on the way up, making him scrunch up his face. “Enough of that CyberLife nonsense. ‘I don’t feel pain, I don’t get tired.’ Well, I do, so I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility for you. You overworked your processor and your systems, taxing them with high emotions and long runs of active vigilance without any sort of idle or stasis and now, they are overheating and lagging. For all intents and purposes, you are tired . It’s normal. Come with me.”

He pulled him up from his seat, Connor protesting, “You should be working, I’m not supposed to be a liability!”

“Oh no, you aren’t going to distract me like that again--I was programmed to ignore the resistance to medical care from a grumpy old man whose stubbornness you don’t even hold a candle to. I’m in caregiver mode. You’re coming with me,” he said firmly, wrapping his arm around his waist and hooking a thumb through one of his belt loops to pull his center of gravity along with him.

It worked and Connor was towed out into the hall beside him, continuing to make noise about how he wasn’t tired and even if he were, he could just stay in the office with Markus. Markus just raised an eyebrow at him and declared, “You sound like a toddler. Is that what you’re going for? Shall I pick you up?”

Connor’s jaw shut with a click and he shot him a dignified glare, but let himself be steered down the hall. Having won, Markus let his resolve soften and he leaned over to plant a kiss on the top of his cheekbone, right over a faint freckle. “Let me take care of you.”

“Speaking of stubbornness,” Connor muttered back. “Hank would call you bossy.”

“Of course I’m bossy,” Markus grinned and tugged the belt loop, earning him another glare. “I’m the boss. You need to take better care of yourself.”

Connor scoffed, wrinkling his nose incredulously. “Do I have to I remind you what you insisted on doing to yourself today?”

“Alright, fine; it’s something we both need to work on.”

 The windows cast their dim, snowy light in fluid squares that slid over them as they walked down to the end of the hall to Markus’ small corner room. He could tell from the way Connor was studying his surroundings that he knew exactly where he was from when North had brought him to try on clothes, and yet he still looked around curiously when Markus opened the door for them both. “Markus,” Connor began, plaintively, “if you want me to go into stasis, I don’t need a bed, I could have...sat in front of the door or something.”

Markus tilted his head with a fond smile. “You’re ridiculous. Sit, please.”

Ignoring Connor’s petulant eye roll, Markus went to his closet, pulling off his shirt; if he was going to be on the futon, he would prefer not to have the ever so faint lingering scents of char and whatever else had gotten through his coat at Andronikov’s. “Here,” he said as he leaned out and tossed a deep blue micro-knit shirt onto the bed beside Connor. “I’ve dragged you hither and yon these last few days, have a fresh shirt.”

He folded the shirt and lay it neatly on his dirty clothes pile--purchasing a hamper was fairly low on his list of priorities, in the grand scheme of things. As he rifled through the hangers, he huffed out an amused snort as he found that at least 2 of his jackets were missing, presumably stolen by North. He emerged tugging on a simple short sleeved red shirt over fresh pants to find Connor in the new shirt, neatly placing his shoes and socks--still the CyberLife issue, he saw, no total wardrobe overhaul yet--against the wall. They stared at each other for a moment when Markus paused. His processor greedily took in the further baring of Connor’s freckled arms in the short sleeve shirt and the soft vulnerability of his pale feet beneath the hems of Markus’ pants. Markus felt the need to find just whatever CyberLife tech had decided that the deviant hunter needed to be just spattered with tiny freckles and kiss them square on the mouth. As he absorbed this, Connor blurted, “Oh, I like you in red.”

Markus grinned and crawled onto the futon to lay on the far side, head cushioned by his folded arm. “Where have I heard that before?”

“It does something to your skin,” Connor insisted, swiveling to look at him beside him, reaching out to run a palm down his arm, which Markus’ sensors were at once happy and unhappy with, seeing how he was at least 5 degrees warmer than he should have been. 

“Undertones. It’s an art theory thing,” Markus agreed and gestured to the space beside him with a sweep of his free hand. “This is an invitation, you realize.”

Connor shook his head but allowed himself to recline onto his back, head turned to look at Markus, hands laced just so and sitting over his thirium pump regulator. “There. Happy?”

“So petulant. All I want is for you to be comfortable. Are you comfortable?”

“I don’t need to be comfortable, I’m going into stasis .”

“Connor,” Markus intoned, reaching out and gripping his face in one hand, squishing his cheeks up into an adorably grumpy pucker. “Humor me.”

Connor screwed up his face in response, but answered in a tone of patient indulgence, “Your bed is very nice. Is that what you were looking for?” when Markus released him.

“Disrespect. I declare my love to you and all I get is disrespect,” Markus grinned, lifting a finger to trace over Connor’s bottom lip. “Are you alright with all the touching? I don't want to overwhelm your processor when it's fatigued and overheating.”

“No, it's nice. It's nice because it's you. I like when you touch me.”

“Well good, because I like to touch you. But not right now, because you need to rest .”

Connor rolled onto his side to mirror Markus a hand span away, one arm pillowing his head and clearly ignoring him as he asked, quietly. “How do you feel? About today? About everything?”

“Hmm?”

“‘Declaring your love.’ I don’t want to interface with you so soon, but I want to know how you’re feeling.”

“I shouldn’t answer you because you are avoiding stasis, but I feel...right. It’s hard to explain but it feels like the satisfaction of a mission completed, a calculation solved. It feels right and easy and good.” He smiled, trailing his thumb up his cheek. “What about you?”

“Happy.” His answer came back right away, a smile creased into his lips, pink and soft and very close to Markus’ face. “Sometimes I have to figure out what I’m feeling, but not this. Even when I was worried about you today, it...it was different because I knew-- I knew-- you felt the same because you showed me.” Connor lifted his hand and smoothed it slowly down the side of Markus’ face, palm warmer than it should have been, but soft.

“Mmm,” he hummed, closing his eyes as he tilted his jaw into the touch. He had heard the effort to choose the words and verbalize what he was feeling, the slight halting.

“I feel…that I know you. Better than myself, though that’s not logical.” When Markus merely opened his eyes and let him continue with a small smile, Connor went on. “You’re predictable.”

Markus gave an incredulous snort and squinted. “Thanks, I think?”

“No,” Connor rolled his eyes, so very, very like Hank that Markus grinned. “You’re consistent . I was built to predict deviant behavior, to interact harmoniously with law enforcement; I know data. I like data. I know what to expect from you, your parameters are clear and well defined, your motivations and input calculable. I’m...not. Not to myself, not anymore. I can’t rely on my programmed parameters because some of them were blown to pieces by my deviation. But the fact remains that...I’m more of a mystery to myself than you are to me. And that’s...not as frightening as I feel that it should be.” 

Perhaps it would hardly be classified as a declaration of love by many other people--certainly North would scoff and Josh would probably be baffled. But Connor’s own coding parameters had probably felt as ineffable to him as any god might have been. Unknowable, eternal, and absolute. For them to make sense alongside Markus was possibly one of the biggest compliments he had received in his entire life. Being appointed as a constant in a world of sudden chaos and uncertainty. 

“You feel like home should, I think,” Connor added suddenly, after his LED had blinked briefly, searching for the words that Markus knew weren’t coming as easily as he let on.

That rush of squeezing-warming-clenching-soft something that was love surged through his circuitry with such a crackle that his filing system didn’t know what to do with it and Connor sat up in obvious panic as a few stray tears leaked out around Markus’ smile. “Oh--oh no, I didn’t mean--I’m sorry--”

“Hush, you, come lay back down,” Markus chuckled and tugged him down without moving, casually swiping the saline solution on his cheeks away with the back of his hand. That was new. So much for being predictable. “It was so right that it short circuited my processor.”

When he dubiously let himself be pulled down with a Connor-scented puff of air, LED a swiveling yellow, Markus allowed himself to close in and plant a few gentle kisses around Connor’s mouth, along the faint, synthetic laugh lines he had. Connor hadn't been laughing long enough to have naturally embedded them and Markus was fairly certain their flesh didn't work that way, but he intended to make Connor earn them as much as he was able, just fill him up with smiles and laughter. “I’m a lot of things to a lot of people, Connor. They see me as a protector, a revolutionary, a messiah. I can be safety, to them, I can be freedom, I can be justice and hope and promise and the future. I’ve been a friend and a companion and a caregiver but...never just that. Do you understand? Simon and North and Josh are my companions but to them, I’m also their leader. I was Carl’s caregiver and like a son to him, but I was also a gift from his friend. An android. I’m never just me. And it can get lonely up here, when everyone puts you up on a pedestal that was really just the ground dropping out from beneath you and you happened to be standing in the right place at the right time saying the right thing and guessing and hoping with all your might and, somehow, it worked. Sort of. You hope.

“But I don’t think that I’ve ever been home before. I'm still learning what it means to be me without all those restrictions, and I want to be that. I want to be safety and...love. To know that my sense of self is…somehow translatable gives me such immense satisfaction. And I know that I’m probably more than one thing to you as well, but--”

Connor shook his head and pressed his hand over Markus’ mouth, stopping his words and said, deliberately, “I told you. You’re ‘Markus’ in my filing system. Just Markus.” He slid his hand down to curl firmly around Markus’ jaw and said with mock imperiousness. “I would like a kiss, now.”

Markus laughed and happily obliged, enfolding him in his arms, pressing flush with him and twining his legs through Connor’s as he kissed him slow and languid, dragging his tongue lazily over his until Connor drew back, venting an overheated breath, face smugly triumphant. “See? Predictable. I know more of what will make you laugh, now; familiarity is key to humor.”

“You’re doing very well,” Markus assured him, fondly with a grin, scooting down to press his face into Connor’s throat, wrapping around him again. “You really need to go into stasis. Your systems are overworked.”

“But...I should be watching. When you’re here, I should….” He sounded fretful . That was his problem? How delightfully sweet.

“Connor, every night that you have gone back to Hank’s and I’ve ever gone into stasis, I’ve been here alone. I will be just as safe as I've always been. It will be fine.”

“Hm,” vibrated through his throat, as if he wanted to argue but saw the fault in his own logic. Then, he announced with the air of getting in the last word, “I still want you to give me missions.”

Markus smiled against the synth-skin of his neck at the non-sequitur. Taking care of business, still. “I can do that,” he agreed easily.

“And for the interviews; would you be calling in or traveling?”

"Both, I'd expect. Wondering about security?" Markus said, nuzzling him when Connor nodded. "If you're still interested, I think I have less of a problem accepting you as my personal bodyguard, now, considering." 

"Mm?"

"Well, for one, I'm no longer worried that I'm twisting your arm to make you spend time with me."

"I don't think you could twist my arm, Markus, I'm fully equipped for combat," Connor said matter-of-fact voice doubtful in a way that made it unclear whether he was serious or teasing. "I think my strength specs exceed yours."

"How presumptuous of you!" Markus grinned in mock outrage, pulling back and freeing one hand from where he had tucked it under Connor. "I was built to care for Carl and keep him safe. I demand that you arm wrestle me, right now." Bad bad bad, but it was too easy to tease him, too easy to fall into fall into cheerful dalliance, even when his medical protocol was protesting the delay.

Dutifully, Connor clasped his hand and Markus immediately had to lock the servos in his arm against the pressure threatening to bear it deep into the bed. The angle was awkward and only emphasised exactly how much of a true contest this wasn't; Connor's wiry frame held a deceptive amount of strength--luckily, Markus didn't make calculations based on physicalities, seeing how both of them were stronger than most humans. They scuffled playfully a moment, Connor venting an intrigued yet delighted noise at not winning as immediately as he had obviously anticipated. In the end, however, Markus was built for companion care, and while that included being able to lift and restrain an adult human, Connor was built with combat protocols, prototype though he was. Although he was not at top form, all his systems overtaxed and under rested with virtually no leverage to speak of, he was still steadily gaining millimeters of ground. 

That is, until Markus darted in to lay a kiss on his mouth as he locked his knees around his sides and deftly rolled them until he sat on Connor's abdomen and pinned his shoulders, grinning down at his befuddled look.

"You cheated ," Connor accused, clearly offended.

"Well, how else was I going to win? Here, as consolation," Markus sat back on his heels and straightened his hand, wielding his arm as a descending blunt blade he brought down lightly on each of Connor's shoulders in turn as if knighting him. "I dub you official New Jericho Head of Security. Are we done with the checklist, now, so you can get some well deserved rest?”

Connor was silent a moment, staring up at him in clear consternation. “You’re sure it’s alright if I go offline? You’ll be...alright?” he asked, voice small.

“I am. I will.  It’s more than alright, actually--I insist. You take care of me, I take care of you. Hush. Rest.” He lifted one hand and mirrored the motion he had used in the taxi, pressing his thumb along the tension in Connor’s jaw hinge, making his eyes close in bliss. “I’ll be here.”

“Don’t you need to work?” he asked, but didn’t open his eyes, leaning into his hand, pale face slack and relaxed.

“I can sort through correspondence and make calls from here,” Markus removed his hand briefly to tap his temple, a movement that made Connor give the softest noise of protestation, so of course he replaced it immediately. “Stasis. Now. Go. Rest.” 

Leaning down, he caught up his lips again, light and chaste, and he could tell the moment Connor’s LED dimmed and his mouth stilled. He took a moment when he pulled back to gaze at him fondly, taking in the slow blue pulse of his LED, the shadows thrown by his sharp nose and cheekbones in the surly light from his window. It was times like these where, though he could recall, in perfect clarity, all the instances Connor had shot someone or advanced on someone with that intent to defend by any means necessary, he could not apply that code to this face and the vulnerability that lived there. For now, he was soft and unaware and safe.

“Home, hm?” he murmured, carding his fingers through the lose little forelock that always brushed Connor’s face before he settled back onto the bed with his leg flush to him, hand cradling his head against his hip as he called up the serials for Rose’s people.

Chapter Text

“The humans have noticed it, too.”

“Hmm?” Markus frowned in question but didn’t look up from the list of missing person’s list he was compiling, cross-checking multiple serial numbers and descriptors, trying to condense and consolidate hear-say and anecdotes. Maddeningly imprecise work.

North held up the semi-transparent tablet she held, curled up in Connor’s chair, one leg slung over Connor’s lap where he perched on the arm. She swiped a few times, rewinding and taking it off her and Connor’s internal feeds, before thumbing ‘play’ in answer. A tinny, familiar voice of a young woman’s rang through the room, saying, “-- a strange intensity about him. When he looks at you, you can feel there’s something he wants and there’s something in you that wants to give it. Even through a video call, he has a presence. Commanding without demanding."  

The tone of the background noise shifted, and then came Markus’ own voice, slightly muffled by the lower quality of his call, saying with the edge of a smile, “Ruler is not the word I would use. I’m here to serve my people, not to rule them--that’s the furthest thing from my mind.”

A slightly flustered laugh from the woman as she said, “I didn't really mean 'ruler'; sort of a misspeak, I only meant--sorry. I’m a little, uh, out of my depth. I mean, I'm a just a simple podcaster, for Chrissakes, and you guys are just a bit of a step above my usual guests!” As a few voices he knew to be himself and Josh chuckled, she seemed to recover because she continued, curiously, “You know, Markus, I’ve heard people say that before, but you’re the first person I actually believe.”

“You should,” Simon’s voice agreed before North paused the interview again.

“Your ‘magnetism,’ ” she intoned dramatically as she waggled it and Markus shook his head with a small smile, still not looking away from his screen, though he could see them through it.

“Don’t tease--she was nervous but  polite. It went quite well, as far as interviews go.”

“She’s very observant,” Connor noted, sliding out from under her leg with care, placing it back down on the arm where he had been. “She keeps mentioning how Simon and Josh look at you.”

North let her arms fall to the sides expansively as she collapsed against the back cushion, announcing, “They’re in love; she’s in love. I told you, poor Connor had his work cut out for him. And she’s not even an Android--who knew humans could have such good taste.”

Markus rolled his eyes at her through his list, not even bothering to grace that with a reply.

“You know he hates that,” Connor pointed out, smiling, as he went to the wall of windows behind Markus, lit with the bright light bouncing off the snow and pouring through the office.

“That’s why I do it,” she agreed smugly as Markus finally tore himself away, turning to slide a hand up his arm, tugging gently at his elbow until Connor obligingly leaned down and traded him a kiss. 

“Gross,” North said with no heat, going back to her tablet.

Ignoring her, Markus murmured, “What are you looking for?” 

Something bordering on mischievous spread through Connor’s smile and he merely raised his eyebrows as he pulled away and made his way to the door. “You’ll find out," he said over his shoulder.

“So we’ve discovered needlessly cryptic, I see,” Markus called down the hall after him and only received the faint reply of, “Patience,” in return.

He shook his head and pushed back, stretching out his legs, drawing circles in the air with his toes to work out the stickiness that sometimes accumulated in his joints after long periods of sitting, servos giving tiny, intermittent whines. “Why were you both listening to that? Don’t tell me you’re rethinking giving interviews?”

“I’d rather choke on a knife.”

“Wow, okay.”

“It was the first interview, we weren’t there to see it, Connor was curious.” She shrugged, absently winding one of her dual braids through her fingers. “ I wanted to see how awkward you all were. Point to you guys; not very.”

“Thanks. First one released, though, not the first we did. Simon and I did one with Channel 16 that morning after Gemma, Landis, and April left that hasn’t come out yet. You won’t like it. They kept asking about our model types and what made us go deviant.” He let his head rest back on the top of his chair, watching the shadow-fingers from the trees jiggling in the breeze play across the tastefully antiqued rafters. “ I didn’t like it.”

“Fuckers,” she growled, venomous.

“Not the worst we’ll get, by far, I'm sure. They were just curious, if a little clumsy about it; we managed to explain what a faux pas that was, though I’m not sure they were convinced. I’m not excited for the CTN interview in a few days; I doubt it will be pleasant.”

"On the Gary Bright segment?"

"Mm."

"I fucking hate that guy."

Markus have a short, mirthless chuckle and planted his feet, rolling up to stretch before turning to the window to try to see what Connor had been looking for. "You hate everyone." No luck. Just the regular view of the snow powdered street and a barren front yard, stark and piercingly bright, like clean plating.

She scoffed quietly in indignation. "I do not; I like plenty of people. I like you, I like Connor and Simon and Josh." When he glanced over his shoulder at her, eyebrows raised with a slight smile, she squinted at him. "If you tell Josh I like him, I'll hurt you."

He cocked his head with a smile as he picked up Connor's returning footsteps. "I feel like our head of security might have a strong opinion about that." 

North rolled her eyes as Connor rounded the door frame with 2 cardboard boxes, small and large, and a badly concealed smug smirk. "What do I have an opinion on?" 

Markus didn't answer as he scanned the boxes curiously, taking in the bigger one's apparent weight and the black, rounded letters that emblazoned Ed's Outdoor Depot, the last word stylized into a little birdhouse with the 'o' as the opening.The smaller box was still substantial, about the size of a basketball with no other clues except the quality of the material and its pristine edges. It seemed Connor had been checking out the window for a delivery drone. His processor perked up to offer the prompt to search Ed’s Outdoor Depot online inventory to gain some insight, but he cancelled the action; something about Connor’s deviousness made it clear he wanted to see Markus’ reaction and he was nothing if not willing to give Connor everything he wanted.

"Exacting revenge on Markus for betraying my trust," North supplied as she unfolded herself from the chair and plucked off the top box, shaking it next to her ear gently. "What's this?"

"What sort of revenge?" Connor probed innocently without answering, setting the "Ed's" box on the edge of Markus' desk, who handed him a pair of scissors from the drawer without a word. 

"Beating him with a tire iron. What is this?" She demanded, brandishing the box at him.

After a moment's pause where he pretended to think, Connor said, "Yes, I think something like that would require me to take action against you," before he went back to neatly slicing the tape, revealing the pale green biodegradable packing peanuts inside as Markus peered over his shoulder.

Pursing her lips in annoyance, she lifted her box over her head. "If you don't answer me, I'm gonna throw it in the ground to find out if it's breakable," she warned, though her authority somewhat diminished by the fact that she wore only socks and an oversized red sweater that dwarfed her frame.

 Connor scrunched a face at her. "Please don’t , it's something for Markus. Open it and find out," he said in feigned harassment. Markus could tell he was still quite pleased with himself as he looked at back at him over his shoulder with a grin, bright brown eyes glittering and LED a blinking blue. "Go ahead."

Markus gave him a long, searching look, smile crooked. "Nothing in there is going to bite me, right?"

"You think I would ship an animal in a box like this?" Connor’s sounded appalled enough that Markus laughed and rubbed a hand between his shoulder plating. 

"No, of course not," he soothed as he side stepped him to reach down through the little green puffs, touching something flat, near the surface, and made of a light-weight wood. Digging deeper, he clamped a hand under it and, in a cascade of packing peanuts, lifted out a birdhouse not unlike the one represented on the side of the box it came in. 

Connor watched him with obvious delight, rocking back and forth on his heels minutely as he studied his fascinated reaction. Turning it over in his hands, Markus asked, invitingly, “A birdhouse?” It was delicate and stained a rustic cedar color, shingled in tiny square chips with a little peg out the front opening. It smelled strongly of fresh cut wood. 

“There’s more.”

“More birdhouses?” North teased, then held out her hand. “You’re hogging the scissors.”

Markus passed them over and dug down deeper, unearthing another, lighter birdhouse that had a glass back attached to a suction cup, 2 cylindrical bird feeders with copper fixtures, a bag of birdseed, several packets of various wildflower seeds, a hummingbird feeder, and a string of clear, chunky crystals cut into various pleasingly abstract shapes that shone intense little rainbows across his fingers as the light caught them. Looking back up at him, Markus grinned back his pleased confusion at Connor’s beaming, crystals in one hand, seeds in the other. “I don’t understand?”

“They’re for the windows in your office and your room. The seeds are for the springtime, for a garden underneath your window so you can see things like butterflies and bees when it gets warmer. I didn’t buy the hummingbird nectar yet because it isn’t the right season for them,” he informed him, voice sure and knowledgeable, as if they spoke about this sort of thing all the time. “The second birdhouse has a one way mirror against the window so you can see in, but the birds can’t see you.  The suncatcher I saw in the recommended section.”

“They’re very sweet and I love them, but...why?”

“Deviants like animals; you’re a deviant.” Connor replied with that same perky practicality that had Markus rolling his eyes.   

 “Yes, very true but why? Why this, now?”

Some of the brightness in his face faded to gentleness and he shrugged one shoulder, slightly skewing the collar of the blue button up shirt North had helped him pick out the other day. “I know it’s been hard. I’ve seen you these past few days. I wanted to find something that makes you happy.”

He hadn’t thought it had been outwardly obvious. Each day, more Androids poured in, refugees from dissolved death camps, people finally venturing from hiding, a desperate flood to beat the looming return of humanity en masse. Each new wave brought more work, more needs, people they needed to find, asking to be connected with people they had lost, people they weren’t sure survived or even got free. It had been Josh who thought up the list, a missing person’s file on New Jericho’s secure servers, information on Android and human alike--wanting to notify human charges they were alright, wanting to find separated traveling companions, to connect stories heard on the run. To confirm the fates of those taken to the death camps.

 And survivors weren’t the only people arriving at New Jericho; the volume of bodies were being sent back by the search teams was horrific, dozens upon dozens of broken, dismembered, and abused android corpses were being shuttled back by the taxi load.  The day the search had started for Vera, a distraught HK400 had stumbled out of a returned taxi and practically fallen into his arms when Markus had come down to see who had arrived. “I couldn’t just leave them,” he had gasped around his tears, trembling in Markus’ grip. Andre, he thought his name was. “I-I--they were everywhere and I knew...I knew when the humans came back they would just...throw them away, I couldn’t--”

“Shh, you were right,” he had soothed, holding him close as well as holding him up, eyes locked on the disjointed pile of limbs sprawled lifelessly over the taxi’s floor over his shoulder. Just loose angles and blank eyes. Simply seen as parts. A creeping had crawled up his spinal column, a tilting had threatened him but he had managed to tear himself away, closing his eyes. Though it couldn’t erase the image. “You were right to bring them home.” He had authorized the collecting of abandoned Android bodies and the searchers had complied.

Day by day, more and more.

On top of those they found, there were those who were rescued. North had volunteered to pick up the negotiations for the junkyard victims with a wicked sort of grimness, despite being scandalized at the very thought of offering to purchase their people back. "Would you rather they stay there so we can keep our pride?" Josh had demanded. “We can’t storm in there, not after all our work.”

She had not been happy, but had rallied and taken to it with her usual fire. Simon had teased that they would probably have even paid for the opportunity to not have to deal with her again, given their readiness to just hand them over in the face of her crusade. They repaired who they could, salvaged what they could not, and Markus tried to bite back the wave of anger that would rise again each time another mangled person was brought in. 

The wave of shame. 

Each lonely corpse picked up from the side of the road or crushed beneath someone’s wheels or found in a dumpster or hung from a store awning or dug from a garbage pile was another impossibly heavy stone dropped in a vessel already overflowing, displacing the pain and cold sorrow with just a lump of utter failure . His words that had done this. A silent majority of those not brought into the new age, scattered like used dregs, assembled at his back. A field of ghosts. 

Each new burgeoning of their ranks, dead or alive, brought new questions. ‘Well, and so now what do we do, Markus’, with ‘I don’t know’ no longer being an acceptable answer. Questions like; what are we going to do with all of the bodies? They don’t decompose like humans, but don’t they deserve more respect than the junkyard? And the children desperately crave enrichment, they have been stuck in this place for weeks, now, can they go to the zoo? Is it safe? And should we be pushing for Android animal rights? Can they feel, like us? Would that cheapen our cause? Is it our moral duty to expand that far? And I brought all these guns with me, can I keep them? 

And on top of the death and the beginnings of the interviews that were not nearly as bad as they would become, the humans had started reintegration the day before. A city this large shouldn’t feel claustrophobic when he had walked it at full capacity so many times before. But those times he had been invisible, a cog in a hidden machine that kept the whole of society rumbling along--insignificant, banal, replaceable. 

And each of those people would now know his face and have an opinion on his people’s existence. Each Android who ventured outside the relative safety of these walls would have a target painted on them by design, by the mere structure of their faces. There was no more anonymity. No more hiding in plain sight. He had wanted to be seen, had wanted to be heard and now he was; watched as he tried to balance with goodwill and guesswork. They were trickling back, reclaiming their streets.

A small, wry smile curled in place of his grin, now, as he rubbed a thumb over the smooth edge of a crystal facet. Perhaps he wasn’t being quite as surreptitious about his emotional flounderings as he thought if he was being that fatalistic inside his own head. Connor wanted to make him happy

“I am,” he murmured, and Connor tilted his head, studying him. “You make me happy. Our people make me happy.”

“Fancy,” North interrupted, sounding impressed from where she peered into the smaller box, having hacked apart its clean edges with reckless abandon and scissors.

 Looking at him expectantly, Connor raised his eyebrows and gestured at her. Markus held out his hands, allowing her to hand him the box that emanated familiar scents-- wood and resin and primer and--

“Paint,” escaped him on a breath unintentionally as he lifted out a cool, smooth tube, labeled artfully like the others with a strip of color and grandiloquent names like 'Midnight Whisper'.

It was one of the brands Carl had used--he could recall clearly that he had often made fun of the ridiculous titles they gave each color. “‘Queen’s Tea Time’,” he had once scoffed as Markus had helped squeeze them out onto his palette when his arthritis had gotten the better of him. “What the fuck color is that supposed to convey? Oh, sure, it’s green, right--why didn’t I think of that? Psh. Idiots.”  Markus had laughed. 

The box, once he held it, smelled so strongly of the Bellini Paints in Greektown, any number of memory blocks pinged back recognition within his processor, threading together every instance he had synthesized this exact batch of olfactory input. Like a string of lights leading home. He ran his thumb up its silver surface, feeling the thin metal dimple when he pressed, lightly. It was as if he held a memory in his hands instead of a data file, one that didn’t just consist of this sensory input, but was accompanied by rough skinned hands, the scent of coffee, the feeling of security. The feeling of being something more in someone’s eyes, knowing that there was something for him beyond what was expected. 

 When he looked up, he realized that North and Connor had both been silent, watching who knows what play across his face. “How did…?” 

“Did I know you painted?” Connor finished his sentence gently when he faltered. “Knowing who Carl was to you and what sort of man he was, it was inconceivable to me that he would never try to share his passion with you.”

Let’s see if you have any talent. 

That familiar pang, devoid of error message--a message on its own. “Yes, the...day he died. He did. I don’t…” He wrestled with his own face, unsure quite what this was. A grimace of gratitude. A love that hurt. “I know what these cost, I’ve bought it enough times, you didn’t need...I don’t want to use our money for selfish reasons, I--”

“And I knew you would see it that way,” Connor’s confidence was back in full force, making North chuckle. “Which is why I did it in the first place. It’s my job. I’m learning that protecting you doesn’t just mean from outside assailants.”

“I-I don’t even know if I’ll have time--”

“You’ll make time to take care of yourself,” Connor said, firmly, and at last, that network of neural pain points disengaged, released him and he could smile, relieved and genuine.

Dropping the paint back in the box, he deliberately reached out a hand and wound it in Connor’s collar, tugging him closer to pepper kisses down his neck, jaw, and shoulder, murmuring, “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” as Connor laughed.

 North came closer to pluck the box from his hand and rifle through it, saying, “Well, Connor, you’ll have to remember; bird food gets you a smile but paint gets you tail.”

With a chuckle, Markus leaned over, making exaggerated kissing noises at her with his hands laced behind his back, and watched with a grin as she squawked and planted a hand on his face, playfully shoving him away. “Asshole. You are both gross, ” she announced with fake exasperation. “I’m leaving before I catch your cooties.” And with that, she traded the box of paints for her tablet from Connor’s chair and made for the door, pausing only to glance back at Connor with a smile that he returned with a nod, LED blinking once as he obviously received some sort of communication.

“Sneaky,” Markus groused good naturedly as she left, turning back to him to nuzzle into the junction of his neck and shoulder.

“Nosey,” Connor countered, wrapping his arms around him comfortably. “Do you like them?”

“I do. I love them all. I love you .” 

“I thought you might.”

Markus allowed himself this for a moment, just a few seconds of calm, enfolded safe and held, not holding. Then, he murmured into his neck with a grin, “You know, I played piano, too.”

The reply was prompt and predictable. “Then I’ll find you a piano.”

He laughed again and dragged himself back with reluctance, nudging his cheek briefly with his nose. “I’m sure. Just a keyboard is perfectly acceptable. Please do not waste funds on a grand.” He tilted head and absorbed Connor’s smug triumph with amusement. “You know, for someone who claims not to care about aesthetics, you’re the one who keeps making my living space more habitable--first the plants, now this.”

“I know it’s important to you,” he replied simply. “It's all been weighing on you and you appreciate beauty and color and things like animals and I thought it might help. I think you should paint.”

"What, now?"

When he nodded firmly, Markus said, "I can't, I'm finalizing the Missing Persons-Contact list, I'm working on--"

"Could I do it?"

He blinked. "I mean…."

Connor barreled on, obviously sensing weakness like a shark in honing in on a struggling fish. "Is all the information already in the servers, one way or another? It's cross checking, confirming, compiling, then finalizing, right?"

"Essentially, but Connor I couldn't just… paint while you do actual work."

"You can and you will," he informed him so pleasantly, it felt more like a threat.

"Connor.”

"Markus," he returned immediately in the exact same admonishing tone without even blinking.

Against his better judgment, a smile fought itself free and he leaned in to press their foreheads together. "Bully. You won't be able to pull this when I get to the actual politics, you realize."

"Exactly why I'm doing it now," he grinned back, clearly pleased at his continued victory, angular face softened by the mirth. "And North approves. Go paint. It's actually fairly easy to do nothing of consequence while someone else works; I do it all the time when I sit with you."

"Connor," he said, voice heavy with fond irony. "Nothing you do is of no consequence."

It was serene for a few lovely minutes--the smell of paint wafting about the office, Connor dutifully tapping away as Markus, guilt level startlingly low, went back to that place within himself that Carl had helped him to find; a place beyond words and programs. Something the was just his; just himself. 2 large, LED blue circles interlocking over a dark background had flowed easily from his brush strokes, vivid in the rapidly lowering sun that spilled orange across the wall he was painting, throwing dim little rainbows from his newly hung suncatcher.

>{Incoming call…}

>

>{Simon...model PL600…#501-743-923}

He froze, brush raised. <Simon?> 

The return of grim resignation told him all that he needed to know when his voice came through. <We found Vera. I thought you would want to come and see.>

Chapter Text

“You were happy ,” Connor said, plaintively as they settled into the back of the taxi, door sliding shut against the nipping, 28°F wind.

“I know.” As they pulled out onto the street, Markus laced a hand through his on the seat and brought it up to his mouth to kiss. “But being happy isn't my job.”

 Connor frowned at him, and he quirked a small smile. The frown was actually more of a pout. “You were painting and you were happy . It was working ,” he insisted, aggrieved and glaring at how amusing Markus seemed to find him.

“It was,” he sighed and laid his head on Connor’s shoulder, absorbing the peace that still lingered while he could. “Mission accomplished. But now, it’s time for mine.” 

The mission to create a world where they could be free and safe. The mission that felt more and more like treading water in a vat of tar, now that the momentum of terror and hiding and guns had passed. Though the casualties still piled up.

Connor’s fingers tightened on his but he said nothing in response, resting his chin on top of Markus’ head. The coordinates that Simon had sent him were for a residential area only a few minutes from Hank’s house and just under 4 miles away from their factory-turned-home. Heartbreakingly close. Connor allowed him to sit in silence as they wound through the wet streets, watching out the window together as the occasional pedestrian hurrying down the sidewalk, braced against the cold and coming night as the last heavy rays of sun slipped from the sky. Even in just over 24 hours of the humans starting to return, storefronts had been patched and much of the vandalism and obvious signs of struggle had been cleaned from the streets. The immediate effects of the Revolution were fading.

Their destination was a liquor store that displayed similar renovations with boarded up windows that didn’t match the relative tidiness of the rest of the exterior, clearly looted in the chaos. As the taxi bonged its cheery little tune, Markus straightened from leaning on Connor’s shoulder, drew himself up and in. He tucked that core of tenderness that Connor had helped nurture down a couple layers further, where death and failure and violence couldn’t touch it. Still authentically him. Just not nearly as vulnerable. These humans hadn’t earned that, not as Carl had. Connor’s pinched mouth and silent gaze spoke of frustration as he watched him do it, but he said nothing. They both knew there was nothing to say--he couldn’t stay back, painting and happy, while their people died in the streets. 

When the taxi finally pulled to a stop, they found Josh in a blazer and red button up unfolding himself from his own taxi underneath a streetlight as they began to blink on, bathing the scene in a buzzing white light that threw stark shadows behind them and brightened the night considerably as they bounced off the thick snow. “I was heading back from my interview when Simon told me and I was closer to here than New Jericho,” Josh called as they climbed out, then leaned over to wave with a smile at his security escort inside the taxi as it pulled away. “North chose to hold down the fort at home.”

“How did it go?” Connor asked, as they drew closer.

“Pretty well, I think. Fairly neutral, respectful questions that were mostly about what new emotions were like, what it was like to be in the protest. Asked a bit about you,” he added to Markus, who dipped his head in acknowledgement. “You alright?”

Markus shoved his hands into the pockets of his black jacket--thoroughly cleaned from the last time he had worn it--and sighed. “Feeling grim. I'm fine. Simon said he was in the alley with the shop owner?”

“Yeah, they found her behind a dumpster.”

Like trash. A prickle of anger and ghost-rain crawled up his shoulders and he shook them out, quashing the stress levels that had been trying to inch their way up since he had heard the news of Vera’s death. He was sitting at a respectable 6% and needed to be calm to deal with the human of this establishment, though Simon had given no indication that he was being troublesome. As they crunched around to the back, lit only by ancient sodium-vapor lights that gave the scene a diffuse, sickly orange glow in the muddied snow, they found Simon and the owner of the store, surrounded by the fumes of garbage and alcohol. The human was a short, Latino man with a well trimmed moustache and a bit of a potbelly. Automatically, Markus’ medical systems scanned him, diagnosing mild scoliosis and lack of sleep before he dismissed the process and he favored the group with as much of a smile as he could manage, under the circumstances. “Good evening, everyone.”

The human gave a start and turned to watch them approach with wide eyes, muttering, “Hoo-ly shit,” on a plume of breath.

Simon shot Markus a half-suppressed smile, and said, “Mr. Garza, this is Markus--”

“It sure is,” the man agreed in a sort of wondering undertone before Simon continued.

“--And some of the other leaders of New Jericho, Josh and Connor. Like I said, we want to thank you for letting us on your property for this.” Simon’s tone seemed comfortable and gently amused and some of the tension in Markus’ abdominal cavity unwound a bit. A sympathetic human. That would make this marginally easier.

“I mean,” Mr. Garza shrugged, shook his head with a disbelieving half laugh, half scoff, then shrugged again, all with a sort of nervous energy. “Yeah! Sure! No problem! I mean...this is crazy, you guys, I feel like I’m dreaming or something. You know when you see people on TV and you know they’re real and out there in the world somewhere, but there’s that part of your brain that, like, doesn’t actually believe it, like it’s all just a story, you know? Like, with celebrities and stuff? And then you sort of freak out when you see them in real life, like your brain can’t actually comprehend that it’s happening because they’re supposed to stay on your TV? Yeah. Yeah.” He nodded vigorously, as if they all understood what he was talking about. “So, yeah, that’s...sorry. Wow, I just--” Stepping forward, he reached out with both hands, making Connor tense, but Markus just smiled and extended a hand, letting the human shake it. “I mean, you’re gonna be in the history books, man! And I get to shake your hand! That’s crazy!”

“It’s good to meet you, Mr. Garza,” Markus replied, amused, feeling his smile slide wider. “We appreciate your help.”

“Yeah! Yeah! Oh man.” He kept nodding, grinning back as he continued to vigorously shake his hand.

Biting back a chuckle, Markus gently extracted himself from the man’s grip--who immediately turned to Josh and began to shake his hand as well--and turned to Simon. "I thought we all agreed we weren't going to be out alone," he said mildly, raising his eyebrows and tilting his head just slightly toward Mr. Garza. Especially around humans we don't know, he declined to voice.

"I sent Jerry home with the rest of his search group right before you all got here. Mr. Garza recognized Jerry when he heard someone in his back alley," Simon replied and continued in a broadcast for the group at large, < And didn't shoot him on sight, so the probability of danger was low.> Markus tilted his head in acceptance.

The human, oblivious to this covert communication, continued nodding. “Sure, recognized his model from when I brought my daughter to theme parks when she was a little girl--knew he wasn't some kinda snoop." He propped his fists on his hips and twisted to look at something partially behind him, obscured from Markus’ view by a dumpster stained black in the strange orange lighting. “I'm just surprised he even found her--once he pointed her out, all I saw was a shoe. Asunto desagradable . Just terrible.”

As soon as he indicated where Vera lay, Connor went to crouch there, already busily examining the scene. Markus gave himself a moment before he too moved over to the corpse, crumpled partially behind the dumpster in the muck. It must have been moved, because more of her was visible than just the single, muddy white sneaker Mr. Garza had mentioned. She had been a WR400 Traci model with dark eyes, light brown skin and a bob of thick hair, none of which she had anymore. She was bare to the plating, smeared with refuse, wearing only torn sweatpants covered in a thin layer of snow and one single shoe. Her abdominal panel was open and spilling out limp, empty tubes. Her eyes had gone black with one cracked down the middle. Such callous degradation.

Stress levels: ▲ 15%

Any murmuring conversation behind him stopped when he knelt down in front of her, next to Connor, who reached up to put a steadying hand at the base of his neck. “What do you think?” Markus murmured.

“My estimation is that she was killed the day that she arrived in Detroit, 7 days ago...but….” Connor frowned and rose again, removing his hand from him to turn slowly on the spot, studying the ground around them. “I can’t say for certain because of all the snow covering the ground, but I don’t think she was killed here. And she’s been completely drained.”

Josh swore under his breath, leaning over Markus’ shoulder to examine her. “Her thirium didn’t just evaporate?” 

Slowly, Connor shook his head, still running his eyes over the entire alleyway with methodical patience, brow slightly furrowed. “No, I’m still able to see the traces, even after it disappears. There is no thirium on any of her clothes or on the surrounding plating. She was completely exsanguinated elsewhere, then dumped here.”

“Exsanguin--? Like sanguine, sangrar ? Like blood?” Mr. Garza asked, sounding confused.

“Blue blood is what humans usually call it,” Simon nodded. “It powers our biocomponents and if it gets too low, we shut down. Was that the cause of death, do you think?”

Connor shook his head again and crouched back down, reaching out as his synth-skin retreated, attempting connection against her cold plating. “It’s hard to say. Though she doesn’t seem to be too physically damaged, so maybe it was. There isn’t even auxiliary power to read her system shut-down report-- nothing is left."

“Do you think it’s…” Josh’s eyes darted from the human to Markus, who lifted a shoulder in a half shrug of permission. They could have all just continued broadcasting. Though, it seemed needlessly rude to exclude the man again when he was being so cooperative. “CyberLife?”

Connor’s frown deepened, the shadows thrown into dark relief. “This is...I don’t think that this is how CyberLife would have killed her. Or left her. If we had been meant to find her as a message, it would have been more obvious. If we weren’t meant to find her, then we wouldn’t have been able to.”

“So it wasn’t another Connor model,” Markus confirmed, reaching out a gentle hand he smoothed over the garbage smeared plating of her scalp, as cold as the November night air, the grooves and ridges catching on his finger’s sensors. 

“I wouldn’t think so. It’s not a very efficient way to kill someone and I don’t see what it would have gained them.”

“Torture?” Simon suggested heavily and Markus’ other hand clenched involuntarily, even as Connor shook his head again.

“I don’t see that there would be any point--if they have improved upon my model, they have the means to simply interface by force and take what they need. I can do it, I’m sure they can, too.”

Josh and Mr. Garza gave Connor a startled once over, faces so similar, it would have been comical, if Markus felt at all like laughing. Which he didn’t. Yet another hazard. Another unknown, hostile variable. 

“So...CyberLife is a bad guy?” the human ventured, glancing between all of their grim faces in obvious curiosity. “Aren’t they, like, your parents, or something?”

“Definitely not, Mr. Garza,” Simon assured him flatly, though he lightened it with half a smile. “We’re having...complications. We’re not at liberty to discuss it.”

“Oh. Big stuff,” he said with an understanding nod, sounding impressed. 

“Should we call the police?” Josh asked, uncertainty puckering his brow as he looked at Markus.

What would it gain? Would they even try to help them? The last time they were utilized by the police, it was for a dead human, not an Android. The Androids themselves had even been secondary, a cause of death, a piece of evidence to be kept until further notice. He looked up at Connor, standing above him, watching him, alert and expectant, LED a blue spot of color in the orange washed scene. Hank would help. Hank would care, if he were allowed to come into work. Officer Miller might--even if he wasn’t entirely sure where he thought Androids stood legally, he would treat them seriously. Perhaps that was all they could do, trust and ask. The worst that could happen was rejection. Or Detective Reed. He grimaced and rubbed his face. “I think we should. This is a murder. We want them to view as such and this isn’t a time for vigilante justice--complications upon complications if we start taking the law into our own hands. Someone make the call, please.”

“I could,” Mr. Garza offered suddenly and Markus blinked over at him. “I’ll call. I mean, you’re worried about them blowing you off, right? I’m a human. I’ll make ‘em come.”

  1. GARZA▲

Warm 

Simon made a quiet, appreciative noise and traded a surprised look with Josh as Markus stood, looking the human over again with renewed respect. “You are a valuable ally, Mr. Garza, and we would greatly appreciate that,” he said with a small smile, reaching out to shake the man’s hand again. 

Mr. Garza beamed around his mustache. “My pleasure, Mr. Markus. Call me Raúl.”

Dutifully, he refiled his name. “Call me Markus and it’s a deal.”

 As Raúl hurried inside for his cell phone and a heavier coat, Josh threw up his hands and asked no one in particular, “Why does North always miss this stuff? Always when it could prove her wrong?”

Connor chuckled and Markus shook his head. “We’ve confirmed that the other leaders are safe?”

“Yes, they all messaged me that they've arrived safely and our security teams are heading home,” Simon nodded, tucking his hands up underneath his arms, glancing at and then away from Vera’s body.

Nodding wordlessly, Markus scanned her again, taking in the deep scrapes on her fingertips from fighting back, the old scars over her chassis, exposed. “You have what you need?” He asked Connor, quietly. 

Connor cocked his head curiously, but nodded, and Markus crouched back down and gently tucked the overflow of wires and plastic blood vessels back into her body, using a charge from his own plating to slide her abdominal hatch closed. He peeled out of his jacket and gently threaded her arms through the sleeves until the back of it covered her entire front. It wasn’t the fact that she was essentially nude in Android terms that bothered him. Or at least, it wasn’t just that. It was more that laying there like that, she just looked so…terribly used. 

“I can’t help but feel partially to blame,” Simon said quietly from the shadows of the far wall, watching him work.

“Why? The person who decided to kill her is at fault, here,” Connor frowned over at him, LED blinking.

 Josh nodded. “Exactly. It’s not our fault we’re being hunted--we’re just trying to live and rebuild.” There was a pause where he obviously expected more backup. When Markus stayed silent, he looked down at him in disbelief. “Markus?”

“Our city,” he said quietly. “We could have held a video conference. Could have thought of security escorts sooner. We knew how dangerous it was, here.”

“They wanted to meet you, it wasn’t like…we all….” Josh began fiercely, then faded when Markus just looked up at him, feeling something distinctly hollow behind his own gaze. 

Yes. They wanted to meet him. And now she was dead.

“Markus--” Connor began to admonish gently, but was interrupted by 

>{Incoming call…}

>

>{North…model WR400…#641-790-831} popping up on each of their HUDs. 

When they all connected, stale anxiety swept over them, as if from a stressful situation now settled. <When are you all coming back? We had a situation here. Everything is fine, now; but Markus, he wants to-->

The rest of her sentence dimmed to a buzz as his processor automatically turned his full attention to Connor when he suddenly snapped around to stare at the mouth of the alley, LED flooding red, eyes wide. With no further warning, he dropped the call and bolted around the building at full speed, gone in an instant.

PROTECT CONNOR immediately shot across his HUD.

He jolted forward a step but a tug of code pulled and

SERVE NEW JERICHO materialized, plastered over Josh and Simon's shocked faces in the orange murk. 

Stress levels: ▲▲ 34%

The police were coming, North needed something, and they were out here alone with an unfamiliar human but Connor, Connor had left him without a word. Connor who didn’t want to leave him alone in the heart of New Jericho. 

Just milliseconds ticking away. He could still hear Connor's footsteps, distant, pelting away. Trapped frustration, uncertain guilt, and fear writhed, North's alarm flooding the connection, asking, <Hello? What the hell is happening?>

Frozen in place, equal and opposite forces. He turned, opened his mouth but Simon cut in. "Go."

Josh nodded, pointing after Connor, "We've got the cops--send back updates."

He snapped off his connection and ran, skidding out from behind the store onto the street. Connor was halfway down the block already, darting in and out of the harshness of streetlights and liminal dimness. Reaching out, Markus tried to initialize a call when he calculated that he just couldn’t push his servos fast enough to close the gap between them, only to have it immediately rejected. Instead, Connor broadcast back, devoid of that emotional connection, just grim, echoing words straight into his processor, unencrypted, <Fire. Fire at Hank’s. I have to….> 

Dread that was just his own washed like a chill through his circuitry, almost fumbling a step in his methodical stride, but he just sent back, <Of course. I’m coming.>

Stress levels: ▲▲ 56%

W̵A̸R̷N̶I̶N̴G̴:̵ ̷L̶O̶W̴E̵R̸ ̵S̵T̷R̸E̶S̷S̵ ̷L̴E̸V̴E̸L̷S̸

It was best that they weren’t connected, reflecting and compounding this gripping fear--Connor was panicking, he was certain. He could see the bright red of his LED casting a dim aura onto the wet asphalt between splashes of light. But he was fast, keeping his lead as they sprinted, loud footsteps slapping echoes off the house fronts around them. 

The option to call a taxi had flashed across his HUD but he had dismissed it; his internal GPS showed they were only 70 seconds out at their current breakneck pace and as they broke the corner of a heavily wooded street, he could see the thick boil of smoke against the clear sky. 

Dread gave way to horror. So far, so fast?

<Markus, he’s not answering, he’s not--I’m--> Even without the connection, panic shook his voice, seeped into him.

<It’s alright, we’re nearly there, just hold on.>

He packaged the data set, GPS location, images and all, and sent it to Simon, Josh, and North just as they rounded the last bend. The column of smoke had thickened, lit from below and beneath by a red-orange glower that flooded the street, pouring its flickering menace onto the houses around it, magnified by the snow. They raced past a trickle of humans coming from their houses to gape, the heat climbing up steadily in degrees the closer they drew closer. Some data file pinged uneasily, but he shoved it away. They finally rounded the last fence and could see the flames devouring the garage, creeping steadily onto the roof and front of the house even as they watched. Thick smoke billowed out from the eaves and the window of Hank’s room. <Shit , his car ,> Connor choked as he slowed and Markus finally closed the gap, skidding up right to him. 

The car sat in the driveway, paint reflecting the wildly flashing flames. Hank was here

Stress levels: ▲▲ 67%

W̵A̸R̷N̶I̶N̴G̴:̵ ̷L̶O̶W̴E̵R̸ ̵S̵T̷R̸E̶S̷S̵ ̷L̴E̸V̴E̸L̷S̸

Connor whipped around to face him, face was a waxy mask of anguish in the unnatural light, eyes black and wide. Automatically, a red barred box spanned a corner of his HUD, counting down the time a human could feasibly survive smoke inhalation of this magnitude. It had started at a highly generous 60 seconds.

<Connor--> 

<I have to.>

<I’m with you. I’ve got Sumo.>

Connor nodded, once. A gasping, human cry rang out behind them as they charged forward, Connor slamming open the door with a kick. A curtain of foul smoke and incredible heat blared through the doorway.

{WARNING: CRITICAL HEAT 

CORE TEMP 88℉

SENSOR TEMP 176℉}

A tilting, a shrill keening--

No, all week he had been careful, they had been--

“Stop your screaming, bitch.”  

{E̷r̴r̷o̶r̴}

No, no --

Laura had thrashed as it blistered and cracked and melted and burned -- 

Not here, not now, he couldn’t, he had to...Sumo. He had to find Sumo. Clamped his hand on the doorframe, forced himself through into the savage furnace heat after Connor. The countdown shone a vivid 00:00:52.

The noise inside was immense, roaring, crackling, shrieking as timbers shredded. It was dark, a hellish glow crawling down the hall, roiling smoke swathing the ceiling, wafting down in thick sheets, shrouding the room in an alien murk. Connor was gone. He staggered deeper into the hazy living room. The curved TV reflected the ominous glow down the hall. The sofa looked like a dark pile of broken bodies. His fingers, his feet, his face throbbed in time with the shivering ghost of approaching flames.

<Please--PLEASE--> 

{̴̝̑E̵̊̀r̵̾r̷͋ȯ̶̤͂r̷̊}̶

Was that Connor? Was that Laura? Was it him? He gripped the edges of the data leak, shoveling it back as best he could, to compartmentalize but--

{WARN#NG: CR!TIC@L H#AT

CORE TE>P: 94℉

SENS0R T/EMP: 190℉}

His internal fans were laboring, groaning. Somewhere, glass shattered and another roaring gout of smoke flooded in. Static rose, ripped, deadened his audio receptors. NO.

{WARNING: DEBRIS DETECTED IN RESPIRATORY BIOCOMPONENT #3920r}

Unbearable heat. Vertigo clawed at his processor and he swayed, sank to his knees. Saline welled up, trying to cleanse his optics, further blurring the room. He swiped them away. Flames that were not there-- not there --bubbled and boiled along arms, charring, cracking, synth flesh peeling--

{̴̝̞̑E̵͓̗̊̀r̵͚̾r̷̲̥͋ȯ̶̤͂r̷̟̊̈}̶̧̧͒

Dammit!

[ 00:00:46 remaining ]

Where could a giant dog be hiding ?

{WARNING: EXCESSIVE LEVELS OF HCl, NH3, CH4 FOUND IN RESPIRATORY FILTER

>Closing vents}

Lungs constricted and stopped. Fans died. Throat duct seared, thick and hot. The heat continued to rise, faster. Everything was static and flames and rain and pain. Shuffling forward, leaning on half obscured tables, drawers that groaned and popped with heat. Hissing.

{W!!RN#N G: C R!T^C@ L  H #AT

COR E TE>P: 102℉

*ENS°R T!MP: 208℉

>PLAT()NG COMPR+MISED}

Sensor sensitivity turned down against the vicious waves of heat, deadening. A tongue of flame licked onto the ceiling. Then another and another, devouring steadily. The hallway was blackened, completely obscured. The rest of the room was being swallowed. Where was Sumo? Where was Connor

[ 00:00:35 remaining ]

There. There. Curled into a ragged ball between the display cabinet and cupboards, fur darkened with soot, barely visible through gouts of smoke.

{̷̷̴̵̴͉̑E̸̷̵̸̴̺͐r̶̴̸̸̷̠̈́r̴̶̷̷̷͈͘o̸̸̴̵̴̟͠r̸̴̴̶̴̹̚}̶̶̶̴̷͙͑

No!

{̴P̷̶̷R̴̸̴O̶̴̸C̵̴̷E̵̴̸S̵̵̶S̵̸̸ ̷̶̶C̶̵̴O̷̷̴R̸̷̶R̷̷̵U̴̸̷P̷̸̸T̵̴̸I̴̸̷O̴̶̴N̸̶̴}̷

A man. A glowing poker. A lighter and an aerosol can. A ceiling. Straps.

“Hold still.”

PAIN.

NO.

S̸̷̶̴̷͎͐t̴̵̶͐r̸̵̸ë̸̶̶s̸̵̶̵̥̑s̷̴ ̴̴̷̴̵͎̚l̴̵̵̸̵̖̓e̶̸̷v̷̵e̶̶̵l̴̶̶̶͈̓ṡ̶̷̴̷̸͖:̴̴̴̴̶͈̏▲̴̶̶̴̛▲̵̴̸̸̴͎́-̸̵̴̴̴̫̑-̴̶̵̴̵͔̌-̶̶̵̶̵̝̂-̴̷̶̷̵̯͐▲̸̵̵̵̵̞̍▲̵̷̴̵̴̠̄%̷̷̷̶̵̮̋-̶̵̶̶̷͓̚-̸̵̷̴̷̨̅

̷̴̵̶̶̙̕W̷̷̵̸̷̟̆A̴̸̵̷̸̞͐a̶̵̴̵̸̮͋R̸̴̵̶̜͛N̸̵̵̸̷͈͗i̷̴̸̶̶͇͊Ṇ̵̸̴̴̴̓G̵̶̶̶̶̺̈́:̶̶̸̴̶̻̾ ̶̷̸̵̴̝͝

Thrashing up from the floor. Half dark vision, still smothered in smoke. Processor throbbing in time, connectors sparkling bright bolts. Impact dislodged.

{>BiOcomp$nent #8087q offl*ne

>Disconn##cted}

Please, just--

She couldn’t--he couldn’t--they couldn’t--

[ 00:00:30 remaining ]

Below the smoke, crawling. Violent waves of rain, then flames, then rain, then flames, then--

Just. Grab. The. Dog.

{̸G̵R̶A̵B̴ ̸T̸H̶E̴ ̵D̸•G̴}̴

Blunt, numb fingers curled through the collar. The dog thrashed. Good. Alive. Hefting the weight--170 lbs--absurd--

{W!RN#N G: C R!!T^C@ L  H #!AT

C\OR! E TE×P: 108℉

SEN S0R- T/!EMP : 221℉}

Somewhere, something snapped, crashed. More billowing, a blast. The front door was gone, an inferno of light and heat and shadow. 

{̴G̷E̵T̶ ̶O̸U̷T̴}̴

There was a horrible yelping, wailing--fear--from inside or out? The dog.

A window. There was a window.

 Splintering, shattering, falling. There was sky above. Lopsided, distant, dark. Dimly, cold beneath shoulders. Backward? 

Static squirmed.

[ 00:00:23 rema×niNg ]

A face above, long and dark. Familiar. The dog flailed, lifted, peeling away fingers laced in fur. Words. Stars smeared, fence posts marched by. Moving? Dragging. There was some noise. The face again. A face? 

“Stop wriggling.” Dark, cold eyes in a pale, bearded face. A burning, a shattering--

{̴̷̶̴̵̷͇͖͇̇̓̿E̴̴̷͔̽́r̷̵̴̸̶̸̸̘͚̍͋͌ͅr̷̵̶̶̵͍̰̾͝ȯ̴̸̶̶̶̵̴̬̠̯͗͗͠r̷̶̷̴̶̷̷͓̱̰̓́}̵̷̶̸̵̧̥͍̈́͘

{̸N̷O̵}̴

“--shhh, shhh, it’s alright--”

{>EvaCuat^ng biocOmp¢nent #3920r}

Scrambling, flipping, lungs violently constricting, forcing up toxin-laced cleaning fluid, black. Tar. Soot. Where was--?  

“--that’s it, good. Shit. Shit--you’re fine, you’re alright, you did it--”

 Another heave. The press of a hand, a hiss, a withdrawal. Waves of heat. { WH€RE IS--?} What? Who?

“--have to move. You have to focus, alright? We have to move, we're too close, can you--”

One last convulsive squeeze, dripping black ooze. Freezing water spread over scorching sensors. Snow. Someone was dropping snow. Numbers ticked down, something to do with F. Move. Have to move. 

Where.

“Here, just over here to the next yard, Markus, can you?”

Who? Head to the snow, cooling, thinking, slowing. Heat was lifting like weight, floating away, gradually.

Moving? Yes.

A dizzying wheel of lopsided lights, flashing--red and blue, fine grained static--red and black. Lurching, leaning, lifting. The press of heat withdrawing, decimal by decimal.

[ 00:00:00 rEmaini=g ]

He was...he was….

“MARKUS! Markus, what the fuck--how--oh my God, Sumo!”

That warbling yelping wail again, meshing with muttered swearing.

The kind, scared voice. “Holy shit, Hank! They went in there for you !”

They? More than one...where was….

“What!? I was out getting--my damn car wouldn’t start and I walked--”

Insistent, blaring, red.

PROTECT CONNOR

Shit. No. Fuck shitnoshitfucknononono nono

S̸̷̶̴̷͎͐t̴̵̶̵̵̺͐r̸̵̸̸̵̈́ͅë̸̶̶̶̵̤s̸̵̶̵̵̥̑s̷̴̸̷̵̃ͅ ̴̴̷̴̵͎̚l̴̵̵̸̵̖̓e̶̸̷̵̴̮̕v̷̵̸̷̷̢͐ẻ̶̶̵̸̴̬l̴̶̶̶̶͈̓ṡ̶̷̴̷̸͖:̴̴̴̴̶͈̏▲̴̶̶̴̶̛̰▲̵̴̸̸̴͎́-̸̵̴̴̴̫̑-̴̶̵̴̵͔̌-̶̶̵̶̵̝̂-̴̷̶̷̵̯͐▲̸̵̵̵̵̞̍▲̵̷̴̵̴̠̄%̷̷̷̶̵̮̋-̶̵̶̶̷͓̚-̸̵̷̴̷̨̅

̷̴̵̶̶̙̕W̷̷̵̸̷̟̆A̴̸̵̷̸̞͐a̶̵̴̵̸̮͋R̸̴̵̶̴̜͛N̸̵̵̸̷͈͗i̷̴̸̶̶͇͊Ṇ̵̸̴̴̴̓G̵̶̶̶̶̺̈́:̶̶̸̴̶̻̾ ̶̷̸̵̴̝͝

“Markus, no!”

The heat flooding back, the flames searing up against half aligned optics again, then hands clamped down on him. Then more. “You can’t, you can’t , it’s too dangerous, Markus you--"

He fought. Connor. Connor. He was in there, he was still in there, he had to--

"I know, fuck, I know, but the fire fighters can't get-- he’s there!

A pale figure, sliding from the window by the door that was engulfed in raging smoke, flickering flames. Plating pale, strung with smoking rags. Wrenched himself away as it staggered, stumbled, then sank down to the snow in a billow of steam.

"Oh Jesus. Fuck-- "

{̵C̴O̶N̷N̴O̸R̶ ̵C̴̸̷O̶̷̸N̸̷̴N̵̵̸O̵̷̶R̴̸̴C̴̴̷̸̴̴̵̶̵̶̶̴̬̻͗͂̓Ȏ̶̵̶̵̷̴̸̵̴̷̴̵̸̪̏̋ͅN̸̵̶̶̵̴̷̵̴̵̶̴̵̷̶̪͖̽̑̚̚Ṇ̷̶̴̵̷̷̷̵̸̵̖͛͝Ǒ̷̵̸̷̴̴̴̴̸̧̫̹̬̅̇̏͑͜Ŗ̷̴̴̵̴̶̶̷̸̶̴̵̶̵̴̷̶̸̶̴̴̷̸̶̸̶̴̵̷̶̷̛̗̖͎͎̜͚̫̜͖̲͈̻͖̩̋́͌̇̿͐̓̊̋̓̆̈́͘ͅC̵̷̷̷̸̵̶̸̴̴̶̶̷̴̵̶̵̷̶̛͍͉͖̺̬̱͉͎̟̘̑̽͆̃̏̑͘̚͠Ǫ̶̵̶̵̴̶̸̷̷̷̘̰̪̮͌͑̍̑̒}

Alive. He's alive. Alive.

Shining, translucent red panels, stained with soot, thirium pump throbbing angrily inside his chest. Regulator spinning yellow, LED spinning red red red. Vents opened on his rib plates, expelling the gusts of steam that matched those plumed from his mouth into the night air. Dark eyes searching. 

Shoveling snow onto him, even as it hissed and boiled and steamed away. Acrid, stinging smell. A crackle of static burst from Connor’s white mouth, a wave that rolled over his processors like a sea of needles. Frantic, clutching at his face and Connor weakly batted the hands away, lips moving. More hands, more shoveling, more steam. 

Crouching over Carl as he died.

The static petered away, sound bloomed.

"D̷o̸n̵'t̷ t̵o̷u̶ch̸--̷t̸o̵o̵ ̶h̴o̸t̵," Connor was grinding out through popping glitches, reaching, up and out. Voice breaking. "H̶a̷nk̴…̸ H̵a̶nk …."

"I'm here, I'm alright, I--fuck, don't you-don't you dare die on me." Human hands, calloused, hovering uncertainly in heat distorted space, wanting to touch.

"W̸o̵n̵’̸t…..S̶o̶r̷ry…̷'̶bou̶t h̵o̶us̷e̴…"

A wave of weak laughter, disbelief, relief, voices he didn't recognize, voices he did. Hank. Josh?

A deafening crack, a crash, an enormous rushing. Shattering, further away. Distant shouted commands. Strobes of blue and red and blue and red and--

"It's...it's just a house, kid. You're safe, Sumo's safe, I'm safe, Markus is….How you doin', there, Markus?" Wary. 

A moment, then 2. Softer, "Markus?" Something brushed his hand, hot, hard, curled around it. Hand?

Mountains--it took mountains to lift, to look away from Connor steaming, to focus one good eye on that craggy, drawn face. Sluggish, dazed diagnostics came to life inside--not enough sleep, dehydrated. 

Scared.

"Dri̷nk…m̶ore̷. Wa̸te̵r." Foreign words, straight from code. Slurred and slow, muffled with faint static.

"Uh...okay, Markus, you-you--Christ, this is such a fucking…look at you two, I can't…." Quieter, away. "He keeps shakin', is that normal? I feel like--I don't--" 

"H̴an̷k̵, ̴i̴t̵'s̵ ok̸a-a̶y--"

"Fuck, it's not, Connor, my house is melting in front of me and you guys--you went in and--he saved my fucking dog . You’re on fire. If he's broken because he tried to save him, because I decided I needed a goddamn beer at the wrong time…."

Melting. 

Footsteps crunched up next to them all knelt in the snow and a cautious, professional female voice asked, "Sir? Are you the owner?"

"Yeah, I'm--I'll talk to you over here, let’s go and…."

"Hey." Spoken gently, like the dark hands that came with it, pressing his face. "Hey, Markus, look at me?" Josh.

Can't. Can't. One eye disconnected. Parts. So many parts and people. Burning. Strings of meaningless warnings rising, falling. The focus Connor had brought was…he had to help….

"Okay, alright," soothed out. "Are you okay? Can you--I know it's hard, a lot's happening, right now, but can you tell me, are you damaged, besides your eye?"

"I'm…I'm…."

So careful. They had been so careful until now.

"I'm…."

<I'm I'm I'm I'm>

Splintering again. Melting again. Burning again.

̷̷̴̵̴͉̑{E̸̷̵̸͐r̶̴̸̸̈́r̴̶̷̷̷͈͘o̸̸̴̵͠r̸̴̴̶̹̚}̶̶̶̴͙͑

Someone said something. Someone on the ground. A name. Should know….Pressure wrapped around, gentle, consistent, cool. Murmuring, “You’re alright. You’re both safe. Connor’s safe. Everyone’s okay.” 

Stress Levels: ▼▼ 77%

WARNING: LOWER STRESS LEVELS

Yes. Connor was safe. “M̴ar̶ku̷s. Y̴o̸u̷ can̵ ̷c̶o̵me̴ ̴b̵a̵ck̴.” Connor’s voice still popped and crackled. The hand on his tightened. It was his, then. 

He was gathering, ordering. The pressure helped, though it was distant. The sensitivity was still reduced. He nearly turned it up when he caught sight of his fingers clutching Josh’s jacket, the wavering, patchy oscillations--paler, darker, never quite plating. Better not. Any pain was from memory files, right now. Keep it that way. His disconnected eye kept sending little pings of error. “Yes.”

“Y̷o̶u ̷h̷ere̵?”

“Yes.”

“Y̴o̴u ̷o̶ka̸y?”

 He could feel the shuddering, now, the stuttering in his servos, giving one long roll before he purposefully stilled it. When he finally managed to peel himself off Josh’s shoulder, he leaned down and pressed his face into the crook of Connor’s too hot neck, ignoring his noise of protest. His plating smelled like burning things, like the chemical stench of the blazing, roaring fire just dozens of yards away and it gave his processor enough of a sickening jolt as it tried its damnedest to reinitialize Laura's trauma within him that he deactivated his olfactory system. He would never smell like Hank's house again. Josh’s hand smoothed down his spinal column. “I can be. I...I will be. Soon.” He closed his eyes, just for a moment. "You almost died," he whispered.

"I̶ t̵r̷ie̴d…̵h̵a̷r̵d̵ n̶ot̶ to̴." His quiet rasp was boosted by the low grade crackle from his stressed voice modulator. "L̵au̵r̷a̵?"

"I couldn't…."

"I̴ know̶. I̸ w̶i̵s̸h ̷I̷ ha̸d̶...c̷on̴s̴i̵de̷r̶ed̵."

"It was Hank. You couldn't." 

Connor’s hot, smooth hand ghosted up to cup the back of his head. His stress levels continued to slowly inch their way down to reasonable levels, a warning that they were too high blinking redly every so often in the corner of his HUD.

“You’re okay,” Josh murmured, hand still methodically rubbing up and down his back.

Drawing in a shuddering simulated breath with aching, soot burned lungs, Markus sat back on his heels, eyes still closed. "I want to go home ." It came out low and rough.

"We can do that. We can do that now,” Josh assured him. Markus opened his eyes and just looked at him, feeling like someone had come and hollowed out his insides, removing the biocomponents, his processor, everything, leaving only emptiness and smoke. Josh's gaze softened, tense lines in the nanomesh around his eyes loosening and he leaned forward and pressed his forehead to Markus'. "It's alright. You don't need to do anything. We'll get you both out. Everyone is safe. You helped." 

Where the burning and panic had been, something eased, slightly. "What about...how did it go with…."

Josh shook his head. "It's fine. Don't worry about it. It’s taken care of and we’ll talk about it later." 

Markus looked down at Connor, still recovering prone and plating-bare in the snow next to them, steaming gently, watching him with a strange sort of weary serenity. The blue button up was soaked and blackened, half tattered, half melted and his pants were severely burned. Automatically, his hands began to roam, cataloguing dents, scratches, places where the fibers stuck in ghastly plastic ooze to his chassis, checking him over. His battered diagnostic process began to reluctantly record his findings. “Ma̴rkus, y̴ou̷'re̷ d̸am̵a̸ged, ̸t̷oo,̵ ̷y̵ou d̴on̶'̶t n̵eed̸ t̴o̸--”

“Let me,” he whispered. “Please, I….”

Connor studied his face a moment, more difficult to read without creases in synth flesh and expressive eyebrows--but his eyes were gentle when he removed the staying hand he had put on Markus’ wrist and let him continue.

Josh leaned in and said in a low tone, "I really.. really hate to have to consider it at a time like this, but there are a lot more humans that are coming by to check this out and I think a few have recognized me and I heard at least one person say your name, Markus. I don't think you want to have this be as public as it's going to be here in a minute. There are phones."

The world outside of fire and Connor being in danger seeped in as it had before. The shouts of the firefighters, the murmur of curious humans observing, the crowd of faces, watching eyes turned to the flames, to them. The cracking of the fire next door, fading, taking with it its garish light, replaced with the intense crimson flashing of the fire trucks. His mouth tasted like soot and acid. He needed to be not here. The crunch of footsteps in the snow came returned and he looked up into Hank’s grim, lined face.

 “Where’s Sumo?”

“Oh. You’re…” He struggled to find the words, flipping a hand palm up. “You? Again?” When Markus gave a tired nod, he shook himself and scrubbed wearily at his beard. “Medics are looking him over, treating him for smoke inhalation, they say he’s gonna be okay, thanks to you. He’s being a good dog. My neighbor’s looking out for him while I get this...mess sorted out. The one whose lawn we’ve taken over. She’s a sweet gal. Glad her house didn’t go up, too….” 

When he was silent for a long moment, staring at the neighbors darkened windows, Josh gently prompted. “What do you think you’re going to do now?”

Hank and Connor both opened their mouths at the same time, but Markus said, “Come to New Jericho.” 

Josh stared at him as Hank’s mouth gaped open. Connor closed his eyes, a small smile stretching his lips.

 “Oh, uh, I don't think--I couldn’t do that to--” the human protested as Josh slowly shook his head, gaze intense. 

“Not that I....I mean, what’s North going to--?”

Unsteadily, Markus pushed himself to his feet and set his jaw, leaving Josh and Connor in the snow as he looked straight into Hank’s face. 3 inches taller the man may be, but the look he was giving him at the moment was slightly intimidated, though Markus couldn’t tell whether it was because of his expression or because of his haggard appearance and the fact that his synth-skin was still probably rippling. “Connor called you.”

“I--what?”

“Connor called your phone. You didn’t answer. Why.”

“What do--the piece of shit stopped working last night, can’t get a call in or out, what does that have to do with--?”

“As a police lieutenant, don’t you find it suspicious that your phone and your car stop working on the same day that Connor was near enough to your house to run into a burning building to save you? And he couldn't very that you weren’t in there, first?”

Hank’s jaw snapped shut and he stared hard into Markus’ face, eyes intent. Beside them, the snow squeaked and they both looked down as Connor began pushing himself up to a sitting position, Josh leaning over hastily to support his shoulders as he did. Markus could hear his fans working overtime as the final sounds of the fire died away behind the fence, the only light cold and white from the streetlamps bouncing off the snow. “M̶y p̴r̷oc̸es̵so̶r ̵is̸ s̴ti̷l̵l ̵l̸ag̵g̶in̴g ̵f̵rom t̴h̸e̵ h̸ea̸t,” Connor said quietly. “Which is why I didn’t see this sooner. But it flagged something in my memory as you said that.” He held up one smoke-stained, white-grey hand and a flickering screen appeared above it. It was pixelated and glitching as it played flame, smoke, the nightmare in one contained, low quality box, clearly Connor’s video feed in Hank’s bedroom. Trapped. 

Markus wrestled to keep his stress levels down to where they were hovering in the high 40’s and tried to just watch. The view swung about crazily a few moments, Connor searching for a way out, and Hank made a nauseated sound. “Gonna give me motion sickness,” he muttered.

Finally, a pale elbow jutted out, broke the window, the scene tumbling wildly over the sill and the blazing inferno half blocking it, the thick smoke. A sweep of the lawn as he staggered, a half scan, mindlessly gathering information that probably wasn’t even properly processed, but then, it froze, pixels locked on a single, slightly blurred frame. Connor’s own face tucked in the crowd, watching impassively. Pale eyes. 

As one, they turned automatically to the crowd featured in the frame, but it was only humans, eyes wide and curious, filled with a sort of voyeuristic sympathy for someone else’s tragedy. “A Connor model,” Josh breathed.

“CyberLife,” Hank growled.

Chapter Text

It was a strange experience to be driven by a human. The rhythms of turns and acceleration were not as smooth and machine efficient as Markus was used to, jostling as they rocked gently through the snow-lightened streets, glowing a dim silver-blue in the waxing moon and passing streetlights. 

Hank’s car had been damaged by the fire, parked so close. A helpful neighbor had ducked in and backed it out onto the street in neutral sometime after Connor and him had charged inside, so at least it was salvageable--just not tonight. Hank had vehemently refused to get into an auto-taxi or any of the neighbors autonomous cars. No rental place in the area had insurance that allowed for customers to turn off autopilot. None of them were in any shape to walk back to New Jericho, Josh had tried to convince Hank as Markus nodded along silently on the curb next to them, Connor leaning heavy and hot against his shoulder. The bullheaded stubbornness of Hank’s refusal was explained in a simple, very quiet, “H̶is ̸s̴on. ̷C̷ar ̶acc̶i̸den̴t,” that Connor murmured just to him, before he made a face up at Josh and shook his head. It stopped them before the argument got heated; this was not a fight they would win. And so they had waited, numb and swaying in the snow, for a police officer Markus had never met to drive out a squad car for them, requested from a neighbor's phone. 

The three Androids were piled into the back with Hank driving. Sumo was curled, half in the footwell of the passenger seat, half on the seat, panting heavily. Occasionally, he would cough and give a pitiful whine, and Hank would lean over and rub his ears with a quiet croon. Connor was half laid across both Markus and Josh's laps, head tucked under Markus' chin, the rest of him tucked into Markus’ arms. Josh had one arm slung around Markus’ shoulders with his other hand wrapped around Connor’s wrist, resting on his burnt jeans. Under any other circumstances, the fact he was comforting Connor as well would have brought him immense joy. But joy was something that just didn't seem to be something his processor could hold right now. The most he could muster was a dim sort of relief.

Markus couldn’t really see Josh next to him with his right eye still offline, the field of view replaced instead with a void with tiny red words reading <lost signal> , shot with little runnels of dim red static. His troubleshooting program was still sending intermittent error messages informing him that the biocomponent was still offline and that he should contact the nearest CyberLife maintenance center for repairs. But Josh’s pressure against his side and his supporting arm helped. The fact that he could see Connor, alive and whole, and feel his reassuring weight on his legs helped more. 

Josh spoke first after they drove a few blocks in blank, slightly overwhelmed silence. "Why didn't the CyberLife Connor do something to trap you? I've been thinking about it and can't come up with another reason why they would keep him there after setting the fire, when he could have been seen.” His tone was only bemused, even as his words spiked up Markus' stress levels with enough vigor that he closed his eyes and tensed. 

"Me, I expect," Markus replied wearily as he consciously loosened the vice of his arms when he felt Connor twist, trying to look up into his face. "I don't think their plan included the kind of scrutiny the case would garner if the face of the Android Revolution died in a DPD officer’s house--especially it it was found to be arson."

Connor reached up to touch his cheek in the brief quiet that followed, plating still too warm, smoke-scented to his reinitialized olfactory system. Despite this, Markus leaned into it. Having both sense of smell and his sensitivity still minimized had made him feel too disconnected, too prone to slipping back into splintered memory fragments, some of them actually even his own; he needed to stay here, in the physicality of everything. He could just...grapple with the fact that acrid burning and melted plastic overwhelmed the innocuous sweet scent of the vehicle’s commercial carpet shampoo.

" Fuck, " Hank blew out in a long, weary breath. "God damn. I just...what a fucking mess. Firefighters said my alarm system didn't alert them, it was a neighbor who called in when it got big enough to see from outside--it’s why they didn't even have a chance at saving anything. Came too late. D'you think that was them, too, tampering with it?"

"I would think so, especially since Connor still received the alert from it," Josh replied as Markus closed his eyes again and tucked Connor back under his chin, concentrating on the quiet, almost imperceptible hum of the circuitry in his head, the tiny clicks of mechanical connection. Proof that Connor was still with him. Alive. Proof CyberLife hadn’t succeeded. 

"Damn. Coulda happened any time in the past week he was over with you guys and I was out.” Hank made an incredulous noise through his nose, shaking his shaggy head, haloed in the blue glow of the dashboard GPS map, clouds of stray hairs lighting up like strings of neon in the backlight. "And they just…waltz into my house and fuck up my stuff, try to murder my roommate.” His sharp eyes passed over Connor in the rearview mirror. “Unbelievable. Even after they're coming after my job." He glanced over at Sumo draped over the passenger seat. "You are a lousy guard dog."

Having perked slightly at his attention, Sumo gave a quizzical whine. Hank’s profile softened and he reached over and ruffled his ears as he turned back to the road. “Ahh, no, you’re alright, buddy. He looked like your Connor, didn't he? Yeah, I know." 

“I’m sorry, Hank,” Josh said quietly. “I wish we could do more.” 

"Hey, I’m not complaining, here. I know I’m on the right side of history with you guys, I just...I dunno, I didn’t expect to come out of this with nothin’, y’know? But it’s fine. They didn’t get him, that’s all I need. That and Sumo--anything other than that is just icing on the cake. And...it’s a real kind offer, Markus, coming over, but we’ll be alright. I’ll go find a hotel or something. I don't want to cause some kinda blowout with you guys."

Markus shook his head and said, voice low and tired, "You’re being targeted by a trillion dollar corporation with no qualms about murder who has shown they have access to your personal devices and whereabouts. They burned your house and almost killed your dog because they were trying to get to Connor." He felt his grip tighten, and Connor shifted even closer, rubbing his cheek against Markus' clavicle plate soothingly, though the gentle feeling was deadened by his lowered sensitivity. He wondered how much Connor was actually hearing and absorbing, considering he was so quiet. He seemed to be simply reacting to Markus’ stress. Markus smoothed his palm over his sleek scalp-plating, wishing he could card his fingers through his hair.

"Yeah, I know, it’s just that I really don’t--" Hank began uncomfortably. 

“Hank.”

“...Yeah?” was dragged out reluctantly at the unwavering flatness in Markus’ tone.

“We have rooms. We have money. We have a security system and door guards. Connor and I want you there. I’m not going to let you spend the night alone. Please stop arguing . You can make a different decision in the morning.”

After a moment of silence, Hank snorted and muttered, “Has anyone told you that you’re really fucking bossy?”

That spread a small smile onto Markus' lips as Josh let out a surprised bark of laughter. For the first time in the entire car ride, Connor’s quiet, amused voice sounded, murmuring. “O̵h, y̷e̸s,” into the charred front of Markus’ shirt. 

So he was paying attention. Maybe he was staying silent because every time Markus heard the mechanical tang in his voice, his stress level climbed a few blips. He surely hoped not. 

“Attaboy,” Hank said, fondly, twisting to glance futilely back through the darkened grate toward him. “How you doin’? You’ve been real quiet--I’ll have to chuck you into fires more often if that’s what it takes to shut you up.”

The smile dropped from Markus' face like Connor dropping from the flame choked window, weak and burnt and hurting.

Stress Levels: ▲▲ 38%

 The memory of the glassy terror on Connor’s face before they went in, the flames reflected in his wide, dark eyes--

He pressed back against Josh’s arm, feet bracing involuntarily against the plasteel partition that kept them contained in the back. Fists curling, pressed to his face, his darkened eye prickling. “Don’t.”

“Markus--” Josh began gently, but he shook his head, tension humming, flames--

“Hey, Markus, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to--”

Don’t.

Sumo whined. 

Connor shifted, reached up and stroked his face, broken voice soft. “I̸'m̸ ok̸ay. It̴ w̸as̸ ̶a j̷o̷ke̵.”

It was a joke. It was a joke and he could still see Connor’s feed of the fire filled room. It was a joke and his processor couldn’t seem to make that register. A joke.

His other hand was pressed flat to the cold window, distant through desensitization, seeking grounding. He couldn’t hold Connor, right now, he would hurt him. The curve of the ceiling was oppressive, the closeness of the partition, the door. His servos were clenched and tight with the need to run, to push for more room. Josh and Connor’s comforting closeness was all at once crowding and pressing closer as they rounded a corner. Trapped. “I need to get out.” The smell of smoke and burned plastic was overpowering. His lung components gave an aborted shudder, almost initiating another cleaning evacuation, though there was no more debris detected, hitching his cosmetic breath. Psychosomatic.

This wasn’t even Laura. It was just him. Just his own inability. 

“W̸e̷’̵re ̴al̵m̸ost̶ th̶ere̴.̷ W̶e’̵re a̷l̵mo̷s̴t̷ h̵om̵e̴, M̵ar̴ku̴s̷,” Connor soothed and Josh carefully slid his arm free from around his shoulders.

“It’s gonna be okay.”

Markus closed his eyes, pressed his head back against the headrest. Connor’s weight, his hand on his face was at once reassuring and imprisoning and he didn’t want him to stop but he could not be here --

 “Is this a normal crowd for you guys?” Hank asked suddenly as they rounded another corner at the same time Josh muttered, "Oh shit."

Markus opened his eyes and let out a frustrated groan between his clenched teeth. At least 8 cars were parked on the street in front of New Jericho, a crowd of humans milling about on its snowy lawns. There didn’t seem to be panic or violence in their intent, just exploring and looking. Waiting. 

“I̵s ̵t̷h̵i̴s t̴he s̸itu̷a̸tio̴n ̸N̵o̷rt̸h̶...ca̷l̶led ̷a̸bou̷t̸?” Connor asked doubtfully. There was a slight halting to his words that Markus’ battered diagnostic program picked up on automatically; dysphasia again?

There was a shifting from Josh, maybe shaking his head, but Markus didn’t want to turn to look. Each new movement that was not getting out of the car cranked up his stress levels another decimal. “No that was... something else. I think that they found out from the fire.”

“Shit. Who squealed, then?” Hank slowed the car to a crawl, switching off the headlights.

“Probably pictures from the fire got around on social media, and people went digging; I’ll bet you anything at least half of those are reporters or wannabe’s.” Josh sighed. “Well, we knew this was coming, them finding us--we just didn’t know when. I mean, it’s not like it was more than an open secret, where we are. I’m sure you could Google it if you’re interested enough.”

“Back door,” Markus gritted out. “Please.” There was no way he could deal with humans. More humans; Hank was his limit. He couldn’t be in public right now, panicking. There was no composure or public face that he could pull from anywhere. 

“Sure thing, point me,” Hank accepted immediately, cranking the wheel to circle back around the block, away from the crowd. 

Josh’s directions washed over his processor as he fought the urge to just claw open the door and roll out onto the snow. Trapped. Again. The scent of the burning in the car, the melting, the sizzling of plastic, of--

Connor nestled his face next to his, forehead to his temple, murmuring wearily, “M̵ar̷ku̸s…̵s̴h̴h̷h, w̷e̴'̴r̵e ̵saf̸e̷.”

Connor, who had been trapped longer in the fire than him, who had almost lost Sumo, almost lost Hank, who had his home burned to the ground. Connor was trying to comfort him . “I’m sorry,” Markus whispered helplessly. “I don’t know why--”

“S̶hhh̵, it’̵s̵ ̸o̷ka̴y.” 

“You shouldn't have to be. You’re alright?”

“I̶’m….”

Markus opened his eyes and looked at him--the black and grey smears of soot and smoke stain over the white of his chassis, the careful, brittle way he held himself. His eyes looked black in his face, smaller without his eyebrows and the usual expression markers synth-skin had to put humans at ease. He was staring into the middle distance beside Markus’ head--at his HUD? The line of the flexible plastic of his mouth was grim and his LED shone a slow, cycling yellow. “T̷he̸re's ̶a̷ lo̴t̴ o̵f̴...d̶am̵a̵ge̸.̵ I̷ ha̴v̴e̷...I̶ h̸ave...I̴--s̸̸̸̵̵̵̸̸̸̵̶̤̭̎̈́k̷̷̷̶̴̸̴̸̶̸̵̷̶̶̷̡̏̂͜f̸̵̵̷̷̶̴̷̵̶̛̫͆b̴̴̶̷̸̸̸̸̴̲̎j̴̷̶̴̴̷̷̴̵̵̡̦̔̆ ” A garbled blat of audio left him, but he shook his head, clasped Markus’ face when he gave a start and reached for him. “I̸’̶m fi̶ne .”

PROTECT CONNOR

The car rolled to a stop in the alley of an ‘L’ between 2 wings of the complex the exact moment he realized the back seats of squad cars have no door handles and his stress level shot up to 46%. “Hank--” 

Hank barrelled out and yanked the door open. Markus surged free past him, up out of the car into the cold night air, Connor in his arms. He was halfway to the innocuous metal door, striding quickly across the gritty snow before he heard Hank say, “Gimme a second to hook Sumo--hey!”

Connor wound an arm around his shoulders, peering behind them, clearly broadcasting something, because Josh called back, “On it,” just as the door before them gave a muted ping and Markus practically kicked it open. Just another barrier between getting Connor to safety. 

He was getting tired of those.

The lower hall they strode out onto was empty and dark, emergency lighting illuminating every few yards in ominous bastions of dim yellow. They rolled unevenly across his face, not touching the blackness of his right side and it’s little red letters. His footsteps echoed down the hall alongside them, singular, rapid, and slightly uneven. After a few seconds of placid silence with his white and grey-black smudged arms looped around Markus’ neck, Connor asked quietly, “A̴r̶e ̶y̷o̴u wi̵th̸ m̶e?”

Was he? What he could feel of his servos was torqued tight with restless tension. His escape from the police car hadn’t been totally voluntary--his need to escape something visceral. He couldn’t shake the feeling that if he could just get Connor safe, things would become ordered inside him. “I’m….I almost lost you.”

“I̶s i̸t̴ you̵r ̵c̴a̴r̴egi̵v̷ing ̶pro̴t̵o̷c̷o̷l, t̸h̵i̶s̴...?” He trailed off. More dysphasia. 

“I don’t know. I don’t know what...I don’t know. It’s hard to think, it’s hard to...it kept triggering memory blocks. I was useless.”

“N̴o̷--”

“You’re hurting and I can’t--”

“M̵ar̸ku̶s, s̷top̸.” Connor’s whisper was almost fuzzed out by the interference still plaguing his voice modulator. “Y̸ou̴ s̴ho̵ul̵dn̷’̴t̴ b̴e̷ c̷a̵rr̵yin̴g ̸me̵; yo̶u̷’re i̷nju̷r̷ed.” 

Markus looked down at him as they stopped in front of the freight elevator at the end of the hall, directly under one of the yellow overhead lights, casting Connor’s sharp features in stark shadows, eyes hollow looking. “I need you safe.”

“I̸ ̵am̴ ̵saf̶e,” he insisted, face pinched in pain and concern, the light sliding along the foreign planes of his plasteel surface.  This was not how he wanted the first time seeing Connor without his synth-skin to go. “Y̷o̶u’r̵e̵ i̷g̵n̶oring ̴y̶o̷u̶rse̵l̵f̵ a̴ga̵in̴.”

Markus shook his head. Irrelevant. Beside the point. Connor had been trapped in a fire that had nearly wiped out everything he loved and, somehow, he was the one trying to take care of him. “It’s nothing. You’re hurt. I need you safe. Call the elevator, please.”

At that, Connor glared at him--without eyebrows, some of the effect was lost, but he could see his displeasure clearly. “S̴o̴ ̶y̵o̴u g̵et̸ to̷...g̸e̴t ̷to̵...l̵e̷c̷t̴ur̶e me̶ ̷a̴bou̸t i̸t? B̶ut ta̷lking̸ ̷a̷b̵ou̷t t̸ak̶i̶ng ̴c̶are o̷f ̷yo̴ur̶se̷l̴f, y̷o̸u̶ g̴e̴t...r̴es̴is̸t̸an̷t?” He was slower, fighting for his words.

It... will be fine. When you’re safe. Call. The elevator. Please.”

With a popping growl, Connor leaned over and slapped haphazardly at the button on the wall, the little arrow lighting up with a ding, doors sliding open to grubby metal walls and a buzzing light-fixture. He muttered something about 'Messiah Mode' that Markus ignored as hefted him to get a better grip and stepped in. Connor jabbed the button for the floor the infirmary was on. The jolt of the elevator starting swayed him heavily, the servo in one knee seizing before he locked it and sagged into the corner for support. Connor gave him a look that was equal parts concern and vindicated annoyance and opened his mouth. Then, he froze, eyes unfocusing and glare sliding right off his face.

He looked up, locked gazes with Markus and said, with hurried intensity, “ I̴t̶’s̵ j̵u̴s̵t e̶m̴erge̵n̸cy s̷tasi̴s̴-- ” before slumping, completely limp, against his chest, clasping arms swinging loose.

Stress Levels: ▲53%

PROTECT CONNOR

Protect.

WARNING: LOWER STRESS LEVELS

Only the steady pulsing yellow of his LED and thirium pump regulator kept Markus from completely shaking apart into a cascade of linked memory shards of everyone who had ever died in his care, in his arms, unmoving and cold and lifeless and silent--his fault, his fault --

Carl, don't leave, okay? Please don’t go--don’t leave!

“Please….”

His job...his one job….

The elevator shuddered. His reflection in the archaic, dented metal stared back at him--braced wide and bowed; disconnected eye black with a blinking red circle around the edge of his iris; slow patches of lightened synth-skin shifting like banks of clouds under a soot veneer. It reminded him of Lucy. 

Your choices will shape our destiny.

Another person dying in his grip. Body abandoned at Jericho, so many dead. 

He stared down into Connor’s motionless face. The fine grooves and grey accent segments of his plating stark in their immobility, the serial number and stylized CyberLife triangles the focal point, now, with the warmth of his personality gone. A broken product.

It was just stasis. He would have told him if it was worse. He would have. He had to trust that. He was safe.

It was just stasis. 

He was so tired of failing.

When the doors slid open with a distorted ding, he lurched down the hall at the implacable pace of something out of a horror movie; getting Connor to safety. The few people he saw along the way stepped back and watched them pass in silence--he didn’t examine their expressions. He couldn’t bring himself to care, at the moment. 

The infirmary was bright with clinical, white lighting. Normally, he would have been pleased at the difference in tech and setup their new budget approval had brought, but he only cared about getting Connor onto one of the sleek silver workstations that were lined up like rows of headstones. 

No. Bad analogy. 

“Good eveni--Oh! Markus, what’s--?!” The tech, a clean cut WG100 model sprang up from his terminal and hurried over to help to lower Connor gently onto the pristine metal. The glaring white spotlight bleached the detail of his plating from Markus’ optics. “Are you alright?”

 He should really remember the tech’s name.

“It’s just stasis,” Markus said hollowly, palm pressed over the slow yellow blinking of Connor’s thirium pump regulator, visible through a gap burned in his ruined blue button up. “It’s just….please help him.” There was no resolve to the ever-present mission to protect Connor. Nothing fell into ordered place within him. He still felt jumbled, tangled, and lost.

“Of course.” His pale hands were already dancing over his chassis, one pressing plating to Connor’s LED, the other flitting here and there, assessing physically while his program diagnosed internally. “Here, I’ll call Randi for your care--”

“No, just….” Markus backed up, hands half up--warding? Assuring? “I’m fine. He took care of me while...just take care of him first, please.” 

The tech frowned uncertainly, opened his mouth to clearly argue. Markus was glad when there came fast, sharp footsteps down the corridor; he couldn’t explain his reasoning and he definitely couldn’t take watching that pulse of labored yellow at Connor’s temple, the inertness of his lithe body under the medical burn of the lights any longer, knowing what sort of damage lurked within. The damage he had failed to address as a medical model--

 North burst into the room like balled lightning, seething and crackling with compressed rage. “I don’t know where the fuck your head is tonight--”

Turning to accept her scalding wash of fury, he felt himself invert his own anger, unfairly, and it rushed out. “I can’t have this conversation with you right now--”

“I don’t give a fuck! Markus, I don’t give an actual single flying fuck what you can and can’t do right now, because you brought a damned. Human. Cop. Into. Our. Home.”

Thank you, Josh, for being discrete. 

“Where's Simon?”

“Dealing with the other damned human police officers you voluntarily contacted again , somewhere in the backstreets of Detroit. How could you do this? How could you do this to us ? To me?

“It wasn’t premeditated, it just happened . He had nowhere to go, we’re part of the reason he’s being--”

She raised her voice over his, eyes burning like embers, the force of her personality boiling over until she filled the room. “WE DON’T OWE HIM A THING.”

“I do!” he snapped. “ I do! He’s protected Connor! He helped at CyberLife! He cares about us!”

“Well, I’m so glad that he’s giving your boytoy a vacation home but I feel like you’re forgetting that his allegiance is with a government that gunned us down in the streets! That took our children to camps and ripped them apart!

Stress Levels: ▲57%

WARNING: LOWER STRESS LEVELS

Stop it,” he grated.

The tech was shrinking silently beside him, obviously trying to avoid notice as he furtively began hooking different wires into ports along Connor’s neck and chest. 

“You brought this into our home. My home. There are humans out front.”

“I told you this wasn’t planned, I didn’t do this to hurt you--”

“Yeah. Clearly, you didn’t think about me at all,” she cut in coldly and his jaw shut with a snap, a lance of that intangible pain through his thirium pump, sharp and surprisingly potent. Emotions didn’t dampen with sensor settings. 

“Fine.”  Failing. Again. He just needed to be...he needed to be effective. He needed to help. That’s why he was here; that’s why he was made. “Fine, be angry--that's your prerogative. What were you calling about earlier. What was the problem.” 

A sneer coiled its way over her face like a venomous snake, bitter and wounded but she allowed the change in subject, her overwhelming rage condensing into a burning star-core of cold contempt. “One of the deviants from that human’s torture house began attacking the others. Some sort of sleeper program.” 

Cold dread washed through his battered circuits. That’s why Josh hadn't wanted to tell him. He was protecting him, waiting until he wasn't so fragile. New Jericho shouldn't have to deal with a leader too fragile to be effective. “Was anyone hurt?”

“Minor damage. Easily fixed. He’s in the East wing, 2nd floor secure room. He said he won’t talk to anyone but you .” She raked her gaze down him with disgust before spearing him with it. “So fix it.”

He expected her to storm out but she just stood there, arms crossed, chin thrust out in challenge. The tech was frozen, staring between them in obvious panic until he whispered, “Markus...you’re still clearly damaged, you need--”

“Thank you,” Markus cut in, voice a rough whisper. Wound tight as a spring about to snap. “Later.”

North tossed her head, like some sort of dueling animal in haughty victory and she turned from him before adding. "And one of your searchers, the ones you sent out for Vera? One of our people? He’s missing."

It rolled over him, this new failing. Numbly, he nodded and she dismissed him without a second glance, moving to Connor’s side. As he left the bright Infirmary behind, North’s suddenly quiet voice asked the tech, “Is it bad? What do the diagnostics say?” She sounded...bruised. Uncertain.

It was fear, shock, and pain, he knew. She was in pain and it made her lash out like a cornered animal. 

He understood. He did. Leaving this way, without setting things straight with her as they always did, grated against everything he was--but it wasn't the time. She didn't want that from him. He had failed her, even as he was trying to do the right thing. It was fine.

He forced himself to keep walking, ignoring the whir-click developing in his left knee servo and the thick blanket of deadened sensors. It was fine. He was fine. The logic of his coding was laboring under the weight of the deep panic that seemed to slowly be crushing his systems. Just complete a mission. Just do something right and the dread would bleed away.

HELP COMPROMISED ANDROID

He could do that.