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【YCF】Your love

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Oh, when you walk by every night
Talking sweet and looking fine
I get kinda hectic inside.
Baby, I'm so into you,
Darling, if you only knew
All the things that flow through my mind.
(Fantasy - Mariah Carey)

It’s a new day in Free City! The weather is sunny with just a scattering of drive-by. A great day for the beach, but not Hitmen Beach, which will be mined and sprayed with high-calibre fire from a renegade gunship stolen…

Gazi smiles to himself, rinsing out the bowl from his cereal. He puts it on the drying rack next to the sink and walks to the tall window, wiping his hands on a towel idly. A flaming helicopter passes outside, but he is too focused on the sunrise he can see clearly from his vantage point. After all, helicopters go down on the daily in Free City, but every sunset is unique.

He plays with the blinders idly, rolling them up and down for a hot minute.

Then he checks himself in the mirror, adjusts his black t-shirt needlessly and gives himself a smile, before heading out.

It’s a brand-new day in Free City, the happiest city on Earth.

Gazi has a simple routine. Every morning, he gets dressed, eats his breakfast and walks down the block to his work in a coffee shop. It’s a temporary job, while he is saving up for his tuition, and it’s pleasant enough for him to actually like it, and he’s been here long enough to have been promoted to a manager’s position. He reckons another year of saving, and he’d be able to cover the university bills.

“Gazi-ge!” Shen Shen greets him enthusiastically, cheery and beaming as always. “Good morning!”

Gazi greets him back, doning his apron and name badge.

“Ready for another day?”

“Yes! Have you seen the news? The Hitmen Beach is mined again…”

“We can head there after work to watch the heroes fight,” Gazi offers, and Shen Shen nods enthusiastically, eyes shining.

They quickly open up the shop, getting everything ready, and the first customers start trickling in. Gazi glances at the clock.

Every day, he comes in, sets everything up and proceeds to ring up orders for the better part of the day.

Simple black coffee, two sugars with cream.

He gives the first cup of the day to Shen Shen, who accepts it with a happy squeak.

“I really needed that!”

The second cup is for Gazi himself, and then they get down to business.

“How are you today?” an idle customer asks, while waiting for her order.

She is an older lady, one of their regulars, and Gazi is always happy to chat with her.

“Oh, you know,” he says, gaze abruptly hooking onto a couple walking outside, “business as usual.”

His tone must be especially wistful, because the lady follows his gaze and lets out a small “ah”.

“Don’t you worry about that, dear,” she smiles reassuringly. “One day you will meet your one.”

“If they exist,” Shen Shen pipes in slyly. “You don’t know how picky Gazi-ge is.”

Gazi tuts at him, “Nonsense. I’m so low maintenance!”

“Ha!” Shen Shen hands the lady her coffee and turns to laugh at him. “Low maintenance? Since when!”

The door bursts open, another customer walking in, menace to their step. Gazi and Shen Shen glance at them and simultaneously raise their arms.

“What would you like to drink today, miss?” Gazi asks politely, facing the barrel of her shotgun.

“Money from the register! Or I’ll stuff you full of bullets.”

Gazi nods agreeably, reaching for the tile.

“Everybody, stay calm.”

The woman adjusts her sunglasses and shakes her gun impatiently.

“Here.”

Gazi hands her a few wads of cash, she huffs, then turns to look around the shop.

“Oh, not the—” Shen Shen covers his head with a sigh, as she blows out the ceiling light, to avoid the rain of glass shards. “…lights.”

“What a stupid mission,” the woman mutters to herself and walks out.

Gazi helps Shen Shen up, “Come on, let’s clean this mess up.”

They spend the rest of their shift getting glass shards out of everything, close up early and head out to the beach.

“Do you really think I’m picky?” Gazi asks, as they pause, letting a man fly by, thrown backwards. “Hey, Peng Peng.”

“Ah… hey, guys,” the boy on the ground props himself up on his elbows and shakes his head.

“Well, duh,” Shen Shen chatters, as he steps around Peng Peng to help him up. “They must be a great cook, like the same music as you do, fierce but soft-hearted, well-rounded and independent but letting you take care of them…”

Gazi pouts as his friend proceeds to list all the tit-bits he’s ever shared with him, while daydreaming at the job.

“Another burglary?” he asks Peng Peng idly, choosing to ignore Shen Shen.

“Another day,” Peng Peng sighs, “I wish they wouldn’t throw me through the window that often.”

“Oh, but that’s so satisfying!” The sunglasses hero storms past them, shaking a bag full of cash in the air.

“It will be fixed by tomorrow,” Shen Shen pats his shoulder, then glances at Gazi. “To be fair, maybe you’ll meet them once you’re finally in university!”

Peng Peng nods, stepping back into the shop.

Shen Shen tugs at Gazi’s sleeve.

“Ge?”

Gazi blinks, realising, he was staring after the sunglasses man.

“Do you ever wonder,” he says slowly.

“Hm?”

“What it’s like to wear these glasses?”

Shen Shen snorts, “Do you? Probably a lot of hustle. Look at them running around all day, blowing things up. What do they have on us? We have our jobs, we live in the best city in the world, we have stability.”

"Aren't you ever bored of it?"

Gazi trails off, registering a familiar melody being hummed. He blinks, and then someone bumps into him, so hard, that he spins halfway.

“Oh, sorry—” he starts, freezing.

It's like the world goes in slow motion. The man that's bumped into him jerks his head to get his raven-wing coloured hair out of the way. It's split in the middle charmingly. He has a leather jacket layered with silver studs and trinkets made to look like keys. Gazi immediately thinks of a few places he'd readily unlock for the guy.

“Not as sorry as you should be,” the man mutters, glancing at him briefly. He has thin-rimmed glasses and a scowl to unsettle kingdoms.

“No need to be so rude,” Gazi says with a small frown, though his heart is racing in his chest. The hero is beautiful and familiar, like a long-forgotten dream. “The song you just hummed…”

The man does a double-take, his eyes widening in clear surprise. He looks Gazi up and down.

“I love that song,” Gazi blurts, still staring at him.

The man blinks, then huffs.

“Huh. That’s new.”

He shakes his head and turns, walking off before Gazi can say anything else.

“Wait—”

Shen Shen tugs at his arm insistently, and he realises the other man has been at it for a while.

“Are you all right?” Shen Shen jumps and clicks his fingers in front of his face.

“You don’t understand,” Gazi swats him away, “I—that’s—”

“Do you know him?” Shen Shen asks sarcastically. “Let’s go, the fights are about to start.”

“That’s him!”

“Who??”

“My dream-guy!” Gazi tries to follow, but Shen Shen stops him. “I’ve got to talk to him!”

“Are you out of your mind? That’s one of the sunglasses people.” Gazi is already half-way across the street. “They don’t talk to people like us!”

“I have to try!”

“Gazi! Ge!! What about the Hitmen Beach??”

Gazi ignores his calls, hurrying after the man. He has to side-step a tank, eyes focused on the stranger’s back.

“Hey, wait a minute!”

The man proceeds on his way, probably unable to hear him in the bustling noise of all the murder and looting happening around them. He crosses the train-tracks and stops in an empty lot between two old buildings.

Gazi follows, but when the man looks like he is about to turn finally, there’s sudden darkness.

*

 

Yunlong tugs his headset off and swears under his breath. Whose brilliant idea was it to make all the NPCs in the game look like Soonami’s staff? Bad enough Yunlong’s been having one-sided fights with the one that’s got his face every time he logged in, now he has also witnessed him being hit by a train!

He sighs, rubbing at his face. It’s just a stupid game, and a stupid NPC. They are killed left and right every day, but that doesn’t make the experience any less disturbing. Yunlong might have a budding grudge against the actual owner of that face, but he’d never wish harm on him.

Never.

Maybe, it's time for Yunlong to get over himself and ask for help.

That's a fat maybe though.

All he needs is evidence he knows Antwan has hidden in the game. There’s no way he retyped their whole code in from scratch, the fucker is too lazy for that, and that means…

“Sir!”

Yunlong startles and turns to a waitress, staring daggers at him.

“Huh?”

“You’ve had one espresso and has been sitting here for four hours,” she informs him, crossing her arms.

“Oh… Are you closing?” Yunlong asks weakly, still feeling stupidly distraught.

“Duh, like we do every day at the same time. Please, leave.”

Yunlong sighs, “Sorry, I’ve just been…”

“Uh-huh-huh! Not my circus, not my monkeys, you have three minutes before I lock you inside!”

*

 

It’s a new day in Free City! The weather is sunny with just a scattering of drive-by. A great day for the beach, but not Hitmen Beach, which will be mined and sprayed with high-calibre fire from a renegade gunship stolen…

Gazi rinses out the bowl and sets it on the drying rag, hand lingering. He glances at the mirror, turned just right for him to catch a glimpse of himself.

He’s always thought his work attires were quite boring, but never got around to shopping for anything more colourful. He wipes his hands and walks to his wardrobe with determination.

After a moment of digging, he pulls out a white shirt he’s had since forever, dons it and buttons it all the way up. Then looks at himself in the mirror again.

Too uptight for a coffee shop.

He plucks a couple of buttons open and looks at himself again. Feels like something’s missing still.

He stares at himself until it’s time to head out. He can figure out the accessories later.

Shen Shen meets him with wide eyes.

“Gazi-ge!”

Gazi hums in question, starting up the coffee machine. He looks up at their menu.

“That’s new!”

“I decided to change it up,” Gazi offers, feeling some tension in the room.

Shen Shen ohs and hums, looking a bit confused still.

“Well, don’t get coffee all over it,” he says doubtfully, then follows his gaze. “What are you looking at?”

Gazi shrugs. He thinks about the man he saw the day before, the old melody he was humming. Maybe, he’ll see him again, the sunglasses people usually roam the same spots frequently...

He isn’t really paying much attention, until Shen Shen yelps by his side.

“Where did you learn that??”

Gazi looks down at the coffee mug in his hands. They usually use their shop recyclable paper cups, even for the patrons that prefer to have their drinks in house.

Currently, Gazi is holding a wide coffee mug in one hand and a metal cup with foamed milk in the other.

“I...” he blinks, “I just want something new, look...”

He turns the mug slightly, tips the metal cup onto it and proceeds to make a foam leaf.

It’s a bit blotched, but it’s a leaf all right.

Shen Shen stares at it, shocked.

“But we always make coffee with two sugars and cream...”

“Yeah, but aren’t you tired of it?”

He offers the cup to Shen Shen.

The other refuses, shaking his head.

“Your loss,” Gazi shrugs and brings the mug to his lips.

It’s strange in all the delightful ways and leaves foam on his upper lip. Shen Shen still looks puzzled, but hands him a tissue.

“How is it?” he asks suspiciously, probably expecting him to make a face.

Gazi smiles, “Delicious! Maybe, I’ll offer it to the customers today. Are you sure you don’t wanna try? We never make lattes...”

“Are you so cheery because of your sunglasses dude from yesterday? You know they don’t talk to us, normies...”

“I can invite him for a coffee...” Gazi says dreamily, ignoring Shen Shen’s sceptical expression. “I do make nice coffees...”

“He wouldn’t talk to you, I’m telling you.”

The door bursts open, a sunglasses hero marching in, a grenade launcher on their shoulder.

“That’s a bit of an overkill,” Shen Shen comments, raising his arms.

Gazi follows suite, but then he spots someone outside.

The man from yesterday, his dream-guy!

“Shen Shen,” he calls, while the robber entertains himself by shooting up the stand with their coffee mugs, thankfully having exchanged his grenade launcher for a phaser. “Shen Shen, do you think he’d talk to me if I had the sunglasses?”

Shen Shen ducks, avoiding a throwing knife.

“Heh, where would you even get a pair?”

“Well... oh,” Gazi turns to the robber, “Excuse me, can I borrow your glasses real quick?”

“What? Are you talking to me?”

But Gazi is already taken by the idea. He jumps over the counter and gets closer to the assailant.

“Yeah, can I just borrow them for a moment...”

“Back off, stupid NPC!” The man cocks his gun at him.

Gazi pushes it away, trying to get to his glasses, zoomed in on the idea of catching up with the stranger outside.

“Gazi-ge!”

He doesn’t notice that the gun has twisted in the scuffle, and then, with a deafening pop, the sunglasses guy is thrown backwards, a seething hole in his chest. Gazi blinks at the glasses he’s managed to grab after all.

“Oh... I’m so sorry!”

“What the fuck, Gazi-ge!” Shen Shen wails, hurrying to his side from behind the counter. “Are you all right??”

Gazi nods and slowly turns the glasses in his hands.

“I’ll... bring them back?” he throws carelessly, then turns to get out of the coffee shop, “Shen Shen, close up today, please!”

“Gazi!!!”

He stumbles out and looks around. His man is nowhere to be found.

Damn it.

He sighs, then looks down at the glasses again.

No harm in trying, right?

He puts them on and immediately staggers. His field of vision fills with neon-bright colours.

“Wow...”

He twists around, staring. There is a cartoon-ish med-kit twirling in the air right next to him.

“Huh?”

He reaches, not expecting to feel anything, but the moment his fingertips touch the outline of the kit, he feels an electrical shock surge through him, rejuvenating him better than the strongest cup of coffee imaginable.

“What the hell! Wow!”

Recharge: 100%

He stares at the flashing line in front of him, then pulls the glasses off abruptly. Everything that’s not supposed to be there is gone. He puts them back on.

The neon lights are all around him.

Is that what the sunglasses people see every day? No wonder they don’t chat with them, normal people! They must be so busy...

Gazi shakes his head, trying to focus. Yes. He is good at adapting. If this means he can now talk to his dream-guy, he can deal with a bit of flashing lights.

He picks a direction and heads up the street, remembering the empty lot from yesterday. He quickly spots a familiar leather jacket.

“Hey! Heeey!!!”

But he is too far. Just like yesterday, the man crosses the train tracks, only this time, Gazi can see giant gates standing by themselves in the empty lot, a neon “Multiplayer Lounge” turning in the air above it.

He stops just short of being hit by the train, freezing on some instinct, and by the time the train is gone, so is the man.

He must have walked inside those gates!

Before Gazi can cross and follow, there is a loud siren whoop.

“Hey! Hey, white shirt!”

He whips around.

“Huh? Me?”

A police car stops not far from him. The doors swing open, and two officers step out. One dressed like Little Prince, face strangely familiar, the other...

Gazi stares, wide-eyed. The other has a giant bunny head on his shoulders.

The little prince tuts.

“Didn’t I tell you, it was a weird idea to stick our faces on the NPCs.”

“That was Antwan's idea,” the other tells him. His voice sounds vaguely familiar, but Gazi can’t imagine he’s ever met a human-sized bunny. Or anyone willing to wear a suite like that.

They are both sporting sunglasses, the Bunny – a bigger weirder version to accommodate his head.

“Right, let’s deal with this quickly,” Bunny tells him, sounding tired. “Nice skin you’ve got there. How did you get it?”

Gazi blinks.

“Huh?”

“Did I stutter?”

The Little Prince snickers, “Someone is grumpy without his coffee.”

“Uh, well,” Gazi glances around, feeling impending doom close in on him. “Skin? I do skincare?”

“Ha! He sounds a bit like you,” the Little Prince comments.

The Bunny cocks his head to the side, looking as unimpressed as it gets.

“Very funny. You know it’s against the guidelines, don’t you? You can’t just hack NPC avatars, it will confuse other players, ruins the missions, makes the game look cheap.”

The Little Prince nods along, “Come on, buddy, drop the skin.”

“Uhhh,” Gazi frowns, even more confused, “might be a bit of a problem. I’m rather attached to it…”

“Come ooon,” the Little Prince groans, “Drop it. Everything. The face, the clothes, chop-chop.”

“Uhh…”

“I’ll just kick him out manually,” the Bunny really seems to have no patience for the situation.

“Look, I’m ready to comply, I just don’t really understand anything you’re saying,” Gazi says nervously. “Is this private property? I didn’t even step over the tracks!”

“...Cute. We will just kill you until we find out who the hell you are.”

The Bunny then pulls out a gun, and Gazi scatters to hide behind the nearest car.

“What the hell!”

They start shooting, so all he has left to do is run for his life. He darts into the nearest building, narrowly avoiding bullets raining all over. The... cops? The sunglasses cops chase after him, cursing and arguing loudly, but Gazi hardly registers it.

He flips through the “inventory” of the glasses, but he can hardly bring himself to shoot at people! So, he runs up the stairs higher and higher.

“You’re good, but you aren’t that good!” the Bunny calls after him, clearly annoyed.

Good at what, Gazi wants to demand. Running for his life??

He finally reaches the last floor, and there is construction going on all over, balks and metal rods sticking out every which direction. He spots one, leading up to a giant metal ball, hanging above the end, a giant neon “Exit” on top of it.

So, he runs.

“He is crazy,” he hears the Bunny just behind himself.

“Reminds you of anyone?” the Little Prince pipes in.

Gazi runs, colourful points smashing into his chest and dispersing, he can see the count go up on the display inside his glasses, and then he jumps towards the ball—

And misses!

“Oh my god!!!!”

He flips through the inventory once again, deploying a random thing that looks inflatable, and it engages just before he is about to connect with the ground.

Instead, he ends up bouncing around the square in it, feeling like a discarded toy.

He crawls out and glances up, only to find out the building he has just fallen off is impossibly tall. He hopes he lost the insane cops for good and gets up with a groan.

What a strange day.

He hears abrupt car horn violently close, and then the world turns to darkness.

*

Ayanga tugs off the headset and puts it down carefully. Then he massages his temples.

Zhou Shen reclines to the side to peek at him from behind the monitors.

“What was that?”

“I have no idea,” Ayanga sighs. “I just checked the logs, and the amount of players is the same. Whoever he is, he is still online! We saw him get eliminated, how is it possible?”

Zhou Shen tuts sympathetically.

“Well, we’ll wheedle him out eventually, I’m sure. Although, I do wonder how did he pull an NPC skin off.”

“On, you mean,” Ayanga pinches the bridge of his nose. “Did it have to be my face though?” he asks tragically.

Zhou Shen snorts, “You didn’t seem to have any trouble shooting at it.”

Ayanga scoffs, looking away. He isn’t about to disclose how much it felt like self-inflicted retribution. He feels miserable enough most days, letting a co-worker in on it seems like an overkill.

“You know,” Zhou Shen chatters idly, combing through his drawer in search of a snack, “you’re such a good programmer. What are you doing in a glorified customer support hellhole?”

Ayanga lets out an unhappy chuckle.

“That’s a sad story about shuttered dreams and education loans.”

“Too bad,” Zhou Shen nods nonchalantly, although the way he looks up at Ayanga for a brief moment is sharper than a blade. “You used to code for your own game before coming to work for Soonami, didn’t you? Ah, the competition is tough these days...”

“Yeah,” Ayanga says dryly. “That’s exactly it.”

He wonders briefly if the hacker is him, but even the thought of his former partner stings.

Some wounds just don’t heal that quickly, if ever.

Especially, self-inflicted ones.

 

Ayanga closes the door and sets his laptop bag down. It feels as though he’s been carrying around a building, not a thin computer. He’s spent the whole day thinking about him again, because the NPC choice seemed a bit too in his face.

Would he do it? Hack into the game and pick an NPC with Ayanga’s face? Why, to laugh at him?

He sighs and walks into the living room to the kitchen island. There he stops.

The TV is on, their old interview on.

“You must be excited about joining such a huge game-dev company. Tell me, why are you doing this?”

“We just like to code,” they reply in unison, then turn to look at each other, grinning.

“Hahaha, you seem so in tune, our readers are wondering if there’s anything more between the two of you…?”

“We have a special bond—”

Ayanga pauses the video and looks at his own younger face with mild aggravation. Stupid idiot.

He turns to put the remote down, wondering why the hell that particular piece started playing, and yelps, startled.

“God, Dalong!”

The man that’s occupied his mind for the better part of the day (what else is new) is perched on the sofa.

“Welcome home,” he says, the cheer in his voice especially fake, “still working for that rat?”

“Still nursing your grudge?” Ayanga bites back, sighing tiredly. He looks away. “Can we not do it tonight? I had a difficult day.”

Yunlong is silent and, Ayanga can tell, tired too.

He doesn’t ask how he got inside. Ayanga gave him the key himself and never asked for it back, and Yunlong, despite everything that’s happened between them, never tried to throw it in his face. Not that it helped, he threw plenty of other things at it.

“When was the last time you’ve eaten properly?” Ayanga asks quietly. “Or slept?”

“Like you care,” Yunlong huffs, crossing his arms.

“Of course, I...” Ayanga shakes his head. “Why are you here? I can’t meet with you, I can’t talk to you. Scratch that, I’m pretty sure I can’t look at you.”

“What, because of the case?” Yunlong snorts.

Because it’s too painful.

Ayanga sighs again.

All the things they could have been and never will be.

“Antwan stole our code,” Yunlong says finally.

“Free City is nothing like Life Itself,” Ayanga retorts. “Our game was beautiful. It was a story, a world to behold. Antwan is many things, but, come on, his shooter is so idiotically stupid, how can there be anything left from our game?”

The silence stretches, then Yunlong shakes his head and speaks finally.

“I found a player that has seen it. There’s a glitch in the game that let him see the original code. Our code. He has the video in his vault in-game. All I have to do is break in.”

“You can’t be sure.”

“I will be soon enough,” Yunlong says stubbornly. “And then I... and then we...”

He trails off again, feeling cowardly.

He has never had a person closer than what Ayanga was to him, he never lost anyone that important, and he never learned, still doesn’t know, how to go on without him.

But Ayanga opted to stay and work with Antwan, while Yunlong thrashed and fought for their code. Soonami has bought their game and shelved it, which, too bad, but happens to the best of us. But the new game? Yunlong knew it the moment he saw Free City, he knew that it was their code at the core of it.

His unwillingness to just take it was what caused the rift with Ayanga, and then, subsequently, lost him his job.

He wishes more than anything in the world, Ayanga would finally open his eyes and see it too.

“And then we what?” Ayanga asks tiredly. “Dalong, can’t you just... drop it? Antwan would hire you back, and then...”

“And then what?!” Yunlong bites out, bitter. “Isn’t it something you’ve told me on and on, Ayunga? No regrets, no take-backs?”

“And you said you wanted stability!” Ayanga feels himself burst at the seams, the frustration and annoyance finally spilling out.

Yunlong has always been the one to bring out the best in him. And the worst.

“You said you wanted calm, you wanted to be able to rely on tomorrow and not worry that we’d starve! You wanted to sell to Antwan too, it wasn’t just my decision!”

They stare at each other, both equally stubborn in their stances.

Yunlong is the first one to look away, unable to fight with him any further. Unwilling.

“...This was before he stole our code,” he says finally. “It’s time for you to open your eyes and see it too! He stole our code.”

Ayanga looks at the side of his face with a complicated expression. There’s so much between them, their friendship, their ambitions, their shared dreams, but most of all, there are all the things that never were, because Ayanga held back, shoving it to the back of his mind until it became too late to act on it anyway.

“Dalong, why are you here?”

“Will you help me?” Yunlong asks abruptly, quickly. “If I find proof, if I can prove he stole our code, will you help me?”

Ayanga swallows, hard.

“That's a bit if…”

"Just tell me!"

"Dalong..."

Yunlong nods, blinking rapidly, the big crybaby that he is, but now he refuses to let Ayanga see even a glimpse of it. He stands up.

“Dalong...”

He pauses, facing the door.

“I’m sorry,” Ayanga says quietly. “I really am.”

Yunlong nods, not turning still.

“Help me then.”

“I can’t.”

“That’s what I thought. Sorry that I’ve bothered you.”

“Dalong…”

He is gone then.

Ayanga grips the remote for a moment, then chucks it violently at the wall. Why is everything so fucked?

*

 

It’s a new day in Free City! The weather is sunny with just a scattering of drive-by. A great day for the beach, but not Hitmen Beach, which will be mined and sprayed with high-calibre fire from a renegade gunship stolen…

Gazi startles awake and quickly pats himself up and down. He is in his pyjamas, at home. He gets up and makes his way to the window. Free City greets him in all its glory.

There is a distant explosion, and Gazi blinks, gaze focusing on his own reflection.

The sunglasses!

He grabs them, only now realising they are still on his face.

The sunglasses stayed!

He knows what he has to do to meet his guy!

He quickly makes himself presentable, grabs the same white shirt from his closet and runs out.

*

 

Yunlong logs in and immediately sets on getting as close to the player’s vault as he is able. It’s well-protected, the player obviously having spared no expense.

Yunlong scoffs. Pay-to-win strategy sounds like exactly something Antwan would employ in his stupid game.

He peeks out from behind a small boulder, then picks a sniper riffle from his inventory. The security is all NPCs anyway, should be a breath to deal with them.

He is busy looking at their stats, so a new voice startles him out of his focus.

“What are we looking at?”

He immediately launches at the other player.

“Ow! Ow! Wait! Stop! Ah! Ah~”

Yunlong stops and stares.

For a moment, he thinks it’s Ayanga, thinks maybe, he did come through after all, but that’s just… someone with his face for an avatar?

“What the fuck?” Yunlong swears and drags him to hide behind the boulder before they are discovered. “Who are you?”

“We met the other day?” the guy informs him with a petulant expression, massaging his arms as though he is really hurt. “My name is Gazi.”

“Yeah, I fucking kno-” Yunlong groans, “this is weird.”

He shakes the other player. He is dressed differently from the other day, but some players change their attire daily, so what’s new. The black silky collar with a white shirt is a nice combo though. Actual Ayanga would look great like that.

“Focus,” Yunlong mutters to himself, half-assedly covering his mic, “it’s not even a proper photo.”

“Sorry?” “Gazi” chimes.

“I didn’t know you could pick that face for an avatar,” Yunlong still mutters distractedly. “What level of narcissism is this?” Louder he asks, “How did you find me? What do you want?”

“Well, I waited by the murder train tracks and then followed you here…”

There’s an abrupt siren, and then they are in a circle of light coming from the vault.

“Shit!”

The bullets fly, and Yunlong only vaguely registers that the other player is actually cowering, hiding his head. He rolls his eyes, what sort of newbie would manage to follow him all the way to the vault?

He shoots back, but it’s clear that with the whole security system engaged, he has no chance of breaking in. He stands up and activates a portal bomb.

The other player, of course, follows.

“What was that??”

Yunlong pauses and looks back at the player with mild curiosity.

“That was you almost blowing my mission.”

“Yeah, but how—did—we—from there—and now here?”

“Portal bomb,” Yunlong answers begrudgingly.

“You seem annoyed with me,” the player says and then proceeds to fucking pout.

Yunlong contemplates shooting him, but that’s not his fault Yunlong has trouble with looking at any version of Ayanga’s face, is it?

“I don’t like your avatar,” he says gruffly.

“My— what’s an avatar? My face?” the guy sounds genuinely hurt, which actually makes Yunlong feel bad. “I have a better personality. Probably,” he says then.

Yunlong is not a dick usually, he’s just been having a rough fucking year. So, as a peace-offering he sighs and explains:

“It’s not your face. The face is wonderful. It just looks like someone I… used to know.”

The man beams, “Your face is wonderful too.”

Yunlong barks out a laughter.

“Yeah, bet,” he mutters. “Points for the NPC skin. Anyway, why are you following me…?”

“Gazi,” the man supplies.

“Fine, I can call you Gazi, sure, whatever,” Yunlong mutters.

“Can I join you?”

“Huh?”

“You said you had a mission. Can I join you?”

Yunlong stares. Someone in the designer department did a bit too good of a job of utilizing Ayanga’s features, so now he is faced with a slightly younger version of him looking at him all innocent and cute, not weighed down by everything that’s happened to them.

Yunlong sighs. He is a sucker for that expression, what can he do with himself.

“Maybe after you reach a higher level.”

“Huh?”

Gazi looks genuinely confused, so Yunlong sighs again. Might as well teach the weirdo how to play the stupid game.

“You have to level up,” Yunlong makes his username and level visible and watches Gazi reach for it with a weird look on his face. “Look, here’s yours.”

A neon number 1 flashes above Gazi’s head.

“I assume, one is no good…?” Gazi asks with another pout.

Yunlong blinks.

“The lowest, actually.”

Gazi proceeds to pout.

“How do I get higher then?”

“Well, killing, looting, completing the missions basically. Have you never played a shooter game before?”

Gazi shakes his head. Then frowns.

“But those are terrible things.”

Yunlong has to cover his mic to stifle a frustrated groan. God, was he dealing with a child?

“Well, not everyone takes the boring route,” he says finally, “but I’m sure you can progress by doing, uh, good things as well.”

“That’s not boring,” Gazi says stubbornly. “The world is better than you think.”

Yunlong snorts, “That’s one way to look at it.”

Gazi blinks at him innocently.

“So, I don’t have to rob or kill anyone to get points?”

“No.”

“Really?”

“…Really.”

“Oh, great!” Gazi smiles. “How will I know that my level is high enough?”

“Make it a hundred, then we can talk,” Yunlong says, mostly to humour him. He isn’t planning to play the game for that long.

It’s a bit terrible for his heart to see this video-game version of Ayanga, because it’s simultaneously nothing and everything like him. He nods to himself just like Ayanga and looks determined to overturn the whole world just like Ayanga… used to look.

Anyway.

Yunlong sighs, “Free lesson time is over. See you… sometime, Gazi.”

“Got it,” Gazi nods dutifully. “See you soon, DeadOrAliveDL~”

Yunlong shakes his head and hurries to his hub to log off the server. His imagination is playing games with him because of the stupid avatar. After he is done with the lawsuit, he is never playing another multiplayer shooter ever.