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It's a quarter till five when Shen Cassidy heaves himself out of bed, finally giving in to the ideas running through his head. There's no more sleep to be had this night. Or this morning, as the case may be. He pulls on his age-softened robe and stuffs his feet into the ratty slippers that Deb bought him for Christmas ten years ago, then shuffles towards the kitchen, Albert twining between his legs in hopes of an early breakfast.

He's still too brain-fogged to remember exactly where he left his pocket recorder last night, so instead of launching straight back into his memoirs, he heads for the coffee maker. The pot is fresh brewed, which means at some point in the recent past, he must have reset the timer. Unless Nelson did it last time he visited, playing a prank on his old man, perhaps, one Shen is grateful for right now.

Albert meows pitifully, and Shen sighs.

"You're supposed to be on a feeding schedule, you know," he says as he pours a bit of kibble into Albert's bowl. "That's what happens when you get old. Just be glad you don't have to worry about getting your cholesterol checked every six months."

Albert, as usual, doesn't deign to acknowledge his good fortune. Shen gives his fuzzy little head a quick stroke, then picks up his mug of coffee and heads towards the living room, fully intending to take advantage of his early start to watch the sun rise. He gets two steps into the room before pulling up short, trying to decide if he's really seeing what he thinks he's seeing.

"Gabriel?"

"Hey, Doc," Gabriel calls back softly. He's sitting on the footstool of the leather recliner, forearms resting on his thighs as he stares out into the morning mist.

"How did you even—" Shen cuts himself off, because of course the alarm system wouldn't be any challenge to Gabriel. Sometimes even he forgets what Gabriel is capable of. Or perhaps it's more that Gabriel has achieved so much more than Shen ever dreamed possible, so much so that he's continually surprised by whatever Gabriel chooses to do next.

Such as break into Shen's house in the middle of the night.

"Coffee?"

Gabriel lifts his hand, showing off the mug he's already holding. That would explain the fresh pot, then.

"At least I'm not going senile," Shen mutters to himself. He continues on to his original destination, settling in on the sofa with his feet up on the coffee table. Instead of admiring the rising sun, though, he has the man in front of him to ponder.

The Adam of Shen's labors, come back to his creator's roost.

It's a terrible comparison in many ways, one he's scolded Gabriel for making more than once. Gabriel is hardly a monster, though his heart and soul is certainly as great as the one created by Frankenstein. Created by Frankenstein...and then abandoned, left to make his way in a horribly cruel world. Perhaps that's why Shen's thoughts have latched onto the old metaphor this morning.

When he'd left CyberCom, he certainly he hadn't thought he'd been abandoning Gabriel. He'd just been so tired, so heartsick from the earlier devastation his hand had wrought, that when Lillian declared Clockwork a success and offered him a generous retirement package, he hadn't even considered fighting to stay on. Perhaps he should have. After all, Clockwork might have been a success—but Gabriel is still a work in progress, as every human is.

Albert jumps up onto the sofa beside him, butting his head into Shen's hand until he receives the required amount of pets and rubs. Shen strokes his thumb over a silky ear one more time, then looks back to Gabriel.

Prod him enough, and even Shen can take a hint.

"So where's Jeremy? Lurking about in my bushes?"

Gabriel snorts. "Chased him off last week for good. Lillian swears she's gonna find me a babysitter that'll stick around, but I haven't even put any real effort into getting rid of these last three."

Shen sighs. "Gabriel, a bodyguard is for your own good. I know you can take care of yourself, but—"

"But what?" Gabriel spins around on the tuffet so he's finally facing Shen. "I did five tours in the desert, Doc, and I didn't have this thing in my head, giving me the heads up. The only reason they want someone watching my back is because they don't trust me."

"If Lillian didn't trust you, she wouldn't have authorized you for Clockwork in the first place." Which is true. Whether she'd suspected that Gabriel would have a propensity for going off problem so regularly, Shen isn't sure, but he wouldn't be surprised if she'd been searching for just that trait. Somebody whose thinking was outside the box. Somebody who'd be able to more easily handle all the changes the chip would bring. "You need to accept the fact that you, specifically, are a target now."

Gabriel shrugs. "The chip's a target, you mean."

"The chip's nothing without you, Gabriel," Shen says softly, holding Gabriel's gaze. Yes, there are others with the Athens-4U7R mutation, but there's far more involved in making the chip work than implanting it and saying go. Past experience has proved that.

Gabriel smiles, bright and flashing in the dim room. "Well, then. If it's nothing without me, I shouldn't worry too much about being a target, should I?"

"Gabriel," Shen chides, but he can't stop the small chuckle that burbles out of him. Yes, perhaps he should remind Gabriel of all the terrible risks he faces, the threat of capture and torture and any manner of things foreign powers might have in mind for him, but Gabriel knows all that. Knows it far better than Shen himself does, so he lets it pass.

He's sure Lillian will handle the chiding enough for both of them, after all.

"Not that I'm not delighted to see you," Shen says. "But is there a reason you broke into my house in the middle of the night?"

"Thought it'd be nicer than waking you up." Gabriel lifts his coffee mug to his mouth, but not quickly enough to hide his smirk. "I'm nice like that."

"You are a truly thoughtful young man," Shen agrees. "One who's particularly adept at avoiding answering a very simple question."

"I haven't talked to you in a while." Gabriel sets his mug on the floor and sits forward, finally showing some sign that he's here for more reason than to add a decorative zhuzh to Shen's living room. "I'm headed out of town later today, so I thought it might be a good time to stop by."

Out of town. Shen knows what that means. Knows that there's a good chance this might be the last time he ever sees Gabriel again. Part of the reason Shen had let himself get shuffled out of CyberCom in the first place was so he didn't have to know this kind of thing. Strangely enough, he's found that sitting at home, not knowing anything about Gabriel's status at all, is somehow worse, so he appreciates the visit, even though he's sure there's something else on Gabriel's mind, something beyond a maudlin need to check in on an old man.

"Well, I hope your trip goes well," Shen says, for the lack of anything better. "Is the chip working all right? Do you need me to take a look at things?"

"The chip's fine." Gabriel rubs his fingers over his mouth, then drops them with a sigh. "I just have some questions, I guess. About how the renders work."

"Ah, now that is a question." Shen stands up and starts to pace, the sluggishness brought on by the hour and too little sleep giving way to the excitement inherent in simply contemplating the renders, unforeseen miracle that they are. "Your understanding of them is always going to be inherently better than my own, but I'll help you however I can. From a theoretical standpoint, of course."

Gabriel gives him an eye-crinkling smile. "I know you will, Doc." His smile fades as he shakes his head. "I guess I'm just wondering, how accurate they are, exactly. I mean, part of them comes from me, right? So I could pretty much just be making up anything I wanted to see."

"Well, yes, I suppose that, theoretically, that you could eventually learn to create any kind of render, even something that's little more than a...a fantasy, I suppose." Shen paces over to the window, knuckling his chin as he stares at the slightly fantastical view beyond his own porch, at the mist still clinging to the branches of the trees even as the encroaching sun tries to light it on fire. "But as far as I've been able to tell, that's not what the renders are right now. They begin with the chip providing data. Hard facts, if you will. Your brain fills in the missing pieces, but it isn't doing so randomly. You might be able to imagine anything, yes, but only a few of those possibilities actually make sense when you try to fit them in with the facts."

"Okay. But what if it's not my imagination filling in the pieces?" Gabriel joins him at the window. "What if I'm relying on my memory instead?"

"Why would you be using—" He pushes his thumb and forefinger up under his glasses, pinching the bridge of his nose. Gabriel isn't talking about any mission-related hypothetical, of course. Shen should have realized that earlier, but he's never been at his best before his first cup of coffee. "Gabriel, you need to let that go. Very little definitive intelligence came out of the attack Amelia was involved in. In this particular case, I think that whatever you render would be highly suspect."

"What if I had more information, though? What if I could get footage from the actual attack, instead of just the official report?"

"Footage? Where would you get that?" Gabriel opens his mouth, but Shen waves him off. "No, no, don't tell me. It's obvious you're planning something highly suspect and probably illegal, and they're not paying me to deal with that anymore."

"So ignore that part. Do you know the answer to my question?"

"The question of whether memory and feelings—yes, feelings, don't try to deny that those come into play—affect the quality of your renders?" Shen sighs, tired all over again. He taps the tips of his fingers against the rim of his coffee mug, a tuneless version of Mozart's fifth symphony, while he thinks. "Do you remember me telling you about my wedding day?"

Gabriel turns towards him with a smirk. "Now, Doc. How could I forget about Lorraine?"

"Yes, well." Shen clears his throat. "The point is, forty years on, I can still picture her in my head, down to her yellow polkadot dress and the daisies in her hair."

"Sounds like she made quite an impression on you," Gabriel says, eyebrows rising.

Shen shakes his head. "What I did made an impression on me. It was a highly emotional moment, so my brain locked it away. Every now and then, that memory floats to the surface for me to reexamine, and then it gets locked away again. When I recall it, I can see her as clearly as if she were standing before me—yet I would bet you the cost of the chip in your head that if I saw an actual photograph of her from that day, my vision would not match it."

Gabriel frowns. "So you're saying human memories are unreliable."

"Notoriously so." Shen flips his hands palms up. "But then again, the ability of the human brain to record and replay information is the reason we're where we are today, which is hardly a small accomplishment. It'd be a mistake to discount what you know, what you feel and remember. But you always need to be aware of that innate human fallibility."

Gabriel sighs, then nods. "Thanks, Doc. I'm not sure that answers my question, but it gives me something to think about, at least."

"Well, that's what I'm here for, I suppose," Shen says. He takes a sip of lukewarm coffee, then grimaces down into the mug. "You know, I never did tell Deborah that story. The kiss was innocuous, really, but I held onto that secret for the rest of her life."

"If you're trying to imply something, you're missing the mark," Gabriel says. "I know Amelia kept secrets from me. It was part of her job."

Shen doesn't say what he wants to. Sometimes we keep secrets from our loved ones because the truth would only bring them pain. Gabriel isn't in a place where he can hear that yet. Not with any degree of acceptance. Or maybe it's just that Shen isn't the one to get Gabriel to listen. Unfortunately, for as much as the chip opens up the universe to Gabriel, his world is very limited. There are very few people he can go to for a heart to heart, if he really wants to open up about Amelia, or the chip in his head.

"I know it was, son," Shen finally says, patting Gabriel on the shoulder. "You want some breakfast? Nelson's supposed to be joining me this morning, so I have plenty of eggs on hand."

"That sounds great, but I need to get going so I can ship out." Gabriel matches action to his words, starting towards the front door. "Thanks for listening to me, though."

"Anytime," he says. "Although you might consider ringing the doorbell next time."

"Now where's the fun in that?" Gabriel grins. "Speaking of fun—Lillian's promised to have a new babysitter for me by the time I get back. Wanna bet on how long this one lasts?"

"That would require betting against Lillian," Shen says, shaking his head. "And I learned not to do that a long time ago."

END