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A Matter of Cats

Chapter Text

The door closed softly behind Nines, muffling the sounds of the sales floor. 

The hall leading to the backroom of the department store was echoey, the drop of temperature so noticeable that Nines would have perceived it even without his state of the art sensors. It had always unnerved him — when it was empty, as it was right then, the low buzz of the cheap lights and the long halls eerily reminded him of the basement of CyberLife Tower.

Not because both places really resembled each other. The corridors of the backroom of the department store weren’t nearly as elegant and sterile as CyberLife’s laboratories. And still, the cold, the echo, and the unbearable feeling of heaviness were the same. Like the bowels of an endless labyrinth.

Like a cage.

Gritting his teeth, Nines kept walking. He could see his stress levels rising, a pulsing warning in the corner of is vision. He pushed the thought of CyberLife’s basement with the practice of someone who had done it plenty of times. However, as he had just been fired, after today, he wouldn’t have to walk these halls again, so perhaps in that way he could forget about CyberLife too.

“He scares his coworkers,” his manager had told Connor barely five minutes ago. It had been Connor they called, because under the Android Integration Program -- an initiative that Markus and his people had forcefully negotiated-- newly deviated androids like Nines needed someone to guide them through deviancy. Mentors, they called it. Nines had no one. No one but Connor. “He doesn’t get along with anyone and he obviously has trouble interacting with people. We already gave him a chance when we sent him to the backroom when he didn’t do well in sales. But well. He’s not suited for this job.”

“I’m sure he--” Connor had started to defend him, although Nines didn’t understand why.

“Connor,” he’d said, looking down because the shame didn’t let him look anyone in the eye. “It’s okay,” Nines added, because what his manager said was true, and it wasn’t like he hadn’t seen it coming.

He had seen it coming. He just hadn’t known how to stop it from happening.

Discouraged, Nines stopped in front of a metal door, the bright blue the only soothing thing in an otherwise suffocating sea of grey and white. Still, when he touched the handle, he hesitated. Even through the closed door, his sensors picked up movement clearly, the voices coming from inside clear as if the people were right next to him.

“...yeah, I just saw them go into the office,” someone said, and not for the first time, Nines wished he could turn around and leave. It was some ugly part of himself that kept him listening, some glitched part that reveled in the hurt he knew this would cause him.

“Oh, thank god! You think they let him go?” someone else asked. Nines knew who the voice belonged to, and who it was that laughed. He knew because he had seen these people every day for two months. “What? You don’t have to work with him in the backroom! Androids are terrifying. No offense.”

“None taken,” Nines’ android coworker answered. “I didn’t want to say anything because I didn’t want to creep out y’all, but there are rumors about him.”

“Oh?”

The android lowered his voice. Although Nines didn’t have a stomach, he felt something churn low in his belly in response to the dread of knowing what was coming. “They found him locked up under CyberLife Tower, after the Revolution. When they tried to deviate him, he tried to kill both Markus and Connor.”

Several gasps filled Nines’ ears. “No!”

“They kept him locked for a while after that. I think Connor must be still watching him. That’s why he’s here.”

There was an uncomfortable silence at the other side of the door, the tension so thick Nines felt it settle in his shoulders, heavy like a weight.

True.

Everything was true.

“Jesus, that’s so scary,” someone breathed at last. The uneasy silence stretched a couple more seconds, and Nines suddenly found he could not listen anymore. He opened the door, LED spinning angry red, and immediately wished he hadn’t.

His coworkers --not anymore, his mind reminded him-- froze when they saw him, the apprehension so clear in their faces that Nines’ programming pinged with an instability warning, his systems beginning to overheat from the strain his stress levels were putting him under. 

He took a step forward, and immediately, the four humans and the android took a step back. It was an awful, instinctive reaction, and it made Nines violently wish to be somewhere else, anywhere, even locked up again, if it meant he didn’t have to watch the fear in their faces.

What had he done? He tried to ask. What had he ever done to them, that they feared him so?

But his voice got stuck in his voice modulator, and after a couple of seconds of struggle he gave up, opting for going to his locker instead.

The men and the android scattered around him, carefully avoiding him, hurrying so as not to have to be in the same room as Nines for a second longer.

“Fuck do you think he heard?” a whisper came from outside. The voices and steps became fainter and fainter as they walked away, but the sound still reached Nines ears for a couple more seconds.

“What does it matter?” someone answered. “Look at his face. He probably doesn’t feel anything. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with him. He sure doesn’t look like he has a heart.”

And Nines, now alone, looked at his reflection in the small mirror that was attached to the inside of his locker. His own face stared back at him, face carefully blank and betraying nothing of the strong emotion that he felt was about to tear him apart.

He wanted to hit it. To destroy it. The impulse so strong he had to close his eyes and draw a breath to aid his internal fans that were working at their top capacity trying to cool him down.

His own empty face stared at him again when he opened his eyes. However, this time he knew better than to look at his reflection. Instead, he took off his uniform, folded it, and got dressed in his own clothes.

He gave himself a whole minute to calm down again, and then he left for good.

Connor was waiting for him.

 


 

The sun began to set behind the tall forest of concrete as Nines walked through the city, alone.

His conversation with Connor had gone as well as could be expected. His predecessor had been waiting for him outside the department store. He was at Nines’ side in two steps, and if Nines kept looking forward it was because he didn’t think he could bear to see either concern or disappointment in Connor’s face right then.

“It will be fine,” Connor began, all restless energy but reassuring as if this wasn’t Nines’ third failure in so many months. “You’ll find something else eventually--”

“Do not concern yourself with me, Connor,” Nines interrupted him. He was not as upset with Connor as he was with himself, but Nines hadn’t been alive for so long that it didn’t still translate as the cold monotone he’d been programmed with as a default. “I have made it my mission to find another job as soon as possible to be able to live independently.”

A heartbeat too long of silence. “That’s not what I meant,” Connor said and Nines didn’t understand why his predecessor looked so sad.

“Furthermore, I can always go back to work as a security guard,” he offered, trying to soothe Connor, although a part of him buckled in panic at the thought.

“You hate police work,” Connor retorted, accurate in his assessment as usual, and although he couldn’t deny it was true, it still made shame run hot like lava through Nines’ artificial veins.

It had been Nines’ first job, just after he’d been released from New Jericho, and even though he’d been determined to do well, he had only lasted two weeks.

He’d hated that job. Hated it with every fiber of his being. He hated the confrontation, and the struggle, the raised voices, the way his protocols seemed to kick in without warning, taking control of him so he could incapacitate, hurt--

No. Those had been two of the most miserable weeks of his short life, and if they had ended in a meltdown when Nines had to subdue a drunk would-be-thief, well, in hindsight Nines was not surprised. If there was one thing he knew about himself was that he wouldn’t ever return to that line of work. Ever.

Still, that didn’t mean he wasn’t ashamed of himself, because this was another flaw in him as well. He was the only RK900, but there was another RK800 besides Connor, and from what he knew the other android was also working in law enforcement. Like his programming intended.

Nines looked at Connor. There was concern etched in the other android’s expression, a kind sort of warmth that always made something tighten in Nines’ chest. He was perfect. Perfect in his expression, in his speech, in his behaviour. Everyone liked Connor, androids and humans alike. He fulfilled his duty as was expected of him.

Effortlessly, Connor shifted his weight from one foot to another, a nervous, purely human gesture. With a pang of ugly envy, Nines wondered if it was something Connor had learnt from his Lieutenant or if it was something he had been programmed with too.

Nines had not been programmed with anything of the sort.

Aware he was being unfair, Nines blinked, sending these thoughts away. Envy always left him feeling dirty, filling him with an oily sort of repulsion at himself. Connor was his mentor, he had kindly volunteered when Markus had asked even after what Nines had tried to do when he had been first activated, and Nines owed nothing but gratitude to him.

“I don’t want you to believe I am not grateful for your continued concern and support,” Nines said, with an effort. He hated that his voice sounded so cold and distant, but he could do nothing to help it. “But right now I want to be alone to think. I promise will contact you when I decide what to do next.”

“Nines…” Connor began once again, pained. He searched Nines’ face --uselessly, Nines thought, as there was nothing to find-- and then sighed, defeated. “Okay.”

Nines had walked away then, without direction, just trying to find somewhere away from prying eyes so he could process his hurt in peace.

He walked and walked. Whenever he passed in front of the big window of a shop, he turned his face away, as not to see his reflection.

He doesn’t have a heart, they had said.

It was true, perhaps.

There was certainly something wrong with him. It was not only the social protocols he had been deprived of. Something in him was defective-- the part of him that allowed him to say what was on his mind, that allowed him to smile and laugh and form bonds with others.

Defective.

It was the reason they had locked him in for so long after he’d awoken, first in the basement of CyberLife Tower and then at New Jericho. Why Connor had been tasked with watching him, making sure Nines’ defective code would not return to its original settings and he would not hurt anyone.

But Nines could not think about that.

He walked, aimless, for hours, until the sun touched the horizon as it began to set, painting the sky in gold and orange. He didn’t stop until he felt himself again, until that horrible pressure on his chest that threatened to crush him eased, until he could bear the thought of once again being a disappointment.

And then he stopped.

He’d try again, he decided.

Because failure was not an option, he knew he’d try again. He’d find another job and call Connor and tell him. Connor’s whole face would light up with hope and delight, and then…

What then?

Nines had been hopeful before. He’d been hopeful when Markus had offered to take him out of the basement of CyberLife Tower, only be locked in a security room at New Jericho instead. He’d been hopeful when Connor first visited him, only for him to be only monitoring him.

He’d been hopeful when he was finally allowed to leave New Jericho to live on his own.

And yet, nothing good had come of it, Nines didn’t think. Living was just so hard.

What did he need a job for?

Why did he need to live?

Nines fisted his hands so tightly that an alarm flashed on a corner of his eye, alerting him to the damage he was causing to himself.

Too much. It was too much. There was a hole in his chest, an endlessly empty space in the place his heart would have been if he had one, a void that did nothing but spread its cold tendrils through Nines body.

Despair.

Dismissing all his system warnings, Nines closed his eyes as he waited for the wave to pass. This was a feeling he was familiar with.

When it finally abated, Nines began to walk again, steps once again decisive. But he didn’t go home. Instead, he used his GPS to find the closest store, and with his savings bought five cans of cat food that he hid deep into his pockets.

 


 

The sun had already set when Nines stopped in front of a green door.

The building he lived in was an old fashioned thing, the sort of place that was out of fashion in Detroit. It was made of quaint brickwork, the windows that faced the street painted green and white, the roof slanted a little in the top. It had been Nines’ home for the past three months.

As it was usual when he returned home, Nines felt his spirits lift a little at the sight of it. Compared to the buildings that surrounded it, Nines’ was modest, barely four stories tall. But what Nines liked wasn’t how tall it was. There were flowers under the first floor windows, bushes that were carefully pruned and taken care of, heavy with roses that bloomed in vibrant colors, spilling their fragrance into the air like little cups of perfume. Ivy grew into the brickwork, its vines tenaciously climbing the building up until the third floor, painting green the rightmost side of the building, on the opposite side of the door.

Nines had taken a look at it and loved it. Although he’d seen it in winter, when the bushes were barely more than wooden skeletons, the promise of life had appealed to him. He’d thought it a good omen, that perhaps he may bloom as well when spring came. It had not been so, but still he loved to watch the roses, loved the way the green leaves of the ivy would sway in the faintest wind.

However, this time, he didn’t stop to take note of these things.

Instead he walked past the door. Between the building and the one beside it there was a gap, a separation of a few meters that made a small alley. It was dark and narrow, with five garbage containers of different sizes and colors lined against the wall.

Nines looked around before entering it, and as if a blanket had been draped over him, the noise in his head immediately eased, enveloping the android in a blissful sense of calm he much needed.

Methodically, as he had done almost every day for three months, he put his dark grey coat on top of a closed blue garbage container, rolled up the sleeves of his dark blue sweater, and with the cheap broom he had left there for this exact purpose, he began to sweep the floor.

And finally, while sweeping a dirty alley in the middle of Detroit with even, perfect motions, the last of the awful weight that threatened to crush Nines’ chest left him. Although he didn’t need it, he breathed out in relief, testing the gesture. It was as if the stress of the day left him together with the warm air, allowing his systems to cool down. He felt a deep seated relief when everything that happened that day, if not forgotten, at least faded until he could finally think again.

Sometimes Nines found amusement in the thought of what his creators would think if they found out that Nines, the most advanced android CyberLife had ever created, found comfort in sweeping a dirty alley. But, he didn’t want to find out, really, because whatever anyone else might think, this was his personal miracle.

His sanctuary.

Broom still in hand, Nines paused to look around, for once not having to restrain his systems from scanning his surroundings. For a moment, the world flashed in dimmed colors, the metal of the firescape’s stairs of the neighboring building turning a pretty shade of blue. He closed the program as soon as he recognized the small heat signatures hiding in several places of the alley, slightly disappointed that the one he was looking for was nowhere to be seen.

He kept sweeping. The alley was not long, so it took him next to no time to be done. He made quick work of returning whatever trash had ended on the floor to its respective container, and when everything was as clean as it could be, he retrieved his coat and walked towards the end of the alley, to the place where a concrete wall cut off the way, creating a dead end.

As he walked, Nines was aware of the several pairs of eyes that watched his every movement.

This scrutiny, however, unlike that of both humans and androids, didn’t bother him. As he digged in the deep pockets of his coat, a couple of little heads cautiously poked out from their hidden places, already used to the presence of this stranger that brought them tasty food as an offering.

The first cat was out and waiting for Nines even before the android had opened the first can of food. It was an orange, friendly thing, thin and nimble, that meowed as Nines approached and stood on its hind legs like a dog when Nines got too close, shamelessly begging for food.

“Good evening to you too,” Nines greeted it although it wasn’t the cat he wanted.

The cat he was looking for was a black tuxedo, big and fluffy, with white socks and a small patch of white fur around its neck like a collar. It was the cat that had brought him to the alley. 

The very first day Nines had left his apartment, the one eyed cat had been sitting primly in front of the main door, watching Nines with a startlingly intelligent, although grumpy, expression. It apparently had been waiting for him too, because the second he saw Nines it stood and proceeded to yell its heart out until Nines followed him into the alley, more out of bafflement than anything else.

That’s how he’d been introduced to the rest of the cats, five empty bowls, and their alarmed, hungry stares.

Nines had seen the one eyed cat on and off since then, but always from afar. The cat looked at Nines from a distance with an intensity that always made the android’s day better, and he wished for nothing more than to find a way to befriend it.

Currently, however, the orange cat meowed at him, loudly, as if telling Nines to snap out of it and hurry with the food. It watched Nines’ every move through smart blue eyes, gaze moving impatiently between the can and the android’s face, and if Nines had been able, he would have chuckled. As things stood, the LED in his forehead shone a happy blue, twinkling like a star as if in answer to the feelings the android couldn’t express.

With slow, even movements, Nines crouched on the floor, careful of not dirtying his trousers. The wet food was barely on the bowl when the orange cat came forward, tail high, and shamelessly pushed Nines’ hand out of the way to bury its snout in the food.

Not for the first time, Nines wondered how such a small thing could be so utterly unafraid.

Unable to resist the urge, Nines cautiously inched his hand towards the little orange head. He went as slowly as he could, and felt his thirium pump quicken with excitement when the cat just watched the hand coming towards it with an almost bored expression on its face. Nines was sure he would make it this time, but at the last second the cat ducked and jumped away, swiftly and elegantly avoiding the touch but remaining within sight of the food a few feet away.

Nines shook his head. After everything that had happened that day, the small disappointment felt almost nice, made him feel normal again. He certainly felt better as he reached for another of the neon plastic bowls, surprised to find it clean and with kibble at the bottom. Surely, when he checked the other bowls they were not only clean, but had traces of food that Nines could identify as recent.

It had happened on occasion. Nines would come to feed them and the bowls would be already clean and full, the cats arguing over every last piece of kibble.

Like the first time it happened, the sight flooded Nines with an odd kind of warmth, for he couldn’t deny that he had pulled through more than one bleak day just by thinking that someone in this miserable city had seen these hungry cats and cared enough to decide to feed them.

As if summoned by the orange cat’s loud purring --or by the cans opening, more likely-- several more cats cautiously came out from their hiding spots. Nines counted four. Save for the big tuxedo, the usual crowd. There was a slender tailless tabby with a severe expression, a round white and orange cat that looked like it’d speak with a squeaky voice, a small tortoiseshell with murderous eyes, and a handsome black cat. They sniffed the air as if they had not eaten today, looking at Nines with several degrees of demanding expectation.

Nines indulged them. He re-filled the bowls with wet food, taking care to mix it with the remaining kibble. Then, because the cats were still wild, retreated so the hungry little things felt safe enough to come forward, munching happily through the food, licking their whiskers between greedy bites.

Nines watched them, all his worries melting away at the sight of them. He loved to catalogue the different patterns of their fur, and never got tired of deducing their personalities through small cues in their behavior.

With a soft look on his face, Nines watched them eat and lick themselves clean, and not for the first time wondered who was the person that brought food for them. Because androids did not daydream, instead he preconstructed how it would be to meet this person, if they would notice the loneliness in Nines’ eyes just the same as they noticed hunger in the cats’, and if such a person would be kind enough to ever want to become Nines’ friend.

 

Chapter Text

Since he was activated, Nines had had plenty of long nights. Be it because of boredom or something else, in the course of his short life he had gotten used to waiting for hours. Especially at night, when everything was silent and time seemed to crawl slower, the steady flow of the hours diminishing into an intermittent drip, Nines stared at the bare walls or at the ceiling of his current place of imprisonment and could do nothing but wait.

He liked to think he’d become good at waiting.

Sometimes, however, it seemed to Nines that nights became endless. Trapped within his own internal perception of time, sometimes he was afraid. In the small hours of the morning, there was always a moment of panic-- he wondered if the world had stopped, if dawn would come again, if there were others outside, living and dreaming and sleeping, or if Nines had, by some strange misfortune, been left completely alone in the vast, dark world.

The night after he was fired from the department store was one of those long nights.

The calm he had felt while feeding the cats left him the second the door of his apartment closed behind him. He stood in the threshold for a long time, watching the empty room.

He’d liked it, once. The room was small, barely more than glorified closet. It had a small kitchenette in one corner, a small bathroom, and immaculate white walls that must have been repainted just before Nines decided to take it. Because he was on the topmost floor, the ceiling was slanted. The effect gave the room something different and interesting that Nines had craved when he first saw it.

However, as Nines surveyed the naked room once more, he felt discouraged. Despite all the plans he’d had, in the three months he had lived there he had not decorated. He tried to justify it as androids not really needing anything to live, but after his awful day he could now admit the truth: he just didn’t know what to do with an empty room anymore than he knew what to do with anything else in his life.

Defective , the cruel voices in his head whispered. Broken .

Suddenly, the room felt too small, like a cage, the white walls closing in on him as if to trap him.

A pervasive emptiness, that assaulted him whenever he was careless not to be artificially busy, tricked down his spine like water. It settled on the place his stomach would be if he had one, crushing and overwhelming. It touched him, intimate like a lover, and Nines hated the familiarity, hated and dreaded the thought of having to live like this. Of thinking he’d have to face this once again on his own.

That night, as he always did when he felt the world was too much, he forced a long stasis. In addition, he ran a system scan while he was under, always hoping that the diagnostic would finally tell him how to fix whatever was wrong with him.

Morning, when it arrived, wasn't any better.

When he came out of his stasis, he found himself in the uncomfortable position of not having anything to do .

Inside him, a basic part of his coding rebelled against the fact, twisting and turning like a sharp knife. The RK models were meant to always be pursuing an objective, and Nines’ jobs, as bad as he was at them, at least gave him that: tasks to accomplish, things to learn, a purpose to justify his existence.

Now, he had nothing. Nothing to shield him from the anxiety he felt at the very thought of living , of having to decide what to do with himself.

Unable to stay inside any longer, Nines left his flat in long strides. He made it as far as the street before stopping again, his LED a light show, because it’s a terrible thing to ask yourself what must I do now? And have the answer be, I don’t know.

Out of options, Nines waited.

He waited and waited. He did not know what for, but as the sky shed the cold greys of dawn and exchanged them for the golds and reds of sunrise, Nines stood like a statue in the middle of the sidewalk and waited.

And then, as he was beginning to feel foolish, a movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention.

A black cat was sitting a few feet away from him, in a pool of sunlight reflected from the building in front of them, looking like it didn’t have a single care in the world. It sat like a king, big and regal as it cleaned its white paws with fastidious dignity, and with a thrill Nines recognized the cat he had been looking for, the one that had first guided him to the alley.

Nines was so taken aback that for a blissful moment the surprise displaced all the other thoughts in his head, thirium pump vibrating like a hummingbird in his chest. He must have made some sort of noise because the cat raised its head to meet Nines’ stare, its single yellow-green eye a starking contrast against the black of its fur.

Android and cat stared at each other for a long time, until the cat, apparently done with Nines’ indecision, jumped gracefully to its feet and vanished in a blur of black and white, bolting towards the cats’ alley.

“Wait!” Nines cried out. Everything else forgotten, he hurried to follow, and he turned the corner just in time to see a black tail disappear over the brick wall at the end of the alley that the cat had jumped with an unexpected grace for a cat its size.

Without hesitation, Nines ran for the wall. Climbing it was surprisingly easy, and his circuits hummed in satisfaction as he landed on the other side, clearing some trash cans in an impressive jump. At the other end of the alley, the cat turned the corner without looking back.

Later on, Nines would not remember exactly what had possessed him to do what he did. Desperation, perhaps, the need to have an objective, no matter how fleeting. Curiosity too, maybe. Whatever the case, he, an RK900, one of the most advanced androids in the world, decided in that moment he was going to catch that cat.

It was surprisingly difficult.

The cat, although big, was able to fit through startlingly small places. More than once Nines lost it when it hid under a car, or, on one occasion, as the red light stopped the android on the other side of the street.

It was no matter. Nines’ systems and protocols hummed at the thrill of the chase, and Nines followed even when the cat led the android through dirty back alleys almost too narrow for a person to pass through. Still, he pursued it, and after a while he stopped trying to catch it and followed it instead, the curiosity as to its destination trumping all other thoughts.

Finally, they came to a part of the city devoid of traffic and Nines stopped for a moment, surprised by the sudden silence. Although he was not in one of the nicest parts of Detroit by far, the narrow street the cat had taken him to was clean, perhaps on the account of being a bit hidden. A roundabout with a pine tree in the middle dominated the space, and around it, old narrow houses with beautiful gardens sat facing the street, their windows closed and empty.

Nines walked slowly, looking around. Although he had often wished for it when he wasn’t allowed to go out, he hadn’t yet had the opportunity to visit many places. Instead, he spent his free time learning about the world in his small room through the internet, never quite daring to go out. So for him, for whom chasing a cat had been the first impulsive decision in his short life, this change in the scenery was a reason to feel awed.

The pine tree, growing amongst all the concrete, was beautiful, and Nines couldn’t resist the urge to look at the sky from under the branches that rocked back and forth in the breeze.

A dog barking broke the spell cast over Nines. He turned just in time to see the cat jump from a brick wall and, tail raised high, run straight into the garden of the only building that didn’t have a fence around it.

This time more tentatively, Nines followed.

The building the garden belonged to was modern, with high glass walls and a slanted roof. A sign on the entrance advertised it as a public library.

Hurrying as not to lose the cat, Nines walked into the garden.

It was more a stone courtyard than an actual garden, but it had been filled with flower beds and pots, and the result was a collection of green and color that spilled from their original containers, expanding under the sun.

Nines had never seen a garden such as this. Although it was obviously well taken care of, there was something wild about it. It was like someone had encouraged the plants to grow however and wherever they wanted, from elegant terracotta pots, to old boots and recycled water jugs placed on wooden platforms or hung from the wall that marked the limit of the property. Because the plants were all inside pots, the garden must have felt orderly, but it didn’t. Instead, it was a bit too overgrown, something messy about the way the flowers bloomed everywhere, chaotic and without order.

And Nines, who had hated gardens since he’d been locked in the zen garden when his programming had refused to deviate, found that he liked this one, the way it seemed so vibrant and alive, how everything was so interesting to look at, an unexpected beautiful place among the barren concrete of the city.

He was so busy analyzing an old wheelbarrow made into a flower bed that he didn’t see the alert that warned him about someone else's presence.

“Can I help you?”

Nines’ head snapped up, the closest he could come to flinching. To his left, a double door opened to the library. Nines registered the huge windows that gave the reading alcoves an unobstructed view of the garden as an afterthought, because the person that had spoken was looking at him from the door that led to the library.

The android’s expression was polite, curious, as she stared at Nines. She had bright bubblegum pink hair cut in an asymmetrical bob and no LED, and Nines would have not taken her for a library employee at all if it had not been for the badge that displayed her name -- Rin. She didn’t seem particularly alarmed to find him in the garden, but Nines still scolded himself at his oversight in respecting boundaries. This might have been private property for all the knew.

Unwanted, Nines’ protocols fired up to analyze her, but Nines quickly shut them down, unhappy with the breach of privacy this meant. Perhaps it was because he was busy wrestling his protocols into submission that he didn’t notice that the silence had gone longer than was strictly polite.

“I--” Nines began, unsettled that the other android was waiting so calmly, without a hint of impatience. “I was looking for a cat...” was what came out of his mouth and he inwardly grimaced, because he was certain there might be several realities in which that answer would have made sense but this probably was not one of them.

Except perhaps it was because the other android smiled and nodded in acceptance. “I see.”

Nines blinked, and had already opened his mouth to better explain himself when another voice interrupted.

“Rin? Is everything okay?” a woman asked, coming out the door to peer around the android at Nines.

Unlike the android --Rin--, she did look the part of a librarian, with her greying hair pulled up in a bun and her face full of sharp angles. She narrowed her eyes at Nines, suspicious.

“Everything’s fine, Laura,” the android reassured her, resting a hand on the woman’s arm. “Rudyard brought another person to the library.”

The woman sighed. “Again?”

Nines’ LED blinked red.

“Excuse me, what?” he asked, completely lost.

With a last roll of her eyes, the woman returned inside the library, but Rin smiled at Nines.

“Oh. You are looking for a black cat, yes?” she said, lightly bouncing on the balls of her feet. Her bright face reminded Nines of Connor, and he relaxed at last. “We call him Rudyard, he usually comes over to be fed, although I’m sure he must have other homes.”

As if to prove a point, the cat in question jumped from behind a large pot full of lavender and trotted inside the library, tail high, completely ignoring the androids.

Nines stared, flabbergasted. “Then he isn’t a stray?”

Rin hummed. “I don’t know what he is. Cats are very much like people, don’t you think? You can never know what they are until you get to know them. And I don’t know him that well.”

Unbalanced, Nines nodded, dumbly.

“Would you like to come in, now that you’re here?” she kept going, suddenly hopeful. “We don’t have many android patrons. Are you newly deviated? Maybe I could suggest you some things to read.”

Nines meant to say no. The whole thing was ridiculous. Now that the rush of...whatever that had been, had passed, he felt increasingly silly to have spent his morning chasing a cat through the city. This didn’t help anything, and he’d better spend his time looking for another job-- or even better-- figuring out what he should do from now on.

And yet…

This android that didn’t know him was looking at him with an odd sort of hope in her eyes, and the idea of returning to his empty room felt so suffocating that Nines couldn’t help but nod.

Some hours wouldn't make any difference, after all.

With a triumphant grin, the other android led Nines into the library.

 


 

In the end, Nines spent a bit more than a few hours in the library.

He expected nothing when Rin placed a worn red book in his hands, curious only when the cover portrayed a black cat walking among dry trees.

The stories were amusing, but he only understood the reason of her choice when he reached the eleventh story, The Cat That Walked By Himself.

“What did you think?” Rin asked brightly when he went to return the book to her.

“Rudyard,” was the only thing Nines said, pointing towards the door that led to the garden. There, the black cat was asleep, curled in a cushion in the sun, whiskers twitching as he dreamed.

Rin laughed. “Yeah. He does resemble the cat in the story, huh?”

“I don’t know,” Nines answered honestly. “Walking always by himself must be really lonely.”

The librarian’s grin softened, and the next book she recommended had nothing to do with cats or loneliness.

 


 

To say the discovery of the library was a development Nines didn’t expect was an understatement. He was also surprised by the fact that he apparently liked to read, the first activity he had ever liked that was only for himself.

For the first time since he deviated, Nines found out he looked forward to each day. He would be at the library at 10:00 am sharp, and then he’d have eight glorious hours all to himself to sit in a plush armchair near the glass wall that overlooked the garden, and read to his heart’s content.

The black cat (who for some reason didn’t feel like Rudyard to the android) would sometimes be in the library and sometimes he wouldn’t, but when he was in he would watch Nines with a strange sort of concentration in his one eye. Still, Nines didn’t feel judged. It was more like he was observed, perhaps with some curiosity, and Nines found he liked that as well.

Being seen, that was.

 


 

Nines avoided Connor, and to his credit, Connor didn’t push. For the time being, Nines decided not to worry about money: he had some savings from his past jobs after all, enough to live for a while and keep the cats of the alley fed, which he did every day religiously.

[ If you need money, don’t hesitate to tell me. ]

The message was Connor’s only mention of the subject, four days after he’d made the life changing discovery of the library, and Nines was grateful that Connor had decided to give him space. He felt guilty of the relief he got from spending all day reading, as he was sure he was supposed to be doing something productive. Worst case scenario, he dreaded facing Connor’s disapproval, and best case, he didn’t feel ready to share this one thing that was his that caused him so much joy.

However, that was indeed the end of that conversation. After that, for three blissful weeks Nines’ life bounced between books and cats. He didn’t make much progress with the later, as the cats still looked at him with distrust and refused to come within his reach, but as to the former, he read his steady way through whatever caught his fancy, enjoying everything equally.

The librarians (three in total: a woman and a man in addition to Rin, because the stern woman turned out to be the Library’s Director) left him to his own devices for the most part. They didn’t engage him, and for that, Nines was thankful as well. Although he didn’t know it yet, it did him good to spend his days without any pressure or having to worry about meeting anyone else’s expectations.

Sometimes, when the doubts and the anxiousness returned, Nines would ask either of them for book recommendations. The woman librarian, whose name Nines learnt was Emma, set him up with mystery novels and thrillers. The man, Peter, suggested fantasy instead. And Rin, the android, would often recommend children’s literature.

Nines quickly figured he enjoyed these last ones the best. Books like The Secret Garden and The Wind in the Willows became his favorites, because while he greatly enjoyed fantasy and adventures, those stories about the characters' everyday lives intrigued him the most. Against all odds, those were the books he read again and again as Nines couldn’t help but think that he, who in truth did not understand anything about people or the world, might perhaps, through them, learn to live.

He spent his days this way, reading in a corner of the library with only a cat for company. And as he was taken to faraway places in adventures with kind and courageous people, Nines finally felt that the world was bearable, and that he was less alone.

 

Chapter Text

One night, three and something weeks after the discovery of the library, Nines startled awake from his nightly stasis with a jolt.

It was not too unusual. Sometimes the cats would be loud in the middle of the night, which would trigger the dogs of the apartment below Nines', the noise enough to trigger his sensors and pull him out of stasis.

Sure enough, there was a red warning in the corner of his eye alerting him of the noise, and when he played the audio file, the broken-hearted cry of a cat could be heard as clearly as if the creature had been just outside Nines’ door, crying its little heart out for some reason.

When he checked his internal clock, Nines found out it was early still. He had been in stasis for less than an hour, as it was not yet midnight.

Longingly, he glanced at the books that rested over the kitchen counter, considering them. Although he preferred to read in the library whenever possible, Nines had gotten used to taking books out every so often so he could read them at night, after his usual three hour maintenance was done. For this purpose, he had recently acquired an armchair, an old thing that someone had offered online for free as long as it was removed quickly and without bothering the original owner too much.

Nines had done both things easily. Although the armchair was big, Nines lifted it without effort. He had felt an odd sort of satisfaction when he placed it on his own white room, near the window, because although the thing was old and ugly, the wooden varnish of the legs and arms chipped away, the upholstery was made of soft, velvety fabric that was very pleasant to the touch, the green a nice contrast against the white walls.

Just because he could, Nines stepped forward to run a hand over it. It would be better if he finished his stasis cycle, but he had recently discovered Jane Austen and was really invested in the future of Jane and Elizabeth Bennet and wanted to know whether this Mr. Darcy was as haughty as he appeared.

He had already taken a seat in his green armchair -- the way it creaked to accommodate his weight added character to it, in Nines’ opinion-- when a loud cry shattered the silence of the night, making the neighbor’s dogs bark again and Nines’ LED blink yellow in alarm for a second.

A cat.

Now, everyone that has heard cats fighting must agree: a cat’s howl is a terrible thing. It’s a wild, angry sound, a high pitched scream full of resentful tension. I’m sure more than one person has been startled awake by it in the middle of the night, heart beating wildly. There is an irrational fear that comes when a cat howls in the deep of night, an instinctive chill caused, perhaps, by a remaining prey instinct: the faint reminder that there are things out there in the night, wild things that civilization has not quite tamed.

On the other hand, a cat crying, although not scary, is a heartbreaking thing. This is because cats don’t care about restraint-- when they are sad, or in pain, they cry to be heard. Rather than hiding it, they seem to want everyone to know of their loneliness when they cry out in those long nights of moonless skies, careless of who listens.

The sound that startled Nines was of the second kind: a drawn, pitiful cry that resonated within him, reminding him of his own lonely nights, and of all those small moments that piled up, feeling lost and adrift and directionless.

Thirium pump beating wildly, Nines had to stop for a second to collect himself, unsettled by the sound.

Still, beyond his own discomfort, he hurried to the window because if there was a chance that this might be one of his cats that was in pain, he had to help. His one room apartment was located on the fourth floor, the very top of the building, so his window had a good view of the street. Although he had not much hope, he scanned the sidewalk and indeed, there it was, sitting under the dirty yellow light of a street lamp, the black shape of a cat he knew.

Nines decided in a moment. Swiftly, he grabbed his keys and made sure to lock the door behind him when he left his apartment, silently and swiftly running down the stairs as not to disturb any of his neighbors.

When he went out, however, the cat was nowhere to be seen.

It was a warm and clear night of late May, and above Nines, the stars twinkled merrily, trying their best to shine through the lights of the city. The moon was high in the sky, just a thin sliver of silver that hadn’t had a chance to grow yet. Still, together with the one light that had come on in the building’s ground floor and the lamp beneath which Nines had seen the cat, it was enough for the android to see as clearly as in daylight.

Although the hour was late, the street was not empty. Nines ignored the older man that crossed the street to avoid him, but there was a second figure near the corner, just in the place where the cat’s alley began. Nines saw it only for a moment, but it was enough for him to catch general details such as the man’s leather jacket, the hint of a beard on his jaw, and more interesting, the small creature that followed him merrily on a leash.

A thrill ran through Nines at the sight.

He didn’t know the origin. Maybe it was his programming making itself known in response to a situation he had been made for. Or perhaps it was the faint moonlight, and the small mystery of a suspicious man going into an alley. Nines had read about nights like this in his books after all, so maybe that was why he felt how he did.

Either way, as silently as he could, he followed. His steps didn’t make any sound, and as he was, wearing dark trousers and a blue knitted sweater, he might as well have been a shadow.

He stopped just before rounding the corner to the alley and listened. There was a low rustle, a couple of meows, and the telling sounds of cats leaving their dens. And then, a soft male voice.

“Who the fuck was making all that racket, huh?” the man mildly scolded. He chuckled when a choir or meows answered his question. “Manipulative little bastards.”

Nines inched forward, excited by the possibility he might finally meet the person that had been feeding the cats. He peered around the corner, his eyes having no trouble seeing in the half-light of the alley.

In the further end, illuminated by the lamp of his mobile phone laying face down on the concrete, a man was crouching next to the cats’ dishes. Three cats were surrounding him, circling him like cuddly little sharks intent on aggressively rubbing against the man’s legs. The man chuckled at their antics, eyes soft as he gazed on them, and the sight was so fascinating that it took Nines a couple of seconds to notice the neon pink nylon leash the man had clutched in his left hand.

A three colored cat was strapped at the end of it with a little glittery harness. It was patiently sitting a little apart from the others as if overseeing the proceedings, and Nines must have made some noise of surprise at the sight because the cat’s ears twitched and it looked straight into the android’ eyes, alert as it got to its feet.

As if a spell had been broken, the scene before Nines ended in an explosion of movement.

Nines regretted not having made any noise when, startled, the cats scattered in a mad dash, jumping over and under trash cans and hitting themselves against them in their effort to get away as quickly as possible. The man, too, jumped to his feet. In a swift movement, he had the light of his phone pointed at Nines. And because he had been programmed to detect such things, Nines immediately noticed the man’s body language-- his slightly bent knees, the way he lowered his center of gravity, tense, ready for a fight.

Too late did Nines realize what this must look like, him hidden around the corner of some alley, secretly watching an unaware stranger in the middle of the night.

Nines was familiar with shame, but this time it ran like lava through him, embarrassing and uncomfortable.

Hands up in a gesture of surrender, he took a step forward to fully reveal himself, uselessly trying to make himself small as to appear as unthreatening as possible. Eyes cast down, he waited, aware of how less than ideal the whole situation was: this was the one person in the world he had wanted to give a good impression, and he understood he had probably already screwed that up.

However, to his utter bafflement, the man, although still tense, relaxed a little when he saw him.

“Oh,” the man breathed. “You’re the one taking care of the cats, right?” he asked like meeting people in back alleys was the most natural thing in the world.

Taken aback, Nines only stared, the silence stretching into the uncomfortable. At the man’s feet, the cat on the leash bumped its head against his legs impatiently, demanding attention.

“You don’t speak?” the man questioned him further, eyes alert. And yes. This was the opportunity to explain himself.

“I heard a cat crying,” he began, and stopped, uncertain as to how to proceed. The matrix of his objectives jumped all over the place as he tried to decide what was more important: to keep the man talking, to assert himself as a non-threat, or to explain his motives. There were also things he wanted to say to the man, things he wanted to ask, but at that moment Nines could think of none of them.

His LED changed colors and swirled as he thought, illuminating the alley with a shifting glow. Distractedly, Nines eyes went to the cat at the man’s feet. Now that the commotion had passed, it was looking at Nines with focused curiosity, intelligence clear in its yellow-green eyes.

“They woke you up as well?” the man sighed, unaware of Nines’ inner conflict. He ruffled his hair in exasperation and lowered the light of the phone so it was directed at Nines’ shoes and not at his face. The cat, too, sat down, swishing its tail from side to side as it continued to analyze Nines. “What?” the man asked, startling Nines out of the staring contest he had not been aware he had begun with the cat. “One would think you’ve never seen one before.”

Nines shook his head.

“I have,” he answered earnestly. “Just not-- you have it on a leash,” he said, unable to contain his curiosity any longer.

“Yeah, well,” the man said after a couple of endless heartbeats. He dropped his eyes from Nines to the cat, who kept regally sitting on the cold concrete, unbothered. “You can train a cat to do nearly anything, if they have the temper.”

“Isn’t it afraid?”

She,” he corrected as if on instinct. “And as I said, depends on the temper.”

“She must be very sweet,” Nines agreed. The man looked around, as if confused by Nines’ statement, and Nines could interpret enough of his non-verbal cues to understand this must not be a normal topic of conversation. Was it the circumstance? His words? He didn’t know, only aware he had somehow committed a social faux pas. “Forgive me. I am afraid I am lacking in social protocols, so I am never certain when I commit a blunder. I will leave you alone if I am making you uncomfortable.”

The man stared, assessing Nines for a few endless moments, before a small smile pulled the corner of his mouth.

“Are you really asking me if I’m uncomfortable with talking to you?” he said, gesturing at the trash cans and the dirty floor and the night and everything.

“I can leave,” Nines offered immediately.

“I must be dreaming,” the man mumbled to himself, rubbing the back of his neck, and it was an interesting thing to say because Nines would have thought the same, had androids actually been able to dream. “Well, I just came to check if the cats were okay. Huh, thanks for feeding them, I guess. I have not been able to look after them as I used to.”

The man looked around one last time, as if the cats in question might come back out again. When they didn’t, he nodded to himself and walked towards Nines to leave the alley.

Nines saw him pass, the three-colored cat trotting at his heels like a dog.

Suddenly, the surreality of the situation dawned on him. He felt a strange urgency, an unexpected doubt, as if once the sun came up he would find out he made up this moment, and the man and his cat would turn out to be a product of his own imagination.

“Wait!” he called, and the man stopped just before he turned the corner. He looked surprised, but once again not alarmed, and perhaps that detail more than anything made Nines feel this was not real. “Can I meet you again?”

The man’s grin was roguish. With his back to the yellow light of the street lamp, his face was hidden in the shadows. He looked nothing like Nines imagined. There was no kindness to his expression, nothing soft in him that would point to compassion.

And yet, Nines had the video-memory of the man’s gentle hands as he petted the strays.

“I guess we’ll see,” he grinned before turning around and walking into the night.

Nines stayed there, thirium pump beating fast on his chest, an excitement he wasn’t used to thruming through his veins.

It wasn’t until afterwards that he realized he had forgotten to ask the man’s name.

 


 

The next few days in Nines’ life were interesting.

Although the library had become his favorite place, for the time being he contented himself with checking out enough books to survive for a while and applied himself to his self assigned objective: to find the man again.

First, he needed a good place to serve him as a lookout post, as his window, although it allowed him to monitor who entered and left the building, was not big enough that he could easily see the entrance to the alley unless he was leaning half out of it.

Instead, he opened it. It took him a second to run a preconstruction before he climbed out of the window with the same stealthy agility of a cat.

It took some contorting that a human would have had trouble with, but soon enough Nines found himself sitting on the tiled roof, on top of the upside down v shape above his window, his long legs at each side of the roof slope almost like he was on a saddle.

For a moment he closed closed his eyes, delighted by the play of the wind on his hair and the endless sky above him. The sounds of the street were muffled, distant, and so high up Nines felt free, like nothing could touch him.

The best part however, at least according to his plans, was how the roof allowed him an unimpeded look of the alley, allowing Nines to easily monitor its comings and goings.

This is how Nines ended up dividing his time between the roof and patrolling the block. His surveillance had the unexpected side effect of making him familiar with his neighbors and their schedules. And because this was the first time Nines was free to do so, from his hidden spot on the roof, protected by the sky and the wind, he watched with curiosity the small snippets of the lives of those around him.

And something odd happened.

While he had been locked away, first in the basement of CyberLife Tower and then at New Jericho, alone with his thoughts, without anything to do and no-one to talk to, his thoughts circled, turned into himself, red ropes of code that tightened around his throat threatening to choke him. Later on, when Connor tentatively began to visit him, spending time talking to him even when Nines had not been at first able to answer, it had been like the first drops of rain falling in the parched ground that had been his life.

Then, he’d been free, but things had not much improved. Under the suspicious eyes of others, Nines felt sometimes the old threat of his malfunction creep on him: the glitch that sealed his lips, making words difficult; the restlessness, the deep hidden anger that had controlled him the very first days he had deviated.

But now, he didn’t have anything else to do but spend his days however struck his fancy. There was no pressure for him to do or be anything else than himself, and his advanced mind, that had been restless before, found engagement in the stories he so hungrily devoured every day. Although he didn’t know it or understand it, the books had cracked a door open that Nines hadn’t been aware existed. They showed him worlds with other possible ways of life, other ways of thinking than the narrow paths that had been programmed within him, taught him that it was possible for him to have an inner life, things that he liked just because they existed, things that were his only.

That was when he began to be interested in others beyond those in his immediate world. While he watched from the roof, certain in the knowledge than sooner or later he would find the man again, he saw other people and wondered about their thoughts and feelings, if they were happy or sad, and if behind their expressions they hid hurts that no one could see.

 


 

For the time being, the only blemish in his peaceful world was the behavior of the cats.

As if they resented the scare Nines had given them the night he met the man, they were more skittish than ever. They wouldn’t come close to him anymore, except for the orange tabby that still remained out of reach but would at least come out to greet him. They watched him with distrustful eyes from behind the trash cans, waiting until he was out of the alley to climb out from their hideouts to eat their food.

However, four days after the met the man, he saw him go into the alley again.

Nines left the roof in a rush of excitement, his long legs carrying him as fast as he could go without outright breaking into a run. He felt tingly as he stopped on his room to leave his books, his LED dancing with the emotion his face could not express.

The sun was high in the sky when Nines left the building. It was cloudy, but the day was not grey. Instead, big tall fluffy clouds piled in the sky like castles, immaculate against the pure blue of the sky, slowly pushed around by a soft breeze. In these sort of days, Nines liked to stand at the door of the building and breathe in the fresh smell of the roses, courtesy of the old lady on the ground floor that took careful care of the plants under her window.

That day, however, Nines could not care less. In fact, he startled the woman as he half dashed past her, so focused on meeting the man again that he barely had the presence of mind to politely tip his head at her.

When he turned the corner, the man was indeed there once again, in the faraway corner near the cats’ food dishes. The neon pink leash Nines had been so curious about the first time was present as well, the three colored cat delicately sniffing a slender grey tabby, tails high as the cats greeted each other. The rest of the cats, four in total (save the one Nines detected hiding under the trash cans), were meowing in dissonant harmony around the man’s legs, eyes fixed in the bag of food the man was tauntingly waving around as if to provoke them, eyes shining with mischief.

It was at that point that Nines realized that, although he had gathered enough intelligence to come this far, he had failed to prepare for what he would say if he met the man again. However, having learned from last time, he disabled his stealth protocols to be heard as he walked into the alley.

The effect was immediate. The cats snapped into attention at the same time, ears alert. Two of them --the grey tabby a handsome black cat-- dashed behind the trash cans, but the the two orange ones, another tabby and another one with white spots, simply watched Nines with cautious mistrust.

“Hello,” Nines said, uncertain about how to actually talk to this person.

“Oh, it’s you again,” the man said, completely unconcerned. In a swift motion, he crouched, and placing the bag on the ground, fished out a can of cat food, showing it to the cats that were warily looking between the food and Nines.

Then Nines apparently came too close for the cats’ tastes because as he took another step they scattered, not to hide away but to linger at a respectable distance in the corner near the walls.

The man frowned.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he asked the cats, but it was Nines to answered.

“It’s my fault,” he said with some regret. “I scared them last time, and they won’t come close to me ever since.”

“Ah,” the man sighed. With practiced ease, he rinsed the dirty dishes with water he carried in a bottle, dried them and filled them with wet food. “That’s cats for you,” he explained. When the cat on the leash came closer to sniff at it, the man pushed her back by placing a hand over her small head. “You have to work to earn their trust; break it once and you may never get it back again.”

Nines’ LED blinked.

“Oh,” he whispered, heartbroken at the idea he might have lost his chance to befriend the cats.

“Well, they’ll have to deal because it’s you who feeds them when I’m away,” the man continued, looking pointedly at the cats, who were sniffing the air and greedily eyeing their bowls.

Not for the first time, Nines wondered how the man knew it was him who fed the cats, as he himself had not caught sight of the man until their odd first meeting in the middle of the night.

However, he said nothing. Instead, they watched the cats in surprisingly companionable silence for a while. It was the orange tabby that first dared to come forward, the white spotted cat following right after, although with her ears thrown back in tense apprehension. When the other tabby, the grey one, didn’t dare come closer, the man sighed and stood, intending to give them space.

He dusted his jeans roughly, grimacing when his back popped. He walked over to Nines, and the android didn’t know whether to watch him or the cat trotting happily at his heels like a well behaved puppy.

“...so,” the man said, snapping Nines’ eyes from the cat to his face. “Not that it’s my fucking business, but what are you doing here?” he asked, gesturing at Nines’ empty hands, and ah, yes. He hadn’t brought anything for the cats.

“Last time I forgot to ask your name,” Nines declared, opting for honesty.

“You…” the man blinked. “Have you been stalking me or something?”

Nines’ head snapped up in horror.

Sure, he hadn’t meant to stalk him, hadn’t thought of what he did as such, but now that the man had put it into words he realized he had indeed used his abilities to obtain information he had not been freely given. Did that count as stalking?

With a sinking feeling, Nines realized it probably did.

“No!” he stammered, LED red. “No, I…I did not mean...I just wanted…”

“Jesus, chill, it was a joke. What the fuck is wrong with androids,” the man mumbled, running a hand through his hair in a nervous gesture Nines had already seen once before. “Gavin,” he conceded. “My name’s Gavin.”

Gavin, Nines silently repeated, delighting in the knowledge and soaking in the rush of satisfaction his protocols released through his systems at a fulfilled mission.

“Nice to meet you, Gavin,” Nines answered with enthusiasm, and then held himself completely still when the cat confidently walked over to Nines to sniff his shoes before meowing loudly.

Gavin rolled his eyes. “And this brat is Fliss. Felicia.”

“Felicia,” Nines repeated and watched in wonder as the cat bumped her head against his legs before throwing herself on her back and looking up at Nines expectantly.

Gavin huffed a little, but his voice was fond as he told Nines, “That means she wants to you to pet her.”

Nines looked at Gavin, eyes wide.

“Can I?”

“Sure,” he shrugged, eyebrows raising when Nines didn’t immediately react. “If you want to.”

“I want to,” Nines hurried to reassure him. “But in truth I have never pet a cat before.”

Gavin’s startled expression softened with amusement. “Well, go ahead. It’s not exactly rocket science,” he said, waving at the cat.

Slowly, afraid to startle either the human or the cat, Nines crouched and extended a hand in a mirror gesture of the way he had seen Gavin greet the cats before. However, he froze a few inches away from the cat’s head, not quite daring to touch her. Something cold crept through his circuits, locking his limbs into place. Nines was supposed to he a hunter, a model made to kill and destroy deviants, and the cat was so small. Suddenly he remembered the suspicious glares of the androids at New Jericho and he was not certain if he would not hurt the cat when he touched her. If the androids’ suspicions would not be justified.

He hung at the edge of doubt, unable to move, waiting for something to tip the scales one way or another. And that thing turned out to be Gavin, as he had apparently spotted his hesitation.

“Just—let her sniff you first, and then rub around her ears and neck softly. She loves that,” he instructed.

Nines did, and when Felicia bumped his hand with her small head the fear and hesitation gave way to pure and unadulterated delight. Gently, Nines scratched around Felicia’s ears, and her fur felt incredibly smooth and soft-- and this, this was the best thing that had ever happened to him in his entire short life.

Then, when he thought things couldn't get any better, the cat began to purr.

“Oh,” Nines breathed, in awe, looking up at Gavin for reassurance. “She is…is she purring?”

“Yep. She’s found you an adequate slave.” Gavin grinned. “Told you it wasn’t that hard.”

Feeling bold, Nines scratched the cat’s chin with one finger and was pleased when she tipped her head back to better accommodate his touch.

“She is so soft,” he marveled, running a hand down the three colored striped pattern on her head. His thirium pump was beating so fast in his chest that it was more like a hum, like the fluttering wings of a hummingbird. “And her fur is so striking.”

“Don’t flatter her too much, she’s unbearable enough as is,” Gavin warned, but his voice was warm, pleased.

It made something light bloom in Nines chest, and he tried to answer with a smile, and although he probably failed again he was too distracted by the cat to care.

“Thank you,” he told Gavin, after he spent a long time petting Felicia. When he finally could tear his eyes off the cat and look up, it was only to meet Gavin’s green-grey eyes watching him with an intensity that made something like a shock run through Nines’ circuits.

The eye contact lasted just a brief second, but they both averted their eyes, Nines back to the cat and Gavin pretending to be fascinated by the brick wall in front of him.

Questions popped up in Nines’ HUB, one after the other, but he held them back, once again uncertain. He didn’t know what was acceptable to ask, what was too soon, and what would offend Gavin. He very desperately wanted this man to have a positive opinion of him.

Silence stretched between them, not quite awkward but oddly charged. However, before either of them could find something to say, a black shadow jumped down from the wall at the end of the alley, landing with a dull thud.

Felicia immediately sat down, quickly forgetting Nines in favor of basically dashing towards the end of the alley, where a familiar one-eyed tuxedo cat was regally sitting as if he had always been there.

“Oh, look who deigned to join us!” Gavin whistled, a relieved undertone to his words that even Nines caught. The man didn’t unhook Felicia from her harness, but went with her so she could rub her face against the cat’s, licking him in affectionate welcome. “Hi there, #9.”

From where he was a few feet away, Nines violently startled.

“I...yes?”

Gavin threw him an odd look.

“That’s his name,” he said slowly, gesturing at the black tuxedo, who was showering Felicia with the same adoration she was showing him, both cats purring and bumping heads as if they couldn’t get enough of each other. “That is #1, #4 and #5,” he said, pointing at the orange tabby, the grey tabby and the white cat respectively. “Those two under the trash cans are 7 and 8, probably 9’s kits, going by their looks.”

Nines stared at the cats, then at Gavin, and then back once more, aware that his LED was a lightshow as he processed this new information.

“What?” Gavin asked in the end, frowning.

“Me too,” Nines said, his agitation and excitement clear on his voice. “My name is Nines as well.”

The way the man’s expression shifted from surprise to joy as he laughed took Nines by surprise. He was sure he had never seen such a wonderful thing, and he had the sudden urge to see it again, to cause such a change in the man in front of him, to have that expression directed at him once more.

“You do look alike,” the man teased, a wolfish grin settling in his face, and Nines felt his systems overheating a second before an alarm popped in the corner of his eye in confirmation.

They stared at each other for a beat too long before Nines found his words again.

“He has other names,” he told Gavin. “I followed him to the library and there they call him Rudyard.”

“Rudyard,” Gavin repeated, eyeing the cat as if to measure whether the name suited him or not. He grimaced. “I didn’t even know there was a library nearby, but...yeah, I believe it of that cat, he was always the smartest of this lot. He looks like that, but he’s actually quite chill. Gives zero fucks.” He looked down at the cat in question, who despite his grumpy expression, was patient as he was being groomed by Felicia, who was practically sitting on top of him. Gavin smiled. “Actually, since Fliss is so enamored of him, I tried to take him in too. He didn’t last a week. I think he hated to be locked away.”

“It was perhaps too small a place for him,” Nines said without thinking, remembering the rooms he himself had been locked in.

Gavin looked at him then, eyes full of curiosity, and Nines found that he couldn’t hold his gaze.

They didn’t talk much more that day, for Gavin had to go, but four days later, when he went with Fliss to the alley and Nines appeared again, the man didn’t comment. Instead, Nines talked to Gavin, and pet Felicia, and figured life was too complicated not to be grateful when something went finally right.

Chapter Text

June came, and with it, the warmth of summer.

It was the first summer of Nines’ life, and unlike spring, that he had mostly spent indoors, too worried and stressed about integrating to pay attention to anything else, this time he had both the time and a front seat to enjoy it, and enjoy it he did.

It was a magnificent summer. As if nature itself wanted to make it up to this particular android for the time he had missed, the first week of June was one of the most perfect in history. The days were warm, fluffy white clouds tall as buildings cruising leisurely through the sky, pushed by a breeze that came and went, playful, strong enough to feel nice against heated skin but gentle enough not to cause any mischief.

The animals, too, seemed to sense the shift on the weather. The birds became more active and brave, even daring to come and explore Nines’ window sill. Insects appeared from everywhere, and suddenly the patch of grass in front of Nines’ apartment building became a treasure cove of undiscovered life. And the plants, those humble plants that grew between the gorgeous rose bushes, finally bloomed, dahlias and gardenias and lilacs opening its buds like little cups of perfume that the wind carried to Nines’ open window in the early morning.

All the changes were so fascinating that Nines gave himself over to the summer without guilt, allowing himself to forget about everything else.

Everything else except for Gavin.

 


 

 

The android was waiting outside the alley again, and at the sight of him Gavin inwardly sighed. 

Still, with Fliss merrily trotting at his side, his step didn’t falter. The android made a bit of an intimidating sight, tall and broad shouldered as he was, and in another lifetime, Gavin perhaps would have been intimidated. But not right now. First, because he was tired as fuck, and second because although this android looked like he could kill you with his pinky if he wanted, there was also something soft about him, something eager and curious in how he looked at things that made Gavin unable to be afraid.

Gavin had heard him talk to the cats in the deep of night. Had seen him with Fliss, seen the way the android’s hands were so very gentle as he pet her, carefully controlled strength reigned in and tucked away as not to hurt her.

So yeah, there was no way in hell he was going to be afraid after that.

And also…

“Good morning, Gavin,” the android --Nines-- greeted him, formally tipping his head forward. It amused Gavin, this contrast the android had going on. His rigid formality at odds with the eagerness of his words, with his LED that fluttered blue like the wings of a butterfly, with the barely concealed excited energy that thrummed through the android’s body.

The way he so obviously seeked Gavin’s company...well, it was flattering. A bit odd, perhaps, but Gavin’s ego could not deny he enjoyed the attention. The way he clung to Gavin’s every word, like a puppy with a crush. It was cute.

Then again, the android might just like Fliss and Gavin was getting ahead of himself, but somehow he didn’t think so.

And well-- he had been feeding the cats. Gavin would have owed him for only that, although he would never willingly admit it.

Because he was a dick, Gavin half-mumbled a greeting, but apparently it was enough encouragement for the android because he immediately walked to him, obviously intent in escorting Gavin in his walk with Fliss. It was the second time he had done so and barely their -- fourth meeting? But it didn’t feel so for Gavin. Probably because all those other times he had watched the android, unnoticed like a creep. His rationale had always been that an alley was a public place and thus anyone that had business there had nothing to complain about if they were watched, but well. It wasn’t like he was in the habit of making excuses for his own shitty behavior.

“Good morning to you too, Felicia.” 

The android’s voice snapped Gavin out of his thoughts, and he had a very hard time not smiling at the scene before him. 

Fliss was rubbing her head insistently against Nines’ legs, leaving cat hair all over the android’s dark trousers, meowing loudly as she did when she wanted to be pet and Gavin was too slow for her liking.

The android looked at Gavin in confusion, and Gavin had to bite hard the inside of his cheek not to react.

“It means she’s happy to see you,” he translated, and watched in fascination how the android’s face lit up with joy.

Oh ,” he whispered, a small, vulnerable sound, and Gavin had to avert his eyes, Nines’ face burned into his eyelids like an after image. 

It was like staring at the fucking sun.

As if in a dream, he watched Fliss stand on her hind legs to meet the android’s hand as he bent to pet her. And pet she was. In twenty seconds flat the android had her sprawled on the patch of grass of the building next to the alley, purring loudly and looking all blissed out under the ministrations of the android’s pale hands.

The little traitor.

Still, he couldn’t begrudge the moment to either of them, the cat because he loved her and the android because he looked so happy when he had often looked so sad in the past. 

Dismissing these thoughts, Gavin patiently waited for either of them to get tired. However, once again, unbidden, the thought of how different the android --Nines-- was to Connor struck him unawares. That had been the original reason he had caught Gavin’s eye-- well, besides Gavin’s cop instincts tingling when he saw a tall, suspicious person in the alley with his cats. From a distance, Nines’ resemblance to Connor had been so uncanny that Gavin had balked, heart jumping in his chest with a mixture of alarm and distaste he couldn’t deny. He had not been aware there were other models like Connor, but this one had the same face, the same hair, the same curve of his nose.

And that’s where all resemblance ended. Because Connor never looked uncertain, or lost, or spoke with a voice so gentle, or had the bluest eyes Gavin had ever seen.

Gavin shook himself, disturbed by the direction his thoughts had taken. As if she could sense his unease --which Gavin knew with absolute certainty she could-- Fliss opened her eyes and sat, ears perked up as her attention focused completely on Gavin.

The man smiled softly, overcome with affection.

“Come on,” he told her. “You have to walk some, or you will get too fat for a cat.”

In answer, Fliss stood and walked away stiffly, showing Gavin her butt to let him know what she thought about his assessment.

Two seconds was all it took for Nines to fall into step with him.

“So you’re coming with us, I gather?” Gavin asked, because he was still unsettled and because had never in his life been polite and he was not about to begin for a puppy eyed android.

Nines, however, didn’t seem to take offense.

“If I may,” he answered instead, and suddenly it was all too ridiculous for Gavin. The android walked like he was on a mission, not on a casual stroll through the neighborhood, with his hands clasped behind his back and almost marching.

“You have a lot of free time, don’t you?” he snapped, torn between hysterical laughter and the need to distance himself from the situation.

They walked in silence for a little while, stopping for Fliss to wander about to smell something or other and occasionally munch on a blade of grass. By Gavin’s side, Nines looked thoughtful, so he wasn’t surprised when the android finally answered.

“I do not yet have a job,” he confessed. “Recently I decided to grow as person so I can decide my likes and dislikes. I would not wish to find employment somewhere I hated again.”

Gavin had been a detective too long not to catch the several implications of that statement, but he let it go. Don’t get involved , he reminded himself. This android was just someone that unknowingly had helped him out, someone that had made him curious because of the random fact of resembling someone else. He was not here to-- befriend him, or anything of the sort.

The android was waiting for his answer, his LED shining the same beautiful blue than his eyes.

Don’t get involved.

Getting involved with other people had never ended well for Gavin.

He snorted. “You and me both,” he said, and guided the conversation back to the cats. 

 


 

That day, like a custody agreement, they arranged between themselves a schedule for feeding the cats. Nines got mostly weekdays: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, while Gavin chose Thursday and Sunday.

“My schedule’s shit,” Gavin said, for once apologetic. “If you need money--”

“No, I don’t have many expenses,” Nines waved him off, “I can perfectly well afford to feed them.”

“How about no. You already have more days, at least let me--,” Gavin added before realizing he was basically trying to give money to this person who was by all accounts a stranger, and so he bit his tongue as not to say anything else.

Neither of them looked at each other as they negotiated, and neither of them noticed the old woman that glared at them as they walked in front of her window.

 


 

The day Nines returned to the library was a Friday.

As he expected, it was busy. Friday was community day, and from the morning to the evening, the library offered different workshops and hosted events. Friday mornings in particular had always been interesting to Nines. The children’s section, a cheery little room decorated with a different mural on each wall, held an event in which one of the librarians --usually Rin as she had the stamina-- read aloud to children, making voices and generally encouraging them to engage with the story.

The first few times this had happened after Nines first discovered the library, he had stealthily listened just barely outside of the room, fascinated by the children’s reactions and the shifting quality of the other android’s voice, until Laura, the Director, had come to him and dryly told him he too was welcome into the room to listen as well.

Nines did not go into the room, at least not when there were any children in it. He would follow Rin into it sometimes, when he asked for a book recommendation and the librarian went to pick something for him, but he never dared linger, afraid to scare the children and break the peaceful cheerful atmosphere of the room.

Still, on the Friday mornings when Rin was reading he liked to sit on the other side of the wall, set his auditory sensors’ sensitivity high up, and listen, following the story with as much fascination as the children did.

That morning he did the same.

Leaving his usual preferred seat by the window, he settled down on a table, a small pile of unread books in front of him, like snacks carefully arranged and ready to be eaten.

He had been there a couple of hours when a black shadow caught Nines’ attention. Rudyard --or #9, Nines could not decide what to call him-- trotted towards him with determination, fluffy tail high in the air, foregoing his usual place in the sun to climb into a chair next to Nines. He looked at the android with his good eye with dignity, as if acknowledging him, and when he made sure the android would not try something silly like trying to pet him, he curled into a ball and went right to sleep.

Warm pleasure curled above Nines’ thirium pump, and he reveled in that amazing feeling of being found worthy of a cat’s favor. Settling back in his chair, he relaxed as he listened at the librarian’s excited voice as she went first through toddler-appropriate books and then upping the age range as the morning went by. Nines let the words wash over him like music as he was taken away to colorful worlds without leaving that small corner of the library, feeling content inside his inner world with only a sleepy mean faced cat for company.

 


 

It was late into the afternoon when Rin finished reading to the last group of children.

She dutifully remained by the entrance of the room, accepting subdued thanks, as the children left with their parents. For a moment, the library was full with that high whisper children talk in when they are trying but not quite succeeding at being quiet. The android waved until everyone was gone or otherwise engaged, and then her smile fell from her face in an exhausted gesture that was purely human.

Immediately, Nines was reminded of Connor. Nines had always been a bit... jealous, he could finally admit to himself in the privacy of his own mind, of Connor’s ease at pretending to be human. Nines could somewhat do it, but it was not the same. For him it was an effort-- a performance, something he had to work to do, to constantly think about, and left him unbalanced, exhausted of gauging other people’s reactions to him.

Rin didn’t have a LED, so when she did it, no one would have suspected she wasn’t human.

Nines was so lost in his thoughts that he startled when Rin met his eyes.

After a brief pause, she made her way to him, kneeling beside the cat’s chair when she spotted him. The cat raised his head when he felt the presence of a newcomer, staring impatiently at the android to state her business. When she presented a hand for him to inspect, he sniffed it for a polite second before turning his head away in disdain.

“Ah, well,” Rin said with humor, watching the big cat stretch and jump off the chair and go towards the door to the garden. “I see how it is.”

She didn’t look offended, but still Nines hurried to reassure her, “He doesn’t let me pet him either.”

“Oh, but it’s different,” she smiled, before dropping herself into the chair the cat had just vacated. She rested her elbows on the table to place her chin on her cupped hands, a gesture that made her look young. “That cat loves you.”

Nines blinked, LED going red.

“Oh, you didn’t know? He follows you around, and he always sits near where you are,” she explained, rueful. “I haven’t seen him do that with anyone, and believe me, both Laura and I have tried.”

Although he was no longer in sight, Nines stared after the cat, awed by the shift on perspective. It dawned on him that he knew nothing of cat behavior. All this time he’d been expecting-- what? Affection, perhaps, in a way a human would show it? Physical closeness? He felt a bit silly now to have assumed the cat would behave certain way that suited Nines instead of getting to know him. As he recalibrated his parameters in regard of #9, he sent the cat a silent apology for having misinterpreted his behaviour for so long. Maybe he’d buy him a treat to make amends. He’d have to research what sort of things he liked.

When he turned his head again, Rin was observing him with a thoughtful expression on her face. However, unlike his own bashful reactions when he was caught staring, she didn’t seem to care to have been caught.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” she said, out of nowhere. “Are you okay?”

“I am. Is there a reason I wouldn’t be?” Nines asked, baffled. While he had sometimes engaged the librarians in casual conversation, he had never been aware she had a personal interest in his well-being.

“Huh...not that we’re stalking you or anything!” she defended, correctly reading his blank face. “But you used to come to the library everyday like clockwork, and then you suddenly didn’t. We can’t help but notice things, so...I wondered if something had happened, if you were okay. We sort of...worried.”

“About me?” Nines asked before he could help himself, because no one had worried about his well-being before. Connor, perhaps. But never because he was missed.

She looked at him, confused. “Well, yes? If Rudyard suddenly vanished you would worry, wouldn’t you? Not that I’m comparing you to a cat!” she backtracked in sudden panic. “I just mean...you both are alive...and here...so I...”

A warm, liquid emotion tickled down his chest, growing bigger and bigger the longer the other android rambled. It was a novel idea, the thought that someone had noticed him. That someone had noticed when he wasn’t there.

As if in answer to his emotions, Nines’ LED blinked steadily blue.


“Thank you.”

Rin beamed at him as if he had managed to answer something incredibly eloquent, and for once, Nines didn’t feel self conscious under another person’s scrutiny.

“Your name’s Nines, isn’t it?” she asked, friendly and bubbly as if a wall between them had just come down. “I saw it from your ID when you got your library card, but we were never formally introduced. I’m Rin. Robin, actually, but I don’t like it, so.”

“Nice to meet you, Rin,” Nines answered, as serious as always, and offered his hand to formally shake hers. “I’m Nines.”

The other android didn’t miss a beat to accept his hand and shake it. “You look super scary, but you’re actually a very nice person, aren’t you?” she laughed, but sobbered when she caught Nines’ LED flaring in distress. “Sorry, did I say something dumb? Please, please ignore me-- I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to make you feel bad or anything.”

Nines nodded in acceptance of the apology, and the android perked right back up.

“Forgive me if I’m overstepping, but...you’re newly deviated, right?”

Nines nodded again. “How can you tell?”

Rin’s expression softened. “Oh, you look how I felt when I deviated,” she answered, like that explained something. “How’s it going for you?”

Nines looked at his hands as he thought, uncertain as how to answer. Not because he thought this bright and cheerful android couldn’t take whatever he’d tell her, or because he didn’t trust her with that information, but because he himself didn’t want to think about it.

“That bad, huh?” Rin said, voice soft. “Hey, I know what,” she continued after a small silence in which Nines stubbornly continued to look down, “do you have a job? The library is part of the Android Integration Program, but so far no one has been interested in taking a position here. I think it’s because they are not very interested in print. Most of us do use digital the most, after all.”

“There's nothing wrong with print,” Nines defended, offended that someone might think so.

“Right?” she agreed, looking around with a grimace as she noticed how loud she had been. “Anyway, if you’re interested we definitely could use a hand. You’d have to do some training, of course, but I could help you with that. And look, you like books already! I’m sure you could do it.”

Rin looked so confident and enthusiastic that Nines had to take a moment to think it over.

So far, he had successfully avoided either thinking or worrying about his job situation, but thinking about it realistically, he couldn't go on like he was forever. And it was appealing. The library was silent in a soothing way no other place had been, and although he wasn’t sure what the job entailed, Rin had already offered her mentorship. It was a good opportunity, even he could recognize that.

But the memory of his past coworker’s wary stares haunted him still. The pressure of talking to people and not knowing what to say made a weight settle on his shoulders like something physical. An alarm on his HUB alerted him of a spike on his stress levels and he dismissed it, trying to shake off the feeling.

“I am afraid I have not a good track with it,” he confessed at last, when the wave of panic finally eased enough that he could talk again.

Rin frowned. “With what?”

“Keeping a job.”

“Oh,” her voice was neutral, expression carefully flat, when she asked, “why?”

“I’m not…” Nines looked around, as if the walls and books around him would provide him with the words he needed. “...very good with people.”

Nines was braced to be contradicted, used to Connor’s cheerful reassurances, so he was taken aback when the other android tilted her head and hummed in acknowledgment.

“I see,” she said, as if accepting this-- flaw of Nines’ was easy as that. “Well, if money is not an issue and you don’t want to commit, you could volunteer. See how you like it before you decide. Who knows, maybe you’ll find it suits you after all.”

Nines’ LED whirled, amber amber amber, as he processed this unexpected interaction.

“I will think about it,” he said at long last, feeling strangely unwilling to give up his current lifestyle just yet.

“Sure!” she grinned, attention shifting to the pile of books in front of Nines so suddenly that Nines felt whiplash. “I’m on my break, so. Do you wanna talk about what you’re reading?”

 


 

That night, Nines was troubled.

It was Rin’s offer that had upset him, although why exactly, Nines didn’t know himself. He paced his flat trying to find an answer, wall to wall like a caged beast, feeling charged with a dark sort of energy, the sort he had often felt those long lonely nights that were beginning to feel a lifetime ago.

Outside, too, the night was restless. There was a storm coming, and the air was heavy with the tension of the upcoming storm. For Nines, it was unsettling. The quickly dropping air pressure felt almost physical against his temples, his circuitry made tingly as if in response to the electricity rumbling far away in the clouds.

 As if they could feel the upcoming storm too, the cats were loud that night. They cried and fought, loud chilling noises that didn’t help Nines’ current state of mind and made the downstairs neighbor's dogs bark like crazy. It built and built and built until Nines couldn’t contain it anymore, and fearful he might explode with it, he decided to go out and check on the cats instead.

The night, outside, was tense, but oddly quiet. Nines thought it’d be better if the wind was howling like in his books, the trees projecting menacing shadows that turned out to be nothing when closely examined. Instead, everything was still, air charged with the tense anticipation of what was to come. Even the yellow light of the street lamps seemed dimmer than usual, dirtier, as if it had been absorbed into the night. Some windows, too, were lit despite the late hour, Nines’ neighbors perhaps having been woken by the cats and the dogs' howling.

The eye of the storm , Nines thought, allowing himself the fancy, before he turned towards the end of the building: the entrance of the alley.

When he turned the corner, he was not surprised to find the alley empty. There was not one cat in sight and everything was silent, but when he changed the setting of his sight to night vision, the glow of four pairs of eyes looked back at him from several hidden places.

Nines sighed just because he thought the situation merited it, but it came out more like a gasp than anything else. He felt slightly foolish for having worried about the cats, as it was obvious they didn’t need him. It was him that needed them, Nines finally admitted as a wave of loneliness threatened to drown him, rising higher and higher like a tide, so unexpected that Nines curled into himself, sliding down the wall until he was sitting on the dirty ground, legs splayed before him like the broken doll he felt like.

“You foolish android,” he whispered to himself. “What do you think you’re doing?”

A quiet meow startled him into snapping his head up. A few feet away from him, #9 was watching him with his good eye. As if mirroring Nines’ position, he was nestled against the wall, but instead of sprawled, his white paws were comfortably tucked under him. He appeared to be waiting for something, but the way he stared fixedly at Nines was strangely intelligent for a cat. Like maybe he understood some of what the android was going through.

“Rudyard,” Nines said aloud, and the cat yawned, unimpressed. “Nine,” he tried again, the word weird on his tongue, and the cat blinked slowly in answer, ears twitching.

Slowly, the dark tide of loneliness receded, as if cowering under the unimpressed stare of the one-eyed cat.

Remembering what Rin had told him that morning about #9, Nines reached a hand towards him. The cat was far enough that Nines could not quite touch him, but he didn’t try. Instead, he offered his hand, palm up, careful to mimic what he had done with Felicia as not to startle him.

For a long moment, nothing happened. The cat looked at Nines’ hand with mild interest, but Nines was an android and didn’t get tired, so they stayed like that, an impassé. However, as if attuned to some cue Nines missed, the cat’s ears twitched one more time and in one fluid motion stood, sniffed at the tips of Nines’ fingers and lightly nibbled on the android’s index finger before turning and jumping away.

Nines was on his feet on reflex, and several things happened at the same time.

A window opened somewhere above Nines, but before he could look up the cat climbed onto one of the large garbage containers, and with a swift impossible jump made it to the bottom of the fire exit stairs of the apartment building that was not Nines’. Surprised, the android took three long steps before jumping as well, trying to catch him, but it was too late-- the fluffy tail of the cat hit the android in the face as he scurried away from his grasp, leaving him hanging from the bottom of the metal ladder.

With an ease a human would never have, Nines raised himself unto the ladder. Several warnings related to his protocols kicked in at the action, most related to stealth and the legality of what he was doing, but he dismissed them all. Instead, he looked up trying to find the cat, and that’s how he met the startled eyes of one Gavin Reed, who was staring at him from an open window on the second floor with a lit cigarette precariously dangling from his parted lips.

The flush of warm embarrassment was familiar to Nines, so he didn’t fight it, already resigned to always embarrass himself in front of this man. However, before he could open his mouth to explain, #9 gracefully jumped up Gavin’s windowsill and swiftly went inside the man’s apartment, not sparing a second look for the man that dumbly watched him pass by his elbow.

There was a beat of silence in which Gavin didn’t move, and then:

“Ah, fuck ,” he cursed with feeling, rubbing his temples. “I should have known.”

“I was chasing him, I thought...I didn’t think...” Nines babbled, because although he had known Gavin had to live nearby, he had very deliberately not invaded his privacy to find out where, no matter how much his protocols pushed him to. But if the man lived in one of the flats with windows facing the allwy, well, that explained how he knew Nines was feeding the cats.

From his window, Gavin grimaced, looking up as if asking for patience. Then, in a voice so low Nines wouldn’t have heard him had he not been an android, he hissed “Fuck it ,” and climbed out of his window into the narrow metal landing of the fire escape.

Thirium pump beating so fast in his chest it felt like a low hum, Nines silently climbed up one floor. He leaned against the wall just beside Gavin’s open window, on the step just below the landing, watching Gavin as the man leaned over the handrail blowing smoke into the night.

“How are you, Gavin?” he greeted as casually as he could manage under the weird circumstances, and he thought he saw a fleeting smile pass through the man’s face in answer.

The way he was positioned, Nines could only see half of Gavin’s face, badly lit by the soft glow coming from the room behind them, but even so he could tell something was wrong. Gavin looked dead on his feet, hair messy and casual clothes rumpled as if he had tossed and turned before deciding he could not sleep. Although he could not see clearly, Nines still noticed the bags under the man’s eyes, the way his fingers shook as he pulled the cigarette away from his lips.

The man shook his head tiredly as if to clear his mind before answering, “I’ve been better, I guess. And you?”

And Nines, because while he knew something was wrong, he didn’t know how to ask or how to help, talked about his day. He talked about the library, he talked about Rin, and although he didn’t mean to, when Gavin made a noise of encouragement after a pause longer than usual, Nines told him about Rin’s offer.

To Nines' utter surprise, he found that the longer he talked, the more Gavin’s posture relaxed. His shoulders untensed, his fingers steadied. And it turned out Gavin was a good listener. He didn’t openly ask, but he hummed and nodded, making little noises to indicate he was still paying attention.

And like a damn that had broken, Nines talked. He talked not only about the library, but of before: his first failure of a job, the backroom, the cats. By the time Nines ran out of things to say and Gavin had his life history, the man was finally relaxed against the handrail, cigarette long since having been put out.

The silence that followed was long. It felt expectant, charged, much like the storm around them. But before Nines could panic and second guess himself, Gavin made a soft sound between a sigh and a laugh and tilted his head towards the dark sky.

“Well. You’ve been working hard, haven’t you?” he said, undisturbed like this was not the first time Nines had confessed these things to someone else. “Looks to me you’ve done well.”

Nines froze. A strong emotion ran through him at these words, something big that overflowed his HUB with warnings. It was a burning yet watery feeling that threatened to climb up his throat and spill.

All this time, Nines had been trying so hard. So, so hard.

And never expected he’d ever be told he’d done well.

The spent a long time in silence, Gavin watching the dark sky and Nines trying to make sense of his emotions.

“But do not let me keep you with my problems,” Nines said at long last. He had never felt more lost in his life, although this was a different kind of lost. The moment felt like glass, something clear but frail that might break if Nines was not careful enough, even if he didn't know how not to break it. “It has become apparent to me that you are tired and must be wanting to sleep.”

Completely unaware of Nines’ small crisis, Gavin shrugged.

“Nah, it’s—“ he hesitated, swallowing. He frowned as if struggling with himself, as if he was trying to find words too. “Sometimes this is good. The job can be a bit— much, sometimes. This sort of thing helps me decompress. Right now I’m too keyed up to sleep. That never ends well.”

Nines remained silent, recognizing the confession for what it was. Still, he wanted to know more, wanted more of this version of Gavin. It was the first time Nines had ever felt greed, and it gave him the courage to take the opportunity he had been offered.

“What’s your job?” he inquired, making his voice as soothing as he could.

Gavin hummed, thoughtful, perhaps wondering if he should answer. “I’m a cop,” he said at last.

Nines’ LED blinked in surprise. “You are a police officer?”

“A detective.”

“I see,” Nines reflected, thoughts immediately flying to his programming, his own experiences and to Connor. “It seems like such an awful job.”

He was alarmed by the choking sound that came from Gavin, and in his concern it took Nines several moments to recognize the shaking of Gavin’s shoulders for what it was--the man was chuckling.

Slowly, too slowly and too late, did Nines realize what he had just said.

“No!” he tried to explain, panic overriding his speech protocols. “No--wait, I meant--”

“Shit, you don’t pull any punches, do you?” Gavin chuckled, running a hand through his face. “Yeah, it’s an awful job I guess, depending on how you look at it,” he accepted, waving towards his open window. “Fliss is alone a lot, for one. I feel--terrible, sometimes, leaving her alone for so long.”

The relief was overwhelming enough that Nines drew a small needed breath to cool the systems that had overheated from the spike of stress. Even so, he pushed through it with his desire to keep Gavin talking: he was not ready for the conversation to end yet.

“Is that why you walk her?” he asked when he gathered himself enough to make sense.

“Yeah. And well--you’ve seen how much she loves #9. I couldn’t in good conscience keep them apart, even when he’s not always there.”

Nines thought this over, his whirling LED the only outward sign of it. From far away, thunder rumbled, and Nines knew he was running out of time: he could already feel the rain on his tongue, his delicate sensors attuned to the levels of humidity of the weather.

Perhaps that was the knowledge that gave him the courage. “Maybe next time you are busy I could walk Felicia, if you would like?” he offered, hopeful, and this time, Gavin turned around, leaning back against the handrail facing Nines. Like that, his face was fully lit by the light of the window.

“You that desperate to see the inside of my flat?” Gavin smirked, and Nines felt his thirium pump skip a beat.

“I would greatly enjoy seeing your living quarters,” he answered earnestly. “I find myself curious about what they say about your person.”

Gavin’s eyes slightly widened, and he stared so long at Nines was certain he had made a mistake again. However, like it had happened every single time so far with this man, things didn't go as he expected. The laughter began like a small rumble in Gavin’s chest, growing and growing until it spilled, a deep and pleasant sound that faded into the sounds of the upcoming rain.

Nines watched Gavin laugh, completely arrested. Although it wasn’t the first time he’d witnessed it, he drank it just as avidly-- taken by the sound, by the way Gavin’s whole body shook with it, how his eyes shone and softened with mirth.

“You—that was—“ the man gasped between chuckles. “You really are something!”

Nines shivered at the words, an electric sort of feeling washing over him at the praise. And suddenly, something eased in him too, a strange tension that had settled on his muscles vanishing, a hunger he didn’t understand appeased for the moment.

“Ah, well,” Gavin told him when he could talk again. Like this, with his hair messy and a smile playing at the corner of his lips, he looked like a different man than the one Nines had seen so far. He looked free. “Shit okay. Don’t-- don’t read much into this or anything, but...about the library thing you told me earlier...I don’t know you that well, but even I can tell you’re smart enough to put back books in tall shelves.”

Nines blinked at the change of topic, but he was certain that the gentle warm blooming around his thirium pump meant he would have smiled if he could.

“I’ll say this one thing,” Gavin continued. “Go for it. It’s okay to have flaws. You don’t have to be perfect. If you wait until you’re perfect to live your life then you’ll never get to it.”

The wind picked up then, the final warning of the imminent rain. Nines closed his eyes briefly as to cherish the words, a small gift he was given, delicate and bright. An unassuming treasure shining in the dark.

“That sounds like advice that comes from experience,” he answered, finally free of the fear of misstepping, and was rewarded by another chuckle from the man.

“You shitty android. Are you gonna doubt me? You’re like what, three months old? I’m thirty six, is all I’m saying. I have been going at this for far longer than you.”

And at that moment Nines wanted to smile, or laugh, something to express the warmth that suffused him. However, as he was not able to, instead he schooled his expression and in his more offended voice answered, “Androids are born with the mindset of adults, detective. So your assertion of your superior emotional maturity, while outwardly logical, may very well be subject to contention.”

“Fuck off,” Gavin smiled without missing a beat. “You’re the immature asshole looking for advice. Jesus fuck, I can’t believe I got called out by a fucking android.”

The first water drop was loud against the metal as it landed just besides the hand Gavin had on the handrail. Another soon followed, and another, the storm finally making good on its promise of rain.

Surprised, Gavin raised his face against the sky only for a fat water drop to hit his cheek and roll down his neck and under his shirt. Nines couldn’t help but follow its path, hypnotized by the way it kissed the man’s skin.

“I think you better go,” Gavin told him, still looking up at the sky. “I’ll go to bed now. Be careful my neighbors don’t catch you going down or I’ll never hear the end of it, okay?”

Understanding the dismissal for what it was, Nines nodded and prepared to climb down the ladder as silently as he had gone up. He was halfway through when Gavin’s voice stopped him.

 “And Nines?” the man called, and Nines LED blinked because this was the first time Gavin had called his name. He looked up at Gavin, who had apparently been watching him go. “Thank you for the laugh. I really needed it.” And with that, the man disappeared through the window with the ease of someone practiced at it.

The latch of the window snapped Nines into action again. He easily climbed down the ladder, landing silently and gracefully on the ground. The rain had begun in earnest, but the raindrops that pelted Nines felt nice against his face and shoulders, the constant physical stimuli soothing as he was not affected by the temperature difference, and understood why so many people liked it.

Pleased and happy in an abstract way he could not understand, Nines tilted his head back to better enjoy the rain, and much like the parched earth that greedily drank the water, Nines remained where he was and pretended he was enjoying the rain and not looking at Gavin’s still bright window.

 


 

When the library opened the next morning, Nines was already outside the door. He had not gone into stasis that night, too full of energy to want to sink into the dark blankness of it.

He had gone out first thing in the morning, startling the old lady that lived on the first floor and was always chatting to the other neighbors. He was so focused on what he wanted to say, that he didn’t notice the fliers on her hands, or the way she frowned at him and stepped out of his way as he passed.

Instead, he accepted Rin’s offer to volunteer, and was rewarded with a wide grin on the android’s face and a nod of acknowledgment from the Director. On her break, Rin sat with him to make a schedule, and for the first time Nines was excited about a task, and almost--almost-- regretted not having accepted the internship.

And when finally, finally, he returned home, it was to find a flyer taped to the glass door that was the entrance of the building that read:

 

Dear neighbors,

We would like to request your presence this Saturday 25rd of June at 11:00 am to discuss the cat problem.

The meeting will be held in front of the building. We will have refreshments!

Please confirm your attendance.

Kind Regards,

THE ADMINISTRATION

 

Chapter Text

The neighbors’ meeting fell on a Saturday, and although Nines was nervous, he couldn’t not attend.

He was in front of the building at 11am sharp. The sun was already high in the sky, although the day was not too warm yet. Because it had rained the day before, a nice smell of wet earth and fresh grass rose from the carefully mowed lawn. In normal circumstances, Nines would have stopped to enjoy the smell for a moment, maybe stretch a little under the sun as he had seen the cats do on occasion. However, the second he stepped outside, several pairs of eyes turned to look at him, making his LED blink amber once in nervousness.

The humans were standing around a small table with a white tablecloth that had been placed on the grass along with a couple of folding chairs. Refreshments were offered in the form of a big pot of coffee and a plate with an assortment of cookies. Nothing an android could eat, although Nines had not expected anything anyway.

Because of the days Nines had spent looking for Gavin had made him familiar with the routines of his neighbors, he recognized seven out of the nine people that were staring at him with diverse degrees of subtlety. Nines systems pulled up information immediately, his programs’ automatic reaction to his rising stress at being the center of everyone’s attention.

The person that seemed to be in charge was the old lady that was always taking care of the flower bushes, resting a hand on the shoulder of a boy of about eight that Nines had never seen before. There was the couple that lived on the second floor, their toddler happily sitting on the grass and chewing on a plastic toy. The teen girl with pigtails and her dad lived on the first floor across the old lady, and the man in yoga pants lived on the third floor, just under Nines.

It was the old lady who stepped forwards towards Nines, a hand extended for a shake and a polite smile on her face.

“Our android neighbor,” she said, a bad start, and Nines was for once grateful that his face gave nothing away of his discomfort at having his status as an android pointed out so openly. “Welcome! I’m sorry we haven’t been able to introduce ourselves. It has been what...four months since you moved in?” the boy, who going by the resemblance Nines’ assumed was the woman’s grandson, groaned at the veiled admonishment. “I’m Mrs. Parker and that is my grandson Oliver.”

“Nice to meet you,” Nines answered politely. When he shook Mrs. Parker’s hand, her grip was strong, domineering. Nines protocols pinged like crazy as they gathered and organized data points related to the woman. “My name is Nines.”

The rest of the neighbors introduced themselves more warmly (except the teenager girl, who seemed very interested in him but was shy, and the toddler, who hid his face on his mother’s shoulder at the sight of Nines), eight people in total plus a slender man in a suit that turned out to be the building’s administrator.

The small talk lasted around ten minutes, because exactly at 11:10 Mrs. Parker cleared her throat to attract everyone’s attention.

“I think there’s enough of us to begin,” she said, looking at the administrator, who nodded his approval. “Great. Thank you all for coming. Today’s meeting is to discuss the Cat Problem.” She said it like that, in capital letters, before proceeding to formalize the meeting by reading the agenda and taking roll of the participants, together with their apartment number.

Then, to Nines’ surprise and utter consternation, Mrs. Parker listed all the ways the cats were a problem, from them ripping open trash bags (which was only a problem when someone forgot to close the garbage bins), to how they pulled out the flowers from the bushes and dug on the earth underneath, to their loud howling in the middle of the night.

“The noise has been particularly awful of late,” the woman with the toddler said, absently passing her chirping son to her husband. “They wake up Teddy and it’s a nightmare to get him back to sleep after that.”

“The noise makes my dogs crazy,” the man in the yoga pants complained, sipping on a cup of coffee. “And we usually have to get up early to work, so…”


“I thought the cats were neutered?” the teenager interrupted. Mrs. Parker shot a mildly reproving look at her, which the girl’s father countered by resting a reassuring hand on his daughter's shoulder. It didn’t look like the girl would have stopped regardless, for she was almost vibrating with suppressed energy. “The detective said--”

“Excuse me, the detective?” Nines asked before he could stop himself.

Apparently disinterested, Mrs. Parker’s grandson left the group to join the toddler and his father, silently asking permission to join them and sitting on the grass beside the younger child when the father nodded his acceptance.

“Oh, yes, I forgot you weren’t here yet,” the girl explained, turning to Nines. “There’s a man in the next building over that used to care for the strays. Then, when they became too much trouble and people complained, he offered to neuter them so they didn’t make so much noise. You know, going into heat and stuff.”

Nines’ LED whirled amber as he began to put together the mystery that was Gavin.

“I see.”

“He fed the strays,” Mrs. Parker put in, mouth twisted in disapproval. “We could hardly have a feral colony living in the alley.”

The girl frowned. “They are neutered though, the detective said so. And there haven’t been kittens this past year.”

“Well, yes, but think about it,” the toddler’s mother intervened. “Wouldn’t it be better if they are sent to a shelter? I maintain that living on the streets can’t be good for them.”

“They are feral. They won’t adapt to life with humans. We already took those that were friendly.”

“We already argued about this--”

“They are still a bother--”

“The detective was taking care of the cats, but promised to neuter them and stop feeding them if we would leave them alone,” the administrator explained to Nines in a low voice as the others argued. “Said the colony would stop growing and the lack of hormones would make them behave better. We hoped they would go away after that, so we agreed.”

“But someone has been feeding them again, isn’t that right?” Mrs. Parker said, turning to look at Nines with a frown.

Mrs. Parker was a small woman, meticulous in the way she was put together: perfectly pressed flowery shirt, immaculate white flowing skirt. Her hair was elegantly pinned back, not a hair out of place, and her expression was arrogant, manner strong and confident.

She was no threat for Nines. She barely rose past his shoulder. Nines had been made to fight both androids and humans, so he was strong enough to be dangerous, and yet-- he felt a pang of something ugly at the way she looked at him with such a strong disapproval.

Nines was used to fear, but this was the first time he had been the focus of contempt, and he couldn’t understand why this woman looked at him with such distaste, like he was dirty, like there was something wrong with him-- which was true, wasn’t it?

“I didn’t know,” Nines defended, mind reeling, LED turning red under the strain. “I--I saw they were hungry and I didn’t think-- I couldn't ignore-- they don’t hurt anyone.”

“That’s easy for you to say, you don’t need to sleep,” the yoga pants man grumbled, and Nines felt a jolt like a blow in his circuits, his own version of flinching.

Carefully, he turned his head so his red LED was hidden from the humans.

“I’m sure your intentions were good, Mr. Nines,” Mrs. Parker conceded magnanimously. “But you need to stop. Those cats are annoying enough already. They rip out patches of grass and destroy the flowers,” she pointed to several places between the bushes where, indeed, the bare earth showed traces of plants having been dug out.

Annoying, Mrs. Parker had said. The cats were annoying.

Nines looked down, silent. He remembered those awful days in which feeding the cats was the only good thing in his otherwise dull days and strange sort of stubbornness took hold of him. Thoughtlessly, he clasped his hands behind his back, tightening his grip, LED whirling. He wanted to answer. He wanted to defend the cats, to do something to protect them, but his thoughts were a whirlwind without focus and thus words wouldn't come.

“We need to get rid of them,” Mrs. Parker announced. “Maybe call someone to take them away.”

“Wait!” Nines wished it was him who said that, but in truth it was the girl who cried out, clearly upset. “You can’t do that! What if they kill them?”

“Well--” Mrs. Parker began, but thankfully the arrival of the man with the toddler interrupted whatever it was she’d been about to say.

“Now, let’s not be hasty,” the man said in a calm and soothing voice. He passed the child back to his wife, and as if by magic, the tension in the air dissipated at the presence of the toddler. Silently, Mrs. Parker’s grandson went back to her side, looking from adult to adult with wide alert eyes. “We don’t want them to die either.”

“Whatever,” the man in the yoga pants mumbled, looking at his watch. “Something needs to be done.”

The discussion went back a forth for a while longer without anything concrete being decided. And through it all, Nines listened, jaw tight, and said nothing. 

 


 

The next morning, although it was a Sunday, the library was unusually busy. Summer meant summer courses, and apparently Rin had not been joking about when she said the library needed all the help it could get.

Nines spent all that morning running about helping making photocopies of flyers and other materials needed for the courses. Still, he was distracted. He had not been able to catch Gavin feeding the cats that morning, and he greatly wished he could talk to the man about what had been discussed at neighbor’s meeting the day before.

In truth, Nines had spent all Saturday thinking about it, turning the problem with the cats around and around trying to find a solution. However, he found that the more he thought about it, the uglier his feelings became. It was like Mrs. Parker’s look of disgust had planted a seed in Nines’ chest and his thoughts were the water that made the plant grow, twirling its tacky, oily vines around Nines’ circuits, making him feel anxious and dirty.

And it was perhaps odd, but the full situation pained Nines in ways he hadn't known possible. He could not understand how it was the cats’ fault. Surely, humans and cats could live together? Just because cats couldn’t talk, because they couldn’t be understood, didn’t mean they weren’t alive.

And as Nines reflected on himself, he noticed as well a small, selfish part of him that revolted at the thought that he might have to separate from the cats. They didn’t need him, perhaps, but Nines couldn’t yet lose them. Not when they were something that had made him so happy. Not when he still needed them .

Nines had so many processes dedicated to these thoughts that Rin’s voice took him by surprise, for once his sensors not having warned him of her presence.

“Hey, everything okay?” she asked, and Nines realized he had been silently glaring at the copy machine for fifteen minutes straight. The other android was politely avoiding looking at Nines’ LED, but it was impossible to miss the blinking: yellow yellow yellow. “You look sort of...distracted?”

Nines mentally shook himself. “I’m sorry. I’ll give all my attention to my tasks--”

“No, no, that’s not what I meant!” Rin said, flailing a bit. “It’s okay to be down sometimes. I just thought...well, if it’s something I can help with, then I’d like to do so, and if not, I can just listen.” She looked at him, tilting her head for a moment before she decided. “Come on, the morning has been busy. We could both use a break.”

Uncertain, as even after all this time he was not familiar with the concept of needing a break, Nines followed Rin out of the office and towards the help desk to warn the librarian in turn that they’d be stepping out for a moment. The woman waved them off with a smile, her pretty colored nails a rainbow.

“Just come back before the children’s workshop,” she said, and immediately returned to whatever it was she was doing on the computer, twisting a long lock of hair around her finger.

As if he had heard about their plans, #9 chose that moment to appear from the depths of the library, tail high in the air as he went straight towards Nines, looking up at him with serious attention when he was by the android’s feet. By his side, Rin chuckled, and Nines would have grinned as well had he been able to when the cat trotted by Nines’ heels, following him like he had seen Felicia do plenty of times with Gavin, like a well behaved dog.

Outside, the weather was nice, the sun hot as it bathed the garden, the one time of the day when it fell directly from above, unimpeded by the houses that enclosed the modest courtyard. The garden, as if cleaned by the rain that had fallen the night before, looked vibrant green, shiny leaves turned towards the sun of midday. It felt damp, the narrow space enclosing the humidity, and it seemed strangely alive, as if the plants had stopped moving the second the androids (and the cat) had laid eyes on them. For a second, Nines thought back to one of his favorite books and wondered if this was what it meant to feel like a garden had turned into a jungle.

Nines followed Rin towards the end of the garden and after a beat of hesitation sat beside her on a bench made out repurposed red metal water drums and a wooden plank, one of the many recycled things in the garden. Immediately, the smell of lavender and other aromatic herbs assaulted Nines’ senses, intense enough that it felt like a wave that blocked out any other input for a second. Nines licked his lips, an automatic response to his sensors going into overdrive as he analyzed the smell. Lavender, peppermint, rosemary and thyme. He relaxed, pleased by the combination, some of the tension he’d been carrying leaving his body as he allowed the scent of the garden to envelop him.

“Nice, isn’t it?” Rin grinned, kicking her legs. “This garden is my pride and joy. The only thing that kept me going when, well...when things were bad.”

“You planted it?” Nines asked, surprised, looking around at the flowers growing in buckets or boxes, at the exuberant flower beds. Displeased by the dampness, #9 wandered around the androids a couple of times before giving up and settling himself right on top of Nines’ shoes, effectively immobilizing him for the time being.

“Yeah. It was an empty yard before,” Rin answered, grinning down at the grumpy cat that glared at her as if daring her to say something. “I...didn’t really know what to do with myself after I deviated, so because this place was so depressing and empty, I decided to make it a garden. It became my sanctuary.”

And she didn’t have to explain anything else, because that was something Nines understood completely. He had his own sanctuary after all.

It was this confession more than anything that made Nines begin to talk. The words came slowly at first, clumsily as he tried them for the first time, but when the other android didn’t react with anything other than honest encouragement, they began to come easier and easier until Nines found himself telling her about the cats.

He kept some things to himself of course, mostly about Gavin, because he felt possessive of those memories and was very reluctant to share them. And as he talked, as much as he enjoyed the novel experience of sharing something he loved with someone that seemed delighted to listen, his thoughts went to Gavin once again. He was keenly aware of how different it had felt when it was the man looking at him, of how eager Nines had been to share his thoughts and feelings. It dawned on him that while he liked Rin’s attention, he wanted Gavin’s, and the surprise he felt at the realization was enough to make his words falter.

Curiously, he wondered why that was, but aware this was not the time for it, saved the entire thought thread for later analysis.

“I see. That’s tough,” Rin said in the end, after Nines had finished. She stared at him for a little while, in that shameless way Nines was learning was hers alone. “You really care about them, don’t you?”

Nines glanced down at #9, at the dignified expression on the cat’s little face even as he was ridiculously curled over Nines’ shoes, and the android felt a strong wave of affection and protectiveness for him.

“I think it’s because I have been taking care of them,” he explained, struggling with what he wanted to say. “They were... there . And maybe they don’t need me, but to me, they are important. An important existence. That’s why I want to protect them if they can.”

Rin’s expression was soft when she smiled, although not at Nines. She gripped the edges of the bench tightly, and looked longingly towards the inside of the library, clearly visible through the glass window open to the garden.

“I understand,” she whispered, and Nines had the impression he was witnessing something private. However, before he could say or do anything, the expression in Rin’s face shifted, turning lively again so quickly that Nines blinked, mildly confused. “Okay, tell you what. Wanna help on the storytelling session for the children?”

“I--” Nines stammered, thrown but not surprised by the change of subject. He was already getting used to Rin after all.

“I know you like to listen in, so would you like to read too?” she continued, talking over Nines. “You have a nice voice, I’m sure you’d be good a it!”

“No, I--I don’t think--”

“You don’t want to?”

“It’s not that I don’t want to,” Nines explained, LED a lightshow. He frowned, trying to get himself together, and was thankful that this time the other android waited for him to gather his thoughts. “But isn’t that something you enjoy?”

“Eh, not really?” she answered, as if surprised by the question.

“But you’re good at it,” Nines protested, remembering Rin’s patient demeanor and the voices she made for the children.

“Well...I’m programmed for it,” she shrugged, kicking her feet again and leaning back against the wall to look at the sky. Nines kicked himself, feeling a fool. Of course he had not considered Rin might be a library android, although he should have known better than to assume such a thing. Androids could be programmed for everything, and he more than anyone would know. “But I don’t really like it, to be honest. Children are okay, but... they make me nervous. I don’t know. Not my thing.”

“Forgive me. I would never have guessed,” Nines grimaced at his own words. “You look so cheerful, so I assumed--” and Nines closed his mouth before he could make it worse, deeply embarrassed by the way he had probably come across.

Rin, however, laughed.

“Well, isn’t it the same with you?” she prodded, and Nines was grateful she didn’t seem offended. “You told me you have a hard time talking to others, but to me, you don’t look like someone who struggles. A bit reserved perhaps, but you have this air of-- calm? I dunno how to say it. You look always in control, always cool and collected. It’s very refreshing.”

Nines blinked, and he must have made some strange expression because Rin laughed again.

“Does that surprise you?” she chuckled, as it that hadn’t been the strangest thing someone had said to Nines in his life. “But I’m like that too. I get too caught up in my own flaws and weaknesses, so I’m always surprised when someone thinks kindly of me. Maybe everyone is like that?”

Nines looked at the sky too, thoughtful. Had he had this conversation a couple of months ago, Nines would probably have dismissed it entirely. Now, however, although he had not many experiences, he thought back to his books, his incredible mind quickly sorting out what he had read until he had a frame of reference of what Rin was talking about.

“I...I am like this,” he began. “People are scared of me. And it never occurred to me that I could be...seen differently? That someone could see something other than what I thought I was.” Nines shook his head, aware that his words made no sense. “I don’t want the children to be scared.”

“Oh, they won’t be scared,” Rin reassured him. “Children...they don’t care as much as you think. They may ask, because they are young and have not yet been taught not to be curious. But I assure you, as long as you play with them, they won’t care about what you are and are not.” Nines looked at her dubiously. “Wait! I know!” she cried out, jumping from the bench in one smooth movement, startling #9 awake. “Stay here!” 

Nines stared after her when she ran straight into the library. At his feet, #9 yawned and stretched, obviously disgruntled at having had his nap interrupted. For a few moments, without Rin’s almost manic energy, the garden felt peaceful, quiet. Nines decided he liked it, but he liked Rin’s sharp grin even more, as much as he liked Connor’s soft chocolate eyes.

It didn’t take long for the other android to come back, and when she stopped in front of Nines, she unfurled a bright piece of fabric with a sound of triumph.

It was an apron. Neon pink, with bright green ties and a smiling sun in the center cut from an equally lurid piece of yellow fabric.

“There,” Rin declared, hanging the apron around Nines’ neck. Although the apron was meant to be cute, on him it was ridiculous: too small for Nines’ wide frame, the colors a sharp contrast against his sober clothes. “No one can ever be afraid of you with that on.”

Something strange happened then. A bubbling warmth fizzed up through Nines’ circuits, the feeling so strong it spilled over, making Nines shake with the force of it. It took him a couple of seconds to realize it was laughter. For him, it was not an outward thing, as his face refused to make the right expression, but his shoulders shook, his eyes sparkled, LED blinking blue as he delighted in the silliness of the moment.

“This doesn’t suit me at all,” Nines informed Rin, and his voice did what his face could not, coming out warm with humor.

“Oh,” Rin breathed, and apparently relieved at not having crossed any boundaries, grinned once more.

They returned to the library soon after that, and although feeling skittish, Nines followed Rin to the children’s section. He didn’t dare to read that day, but as he watched the children follow Rin’s story with wide eyes, he thought perhaps he would like to try it one day, and that was enough.

 


 

It was not until later that week that Nines managed to see Gavin. It was not on his usual day: Rin had kicked Nines out of the library arguing he had worked as much as they had and he was not even paid for it. Which was true, but Nines considered the fact irrelevant.

The library was interesting. There were endless things to do, and Nines found he liked most of them. Cataloguing and carting books around was something that used very little of his processing power, but he was surprised to discover the mechanical tasks were something he enjoyed.

He ran errands too, for the librarians, and this gave Nines a chance to glimpse how the library worked. And he liked it. Nines was programmed to learn and adapt, to dissect patterns, and as soon as he felt certain enough the was not in the way of anyone, his natural curiosity flared up. Out of the four humans librarians, three of them, once they had gotten over their initial surprise at Nines’ stern countenance, were delighted to chat with him about the library, and their tasks, and their studies.

Info dumping , Emma, one of the librarians, had called it, but smiled when Nines earnestly assured her he found it all very interesting.

(The fourth librarian was the director, the severe woman Nines had met the very first day he had chased #9 to the library. She didn’t talk a lot to anyone and always seemed to be in a hurry, so Nines didn’t take it as a slight at all.)

The apron, too, had been an absolute success. The children had giggled and pointed when Rin had introduced him as her assistant, and that was it. Even patrons that first recoiled at Nines’ size smiled when they saw the ridiculous apron, and Nines, who had never had strangers smile at him even politely, found he liked it even if they did it because they found humor in how ill the apron fit him.

So all in all the week had gone so unexpectedly well that when Rin planted herself in front of him, hands on her hips, looking fierce even short and small as she was, Nines had been nothing but amused.

“Out,” she commanded, narrowing her eyes at him, and Nines though she was mirroring the expression of the Director. “You’ve worked too much and we’re grateful, but you can’t possibly lock yourself here forever.” Nines had raised an eyebrow in carefully crafted disagreement, and Rin’s indignation had flared up all the more. “The day is nice, so go and don’t return until Sunday. I’m not having you getting overworked in your first week.”

“Androids can’t get overworked—“ Nines argued, just to be contrary, but hurried to put the books down when Rin’s eyes blazed.

Although the prospect of a free evening (and a day) was initially daunting, as Nines walked back home he found he looked forward to going home and spend some time with his books. He stopped to buy wet food for the cats, an unplanned treat, and he felt satisfaction at the fact he could do it without reason, just because he felt like it, like a normal person.

As he walked back home, he thought about calling Connor. Nines knew Connor would be, if not delighted, at least happy for all these positive developments, but it was more than anything the idea of finally having something interesting to tell Connor —something that was not a failure— that made him send a quick message to his predecessor to arrange a meeting. Within five minutes they had arranged to meet the next morning, and, unseen, Nines tried a smile, feeling the edges of his mouth and slightly pulling up the corner of his lips with his index and thumb when his muscles barely responded.

He was still trying to keep the expression in place when he rounded the corner of the alley and stopped dead in his tracks.

Gavin was sitting with his back against a wall, waving around a long cat wand as two cats (the orange tabby Gavin called #1 and the handsome black cat named #8) chased it jumping around and doing fancy pirouettes with the graceful lightness only cats have.

Of course, as soon as Nines stepped into the alley, both cats turned to look at him, #8 dashing right back under a trash can and #1 staying alert but otherwise ignoring the toy Gavin held in front of him.

Gavin sighed, rolling his eyes, and Nines had already opened his mouth to apologize when he spotted #9 trotting towards him, tail raised high in greeting. Close to him, Felicia followed, dragging her leash still attached to her harness.

“Well, look at that,” Gavin whistled lowly, watching as #9 rubbed his fluffy head against Nines’ trousers, leaving them full of black and white hairs. “The old devil found his lord and master at last.”

Nines looked back up to Gavin, distracted by the teasing smirk in the man’s face. It was Felicia who brought him back to reality. Her meows loud and full of righteous indignation at being so ignored.

“Yes, hello young lady,” Nines said, kneeling to pet her, keenly aware of Gavin’s bitten chuckle.

This time, unlike all others, #9 pushed forward to rub his head against Nines’ offered hand, and the android watched in fascination as the cats tried to one up each other to be the focus of Nines’ attention.

“Who would have known you’d be so popular?” Gavin’s mocking voice distracted Nines once again, his internal processes torn between giving all of his attention to Gavin or the cats.

The cats won when Felicia jumped up Nines’ back to settle at his shoulder, energetically grooming his ear, #9 content with lightly chewing on Nines’ index finger: his own particular brand of odd affection.

“He has never done this before,” Nines commented after a while. From the corner of his eye he saw Gavin flinch, but he was not quick enough to catch the reason. When he looked up, Gavin’s face was carefully blank, eyes averted. Unable to cancel the process fast enough, Nines blinked when his scans informed him of the man’s elevated vitals.

“Yes, well,” Gavin’s voice was tense and he cleared his throat as if he had noticed. “He likes you, apparently.” But as if a spell had been broken, Felicia jumped from Nines’ shoulder to go to Gavin and #9 turned to look at her, evidently torn between being pet and following.

Nines made the decision for him by standing and going to Gavin himself, producing the cans of cat food from the depths of the pockets of his coat and offering them to the man.

They fed the cats in a strange tense silence different of the tense awkward silences they had before, but Nines had remembered what he wanted to tell Gavin and frowned, trying to figure out how to bring it up.

Gavin opened the cans of food, the sound immediately summoning several cats. They watched the proceedings with interest, #1 not even deigning to pretend and burying his head into the first bowl as soon as the man was finished filling it. Seeing this, #8 emerged from under the trash containers, whiskers trembling at the smell of the food but not quite daring to come over. Gavin tried his best to fend off #1 with his feet until he was done filling all the bowls and backing away, so the shier cats could comfortably come out from their hiding spots and eat in peace.

They watched the cats come out. #7, the tortoiseshell, glared at the human and the android with her amber eyes but followed #8, pressing herself close to him even when eating. #5 jumped down the wall, her orange and white fur matching nicely with #5’s. #4 was the last to come out, a slender and graceful tailless tabby, the matriarch, who looked severely at Nines and Gavin as if ready to scold them if they stepped out of line.

A few feet away, Felicia and #9 were tangled together, grooming each other, lost to the rest of the world.

“Spit it out, tin man,” Gavin said after a few more moments of silence, voice clipped. 

Nines recoiled a little, both at Gavin’s tone and at the nickname. Although he had never read that specific book, Nines immediately recognized the reference, and he couldn’t avoid the sudden pang of hurt at the thought Gavin was comparing him to a heartless character, no matter how in jest.

Heartless, a dark part of him whispered, a part rooted on his deepest fears.

You don’t have a heart.

“Excuse me?” he asked instead, trying not to let his hurt seep into his voice.

“I can see by that Christmas light you have in your temple that you’re dying to say something,” Gavin clarified, tapping his forehead in the place his LED would be were he an android. “Is this about the library thing you told me last time?”

“I—no. Although I did take your advice,” Nines said. “But no. I attended a neighbors’ meeting. About the cats.”

Gavin’s smirk fell right off his face. “Fuck,” he frowned. “Is that old hag still nagging?”

“They said…” Nines words came in a hurry, like a waterfall, as if after almost a week of turning them over he couldn’t keep them in any longer. “That they are a bother. That they must be taken away,” Gavin’s eyes snapped to Nines, as if surprised, as Nines kept going. “They—they live like this. If it’s winter they are cold. If they are thirsty the must drink from puddles on the street. How harsh it must be, not to have a home. To not belong anywhere. Aren’t their lives hard enough? To be called an inconvenience…Why can’t they live here? They don’t hurt anyone!”

Something flashed through Gavin’s face, a sort of understanding. “You…” the man began, before shaking his head as if to clear it. He rubbed one hand over his jaw, hand slipping downwards his neck to just under the v-neck of his shirt to toy with a slender silver chain hidden underneath. “I thought she’d give it a rest,” he mumbled in the end, grimacing.

“The detective who neutered them,” Nines pressed. “Was it you?”

Gavin lowered his eyes. “They’re feral,” he explained, gesturing towards the cats with the hand that was not still at his throat. “The colony was bigger. When people began to complain, we took the kittens and those that could be socialized. So far, all of them have been adopted. But these ones…”

Nines stared, his LED whirling amber as he put together facts and preconstructions.

“You were playing with them just now,” he said, slowly, voice colored by his dawning realization. “You are trying to socialize them.”

“Well, they’d have better odds than leaving them under that witch’s watchful eyes,” the man defended, as if Nines had accused him of a crime. “People are cruel, especially to those they do not think as important,” he said bitterly. “#1 and #8, at least, might make it. Although I don’t know if #7 will be able to live without her brother.”

Nines watched the cats in question. They had finished their meal and were sitting close together, #7 licking her brother’s face, cleaning him. They were both purring up a storm.

It made Nines sad to think they could not just leave as they were. That they may face separation simply because someone found them bothersome.

“Was Felicia one of them?”

“This one was probably abandoned,” Gavin explained, the relief obvious in his voice at the change of subject. “She was twirling between my feet the second she saw me. She was not afraid of people. That’s why it was easy to take her in.” He smiled fondly. “Well, that and the fact that she didn’t give me much choice. She attached herself to me and pretty much followed me home. Much like--” he blinked, cutting himself off, and turned his head trying to hide a light blush that made the tips of his ears go bright red.

Nines filed the reaction for further analysis. “But not 9.”

“No. Not #9. He is wild. He has his own way of living, but look at him. Doesn’t he look happy?” he asked, pointing at the cat in question, sprawled as he was on the dirty concrete without a care in the world. “There’s nothing wrong with the way he is. But you’re right. Cats are cats. We cannot fault them for what they are. But we do.”

Nines turned back to the cats, thoughtful.

Gavin had to leave soon after, picking up a reluctant Felicia when she refused to part from #9, so they didn’t talk more that day. And even though Nines as deep in thought, he was not that far gone not to notice the small boy that had been listening around the corner of the alley and ran back to his grandma’s apartment before Nines had the chance to do anything.

 


 

At exactly seven fifty in the morning, Nines was standing in St. Helen’s Park under a big, beautiful chestnut tree.

The modest park had been his and Connor’s meeting place since Nines had been cleared to leave New Jericho and live on his own. It was halfway between Lieutenant Anderson’s house, in which Connor still lived, and Nines’ apartment, and although the park was beautiful, with grassy areas, tall trees and a big playground for the children, Nines had not fond memories of it.

Although he knew it was illogical and Connor would be hurt if he knew, he associated the park with his failures. Weekly, he would meet Connor under the chestnut tree and have to either confess his failures at integration or fake an empty contentment about how things were going.

But this once, for the first time in the almost five months since he left New Jericho (which now comprised the majority of his life) he left his flat earlier than usual, excited to meet Connor. It was the first time he had interesting things to share, about the library and Gavin and the cats, and it felt somewhat strange to feel he actually had interests of his own. It made him feel like he was finally getting the hang of living, that he was not a copy of Connor but his own person.

He saw Connor in the distance at exactly seven fifty-nine, and at eight o-clock of the dot his predecessor was greeting him, the Lieutenant’s big Saint Bernard trotting beside him in a leash.

“He wouldn’t stop sniffing his leash and whining at me to hurry,” Connor explained. “I think he knew I was meeting you today.”

Sumo looked up at Nines and true to Connor’s word the dog whined, tail waving like crazy, and the android had barely set one knee on the grass when Sumo pulled at his leash to jump at Nines, licking him and leaving slobber all over his face in enthusiasm.

“He missed you,” smiled Connor, looking Nines struggling to make the dog settle down. It was something Nines could do easily, as he had the strength, but he would never risk hurting the old dog. “I missed you too,” Connor admitted, his voice almost a whisper.

Nines’ LED blinked amber in surprise, the wave of warmth that washed over him at the words startled him, both because he had not expected Connor to express such a feeling, and because he recognized within himself that he had missed Connor as well.

“I also missed you,” he answered, --too serious, too formal-- but Connor beamed and Nines decided to leave all of his self-consciousness aside and trust Connor. Maybe this anxiousness he felt at thinking Connor might judge him was imagined. After all, it had been a long time since Connor had expressed anything other than concern and friendliness for him.

“So how have you been?” Connor asked, chocolate eyes soft and gentle, and Nines found that the texture of Sumo’s fur under his hands helped the words come out.

They sat on a bench under the tree. The sun fell over them both like a blanket, the warmth making Nines’ sensors tingle pleasantly. And there, with Sumo’s big head on his lap, Nines told Connor about the cats. His LED flickered amber with nervousness, because he had never told him about his uncertainty and the anxiousness his past jobs caused him. But Connor listened in silence, humming and nodding encouragingly when Nines paused, laughing when Nines depicted that first time he had chased #9 all over the neighborhood to the library.

Connor’s eyes shone when Nines told him about Rin and her offer, and his eyebrows rose when Nines recounted his odd encounters with Gavin, but didn’t interrupt, and Nines was glad because he found it easy to keep talking now that he had begun.

“I’m sorry about the info dump,” Nines said to conclude, trying an expression he had heard at the library and when Connor laughed Nines felt his joy resonating with him as well, warming him from within as much as the sun warmed him from outside.

“It sounds like you have been busy,” Connor said when he sobered. “I’m glad for you,” he sighed, wistful. “And so many cats! I’d like to see them.”

Immediately, Nines offered a hand, allowing his synthetic skin to peel back as he offered a synch. Connor accepted without hesitation, and as the link stabilized, Nines pushed past the sudden rush of apprehension: he still remembered that awful first synch he had with Connor, back when he was locked in the basement of CyberLife Tower, trapped behind the red grid of his programming, unable to do anything as his protocols tried to hurt Connor.

This time, however, it passed quickly, mostly thanks to the delight Connor sent through their link. Their connection hummed for a second, golden and beautiful, and both androids allowed themselves to remain like that for a while, basking in the warm reassurance and acceptance that went from one end to the other of their bond like a wave, sweet and loving and comforting.

So maybe that was why, when Nines finally shared with Connor a memory of the alley --the one where Gavin introduced the cats-- he was really taken aback when Connor’s LED immediately turned red and he pulled his hand away as if burned, ending the synch so abruptly that Nines felt the recoil as something physical.

“That’s Detective Reed!” Connor said, eyes wide, and Nines frowned in confusion because in truth he had never occurred to him to ask Gavin’s surname. “Nines, that man is Gavin Reed!”

And because it was obvious that Nines still didn’t understand, Connor offered his skinless hand again and shared with Nines his past interactions with Gavin Reed. The mocking. The threats. The gun outside the evidence room.

“Oh,” Nines said after the data transfer was over, and told himself that the sharp sinking feelings that pulled his chest were not hurt and disappointment.

 

Chapter Text

The next few days Nines didn’t meet Gavin and he had never before been glad for the fact. He told himself he wasn’t avoiding the man, but actually he was careful not to go to the alley at the times Gavin had often been there. And yet, whenever he failed to see the man, whenever he saw his darkened window, Nines couldn’t help but want to see him even so.

Torn. He was feeling torn. He didn’t know what to do with Connor’s revelation, and he couldn’t reconcile the mocking, hostile man of the DPD with the one that fed the cats with gentle hands and played with them in secret, when no one was looking.

He knew he was somewhat distracted at work again, but made his best to focus and do his tasks to the best of his ability. Even so, one late day, as he was putting away the returned books for the day with Rin by her side, the other android lightly touched his elbow and said, “I can listen to it, whatever it is,” but didn’t press him further otherwise.

As much as Nines appreciated it, it took him another day to gather the courage to ask Rin to listen to him. He waited outside her office, back straight like he was on a mission, and swiftly went in when Rin’s voice came through the door.

“I was wondering…” he trailed off. He had rehearsed what he was going to say ahead of time, but now that the time came he was uncertain if his request for help was appropriate.

“You wanna talk?” Rin guessed, and Nines had never been so grateful for her ability to read others. “Not about work, right?”

“No. About a...personal issue."

“Sure,” Rin conceded. She pushed back from her desk, the little wheels of her chair squeaking a little on the tiled floor of the cramped office, and she stretched like a cat. “It’s late but...to the garden?”

Nines nodded.

The garden was as lovely at dusk as it was at midday. Now that all the bustle of the day was over, it was as if the garden had settled down as well. The bright green leaves were darker now, the morning glories and the poppies already curled into themselves to sleep. It was quiet, the garden, the day noises replaced by the hushed whisper of the plants and the small sounds of the insects.

The androids sat in their usual recycled red bench, illuminated by the yellow light that came through the big glass windows of the library and Nines’ own bright LED.

“So, what’s up?” Rin asked. She bent to pick a single peppermint leaf and stuck her in her mouth, sucking it. “It’s not the cats, is it? Are they alright?”

“No, it’s not the cats. They are as well as they can be,” Nines hurried to reassure her, upset at the thought that he might have caused her alarm.

“Oh, good. I saw you all grim and for a moment I thought…” she trailed off, shaking her head. “Anyway...”

And accepting the invitation for what it was, Nines told her the bits of the cats’ story he had left out last time, about Gavin and the man’s endeavours, Connor’s experiences with him, and Nines’ own confusion.

“I see,” Rin said at the end, after Nines had finished. “So it’s complicated.”

“In truth I don’t know how to move forward,” Nines explained. A small iridescent beetle landed on his hand, and he thoughtlessly leaned forward so the small insect could jump to the lavender bush. “I know I--I should probably cut contact with him after the way he treated Connor. I want to. But at the same time I don’t . I still want to see him. I want to talk more to him. I want…” Nines’ LED blinked as he tried once more to decide what it was he wanted. “I don’t know,” he said at long last. “I don’t know what I want.”

Rin hummed, lowly singing a song Nines didn’t know. Her head was tilted, and her hair, which was purple today, looked black in the growing darkness of the evening. Her eyes almost glowed in the half-light of the garden, and Nines was reminded of the intelligent way #9 would look at him sometimes. “Well, I don’t really know that I can help this time,” Rin shrugged. “But...are you disappointed?”

Nines snapped his head up, thrown off by the odd question. “I...what?”

“Yes. Are you disappointed? That he’s human,” she clarified. “You’ve been wanting to be this man’s friend, yes? And so far you only saw the good sides of him. But he’s human. It’s only natural he makes mistakes too. Are you disappointed by this?”

Nines frowned, his LED blinking as he seriously considered the other android’s question.

Was he disappointed?

Yes, he realized with an awful pang. If he had to be totally honest, he had wanted Gavin to be this perfect person he’d made up in his mind, a kind person that could be his friend and could fill the empty hole of loneliness that was his heart.

What an ugly and unfair thought that was.

And then...there was the fact that Gavin was an asshole, but if Nines still wanted to know more about him, what did that say about Nines?

“Yes,” he admitted at last.

“And that’s perfectly okay,” Rin reassured him, but grimaced. “Look, neither me nor anyone can tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. I’m not trying to justify his actions, he may be a dick for all I know. I think.... deciding if someone deserves another chance or not is hard. But to decide someone must be perfect to deserve...dunno, love or friendship-- isn’t that screwed up too?”

“I am...afraid...” Nines said after a while, words heavy and slow as he struggled with putting into words what he felt. “Yes. Afraid that my hesitation to leave the detective is...selfish. I didn’t consider myself to be a selfish person, but I am. I can’t place Connor’s wellbeing over my own wants.”

Rin hummed in disagreement. “What, did he ask you to choose or something?”

“Isn’t it common sense?” Nines countered. “Loyalty? Whatever his reasons, Connor has always stood by me.”

“Well, that’s only for you to decide.” For a moment, Rin traced patterns on her knee, absently. Then, “I don’t want to sound like I’m preaching or something, and I’m sure not trying to convince you of anything. God forbid I defend some asshole by accident. I just want to say...every choice you make has consequences, and it doesn’t always have to do with choosing right or wrong. Life is very seldom clearly cut, black and white. Some good choices can have bad consequences, and sure as heck some bad decisions can have good consequences,” she sighed heavily and closed her eyes, and for a moment it looked to Nines like she was holding back tears. However, when she looked at him again, her eyes were clear and her expression earnest. “We never know. So you can be as selfish as you like, because in the end it’s you who’ll live with the consequences of the choices you make. Choose something you can live with.”

The silence of the evening enveloped them, the silence interrupted only by the small signs of life all around them. Nines looked up to the sky, and above them the clouds were lazily passing by, colored a pink hue that was slowly but steadily changing into purple.

“Something I can live with,” he whispered.

Rin squirmed. “That was dumb, wasn’t it?” she panicked. “I’m so sorry. I wish could have helped you--”

“I did not expect you to help me,” Nines interrupted, too surprised to keep it in. “I just thought if I asked another person’s opinion I might see sides of the issue I could not see myself. And I was right. Being listened to is already a gift.” He tried to smile, face pulling in an awkward grimace. “Also I feel remiss, because so far I have been burdening you with my feelings but I have not reciprocated. Please feel free to talk to me if you need to. I don’t know how much I’d be able to help, but at least I’ll listen.”

Rin’s eyes widened and then she looked down, suddenly shy. Her smile was tentative and secret, but in that single moment, sitting with Nines in the modest library garden, she looked the happiest Nines had ever seen her.

“Thank you,” Rin whispered, voice soft and fluttery like a little bird, and Nines thought he understood the feeling.

He, too, was very grateful at having found a friend.

 


 

As if a weight had been lifted from Nines shoulders, the following days passed like a dream. The days were bright and beautiful, and Nines enjoyed everything as it came: the busy activity at the library, the children’s squeals and curious stares at story time, the peace he had with the cats, the quiet nights he spent on his green armchair reading everything that caught his fancy.

Connor’s message to meet came soon after, and once again Nines met him under the chestnut tree, with Sumo trying to tackle him to the ground in his enthusiasm.

If Nines was apprehensive, it was because he had already decided what he wanted to do, but he needed to talk about it with Connor first.

However, it turned out to be almost unnecessary.

“I didn’t mean to make you unhappy,” Connor blurted out right after saying hello. Now that Nines took a better look at him, he noticed Connor looked harried, and his expression was one of great concern.

“You have not,” Nines countered, and it was the truth. Connor had been the only constant person in his life almost from the beginning, and although he didn’t quite understand why his predecessor would bother with him, and despite Nines’ mixed feelings, he truly appreciated it.

“I felt it through the sync,” Connor pressed, although his voice was uncertain. “I didn’t mean--I didn’t want to--” Connor bit his bottom lip, his amber LED betraying his growing frustration. “Hank said I should better express my feelings, so... I don’t want you to stop doing something that makes you happy for my sake,” he said. “Detective Reed has not been nearly as bad since the Revolution. Granted, it’s not like we interact much at all, but— I really don’t care, especially since it’s something that causes you such joy. I-- you were happy,” the finally went unsaid, but Nines heard it nonetheless.

Nines’ LED settled in amber. He stopped petting Sumo and stood, seriously studying Connor. His predecessor looked at him with big pleading eyes, and Nines knew in that moment that he’d give Connor anything he wanted when he looked at him like that.

Are you disappointed? Rin had asked. It had been about Gavin, but it could apply to Connor too. Nines had seen him as this big, perfect presence he could never live up to, but maybe he had it wrong. Maybe the reason Connor took interest in him was because he, as well, wanted Nines to like him.

It was obvious, in retrospect. Connor was a person too.

Connor waited patiently beside him as he thought, waited until Nines was ready and offered a sync to Connor.

This time, he sync was not golden but blue. Pure, peaceful blue, intense and calm like the sea. Nines smiled, and inside the sync, it was easily communicated. Like that, Nines showed Connor his feelings, warmth and affection and the need to be accepted. His doubts and fear he would always be inadequate. His selfishness at wanting to know the detective, but not wanting to let Connor down. He didn’t show Connor everything because he didn’t yet have the courage to do so. But this was enough.

It was enough.

[ Loyalty. ] Connor breathed, his awe coloring the sync purple. [ You feel loyalty towards me. ]

Nines relaxed when he sensed Connor’s delight at his feelings, his own insecurity, the wish that he could belong with Nines.

A family.

[ Oh. ]

[ I don’t mean to pressure… ]

[ No. ] The blue wave enveloped them both, a world that belonged only to them. They were similar, in a sense, as close as an android could come to kin. [ I think I’d like that. ]

Connor’s burst of joy was like fireworks, and Nines laughed, free of the restraints of his faulty programming.

[ Tell me how it goes with the Detective? ] Connor requested. [ I could have been more tactful, but I’m glad you know the truth. Still, I can admit I’m curious. And I trust you. Just…be careful okay? Humans have strange boundaries sometimes that are not as straightforward as one might think. ]

Nines grinned, sending to Connor the memory of his freak out a few months ago when he walked into Hank in the shower to ask if he could help him wash his back, which had only resulted in a bottle of shampoo crashing against a tiled wall and a very stern lecture about boundaries.

Connor grimaced, abashed, the embarrassment at having shared that with Nines clear in their sync.

“Oh, shut up,” he grumbled, breaking their connection, and Nines, feeling a flare of pride at having properly embarrassed his brother, counted that as a victory.

 


 

So all in all it was fortunate that Connor gave his blessing because barely a day later Nines was returning early from the library when he met Gavin, at his usual place at the usual time, with Felicia in a leash as always.

The man’s head snapped up when he saw the android, a small smile crossing his face at the sight of Nines, and something warm bubbled in Nines’ chest, his desire to talk to him and be in his presence almost overpowering.

Something I can live with , he thought.

“Hello, Detective,” he greeted, satisfied when Gavin rolled his eyes.

“Cut that crap. You make me feel like I’m on duty.”

It was almost scary how easily they fell into step, walking Felicia. It felt natural, comfortable, as if they had done this for a long time and not barely a couple of months.

“Hey, so I know this is an odd request,” Gavin said after they had walked around the block and they were in front of Gavin’s (fancier) building on the other side of the alley. “But if you could--and if you’re interested, of course… Fliss’ pet sitter had to quit,” he explained and Nines blinked as he did whenever he received new information he had not expected, however logical it might be. “Switched jobs or something, and good for her. But it leaves me in a bad place, as I cannot leave my girl alone for so long. Fliss already likes you so I thought...if you’re still struggling about the job thing...”

Gavin’s words came out quickly, and he shifted his weight a little, eyes looking everywhere but Nines as he made his proposition. And as he talked, Nines’ brain made calculations: schedules, plans about how he could balance his volunteering at the library with pet sitting Felicia. An opportunity he had never dreamt he’d had.

“I will pay you to pet sit her, of course.”

That snapped Nines out of his reverie. “Detective, there is no need—“

“For fuck’s sake,” Gavin drawled. “If you don’t want to just say so.”

“It’s not that I don’t want--”

“Then what? Weren’t you guys making a racket a while back to have rights and all that shit? Or is it that you want to be my servant? My own personal android?”

Gavin was obviously teasing, but Nines’ LED went red even so because the input became too much. On one side, the man was completely right. He was offering fair compensation for Nines’ services, and that was only fair. And on the other, while Nines felt some offense that Gavin implied Nines might want to be an object —a slave— there was an odd heat that flared up at the thought, a thrill he had never felt before at the idea of serving Gavin. Of being his.

He frowned, troubled, blinking away the many warning instabilities in his programming he had not experienced since the first months he deviated.

“No. I am my own person,” Nines said, testing the words. They felt right in his mouth, and that soothed his LED back to blue. “I accept your offer.”

Gavin’s grin made the overheating warning pop up again and Nines took a discreet breath to cool himself down, making a note to go through his coding later on to find the root of this strange error.

“Great! When can you come? I have busy days coming, so it’d have to be soon. You may hang out at my place, or leave, I don’t really care. As long as Fliss is fed and taken care of.”

They worked out the details under the hot sun of July, and Nines was so distracted by this new development that he failed to notice until much later the small figure that left the alley with a carton of milk pressed to his chest and chocolate wrappers in his pocket.

 


 

July passed peacefully, and as August arrived, bringing with it cloudy skies and hot days, Nines’ life settled into a comfortable routine.

He spent four mornings a week volunteering at the library, carrying books around, cleaning, and basically assisting the librarians with pretty much everything they needed. Rin, in particular, set apart some time every day to teach Nines how to best catalogue books and do the administrative tasks. This last thing often put them in the path of the Director, but although the woman didn’t talk much and was always strict and severe, Nines quickly noticed how her whole demeanor would soften when it was Rin talking to her, how the woman’s eyes would gentle with affection whenever Rin laughed.

Nines noticed the way Rin would always find excuses to touch the Director --a brush of hands, a hand on the woman’s shoulder--, how she seemed to bloom every time she had the woman’s attention, and he didn’t have to ask. He was glad for his friend, because whatever it was between them it was obviously mutual, and so he tried his hardest to be unobstructive and as helpful as possible.

Felicia he would pet sit on Tuesdays and Fridays and whenever Gavin had a case that demanded he stayed late. Gavin’s flat was bigger than Nines’, decorated in an old fashioned style the android had not expected.

The two couches that were the focal point of Gavin’s living room were big, heavy, and comfortable, covered in pillows and soft blankets well worn with use. That seemed to be the theme of the house. Maybe because of the cat or because of Gavin’s own preferences, there were plenty of things that were soft, from the round carpet in the middle of the room, to the plushy foot rest covered in cat hair.

A place made for comfort, Nines realized, thinking back to his empty room with only an old green armchair for furniture.

Unlike Ninie’s barren place, Gavin’s was clean although not ordered: cat toys were strewn all over the wooden floor, hoodies and fluffy socks left on the couch and over the highchairs around the kitchen island. A couple of cluttered bookcases were carelessly filled with old fantasy novels, games, and knick knacks that spoke of a lifetime of interests.

Nines liked it the first time he entered it, and continued to like it each time he went to take care of Felicia. Although the cat always looked disappointed he wasn’t Gavin, she would allow him to brush her and harness her to go for a walk, often curling on Nines’ lap to sleep after she’d been fed.

Sometimes, when #9 scratched at the window to announce his presence, Nines would sit on the couch, one cat curled on his lap and the other resting his big head on his thigh, and read, cherishing the peace of the moment, his LED blinking blue blue blue.

 


 

So maybe it was because everything was going right for once that Nines was so unprepared for that day in early August when he entered the alley, the pockets of his jacket full of canned cat food as always. He looked around, especially alert because #1 had been missing for the past three days, which was unusual for the friendly orange tabby. He was relieved to see him curled up in the bottom of the alley, cuddled up to #4, but the relief immediately vanished when #4 saw him and, instead of hissing or hiding as she usually did, she meowed, loud and urgent.

Now, everyone who has had cats sooner or later learns to identify their meows. Even when they are being demanding, normal meows are light --if loud-- or annoyed, perhaps. But there is a quality to the sound a hurt cat makes that leaves no doubt about it. A chilling sound, deeper, lower, awful in it’s urgent misery. That was the sound #4 made when she caught sight of Nines at the entrance of the alley.

Nines systems went into alert mode almost without him noticing. He was besides the cat in a second, and maybe because #4 understood Nines was there to help, she didn’t flee under the trash cans as usual. #1 was curled into a small dirty ball, panting, near what were, unequivocally, two piles of vomit.

Fear slammed into Nines strongly, like a wall, the blow almost physical in its intensity. It narrowed the world into Nines’ emergency protocols: taking the cat’s temperature, his pulse, a sample of the vomit.

#1 cried out when Nines touched him, a wretched pained sound, and for a moment Nines’ mind went blank with panic.

Act , he ordered himself, acutely aware of the gravity of the situation, but he couldn’t move. He didn’t know what to do. The cat-- he was in pain, and Nines needed--he didn’t know how to help--and what if--

Gavin.

He was calling Gavin before he could think it over, something he had never done before. It was Gavin who always called or messaged him, usually to ask Nines to drop by an extra day to take care of Felicia. But #1 was crying and his temperature was too high and his breathing labored, and it felt forever until Gavin’s voice picked on the other side of the line.

“Gavin,” Nines began, voice gravelly. It was silly because it was not like he needed to breathe, or vocal chords to speak, but it felt like the weight on his chest was crushing his voice, making it difficult to talk. “The cat--” he began, struggling against the current of panic. “#1 is--he’s barely breathing, and I--I don’t know what’s wrong--I--”

“Nines,” Gavin’s voice was clear in his ear, strong and confident. The only point in which Nines could focus. “Breathe.”

But no, that was wrong, that was not it. “I--I’m an android, I don’t need--”

“I don’t fucking care,” Gavin interrupted him. There was noise in the background, noise that Nines could not make out right then. “Can you hear my breathing? Is that something you can do?”

Nines concentrated. “Yes.”

“Good. Now breathe with me. In and out,” the command in Gavin’s voice appealed to something within Nines’ programming, making him obey. His breathing was stuttery and weak at first, but Gavin must have head it because he kept talking. “Very good. That’s good. Think about--shit, the library? You like to read, don’t you? Think about your favorite book. Can you recall the words?”

Nines struggled. He couldn’t think about the books now, the cat--

“Nines!” Gavin’s voice cut through his panic again. “ Do you remember the words?

Words. Yes. Gavin wanted to hear the words and Nines remembered.

“When— when Mary Lennox went to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen,” he began.

“Good,” Gavin cooed, his voice softening as it did when he spoke to Felicia. “Good, keep going.”

Nines did. He recited the book from memory, the words clear before his eyes, and as he talked about the lonely disagreeable little girl that only learnt to read because she loved books, he felt his vision widen, his mind clear, his stress levels steadily lower.

90%

80%

70%

“That’s it. You’re doing great, tin man,” Gavin encouraged him. It was the nickname that did it, the nickname Nines so disliked soothing him and grounding him. “Are you alright now?”

“Yes,” Nines said, tentatively, finding as he said it that it was true. “I’m sorry…”

“There’s nothing to apologize for,” Gavin cut him once more, voice urgent now that Nines’ panic was over. “Now tell me about the cat.”

Nines did, as briefly as accurately as he could. Short sentences. Key points. Like giving a report.

On the other side of the line, Gavin gave him orders, the confidence and command in his voice finally finishing dispeling Nines’ panic.

Mind clear and systems in emergency mode, he wrapped up the frail whiny cat on his jacket and, once that the precious bundle was safely cradled in his arms, hurried to do what he had to.

 

Chapter Text

 

The apartment was dark, and when Nines took a step inside, he was welcomed by the smell of lemons.

It was nothing more than the smell of the dish soap that Gavin favored, but it always made Nines’ sensors ping. It was a clean and fresh smell, pleasurable under the headier scent of the cat, and it settled on the sensitive sensors of Nines’ tongue, together with all the other smells of Gavin’s apartment--wood and dust and sweat and the man’s cologne.

Walking into Gavin’s empty apartment now, although Nines had done it a dozen times by now, felt strange.

The past twenty four hours were kind of a blur.

Realistically, Nines knew it must have been him who ran up the stairs to Gavin’s apartment, #1 a shaky bundle against his chest, left food for Felicia, grabbed her carrier and put the sick cat inside to take him to the vet.

He vaguely remembered the silent promises he had made to the other cats --who watched him through serious eyes as he left with #1-- as he took a cab to the address Gavin had sent him.

The vet had already been expecting him, proof that Gavin must have spared the time to call ahead. Nines had been rushed in as the vet did a quick physical exam, taking blood to do all the possible tests. Nines, however, had already known the diagnosis. He’d shared his own analysis with the vet, all the data he had recollected, everything he had inferred.

Chocolate poisoning.

The next eight hours or so had been the longest of Nines’ life. The days he spent locked away, under watch hence his programs made him dangerous, were suddenly nothing against the awful fear and uncertainty he felt at the fate of one small cat.

In the end, when the vet came to him, she was smiling weakly.

“You were lucky he threw up so much,” she explained. “That’s probably what saved him.” Nines didn’t dare ask, but the woman must have known because she hurried to answer Nines’ unvoiced question. “He’ll be fine. He’s dehydrated, but at this point he’ll be okay. However, we’d like to keep him overnight to watch him. Just in case.”

In his books, Nines had often read how someone’s legs gave out from under them from relief, but he had never thought such a thing was possible until it happened to him. He sat back down on the ugly green plush chairs in the vet’s small waiting room, the relief sapping all his strength from him. He thought, had he’d been human, he would have sobbed.

He spent that night outside of the vet clinic, in the shadows, creepy and silent and watchful like a gargoyle but unable to leave.

After all the panic of earlier that day, he felt strangely detached from the situation. Still, he was on high alert, all of his defense protocols engaged, and if someone had had the very unfortunate idea of breaking into the vet clinic that night, they would have received a most nasty surprise in the shape of a deadly android.

However, nothing happened. The night was calm and Nines’ watch was only interrupted by Gavin’s three updates -- that he’d caught a suspect and couldn’t make it home, that he’d drop by in the morning to feed Felicia, and that #1 was strong and Nines shouldn’t worry.

Nines was still feeling detached when he came back home with #1 -- Gavin’s , he corrected himself tiredly. Gavin’s home.

When he opened the door, Felicia trotted over from where she had been curled in her bed under the window, tail high in welcome, and Nines shook himself. Gently, oh so very gently, he moved the cat carrier to place it beside Felicia’s bed, opening the door so #1 could come out.

#1 didn’t come out. Asleep as he was, curled against the further edge of the cage, he didn’t even stir. He looked small and frail, his orange fur dull and disheveled, and Nines would have been worried if not for the vet’s reassurances and the fact that he was monitoring the cat’s vitals, his little heart beating quickly in a corner of Nines’ sight.

Unprompted, Felicia slipped into the cage, probably to cuddle #1 into health, and Nines left the cats to it, confident Felicia would take care of #1.

Around him, the little noises of the apartment became loud in Nines’ sensors, soothing him, welcoming him. There was that feeling again, that sense of otherness, as if it had been ages since Nines had wandered into the alley and not just some hours. He felt weary, limbs heavy, and although he had told Rin plenty of times androids didn’t feel tired, right then Nines thought he must have been mistaken, because surely this was what tiredness felt like.

Still, Nines couldn’t calm down. He paced the flat with nervous energy, cleaning what he could although Gavin had told him plenty of times it wasn’t necessary.

It was necessary. It kept Nines busy, kept him moving, kept him from reliving the moment when he found #1. Kept him from wondering why he didn’t want to return home, and why the smell of lemons soothed him.

Helped him not to drown in guilt.

In the end, when there was nothing else he could possibly clean, Nines went to Gavin’s bookshelf to browse the books. Fantasy books mostly, Tolkien and Rowling, The Once and Future King, Gaiman. Old hard covers of abridged versions of Dumas and Verne, children’s books that talked about Gavin’s love of adventures. Mystery novels, Sherlock Holmes and Poirot and Arsene Lupin. And tucked in a corner, a green copy of The Wizard of Oz.

Tin man, Gavin’s voice taunted him. It was Gavin’s voice in his mind, although Gavin had never spoken to him thus: with the cruelty of his coworkers that talked about him behind his back in an ill lit backroom.

Tin man.

Heartless.

Nines turned around, unable to look at that particular book. He had never read it, and he didn’t dare to. Still, he wondered if that was the reason he felt so detached from everything. If it was his lack of heart that made him feel so.

His faulty programming.

Unsettled, but lost as to what to do about it, Nines curled up in Gavin’s soft couch and wrapped himself in a fluffy blanket. Surrounded by the man’s smell, and making sure he could monitor the cat’s vitals, he accessed the library’s digital catalog, downloaded a book, and began to read.

 


 

It was well past two in the morning when Gavin finally opened the door.

The yellow light of the hall spilled around him, cutting his harsh silhouette and throwing his long shadow against the floor. Nines was out of the couch in a second, standing awkwardly in the middle of the living room, uncertain as to how to act. He had never before waited for Gavin to come back from work this late, and perhaps it was because of the hour that it felt strange, like Nines was crossing some sort of boundary.

Gavin’s eyes went straight to Nines’ yellow glowing LED, the only light in the dark room. Nines didn’t think he imagined the way the man relaxed, how his shoulders unclenched, losing some of the tension he always carried with him.

The small involuntary reaction did something visceral to Nines. It awakened a strong yearning in him, a desire to do something he didn’t understand.

“Tin man?” Gavin asked in the darkness and Nines fought the way the words sank into him like an arrow, tearing through something tender.

However, before Nines could react in any way, Gavin turned on the lights. As if the light chased away the spiderweb of a spell, the wavering moment passed, leaving Nines blinking owlishly as if his eyes needed to adapt to the new brightness.

Unaware --or uncaring, perhaps-- of Nines’ struggle, Gavin kicked his shoes off and hung his jacket by the door. His sock clad feet didn’t make any noise as he walked towards the cat’s bed, craning his neck to peer at the two cats that had migrated from the cage and were now curled around each other.

“How is he?” Gavin asked in lieu of greeting. Nines was grateful for that, because he didn’t think he could engage in small talk right now.

“Sleeping. The vet said he’d need some rest.”

Gavin nodded, still tiptoeing towards Felicia’s bed. At the sound of Gavin’s voice, Felicia opened one yellow-green eye to look at him. She blinked slowly now, and, communicating she had everything under control, licked #1’s ear and rearranged herself so she half laid on top of the other cat, hugging him, protecting him.

#1, oblivious and exhausted, slept on.

Gavin sighed, a weary sound, and walked to his left, towards the open kitchen. “Jesus fuck,” he grimaced, running a hand through his face and avoiding furniture without looking down, with movements born out of habit. “What a scare. Sorry you had to deal with this on your own.”

Nines watched Gavin move restlessly around his apartment, looking around trying to find something to do. Gavin always seemed tense, but tonight he looked more so. There was something wild in his eyes, some strong energy coiled within him that the man was very obviously trying to repress.

“I think it’s me who should apologize,” Nines answered after a while, because the thought had been corroding him like poison, and he couldn’t keep it in any longer. “I should have--it was my fault. I should have protected him.”

“Shut up!” Gavin snapped, gritting his teeth. Nines’ LED blinked red, startled by the reaction. He had never seen Gavin angry before. However, Gavin was angry now, fists curled and almost vibrating with anger, face twisted into a haughty snarl. “That’s--who the fuck do you think you are? Do you think you’re some kind of superhero? So superior that you can somehow foresee everything bad that happens and avoid it?” Gavin bit his bottom lip then, so harshly Nines thought he might draw blood. Then, a shadow crossed his face, anguish, self-hatred, but he turned away from Nines before the android could read much more into it. “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, so shut the fuck up!”

His back to Nines, Gavin messed around in the kitchen, loudly opening and slamming cupboards as he retrieved the ingredients to make himself something to eat.

Nines stayed where he was, LED whirling and whirling as he turned around Gavin’s words in his head. It was a novel idea, the thought that his software didn’t allow him to preconstruct every possible outcome. It was true too. Logically, no matter how advanced he was, there was no way he could predict human behaviour with 100% accuracy.

Then, if it wasn’t his fault, why did he feel guilt?

“You are correct,” he said at last, only belatedly realizing Gavin might not expect an answer from him. Indeed the man looked up, surprised, as if he hadn’t expected for Nines to still be in the room. As if he hadn’t expected Nines might talk to him at all. “I realize it’s not my fault #1 came to harm. But still I feel guilty. I think it’s because...it’s...harder to accept there’s nothing I could have done to prevent him being hurt,” he concluded. “To accept something bad may happen without reason, or without me being able to help at all...it’s a harder thing to do.”

As if his words had disarmed Gavin, the man deflated, the anger physically bleeding out of him, leaving him looking pale and exhausted behind the kitchen counter. Just like Nines’ felt.

“I believe it’s one of my flaws,” Nines continued. “I indeed have the habit of thinking only about myself. I am supposed to be programmed to deal with high stress situations, but I saw #1 and I couldn’t do anything but panic. The way I reacted was cumbersome, and shameful, and I feel guilty for that too.”

Gavin snorted, absently rubbing his neck. To hide, he turned to the fridge, opening it to drink orange juice straight from the carton like the neanderthal he was. “Really, tin man?” he shook his head. “That’s because you have fucking feelings. Any sane person would have panicked. Don’t feel too special.”

Feelings.

Nines frowned, uncertain.

Tin man.

The Tin Man was not supposed to have feelings, was he?

“I--” he began and maybe his voice or his LED gave him away because Gavin’s attention focused immediately to him, alert. “I am made for conflict,” Nines said, slowly, as he did when he was trying to find his words. “Not to feel. For confrontation. That is my purpose.”

Gavin’s expression softened.

“But you hate it,” the man said, matter of factly. It was not a question.

The answer was easy. “I hate it,” Nines repeated, raveling in rush of defiance that the words rose from him. “I hate my programming.”

Gavin hummed. “Then it’s good you’re not following your purpose, right? Fuck that shit.”

“Yes,” Nines agreed. “Fuck that shit.”

Gavin half choked, half laughed, covering his mouth trying to hide his reaction. He cursed, but he was grinning, and that sharp smile that made something hot curl in Nines’ chest.

“What the fuck,” Gavin mumbled to himself, and then, apropos to nothing, “A selfish android...” but he said it like he was pleased, like it was something good, and Nines’ LED shone pure blue in answer, like a star on his temple.

Something clicked between them and the silence became comfortable, and that was what gave Nines enough courage to ask what he wanted to know.

“Detective, are you okay?” he asked, because Gavin seemed tired all the time, and he was pale, the bags under his eyes evidence about how little he must be sleeping. All these things made Nines want to care for him, to make him better, a desire he could now accept honestly.

“Peachy,” Gavin answered, a lie because he was obviously not fine. He avoided the question further by pouring himself a bowl of sugary cereal and eating it in four big spoonfuls. However, when he was done, bowl washed and dried, his hands were shaking.

“I can leave you to rest,” Nines suggested, helpfully, even when it was the last thing he wanted. “You look tired.”

“Yes, this is above your pay grade, isn’t it?” Gavin bit out, voice tight and bitter once more.

“It’s not about the money,” Nines answered, unfaced, letting Gavin’s barb pass over his head. “The truth is that I’m just uncertain. Although as an advanced android I was given access to several databases that should give me understanding of endless topics, is it seems that the more I live, the less I know about things. For example, right now I am uncertain as if what I’m saying is socially acceptable, if there is a protocol for being in another person’s house at three in the morning, and if there is something I can do because I don’t wish to be a bother to you. I thought I’d ask and be certain.”

Gavin stared at him, open mouthed, for a couple of seconds. A complicated expression crossed his face, but Nines had the pleasure of watching it melt into warm amusement, the bitterness of earlier fading and not returning again.

“No shit,” the man snorted, rolling his eyes. He threw himself carelessly on the couch Nines was towering over, covering himself with the same blankets Nines had been buried under just minutes ago. “You thought you’d ask, huh?” he chuckled.

“Of course,” Nines answered, because so far, Gavin had always reacted well to the truth. “And isn’t it strange? Surely, I should be able to gain certainty from my experiences? But I find the opposite to be true: the more experiences I have, the less I react as I had expected of myself. Sometimes I surprise myself reacting in ways I would not have considered before. I feel-- like I know myself less and less each day instead of the other way around. It is most confusing.”

“Yeah, welcome to being alive,” Gavin muttered, tucking his feet under him relaxed and comfortable. “But surely you have found some things you enjoy?”

And Nines, from where he was still standing like a statue in the middle of Gavin’s living room, looked straight into Gavin’s eyes as he answered, “Yes. I have indeed found some things I like.”

The flush on Gavin’s face was unmistakable, a ruddy red that colored his cheeks and climbed to the top of his ears. Nines’ thirium pump quickened at the sight, his fingers twitching when the man ducked his head to try and hide his red face from view.

“Yeah, well,” Gavin cleared his throat, rubbing a hand against the back of his neck to hide the reddened skin. “Anyway, you can stay if you want. God knows you’ve done more for #1 than me. It would not be fair to kick you out after that.”

There was a beat of silence in which it seemed like Gavin was going to say something else before snapping his mouth shut. Although Nines dearly wanted to know what Gavin didn’t dare say, at the same time a warm pleasure hummed through his circuits at the man’s words.

He was allowed to stay.

He was allowed.

“Thank you,” he said, the silence of the night so deep his voice sounded loud between them, even when it had been barely more than a whisper. “I want to be here.”

“Yes, ok, I get that,” Gavin coughed, voice choked, throwing the blankets away and standing in a hurry. “Huh--I’m gonna go change. Or take a shower. Whatever. You--you do whatever you do when I’m not here.”

“When you’re not here I pet Felicia,” Nines informed Gavin’s back, slightly affronted of being accused of doing anything other than his job. Gavin’s back straightened, hand stilling over the doorknob as Nines explained. “I brush her, clean her litter box and play with her. Then I take her out for a walk. Usually she likes to nap on my lap for a couple of hours, so I indulge her.”

There was a dull thump as Gavin rested his forehead against the closed wooden door. Nines was concerned for a moment when Gavin’s shoulders began to silently shake, and it took him a couple of seconds to realize the man was actually laughing.

“Jesus, it’s like you’re my cat’s slave,” he laughed. He turned his head slightly towards Nines, and it was like the android was punched in the chest because the sight was lovely. Gavin’s face was still flushed, eyes crinkled with laughter, eyelashes wet. Like this, he looked young, handsome, and Nines was taken back to the night they had talked in the firescape before the storm, when Gavin had first laughed and he had thought the man looked free. “You know you don’t have to...dunno, stand there like a fucking gargoyle, right? You can read a book if you want. You can even sit on the furniture, you know, like a person,” he smirked, and Nines raised his eyes in mock exasperation.

“I know, detective,” he answered, long suffering, like he didn’t have to speak through instability warnings. As if he didn’t have to needlessly swallow before speaking.


“Good,” Gavin said, and without further ado he finally disappeared behind the door.

Nines looked at the closed door for a little longer, but he was startled out of his reverie by the sounds of Gavin wandering on the other side of it. Not wanting to invade the man’s privacy, Nines turned around, checked on the cats once more for good measure, and then, feeling better about himself that he had in a long time, he finally dared to take a book from Gavin’s bookshelf.

Then, curling on the spot he usually occupied when Gavin was gone, he settled down and began to read: Concerning Hobbits.

 


 

#1’s recovery was quick, but still it took him longer that Nines would have liked.

During the following days, Gavin and Nines came to an unspoken agreement. Nines took care of both cats, went to his job at the library, and then returned to Gavin’s. And even though suddenly the android pretty much lived in Gavin’s flat, the man seemed unconcerned. He’d come out of his room in the morning an old oversized t-shirt and pajama pants and sleepily make coffee and scramble an egg or throw together a sandwich. He didn’t spare a look for Nines, or comment on his presence, and he certainly didn’t seem aware of the way Nines watched his proceedings with utter fascination: this was the first time the android had seen someone cooking, and his learning protocols demanded that he try.

He didn’t try, although it was mostly because Gavin took offense the first time he suggested he could help. Instead, he would sit on the kitchen island besides Gavin and keep the man company, and Nines found this agreeable as well.

Gavin, although grumpy, was pliable in the morning, more honest and relaxed while he enjoyed his first cup of coffee.

And Nines found that living with someone (if what they were doing could be called that) was surprisingly enjoyable. Not only did he like being allowed to see Gavin with mussed hair and wrinkled clothes in the morning (which was a sign of trust Nines was not too dense not to understand, although he wasn’t too sure what he’d done to deserve it), but the fact that someone was there in the morning, someone to sit with, and talk, and well... be, was an unexpected joy Nines hadn’t known existed.

He’d been lonely, he realized one morning, watching Gavin distractedly move a piece of string for Felicia, who was very active first thing in the morning. Rationally, Nines had known it. When he’d been locked up, and after, when he began to live on his own, he’d known he felt alone. But it was not until he had these things --Felicia trying to climb his legs anytime he opened the cupboard that contained her food, Gavin’s mumbled good morning and good night-- that Nines truly understood what loneliness was.

So, even after #1 was well enough that he kept trying to run out of the door every time either of them opened it, Nines stayed. Neither of them talked about #1’s recovery, even when the vet gave the cat her blessing to be returned to the alley. It would have to be soon, Nines knew, because the cat was restless inside, but a selfish part of him whispered: one more day , and Nines couldn’t, for the life of him, end this strange arrangement they had going.

However, as much as Nines loved the mornings, he thought he liked the nights more. Often, Gavin would come out of his room, looking exhausted. He’d curl in the couch, under a pile of fluffy blankets and both cats, and scroll through his phone, looking for all intents and purposes like he was about to cry.

Nines knew what insomnia was, although he had never experienced it, so he didn’t say anything. Instead he read with the light of a small lamp, the low amber glow soothing, and kept track of the man’s vitals until he nodded off, usually a couple of hours before dawn.

It was in the middle of the night in one of these occasions that Nines mind wandered to something he had long since wanted to know.

“How did you decide to be a detective?” he asked into the half-darkness of the room.

From the other couch, Gavin twitched, startled. “Fuck,” he swallowed. The blue light of his phone made Gavin’s face look pale and unhealthy, and under his usual the pile of blankets he looked small. “Do you know what small talk is, tin man? Is there ever such a thing with you?”

“I’m sorry.” Nines apologized insincerely, and then, “What do you think about the weather?”

Gavin snorted a laugh. “Shut up.” He yawned as he returned to his phone, and Nines thought the man was not going to answer when he spoke up again. “There’s not a big reason or anything,” Gavin said. He didn’t say anything else for a long time, and then he looked up to check if Nines was still interested, which of course he was. “Shit, okay, if you really want to know...I was a complete fucked up little shit growing up. Alcoholic father, absent mother, the whole deal. One day it became apparent to me that I would either end up breaking the law or enforcing it. Since I didn’t fancy ending up behind bars forever, I chose the latter.”

“That’s very commendable,” Nines commented, putting his book down now that he didn’t have to pretend not to pay attention to Gavin. It was The Lord of the Rings, which Nines had already read three times in a row, not that he had told that to Gavin.

Gavin laughed bitterly. “It was just self preservation,” Gavin mumbled. He placed his phone on his chest face down, eyes wandering through the room thoughtfully, unseeing. “I guess I just realized there was no one in my corner, know what I mean? I could have ended up dead in a ditch and no one would have cared,” he rubbed his eyes violently with his index finger and his thumb, his hand coming to rest against his neck in a gesture Nines had already seen before. This time, however, he saw the origin: Gavin pulled on a thin silver chain hidden beneath his shirt, the pendant not quite visible under his clothes. “People are like that. They use you when it’s convenient for them and then stab you in the back when they don’t need you anymore. So if I wanted to be happy I had to take happiness with my own hands.” Gavin blinked, as if suddenly aware of what he’d said, although it was evident he was too tired to care. “I’m sure you don’t care about any of my crap, though.”

Nines shook his head. He sat up on the couch, turning his body towards Gavin. Although he was unaware of it, his eyes shone faintly blue in the darkness, mirroring his LED. He made a riveting image, an otherworldly being sitting on Gavin’s couch, and the man couldn’t tear his eyes off him.

“I do. I—I find it fascinating,” Nines confessed, correctly reading the surprise in Gavin’s face. “Yes, I find very interesting how we can see a person —human or android— and not know anything about them by their appearance at all. I mean, I can deduct little things—habits and the like— by small clues and prompts my protocols provide me with. But the reason why they do it… that is something no one can ever know. Not unless you ask, and they choose to say. I find it absolutely fascinating.”

Gavin looked at him, and his eyes were curious, searching.

“Are all androids like you?” he asked in the end, and he looked surprised at himself, like he hadn’t meant to say it.

Nines looked down demurely, his long lashes a dark smudge against his pale skin, hiding as if Gavin could see the quickening of his thirium pump under his gaze, as if he could hear Nines’ blood rushing through his veins.

“I wouldn’t know,” he mumbled, slightly surprised by how much he enjoyed and craved Gavin’s attention like this. “I do not know that many either.”

They remained in comfortable silence for a long time, enveloped in the peaceful quiet of the dead of night like in a safety blanket. Sleep eventually took Gavin, perhaps a bit easier than usual, and Nines allowed himself the indulgence of monitoring the man’s vitals as he slept. There was something reassuring in having the even beating of Gavin’s heart within himself, and Nines treasured it, settling down against the couch with a sigh.

Silently, a cat climbed on Nines’ lap -- #1, as Felicia never left Gavin’s side willingly-- and Nines allowed himself to get lost in the small sounds of life around him: soft purring, Gavin’s soft snoring, the rustle of Felicia kneading the blanket over Gavin’s chest.

Something bloomed in Nines’ chest then, gentle and warm but all-encompassing, so big it spilled and overflowed, and he had read enough to know it for what it was.

Happiness.

His LED pulsed pure blue as he closed his eyes for a moment to better enjoy the sensation, the bittersweet uncertainty of how long it would last making him try to grasp the moment somehow. However, when the minutes passed and the feeling didn’t abate, he resolved himself to pick up his book again and try to enjoy everything for as long as he could.

Like this, heart full, he began to read, and in that moment his only regret was that he could not smile to express how much this small miracle meant to him.

 


 

#1 returned to the alley the very last day of August, not because either Nines or Gavin let him, but because #9 staged an intervention.

The big tuxedo cat appeared on the window early one morning, making a racket until Gavin hurried to open it. He jumped inside with stiff dignity, and then proceeded to meow his little lungs off with such strength both Gavin and Nines got concerned for a moment.

The answer, of course, turned out to be #1. In the commotion made by #9, Gavin forgot to close the window, and as soon as the orange cat had jumped to freedom, #9 curled on the floor like the overgrown ball of fluff he was and proceeded to purr peacefully like nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

“Outsmarted by a fucking cat,” Gavin complained without heat.

Like that, Nines’ days in Gavin’s apartment ended. In truth, Nines couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. In comparison, his own flat felt cold and empty, too silent. However, he didn’t have much time to fret over this, because work at the library picked up again.

It became obvious to Nines that Rin had been assigning him light duties when, the morning #1 returned to the alley, she took one look at him and put him right back to work.

And he’d missed the library, he realized as he shelved books. As much as he’d enjoyed Gavin’s company, Nines had missed his longer shifts too-- the busy silence of the library, the subdued voices, the smell of books.

“We also missed you,” Rin assured him when he voiced his thoughts. “Rudyard was grumpy without you here, and there was a child that was very upset when you didn’t come to story time anymore.”

The cat in question was sprawled in his usual cushion near the big glass window that overlooked the garden, napping in the sun. Felling Nines’ stare, #9 raised his head to look at the android with his one eye, and then yawned, a long heartfelt gesture that put all his pointy teeth on display before going right back to sleep.

They missed me, Nines thought, delighted, watching the cat sleep with indulgence. I was missed.

He’d been. Like he’d always been a part of them, the other librarians welcomed him back with smiles-- Peter with a friendly pat in the back and Emma stopping Nines to have him update her on his cats’ health and to show him the pictures of her own babies, two Siamese cats that looked like mischief incarnated.

Suddenly, it was like everyone knew about Nines’ cats because patrons would stop him to ask about them. As confusing as it was, Nines was happy to answer, but he didn’t figure out the reason until Rin looked down in embarrassment.

“I’m so sorry. It was me who told them,” she confessed. Her hair was mousy that day, with a single strand colored vibrant pink. “Emma asked where you were, and the children overheard. I tried to keep it as quiet as possible, but…”

“It’s okay,” Nines reassured her. “It’s not like it was a secret.”

“Not like that cat man of yours, don’t think I didn’t notice you saying nothing about him,” she teased, and Nines pretended to find the catalogue lists incredibly fascinating.

And as it often happens, after the period of peace of #1’s recovery, life got busy for Nines. As if to make up for lost time, Rin changed his duties again, introducing him to the protocols of interlibrary loans and to the delights of helping patrons find books.

The first day he was assigned to the Front Desk Peter was with him, and although Nines liked the polite man, he was inexperienced enough not to understand the reason. Up until then, Nines had never thought Front Desk duty posed any sort of challenge, but he was quickly disabused of the notion after he spent half an hour trying to find a book for someone who didn’t remember the book’s title or its author, but knew it was very definitely about love... and it turned out to be a collection of stories by H.P. Lovecraft.

“Ah, don’t be too hard on yourself,” Peter comforted him, patting Nines’ back after the android sent the patron on her merry way with the collection of horror stories. “On my first day on the job, a man came in asked me: Do you have books here? I lost whatever faith I had on human intelligence after that.”

“Don’t worry about a thing,” Emma told him later that day, after the library was closed and they were all chatting before going home. “At the place I worked before I had once someone ask me for music by “W.C.” We had to call the music librarian to figure out this person wanted music by Debussy.”

The rest of the librarians laughed, even the Director --from her chair a little apart from everyone-- and as they began to tell their own stories to Nines, he realized with some surprise that they were, in their own way, trying to reassure him. This was the first time Nines had spent a whole shift working in the library and thus had never talked to all the staff at once, but hearing their laughter resonating the dark empty rooms of the building, still full of mirages of their daylight activities, he realized there was belonging here as well.

Nines basked in it, engraving the moment in his memory, humble and small as it was. The cluttered but clean office, the burgundy walls of the room, the mismatched wooden and modern furniture. Rin perched on the Director’s desk, the smell of dust, and book glue and paper and coffee. The human’s smiles, their quickened heartbeats, their shiny eyes and the wrinkles on their faces as they chuckled, looking at him as if he was one of them. Nines took it all in. A desperate wish rose within him, similar to the one he had that night in Gavin’s flat not too long ago-- that these days would continue forever, that he got to keep this in his life.

And smaller, although not less strong, the wish he could give something back to these people, something as precious as they gave him.

Carefully, with a great effort that almost sent him into overheat, Nines concentrated to rearrange his face into a smile. It was hard work, and it was draining, and he didn’t know how accurate it was. But everyone kept on talking as if nothing momentous had just happened, and Nines dropped the expression, both relieved and disappointed by the lack of reaction. Still, his LED blinked vibrant blue, and Rin’s eyes went to it, and the grin of delight she shared with Nines definitely made him feel better about himself.

 


 

Nines worked hard the following days. Although he was still petsitting Felicia and taking care of the cats-- things he couldn’t give up-- he arranged his schedule to work longer hours at the library.

He spent the evenings he wasn’t taking care of Felicia working at the Front Desk, and he had plenty of reasons to be grateful not to be left alone. First, because as he had discovered, humans had the supernatural ability to know terrifyingly little about what they wanted to know, and second, because sometimes Nines hit a wall with his questions. More than once he was left staring in silence at a confused patron, swinging between horror, humor and disbelief, and Peter or Emma (and the Director, once) had to sweep in to save him.

However, because Nines was a RK, and because he was patient and stubborn, he quickly got the hang of reference interviews. Once he understood people’s associations with what they wanted didn’t have a pattern but did have a logic of sorts, the task became less frustrating and more like a challenge. He studied trends, interests humans had depending of age, books schools assigned as readings, and made sure to keep himself updated as to what was popular. His systems sang with all the data and the deductive work, rewarding him every time he managed to find the material someone required.

And although he didn’t know it, the Director was watchful of his progress. Unknowing to him, Rin regularly reported his progress, so the woman made sure to keep an eye out for this new android Rin had so much confidence in.

This is what was happening one day that Nines finished helping someone find The Cat who Hated the Sun which in reality was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. The Director had already opened her mouth to say something to Nines when a patron spoke, effectively summoning Nines attention.

“Excuse me,” she said. The woman was pettite, voice soft and polite, hair cut short. There was a small boy of about six or seven hiding behind her, clutching the denim of her trousers, and Nines' protocols kicked in, his face-recognition software identifying her as the mother of the boy, both of them often present at story time.

“How can I help you?” Nines answered in what Emma dubbed his customer service voice. Nines didn’t understand what about the phrase Emma found so funny, but it had the effect to put humans at ease when they were around him, so Nines was not about to complain.

“Ah, well, really…” the woman looked away briefly, obviously embarrassed, but setting her jaw she soldiered on. “Sorry if this is too weird. My name’s Amelia, and this,” she added, placing a hand on the boy’s head, who was staring at Nines with fixed intensity, a paper sheet clutched on a small fist, “is my son Cecil. We, huh, often come for Storytime.”

“Yes, Mrs. Adams, I remember you both,” Nines said, slightly taken aback when the woman sighed in relief.

“Oh, thank god,” she rushed out, and then smiled. “We just--well--wanted to make sure you’re okay?”

Nines blinked in confusion, uncertain where this was coming from, but thankfully he was saved by the Director.

“Good afternoon, Mrs Adams,” the woman intervened, smoothy. “Hello, Cecil. I see you have finally managed to hunt down Nines.”

The boy half-giggled and made a gesture with his hands Nines didn’t catch because he was busy staring at both women.

“You could say that,” Amelia answered, slightly apologetic, and then she said to Nines, “We don’t want to interrupt your work.”

“Cecil here is very fond of you, Nines,” the Director explained, finally shedding light on the situation. “He’s been trying to gather the courage to talk to you for a while, but then you went away to care for your cat. He was most upset.”

“I see,” Nines said, remembering that Rin had mentioned something about a child being upset.

He didn’t seem upset now. He was staring at Nines with fixed fascination, almost vibrating with excitement.

“He’s been very interested in androids since the Revolution,” his mother explained. “I hope this doesn’t give offense. But if you could talk to him…”

Nines didn’t need to listen to anything else. He knelt down, as he had seen Gavin do with the cats, to be at the child’s eye level. In a strong and sudden movement, the boy threw himself forward, almost stumbling out of his mother’s grasp and into Nines’ waiting arms, the piece of paper he had in his hand fluttering to the floor, for the moment forgotten.

“Hello, little one.” Nines greeted at the same time Amelia said, “Cecil! Ah, Mr Nines, you should know Cecil is--” but small hands were roaming the android’s face before she could finish her sentence, curiously lingering over the android’s blinking LED. Without hesitation, Nines closed his eyes as not to unnerve the boy and allow him to explore to his heart’s content.

The words died on the woman’s throat at the sight.

Nines didn’t know how long they stayed like that, but, at long last, he felt a tap on his shoulder. When he opened his eyes, it was to a small face looking at him curiously from entirely too close, uncaring of personal space.

“What it feels like?” the child signed, touching Nines’ LED. It took the android only a second to understand and five more to have the software downloaded and installed.

“It feels…” Thinking about the answer to the question was the hard part, but he saw the boy’s smile and suddenly he knew the answer. “Like a smile.” Nines finished, and tapped one slender finger to the boy’s dimpled cheek at the same rhythm his LED blinked.

The child’s face lit up with delight, eyes trained into Nines’ LED as it blinked— blue blue blue.

“Smile.” Cecil signed, clumsy in his enthusiasm. “Happy.”

A strong emotion filled Nines’ chest, a tide born of an unexpected and powerful understanding. “Yes,” he blurted out, overcome by the depth of his realization.

Then, as if he had remembered something, the boy looked frantically around him. With a smile, his mother handed him a somewhat crumpled sheet of paper, which he happily took and presented to Nines.

“You,” he signed, pointing at a tall stick figure wearing a pink and green thing that was meant to be an apron. “Me,” he declared next, pointing at the smaller figure holding the tall one’s hand. “Friends?” Cecil asked with so much guileless hope that Nines silently shook, deeply touched.

“Of course,” Nines nodded, pleased when the boy beamed, awed that so much emotion could be contained in such a small person. “We’re already similar. And look-- Cecil means six, and I’m Nines. That means we’re friends.”

The boy made a sound full of joy, throwing his arms around Nines’ neck for a hug. They chatted for a while, Nines patiently answering Cecil’s questions until his mother, that had been silent during the exchange, finally intervened.

“We have to go home, sweetheart,” she said, and when Cecil’s expression got stormy she added, “We need to go get lunch. You can talk to him tomorrow?” the woman asked, looking questioningly at Nines.

“I will be here tomorrow,” he confirmed. “And I will be looking forward to hearing all about your day.”

Cecil didn’t seem too convinced, but the promise of food made him settle down. He went willingly when his mother picked him up, buried his face on her shoulder, suddenly exhausted.

“Uff, he’s getting too big for this,” Amelia complained, but kissed her son’s hair with obvious affection. Nines walked them out because he was polite, and because he was unsure how such a small woman could carry the boy for any length of time.

Luckily, the woman’s car was parked just outside the library. Nines waved at Cecil, and Cecil mimicked the gesture, sinking his small hands into a fluffy blanket and making the same repetitive motion as he petted it over and over again.

“Thank you,” the woman whispered, snapping Nines out of his reverie. “He’s— he was having a difficult day today, so he went non verbal. Usually he’s not good with strangers. But he saw you and he was so taken with you…thank you for being kind to him.”

“No, really, thank you,” Nines answered, overcome with emotion and a sense of kinship for the tiny human. “I would like to talk to him again, with your permission.”

The mother’s face shook with emotion, and her voice was impossibly soft when she looked down at her son and nodded. “Of course.”

Nines, however, smoothed the wrinkled drawing he had been gifted, committing all the clumsy details to memory so he could always remember it, looked at the boy, and smiled. Blue, blue, blue.

 


 

That night, Nines took the long way home.

He thought as he walked, the sort of deep reflection he had only done once before, in much worse circumstances. It was late when he got home, and the first thing he did was to look at every wall of his small apartment critically, taking into consideration the microscopic imperfections in the paint, and the light, and everything he could think of. Then, when he had chosen the perfect place, he carefully taped Cecil’s drawing to it, the dark stick figures a wonderful contrast against the dark walls.

Once satisfied, the second thing Nines did was take out the book he had borrowed from the library that evening. It was Thursday, so Gavin took care of the cats that day, and Nines was grateful for this.

He opened the slim book, caressing the green cover with gentle fingers, and read. He was done before dawn, and so he read it again, and then once more when he was done.

He was thoughtful all through the next day too. He went through his usual duties, and at the end of the day, before he left, he placed the book on the counter in front of Rin so she could return it.

“The Wizard of Oz,” she read aloud, scanning it and placing it in the tray to return it to its shelf. “What did you think?”

“Gavin has it too,” Nines said. And then, “He calls me tin man.”

“Oh.”

“I thought the nickname was...mocking. But in the end, the Tin Man had a heart from the beginning, didn’t he?” Nines asked, shaking. “It was only him that couldn’t see it.”

“Yes,” Rin confirmed, gentle.

Nines nodded, his chest full of emotion as the thing that had clicked when Cecil hugged him came back to the front of his mind: just as #9 was different from other cats and Cecil was different from other children, Nines was different from other androids. But it didn’t mean he was apart. He was an android, an individual, and he had feelings just as the others, even if he could not show them in the same way.

He could smile.

On the way back home, Nines made a stop to make a quick purchase.

When he got home he hung a long, narrow mirror on the wall, in a place of honor besides Cecil’s drawing. Then, for the first time, Nines took a long look at himself, not cowering away from his stern, blank expression, and tried his own smile.

On his temple, his LED blinked.

Blue, blue, blue.

 

Chapter Text

Nines was sorting books when the Director summoned him into her office.

This, in itself, was already out of the ordinary. Although the Director had her own office --fancier than the backroom-- she was seldom in it. Instead, she liked to work in a corner of the backroom, or in the staff room sometimes. She seemed to like the movement, would smile at snippets of conversations she heard without intervening. Her actual office was only used for Serious Boring Business, as Emma used to say, and it was a pattern that Nines detected that the Director would often be angry after she had to lock herself in her office for some reason.

That day, however, Nines didn’t think he had much to worry about when towards the end of the day Peter touched his arm, pointed a thumb towards the office, and told him Laura wanted to talk to him. 

Rin grinned at him when she saw him pass, waving a little, and Nines, who was wearing his too-small usual pink and green apron, returned the wave before knocking on the door of the office.

“Come in.” Nines obeyed, closing softly the door behind him. “Hello, Nines, please take a seat.”

Nines did, sparing a quick look for the room, his natural curiosity getting the better of him.

The room was pretty much what he expected. Not very big, but pristine and ordered. It could have been bigger if the Director had not opted to have book shelves from floor to ceiling behind her, but Nines had the impression that the mahogany furniture that decorated the woman’s office was one of the few personal touches the Director allowed herself. Besides the books, and a couple of official looking documents framed and stuck on the wall, there were no personal items in the room. 

It looked fake, Nines thought. Like a catalogue image of what an office should look like. Ordered and immaculate and unused.

Nines thought he understood why the woman didn’t like working here for long stretches of time.

He was startled out of his thoughts by the woman’s polite words. “How are you today, Nines?”

“I’m fine Director, thank you,” NInes answered agreeably, placing both his hands neatly on his lap.

“Please cut that Director non sense,” grimaced the woman. She pointed at her name engraved on a small plate resting on her desk. “I know for a fact you know my name.”

“Laura,” Nines replied, testing the word. It felt strange. Disrespectful.

He must have shown some sign of his awkwardness because Laura chuckled. “God, I can see your internal cringe when you say it.” Her smile was nice. Lines formed around her eyes when she laughed, and leaning forward as she was, friendly and open, she looked the opposite of the stern director Nines was used to seeing. “What is it? Did Emma say something weird about me again?”

“No, that’s not it,” and because there was no way he could explain the wonderful sensation he experienced every time he was lucky enough to witness a different side of the people he saw every day, he frowned, pretending to be thoughtful. “At least I don’t think so.”

“She’d better not,” Laura glared through the tinted window towards the backroom, where Emma was working. She was probably thinking about the time Emma had tried to convince the volunteers that Laura was a vampire, and had been very amused when Nines had come up with a list of hard evidence as to why such a thing was not possible. “Anyway, I didn’t call you here to talk about her. You’ve been here for over three months, isn’t that right?”

“Ninety three days,” Nines corrected. “Although I cannot say I have worked every one of them.”

“That’s fine. You’re a volunteer after all. God knows you’ve put more hours than our average trainee.”

Nines nodded, confused as to where the conversation was going and unsure as to how to answer.

“So how do you like the library so far?”

This Nines could answer. He said the truth, as he always did. About enjoying the tasks, and the patrons, and the duties he hoped he could take in the future. He spoke perhaps a bit too much, but Laura seemed genuinely interested in what he had to say, and she listened to the very end.

“I’m glad to hear that, Nines,” she smiled in the end. She did look pleased, leaning back in her chair, the picture of relaxation. “You know how the library’s part of the Android Integration Program, yes? We have a position for an android, but the truth is we haven’t had much interest in it. I know Rin offered it to you a while back, although I don’t know that she was in a position to do so,” she added, rolling her eyes a little. “But I am. We’ve been very pleased with your performance these past three months. You fit well with the team, work hard, and learn quickly. And if you agree, I’d like to offer the position to you.”

Nines’ LED blinked, because although it wasn’t like this came absolutely out of nowhere, time had passed in such a strange way that he didn’t expect it to happen so soon.

Oblivious of Nines’ surprise, Laura kept going. “You’ll need more training of course, but Rin has volunteered to do it. We would have to pay you as a trainee until you’re fully capable of doing your duties, but then your salary would-- well, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself,” Laura interrupted herself. “ Are you interested?”

Nines was. He really was, but as the implications of what a fulltime job would mean sank in, he realized that it would mean, at least, an end to petsitting Felicia. He wouldn’t have anymore an excuse to see Gavin, to talk to him, to sit with him through the night.

He couldn’t give that up.

Torn by the different impulses pulling him in opposite directions, Nines had the selfish wish of remaining in the present. He wasn’t ready for things to change, wasn’t ready to stop seeing Gavin, and this was what held him back from fully verbalizing an answer.

“Could I think about it?” he answered instead, LED whirling amber.

To her credit, Laura didn’t seem surprised.

“Of course. I didn’t expect you to drop everything the second I offered,” she smiled, reassuring. “How about...two weeks notice? Would that be enough for you to sort out your unfinished business?”

Nines nodded, truly grateful at Laura’s thoughtfulness. “Thank you.”

The woman waved her hand in embarrassed dismissal. “Anytime.”

 


 

 

Nines was thoughtful as he left the Director’s office, but it became apparent how everyone knew what had been discussed when Peter intercepted him before Nines could return to carting books around.

“So, how did it go?” he asked, eyes sparkling. Behind them, Rin was politely herding a few stray people out of the library, taking care of a few last minute tasks while she waited for everyone to leave so she could close the doors for the day.

“I--do you know what the Director and I discussed just now?” Nines asked, looking at the man out of the corner of the eye.

Peter was the youngest of the librarians, fresh out of grad school. No one knew how he’d gotten the job, but he was friendly and soft spoken, with an apparent love for tartan, if his usual fashion choices were anything to go by. Although he was awkward with children, he was the official Children’s Librarian.

“Huh--yeah? Laura offered you the job, right? Emma said…” he swallowed, narrowing his eyes towards the backroom just like Laura had done minutes ago. “Wait, did she--”

“No, she was correct,” Nines interrupted before things could go off track. “But I have not yet accepted.”

“Oh,” Peter said, face falling. Then again, “ Oh .”

Nines frowned. “Is something the matter?”

“Hum, well…” the man grimaced. Then, with a sigh, he shooed Nines towards the backroom.

Baffled, Nines allowed himself to be guided.

“Emma, he hasn’t said yes!” Peter hissed, and Emma, who was sitting on a computer doing something involving lists, looked up, startled.

“Why not?” she demanded, raising her eyebrows.

Nines stared at them in silence, LED whirling as his protocols tried to figure out what was the deal with the humans. However, he was saved by Rin opening the door. She looked harassed.

“Rin, Nines didn’t say yes,” Emma informed her, and the other android stopped on her tracks.

“Oh,” she said as well, and that was it.

Although bewildered, Nines straightened and crossed his arms across his chest. “Are any of you going to tell me what is this about?” his tone was stern, but inwardly he was delighted when no one looked particularly intimidated.

“We had organized an outing,” Rin confessed at last. “To celebrate you joining us.”

“You...organized something without knowing if I would accept the Director’s offer?” Nines asked, strangely touched.

“Well, we thought you’d say yes, so...yeah,” Emma shrugged, flipping her hair over her shoulder with a perfectly manicured hand. “Eh, I say we go anyway. We rarely get to hang out after work.”

That’s how the four of them plus Laura found themselves in a modest bar, not too far away from the library. It was a nice place, not fashionable but comfortable, the atmosphere light and energetic. Walls painted dark red and wooden finishes were evidence of the place being fancy once, but now the paint was carelessly chipped in places, marks of use visible where chairs scraped the walls.

Nines absorbed it all. It was his first time going out like this, not having thought this would be something he enjoyed. But against his expectations, he found that the low buzz of the music and the white noise of glasses clinking and people talking felt like a nice blanket around his sensitive sensors.

They all ordered drinks, Nines settling for a thirium beverage that Rin recommended. When he sipped it, it was like little fireworks flared up in his taste sensors, and Rin giggled at Nines’ reaction to trying the drink.

The night passed peacefully. Everyone chatted about inconsequential things, sharing anecdotes or little things about themselves. And although Nines had been initially worried about what he could contribute to the conversation, it soon became clear that there was no need. He was not pressured to talk, but he was not ignored either. Emma and Peter bickered with each other, which was funny, and he was included in the conversation, and Nines’ protocols sang from all the information he was gathering about social interactions.

They talked about their careers and a bit about their personal lives, and in turn Nines told them about the patterns in the cats’ fur, about #9 -- “Oh, that’s what you call Rudyard?” Peter laughed, “I think I heard a family calling him Moon the other day.”-- and about Gavin.

“That’s such an interesting story to tell about how you met your partner,” Rin sighed. On the other side of the table, Peter and Emma were loudly arguing about something or other, and so Rin’s words were only for Nines.

Nines however, felt himself run hot, LED stuttering at the implication.

“No, that’s not...Gavin’s not...” Nines’ thirium pump was beating very fast, and he was aware of the first signs of overheating, although he wasn’t sure what the hot feeling rising from his belly to his chest was, other than embarrassment. “We’re not…”

Rin looked at Nines in alarm. “Oh, you’re not together? Sorry, I assumed--you always talk about him as if--”

Nines shook his head. “It’s all right.”

Rin tilted her head, eyeing him speculatively. “Would you like to be? Together with him, I mean?”

Nines frowned, trying to make sense of what he was feeling. In all honesty, although he was aware of how much he liked Gavin, it had never occurred to him that his feelings might be romantic.

Were they? Suddenly Nines realized he didn’t have a parameter. He enjoyed spending time with Gavin, he treasured their time together. He always felt a thrill when he had the man’s attention, and wanted to know more about him-- see more of him with his hair rumpled from sleep, unshaven, be happy or angry or sleep deprived.

But...was that romantic? How did people figure out romantic attraction in the first place?

“I don’t know,” Nines answered honestly. “All I know is that he’s very important to me.”

“Ah,” Rin’s smile was warm, private, like she was privy to a secret even Nines didn’t know. “Well, I’m glad for you,” and when Nines tilted his head, mimicking her gesture, she elaborated, “That you found people and things you want to cherish.”

Nines thought back to the things he loved-- the cats, #9 following him around, Felicia climbing into is lap, Gavin’s snort when he didn’t want to admit he found something funny. The quiet of the backroom in the library, the children paying attention when Rin read, and the people laughing around him.

Nines’ world might be small, and modest, but in that moment he thought he wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

Yes,” Nines said, simply. “I’m glad too.”

 


 

The cat twirled between Gavin’s legs, meowing piteously. To a stranger, it might look like she was starving, asking to be fed with hopeless tenacity, ignored and unloved. As if she hadn’t had her bowl full barely ten minutes ago.

Gavin stepped over her, rolling his eyes at the drama. “This is not for kitties,” he scolded, measuring a cup of flour. It was not exact, Gavin’s measuring, and Nines knew he’d have to compensate the difference when the man wasn’t looking.

Offended by Gavin’s indifference, Felicia went to Nines instead, meowing up at him with heartbreaking sadness.

“It will not turn into cat food just because you cry to Nines, jesus,” Gavin scolded, but the glint in his eyes betrayed his fond amusement.

Nines’ LED blinked, the deep blue betraying the smile his face would not conjure.

The sky had already turned silver when Gavin had come back home from work, his slouched form already familiar to Nines. He’d been pale, tense and restless as he often was when he had a bad day. He’d refused to go to sleep too, exhausted as he was, opting to curl on his usual spot on the couch to chat with Nines instead.

“And so yes, my day was crap,” he concluded after a long vent that Nines had listened to with careful attention. Gavin talking about his day was a recent development in their relationship, and it didn’t go unnoticed by Nines how it only happened at night, when the man was sleep deprived and vulnerable.

Nines didn’t question it. He was comfortable with whatever Gavin wanted to disclose about himself, happy that the man seemed to trust him a little more every day when he came home and Nines was there. That was new too, born out of Nines’ wish to see Gavin even if Felicia would’ve been fine to spend the night alone, and although the man had been surprised at first, he had silently accepted it just as he accepted everything else about Nines.

Like cooking.

It was a strange whim that had made Nines confess his curiosity to Gavin when the man was taking out a box of cereal of a cupboard.

Gavin had just stared at him, and sighed, “Well, come on then, might as well eat something decent for once.”

Something decent turned out to be pancakes, and that’s how Nines found himself in the kitchen with Gavin at about five in the morning, following the man’s instructions as how to best mix ingredients.

Nines stepped over Felicia as he measured. Although they were not close enough to touch, beside him, Gavin was a warm presence. His stress levels had been dropping steadily the past few minutes and Nines’ systems sang in delight as his hypothesis was confirmed: Gavin was not good at being idle. Even the small task of supervising Nines made him look alive again, not the grim person he’d been when he’d come home, even when Nines was pretty sure he didn’t need supervision to successfully make something as easy as pancakes.

He’d been convinced of that until he had all the ingredients together and, holding the whisk on one hand, beat with so much strength that flour flew everywhere, covering him and the counter in white.

Nines stood frozen for a second, first shock and then in fear of his mistake, until he heard Gavin’s chuckle behind him.

“For fuck’s sake,” the man mumbled. When Nines gathered the courage to look at him, all his fear melted at the man’s smile. With another long suffering sigh of the sort Gavin often favored Felicia with, he raised a clean kitchen towel to wipe Nines’ chin with kind efficiency. “You’re such a handful.”

It was fond, and the gesture gentle, and Nines thirium pump beat so fast at the innocent touch that he thought it might fly straight out of his chest. All of his sensors seemed to kick into overdrive at Gavin’s proximity, suddenly overwhelmed by his smell, and his warmth, and his voice, and an overheating warning popping up made Nines avert his face, embarrassed by his own reactions.

These were the small moments he had trouble giving up, the moments he treasured, that he craved more of, the ones he was not ready to give up yet.

The batter ended up too liquid, but Gavin certainly didn’t seem to mind, if the way he was eyeing the pancake on the pan was any indication. Still, the man kept busy in the kitchen, and he was halfway into making coffee when Nines gathered the courage to tell Gavin about the library and Laura’s offer.

“Hey that’s nice,” Gavin said when Nines was done. By then, he had stolen two pancakes, carefully checking with Nines as if the android needed to eat, and was stuffing his face with obvious delight. “Good for you.”

Nines raised an eyebrow, both at his answer and his uncivilized antics. “I thought you’d be distressed at finding yourself without a pet sitter,” he replied, half serious. The thought of having less time together with Gavin was very upsetting to him, and he couldn’t help the distress he felt at finding out Gavin didn’t feel anything particular about the impending separation.

“Well, sure,” Gavin shrugged, humming in pleasure as he took a sip of coffee. “But it’d be different if you actually enjoyed it.”

“I do enjoy it,” Nines defended.

“Hu huh, that’s why I’m your only client.” And Nines startled as he remembered that Gavin was, after all, a detective.

Nines busied himself with the dirty dishes, at a loss of how to act or feel. A part of him had been excited to tell Gavin, and so he hadn’t been prepared for the hurt that Gavin’s words caused in him. The disappointment.

Why are you disappointed? He asked himself as he washed the mixing bowl. His back was to Gavin, needing the space. Nines frowned as he thought, disconcerted at himself. He didn’t know anymore what he expected. For Gavin to be happy for him, surely, as he was?

He was silent for too long, his back a straight line that screamed tension, and Gavin must have picked on it because his voice was uncertain when he asked, “So, when do you begin?”

“I don’t know. Laura gave me two weeks to answer,” Nines said without turning. He couldn’t. Not yet. “Did you need anything?” he asked, hopeful, when Gavin just hummed in answer.

“Well, I cannot say much about it, but I’m going undercover for a week,” Gavin said. “I’d feel better if someone I--someone Fliss already knew stayed with her.”

Nines turned then, finally, and found Gavin’s eyes on him. There was something thoughtful in the man’s stare, assessing, and the intensity of it made Nines’ thirium pump pick up again. Gavin licked his lips and Nines couldn’t help but trace the movement, hypnotized. He wanted to be closer. He wanted--

A loud yowl made them both startle, breaking the staring contest they had been engaged in without meaning to.

“Jesus fuck,” Gavin cursed, standing so fast he tripped over the stool he’d been sitting on at the kitchen counter. The string of curses followed him as he limped to the window, which he opened with much more force than strictly necessary.

Unaware of what he’d interrupted, #9 jumped inside, purring loudly when Felicia went to meet him, both cats rubbing against each other like they couldn’t stand to be apart a second longer.

“You drama queens,” Gavin complained under his breath. “You saw each other yesterday.” And then returned to finish his pancakes, pointedly avoiding looking at Nines, and that’s how the android knew that whatever had been going on between them wasn’t his imagination.

 


 

In the following days, Nines had a lot of time to think about Gavin, and not only because of his new awareness of the nature of his feelings for the man. Gavin went undercover on the last week of September, something that didn’t sound as stressful as it actually was.

Gavin had not given Nines any details of his mission, but Nines was not an RK for nothing. He was more aware than most of the risks involved in undercover work, and although knowledge usually put Nines’ mind at rest, it turned out that waiting for someone you care about to return from a dangerous situation was on the top three things Nines didn’t ever want to experience again.

Felicia as well, perhaps picking up Nines’ mood, soon became restless. After the third day of Gavin’s absence she refused food, and it broke Nines’ heart to see her ears perk up whenever there were steps on the hallway, only to let her head fall down again on her front paws when it was never Gavin.

“Poor sweetheart,” Emma cooed when Nines asked for cat advice, remembering the woman had two cats of her own. “There’s not much to do. Tempt her with a snack, spoil her a little. Maybe take Rudyard with you, it might be good for her.”

#9’s company did help her. It was proof of the cats’ bond when he didn’t complain to be locked in when Nines left for the library. He returned to find them curled together on top of the fluffy blanket Gavin favored when he slept on the couch, and Nines could do nothing but feed them expensive cat food he had bought specifically for the occasion and let them sleep on top of him after they were done.

However, as the week ended and Gavin didn’t return, Nines became more and more anxious. He tried to be rational about it, but the night of day eight found him pacing Gavin’s flat, preconstruction after preconstruction running through his mind, presenting him with possibilities that were too terrible to consider.

He barely waited for the dawn of day nine before he sent a message to Connor.

[ Hi, Nines! ] Connor answered, cheerful as if everything was right in the world.

[ Please, ] Nines managed, feeling like he was choking in fear. [ Please tell me you know where Gavin is. ]

[ What happened? ] Connor asked, immediately alert.

Nines explained as best he could. He had to backtrack a little so Connor would understand his urgency, but in the end he managed.

[ Oh. ] Connor said in the end, and Nines tightened his lips, impatient, wanting to shake Connor. He didn’t have time for that kind of response. [ To be honest I don’t know, Nines. He’s undercover, so it’s normal he’d be off the grid. I wouldn’t worry too much; in this case, no news is good news. ]

Nines paced, irrationally irritated that Connor wasn’t of more help, and his desperation must have reached Connor somehow because the other android’s voice was stern when he talked again.

[ Don’t even think about going after him. ] Connor ordered him, and Nines fisted his hands, everything in him rebelling at the order. [ I’ll ask around and let you know, okay? I understand the urge, but you know you could cause more harm than good if you try to find him. ]

All the fight went out of Nines at those words. He sat back on the couch and hid his face between his hands.

He knew.

God, he was an RK, and he knew.

[ He will be fine, Nines. ] Connor’s voice was kind when it came from the other side of their connection. [ He’s good at his job, and he’s been working on this case for a while. He’ll come back. ]

That day was the absolute worst of Nines’ life. Connor kept his promise, and updated Nines on everything he could, which wasn’t much. Still, until that moment Nines had never considered that the line of Gavin’s work meant that there was a very real chance that he might lose Gavin one day.

Up until then, Nines had known loneliness and hopelessness. He’d felt directionless, without a purpose, and full of self-hatred. But the fear of losing someone dear to him --of losing Gavin -- didn’t come close to that. Every minute he waited felt like an eternity, and the thought of Gavin not returning made a pain so sharp run through him that it triggered an alarm on his systems, his protocols fooled into thinking he had come into harm.

That day, Nines called in sick to the library, too upset to work, and all he could do was pace, needing something to do but not daring to disturb anything on Gavin’s flat, controlled by the superstitious belief that the owner might not come back to set things right.

He only stopped pacing when the cats began to get frazzled by his nervous energy. He picked up his favorite book from Gavin’s bookshelf --the one he read every time he had the chance-- and tried to find comfort in the words.

It was past midnight of the tenth day when Connor’s message came flagged as important, informing him Gavin was back.

Nines covered his face with his hands and shook, only the concerned cats trying to climb into his lap preventing him from having a full breakdown.

It was three in the morning when Felicia leaped from Nines’ lap and ran to the door, yelling at it as if that would make the familiar steps come closer any sooner.

“Fuck, yes, it’s me,” came Gavin’s voice from the other side of the door, and Nines couldn’t move, the relief was so overwhelming. And then there he was, exhausted and sporting an unfamiliar messy beard, but whole.

Nines greedily drank him in, analyzing everything about him-- his voice, and his heartbeat, and his heat signature, and all the scans he could think to run on him.

Gavin.

It was him.

Gavin turned on the light. “Fucking shit!” he startled so bad when he saw Nines that his heartbeat spiked, an ugly peak Nines badly wanted to soothe. “Holy fuck, Nines, what the hell are you doing sitting in the dark like a fucking ghost? You’re going to give me a heart attack!”

“You—“ Nines began, still having trouble finding his voice. Then, his scan of Gavin presented him with results, making all of Nines’ priorities shift. “You are injured.”

Gavin shrugged, careless. He kicked off his shoes and his jacket, and that was as much as he got done before Felicia had enough and climbed the man’s leg, settling on Gavin’s arms when the man pried her off before she ran out of denim.

He grimaced when Felicia put her weight on his right arm, and this time Nines didn’t need his scans, because the dried blood making the long sleeved shirt stick to the man’s skin was clearly visible.

Gavin, however, didn’t seem to care about that.

“Hello, gremlin, I missed you too,” he cooed to his cat, and Felicia went crazy. She rubbed her head on Gavin’s beard again and again, making evident how much she had missed him. To Nines, he said, “Yeah, I got into a little scuffle. It’s nothing.”

Nothing. Like he wasn’t hurt. Like he hadn’t come to harm where Nines couldn’t protect him.

“It is not nothing,” Nines argued, agitated. He hated that his voice came out so harsh. He wanted to be kind, to hold him, to tell him how scared he had been, to touch him to reassure himself he was still alive. However, what came out of his mouth was, “My scans are showing bruised ribs, several lacerations, a sprained wrist—”

Don’t ,” Gavin snarled, his face twisting into something awful so suddenly that #9 startled from under the couch. In the corner of Nines’ vision, Gavin’s heartbeat picked up again, a spike of something that looked too much like panic for Nines’ comfort. “Do not scan me.”

Nines complied. The pain of doing as Gavin requested was almost physical, but he did it. His HUB felt empty without Gavin’s vitals, dark, the analysis replaced by a crippling sense of inadequacy.

Nines thought that if he was able to cry, he would cry now.

“I only wish to help,” he whispered, voice thin and frail. Lost. Helpless because he didn’t know how to reach Gavin. He didn’t know how to help him.

Across the room Gavin swayed on his feet. He braced himself into the wall, switching Felicia to his good arm like she was a baby so he could run his other hand down his face and into his messy beard.

“Shit, okay,” he mumbled, and Nines’ metal heart felt lighter with hope. “Okay. I need-- I need to clean up first. Then we can see about my arm.” Gavin said it like that, we , including Nines. Like Nines was allowed to help. “In the meantime, if you really want to help…”

Nines perked up. “Yes?”

“I need to eat something or the adrenalin is going to make me crash,” Gavin concluded. He looked like he was ready to pass out at any moment, but by now Nines knew his tells enough to know they had another long sleepless night ahead. “I cannot...I will not be able to keep down anything heavy, so I usually…a mug of warm milk, with a teaspoon of honey.”

Nines did as instructed immediately, the task doing a lot to soothe his frayed nerves. Unlike any other time Nines had spent any time in the man’s apartment, Gavin let the door to his bedroom open. The sound of a shower came through, and silently Nines thanked him for that, because either by design or by accident, being able to monitor him calmed him down as well.

After the milk was warm and the spoonful of honey dutifully added, Nines busied himself with wiping the already spotless kitchen counter and then letting #9 out when the cat, no longer needed, scratched at the window.

Nines had settled back into the couch with his book when Gavin came back into the living room carrying a first aid kit in one hand and a purple shirt in the other.

For an endless moment, everything stopped in his tracks as Nines could do nothing else but stare.

Gavin walked through the door shirtless, wearing only a pair of old sweatpants that were at least one size too big for him. He was still damp from the shower, his hair messily falling into his forehead, and Nines didn’t think he’d ever seen so much skin on display. With his ten day beard and his hair wet, Gavin looked completely different than what Nines was used to, and Nines fervently decided that the rugged look suited him.

He took everything in, committing to memory Gavin’s hands, and his scars, and the hollow of his throat, and all the other bared places he felt ashamed to covet. There were too many data points --so many-- and for the life of him Nines couldn’t decide where to look, his thirium pump threatening to quit on him, it was beating so hard.

Gavin sat on the couch, completely unselfconscious of his state of undress, and rolled his neck in discomfort. The play of muscles under skin was probably the most enticing thing that Nines had seen in his life, and he felt almost weak with the overpowering desire to touch .

Unbidden, the preconstruction came to the front of Nines’ mind, already playing out the scenario. Gavin’s body was very different to Nines’, more compact, and Nines could feel his hands tingling as the preconstruction showed him touching Gavin’s chest, smoothing his hands down over his stomach and over the trail of hair that disappeared into the low waistband of the man’s sweatpants.

And then...then...

Nines jumped when Gavin looked at him straight in the eye, raising an eyebrow when he caught the android staring. Unnecessarily, Nines swallowed. There was a teasing knowing smirk on the corner of Gavin’s lips that was the direct cause of an overheat warning, and Nines had never tried so hard to pull himself together as when Gavin asked, “Well? You gonna help or what?”

Nines did.

With steel determination he went to Gavin. His movements were careful as he took the first aid kit from Gavin’s hands. However, he was careless enough to allow their fingers to brush, and did his best to ignore the electric tension that ignited between them and burnt into a fire at the brief touch.

Praying Gavin would not be able to hear the hum his thirium pump was making from overworking, Nines knelt before Gavin. It was difficult to pretend he wasn’t affected when Gavin spread his knees wider to accommodate him, and harder still not to acknowledge the way Gavin’s eyes darkened when he looked down at Nines.

Another preconstruction flared up on Nines’ mind, so real it was almost a command. The way he was positioned, it would be the easiest thing to grip Gavin’s thighs, feel the muscles there through the fabric, find out if Gavin would allow him to slide his hands upwards.

As if reading his thoughts, Gavin’s eyelashes fluttered.

Nines wanted--

He wanted…

Drawing in a deep, stuttering breath, Nines took Gavin’s right forearm. He rubbed gently at the unmarred skin, slightly prodding at the edges of a deep but clean cut.

Knife. A defensive wound, Nines’ protocols offered. Gavin had fought someone with a knife, and Nines had been nowhere nearby to help him.

The grief and guilt were strong like a wave, but Nines let them pass, not letting the feelings to distract him from his current mission. He wanted to do something for Gavin only, so he allowed the action of physically healing him to be his only reassurance Gavin was back, and here, and alive.

He didn’t know if more would be welcome.

So gently that his fingers became caresses, he cleaned the two wounds on Gavin’s arm, closing them with butterfly stitches, tenderly stroking each one as if that would encourage it to heal. He tried to convey his feelings through these touches, and thought that perhaps Gavin understood because he swallowed, the man’s heart fluttering under Nines fingertips almost in sync with the android’s.

“Nines,” Gavin breathed, voice rough as if he had swallowed glass.

When Nines looked up from the man’s bandaged wrist, Gavin was wearing a shattered expression, uncertain and vulnerable.

Slowly, he raised his good hand to Nines’ temple to trace his blinking LED.

“It has been going on and off like crazy,” Gavin informed him, and Nines closed his eyes and leaned into the caress, his heart too full to do anything other than that.

“You need to rest,” Nines said when he found the strength. Mindful of his strength, he took hold of Gavin’s wrist to remove it from his face so he could reach the old, ratty t-shirt Gavin had carelessly thrown over the couch. “Let me help you.”

Gavin obeyed without fussing, and once he was dressed in the ugly purple thing with a white moon in the middle of a dark eye that read Night Vale Community Radio , it was like the last of his strength left him because he let himself fall back against the soft cushions of the couch.

With care, Gavin picked up the mug with milk that Nines had placed on the side table and cradled it to his chest. Nines watched him make himself comfortable, curling under his favorite fluffy blanket and talking softly to Felicia when the cat climbed into his lap, affectionate and needy.

“Turn down the intensity over there, tin man,” Gavin told him after a while. He was not even looking at Nines. “Something you wanna say?”

Nines’ LED settled on red, too many impulses pulling him in different directions to pick one to act upon.

“No. I can leave you to rest now, if you want.”

Gavin snorted weakly. “Really? It’s the middle of the night, what are you even gonna do at your place? Or what, you have somewhere to be?”

Nines blinked because he understood the request hidden in those words.

“No. I…do not,” he answered slowly. This was familiar ground. After all, this they had done plenty of times before.

“Good, then sit on the couch like a fucking person and tell me what Fliss has been up these days?” Gavin asked, sipping the milk. And because Nines knew what helped Gavin decompress, he finally sat beside him on the couch and told him everything he could muster up about the cat. He didn’t miss how the man’s shoulders relaxed the longer he talked. “I’m glad she was a good girl,” Gavin cooed, scratching Felicia under the chin once he was satisfied with Nines’ report. “Were you a good girl? Yes, you were!”

The cat purred in contentment, tilting her head to better accommodate the chin scritches. Like that, the last traces of that awful panic finally left Nines’ his body. The proximity helped. Gavin had two big couches, and on their long nights they always took one each. This was the first time Nines had dared to sit next to Gavin, the man’s sock-clad feet only a few inches away from Nines.

Gavin’s voice was soft as he kept on praising the cat, and although it was not meant for him, Nines felt a curl of something warm and liquid settle low on his belly.

He shifted on the couch, turning his body so he could more fully face Gavin, allowing the man’s feet to stretch and rest against Nines’ tigh. Gavin said nothing of the new arrangement, but the movement disturbed the book that Nines had carelessly left on the arm of the couch. It fell to the floor with a soft thud, and Nines felt a pang of shame at his own carelessness.

“I’m sorry, I have been reading your books while you were away. I—”

“Jeez, tin man, chill. Has anybody told you you apologize too much?” Gavin waved him off without waiting for an answer. “Well, you do, and I’m too tired for this shit. I told you you could do whatever, remember? I don’t mind that you chose to read my ratty childhood books.” He peeked at the book on the floor and grinned, apparently pleased at Nines’ choice. “That’s a good one, though. Pretty much the only one I could read over and over. I was never one for books. You like it?”

Nines bent down to retrieve the book from where it had fallen half under the couch and smoothed a hand over the battered cover of The Return of the King , silently asking it forgiveness for mistreating it so.

“Yes,” he confessed. “I particularly enjoy the author’s descriptions. As interesting as the characters’ journeys are, I find that I like the way everything is depicted. The wind, the sky, the mountains, even the leaves of the trees…it makes me feel like Middle Earth is a real place. Like I am there with them.”

Gavin hid his smile behind the mug.

“Yeah, figures that’s what you’d like the most. Those were the parts I always skipped,” he looked away, wistful, and Nines was overwhelmed by the realization of how humbly intimate the moment was. He had seen Gavin hurt and shirtless, and plenty of times sleep deprived, but it was this moment, Gavin sharing his thoughts about a book he loved when he was a child, that felt the most intimate. It was a frail thing, and Nines did not dare move hence he disturbed it. “Where’ you at?”

Nines’ LED blinked yellow once, because he had already read the trilogy five times, and he was reluctant to share that fact with Gavin.

“Frodo has been taken to the Tower of Cirith Ungol,” he answered instead. It was the truth, although he already knew how the ordeal ended as it was one of his favorite parts, “and even though Sam has climbed to the top of the tower, he cannot find him.”

Gavin frowned. “I don’t remember that part.”

“Would you like me to read it to you?”

The offer was made sincerely, but Gavin’s gaze sharpened, looking at Nines as if searching for deceit. In that moment, he looked remarkably similar to the alley cats, cautious, unsure whether or not he would be hit, watchful for a blow that would not come. It made a ferocious need to protect this man rise up on Nine’s chest, powerful and absolute like a tide: the desire to take him in his arms and keep him where nothing could ever harm him.

He swallowed it down. Instead, he waited as patiently as he had with #9, a hand stretched while the cat decided if he trusted Nines or not. And his patience paid off, because after a while Gavin licked his lips and nodded, dropping his eyes as if he had asked for something shameful.

Nines wanted to destroy whoever had put that vulnerability there. He wanted to find the person that had made Gavin look like asking to be read to was something to be ashamed of, and absolutely annihilate them.

But Nines’ need to protect Gavin was stronger and more important than that, so he answered by opening the book and reading from the beginning of the chapter.

Nines’ voice was already deep, and used to listening to Rin read to the children in the library, he had acquired a good sense to reading aloud. He put all his heart into it now, wishing to do the story justice: Sam waking up and realizing Frodo had been taken to Cirith Ungol, his desperation, the courage that was born out of his love for Frodo. He read about the barren horror that was Mordor, about Sam’s refusal of the ring’s temptation, about the orc’s fight and Sam confrontation with Shagrat. And then, about the dead end, and Sam’s hopeless song gaining strength.

He read on, the poem rolling smoothly from his tongue: 

 

Though here at journey's end I lie

In darkness buried deep,

Beyond all towers strong and high,

Beyond all mountains steep,

Above all shadows rides the Sun

And Stars forever dwell:

I will not say the Day is done, 

Nor bid the Stars farewell.

 

Nines paused. At the other end of the couch, Gavin’s breathing was even. The man’s face was relaxed in sleep, and as Nines looked at him, curled under his blanket, the empty mug clutched in one hand and Felicia sleeping over his heart, Nines felt a new powerful swell of emotion, endless like the sea, threatening to overwhelm him.

And like a light that shone in the darkness, Nines understood his feelings. It wasn’t anything big. It was Gavin’s sleeping face, and his bandaged arm, and his mussed hair. All the small pieces, that had been so confusing on their lonesome, finally fell into place, fitting together like a puzzle.

Nines closed his eyes, raising a hand to his chest as if he could touch the feeling, so vast that it overflowed. He looked at Gavin’s sleeping face and knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that he was in love with him.

This changed everything.

Silently, as if the revelation had not shifted his entire existence, Nines stood from the couch. He carefully retrieved the mug from Gavin’s lax grip, threw a couple more of blankets over him, made sure that his feet were covered. Then, as gently as he knew how, allowed himself to steal a single caress, a feather light touch to the man’s cheek with a single finger, the reverent touch the only evidence of the enormity of his feelings, and whispered into the darkness a hushed, “Sleep well.”

His LED whirled bright red as he took his usual place on the other couch, thinking.

He thought about Gavin, and his own feelings, and Laura’s offer and his future. It occurred to him that he was an RK, and thus he could protect Gavin. It took him less than an hour to preconstruct several escenarios, pitting them against each other to weigh the pros and cons of each situation.

The answer was obvious, in retrospect.

Nines eyes glowed blue in the dark when he opened them again, having finally decided what he had to do to protect Gavin.

He laid back on the couch --something he had never done either-- and, well within sight of Gavin, set a timer for a stasis. And then, exhausted but happy, let the darkness claim him as well.

 

Chapter Text

1. Gavin

When Gavin woke up it was to warmth.

For once, he woke up slowly, pleasantly. He felt comfortable and at ease, unusually rested, and he yawned as he nuzzled down into his little nest of warmth, loath to move.

When he woke up again he was more aware of his surroundings. During the night, Fliss had found her way under the blankets and she slept sprawled against Gavin’s chest, trusting and warm. Just to annoy her, he petted her small head to wake her up, which she did with a glare. Then, she just rearranged herself into a ball and went right back to sleep.

Maybe she had the right idea.

However, now that Gavin was awake, he knew there was no way he was going back to sleep. Reluctantly, he peeked outside of his cocoon of blankets. The world outside his nest of warmth was cold, for it was early October, and the light coming through the window told him he had slept well into the morning. A small miracle.

Then, his eyes fell on the other couch and he froze, heart speeding up at the sight.

Laying on his side on the couch, Nines was sleeping. Well, Gavin mentally corrected himself, he looked like he was sleeping, for androids didn’t need to. His eyes were closed though, long dark lashes a smudge against his flawless skin, lips parted, his usually flickering LED glowing the soft, peaceful white of stasis.

He was beautiful.

The thought hit Gavin like a truck.

It wasn’t that he hadn’t woken up to Nines’ face before-- and fuck that sounded so wrong. The only nights Gavin could sleep anymore were those when the weird android was by his side, steadily devouring book after book as if there was no better place for it than Gavin’s couch. However, Gavin had never seen Nines resting before. He was always uptight, busy doing something or thinking or processing. Never relaxed.

Never vulnerable.

Uncomfortably aware he was projecting, Gavin extracted himself from the blankets, mindful of the cat. The blankets didn’t so much as rustle, but it was enough. Nines’ LED changed to blue and his eyelashes fluttered.

When he opened his eyes, he found Gavin immediately.

“Gavin,” Nines said, simply. His voice was low, intimate, not at all raspy with sleep like a human’s would. But the way he pronounced Gavin’s name, full of so much affection and delight, like he was genuinely happy that Gavin was the first thing he saw when he woke up.

Fuck.

Fuck .

It was not supposed to go like this.

Gavin was clumsy as he stammered an excuse and fled to the bathroom, and only allowing himself the freakout when there were two closed doors between him and the android that had inserted himself into his life so easily.

Shit ,” Gavin cursed, hunching to rest his hot forehead against the cool mirror hanging over the sink.

He was not supposed to get involved. He was only supposed to… to use him, Gavin though with shame, cringing at the thought. The android was supposed to be a random someone that fed the cats, someone that conveniently pet sat Fliss. That was it.

The android was not supposed to be so gentle. He was not meant to have the most gorgeous eyes Gavin had ever seen, to be so artless in his puppy love for Gavin, to be so heart stoppingly honest.

And Gavin...

The blush that rose to Gavin’s face was violent like everything in him. It began on his cheeks, climbed up to his ears, went down his neck towards his chest. An honest reaction, one that even he could not deny.

“Happy birthday, dumbass,” he chuckled, mirthlessly.

Because, like the idiot he was, had gotten attached once more.

Grimacing, he looked down at the dark bathroom cabinet and recovered a silver necklace, wrapping the thin chain around his fingers and rubbing the oval engraved medal, his own personal worry stone.

It was foolish to get used to Nines’ company, he reminded himself. He had not a good track choosing people to trust.

So it was useless to look forward to seeing Nines each night. There was no point in allowing the android’s earnest words to brighten his day and ease his loneliness. It was stupid to fall asleep to the soft caress of his words, feeling surrounded by him, secure in the low cadence of his voice.

Nines was not some stray Gavin could take in. He was a person. And people left. They were not like cats that always came back home if they could.

“Damn it,” he cursed again, gritting his teeth, torn by feelings that pulled him in too many directions.

It was too risky. He could not believe in Nines.

The biting pull of the chain tight around his fingers cut through his thoughts. Slowly, Gavin opened his hand. The medal sat on his palm innocently, as if it was not a reminder of everything he couldn’t have.

He could not believe in Nines, because people lied, and used you, and left.

But still, a small, humble part of his battered heart that thought he deserved to be treated kindly, rose over the fear, strong and undeniable.

He wanted to believe in Nines.

He wanted his hands, and his blinking LED, and his weirdly blank expression, and the way his eyes shone with all the emotion his face didn’t express. He wanted Nines’ voice in the nights, his blunt conversation in the mornings, and his kindness and his warmth.

Nines had never lied to him.

Gavin shook, fiercely fighting with himself.

It was a long time until he was able to calm down. He took a long hot shower, mindful of his bandages, and by the time he was done he was calmer. Still, when he finally dared to come out from the bathroom, his chest felt like it had been cut open, raw and tender.

When he joined Nines in the kitchen, the android having begun making pancakes, for the first time, when hope flared up, Gavin didn’t try to squash it down. He watched Nines move through his kitchen like he lived there, and, although it took a lot of courage, allowed himself to believe that maybe this time things would be different.

That this time things would be alright.

 


 

2. Rin

Rin was in the garden, caring for her plants, when she saw Nines enter the library.

The sun was already setting. It was Rin’s favorite time of the day; the hour of twilight, when the sky changed colors, the transition between night and day. She liked things like that, spaces in between, because they made her feel more at ease-- twilight, nor night nor day; the library’s garden, part of the library and not; stairs, and waiting rooms, and all the hidden places in the middle. They were like she was: not quite human, but not quite machine either.

And she loved her garden.

Like everything else in her life, it had begun as nothing, an ugly empty stone courtyard. She’d started working on it to pass time, searching on the trash and dragging things others didn’t want little by little. First conventional things. Plastic bottles, baskets, pots. And then, as her deviancy developed, other things: boots, busted wheels, an old wooden cabinet she once found in an alley. She’d encouraged her plants to grow in any and all nooks, and they did, and as they bloomed she changed as well until she was her own person.

The garden had saved her. Her own personal sanctuary.

Humming a wordless song, she kept watering and weeding, waiting for Nines. She’d seen him talk to Peter at the front desk and then go knock on the door of Laura’s office, and a thrill of excitement ran through her at the knowledge of what that meant.

She liked Nines. She had liked him since she saw him, tall and serious and scary, trying to make himself small as he listened to her read to the children. Since she saw him slow down when Rudyard walked at his heels, all of his strength turned into softness as not to hurt the cat.

She had known who he was. He was so similar to Connor --made famous from his role in the Revolution-- that there was no way Rin hadn’t recognized him. But although scary, Nines had never been anything else but thoughtful and gentle. Careful to keep out of everyone’s way, to not be an inconvenience.

Rin was glad that it was him that’d be taking over her duties when she was gone.

She was so deep in her thoughts that she didn’t notice Nines was in the garden until she looked up and found him there, towering and intimidating in the darkness, LED the color of the changing sky.

“Oh, hi Nines!” she chirped, drying her hands in the rainbow tartan apron she made for that purpose. “How are you?”

The sun finished setting behind the horizon, making the blue of the night descend like a curtain through the sky. Although already closing, the lights of the library turned on, the harsh light hiding Nines’ face in fleeting shadows.

Alarmed by his silence and by his whirling LED, Rin took a step towards him. “Is everything all right?” she asked. “Your detective...is he okay?”

“Yes,” Nines said, breaking the silence at last. “He came back last night.”

Rin raised a hand to her chest, relieved. “Oh, thank god,” she smiled, a keen excitement replacing the concern now that she was reassured everything was okay. “So did you talk to Laura?”

Nines hesitated. “I did. The Director said I should come talk to you as well.”

“Okay?” Rin said, confused. She waited for Nines to continue, but when he only stared at her, the fear that something was wrong took over Rin again. Nines didn’t call Laura Director anymore. “Nines, what’s going on? Do you wanna...dunno...sit down and tell me?”

Nines shook his head in refusal. “I think it’s better that I remain standing for what I have to say,” he concluded, and this time Rin had barely time to process what that might mean before he added, “I already informed the Director of my decision, but I feel I must tell you first how deeply grateful I am for everything you have done for me. You helped me at a time when I was lost and without a purpose, and showed me there were people who would see me for who I am, faulty protocols or not.” Rin frowned, shaking her head in denial because that sounded like...like a goodbye. “That said,” Nines continued, “I’m afraid I have to refuse the position you offered me in the library. I have already told the Director as much.”

Rin stared at him, open mouthed. Her ears were ringing, and because she was an android she was sure this meant she had heard wrong. “What?” she asked, smile crooked in disbelief.

“I have decided I’ll seek employment at the Detroit Police Department.”

“The Police--what? Nines, what?” she repeated, because if she didn’t know anyone more unsuited for such a thing than Nines. “Why?”

“I have decided that’s where I can be most useful,” Nines answered, solemn as always, and that wasn’t right.

“But I thought you loved to work in the library!” she accused. If Nines didn’t stay--she wouldn’t be able to leave. Her systems whirled wildly, the panic blinding her to everything else. Suddenly, she felt trapped like she hadn’t felt in many months, when the dark walls of the library seemed to close over her like a cage. Would she have to find someone again? Would she have to train someone again? Had she read Nines wrongly? Had he been lying all this time? “You said...you told me...!”

“I apologize,” Nines said, his LED over the place, betraying his agitation. “I didn’t mean to come across...I...I need to protect Gavin.”

“That’s...” Rin began, something ugly twisting inside her. She felt betrayed, hurt, and that left her feeling off balance and powerless. It only took a second for her torrent of feelings to morph into anger, the only way she had to protect herself from the situation.

“I am an RK,” Nines said, stubbornly. “I’m made for police work. I’ve always hated this fact, but I realized...if I’m like this it means I can protect Gavin.”

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard in my life!” Rin retilated, cruel in her anger, and realized she’d gone too far when Nines took a step backwards. Her words resonated loudly in the empty space between them, and Rin noticed Peter was at the door of the library, looking at them in concern.

As sudden as it has come, Rin’s anger evaporated.

Nines’ LED was red, his eyes full of anguish and hurt.

“Nines…” she began, uncertain as to what to say, and hated herself when Nines took another step back at her voice.

“I think it’s better that I go,” he said, and turned around and fled before Rin could say anything else.

“Wait--!” she cried out, but it was too late.

Nines had already vanished into the night.

 


 

3. Connor

To say Connor was happy when he received Nines’ message was an understatement.

Even Hank commented on it when he left the bed away too early in the morning on their day off. Usually he’d cuddle Hank as long as the man allowed him, the shift in their relationship too recent for Connor not to feel a little needy. But Hank always indulged him, allowing Connor to hold him in his sleep, or sit on his lap when they were watching a movie, or just generally touch him whenever he wanted.

It was amazing, and Connor didn’t think he’d ever get enough of it.

That’s why Hank was surprised when Connor left the bed as soon as the sun peeked from the horizon, although Connor sure as hell wasn’t complaining about the greedy hands that pulled him right back against a broad chest.

“Hank!” Connor laughed, trying to be stern but failing completely.

“‘s too goddamn early,” Hank mumbled, nuzzling Connor. “You got a date or something?”

And that’s how Connor found himself excitedly telling Hank about Nines’ message.

Even as he talked, he pulled it up again. It read simply [ Can we please meet? I have something to tell you. ] followed by a place and a time. Still, Connor’s delight at the words was enough to make his sensors sing in anticipation.

This was the first message Nines had sent him without prompting.

By the time Connor ran out of figurative breath, Hank was already alert and looking at Connor with that fond happy smile that Connor would do anything to see again and again.

“Good for you,” the man said, taking one of Connor’s hand on his own and raising it to his lips to place a kiss on the android’s knuckles. “Then you have to hurry and go meet your brother.”

Brother.

Yes, Connor thought, ignoring for the moment his need to pin Hank to the bed and have his way with him. There was no other word for what he felt for Nines-- the need to protect, to be there for him, to offer a secure place Nines could return every so often.

Family.

Androids didn’t have family, but when Markus had told Connor about the deactivated RK sleeping in the labs of CyberLife, the idea had taken hold of Connor, not leaving him even when Nines had awoken, eyes red, his programming activating after refusing the deviancy virus.

Connor had never taken in personally. Not when the newly awoken RK had grabbed him by the throat, seconds away from crushing it, and not when he had initiated a forceful synch, trying to hack him. He’d seen the real android behind the glowing eyes, had felt the panic of a confused Nines, confused and just awoken but struggling with his programming with everything he got as not to cause harm to Connor.

Nines, however, had never forgiven himself for it, and perhaps that was the cause of his initial dislike of Connor.

Well, things were better now, Connor reminded himself with delight. He still cherished the memory of Nines telling him about his cats, about his odd interactions with Detective Reed. Those had been the first personal things Nines had ever told Connor about himself, the first reassurance that Nines would like to be Connor’s family too.

Although he had plenty of time, Connor hurried to their usual meeting place, eager even as he tried to temper his enthusiasm.

He arrived twenty minutes early, and, although slightly disappointed it was too early to see people walking their dogs, he passed the time looking at the birds waking up in their nests, making sure to take a couple of pictures to send Hank later.

Nines arrived exactly on time, his towering figure dressed in dark colors sticking out like a sore thumb against the cheery green of the park. As he walked, Connor took him in, careful not to scan him as not to invade his privacy. Nines was wearing his usual navy knitted jumper and black trousers, probably those that came with his uniform. As he usually did when he saw Nines, Connor smiled at the sight of the jumper. Nines was already big, but the oversized piece of clothing made him look even bigger. It had been his first belonging--probably fished out of a charity bin-- and it had been only once that Connor suggested he get something that actually fit him. Nines averted eyes had told him everything he needed to know, and after that, Connor had never brought up the subject again.

Nines deserved to have things that he loved, Connor through. And if an ugly sweater made him feel at ease, then Connor would fight the whole world tooth and nail to defend Nines’ decision to wear it every day if he wanted.

“Nines!” Connor greeted him with a grin when Nines was close enough, and Nines bowed his head in greeting.

“Hello, Connor. Thank you for agreeing to my request. I understand it was sudden.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Connor beamed. Nines looked different, better. Taller, but not in a bad way. As if he had stopped hiding from the world, eyes bright with determination. “It sounded like you had important news to share.”

Nines noded, gravely. Connor had already opened his mouth to suggest they sit on their usual bench under the chestnut tree, but Nines interrupted him.

“After a long deliberation I have decided the DPD is where my skills will be of best use,” Nines announced, so unexpectedly that Connor felt his smile slip a little. “I would appreciate your assistance to get into the force as soon as possible.”

Connor blinked, consternated. “...the DPD?” he repeated, because of all the things he thought Nines might tell him that one had not even entered the realm of possibility.

But Nines nodded again, and there it was-- that glint of stubborn determination Connor had never seen in his eyes before. “That is correct. After giving it much thought, this is what I have decided.”

“Nines,” Connor said, slowly, in the same tone he used with Hank to explain to him why he couldn’t live on junk food. “You hate police work.”

Nines frowned, and without warning, began to pace in obvious agitation. It was a credit to Connor that he knew Nines enough not to be taken aback by the sudden behavior.

Nines spent five minutes with his LED stuck in red before he seemed to make up his mind and stopped before Connor, offering a skinless hand in a request for a sync.

Bewildered, but also incredibly curious, Connor accepted.

Synching with Nines was like jumping into a pool. Not that Connor had ever done it, but he imagined that’s how it felt-- like a solid wall was coming towards you, only to find at the last second it had a give, that it enveloped you on all sides gently and harshly at the same time. There was that one second of confusion while Connor’s processors caught up with the huge data input coming from Nines, but then, when it settled, it was beautiful, all golden light and kindness and warmth.

Connor had synched with plenty of androids, both in his line of work and just as bonding, but he never had experienced a sync that made him feel so safe as Nines’. Connor wondered if it was the compatibility between them (false, one if his protocols argued, because Markus was an RK too and he didn’t feel like this) or if it was something that was inherent to Nines.

He allowed himself to float in the golden water, contentment humming through their bond, until Connor felt satisfied, a hunger he hadn’t been aware of appeased for now.

[ Connor. ] Nines called, and Connor went, happy to receive the data package Nines pushed at him.

Deep fear, a dread Connor shared as well, panic at the realization a human might not return.

A door opening. A battered man walking through, hurt but trying to hide it, grinning as if his wounds meant nothing.

The same man, asleep. He was curled into himself, dead to the world, a cat on his chest. He looked tired, exhausted, and so very, very frail.

A rush of emotion.

[ Oh. ] Connor whispered into the sync, awe and affection so entwined together it was impossible to separate them. [ You… ]

The sync was gentle as it ended and Connor blinked, disoriented, still affected by the emotional transference. He felt like crying.

“You love him?” he said, softly, although it wasn’t really a question. Connor recognized the echo of his feelings for Hank in those of Nines for Gavin Reed.

Nines lowered his eyes, shy. “Yes,” he admitted, voice raw.

This was not what Connor expected. If Nines was to find love, Connor hoped it would be with someone kind. A gentle person, someone who could treat him with the love he deserved.

But Gavin Reed? Connor thought, agitated. Gavin Reed didn’t deserve Nines.

And yet…

“I don’t deserve you,” Hank had told Connor that night not too long ago in the kitchen, after what was between them had become no longer ignorable. “Lucky for me we don’t all get what we deserve, huh?”

Connor’s LED settled back into blue. He looked again at Nines’ ugly sweater and nodded. It took him only a second to decide. After all, there was absolutely nothing he wouldn’t do for Nines. “Are you sure?”

Nines understood.

“I am,” he said. “Connor, please don’t think I’m making this decision lightly. I have thought about it and I...I don’t think I can go through Gavin going missing like that again. I...I don’t want to.” And Connor understood. He really did. “I want to be by his side. I always hated these protocols I can’t get rid of. I thought it’d be better if I was programmed for anything else at all. But if I’m like this...it means I can help him. I can protect him. Maybe there’s a reason I am like this after all.”

“Nines…” Connor began, because there was something that didn’t sit quite right with him. Still, he had already decided he’d support Nines and that’s what he was going to do. “Alright. I’ll talk to Hank, I’m sure he’ll know the best way to ask Captain Fowler...”

Finally sitting down on their usual bench, Connor made plans with Nines and told himself the uneasy feeling he got at the thought of Nines joining the DPD was just his imagination.

 


 

4. Mrs. Parker

Oliver had been acting strange of late.

Maybe it was a coincidence, but since the neighbors’ meeting the boy was secretive, going surreptitiously outside with something hidden under his shirt when he thought Margaret wasn’t looking.

At first she hadn’t worried. After all, this was the first thing Oliver did that reminded Margaret of the child he had been before his parent’s separation. After the mess that had been the divorce, when it had been decided Oliver would live with his grandmother instead of with his parents, Oliver had become withdrawn, flawlessly well behaved, never making a mess or speaking out of turn. It was not normal for a child of eight, so when he got that mischievous air around him --that Margaret recognized immediately because she had raised the boy’s father, after all-- she had actually been relieved.

Not too relieved not to check what he was doing though. After all, Oliver was young, and Margaret was his grandmother and apparently the only adult that put the child’s needs over their own.

She had staged her intervention carefully. For a few days she discreetly but closely watched the boy, taking note of when he got out and spying on him through the window to see where he went. She was more surprised than she should have been to see the boy furtively going to the alley, and it was only when she found the empty milk carton that everything clicked into place.

Those blasted cats.

In all honesty, it was not like Margaret particularly hated the cats. They were bothersome, sure, noisy and dirty and annoying. They dug out the flowers she had so painstakingly planted under the windows. Even so, as she was the kind of person that considered herself “good”, it stood to reason she didn’t want the cats to come to harm or anything. They were just an annoyance the woman felt she shouldn’t have to deal with, an easy target for her frustration.

It was not like the cats could defend themselves.

Anyway, the last thing she wanted was Oliver getting fleas from them or anything of the sort, so she was already in grandma mode when she left her apartment on the ground floor, intent on scolding her grandson so he didn’t steal milk to give to the cats again.

She didn’t expect to walk into the android --Nines, he’d said his name was-- and the troublesome man that began the mess by feeding the cats in the first place.

“I’m just saying, you can’t feed chocolate to a cat!” the man in question was saying, and Margaret frowned, confused.

“I didn’t do anything!” Oliver shouted then, and that made every parental instinct in Margaret kick in. She’d be dead before she let anyone bully her child, no matter who it was.

“So you’d rather he’d be poisoned?” the man asked, tone unkind.

Margaret stepped forward, ready to intervene. “Oli--”

“It’s not my fault!” Oliver yelled again. “He deserves it! Everyone hates them! Grandma and...and everyone says so! That things would be better if they disappeared!”

“Oliver!” Margaret called, flabbergasted to recognize some of the cruel words she herself had said and some things she had talked with other neighbors, unaware that Oliver was listening.

The boy flinched at her voice as if he had been slapped. He turned around, face red, and Margaret saw clearly the moment he understood what he had said because his eyes filled with tears and he broke down crying, loud ugly sobs he had not even let out in the middle of his parents’ divorce.

On instinct, Margaret went to her grandson and pulled him against her, relieved when the boy clung to her as he sobbed. When she raised her head, consternated, it was only to assess the man and the android’s expressions. The man’s face was an angry red, eyes stormy with obvious agitation, and the android…

Margaret stilled. The android was calm, his perfectly chiseled face betraying nothing. And still...still she couldn’t help the feeling that the android was hurt. Hurt, because androids had feelings now, didn’t they? He’d been caring for those cats that Oliver had…

What? What had Oliver done?

“Please excuse us,” she said with as much dignity as she could because as much as she had gathered of the situation, she was not going to blame her child before knowing the whole story, much less in front of strangers.

And then, with her heart constricting on her chest, she turned around and led her grandson inside.

 

Chapter Text

The bar’s lights were low when Nines opened the door. Although he had been there only once, the smell of old wood and the low hum of conversation immediately summoned the memories of the other time he’d been there before.

Happy memories.

Without his permission, as it happened more and more of late, the preconstruction of the memory played over the current scene as he looked around-- three humans and two androids, chatting and laughing together.

It felt so long ago, like the two weeks that passed between there and now were two years instead.

As he looked around, he tried not to dwell on that too much. For androids, memories could be saved as videos if they wished it, but this particular video-memory felt alien to Nines. He felt so different now, like it was someone else with his face in it instead of himself. Like a stranger had lived through that moment and not him.

Finally, sitting at a table close to the further wall, Nines caught sight of the person he was looking for: Rin’s hair was, today, a deep shade of blue mixed with purple. It reminded Nines of the hour after twilight, and almost expected to see stars pinned in her short hair.

Nines had been surprised when he received Rin’s message, although, knowing her, he should not have been. It had been an email, an old fashioned message between androids, but Nines understood it for the respectful gesture it was. A normal message, like the ones he exchanged with Connor, would be displayed invasively on his HUB, but with an email Nines had the option of reading it or not.

He had read it, several times. The apology, and the request to meet.

As if she felt his stare, Rin raised her head then. Her face was a mix of many things when she made eye contact with Nines, and more than anything else, it was her uncertainty that made Nines’ doubts vanish. He’d always looked at Rin like this wise person that was so much more ahead of him, luminous and kind and perfect.

Now, as he recognized the apprehension in her eyes, Nines couldn’t help but wonder if he had done her a disservice by thinking about her like that. After all, having to be perfect was a very constraining thing.

Are you disappointed? She had asked him once about Gavin. It had helped Nines with his relationship with Connor, and he thought he could apply that to her as well.

Was he disappointed that Rin could get upset, that she got frustrated, that she could say hurtful things in anger? That she wasn’t always kind? That she wasn’t perfect?

That she was also a person?

The answer was no, Nines found out. He was not disappointed.

“Good evening,” Nines greeted, taking a seat beside his friend without hesitation. He could feel the tension radiating from her in waves, and not knowing how to bridge the gap between them or how to bring up what had happened, simply placed a hand on her arm, praying that the contact would be enough to reassure her that he was not mad.

It was.

“Oh, Nines, I’m so sorry!” she gushed, the words leaving her like an unstoppable torrent. “I was a dick, and I was upset but-- it’s not an excuse to be hurtful, and I’m so so sorry! Your decisions are not stupid, nor your reasons, and I was wrong to say as much.”

She grimaced and covered her face with one hand, careful of not dislodging Nines’ oh so gentle touch.

“I accept your apology,” Nines informed her, gravely. “And I feel I should apologize as well.”

Her head snapped up, eyes wide. “What in the world for?”

Nines nodded. “Once that I had time to analyze the situation, I understood I may have come across as misleading. My decision was sudden and unexpected, and I never told you what was going through my mind, so there was no way you could know. I understand how that would make you upset.”

“Still...” Rin began to protest.

“I know,” Nines interrupted her and Rin closed her mouth, because Nines had said he’d forgiven her, so she was not going to make it about herself by insisting and having him make her feel better. He respected him enough to accept his judgement, however ill deserved it felt.

To move forward, they needed to trust each other’s words, and not let self-doubt get in the way.

She nodded, subdued, licking her lips in a nervous gesture Nines had never seen in an android. After a moment, she raised her hand and ordered the fruity thirium cocktail that Nines had enjoyed so much last time they were here.

Nines’ LED bliked blue in thanks and she smiled back, finally relaxing a bit.

“But well...there was no way you could know I would get upset either, to be honest,” she began, thoughtful. “I guess we don’t know each other as well as we thought.”

Nines nodded in acceptance before sipping his cocktail. It was a bright blue thing, and the way the flavors exploded in his mouth like fruit fireworks was strangely engaging and pleasing. He took a moment to enjoy it, content in the knowledge that Rin had cared enough to take note of his preferences. “I would like to know more about you and your reasons. If...if that’s okay.”

Rin’s smile was radiant once more, as if she was happy simply by Nines asking, and he felt like a fool. All this time it had been only him telling her about himself, needing to be known. He had never thought to ask about her own life, never imagined others might have this same need.

Briefly, he wondered how many more things had he missed by only thinking about himself.

“Of course it’s okay!” she reassured. “It’s not a secret or anything, we just don’t talk much about it in the library,” she grimaced then, wilting up a little. “God, it’s gonna make me look like the worst kind of hypocrite, so sorry about that. The truth is that I’m leaving the library as well.”

That was so unexpected that Nines’ LED blinked red for a moment before everything made sense. Rin having him shadow her, having him learn her duties, trying to convince him to take over reading time. She had been helping him, sure, but she had also been training a replacement.

“I see,” Nines answered, processes all over the place as he thought. Rin waited in patient silence until he was ready, which Nines appreciated. “You don’t like library work?”

“Yeah, don’t get me wrong, I love the library. But, besides the books, it’s so...dull. The tasks are so boring. Sometimes I feel...I felt like it was choking me, I...” she struggled with her words, even though Nines didn’t need for her to elaborate any further. He knew. He knew about the long hours, and doing tasks that felt like going against a current. He knew, because he had this experience as well. “I guess I never told you how I deviated, did I? Everyone has these stories that prove how...strong, or brave they are. But me? For me there was nothing. I just...read. Not even for myself, but for the children. And one day I realized it was like looking through a window. I could see all of these different ways of living, but they were not for me. I was a thing, and for me, the window was closed. But I wanted ,” she said longingly. “I wanted friends, I wanted adventures, I wanted to be...looked at, talked to, cherished. I wanted…”

She looked down then, hiding her face in her drink, but the blush on her face gave her away. Nines waited, enraptured, although he thought he knew where it was going.

“Before I deviated, Laura talked to me all the time,” Rin said, blushing furiously. In her face, it translated into a blue hue, and Nines thought it lovely. “She would complain, and think aloud, and tell me about her day. She would tell me about books, if she liked them or not, and why. She...she loves stories,” she told Nines, like this was something Nines hadn’t already known, but she looked so happy that Nines couldn’t help the blooming happiness in his chest in turn. “And I don’t know how it happened, but little by little these moments piled up until they turned into love.”

Nines’ LED smiled, thinking back to his own interactions with Gavin.

“Are you together?” he asked, something he also knew but not from his friend.

Rin’s face lit up. “Yeah. But maybe not like you think.”

Nines leaned forward, curious. “Oh?”

“Well…I don’t feel sexual attraction. So while we’re in a committed romantic relationship, it’s not sexual. I don’t... mind sex, but at the same time it’s really not something that appeals to me,” she shrugged.

“Oh,” Nines repeated, having never thought about such possibilities, or even about his own preferences.

“Not that is wrong to have a sexual relationship with someone, with or without feelings!” Rin hurried to add, perhaps misinterpreting Nines’ silence. “Just, you know. One must never assume.”

“It must be nice to understand each other so well,” Nines reflected. Now that the idea had been instilled in his mind, he was wildly curious about his own preferences, but he saved that thread of thought for later, flagging it as important in case he forgot by some odd chance. “And so you deviated?” he asked instead.

“Ah, yes. I wanted Laura, but that’s not how I deviated. I think that was more of a sign of my deviancy. For me it was small things. Sometimes, I would not read a certain book to the children. I would arrange the children’s recommendations differently as to how I was told. Little things that I could slip around the wall on my code. Then, one day I looked at myself in the mirror and I hated the sight so much that I cut my hair,” she was silent after that, as if she was trying to subdue her inner turmoil.

Around them, the sound of voices and dishware was like a warm cocoon that protected them while reminding them they were surrounded by people, and Nines hoped Rin found it as comforting as he did. “I almost had a breakdown then,” she concluded at last. Nines was sure there was more to it, but he didn’t press. He thought he understood that as well. “My code almost choked me, and I was terrified by what the humans would say come morning. By what Laura would say. But no one said anything, and Laura...she told me I looked more like myself. It gave me the courage to begin calling myself Rin,” she shrugged. “So I don’t know when I became deviant. I just...little by little, I was.”

“Little by little,” Nines hummed, going through Rin’s words like he did when he read a cherished story. He imagined her alone in the dark library, the LED she probably had back then the only light in the darkness, and couldn’t help but think of his own endless nights locked away in New Jericho. “You have come very far. I feel...I am glad for you. It must have been very hard.”

Nines thought he had misstepped when Rin went very still. She looked at him with an unreadable expression for a long time before her whole face crumbled, soft and vulnerable. Slowly, as if afraid she’d be rejected, she placed a hand on top of his on the counter and squeezed, softly. It was not a request for a synch, but simply physical touch: an expression of affection and of things that were too complicated to put into words.

“Thank you,” she whispered, voice shaky.

That night, they talked until the bar closed, and then walked through the city until the sun came up. They told each other many things. Rin about her interest in studying the emotional development in androids (“Android psychology,” she laughed) and Nines, in turn, told her about the failsafe in his code that made him resistant to the deviancy virus, forcing him to almost kill Connor when he was awaken in the laboratories in the bowels of CiberLife. He talked about his isolation after that, about the holes in his social protocols and his issues with interacting with others, and as he talked he felt for the first time all of these things were in the past.

It hurt, of course, it hurt still, for insecurity has never been something easily overcome. But talking about it with a friend made the burden feel lighter, like things would somehow be okay in the end.

 


 

The door had barely been closed behind Nines for a minute when the reminder popped up on his HUB, as if it was something Nines would ever forget.

Still, with a slight shake of his head, Nines dismissed the warning. Instead, he went towards the window to sit on his green armchair, relishing the sight of his two newest acquisitions. First, a worn cotton blanket he had bought on a whim when the old thing had caught his eye on a thrift store. It was a faded mint green color, but Nines had taken one look at the pattern --white, grey, black, orange and calico cats in different cute poses-- and Nines had to take it home with him.

He had bought a coffee table too, the original reason he’d been in the store. He’d needed somewhere to put his books, but none of the shelves were to his taste, and so when he’d stumbled onto the dark wooden table, he’d known it’d look perfect beside his armchair, piled up with books.

Both items --the blanket and the coffee table-- pleased Nines as much as the rest of his meager possessions. They were his, he had chosen them, items that said something about himself. So because the novelty of having things had not yet worn off, he bundled under his big blanket --which was big enough to cover all of him!-- and with the utmost care he grabbed the book on the top of the pile: Gavin’s copy of The Return of the King , which the man had lent to Nines under the impression Nines had not finished reading the story yet.

Nines had not disabused him of the notion. He’d taken the book reverently, the realization of his feelings for Gavin too recent to refuse that little piece of him, and taken it home, placing it on his green armchair like a treasure. Then he had gone out to buy a shelf, only to find the old quaint coffee table and falling in love with it.

The book was a nice weight on Nines’ hands, and before opening it, he raised it to his nose and inhaled deeply. The scan of the components was displayed on his HUB in a second-- old paper, glue, cat hair, wood, and the lemony scent of the cleaning agent Gavin prefered. But also, under all that, Nines’ scans picked up faint traces of the scent that was purely Gavin.

Unwanted, the reminder that he had set for himself popped up again, and Nines hesitated, curious but at the same time a little shy to explore it further.

In the end, curiosity won. Placing the book back into the top of the small pile, Nines stood and walked to stand in front of the long mirror he had mounted on the wall.

Slowly, he took off his clothes. He had only twice before needed to be naked, and that was for some diagnostics made on him to monitor his progress when he was in New Jericho. However, he never had the occasion (or the interest) to see his naked body.

He did so now, looking at himself with a critical eye.

He was nice to look at, he thought, not out of vanity but because he knew he had been made to look somewhat appealing. His shoulders were wider than his hips, biceps and thighs made thicker than average to accommodate the superior strength of his model. And then, between his legs, a smooth seamless plate covered his pelvic mound, for he had not been deemed to have any need for genitals when he had been designed.

Tilting his head, he ran an experimental hand from his throat down across his chest to his belly. It felt sort of good, but nothing extraordinary, the feedback too simple to be actually pleasurable.

Sexual attraction.

He knew what that was, of course, in that theoretical, detached sort of way that comprised a large portion of his knowledge. Rin had said she didn’t feel any, and in a sense Nines thought he understood.

Want.

Desire.

Unbidden, the image of Gavin coming out of his room shirtless came to the front of his mind, making his thirium skip a beat just as it had done when in the presence of the man. Just like back then, something hot and heavy coiled within Nines at the thought of all that olive, damp skin on display.

Gavin was very different to Nines. Shorter, for one, more compact, not as lean, but although he was not ripped or anything, it was obvious he took good care of his body. Unlinke Nines’ smooth body, Gavin had body hair on his arms and chest, a dark trail that disappeared under his trousers, groomed enough that it didn’t hide from view the scars on Gavin’s body.

He’d wanted to touch, Nines remembered, feeling his thirium blood rush faster through his veins at this admission. Even then, under the desire of caring for Gavin, he’d wanted to trail his hands all over Gavin’s body, across his chest, to feel his warm skin and his muscles and his life.

Unable to stop himself, he imagined what it would feel like to have all of that skin pressed against him, how it would feel if Gavin embraced him from behind, solid and warm, pressing Nines back possessively against his chest, their bodies pressed together in a hard line.

An alarm popped up on the corner of Nines’ vision, alerting him of the rise in his temperature, and Nines drew in a shaky breath to cool himself down, exhaling it slowly.

That night, when Nines had knelt between Gavin’s thighs, he’d wanted to touch, although he hadn’t fully understood the reason back then. However, he couldn’t forget the way Gavin’s eyes had darkened at the sight of Nines between his legs, and Nines shivered with the realization of what that meant.

What would Gavin have done, if Nines hadn’t been so clueless? If Nines had dared to act on his desires?

Had Gavin wanted to...to be touched by Nines? To touch Nines as well?

Nines closed his eyes, imagining Gavin’s lips on his skin, hands touching him everywhere, pinching his nipples, running down his stomach to caress between his legs and then upwards again. His own hands played this fantasy, the heat and his stress levels rising the longer he kept going.

Would Gavin... god , would Gavin get aroused by touching Nines? And if so, would he have dared to slip a hand under Gavin’s underwear, to take him in hand, to stroke him? The mere possibility of being able to provide Gavin with pleasure nearly undid Nines. And he wanted...oh, he wanted Gavin to use him, to touch him, to rut against him, to maybe take himself in hand and slid his fingers into Nines’ mouth, his request clear.

Nines would agree. He wanted to kneel between Gavin’s legs again, have the man look at him darkly, have him free his cock from his underwear and feed it to Nines.

Gavin ,” he moaned around his fingers, unable to help himself.

It felt good. The simultaneous stimulation on his fingers and their weight on his tongue felt good, but it was the simulation of doing this to Gavin that made him shake with need.

Burning with shame and want, Nines slid his own fingers out of his mouth and pressed slightly at his torso, unlatching a plate he had already released internally. He’d talked about this with Rin last night, gossiped about it, and he had never wanted something to work out as desperately as he did this. The plate on his chest released with a soft hiss, and Nines wasted no time to run his fingers through his exposed wiring.

Ah ,” he gasped, completely taken aback by the rush of pleasure. It was electric, overwhelming, different to any other sort of pleasure he had felt before.

He did it again and again, and the feedback was as good each time, wet and filthy and so very utterly pleasurable.

His breathing became ragged as he fought the incoming overheat. Gavin’s fingers were thicker and rougher than Nines’, calloused, and Nines trembled as he thought of Gavin inside him, caressing and stroking him, fingers made wet and slippery by Nines’ thirium. He’d go slow first, Nines was sure, if only to tease him, and then faster and rougher as he assessed Nines’ reactions, as his moans became louder and louder, overlayed with broken static as his pleasure mounted.

“Gavin,” Nines pleaded as he touched himself, desperate. “Oh, please, Gavin!”

He came with a strangled sound full of static, his voice modulator glitching under the pleasure. He shook all through his soft reboot, his fingers twitching around his wires extending his orgasm. A quick scan began in automatic, but Nines sent it carelessly to the background because he felt too good to believe an error could come out of this.

With a final sigh he opened his eyes, embarrassed to see his own image in the mirror, eyes glassy and with a hand stained blue as he pulled it out from his open insides.

He needed to shower, Nines thought, but his legs felt too weak to stand any longer. Instead, he sat in his armchair, unselfconsciously spreading his legs to enjoy the silky feeling of the fabric on his bare skin, and decided to find out if the components under his pelvic plate felt as good as the ones in his chest.

After all, he had time to experiment.

The shower could wait for later.

 


 

 

It was with great effort that Nines was able to look at Gavin in the eye the next time he saw him.

The day he saw Gavin again was a sunny Sunday, the first true day of fall. There was a biting chill in the air for the first time of the year, the clear sky not easing the coldness of the wind that took the fallen leaves of the trees for a joyful dance.

As usual, Gavin was on the alley at exactly midday with Felicia in her harness. In deference to the cold, he had a thick hoodie zipped up to his throat under his favorite leather jacket. Nines, too, had changed his attire a little, not because he needed it but in deference to the season. He had changed his big blue sweater in favor of a grey turtleneck which he wore under his long black coat.

A knitted striped scarf completed his look, and he had been very proud of the way he looked: like a normal person ready to go on a stroll.

“Hey, tin man,” Gavin greeted, unsurprised by his presence as usual, and immediately did a double take when he took a look at him.

Nines didn’t miss the way Gavin’s eyes slid down his body, and didn’t think he imagined the way the tip of the man’s ears turned pink. Nines was sure it wasn’t the cold either.

“Hello, Gavin,” he greeted, pleased when he saw Gavin avert his eyes and lick his lips, obviously nervous. It made a sharp bolt of pleasure flash through his circuits, and he wondered how else could he make this man flustered.

Then he remembered what he had spent the past two days doing and it was his turn to avert his eyes.

It was Felicia who broke the awkward silence with a loud meow, apparently annoyed by the man and the android’s stupidity.

Dutifully, Nines crouched to pet her, his LED smiling when she purred loudly. Immediately, she proceeded to aggressively rub her head against Nines’ hand, licking him a little to show her affection.

“Look at her, acting like she hasn’t seen you in years,” Gavin complained, rolling his eyes. “Not even I get that treatment. I think it’s time you remember who pays for your cans of food, you gremlin,” he scolded the cat, who gleefully ignored him.

“I missed you too, Felicia,” Nines told her, but looked at Gavin when he said it.

That electric tension flared up between them again, and now that Nines knew it for what it was, he was glad he hadn’t imagined it. It meant he might have a chance with Gavin after all.

“Tin man…” Gavin began, but Nines didn’t find out what he was going to say because a pair of steps came their way, a voice he knew calling from afar:

“Mr Nines? Detective? Good afternoon.”

Mrs Parker was standing in the sun, in the sidewalk on the limit between her building and the alley. She was stern as always, but Nines couldn’t help but notice the boy hiding behind her, clinging to her skirt.

Attuned as he was to Gavin, he felt the man tense, so he stood in a swift movement and nodded to the woman, trying to avoid another confrontation if possible.

“Good afternoon, Mrs Parker,” he answered pleasantly. Behind him, the cats munched on their food happily, uncaring of the conflicts between the humans and the android.

“Do you have a minute?” the woman asked, “I have someone here that wants to say something to you.” She then looked down at the boy and her voice was firm but surprisingly gentle as she encouraged her grandson. “Go on.”

The boy peered at them from between his bangs, raising his head to look at his grandmother, looking for reassurance. The woman smiled a him and gently pushed him forward, telling him in a low voice, “It’s okay. I’ll be here with you.”

With that promise, the boy shuffled forward, although his courage only carried him a couple of steps. He then looked down, shifting his weight and wringing his hands before he looked up.

“I’m sorry,” he said, voice so small Nines could barely hear him. “I...I didn’t know,” he admitted. He was shaking like a leaf. “I gave him...I thought...it was an accident! I’m sorry!”

The boy closed his eyes as his courage deserted him, obviously waiting for the judgment the adults were going to impart on him.

An accident.

It fit with Nines’ preconstructions too: of course the child was too young to know that chocolate was poison to cats.

He was so young, Nines thought, watching him tremble, barely containing tears. So small and so young. He looked lost as he waited, and something about his obvious regret pulled at Nines’ metal heart. The boy must be about Cecil’s age. He looked at him, and wondered if this boy had only wanted a friend as well.

Nines would have been a liar if he said he didn’t resent the boy, because he did. Disliked him for his carelessness, even. But there was a bigger part of him, a part that wished to protect and nurture, that overcame that feeling after a brief struggle. It was the part of him that recognized the boy’s loneliness, and allowed Nines to act on his impulse born from empathy: to help if he could.

Gavin opened his mouth to speak, but Nines stopped him with a gesture. Instead, he walked towards the child and knelt in front of him, trying to make eye contact with the boy by lowering himself to his level.

“Did you feed him your own snacks?” he asked, kindly. He was copying the voice he remembered Cecil’s mother using with him, and it seemed to work because the boy nodded miserably. “I see. You were trying to be kind to them, weren’t you?”

At this, fat tears spilled from the boy’s eyes, rolling down his face, messy and uncontrollable. They told Nines everything he needed to know, and even though he had been aware Oliver had not hurt #1 out of malice, it did his heart good to have the confirmation.

It must be a terrible thing, he thought. To hurt someone you loved without meaning to.

He pet the child’s hair, gently.

“I understand. You were trying to be his friend, isn’t that right? But cats make friends differently than people, and some things we eat can really hurt them.”

“I’m sorry!” the child sobbed. His crying was just like that of the cats, loud and earnest and unashamed. “I’m sorry! I didn’t know! I wanted...I wanted to be their friend! I wanted--!”

“How about you be my friend instead?” Nines suggested. “And I can teach you how to feed them and play with them. You can apologize to #1. I’m sure he’d love to hear your apology.”

The child cried loudly for another moment but in the end he nodded. Nines wiped his tears with his thumbs, unbothered by the mess, and cleaned the boy’s snotty face with a grey sleeve as well as he could. Then, hand in hand, the android and the sniffling boy walked into the alley.

And then, with endless patience, Nines taught the child how to care for the stray cats, unaware of both Mrs Parker and Gavin watching him, stunned.

 


 

The much expected message from Connor came late that evening.

[ You begin on Wednesday. ] It read. Nines could pick up some pride from the wording, and he sent Connor the equivalent of a raised eyebrow in inquiry.

[ I vouched for you to Captain Fowler. ] Connor explained. [ He was most impressed with your interview, and as you’re an RK, your application was accepted immediately. ]

[ Thank you, Connor. ] Nines sent back, trying to ignore the trepidation he felt at the news because he was supposed to want this. [ For everything. I appreciate your support. ]

[ Anytime. ] Connor answered, and then an excited, [ See you Wednesday! ]

That day, Nines had a bad night.

Although he was certain he had made the right choice refusing the library --he could protect Gavin this way-- he couldn’t help but feel like a collar had locked around his neck, red lines of code that forced him to hunt and kill and harm.

He tried to convince himself it wouldn’t be like that this time --Gavin and Connor would be there, wouldn’t them?-- and when the sun came up he had almost convinced himself everything would be alright.

Anyway, he was too antsy to stay inside and read like he wanted. He wanted to go to the library, for Rin had invited him to return whenever he felt like it, but he felt guilty. As an afterthought he realized he hadn’t said goodbye to Emma and Peter, wondered what they would say of his disappearance, and realized he didn’t want to find out.

So, unsettled, he went to the only other place that gave him peace: the alley. The cats were hidden as usual, but #1, and to Nines’ surprise, the white and orange tabby #5, came out to greet him, purring even when the only thing Nines did was refill their water bowls.

It was already evening when Nines emerged from the alley, relaxed from playing with the cats. Without anything to do, he decided he might as well go buy some things he needed and walked towards the local grocery store.

He was leaving the shop when his sensors picked the most welcome voice he could hear in any possible circumstance.

“Tin man! Hey, Tin man!”

When Nines turned, Gavin was, indeed, hurrying toward him, an ecologic green bag on his shoulder filled with groceries to the brim.

“Good evening, detective,” Nines greeted him warmly once the man was within hearing range.

Gavin huffed. He was still wearing the clothes he usually went in to work, so Nines figured he must have stopped to do some shopping himself before returning home. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Nines raised an eyebrow at the dumb question, and Gavin rolled his eyes, lightly swatting the android on the arm as they began to walk in the same direction. “Don’t be a fucking smartass, you know what I mean.”

Nines tilted his head, but decided to settle for the truth. “I fused a couple of lightbulbs by accident, so I figured I had better replace them sooner than later.”

Gavin’s eyebrows rose. “You fused a couple of light…? You know what, I don’t think I wanna know,” he concluded. They walked in comfortable silence for a couple of seconds. “So how are you? You ever finish the book?”

“I did,” Nines confirmed, a bit disappointed he’d have to return it already, but it was inevitable. “I will return it to you as soon as I can.”

But Gavin waved him off. “That’s not why I’m asking. Well?”

“I liked it. I found the way things wrapped up most satisfying. Except perhaps for Frodo’s trauma. It truly seems a pity he could never really recover.”

Gavin hummed, thoughtful. The evening was nice, peaceful, the sky already turning red at the edges. It was getting colder and colder, but Gavin seemed unbothered by it, looking up at the sky as they walked.

“But that’s what makes it great, isn’t it?” he said. “Sometimes bad shit happens, and it fucks people up, and it’s forever. You cannot magically be okay again.”

Nines looked at him. “Is that why you like the books, detective? Because they’re realistic?”

“Realistic?” Gavin snorted. He nudged Nines’ shoulder with his own, playful, and Nines’ LED smiled under the attention. “What about hobbits, wizards and elves is realistic? It just makes the story better, is all. And cut that detective crap. You have slept at my place for fucks’ sake. Call me Gavin.”

“Gavin,” Nines said, testing the name as if he had never said it before, as if he hadn’t moaned it while thinking about him.

Almost as if reading his thoughts, Gavin looked up at Nines from under his lashes, teasing, and with a flash of heat Nines realised Gavin was actually flirting with him.

“The movies are good, you know,” Gavin informed him, lightly touching Nines’ arm. “The Peter Jackson ones, not the stupid remakes. Wanna watch them sometime? I think I have them in a boxset somewhere. I —huh— I would normally throw in a bit of booze or popcorn to sweeten the deal, but yeah. You will have to do with just me and the cat.”

Nines breathed in and out as discreetly as he could, trying to subdue the butterflies in his stomach because there was no way he was misinterpreting this.

“I would actually like that very much,” he answered, trying not to sound too eager and utterly failing. “With just you and the cat.”

And that seemed to be the right answer, because Gavin smiled at him. It was a private smile, a little shaky at the edges, but so full of warmth and joy that Nines wanted to kiss him right then, find out what happiness tasted like on Gavin’s lips.

It was Gavin who looked away first, embarrassed. “Okay, then. Friday okay for you? Around 8? That way we can stay up all night— I don’t have work this Saturday.”

“That’s perfect,” Nines reassured him earnestly, because it was. Anything would be perfect, as long as he got to do it with Gavin.

“Great,” Gavin said, turning his face away, and Nines wondered how much did he let on because the tips of Gavin’s ears were red again. They walked in silence for a little while, and Nines felt a little mournful when they turned the corner and they were at Gavin’s place, the alley beyond it and Nines’ building beyond that. “Well, this is me,” Gavin gestured, a little awkward. He looked at Nines questioningly like he wanted to say or do something else, but in the end he leaned back and simply said, “See you Friday.”

Arrested, Nines watched him climb the stairs of the building’s porch, thinking about how he’d actually see Gavin tomorrow at the precinct.

A flickering doubt clouded his mind, tarnishing the perfect moment and making him call out to the man before he closed the door after him.

“Gavin?”

Gavin turned, and his face was open, and when he smiled Nines couldn’t say it.

“See you on Friday.”

The glass door closed behind Gavin with finality, and Nines, feeling drunk by what had just happened, sent a quick message to Connor.

[ Connor, I think I have a date. ]

It didn’t take Connor three seconds to send an annoying text face and a simple, [ Oh? ]

[ I think Gavin asked me out on a date. ] Nines answered, too excited to care about Connor’s teasing and telling himself he was not about to jump in joy. He wondered if it was too much if he told Rin as well.

Connor, however, like a good friend, sent him a request for a call, and when Nines answered, he said, “Tell me everything!”

Soothed by Connor’s enthusiasm, Nines allowed his own joy to take him, and spent a long while telling Connor every single detail, happy with how things turned out.

If his job in the DPD allowed him to keep this, then he didn’t regret his decision at all.

 


 

The next day, Nines left stasis early.

His morning was quiet, and he spent a beautiful hour reading The Return of the King again, anything to soothe his nerves at his first day of work.

He left his apartment with enough time to spare, and was surprised to find Mrs Parker already up as well, trimming the rose bushes, which had already traded the green of the summer for their autumn colors, the flowers wilting in the cold.

“Good morning, Mrs Parker,” Nines greeted, first because it was polite, and then because he wanted to get along with this woman for little Oliver’s sake.

She looked surprised to see him, her good morning giving away her feelings, and he was about to walk away when she stopped him.

“Wait, Mr Nines!” she called, cleaning her dirt stained hands on her apron. “I...sorry to stop you, but… I’ve been meaning to ask. Is the cat okay?”

Nines’ LED blinked amber, taken aback by the question. Not only because a long time had passed since #1 was back in the alley, but because this woman had been so open in her hatred of the cats before.

She grimaced, perhaps interpreting Nines’ silence correctly.

“I know I have not been the most...reasonable of people. But please believe me when I say…I didn’t mean for a cat to be poisoned,” she looked down, wringing her hands in the same way her grandson did when he was upset. “I know I said hateful things, and to realize Oliver would spout my hateful words in a moment of panic... I am ashamed to admit that it was me who made such an ugly impression on him. But it was. It was me.”

Nines listened in awed silence as the woman struggled with her words, emotion clear on her face. He wondered if this was hard for her, if her pride made it harder for her, and if it was the love for her grandson that had made her change.

“But you! You were so kind to him, more so than I would have been in your position,” she admitted. “Thank you for that. I...his parents are going through a divorce. He doesn’t know it yet, but it’s probable he stays with me from now on. His mother’s job has her traveling a lot, and my son…” she sighed. “Well. Oliver is taking it well, but he’s young. He tries not to make trouble, not to ask for things. He barely talks to me. And now… now all he does is talk about the cats. He’s been reading online how to care for them, and last night he begged me to take him to the library so he could read more. He has never asked for anything before,” the woman’s eyes filled with tears and she averted her face to wipe them discreetly. “Mr. Nines, I…thank you so much. You and your cats have given a lot to my family, whether deserving we are of it or not. And also I wanted to say I was in the wrong about the cats, and I’m deeply sorry for how I behaved.”

Nines looked away politely while she dried her face with a handkerchief. She was not the only one that had to compose herself. Nines, too, felt emotion rise like water, up and up, spilling. He had begun taking care of the cats because he was lonely, and he still didn’t know what he was doing half the time, but his being here had made a difference for someone. He had helped.

It hadn’t been worthless.

It was Mrs Parker who recovered her composure first, and extended a hand towards him.

“I hope that you and the cats can be my friends as well as Oliver’s,” she said. “I would like to help by thinking about solutions about the cats and the neighbor’s complaints, so we can all live together.”

Nines nodded, too overcome still to form words, and gently, mindful of his strength, took the woman’s frail hand in his.

“It would be my pleasure,” he nodded, voice wavy, and knew they finally understood each other when the woman smiled at him, like the sun coming from behind the clouds.

He had found another friend where he last expected it.

He left with an invitation from Mrs Parker (“Margaret, please, Mr Nines!”) to have tea with her and Oliver, which Nines very happily accepted.

He felt light as he walked away, full like his heart had grown two sizes in his chest, and with a spring in his step he walked to the precinct, feeling hopeful for the future, and wanting to see what this day would bring.

 

Chapter Text

Gavin woke up well before the sun, too excited to sleep.

This was something that had often happened to him as a child. Before a school trip, or Christmas, or any important day, Gavin would remain in bed, shaking from the excitement and impatiently watching the clock, too keyed up to go to sleep.

That had been something that had happened to him less and less as he grew up, and not at all in the past five years or so. But things had been better with Nines here. He felt better, more balanced, and although his stomach still twisted in knots with fear, there was also the hopeful excitement at the idea that he had invited Nines on a date and, more importantly, Nines had said yes.

So after he decided sleep was a lost cause once again, Gavin left the bed in favor of the bathroom. The mirror revealed his tired, unshaven face, but also a grin he couldn’t hide because holy shit , he had a date with Nines .

“Stop being an idiot,” he scolded himself, trying to hide his smile under his hand, uselessly.

He decided he might as well use his time to work out, as he hadn’t been able to when he’d been undercover and he hadn’t picked it up again after. Decision made, his morning was remarkably perfect-- playing with Fliss, having fruit with his breakfast, exercising. It left him feeling satisfied, content, his excess energy having been transformed into something useful.

When he walked into the precinct, Tina took one look at him and whistled.

“You look creepy as fuck,” she informed him, cheerfully. “What’s with that grin?”

“Shut up,” he retorted bumping playfully into her to annoy her.

Tina rolled her eyes and got out of reach, but when Gavin sat on his desk, she perched beside him, looking him up and down with an eye that was trained in all things Gavin Reed.

“Mmm, something good happened?” she guessed, accurate as always.

Gavin couldn’t help but grin. “Maybe.”

“Maybe? Gavin John Reed!” Tina scolded him, and Gavin laughed because that was not his middle name, but it was a habit Tina had picked through the years. The name she called him by depended on how annoyed she was with him. John being the don’t-get-cute-with-me level and Augusto the I’m-going-to-murder-you. So far, Tina had used Augusto on Gavin only once. “You’re coming to the break room with me this instant to spill the beans or so help me god...!”

“Okay, okay, chill,” Gavin huffed, pretending to be bothered by Tina’s bossiness. Nothing could be further from the truth, because Gavin was not certain about anything in the world besides the fact that Tina loved him, and he loved her back just as fiercely. “If you really want to know, I guess...”

But Gavin never finished his sentence because an android that looked remarkably like Nines entered the precinct, escorted by Connor.

Gavin frowned.

He followed both androids with his eyes as they entered Fowler’s office.

“Gav?” Tina asked, concerned.

Gavin shook his head. “For a moment I thought I saw…” he trailed off, because that was not possible. Nines resembled Connor, that was one of the original reasons he had caught Gavin’s attention --not for creepy reasons, he’d just been startled by who appeared to be Connor in the alley feeding his cats. But Nines had never mentioned Connor, and Gavin was sure he would have if they’d known each other. After all, it was impossible that Connor wouldn’t tell Nines about the way Gavin had treated him.

Gavin was still waiting for the backlash of that. So far, Connor had not done anything.

Neither had Hank, but that was another can of worms that he didn’t have the mental fortitude to deal with, now or never.

However, when the androids left the Captain’s office, Gavin felt something cold settle in his stomach, because it was Nines. Gavin could never confuse him with someone else. Even if the android was wearing one of the police uniforms, the way he stood, the way he tilted his head, damn, the way his fuckin LED blinked were so familiar to Gavin that there was no way of taking him for someone else.

“Everyone!” Fowler called over the morning rush. “I want to introduce you to the newest member of the team. Please welcome Nines...!” He said something else, but Gavin did not hear it, because in that moment Nines’ eyes met his from across the office and there was no doubt about who he was.

“Gavin?” Tina called, from afar.

Ice chased the shock from Gavin’s system, mind reeling as he analyzed every interaction he’d had with Nines so far. The library. The thing about hating police work. Always asking about Gavin’s job.

Something ugly pooled in his chest, tacky and oily like tar, at the realization Nines had lied to him.

He should have known.

He should have known, damn it!

Gavin had trusted him like a fool. And Nines had lied to him too.

He didn’t know how he walked into the break room, but the next thing he knew was that he was making himself a cup of coffee with shaky fingers. Then, Nines was there, tall and gorgeous with pleading blue eyes as if he had not completely deceived Gavin.

“Gavin…” he began, and his voice was the final spark that kindled Gavin’s anger.

Rage and hurt rose within him, so strong and sharp that he couldn’t think clearly.

“Was the library a lie?” he spat, viciously. Nines flinched at his tone, but Gavin was too far gone to care. “All those fucking times you asked about my job—was it for this? Were you collecting intel about it? Trying to find inside information—” Gavin cut himself off because it hurt too much to say. The pain in his chest concentrated into a hollow void as his heart ripped itself apart. All those times Nines had seemed so earnest…all those times Gavin had thought the android asked because he had some sort of interest in Gavin…

Gavin suppressed the thought, viciously. He should have known better. He did know better. Better than to trust someone like this again, to let someone in. After all, everyone always had their own agenda, and it never included Gavin’s well being.

“So were you having fun at my expense, huh?” Gavin asked, a hysterical edge to his voice. “Was this your revenge? For your brother? Were you both laughing at my stupidity behind my back?” God, he had asked Nines for a date. How fucking stupid. How incredibly stupid of him to believe Nines was something good. Allowing himself to get compromised. Allowing himself to believe in him. “Congratulations! You succeeded.”

It was too much. Gavin felt like a physical weight settled on his chest, making it difficult to breathe. He knew he was panicking, and he also knew that he’d die before showing weakness in front of Nines ever again.

Simple tasks, he ordered himself. Turn around. Walk away. Hide yourself, don’t let them see your hurt.

He made it as far as the door before Nines intercepted him.

“Gavin, please, you have it wrong…” he said, but made the mistake of grabbing Gavin’s arm to stop him.

The reaction was immediate.

Gavin ripped his arm away, turning around like a snake ready to strike. He wanted to scream. Betrayal was like a sharp knife in his gut, twisting deeper and deeper until he could not think about anything else.

“Don’t touch me, you plastic prick! Fuck off!” he snarled, a sick satisfaction dripping into his heart when he saw the hurt in Nines’ eyes. Good. He wanted to tarnish him, make him hurt as much as Gavin was hurting. “You already got what you wanted, didn’t you? Fuck you!” he spat, “ Liar!

Nines took a step back at that, as if struck, and Gavin took the opportunity to storm out of the break room. He ignored Tina’s concerned eyes, trying not to care about the way he had left Nines there, LED red and hunched into himself, looking like his whole world had just shattered.