The first time you notice Lance acting strange, you don't really look too much into it. In your defense, the conditions play against you : it's a week night, during a rush hour, and most people have more alcohol than blood in their veins at this point. Honestly, you wouldn't have blamed the android for freaking out a bit : the drunkard crept you out as well.
Even though a few patrons and the boss himself stepped in to get the man away from Lance, you're the only one actually checking on him. Your fingers brush against the fabric of his blouse, just enough to get his attention. Lance then kind of jumps.
"Are you broken or something ?" you ask, realizing too late that it sounded a bit rude.
Lance glances at you, his LED turning from red to yellow in a matter of seconds before his eternal smirk makes his way back on his lips.
"Awww, Mullet Boy is worried about me ? That's cute."
And with a wink, he returns inside. No matter how flustered you get, you don't miss the way Lance's hands shake even so slightly when he flattens his apron. You push the thought in the back of your head, more worried about calming the customers down than chasing after him in the back room.
The second time you witness him acting odd, you really can't pretend to look away. The two of you are unloading a truck when he trips over one of the boxes you had left on the ground and smashes the bottles from both the loads. You rush immediately. You hold a hand out for Lance to pull him back on his feet, but for some reason he raises his hands in front on his face and squints like he's waiting for a blow. Fearing a blow.
"Lance..?" you call, realization crushing you slowly, painfully.
He looks at you, LED twitching red, eyes widening with dread. Scared that you might punch him. Terrified to be scared. It shouldn't be something possible. Lance is a machine, your brain supplies. He shouldn't feel fear. Some would say, he's just a toaster with a pretty face. Toasters don't feel anything. They shouldn't feel anything.
And yet. There he is, laying on the ground in a puddle of whiskey, his arms protecting his head in an instinctive reflex that is just so human. There is movement behind you, and you act before thinking : you grab Lance's arm and pull him up roughly before pushing him inside.
"Stay there," you says, almost like an order, almost like a plea.
His eyes turn soft and grateful. Hell, has he been always this expressive ? You close the door behind him before looking back at the mess. The truck driver, who's been coming your way, is frowning at the ground as if it personally insulted him.
"Man, your android made a fucking mess over there," he sighs, scratching his hair under his cap.
"He's an old model," you reply, "it happens sometimes."
"Yeah, well, you should replace it, if you ask me."
You grind your teeth. Nobody asked him. Who even is he to pretend to know Lance ? Nobody. He doesn't know anything. But honestly ? You don't know much either.
"I know,"you still say, because you have to say something.
"Well, I can't do shit about this," he continues. "I'll send a note to my direction to say it happened. Maybe we can send you what was lost."
"It would be great. Thanks."
As soon as the truck is out of view, you feel your entire body go limp. Too much tension for such a short period of time. You've always been a nervous guy, but this is an all new level. You grab the last box and head inside, Lance almost immediately appearing in the doorway. You look at each other for a few seconds, both unable to process what happened.
"I'm gonna be replaced ?" he asks, his shoulders falling as he shoots you a defeated look.
He sits - or more accurately, crumbles - in one of the chairs. It's so weird. It's so human. It's so freaky. You're slightly freaking out. Lance himself is freaking out.
"Hell no. If we send you back to Cyberlife they will deactivate you."
"...Isn't that the point ?"
You shake your head impatiently. He doesn't get it.
"You don't get it. You're like, deviant now, right ?"
His LED flickers red and his posture tenses, eyes snapping between you and the door, but he relaxes when you don't do anything to block his only way out.
"Yeah, I... I guess so."
"You guess so ?" you scoff. This is unbelievable. "Lance, I'm asking a simple question : are you, or are you not a deviant ?"
"I am !" he grunts, "I mean, I think so ? It's all super confused right now, I don't know if I'm not just... malfunctioning or something."
"No, I've seen you malfunctioning, that's not it."
He doesn't reply. Yellow light is still bathing the side of his face, making him looking sick and once again, incredibly alive.
"Are you going to report me ?" he finally asks, with the tiniest voice.
You don't even need a moment to think about it.
"Of course not. They would k- They would destroy you."
"Fair. So what ?"
"We keep it secret. Act like an android would act."
"I'm an android, Mullet."
"You know what I mean. Like a non-deviant android."
"...Fine. Alright. I can do that."
"Good. Maybe we can work out a way to make you have less contact with the patrons."
He chews on his bottom lip, expression blank except for his eyes, apparently unable to stay on one point more than two seconds.
"Why are you doing that ?" he calls as you're about to leave the room.
"Why am I doing what ?"
"Protecting me. It's not like you like me."
You try your best not to roll your eyes. You fail spectacularly.
"I like you just fine, you're the one making this whole thing harder than it needs to be."
Lance's cheeks suddenly turn blue and it takes you a moment to understand that he's blushing.
"Oh my God- That's not what I meant and you know it."
"Yeah, sure, keep telling you that, Mr 'I-like-you-just-fine'."
Some days, you just want to punch his pretty face.
It works well for a while. The whole situation forces you to stay more focused on what happens around you in the bar. You have to keep and eye open for any anti-android that would try to beat up Lance, in addition to the tables you have to serve and just make sure that no one notice how the non-human bartender flinches every time something flies too close to his face.
You learn to be attentive to his reactions. You listen whenever he shares something, because it's surprisingly rare. And somehow, you don't dislike that whole bodyguard situation you found yourself in as much as you first thought.
You weren't lying when you said that you appreciate him. He's a nuisance most of the time, and he can't do some things every other android is able to do nowadays, like scanning faces to filter people at the entrance, because he's a seven years-old model, Keith, not an AX400. He's annoying most days. But he's witty and smart, and he's stupidly good-looking and gets the job done. And maybe you're stupid to think you can befriend a machine, but... Humans would pack-bond with anything and you're no exception to the rule.
So yes. It's not ideal, it's not perfect, but at least it works. Lance seems to trust you, at least. He's still butting heads with you whenever he has the occasion, and he still seems to see you as a rival or whatever. Which is dumb, because you're paid for this job and he isn't, so there is nothing you two can legitimately fight over. But Lance likes competition, and you're not strong enough to turn down a challenge.
And really, you kind of like this new routine. It's safer for Lance, and he's nicer to you. You don't drag you feet on your way to work anymore. All in all, it goes well.
Until it doesn't.
It's not like you didn't see it coming. Honestly, when even big nights only fill half of the bar, you know business isn't doing great. But you don't realize how much it isn't doing great until the owner of the place asks for an emergency meeting at four in the afternoon. So here you are, sitting around a table with Lance and your two other co-workers, Nadia and Ryan, waiting for the boss to show up and explain the whole situation.
Lance is nervous. You can tell by the way his knee jerks slightly every five seconds. You kick him gently, not like one punches a PC with the vain hope it'll make it work, but like a friend trying to stop someone with ADHD to spiral too hard. Can androids even have ADHD ? You're no longer sure of anything. It's been a weird couple of weeks. Lance stops jerking his knee.
The owner, Stan, looks old, with more wrinkles on his face than years in his life. In his eyes is shining the dim sadness of someone who's seen Hell and came back.
"We're gonna close the bar."
Nadia starts to protest loudly : it's her only job, she doesn't know where else to look when most of the hard labor is now done by androids who don't even need a job, no offense, Lance. Ryan blinks but doesn't say anything. It's not the first time he's unemployed, and probably not the last. You don't say anything either. Job offers aren't common these days, but if it gets really bad you could still ask Shiro and Allura if they need an assistant at the cabinet. Not that you like paperwork very much, or plans to become a lawyer any time soon, but. Yeah. That's probably better than ending in the street. Or maybe Adam could find you a post at Cyberlife. Or Matt at the lab. It's fine. You got this.
Stan sighs and rubs his head. The poor man is probably sad to see his business go like that, too, and so close to retirement, he won't find another job. He pushes your respective paychecks across the table and ask for you to clean up the place and take your stuff before the night.
"What about me ?" Lance suddenly asks, and yes, what about him ?
"I guess I'll have to send you back to an android shop," Stan hums, sadness crossing his features - him too grew fond of the robot.
"They would destroy me. Please. At least sell me online or something."
"You don't have a guarantee anymore," the old man argues.
"Plus you would probably end with some weirdo who debones androids for fun," Nadia adds.
"No one would buy you," Ryan sighs.
Stan turns around to look at you. Lance raises an eyebrow. Ryan and Nadia exchange a look before Nadia tries to hide a snort behind a sneeze.
"You would ?"
"I mean- Yeah. I don't know what I'm doing next, but whoever hires me would be glad to have two pairs of arms for one wage. Or something." You blink, turning back to face Lance. "At least you wouldn't be destroyed."
"Lance, what do you think ?"
"Why are you asking me ? It's not like I have an opinion on the matter."
"Please," Ryan rolls his eyes. "Do you want to be destroyed so badly ?"
"Yeah, I thought you and Keith got over this stupid rivalry of yours !"
"It's not that, it's just- I'm just- me. I'm an android. Why would my judgement would matter anyway ?"
"Uh, maybe because it's your future in the line ?" you scoff, earning a dark glare.
"Fine. Okay, fine."
He stomps away to the back-room. Nadia shakes her head.
"What is he even grumbling about ? Are you still at each-other's throats ?"
You shrug. You don't know how to tell her that Lance is just probably scared of leaving the only place he ever worked at - ever lived at - to go with you, nonetheless. The only person who knows about his secret. Because that means he's basically at your mercy once Stan gives you the ownership papers. God, the ownership papers. How twisted is that you're about to own a person ? This is just so weird.
"How much ?" you croak, and the old man pats you gently on the shoulder.
"Not a cent, boy. Just take care of him and it would be enough."
Again, humans would pack-bond with anything.
Later, when you go to check on Lance, you find him behind the bar, eyeing you as you walk closer.
"Ready to go ?" you ask, because the tension is awkward since he left the room the first time.
"Almost. I still need a moment."
"I'm leaving the bar," he chuckles, sounding incredulous. "It's so weird."
"I guess it feels like leaving your parents' house for the first time ?"
"And how would I know, dumbass ?"
"No, hey, I'm sorry. That's not fair. Sorry. I'm a little... perturbed."
You look around one last time, at the tables that always seem to stick no matter how many times you clean them, at the chairs that always wobble, at the dim lights, the old wallpaper. You spent two years of your life here, working every day. It feels weird for you too.
"Okay, I'm good to go," Lance says after a while, his tone soft and his eyes avoiding yours.
"Alright, let's get out of here."
Nadia and Ryan already left, talking about maybe creating their own business, something about documentaries of some sort. You trust them to find a way to get some income. Lance almost bumps into you as you stands in the door, the box in his hands painfully empty asides from his second android uniform and a handful of papers. At least yours has a bunch of personal items in it - not that your collection of hairties really count.
"Where are we going ?" he eventually asks as you both make your way downtown.
"First, we're going to get this stuff home," you reply, "Then try to figure out what's coming next."
"Copy that, team leader."
And you know he's just mocking you, but it makes something weird to your guts.
"How many models of your line are still active ?"
"How am I supposed to know ? Look that up on the net."
"Don't you have- oh. Yeah, right. You don't have wifi."
"I don't have wifi."
Lance huffs and obstinately glares outside the window, his chin resting in his hand as he sags a little in the large jacket you lent him. You roll your eyes a little and pull out your phone, careful to not put it anywhere near the sticky table top of the booth you're sharing. Between the two of you, the fries are left untouched and slowly cooling, but you're not really in the mood for greasy food. Honestly, entering the fast food was just another occasion to get away from the chilling wind blasting in the streets. Detroit in November is way too cold for your taste.
"They say here that there are a bunch of you left," you mumble as you scroll down an official report from the Cyberlife website. "Maybe less than twenty still in activity."
"Fantastic," Lance grumbles. "What am I supposed to do with this information ?"
"Can you- Ugh."
"And they say I'm the grumpy one. What the fuck is up with you ?"
"Why are you always freaking out or bitching whenever I say or do anything ?"
Honestly, you're growing tired of it. It's been a whole week since Lance started to live with you and you have no clue why he's in such a foul mood. And, right now, he looks like he's about to break your jaw. Or start crying. Or both.
But then, he deflates a little on his seat and hugs himself tight, his fingers following the seams of the jacket.
"Where are we going, Keith ? What is the plan ?"
"What do you mean ?"
"What are we gonna do ?" he presses. "What if someone realizes I'm-" he tugs nervously at the beanie on his head, flattening the thick wool against his LED. "Someone will notice eventually. They'll see I'm not human. I might get hurt. You might get hurt by protecting me."
"Do I look like I give a fuck ?" you deadpan. "I'm not looking up these informations for shit and giggles," you sigh as you wave your phone dismissively. "Look. The fact that there are only a few people with your face means that you could pass without too much trouble. Twenty Lances in the whole world means maybe five of them at Detroit, including you. If you keep a low profile, you could live your life without a worry."
Lance blinks slowly. It looks like he's trying to process what you just said. You insist :
"You could be whoever you want. Go see the world. ...Well, maybe not now, I have to find you a passport or something but. Yeah. Do your stuff. Get an actual life."
"...You would help with that ?"
"Why would I stop now ?"
He blows some air through his nose and looks down at the table. You put your phone back in you pocket. He hits your ankle with the point of his boot.
"Let's go back to the apartment. I need your help with some stuff."
One thing you didn't know about androids is that they need to cut their hair if they want it shorter, or have to completely turn off their skin and any external features. So when Lance walks out of your bathroom LED-less, with freshly shaved sides and bright blue eyes instead of brown, your heart kind of misses a beat. He looks good. He looks very good and it's completely unfair.
"So ? What do I look like ?" he grins, and winks swirling around like he's modeling for an invisible photographer.
"Human," you blurt out, because it's true and you should say it.
"Aw, thanks Mullet. You too."
He looks somewhat happier. Lighter maybe, like there is a bounce to his steps. Some of the stress he's been under is leaving his body and even you can see it. And you notice that the next day too, and the one after.
Some mornings, when you wake up and crawl in the kitchen, you're met with the sight of Lance browsing fifteen different pages on your laptop ; there is coffee brewing and your library somehow organized itself over the night ; sometimes, even the dishes are clean and drying on the rack.
You realize it's a domesticity you could get used to.
Lance is less sharp, less jumpy now that he knows his surroundings. He knows his way around the rooms, where the exits are if he ever needs to run, and it calms him down. Even though you suspect his stress level to be stuck or something. He smiles more often, too. Like he's finally free of some burden - not completely, but enough for him to actually enjoy the little bit of life you manage to offer him. It makes you happier somehow, knowing you helped with that.
"I found some potential jobs," he sing-songs one morning as you introduce your system to its second dose of caffeine of the day.
"Yeah ?" you ask, somewhat happy to do something about your savings melting in your bank account.
"Besides the obvious cashier and other short-lived employment, there is the theater and the swimming pool who need security agents, and the paint shop is looking for janitors."
You put your cup down, your drink forgotten, and go to sit next to him to get a better look at the screen. The offers are interesting, you decide, but you still stay careful.
"If they look for security agents, they don't want androids to do the job, they could be hacked," you reason, "so they'll probably scan us at the interview. You would be noticed right away."
"Shit, you're right. What about the janitors ?"
"It's a part-time job, and it's always cheaper than buying an android to do it."
"So... Are we doing this ?"
(In the end, since you both took a job, you don't see each other so much anymore. And then, Shiro calls you to know if you could help at the office, so your weeks are even more busy. You barely see each other anymore, only late at night.
Every once in a while, when you come back home past midnight, you find Lance waiting for you on the couch with the TV on, his eyes closed as he cleans his memory from the unimportant informations of the day. These nights, you land next to him with a grunt and stay there for a while, until your eyes close and Lance is pestering you to go to bed. Sometimes you just fall asleep then and there, next to him, on the couch of your tiny apartment.
Sometimes, it's Lance who comes home late, and he looks so spent and lifeless that your heart does this little pang, the one it does whenever Lance is involved in anything, and you pull him in your room and force him to lay down with you. These nights, it feels like nothing wrong can happen in your little bubble of tranquility, like Detroit is fading behind the closed door and blinds.
And one day, suddenly, you realize that a friendly cohabitation is the less plausible scenario because you keep seeing Lance everywhere. He's in the pile of folded clothes on top of the washing machine, he's on the notepad on the fridge, he's in the stack of old DVDs next to the TV. The apartment finally feels like a home.
And there is this proximity you two have that room-mates definitely don't share.
It's maybe even more than that, you think when Lance makes an habit out of "sleeping" in your room, and it gets problematic when you want some alone time. And then... it's not longer a concern, because Lance is good at alone-time too.
You start wondering if androids can fall for people. Or if it's morally reprehensible to fall for an android. You're not sure you want to find out the answers to these questions. Not that it matters. What happens in your safe space stays in your safe space. You've never been one to kiss and tell, anyway.)