Try to stop my hands from shaking
But something in my mind's not making sense
It's been a while since we were all alone
But I can't hide the way I'm feeling
As you're leaving please would you close the door?
And don't forget what I told you
Just 'cause you're right that don't mean I'm wrong
Another shoulder to cry upon
(The Outfield - Your Love)
Yunlong tugs the headset off and buries his face in his hands. Something is pulsing painfully at the back of his head, but even worse than that, his heart is breaking all over again.
Yunlong lets out a long heavy sigh. He’s going to pull himself back in a second.
Just a second.
He was so cruel, he was so abrupt, he basically told Gazi the other was not real, as if anything that they’ve shared could have been just written off as a fluke. And Gazi, the wonderful, pure soul that he was, still came through and got the drive for him. Still helped him.
It was just a fluke.
It was more real than anything Yunlong has had since his life went off the rails when he realised Antwan stole their code.
Yunlong sighs again.
It’s a sound full of dread, helpless and pathetic and broken in all the places that Yunlong is.
Somehow it feels like losing Ayanga all over again, only with Ayanga Yunlong at least knew the other was alive and well, if unreachable at the time.
He drags a hand through his hair and looks around owlishly.
Ayanga’s sent him something. Ayanga who is intact and all right, and is actively working with him on taking Antwan down.
Yunlong reaches for his phone, and if his hand shakes as he does, well, there’s no one there to point it out. There’s a notification of a new email, so with another soft sigh, he looks up at the computer screen and clicks Free City closed.
Attachment: WATCH THIS.mp4
He opens the video, chuckling weakly at the assigned name, imagining Ayanga, probably busy with other important stuff to do, taking the time to change it, as if Yunlong would ever intentionally ignore an email from him.
Ayanga on the screen is just as he remembers him to be, same as he was yesterday, but it’s clear, instead of catching any rest before work, he got right back into their code. His hair is dishevelled, the way it was in the morning, when Yunlong gave in to his own restlessness and ran off. He is still wearing Yunlong’s t-shirt he slept and consecutively left in.
“So, I’ve been going through my trace logs and Gazi’s,” Ayanga makes a face, “code, and… There’s something there, Dalong. I was trying to pinpoint it for a couple of days now, and I just realised, yesterday…” he sighs, visibly trying to compose himself. It’s a long pause. “When we were still working on Life Itself, I… There was this character, I… I nicknamed him Lovelorn, and he, he was designed to…” Ayanga looks at the camera, and Yunlong feels his heart tumble over itself abruptly. “…never meet the right person. Essentially, this was one of the building blocks for the character. But the thing was, he never stopped hoping, he never gave up on, basically, his dream.”
As he goes, he starts talking faster, but Yunlong feels as though the whole world slows down.
“And he was programmed to be doomed, sick with longing forever, but then, then he actually met you. Do you understand what I’m saying? Our code doesn’t just work, it works because of you, you made him push forward. Past his programming. You made him alive.”
Gazi and Shen Shen dutifully put their hands up, as a sunglasses hero shoots up the coffee shop.
“Get on the ground!”
Everyone in the shop does so obediently.
Gazi blinks, and then he is yanked up. The robber has jumped the counter and pulls him up to face him.
“You are not allowed back here,” Gazi protests out of morbid autopilot, even as Shen Shen gives him a look from the floor.
“Do I look like I care?” there’s a gun pointed right into Gazi’s face, and oh, he doesn’t like this at all.
The sunglasses hero drags him out of the coffee shop and into the nearest alleyway.
“Waitwaitwait- where are you taking me? I’m just a barista!” Gazi chances a look at the guy and blinks. “Wait, don’t I know you?”
The gun is still dangerously close to his face, so he quickly adds:
“Never mind, my bad. I have terrible memory!”
Even though it is definitely the weird guy from before, the one that claimed to know him.
Still mysterious and handsome, albeit now, he is waving a gun at him.
“Put this on,” the guy shoves a pair of glasses at him.
“I don’t think that’s my style.”
The guy makes a weird face and looks at him for the longest moment.
Then he weights the gun in his hand.
“I think you’re clearly not in a position to choose,” he says finally, looking at Gazi in that strange way again.
As though he knows him.
“Finefinefine,” Gazi puts the glasses on and yelps at the explosion of neon colours and strange words.
“What is that!!!”
The guy grabs his arm as he tries to wave it around, reaching for the neon words.
“Gazi, look at me. You have to remember me.”
“I don’t even know your name!”
Although, as Gazi glances above the man’s head, he sees another line of words there.
DeadOrAliveDL Lv. 99
“My name is Yunlong,” the man yanks his attention back to himself. “Dalong. Gazi, you’re special, the most special, the most real thing in the world, and I need you to come back to me.”
Gazi feels his eyes go round at the, no doubt, very romantically charged words, but none of them make any sense to him whatsoever.
“Gazi, the game, the whole city, is going to be turned off! Without you I can’t prove anything, you said you remembered this,” he shakes some kind of drive in front of Gazi’s face, “I need you to tell me, where you’ve seen it.”
“I’ve never seen it in my life!”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake!”
Before Gazi can try to run away, the man shoves the drive somewhere he can’t see, grabs his other arm and yanks him closer.
“The first time we met, I was singing a song, do you remember this song?”
“What song?” Gazi asks weakly, feeling very shaky on his feet, so close and personal with the man. Half of him is mildly scared for his life, but the other is thrilled at the proximity. Maybe, that’s what people mean when they talk about the Stockholm’s syndrome?
Not letting him move an inch, the man sighs and starts singing.
I ain't got many friends left to talk to
Nowhere to run when I'm in trouble
You know I'd do anything for you
Stay the night but keep it under cover
Gazi blinks, feeling the world slow down around them. There’s a distant explosion, but he doesn’t even flinch, laser-focused on the man’s expression.
I just want to use your love tonight
“You are a non-playable character. You were created so the game would seem more realistic.”
I don't want to lose your love tonight
“I’m sorry. For what I said and for the way I put it.”
Try to stop my hands from shaking
He sees himself reaching out for a person that looks frozen in place, feels himself shake with a mixture of being indignant and righteous. He feels as though the person in front of him is the answer to all of the questions he’s ever had in life, but he also has a bone to pick with him, and a couple of choice words to go with it.
But something in my mind's not making sense
He pushes the person away, shoves his hands off. How can you say that? I love you I love you I love you- why would you say that?
He sees the person’s heart break in rhythm with his own.
“We are not the same!”
It's been a while since we were all alone
“I met you and I felt it, and I was so happy to be there with you for even just a moment.”
But I can't hide the way I'm feeling
“You just get it, don’t you? I knew you were perfect.”
Gazi blinks owlishly at him, and Yunlong is desperate for a solution at this point. The song doesn’t seem to work.
So, he does the next best thing, he pulls Gazi even closer and kisses him.
When they part, he watches Gazi make comically large eyes at him.
“Wow, not that that was unwelcomed, but I thought you thought I’m not real?”
It’s Yunlong’s time to blink.
Gazi from the screen smiles at him sheepishly.
“Looks like I’m back.”
Then his eyes go even bigger.
Yunlong chuckles hysterically, “What, only now?”
“No, I’ve remembered everything before you decided to go bipolar on me and kiss me,” Gazi mutters with a small pout, “but I remember something else! The island we saw on that video!”
Yunlong has to force himself to move his avatar around, because for a hot second, it’s his turn to be frozen in place.
“Come with me!” Gazi tugs him along, and Yunlong follows hurriedly.
“By the way, I’m not bipolar!”
“Kiss me again and we’ll discuss it!”
Ayanga paces in the hallway outside of the main office, Yunlong’s voice in his earbud is like a dam cracked open.
“…Antwan hid the source code behind the horizon line, but forgot to wipe the reflections! That damn idiot! Gazi’s been playing with the blinders on his windows to look at it his whole life!”
“Which is still roughly only four years,” Ayanga mutters.
“It’s been in plain sight this whole time!!! Antwan can’t get away with it now, but we have to get the proof before he turns the servers off! …Uh, what was that just now?”
“Nothing,” Ayanga looks up to nod at a passing colleague. “How will we do that? He’s going to throw everything at us if he realises that we have proof.”
“We don’t have anything concrete yet, I need a way to trace this…”
“Oh, if only you had someone working right in Antwan’s head office…”
Yunlong pauses suspiciously.
“Are you mad at me for something?”
“Why would I be mad?”
“I don’t know, you sound—”
“Is this the guy you almost lost?”
Ayanga missteps, hearing all too familiar voice from Yunlong’s side. Yunlong must have taken the headphones out, so the three of them could all “talk”.
Yunlong shushes Gazi.
Ayanga rubs the bridge of his nose. This is too weird.
He’s worried himself close to insanity after he realised the wipe worked and Yunlong would be doing his best to get Gazi’s memories back. Ayanga could think of a way to do it, and he was sure Yunlong did exactly that, big romantic fool that he is.
Is he jealous of an AI again? Of an AI built in his own image?
An AI that got to kiss Yunlong twice at this point?
Hell yeah, Ayanga is so jealous, he is seething with it.
His head feels too small to unpack any of it further, so he sighs and forces himself to focus.
“Both of you, listen to me,” he says sternly, getting their attention. “Get to the Hitmen Beach. You said that’s the direction reflected in his blinders, right?”
“Bossy,” Gazi mutters audibly on the other end. Then clears his throat. “Yes, but I went there before. There’s this barrier or whatever, it didn’t let me move past a certain point into the water.”
Ayanga feels his eye twitch. The last thing he expected from today was an AI talking back to him, little bastard.
“This might work if Ayanga gets access to the system,” Yunlong pipes in, the little jabs flying right over his head. “If you can create a bridge for us to “cross” the water, we will have proof of the source code still being used in the game. That’s basically all we need for a solid case!”
Ayanga nods to himself, then looks up to see Antwan prance around the office through the glass walls.
“He is going to throw everything at us once he realises what we’re doing. I might not have enough time to maintain the bridge.”
“What does that mean?” Gazi asks.
It’s Yunlong’s turn to sigh.
“That means we will have to run like crazy.”
“I can run,” Gazi says cheerfully.
Ayanga scoffs softly, “I’ll do my best to cover you, but if Antwan realises the wipe didn’t work, he’s probably going to kick me out of the building too.”
“If he throws all the NPCs at us, that will be a very short run.”
“I think I can help with that,” Gazi chirps in again.
“Of course, he can,” Ayanga mutters and sighs. He wants to stop being ridiculous about all of this, but he is just not strong enough. “What’s the plan?”
Instead, he hears Yunlong, sounding incredulous, “You think you can get others on our side?”
“I was told I’m good with public speeches. Inspiring even.”
Oh, Ayanga is going to enjoy never hearing this AI ever again.
But first things first.
Of course, everything goes to shit in the most spectacular fashion, because nothing’s ever simple.
Gazi does good on his word and basically stages a massive NPC “walk-out”, which causes players all over the world to start ticketing the problem, reporting empty locations. Ayanga barely manages to make it out into the fire-escape staircase, when Antwan comes out of his office, marching straight to his and Zhou Shen’s stations.
“Someone, tell me what the hell is going on inside my game this instant.”
Zhou Shen looks up, bewildered.
“We’re trying to figure it out as we go, but it’s just… This is like nothing I’ve seen before.”
One of the IT managers pulls up a string of players streaming the empty streets of the game.
“Find Zheng Yunlong,” Antwan hisses, “find him immediately. He is in the game, has been this whole time, wanting a piece of my company! I’ll show that jerk!”
“Sir, we can’t find anyone without their handle…”
Antwan gets a look, as though struck with an idea. He clicks his fingers in the general direction of his assistant.
“That video you showed me. That coffee NPC went to another player and mentioned—”
“User DeadOrAliveDL, sir,” the assistant retorts dutifully. “The NPC mentioned Zheng Yunlong by name.”
Antwan clicks his fingers again, “That. Zhou Shen, find me that player now.”
It’s a matter of seconds.
Zhou Shen looks at Antwan, then back at the screen.
“Uh. Looks like he is joy-riding with Gazi.”
“GaZi,” Antwan clowns, mouth pulled in disgust. “That NPC has been getting on my nerves long enough. Boot Zheng Yunlong out of the game. Now.”
“I’m trying,” Zhou Shen replies, “but, sir, the man is good—”
“Kill him then,” Antwan looks a bit red in the face with fury. “Yes, you heard me right, get rid of him, kill the respawn switch and kill him. I want him out of my fucking game this instant.”
“But the players are going to freak out when they don’t respawn—”
“Do I look like I care?”
“Don’t sir me, darling,” Antwan seethes, “As of now this little game is officially over. We will make a statement later, say one of our servers blew out.”
He turns dramatically and marches back to his office, knocking Ayanga’s chair to the ground as he goes.
“And someone get me that bastard Ayunga immediately!”
“Why is this city so big!” Gazi exclaims in frustration, taking a left turn.
They left all the others to wreak havoc in one of the buildings on the other side of town, after a rousing speech about freedom of choice and the importance of individuality, so no one is there to stop them from getting to the beach.
“I thought you were fascinated by the technology,” Yunlong throws back, looking out of the window onto the empty streets.
“I can be both,” Gazi says and glances at him. “I’m great at multitasking.”
Yunlong turns to look at him and realises the other is ogling him. He quirks an eyebrow.
“Hey, I’m just looking,” Gazi mutters petulantly. “Keeping my advances to myself, I promise. By the way, that voice earlier—”
“Yeah, that was Ayanga, he, uh, well, he kinda made you.”
Gazi makes a face, “Is he my Dad?”
Yunlong makes a face too, “Uh, that would make me your Mom, so, that’s a stern no.”
Gazi yelps, “Ew, ew, ew, I made out with my Mom!!!”
“I said I wasn’t!”
“Aaaaaa—” Gazi shakes his head, trying to get rid of the idea.
Their bickering is interrupted by a staggering explosion right behind them.
“What the hell!”
They look back to see a portion of the city aflame.
“Is that part of the game?”
Everything around them starts shaking abruptly like the insides of a snowglobe handed to a kid.
“Shit!” Yunlong looks out of the window again, to see portions of the scenery glitch, as they start to move unnaturally, rebuilding.
“Dalong?? What’s going on?”
“They’re onto us,” Yunlong says quickly, “with no NPC’s to stop us, they’ll try to reshape the landscape.”
“This isn’t good,” Gazi swirls the car abruptly to avoid another vehicle being thrown right at them. “This is scary as fuck!”
“Language,” Yunlong mutters, getting a grenade thrower out of his inventory and pulling himself halfway out of the window.
“Ah!!! You said you weren’t my Mom!”
“Keep it steady!”
Yunlong manages to shoot down another improvised projectile coming their way, but has to quickly pull back inside to avoid the debris. Something’s telling him that if he dies right now, he isn’t going to respawn in the game. Besides, Gazi doesn’t sound like he would appreciate the stress.
The street thins out dangerously too quickly for comfort, and soon Yunlong isn’t able to reach out of the window even if he tries. The car makes a terribly loud noise as it pushes through the narrow pass.
“Come on, come on, come on!”
“I’m doing my best!”
Gazi speeds up, as the road starts to crumble around them, the buildings moving in to squish them in between. Somehow, the road straightens itself out in the last possible moment, winding upwards, just enough for them to escape onto a clearing, which turns out to be a rooftop they almost fall off from.
They get out of the car and head downstairs, exchanging quick looks.
“Ayanga said he’ll get us a bridge, we just have to get down to the beach.”
“Are you sure?”
Yunlong gives him a sly look, “Don’t doubt your Dad.”
Zhou Shen yanks his headset off and gets up to look around the office space.
“Hey, who did that? I almost had them!”
“Ayunga,” Antwan greets him with a slight tilt to his head. “Where have you been? Busy counting the knives you stuck in my back so far?”
“You were looking for me?” Ayanga chirps innocently, as two security guards close the door behind them, leaving them alone in Antwan’s office. “I was on a break.”
“Drop the act, will you,” Antwan waves him off dismissively. “Zheng Yunlong.”
“What about him?” Ayanga asks, busy angling his phone away from Antwan’s prying eyes.
He has a God Mod code running, and he needs just a bit of time for it to complete.
“Oh, just him poking around again with his bogus fucking lawsuit,” Antwan says, deceptively calm, “Tell me, have you been in on it? He has been running around my game this whole time, looking for—”
“For what?” Ayanga quirks an eyebrow. “What is he looking for, Antwan?”
“He is looking for your build,” Antwan sighs dramatically and shakes his head as if the idea itself is ridiculous.
“But you didn’t use any of our build, did you?” Ayanga matches his nonchalant attitude to the dot. “None of our code. And if you didn’t use any of our original code, how can any of it be in the game? Am I missing something?”
He comes closer to Antwan’s table and leans in.
“Our code was shelved, all these years ago,” he says slowly.
Antwan purses his lips in anger, “You know as well as I do your stupid little game would have flopped. I looked at the numbers, I saw the potential.”
“You don’t know that. You can’t know the game would have failed.”
“Oh, but I do. Are you, perhaps, hard of hearing? I. Looked. At. The. Numbers,” he accentuates every word with a clap, “You were aiming at all and nothing, the demographic was small, the premise was ridiculous. People crave violence, and Free City gave them exactly that! No one would spend a spare minute watching a bunch of preprogrammed characters “evolve” according to a script.”
“There was no script,” Ayanga bites back, teeth gritted. “And our build works, every NPC walking out on your shooter is proof to that. Gazi is proof to that.”
“You chose your side a long time ago, Ayunga,” Antwan rolls his eyes. “Time to lie in the bed you made.”
“You stole from us!”
“Oh, sue me,” Antwan snorts, “ah wait, your friend is on it already. Well, let’s see how well he does when my devs kick him the hell out of the game. And then, Free City 2,” he snaps his fingers, “no one is ever gonna find that stupid code of yours.”
Ayanga glances at his phone, then looks up slowly, the burning rage in him morphing into cold, calculated glee.
“We will see about that, shall we?”
The building behind them comes to life with a creak, and they both cower initially, expecting another attack, but instead, it swirls into the air, the pixilated blocks taking themselves apart and rearranging right in the air.
Gazi watches with wide eyes, following what looks to him like magic. The building blocks fly over them and start forming a road right into the open ocean, slicing through the “barrier” with ease, dropping onto the water surface heavily, sending waves up and in every which direction.
It’s a majestic view.
“God save the mods,” Yunlong mutters at his side.
They share a look.
“Your friend didn’t lie about making a bridge.”
“He is dramatic like that,” Yunlong smiles warmly. “But he always pulls through.”
Gazi watches his expression with a bit of wistfulness.
“What did you do, Ayunga?” Antwan finally notices his tightly clatched phone.
Before he can answer, Zhou Shen bursts into the room unceremoniously.
“Antwan, you should see this.”
He turns on a giant TV screen on one of the walls.
They get to see Ayanga’s quick hack, the bridge assembling itself for anyone tuned in to see.
Ayanga swallows, spotting two figures down on the beach.
“Where is this?” Antwan asks coldly.
“Hitmen Beach?” Zhou Shen shrugs. “We can’t stop it,” he glances at Ayanga in that sharp way of his and looks back at Antwan, “Zheng Yunlong knows what he’s doing.”
“He isn’t working alone,” Antwan mutters in disdain. “Why is he still in the game?! You know what, boot everyone! Now!”
“…I’m sorry, you want me to boot everyone?? All the relevant players are waiting to see how this plays out, the backlash will be—”
“This is how this plays out,” Antwan hisses, all pretences of nonchalance finally gone. “You boot Zheng Yunlong out of the game even if it takes shutting everything down. And you,” he turns to Ayanga again, “get the fuck out of my building. Security!”
Gazi yelps, and it makes Yunlong glance down at himself.
His avatar is glitching.
“What is going on? Dalong!”
“I’m—they’re booting me out,” Yunlong swears, “Gazi, you have to get to our code. Cross the bridge, that’s the only way we can prove Antwan stole from us!”
“But…” Gazi steps closer, looking panicked and suddenly small, “will I see you again?”
He is yanked out of the game before he can finish, and Gazi is left alone on the shaking bridge. He whips around, no island in sight.
“Damn it, Dalong,” he takes off running as fast as he can immediately. “Things we do for love... There’s better be an island there or I’ll be royally pissed!”
Ayanga follows the security guard nonchalantly, pretending to fidget with his phone aimlessly. All he needs to expose Antwan is stream Gazi’s whereabouts and hope the AI gets to their source code on time.
He hears programmers around the office exclaim in surprise, as their screens are taken over all at once, streaming Gazi run across a seemingly endless bridge.
Antwan storms past Ayanga like fury incarnate and almost runs Zhou Shen over with the speed.
“Why hasn’t the stream stopped?”
Ayanga slows down just a notch to catch his outraged expression. No theatrics anymore, no pretence.
“Shut the game down,” Antwan orders. “I want this off. Now.”
“We can’t just plug this off, it’s not a toaster,” Zhou Shen bites back, sounding irritated. “There are fail-safes exactly against that, and the stream is—We tried to shut it down, but it’s not coming from a player. It’s others logging in just to watch! We booted everyone, isn’t this amazing?”
Antwan hardly looks in awe.
“Fine. I’ll do it myself.”
“Wait, Antwan! Where are you going?”
He ignores Zhou Shen, so the other looks to Ayanga, face full of question marks.
Ayanga swallows and takes off after Antwan.
“He is going for the servers!”
Ayanga runs into the server room just in time to hear a loud crash, Zhou Shen hot on his heels.
Antwan is armed with a firefighter’s axe and is going to town along one of the server rows.
“Call the firefighters!”
Zhou Shen hurries out, as one of the servers explodes with a loud crack and starts smoking. Ayanga grabs a fire extinguisher and tries to take it out, but Antwan is set on destruction.
“Are you happy now, Ayunga?” he calls back. “You had to do me like that, didn’t you? After all these years!”
“You stole from us!” Ayanga tries to get closer but Antwan gives him a pointed look, swaying the axe around dangerously.
“Come closer and this is the next server to go.”
Ayanga sizes up the damage. Antwan has already destroyed two, and Ayanga has little to no idea if the game is even still running. He can’t risk it though.
“Look, let’s just—talk this through!”
The escalation in Antwan’s behaviour makes the intent clear as day. He didn’t hide the source code well enough. If Gazi manages to bring everyone who’s watching to it, the whole world will know that Tsoonami games are a joke built on stolen property.
Antwan will be ruined.
Antwan turns abruptly and crashes the axe into another server, the lights busting out, the insides of it catching flame like paper.
Ayanga barely has any time to react, when someone crashes into him, long limbs and messy hair. Yunlong grabs at his shoulders, looking like he’s run all the way to the HQ from home.
“What are you doing here?” he squeezes his arms back, as they stare at each other with wide eyes.
“I was booted out, so I—” Yunlong catches his breath and looks around to access the damage. “Saw Zhou Shen upstairs. They’re evacuating the building, the smoke spread up through the vents.”
Antwan laughs almost diabolically, caught in his frenzy, so Yunlong has no time to share that, of course, he came, he couldn’t very well just sit on his hands, while Gazi and Ayanga were doing everything they could to fight for this.
Ayanga moves to stop Antwan, but the man raises the axe in his direction threateningly.
“Don’t you think you’ve made enough mistakes for a lifetime, huh?”
Ayanga grits his teeth, “Not even near.”
Ayanga ignores Yunlong’s exclaim and tries to manhandle the axe from Antwan. They wrestle for it angrily, both ignoring the ever-increasing smoke around them. Ayanga finally pushes the man backwards, kicking him in the chest for a good measure, and Antwan goes down crashing into another server, sparks flying.
Antwan is equally stubborn; he sneers pulling himself up.
Yunlong’s voice booms through the room, making both men look at him.
“It’s over, Antwan!”
Yunlong holds up his phone, the stream showcasing a plot of land slowly being revealed, Gazi standing amidst brilliant greenery.
He made it. He showed the whole world that Free City was built on a lie.
Ayanga looks back at Antwan, ready to punch him again.
“Stop!!” Yunlong shouts again. “We—Just stop! I’ll drop the lawsuit!”
“And why, pray tell,” Antwan jerks his head, getting his limp bangs out of the way, “would you do that?”
“Let us take what’s left of Free City. We just want our build. We will walk away.”
“Ha! Do you even hear yourself! Who would willingly walk away from all this—”
“We will!” Ayanga butts in. “We will take what’s left and you can go on building your stupid shooters.”
Antwan sneers, “Very well. Idiots.”
“You know,” Ayanga says slowly, watching Yunlong log into their newly built game, “smugness looks good on you.”
“It’s been a while,” Yunlong shrugs sheepishly. “Can’t believe we’re back to this after all these years.”
“Every road leads home,” Ayanga smiles warmly. He still has a bandage over a gush on his forehead that he got during his fight with Antwan, but it hasn’t bothered him for days now.
“And apparently, home is you, me, and a half-busted server we managed to salvage from a dumpster fire.”
“Hey, it’s a top tier server,” Zhou Shen peeks from behind said server, startling them both. “Also, we just doubled the number of unique visitors! Can you imagine, people really come to simply watch NPCs instead of shooting at them! Who would have thought?”
Ayanga and Yunlong share a look, “Well, we did.”
Zhou Shen huffs, “We will make a great team, I can feel it.”
Ayanga reaches to pat Yunlong’s shoulder, and Yunlong squeezes his hand back sheepishly.
“Yeah. A team sounds great.”
Yunlong puts his headset on and turns to log into the game.
Life Itself glows on top of the screen as it loads.
Ayanga watches him with a small wistful smile.
“Hey. Pss. Ayanga!”
He turns to Zhou Shen again, “Hm?”
Zhou Shen gestures wildly between him and Yunlong.
“What?” Ayanga mouths.
Zhou Shen rolls his eyes.
“You know, as much as I like working with you guys, you two are idiots,” he grabs his bag, “I’m gonna pop out for coffee. You better sort it before I’m back!”
Ayanga opens his mouth, but Zhou Shen waves at him dismissively.
“Yeah-yeah, I know. A cup of dissolved sugar for you, black, two sugars and cream, for him.”
“The food is going to be here any minute!”
“Oh, I’ll be back.”
Ayanga shakes his head and sits down at his own desk.
Working out of Yunlong’s flat is… Something. He sure has a big enough place to house their server for now, but if the game progresses with the same success… Who knows, they might need a bigger office.
The thought is nice and keeps Ayanga distracted enough to ignore a familiar face showing up on Yunlong’s screen.
Gazi meets him in the middle of what used to be a big square in the centre of town, now covered with green, nature taking over the stone jungles.
Yunlong greets him back, looking around in awe. Their code works.
Their game works.
They look at each other for a bit.
Finally, Yunlong chuckles, and the sound comes out all muffled.
“Look, I—I don’t even know how to put it…”
“Let me do it for you,” Gazi says softly, reaching out for his hand. “Dalong,” he smiles, “you are… dreamy. I would lie if I said I haven’t spent every waking moment of my digital life so far thinking of meeting someone like you. But we are from different words.”
Yunlong tries to push down a chokes sob, but fails, even as he smiles back, of course, he smiles back, he can’t help himself.
“You said it yourself, I was programmed, was it?” Gazi continues, “Well, doesn’t it mean, somewhere out there there’s the person that did program me?”
Yunlong blinks slowly.
“Where are you going with this?”
“You see, I do love you,” Gazi squeezes his hand, “but I’m also just a very elaborate love confession. Real, as it happens, but still.”
“I—” Yunlong actually turns to glance around his living room, but the guys are gone. “Gazi, I think I need to go.”
Yunlong logs off and starts typing rapidly, pulling up the track log Ayanga has sent him before. He didn’t watch the whole thing, so bent on getting Gazi back.
“Our code doesn’t just work, it works because of you, you made him push forward. Past his programming. You made him alive. And, I had to base his dream person off of someone, so I thought… Dalong, I once thought I didn’t know myself as good as I knew you, so I… I coded his dream guy off of you. You see. His dream guy was the same as mine. You, it’s always been you.”
Yunlong tugs his headset off and whips around almost falling out of the chair.
Ayanga jumps back from where he’s standing, a takeout bag in his hands.
Yunlong is at his side in seconds, so close, the bag is squished between them.
Yunlong takes a steading breath as Ayanga watches him with a bewildered expression, pupils dilated.
It’s time to stop running.
“Ow—” Ayanga almost drops the food, but Yunlong manages to pull it out of his hands, their lips still pressed together, and shove it to the nearest desk.
He can feel Ayanga relax into the kiss with a shuddering sigh. And then he latches onto him, pulling him impossibly closer, greedy with the sudden turn of events.
They part just enough to murmur nonsense at each other, both of them reddening at the eyes, overfilled with joy.
“I was so blind.”
“You were the only one who saw the truth.”
“I’m—” a kiss, “so glad,” one more, “that you’re here.”
“No place I’d rather be,” Ayanga chuckles. “Although, it’s mortifying I’ve got an AI to thank for that.”
“All this time?”
“Yes, all this time.”
Yunlong sniffles lightly, looking away for a moment, before meeting his eyes once again, his own shining with tears.
“I think I’ve loved you since the day I met you.”
“Oh, was Gazi your supposed rebound then?” Ayanga teases, arms still wrapped comfortably around him. “A weird choice.”
“What can I say,” Yunlong brings their foreheads together and laughs lightly, “I guess I have a very specific type.”
And the world is finally right.
Gazi is in the middle of herding sheep on the outskirts, when he realises one is missing. He frowns in worry and goes looking for it, tugging off his earphones, still humming a song. He has a new favourite these days, thanks to the game getting hooked up to a pretty big music provider.
Seriously, Life Itself has much better creators than Free City.
“When you walk by every night~~ talkin’ sweet and lookin’ fine— hm?”
He comes into a clearing, slowly realising someone else is singing, following the exact tune he just hummed.
The voice is deep and pleasant, familiar in a way that Gazi can’t quite place.
There is a man sitting under a tree, sunny smile, expressive eyes, perfect split-coconut hair-do that makes him look charmingly adorable, despite him being obviously tall and quite wide-shouldered.
And Gazi’s lamb is tucked into his lap, as the man is cooing over it, singing softly.
“Baby, I’m so into you~”
He looks up, hearing movement, and Gazi’s mouth falls open.
“Darlin’, if you only knew…”
The man trails off and breaks into a pleasant smile. He hoists the lamb to support it with one hand and raises the other to show off a small cooler bag.
“Hi! I was told you like blueberry ice-cream.”
Gazi feels himself smile back, heart beating quicker.
He feels it, real as ever.
He takes a step forward.