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Deathwish 5000

Chapter Text

When I was a young boy, my father took me into the megacity to see Deathwish 3000. At that point I was just some mangy kids from the corner of 532nd street, and being all the way on the second level was like something out of a dream, kids fighting over holo-toys, teens sneaking around alleys on biased boards trying to get a hit of Red Eye, and the sickly sweet smell of sonder in the air. All of it together made me feel like I was just floating, or maybe it was just that they cranked the gravity so low from the 3rd level up that you were practically floating, each step or jump vaulted you into the air. My father had to hold my hand to keep me from floating away, I've always been such a runtie that kids at school would use me as an armrest.

After entering into those dark obsidian gates of the arena, I remember feeling instantly smaller, and that sense of wonder was now replaced with some kind of fear as I came face to face with a TeraBot, well, more like the fibrous muscle in the eyeball of the enormous bot. You see, I don't know how many of you have been able to see TeraBots up in person, and honestly I don't barely know how my father even scored us those tickets, but this was in the old Stadium Arcadium Arena where the bots could go up to ten-thousands of kilometers high and the arena was so large it had its own climate and rainstorms and you had to wear prescription holo-lenses with such a small focal length that you could even see the full TeraBot. The bots themselves were dangerous as all hell, not even when they were fighting up just when they stood or walked. Father told me that a long time ago when TeraBot fighting started, one bot walking towards the Stadium would create an earthquake on the other side of the world.

Once they started messing with artificial gravity, they could make the bots bigger, the fights bigger, and safer for the human watchers. Kids could come, and got in for a discount. Tera fighting went from being an annual event to a seasonal event, to a monthly, to a weekly event. Bot fighting in general became less expensive, but the popularity of Tera Fighting was left to the big leagues. The Bigs were either lottery winners or Maxers so hyped up on Red Eye that they hadn't slept for months to make sure their bots worked without a glitch.

I remember being in that stadium, looking into the massive eye of a TeraBot, that's when I felt fear for the first time. My father always tells me that I was so astonished that my heart stopped beating for a solid minute, but he was always one to exaggerate, and always one to check my vitals in any moment like that. When my heart finally got back to beating, we found ourselves a shuttle that took us all the way to our seats in row 1123. It was dizzying, watching as the eye slowly shifted on, what would seem an inch was a mile and once we got to our seats we were so far from the floor that it seemed an endless hole of blinking neon lights and sounds.

A service bot came to us and they warned us that an incoming storm was set for 10 minutes and 23 seconds after the fight began, and apologized that our sector's hydro-converter was broken and was in the maintenance phase, so we would have to wear old fashioned raincoats. My father didn't seem too excited to wear the decades old rubber boots and stiff nylon, after all, raincoats were so old millennia, but I rather liked the sounds the coat made when I rubbed my arms together, and mine was a bright neon green, which I found to be really fun.

Suddenly, I felt my vision distort and my heart leapt out of my chest. It was as if one moment I was looking at my coat and the next I was out all the way at the bottom of the stadium, looking up at myself. My father assured me, touching my face even though he seemed millions of miles away, just a small speck.

"Don't worry Frankie, it's just your holo-lens booting up. It's strange for a moment, but you'll get used to it soon enough. The fight is just about to start, let me get you to your chair."

I let my father pick me up and sat me into the chair, which I quickly melted into. It was warm and comfortable, slowly suctioning onto my back and massaging my scalp. A small ping echoed through my suddenly silent mind.

"Father, what's that sound? Did you hear it too?"

"Oh don't worry about that Frankie, that's your sound device. You can decide if you want to hear music over the sound of the announcer, you can even pick what the announcer sounds like."

"Can they sound like you, father?"

"If you want them to, kid."

Knowing that my choice had been made, another small ping reverberated through my skull, and suddenly my father's voice was on the loudbox.

"Well, Frankie, are we all ready?" The voice boomed through the audience, but just sounded like my father sighing at me after I leave my room a mess.

"HELL YEAH WE'RE READY!!" The scream of the audience was so loud that it shook the ground below me, yet I didn't hear it in my ears. There was some sort of white noise and I heard my father's disembodied voice say again, "Systematic brain scan completed. Audio preferences recorded. Playing now." And some loud screech began to play. I cupped my hands over my ears but the sound was inside my own head.

It was like a scream, falling down the keys and jumping octaves as a quick beat pattern filled in the silence, my heart instantly beating to the same rhythm. A lower sound begins to play, one that quiets the beat and dances around in keys and time. The beat and screaming instrument return, to press on, fighting against the lower part, clashing at first and then resolving.

And then a voice cuts through the fuzz in my head.

"Our first dead ringer, in the north quadrant of the ring, is the freak on a leash, the half-nut of the galaxy, The Red Eye for the Bad Guy, Little JIMMY URINE, accompanied by his Tera UGLY BOY!!"

There's another scream from the entire stadium, and I can feel the ground shake from my little rainboots, and it sends a shiver through my bones which turns to warm complacency once it meets the chair.

My vision shifts, and I know it's connected to one of those cameras filming all this for the people at home. A lanky man, covered head to toe in a bright pink with a tall pink mohawk, waves at me with a snarky tight lipped grin. He's got a half insane look in his bloodshot iridescent pink eyes as he floats up to his command deck behind the eyes of his bot.

No wonder his bot is called Ugly Boy, it's a rough sight. Leaking a dark tar like substance out of its eyes, mouth, and other places, it screeched every time it moved, thousands of miles of metal whimpering under the weight of an enlarged chest, skinny legs just barely supporting it. What might have been the most uncanny was the face, it looked like a battery-bike that had been eaten up in a refinery and spit back out. On top of its dull and misshapen head was a tall circular sawblade. Large craters speckled the entire bot, some covered up by large misspelled decals and crude drawings. With one black eye and one golden one, Ugly Boy smiled with a blank stare, it's mouth perpetually unhinged, showing long squares of golden flaked teeth. To top it all off, the bot wore bright red boxing gloves, perfect and gleaming in all the arena lights.

Once Jimmy had climbed in, the bot's eyes flashed once, and its body creaked into submission and into a halfhearted boxing pose, one fist extended outward and one fist close to its face. My vision split into three divisions, with Ugly Boy on top in a larger space and showing Jimmy inside the bot below, he rubbed his hands together and slipped on his control bracelets on both arms and legs. A cupboard of the inside control deck extended its arm, and dropped something small into Jimmy's hand. He took it greedily and put it into his right ear, and the piece unfolded into a small headset, a small circle of steel encapsulating his brow. He turned to me and gave me a thumbs up with one hand and a middle finger with the other.

Suddenly, the lights went dim as lightning struck above us. With the first strike of thunder cold rain pummeled down on us, and were are quickly drenched as a gust of wind scraped through my lungs, leaving me breathless. With the wind, still shrieking a dank sheet of fog obscured the ground, only being lit occasionally by lightning. I let go of a breath I didn't know I was holding, and a shiver ran down my spine as that screaming instrument played once again its tantalizing and terrible sound. Slowly, a bot rose from the ground, wearing a skeleton face and a long black ripped cloak.

"In the south quadrant of the ring we have the duke of Horror, the shock-rocker from New New Jersey, our Pugilist Prince, the Marvelous Misfit Mister Danzig and his bot the VEROTIK!"

The lights returned and the storm ceased almost immediately. The entire stadium was immediately on their feet, chanting some phrase that I forget, but the bot's mouth opened smoothly, and sitting upon a large red couch sipping on a pack of unfiltered blood was a stout man. He didn't look like much, a short guy with a square frame, with long black hair and a black crew top and some old looking leather pants, but I guessed from all the chanting that he was a big deal.

And he was.

When the buzzer blared off after a few more words and rules from my father (it felt more like a scolding to me) Ugly Boy let out a mechanical roar and sprinted over to the Verotik, which simply took the large scythe they had instead of a left arm, and cut one of Ugly Boy's legs clean off. From his small quadrant, Danzig was still sipping on his blood on that large couch, seemingly half interested, while sparks flew around Jimmy's control deck, and one small spark set his hair ablaze. He worked to pat out the flame, only to not see Ugly Boy's leg falling out from under it, and slowly at first, then all together, the bot fell with such a crash that it might have split the arena clean in half.

After seeing Ugly Boy fall and after my heart returned to its natural beat, I found myself screaming Danzig's name along with the rest of the audience. Holding my father's hand in a near death grip, I cupped my other hand over my mouth. My voice barely sounded human, more like an insane animal as I jumped up in my seat and Danzig winked right at me.

The rest of the fight was one adrenaline filled blur, with Ugly Boy stood on one leg, all its arms and leg cut off but the one foot it was hopping on, until Danzig swiped at it again with the scythe and cut the leg clean off. The leg flew into the air with the sheer force of the blow, and was headed right for my father and my seats, until a few service bots melted in with their breath. I slumped back down into my seat for a moment, but as the Ugly Boy fell down for the last time, I found myself standing, jumping up and down, my voice just a small one in the deafening chorus of cheers.

I didn't so much walk home with my father as I bounced. I was practically aflame, my lenses set back to normal, and my passion burning to learn more about the sport I'd never been able to know of, let alone to watch. And at that moment of victory, Danzig winked at me! I was high off the screams of the crowd, the electric energy pulsating through the whole audience that I didn't fall asleep that night at all. My voice was raw from screaming and we were still both soaked by the rain but neither of us seemed to care as we made our way all the way back to 532nd street and down the lift all the way back to level 2.

That's the day I promised myself that I'd return to the DeathWish 3000, not as an audience member but as a fighter. I was going to be the best bot fighter the megacity had ever seen. I was going to raise some hell.

Chapter Text

I was little when on the first day of school I had to walk myself up to 500th street, and while I wouldn't have known it then, it was probably the worst place to host all the slum kids, like 100 of us or so were packed into the few small rooms. The walls were more of a suggestion than anything else, semi-transparent shower curtains separated our rooms when a certain group of kids were taking tests, and the preschool kids all the way to fifth grade shared classrooms.

All the walls were always covered in BLind printed service announcements, and the alphabet written on once colorful, and now faded and ripped pieces of paper. When it rained they would just send us home, we only had a tarp for a ceiling and if the wind hot too heavy it would sometimes blow away, which also led to school cancellations as the principal and teachers ran down the street trying to catch the ceiling. Most days it was just hot or cold, and we would bundle up or be wearing tank tops and high cut shorts.

On the days teachers came in hungover or they were sick, they'd just show us a BLind Safety Video. And this was my first day of fourth grade, all of us kids smashed into groups on a few different rugs that dotted the floor.

As all of our vision went to bluescreen, there were a few small whoops from the crowd as the movie booted up. The video was blurry and distorted in the left eye, all glitched out to be blue, and our teacher apologized for the errors but this was an old copy, and the school couldn't afford to buy new tapes, so please just hang in there. After a few moments of lag, the words "Know Your Level!" Popped up, and you could hear the entire group of us groan. We'd watched different Know Your _____ videos since early childhood, considering BLind had seemed to run them so often in our dreams. We could recite the words and even knew each worker, and actor that was portrayed. But this one seemed a little different to me.

Sure, I knew what it meant for us to be Level 2 residents, that meant we were the second and second to poorest level, we didn't have the best houses or the best infrastructure, and if you called a mechanic there was about a 25% chance they would ever visit your house, and out of that percent maybe 5% of them would come before you'd already found a solution. I had some family that lived on Level 3, and me and my father had been there for the DeathWish 3000 obviously. What I didn't really know so much was why we were separated by level.

"Hey kids! It's time to play a game of Know Your Level!" The uncanny blue and white mascot MouseKat exclaimed in an excited high pitched tone. "So let's play! This is how the game will work, I'll ask you guys a question, and you answer! Are you guys ready? OK!"

The environment changed, and we were in a bright place, with a huge blue ceiling that didn't seem to have any obvious corners or even any seams. Little small white things, billowy cotton things hung in midair and decorated the never-ending ceiling.

She suddenly popped up from behind a rock. The ground was barren, dead and browning in the heat. There was nothing in sight for miles except a few cacti, which looked like the one my father and I kept under the windowsill at home. I wasn't sure if it was glitch, or just the heat that seemed to make the landscape glimmer.

"So, kids, what is this place?" After she asked, she just froze and glitched a few times, repeating the same few actions a few times. We were all still silent, not oo sure how this game worked.

"So, kids, what is this place?" She repeated.

One kid coughed behind me, and another whispered, barely audible, "It's a desert."

"REPEAT ANSWER." She responded in a more robotic voice, and smiled a dead unhuman smile, all full of MouseKat teeth.

"It's a desert!" A few of us howled in unison.

She blinked once, processing, then smiled even bigger than before. "You're right! This is a desert! A youch! Is it hot here or is it just me! I'm getting pretty thirsty! I need some water." She sweat big animated drops and panted. "Do you guys see any water here?"

We all turned our heads, searching around the desert while it just kept getting hotter.

"Having a hard time? Well, there's a reason! There's no water in a desert you silly billies!" She pointed a finger at us, laughing. "I tricked you guys! You should see the looks on all your faces!" Then she dropped her hand and frowned. "So what is so special about this desert? Well, this desert is on the Great Below! Why don't you guys look up?"

We all looked up, and the blue dome above us was being eclipsed by a darkness. A giant shadow passed over us as a colossal cube's turns above us blocking out the light. The cube floated above us, and lingered over us, then floated away. I couldn't describe the look of it back then, but now I like to describe it as looking like an infinite cube, like layers of cubes cut into each other, continually repeating. It was so intricate, I could see some streets of Level 1 and little tents and garbage heaps, little service bots breaking down the garbage into reusable material. And it seemed like parts of the cube were rotating, possibly at different speeds.

"You see how it looks like it's spinning, kids? Each zone is cut up into five slices, like layers on a cake." Our sight was suddenly focused into a security camera overlooking large mountains of trash, where some service machines ate up trash and separated trash from recyclable materials. "The good people at BLind like to recycle as much materials as possible. C'mon! Follow me!" She waved us down with one big white paw, and we zoom into a service bot who was placing an empty drink cup on to a factory belt. We watched the cup as it went through many twists and turns until it made its way into an inferno. MouseKat was still smiling, until she realized her tail was on fire and she yelped, until a service bot wheeled over to her and used the nearest fire extinguisher to save her. Nursing her tail, she exclaimed, "Well, that's enough excitement for today! Let's head over to the second level!"

Suddenly, I seemed to be back at home. The sky was filthy, and the dark corners of Level 3 twisted above our heads, barely recognizable in the relentless smog. Small cubes of apartments were packed together, squat telephone lines decorated with old tennis shoes and fluorescent lights broke up the dirt of the street. MouseKat jumped down from the top of one of those lines to meet us with ease. "Level 2 is home to a lot of BLind's factories, where you can find the manufacturing plants of some of your favorite items like battery bikes, holotoys, even things like gravity drift construction equipment!" She ran ahead of us, and suddenly we were in a very large gray building, lit by harsh small lights on the ceiling, all of different color. The walls were covered in grime and what looked like gasoline or sludge. We zoomed in on a woman in a full long smock and her hair in a cap. She was assembling something, putting a few gears together. The she passed them off to an older looking man, who places them into a shell and seals it shut. That package was put on a belt and delivered to a bot, who lifted the item and carried to upstairs, where its put into an ambulance. "On the 2nd Level, humans and bots or droid work in unison, with the bots doing the heavy lifting. After all, we're better when we are working together!" She raised one paw into a thumbs up, which proved to be a challenge for a cat wearing gloves.

By the time I blinked, we were in what seemed like a different world. Real trees planted in lines greeted us, and swayed in a gentle breeze. The air was fresh, still a little humid, but it was clean, and bigger two story houses sat in a perfect row in a cul-de-sac formation. Each of these houses was painted bright candy colors, with white fences in front and real roses and other flowers in the front yard. Some yards even had moving animated sculptures or fountains displaying holograms like liquid gold running down them. "Now kids, this is the Third Level. Do you know what happens on the Third Level?"

"It's where they keep the sickies and the elderlies and the hospitals n'stuff, right?" A girl sniffled behind me.

MouseKat blinked in response, then beamed from her big mousey ear to ear. "That's exactly right! The Third Level is mainly our rehabilitation level, and is mostly concerned with the welfare of our zone! Have any of you kids ever been sick or had a sick relative?"

I thought of my father, of his coughing, but he couldn't afford to go to the Third Level. He told me that the woman who was probably my mother had stuck me on his doorstep and ran away to the Third Level. That was of course, before the Level Ban, back when someone could immigrate up or down a level without having to show any identification. He also said that back then it didn't cost as many carbons to live up there.

"My Grandpa was sick. Said he was seeing things. Said his family was starting to turn blue, like he'd look at them and then they'd be blue for a second. They immigrated him into the Third Level and I haven't seen him since." This came from a boy behind me, who had been biting on a necklace of his for the past 4 years in school. "My papa said he was sick in the head."

MouseKat nods, "Yes, when people get sick they can be moved to the Third Level, where the air is better and their hospital bills can be covered so long as a few BLind protocols are followed. Let's head on over to the hospital, shall we?"

We were suddenly in a long hallway, with long floating tables that sick people were being transported in. A nurse was slowly guiding the gurney toward where the hallway split into several directions, then turned the corner and was out of sight. I remember thinking that something was really off about the nurse. She walked so smoothly, and not a hair was out of place of her sleek pale blonde shoulder length hair. Maybe it was how pale her skin was, almost a cream white. She was very small of stature too, barely over 5 feet tall, but seemed to handle the patient with no difficulty.

"Were you wondering who that person was? Maybe we can talk to someone around here..." MouseKat waved down someone behind us, and then there was another nurse before us, and she looked exactly like the last nurse. Same skin, same build, same hair, but this time we can see her eyes, which were large, and her eyes were almost entirely black. I jumped back, a little frightened at the time, the face I knew would haunt me into the future, and believe me, it did.

"How about you introduce yourself, miss?"

The woman opens her mouth, her face devoid of expression, and says in a high pitched monotone, "I am not a miss. I am an Adaptive Network Recent Issue bot." She just stared down at us, with that blank face.

"Yep, she's got it right! This is an ANRI bot, they're bots that can take on any job! This hospital, as do lots of other hospitals and other establishments on the upper Levels use ANRI bots to do specific skill trained jobs. Do you kids have any questions for ANRI?"

"Why are you so short?" A boy grunted.

"Because I was designed to be approachable, it would be very illogical to make a service bot such as myself unapproachable."

"Then why do your eyes look like that, they're all black," I heard myself say.

She shifted her gaze directly into mine, and I was looking into those dark, endless eyes. " My eyes are designed for maximum visibility in over 40 different weather conditions. Some sacrifices had to be made in order for me to work as successfully as possible, and this way I cannot be confused for a human, as no humans naturally have black irises."

"Wow, ANRI, you're so smart! What else do you know?" MouseKat looked at ANRI with such adoration, her gloved paws up to her face in a gasp.

"I can work over 500 recognized jobs and counting and I can even perform tasks that would be too dangerous for humans. I can detect cancer by a blood prick, and other various illnesses. I can sense accidents and take precautionary measures. I can be a caretaker for the elderly, a nurse for infants, a pilot or an architect. I can scan faces and track missing persons, I can lift up to 10 times my weight."

"What can't you do?"

"I am not configured with human emotion, although BLind is working on a redesign with human emotion excluding human behaviors such as envy or brutality." She went silent, almost like she was thinking. "I cannot predict the future, but I can predict the weather, and with deductive skills and using certain probabilities I can hypothesize future occurrences."

MouseKat's was still staring at ANRI until a loud beep sounds from her wrist watch, which I could swear she hadn't had before that moment. She looked up frantic, and huffed, "Well, we'd love to spend more time with you ANRI, but it's time for us to get to the Fourth Level. Say goodbye kids!"

We all waved ANRI goodbye, even I did, there was something strangely comforting about her that allowed me to see past those freaky eyes. She slowly lifted her left arm, revealed a bar code on her wrist, and stiffly waved back to us.

It was a stark contrast between the white of the hospital to the now green field we were in. Stalks of food grew up high above our heads, and tickled MouseKat's whiskers. It wasn't too hot, but perfectly comfortable, and there was a big ball of light, like there had been while we were down below. The sky was blue, and we could see the shimmering Level Five above us, rotating quicker than the rest of the levels.

"You guys see that big ball in the sky?" MouseKat points above us to the blinding light. "That's an artificial sun. The Place Down Below has a real sun, but it'll burn you up if you stay in one place too long." She sauntered over to an open area in the field. "Level Four is the Agricultural Level. Here we grow food for all the levels! These include real plants and genetically modified or cloned plants, and artificial livestock like cows and pigs so we can have protein and meat! On The Place Below they used to have animals, but they were being slaughtered by the millions every day, or being poisoned by the water and waste pollution during the Helium Wars. Do any of you kids know about the Helium Wars or the World Wars?" Her indigo ears twitched in the breeze.

"Yeah, my mom told me about them." The necklace biting boy said, biting off a piece of metal from the dog tag. "People used to not get along, and it got them in deep trouble with each other. They would hurt each other with guns n'stuff. Then, they got smarter and started making bombs. It all started in 2013, that's what my momma says to me. There was a bombing and people were running. Once the bomb went off, they kept running and they ran all the way past the specific oceans and into Europe and then they all declared war on each other. It started small but they were all throwing bombs then, and the Place Below got dry, momma tells me. I asked her why the Place Below got dry, and she says the bombs drank up all the water, so then there's nothing to eat, no animals, and people started digging holes. And they all dug holes so deep you could put a whole skyscraper in it! Some people stayed on the crispy Place Below surface, and had to find fuel n'stuff like that, and that started the Helium Wars. Momma don't want to tell me about them though, the Helium Wars are too violent she says. Led to some group of anarchists called the Killjoys, back when BLind was a baby company on the surface."

Once he had finished, MouseKat blinked a few more times before answering, "Exactly! When the Place Down Below got scorched, BLind started looking up to the skies. And that's when the zones were created. And once the zones were created, the humans were allowed to repopulate, and we had to add more levels! But then, it made more sense for us to segregate the levels by our needs and a class system. Not many people live out here on the Fourth Level, just because this place is mostly pastureland and the more humans the dirtier we will make it! But not even bots like ANRI are on this level. The machinery runs itself and the humans are basically only used for distribution, they decide who needs the most food and where is the best place to transport the produce from." A large machine slides behind us, sweeping up the plants and storing it in a big bubble that keeps growing larger with more produce. "It's not an easy job as a farmer, but we owe everything to them!"

Suddenly, water was thrown on to all of us and we all jumped. The water was cold and quickly soaked through all of our clothes. I looked up to see a waterfall aobe our heads.

"That's some cold water! It must be watering time! The Fifth Level helps with the watering, and it seems like we were caught a little off guard," MouseKat shivered. "Speaking of the fifth level, I hope all you kids brought your safety jackets. Let's all huddle together, come on and huddle together!" She grabbed all of us and we got into a big huddle.

We were rocking back and forth, and I opened my eyes to see we were in a large body of crystal clear water. I've never seen water so clear. The sky above was dark that day, with a violent breeze whistling through each of our ears and hair, and we all clutched MouseKat tighter, settling into her warm fur.

"It's all right kids, there's nothing to be afraid of." She laughed.

I wasn't scared, all the other kids seemed terrified, but I let go of the fistfulls of MouseKat's fur I'd been grasping and I look over the edge of the rickety wooden boat we are in. I can see the stream of the water fall below, as it bends with the waves, but I can see all of Level Four, I can almost even see the corners where we free fall to the Place Below. It was funny, because the Fourth Level kind of looked like various patches of different hues of green stitched together into an eclectic quilt, and it took my breath away. It was so beautiful, and while the sea salt stung my eyes, I could help but grin, while other children screamed.

I peered a little further over the edge, and not only could I see the level below but I could see my own reflection, my scruffy black hair wildly dancing in the wind and light hazel eyes wide, framed by red puffed eyelids from either exhaustion or the sea salt stinging my eyes. Just as soon as I had saw it, water splashed in my direction and the image was broken. I turned to find MouseKat and all the other kids were splashing each other with water, she had pulled out water guns from somewhere and every played together. I laughed along for a minute, but then I saw some weird black shape, obscured by fog in the distance. I thought it was just endless sea on the Fifth Level, that's actually what people had told me before, so what was that squat thing out in the distance? It was barely a blur, but there was something there.

"The Fifth Level is a level designed just for Better Living Industries. We can't go in there, but inside of The Lighthouse is BLind's only training sxhool for police, military, legal and governmental education. Also, some prototype droids or bots are created up here, and once thet get the all clear the manuals are shipped out to Level 2 for factory creation. There are also water refineries and a few different bot stations that determine the safety of the water, but that's all that is on the Fifth Level." She giggled while ambushing some kid in the face with her water gun.

The fog cleared slightly for a moment, enough for me to see the shape of a tall structure, striped black and white and it got skinnier at the top. The top is see through, maybe glass with a black structure inside, and I thought I saw a light suddenly swing in our direction, like an eye that had noticed us. It blinked once.

Did a light mean that was a robot station?

Or could it have been a person, so far as I knew, droids would have no purpose to use a light. They could see infrared and in the dark, so there would be no use of a light, especially a blinking light.

Nevertheless, my train of thought was quickly diverted as I was hit in the face by cold water, and it hit me so hard, a flew back into the boat, and our boat started to rock more violently. All the kids were screaming again. "Okay, I think that's enough fun for today! Class dismissed!" MouseKat screamed in harmony with all the kids.

And we were holding each other again, all of us kids, but we weren't rocking anymore.

We were back in the classroom, each of us soaked and dripping water, the ground was sticky and muddy under us. We all looked at each other, dumbfounded for a moment, then our teacher put down his holopaper and said, "What? Are you kids just gonna stand there? Go home, for Christ's sake. Class is over." He waved us off, lighting a cigarette with his modified robotic finger.

As the other kids passed me, I felt like I was in a daze, my legs carrying me forward, but I had too many questions. Just like that, I walked slowly, freezing, through 30 blocks to return to my small haven, where there were no ANRI bots, no incinerators, and no oceans. There was just my father, there was just safety.

Chapter Text

Now initially, I totally sucked at engineering, fighting, and repair, honestly while I wanted to learn to bot-fight the most, I waited the longest to start learning. And well, repair I've never really figured out. I'm self-taught, so I could never really ask someone to fix all the issues I would have with a bot. If the bot wasn't working, I just ripped it apart and would start fresh. I'm better at tweaking than anything else, taking something already started and making it better. I hate all the diagnostic work, all the troubleshooting, cycling through pages upon pages of user manuals. It wears down on me so quickly.
I went through layers of pin board forums and a few tutorials on building your first bot. I sucked at it. I ripped so many bots apart that my father complained about the mess which was practically overflowing into the hallway of my dark small room. Every surface was stained with greasing oil, you'd have an axel stuck to your foot if you weren't careful. And more often than not, I wasn't careful. Cleanliness is for people with too much time on their hands, and more often than not, I was working on making two articulated legs support a bot and walk or designing decals until sundown. Once the sun dropped, I opened the window and worked with whatever neon light poured into my room.
I lived in a small shitty dirty house, graffiti on every surface and with so little running water that either we had water to drink or I could take a shower. We couldn't even keep synthetic animals or plants alive. Every winter was below zero and the summers held no relief but a mildew infested humid air; most days, it felt like we were swimming in the air. The pollution of the city upset my father's lungs so much that most of the time he wore a white mask over his mouth. In a few years, we would find that I had the same condition. But it was just me and my father in a little square of a house, a kitchen and a few blankets for a bed, two small closet sized rooms for ourselves, but we usually slept together on the floor to keep an eye on the door. Most of the time we just had the light from the sun or those neon lights, so our shutters remained open.
Which had its own problems, obviously.
We got robbed a number of times, our small chair my father slept in overturned, and maybe a few of my gears stolen. They always took my greasing oil too, but inside such a crappy little place, they most likely didn't find what they were looking for, and would leave after breaking all our windows.
I grew up pretty lowtech, obviously, just with my pinboard that they drill into your head as an infant, and even that had some pretty bad reception at times. And the city was never quiet, so we had old pieces of foam that we would stick in our ears at night. That also led to some awkward encounters, blazers breaking a window, climbing through, and waking us up in the middle of the night, my dad holding me in my sleep, coughing up a lung.
So eventually, he got fed up. Years of exhaustion lingered on his face, all his emotions submerged under layers of ice had made him distant. One day, he comes into my room, I was probably 14, and he says to me,
“Frankie, why don't you make something that actually works, or maybe helps us out?” He voice muffled by his mask.
I huffed. “Like what?”
I didn’t turn to face him, but even with the early sun spilling over his shadow I could still see him shrug.
He answered at first with a growl, and then slurs became audible words, “UhIdon’tknowsonlike How about, like, a security system? One that, uh, goes off when there’s intruders, or that keeps ‘em out in the first place.” I heard the recognizable sound of him picking at a piece of my wall, he did that a lot when he was bored. I got the same trait from him, always scratching my head with a free hand whenever I get a chance.
Honestly, his idea wasn’t a bad one, but his tone made it sound like I was just wasting my time and I remember being a little pissed. I had my own hopes, I wanted to make one successful bot, one that would walk, talk, maybe even look human. I knew though, at that moment, that I had been wasting the last few years trying to make the perfect bot the first time around, so I took him up on his deal. At first it was frustrating to get the little droid to detect movement, and to notice my father and I. The first few days it just screamed whenever we moved during the night, and earsplitting screech, and we had a few cop bots visit to tell us to turn it down. That was the first time I took the droid off the wall.
The next time it was recognizing both of us just fine, but if it got moved a fraction of an inch the wiring would start sparking and set fires in the house, often right when I got home from school; the small movement of me closing the door would lead to me stamping out a little fire. Father even had to sell a few of my extra mechanical pieces, a few sensors and daisy chains, just so we could make up the fire damage to the landlord. Then the droid got moved to the kitchen, where one small window faced the door, with cabinets on either side, and the sink below it, the windowsill with our decomposing artificial cactus. One day when father ran the sink disposal the chords of the droid got sucked in and completely mangled.
So many times I went back to square one, something or another always seemed to fail. I think it took about 21 versions to fix all the bugs, for the droid to only recognize intruders, and for the droid to finally hack into their holo-lens vision and make them blind as long as they were in the house. It took about a year and a half I’d guess to get it up and running, but once it was working, our neighbor Bob ended up knocking on our door one night. My father was out still, doing whatever he was known for doing so late at night. I had run the droid through a few filters so it recognized a few of our neighbors, Bob included.
“Hey kid, where did you get that little security droid?” He had choppy orange hair that fell slightly in his face, he was a slightly larger set guy, way taller than me, wearing a white lead smock stained with blue thick oil and smelling of chemicals. “It’s just me at my place, as you know, but I’ve been robbed three times in this year, and I noticed no one’s even thought of breaking into your guys’ place, what’s the manufacturer? Is it BLind?”
He towered over me then and he still does, not in an intimidating way, but with a lips so tight and eyes so blue that I couldn't help but shake a little. “Well, uh, I made it.” I squeaked out.
His eyebrows raised. “You made it?”
“Y-yes, sir.” Father had always told me to show respect, especially to neighbors, since I’d put them through enough hell just living next to us.
“Hmm.” Is all he responded at first, as he crossed his arms, leaving a streak of the blue oil on his smock. After a few awkward moments he spoke again. “Do you, ugh, do you reckon you could make another?” He coughed, hiding his face, and maybe his embarrassment. In all the years we'd lived next to Bob we had always asked him favors, not the other way around.
“Um, yeah, I think so. The sensors were a bitch--sorry--hard to get.” Father didn’t like me cursing either. “But, other than that, yeah I’ve assembled and ripped them apart and reassembled these so many times I could probably do it in a coma.”
He just nodded, his lips sewn together in thought. “If, say, I got you those parts, would you be willing to make one for me?”
I was a little shocked to be honest, my first thought had been he was trying to pull a prank on me, or maybe get me ticked for making non BLind sanctioned droids. I think all of this was obvious, one look in my face and he could see how nervous I probably looked. I felt almost like I was going to throw up, and I looked over his shoulder into the street. Nobody.
But that almost made it weirder, because that meant that Bob wanted my work, some random 15 year old kid's sloppy first droid, which still ran a little loud and you had to make sure the wires wouldn't tangle or get any dust on them.
As all these thoughts were swirling in my head, one hand scratching my temple, I tried to sound like I had a small morsel of confidence as I say, “Yeah, sure, if I had everything I needed, then I guess I’d be willing to do it.” My other hand was behind my back, clenching and unclenching.
“Okay, and how much will it cost for you to make it?”
“How much?” I mimicked, in slight disbelief.
“Yeah, I don’t expect you to work for free, kid. So what, you wanna do by the hour or an overall lump sum?” He was already pulling out his carbons book, and I saw a green counter light up in the right hand side of my vision. It must have been activated by Bob bringing out his carbons book.
“Um, uh, I’d say a lump sum. It, uh, it takes a little bit of trial and error to get it just right, so lump sum will work. And, and I know I’m making you pay for parts too, so I don’t want you paying too much for all the services.” I was well aware that I was rambling a little, but my throat went dry looking at the carbons counter lighting up, I mean, at 15 I'd barely made transactions before, just when my father hadn’t packed me lunch at school and if he asked me to pick up his prescriptions if I was in a certain neighborhood. So suddenly doing all this, having my services wanted, it was all a little too much to take in.
“It’s no hassle, kid, I’ll pay the full fee so long as it works. I’ll save more so long as some bastard isn’t stealing all my shit.” He had some real fire in his eyes, I can remember that at much at least. “How’s 100 carbons?”
“100?”
“Yeah, 100.” The green counter went from being 0 to being 100. “Can you get it to me in a month or less?”
“Ugh,” my head was spinning, but I get a grip on myself, just hearing myself say, “Yeah, no, that won’t be an issue. 100 is fine. I’m sorry about the price, sir.”
He shook his head. “It’s no big deal. Like I said, get it to me by the end of the month, and make it work, and I’ll be glad to even tip you. I know, kid, that you and your dad have been in some hard times lately, he’s stopped by my place a few times to talk and on nights like tonight when he’s not home, I used to watch you to make sure you were safe. Now, there’s not really any reason for me to do that, with your new droid. But I want to help you, Frank, you and your dad. I know it’s been hard since he got laid off from the Journals.” He was silent for a moment, almost somber, I guess he thought he said too much, Bob has always been afraid of speaking. He coughed again, before continuing, “At your age, being able to work with droids, being able to make things, things that work....that’s pretty incredible. I don’t see it a lot, so I hope you become a hard working young man and you make your father and I proud. You’ll be a great asset to us one day. Um,” he was backing out of the door but now, I could see how uncomfortable he still was, as his face slipped back into the neons blues and orange of outside. “So is that all? 100 will work for you?”
“Y-yeah, 100 will be just fine. I’ll pin you the parts list and the best places to get them."
He nodded, he looked like he was shaking, but it might just have been the flickering lights from a block away. “Alright, thanks kid. I’ll see you soon, and get those parts to you as soon as possible.”
It was my turn to nod now, and he turned, and was eaten up by the dark, I only saw a small portion of his body outlined in a pool of blue light, and then, slowly, he was gone and I was left with an open door and 100 new carbons. I sighed, and brought my other hand up to close the door. My hand was bruised, little half-moons of purple where my fingernails had been digging into my open palm.
___
I never would have expected it, but the next day, another neighbor came over. She had stringy, jet black hair and cherry colored lips. She explained she was an artist and her art supplies kept getting stolen. She lived a few small cubicles away from Bob, and after explaining her frustration to him, he told her to come to me. So here she came.
After a few weeks, it seemed like everyone at least to the outskirts of town had asked me to install a security system. I was raking up so many carbons that for the first time in months, our lights came back on. Once Bob’s droid was done and de-bugged (which honestly took more time than building the damn thing), a bunch of us neighbors got together and celebrated, having a face-recognition party. There were so many people spilling out of the house, and I got maybe eight more commissions that night. There were so few hours in a day, and so many droids to make that I often fell asleep at my desk, a sensor gripped tightly in my hand. I would wake up at random intervals during the night to see there was a threadbare blanket hanging over my shoulders.

For the first time in years, I saw my father smile. And I smiled too.

Chapter Text

It wasn't much after my 16th birthday that I fell into terrible coughing fits. Much like my father sometimes struggled with. They started off with a light cough, infrequently, and then over time it just kept getting worse. Sleeping became difficult, my sides always ached, and my voice was always scratchy, I spoke as little as I could. It all hit a peak one early morning when my coughing awoke my father, and when he turned on the light, he had told me afterwards, I was completely blue. Dried spit crusted around my mouth, lips white, bloodshot eyes wide and brimmed in tears. And the funny thing is, to this day, I still don't remember it.

Of this incident, all I can recall is how it started and how it ended.

We had no means of transportation and we were at least 100 blocks away from the closest medical facility. Everything at this point, at least for me, was blurry or entirely fractured. In a few moments, my body went completely limp, it had felt like my bones were made of sand, and when my father was picking me up, my legs, my arms, my head fell, my muscles snapped.

I remember pain.

Pain, and nothing but black.

___

At first everything was black, but I could hear again. Hear the rush of traffic outside of the BLind sanctioned battery-bikes, the drips of water from a leaky faucet, and my father quietly murmuring above me.

I remember opening my eyes but everything was still very blurry and dark. It's cold, and each of my bones is made of cement, but every small moment I can feel a rib shift, my spinal vertebrae snapping back into place. I closed my left eye and found everything was back to my sharp, perfect vision in my right eye. I closed my right, and the sight in my left eye was blurry, and there was a small crack running along the middle of my holo-lens. But even with my blurred vision I could still see the figure above me rustle, it clutched me tighter in its rough strong arms, and said in that familiar voice, "Frankie. Oh Frank, oh my sweet boy." Something wet, a tear, fell to my face, it was warm, and my father's grip was steady, as he delicately rocked me back and forth.

"W-what..." My voice was raw, felt like burning razors and each time I swallowed the pain expanded to my chest, along with a sickening taste, like drinking a can of battery acid. I stop, not sure what to say next, and also at surprise in my own voice. It's lower, more rugged and doesn't sound like me.

"You, you started coughing and you wouldn't stop. You weren't breathing, son. You turned blue."

With my vision in my right eye clearer then, I shut my left and I looked around only as much as my neck would allow, which wasn't much at the time, but I found it much easier with my father supporting me. This apartment definitely wasn't ours, that was for sure. There's candles, there's the dripping faucet, and the security droid is against the door. That's a weird place to put it, I thought.

There was maybe five questions I wanted to ask at first, but the questions kept duplicating, so I shut my eyes tight then, and tried to cycle through all of them and find the one that would take the least amount of words to remember and to arrange and to articulate. "Where are we?" My voice was coming right through the back of my throat, not through my chest like it used to, and each breath I took, as large and full as I could make it, still left me gasping.

"You're at my place." I looked up, with my father's help, to the ripped up couch, where a very tired Bob sat. His arms crossed as always, what looks like a bottle of liquor was beside him, propped up against him under his weight.

Father smiled, it was an exhausted, melancholic smile, and it's the smile he used to give me when he'd try to convince me everything was okay, and that there was no man at the window, and we were safe tonight, Frankie. I think I might have tearing up by then, my eyes were getting misty and my cracked holo-lens glitched for a moment, the room appeared much darker, black, and my father and Bob were a sort of blue tinge, then just as quickly as the frightening image had come, it was gone.

My father patted Bob's leg. "If it weren't for Bob here, well..." He trailed off, but sensing that sadness returning, he smiled again, that painful goddamned smile, and my stomach started to feel sick just then. "He, he sat with you while I went to fetch the medic, and while I was gone you, you--"

"--When he was gone you went stiff. Started twitching. Your eyes rolled back in your head." He interrupted, matter-of-factly, picking up the bottle and taking a swig from it. "You vomited in your mouth and so I rolled you over to your side, then you vomited on me."

That explained the taste in my mouth and the bright yellow stains on Bob's gray shirt. I was, at the same time of course, incredibly embarrassed and grateful to Bob for putting up with that shit. My cheeks were so hot, but I was sure that was from a blush and not a fever. At least I could hope.

"I cut your shirt open, sorry about that. You weren't breathing, I thought it might help you. And it seemed to, at least a little." Bob shrugged. That explains why I was shivering.

"Yeah, and the medic woman she gave you a dose of something, stabbed you right in the chest with a needle. She left me a dozen more syringes with the same stuff, we might need to refill at some point, but for now, Frank, my Frankie, you're safe. You're here with me. You came back to us." He sobbed again, and I think I cried too, but ours tears were both rolling down my cheeks, it was hard to tell them apart.

"Did she...say what it was?" My voice was still just as scratchy, but it was at least easier to formulate thoughts and sentences now.

My father shook his head, his eyes shut tight, brows knit together in concern. "She says it's like what I have you know, where I have a hard time breathing and I cough. But she said yours is much worse. Frank, Frank, I'm so sorry, I'm..." He whispered, as he lifted my face almost into his. He was hugging me tight, much tighter than usual, I didn't know it then, but that would be the second to last time he embraced me.

"It's not your fault. Sometimes things like this happen." Bob was now taking his turn to pat my father's shoulder, but my father whipped around, and smacked his hand off.

"My son is going to be fucking disabled for the rest of his life and you're just saying things like this happen, Bob?! Frank won't be able to run, he won't be able to even exercise, he might end up in a fucking oxygen mask for the rest of his life and you say things like this happen?!" He jolted up, and my head banged down on to the floor, not at all caught by the thin carpet material, but only Bob noticed my pain. "This isn't right, it's not fair, Frank doesn't deserve this, and neither do I."

Bob's hands went up in defense, as he slowly backed into the couch. "I didn't mean it that way. I'm sorry for you and Frank both, of course, but screaming like that isn't going to help your kid now. You're just scaring him to death."

My pulse quickened and my father looked down at me, it was a cold stare, no gleam in his eyes but a dead gaze, a tight flown was upon his lips. "We're going Frank." He offered me his arm and I struggled at first but with his help he stood me up, not tall and certainly not gracefully, but then we were out the door, my father trying to put distance between us and Bob. He stopped though, once he reached the door, something always kept him from leaving his house unless he really needed to. He didn't dare follow us, I could see that much as I tried to angle my head to find Bob behind us but my father continued to push me forward.

"Don't look back, Frank. Don't give him the pleasure of seeing you fall." I could sense there was more, there was something about Bob that he was keeping from me. I could hear it in his voice, thick with anger, thick with disappointment, whether it was in himself, or in Bob, or in me I didn't know.

A cloud of confusion was storming above my head. I was exhausted, and while my vision wasn't perfect, the outside seemed to fold in on itself, I felt claustrophobic somehow, like the world was closing in on me. The sky was clear that night, that's all I could remember, and I looked up, closed my left eye and watched as the world sharpened. It was so clear that night, no smog in the city, that I could have sworn I could even make out the lines of the grid of Level 2 slowly floating so far above our heads. The world was smaller now, not so infinite as it had felt before. And I seemed to become an even smaller part in it. I was trying to imagine what I would look like with a filtered mask. Those ran pretty expensive, at least a few thousand carbons, and we had already blown all my money on getting lights and some gas in the apartment.

I was tired, but my mind was far away, spiraling downward, and I was thinking of what the rest of my life would look like. A wheelchair maybe. No physical exercise probably. Administering my own injections when I was having another fit, or would I be able to help myself? Maybe one day would I be awake and aware during an attack and watch myself go into shock, stop breathing?

You were blue.

What had I done wrong? What had my father done wrong? Had other people ever had attacks like this? Why had we never heard of this before? What was going on between my father and Bob?

You turned blue, Frank.

I was exhausted, could barely carry up my small frame, and I think my father was talking to me but I didn't hear anything. My father cried so much tonight, and he looks like he's holding more back now. Why was he coming home later and later? Why had he stopped wearing short sleeves, even on the hottest days? What would our relationship become now? Was he just going to be my caretaker? I shivered in my scraps of a shirt I held on to.

You were fucking blue, Frank. What the fuck was he supposed to do?

We were at the door.

We were in my bedroom.

I was in my small bed, the one I hadn't slept in for years. It was dusty. The blankets were scratchy.

He held me close, his rough hands wiping a tear from my eye, one that I didn't know was falling, and whispered something to me, barely loud enough to hear.

"I think it's a good idea that you stay with you Aunt Laura for a while. They're all the way on Level 3, where is air is healthier. I'll pack your things. You'll leave tomorrow morning at the first lift phase."

"But what about you?"

"Don't worry, I'll-I'll be fine. Once we can afford a mask for you, we will get it. But until then, well, you'll stay with the Duns, and I'll see if Level 3 has a special hospital or something for you to go to."

"I don't want to leave. I want to stay with you."

"We don't have a choice, Frank. I can't afford the medication the medic says you need. I already pinned Aunt Laura and she is getting a bed ready for you there. You can attend school with Josh, you guys are just about the same age, he's a year younger than you, and I know you haven't seen him since the Level Immigration Ban, but I've ordered your Visa to be updated which should be done by the time you leave." He sighs, looking at me with his worn eyes. "Now get some sleep. That's the end of this discussion. I love you, kid."

I remember at this point my mouth opened, but it couldn't seem to make a sound. It couldn't make words out of the many that were stuck, pinned to the walls in my head. I would let those words wait, I would let them rot, I would not let my father down.

Don't look back, Frank.

The door closed.

"I love you too, dad."

And I went back to that black place once again. This time though, it was head first.

Chapter Text

I couldn't say it back then, or admit it to myself, but I couldn't cry that black night, or the equally as black morning the next day. I can't honestly say with confidence that I fell into any sort of relaxed state that could be considered sleep the previous night, but my body still rose in the morning, still packed the four ripped shirts I owned and peeled off the tatters of a shirt that I had worn all night. I still had my pants on too, some black pants that had been worn every day for the past three years, I hadn't grown much since then, but I had ripped them in both knees and they hung lifeless off my skinny legs that morning, and I tightened my belt as tight as it could go. I picked up my shoes delicately, if I even grabbed them too quickly the whole sole would separate and I'd already used up so many adhesive bottles on the repair.

I know the school that Josh and his siblings go to is Catholic, so I'm honestly hoping I can get a uniform. In normal circumstances, I'd hate wearing a uniform and fitting in, but I'd rather have some uncomfortable tight shoes than mine where I have to shuffle because picking up my foot will make my shoe fall apart. Maybe if I'm lucky the uniform will fit, it won't be two sizes too small or large, like when my father searches in the boys section to find clothes for me. Either that or he goes and tries to find any shirt that's been thrown on the street and has holes for my arms.

I felt guilty about something, but I couldn't figure out what it was. I shrugged off the feeling and tried to shove as many little gears and wire as would fill my ripped backpack, hunching under its weight. Then I stood at the doorway to my room, my father was already gone for work or maybe to the bars it had been difficult to tell the difference for the past few years, either way he turned up late, his hair poking up in all directions and smelling like his cheap cigarettes.

Would this be my last time leaving my home? Would I ever return to my father, or the Second Level ever again? Why hadn't my father at least stayed to say goodbye? What was happening between him and Bob? Each question made my stomach turn in unease. I had no answers. I didn't even know what the fuck was wrong with me. I had been given a few pieces that fit together, but it felt like wading through a mess of information all on my own.

I sigh, exit my room, thinking back to just a few years ago when I was installing our security droid and now it just chirped in the corner, quietly whistling to itself happily in some strange robotic melody. The light of its sensor goes from blue to green.

"I'm never gonna be able to rewire you little shit anymore, so be nice to my father, okay? If you don't he'll just pull you little fucker out of the wall, no remorse." It just continued to look through the room. "But if anyone comes for him, beep your motherfucking heart out, kid." Its light blinked for a second, almost like it was processing what I was saying. But I knew I was basically talking to a bot with the developmental status of the cactus withering above our sink. I opened my mouth, like there might have been something more to say, but I stop myself. I coughed instead, a raw and scratchy cough. I was slightly shaken after the coughing fit, but I shook it off and practically took a running start to the door. I grabbed the loose handle, and with one more shallow breath, I stepped outside into the dense morning air.

The sun never rose on my ascension day. It was a gray day as days usually were on the second level. I could only see about three blocks ahead of me, everything past that was unclear, covered in the familiar smog I had grown up with.

I spent the whole day trying to remind myself how to breathe. I tried to count in between my inhale and exhales but it was impossible to even hold my breath. There wasn't any air in my lungs and I tried to push, tried through my mouth and my nose and I just felt lightheaded.

What also hurt was knowing that I didn't get to say goodbye to my father, or maybe he just didn't want to say goodbye. It was the infamous Frank Anthony Iero goodbye, which was none. I pinned him a few times that morning, even tried to call him, but not only did he not respond but it seemed that he was out of service. Being out of service wasn't really uncommon, but in the past few years the Second Level Broadcast System had been working to get more civilians on the grid and documented.

Some establishments had been able to block the service signal to mild success, and there was a twist in my gut along with the scratch of my throat. I had never really known what my father's job was. I didn't know who he worked for or when because most days he was bedridden, always sleeping. And I would have to be half crazy to even ask him, I'd made that mistake one too many times. I just sat down and shut up and kept a good towel when he came home with a new bruise and a concussion.

"Welcome to Pink Station Zero," a soft automated voice said above me. "Please stand forward and present your identification."

I stood forward and watch the machine wrap around my head and eyes. Inside it I was flooded in a red light, until a few lights blinked and the voice inside my head, the voice that was still my father's said, "Holo-lens Identification complete." The bubble then popped and I could see a short pretty woman in front of me, all smiles.

"Frank Anthony Iero Jr., identified. Is this a leisure trip or a business trip?"

"Uh, it's more of a hospitalization trip, but I don't know exactly how you'd classify that."

Her eyes went wide, in embarassment I think, and the smile on her face immediately fell. "I'm sorry that you found yourself in a situation like this. I'll put it under the classification 'Other'. I think that will work. Have you ever ridden on a lift alone before, Frank?" She stood behind a glass capsule desk, wearing a black uniform.

I shook my head.

"Alright, well, on each level there are four lifts. You've got Pink Station Zero, Red Station One, Blue Station Two, and Green Station Three." She smiled. She waved her hand and a large pink door rose from the ground to the right of her, multiple locks unlocking simultaneously. "It's probably pretty obvious that you're at Pink Station Zero. This is the single person lift. Do you think you'll be comfortable being alone? The ride is about 2 and a half hours." She sounded slightly apologetic, actually sincere, or maybe she could just see the misery on my face.

"Yeah, that'll be fine for me. Thank you."

She nodded, eyebrows knit in concentration, "Okay, so long as you're sure..." She flicked her hand and it brought up the carbons count in my vision. The glowing number 1,000 carbons light up, and I immediately found myself panicked. My father and I both didn't have that type of money, but before I could say anything, the counter went to 0 and said in blue underneath: PAID IN FULL.

"Oh, it looks like your lift has already been paid for. That's a nice treat for you, huh?" She looked hopeful, it almost made me uncomfortable looking into her bright eyes.

I coughed in response.

"All...alright then. You're all cleared so just step to the left and knock on the door." I started to step forward, when I heard a little whine come from her. "And Frank? I hope you start to feel better."

"Me too." I knocked on the door and watched my step as I got on the rickety lift. The door immediately closed behind me with a rattle. I fell down then, so out of breath, but I hadn't noticed the whole time I was talking to the girl. And I hadn't really coughed around her until the end. Maybe if I focused then I wouldn't cough so much. Maybe I could learn to hold them in, it was probably impossible, maybe a little harmful, but I already hated the way people looked at me when I coughed and I had only been bad for like one day. After my coughing fit passed and a few dry heaves, I finally examined the lift I had been locked into.

I hadn't started moving yet, but the lift was already swaying, probably the magnets weren't perfectly equally holding it up from years of use with no maintenance. Father used to say that was the worst part of life on the Second Level, we didn't really get the care we needed. He had proved to be right yesterday when I practically choked on my own vomit. It still shook me, knowing that my life was seriously in danger just a few eight hours ago and now I didn't know when it would happen again, and now I was locked into a small box that was probably 7 feet tall and three feet across, I could barely lock my knees and fully extend my arms as I hugged onto myself. I imagined the third level, all its bare streets, it's green lawns, and the Pink Station Zero lift opening while all the Duns were there waiting for me, and the doors would open and I would be dead inside, blue faced.

It was an ugly thought, and I was immediately repulsed and gagged a little. How could I even think like that? My heart rate was already increasing, I could feel that much and I tried to take deep breaths. The floor was shaking more, and my heart dropped.

Then I heard a gruff male voice, a recording of some sort, say, "Elevator going up!" And the lift jerked for a moment, my head hit the floor, and then slowly, it began its descent upward.

The image of the wall glitched above me, and suddenly a man with a gaudy blond pompadour in a metallic suit sat in a pink chair, another pink seat sat next to him empty. I frowned, my lip curled.

"Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Pink Station Zero! This episode, we have a great setlist of guests that range all the way to pure strain Level One humans to a few famous bot fighter and their bots." I can't help but focus in on his dark mustache, what with his hair so blond. He's even holding a few pink queue cards, with a big P and an exclamation point on the back in white. "Our first topic, however is titled, "Before the Zones." Recently, some artifacts from The Place Down Below were swept up by the hazmat droids including an old ray gun and a white mask. BLind scientists have been able to identify these artifacts as belonging to the infamous terrorist group known as the Killjoys before their extermination in 2019. These digital composites show what those items looked like back in the days of the Killjoy Revolution. Let's take a look at them now."

A 3d hologram of the ray gun popped into my vision, and I tried to wave it away, but was unable, the hologram kept bouncing back. I don't know why it wanted to show me a fucking ray gun that was practically now a piece of junk, but no, it stayed there, the green gun decorated in worn stickers and some graffiti type monster. Two white lightning bolts ran across the sides and the word 'HORROR' was half scratched off but still readable. "This ray gun, which as we all know usually come in white, was painted green by the arsonist and criminal Fun Ghoul and was requisitioned after his extermination by the top most hitman of the SCARECROWs back in his time." I sniggered a little bit at the name Fun Ghoul, I'm wondering now if this guy went around knowing his name means Go Fuck Yourself in Italian slang. I couldn't have chosen a better name myself. This guy kind of sounds like a riot, I think, trying to focus back into what the metallic prick is saying. "The ray gun is still fully operational, but has an unstable nuclear core, and is being held in a facility for maximum safety protocol. Now let's move on to the mask."

Ok if I thought the first one was bad, this was so much fucking worse. It's fucking yellow. What kind of a terrorist guy thinks, "Oh, you know what's intimidating? Fucking yellow." Not only that, it had three sparkly blue circles next to each eye and then in the middle of the forehead. It'd also got black diamonds painted next to the eyes. Wow. Whoever wore this must have been a little bit of an attention whore. Now the green gun was kinda cool, I mean ray guns are awesome and the fact that it was designed and painted by that guy was cool. It had its own flare to it, but this mask, like no thank you, I would not want to be a part of a gang with a person wearing that.

"This yellow mask belonged to Party Poison, the leader of the Killjoys."

"The fucking leader? What the hell type of terrorists or people on the run wear bright green and yellow?"

"These are the only existing images of the Killjoys left. Here they are exiting a convenience store where they were loading up on Power Pup before heading back to those mean desert streets. From left to right we have Jet Star, the Kobra Kid, Party Poison, and Fun ghoul, respectively." Ok, it's no surprise all these guys got exterminated. Everyone except for Jet Star is in bright colors, like they're begging for BLind to kill them.

But it did make me wonder, how could some weird campy group of guys be labelled as terrorists and be a threat to all of BLind? I can't even imagine these guys getting away with many things or committing any major crimes. But to have BLind up their asses and even a SCARECROW planted on them? That's fucking cool.

Not only does Fun Ghoul have a great name though, his outfit was pretty sick. He'd got a good amount of black on which I could get along with, and a yellow striped shirt, which I guessed I could forgive, at least on him, and an olive green army looking vest. He was also absolutely covered in tattoos, the ink sprawling down his neck and across his arms. But the part that really got me was he had the same ember greenish eyes as me with the band of brown in the center. My father had always told me those kinds of eyes were really special, and they weren't modified, they were just our natural Iero eyes.

This Party Poison guy on the other hand, oh God. Neon red hair. Shiny pleather blue jacket with patches and stripes of red and white. White pants so worn that they were stained brown from the dust. I found myself hoping he was a better leader than he was a dresser. And yellow isn't even in his outfit! Why does he have the yellow mask? Who the fuck is this guy anyway.

After I came out of my fashion-induced rage, I sighed, and the crawling fears leapt back inside me. I scratched at my black short hair until I felt something warm and I opened my hand, realizing I had made my head bleed again. So I dug my hand out of my hair and stuffed it into my pocket, huffing. I hadn't thought before then to really look around the lift, first I'd been too surprised we were even moving and then too interested in learning about these Killjoy guys.

Well, the first thing to know about it was it was snug. And I was a short guy, so me saying it was snug meant that it probably felt suffocating to other people. But the small lift was made a lot more cramped by the graffitied walls, tagged with phrases like "lola was here" and the words "ham damage", for some reason? What even is a ham. Anyway, the walls were covered, ceiling to floor, no space in between, and it was hard to even be able to identify the walls as at one point being painted pink. Ugh, pink. Pink was even worse than yellow, and Aunt Laura loved pink. It made it a little difficult to stand anywhere near her, or in her house. And now, shit, I could only hope they wouldn't put me in the spare room with the pink walls. Maybe she'd keep that just for punishment or something.

But I felt like I was forgetting something, like something important...what was it? It had something to do with the lift ride....

Who the fuck paid for my lift?

Oh fuck.

Aunt Laura.

By this point she would know I was on the lift, and she was probably already pissed that I hadn't sent her a thank you yet. Fuck.

I sent a ping to her, editing the message a few times so it sounds the least sarcastic as it can be read, because if it could be read that way, she will read it that way.

Hi Aunt Laura. I'd like to thank you for paying for the lift fee for me up into the Third Level. I'm looking forward to seeing all you guys and staying with you. Frank.

But then her icon got large and I gasped, realizing she was about to video call me. Shit. I straightened my hair and shirt a little, and right before it went to voicemail, I answered, in my peppiest voice I could muster.

"Hi, Aunt Laura!" My voice was a little more shaky than I'd have liked it to be.

"Oh, Frank!" She exclaimed. She looked a little repulsed if I'm honest. "You look like you've had a long day, honey. How much sleep did you get last night? How are you feeling after the incident? Why are you wearing a ripped up shirt, oh Frank, you know that won't do. And your hair! Oh goodness, it's sticking up in every direction, and babyhaveyoulostsomeweightyoulookso--"

"--Aunt Laura!" I waved her to silence, shutting my eyes tight. Jesus. I'm going to be living with this. "One question at a time. And yes, I am very tired and very hungry, I hope you're planning something really good for dinner tonight. I'm feeling okay, obviously exhausted but I'll be fine. Are all you guys coming to pick me up from the lift?"

She blinked a little, a surprised little face, and then she settles, her face a little guilty. "Well me and Bill and the girls are going to see Jordan, you know he's in his little leagues baseball game today but Josh will be home doing his homework and practicing his trumpet for mass on Sunday. I'll set him and ANRI to come pick you up. It's just a few blocks of a walk to our house from there."

"Oh so you guys don't have a battery bike or a Tesla Wagon?"

She shook her head. "Heavens no we don't have a battery bike! We have two wagons, but Josh isn't going to drive until he turns 18 and has perfect grades, and the same goes for you, young man."

"Of course, ma'am."

"Oh, and one more thing, Frank. Did your dad walk you over to the station or did you walk alone?"

"I walked alone, ma'am."

She was obviously offended by that answer, and didn't try to hide it. "That brother of mine. And to think he let you, a sixteen year old walk alone on the second level!"

"Well, I walk alone a lot, ma'am. He's usually hard at work, as you know."

She was shaking her head again, crossing her arms. "I hope he is, Frank. I don't want him messing up on being a father to the only kid he's got! But don't worry, we will take such great care for you here. I've got ANRI making the guest bed up for you with new sheets. She's a really great helper, a little blessing to us. Also, ANRI should be picking up your uniform for school on Saturday, you'll start on Monday, so long as you're okay with that."

"Yes, ma'am, that'll work for me."

"Great. Okay, I've got to get back to work. I'll see you soon Frank!" She waved to me, and before I could say goodbye, she was gone. I exhaled a shaky breath.

I then made the mistake of opening my eyes as I was looking down. I stood and watched through the grease smeared glass as I ascended slowly, but every moment inching further away from the second level. I watched, all I could do was watch as all that I had ever known of world, everything I had known in my life, slowly faded into the gray smog. The higher I got, the sky faded from the opaque gray clouds into a black, starred sky, and I spent a good amount of time just looked at the stars. I don't think I'd ever seen them in person look that clear. They always looked like big clumsy things, but here they were small, little holes cut in the sky.

And when the door opened I barely noticed because I was still looking up. But I jumped a little, as I brought my head down and right into the face of my cousin. He had the same eyes as me too, smaller then mine though, his practically disappeared when he smiled that big dopey smile at me. Curly, dark brown hair and a slightly crooked nose. He was pretty much the same height as me too, so was his mom, us Ieros tended to be a little short, but Josh was really the only Dun that had a little Iero in him. All his other siblings were dark hair dark eyes. But Josh had a Dun personality. Josh was his own walking piece of fucking sunshine. Most of the time he was so happy it kind of pissed me off. And right at that moment, locking eyes with that face, I kinda wanted to punch the smile off of him, ask him why he was so goddamn happy.

"Welcome home, Frank!"

He was so goddamn happy that day.

Chapter Text

It's probably not too hard to believe that after a solid ten minutes of Josh talking at me—not to me or ANRI—I wasn't really living up to my saintly potential and so while he was talking to me, at me, about the exact blue shade of baseball jersey that Jordan wore and how it had changed a few years ago to a subtly different blue no one noticed except for Josh. Josh was really weird, he had a really strange memory. He remembered things like the exact date of when he had broken his arm when I came to visit when we were little kids. He kept things too, he must have seemed somewhat like a lunatic, his walls were suffocated behind BLind posters, images of outer space, he'd always loved space for some reason, and The Constitutional Rights of the Zone. Like when he heard that astronauts used to exist, he cried for a few days knowing the space program had been completely shut down, and he'd never be able to see an alien. Josh had grown like that, from a child to a more eccentric, zany teenager, full of random facts no one wanted to know, but yet everyone liked him. It would have to take a real asshole to not like Josh Dun. He was fairly decent at everything too, smart enough, nice enough, religious enough, knew enough about the trumpet to be in the high school band. Possibly the worst trait Josh had carried into his teen years, and even into adulthood, believe me, I'm living with the guy so I fucking know what I'm talking about—Josh never really frowned. His default thinking face, his 'frown' was still a slightly upturned smile. And when he was really smiling or laughing for that matter, his eyes scrunched up in a way that was both dorky and charming. So being next to Josh, the always kind, always appropriate and universally liked is a little difficult for a no good punk like myself who's only real interest are bots and trying to stay alive while nursing myself and an alcoholic father back to health, this would be strange. I was very rarely decent much less charming, to this day I have to try much harder than Josh, because everything just comes to him so naturally. And if trouble comes his way, he 'prays' about it, and lets an upper power give him strength. Jesus Christ. I'm gonna need some tranquilizers to even just interact with this family. With this family that will very quickly come to realize that I am here to feed off their wealth, and I won't do them any good, if slander the Iero name, and that's if I'm being careful. If I'm not being careful, well, it's much more than the Iero reputation that will be damaged. I can't seem to come into contact with a wall without putting a hole in it, and I was famous on the second Level for both my security droids and how often I started gas fires in our little apartment.

It's like there's a voice in my head, booring into my brain, that's already saying, "There's no home for you here. You'd be better off dead or homeless. You aren't worth the hassle you'll bring to this family." And between all of those thoughts and Josh explaining why so often the sun didn't rise on the Third Level, well I was ready to give up. So I stopped walking midstep, and lowered my foot that was up, ready to take the next step, down back onto the perfectly shining ground.

It wasn't for a few steps that Josh noticed, he had been staring straight ahead at the perfect row of houses, ANRI walking opposite of him, her little feet making no noise whatsoever. This ANRI didn't seem to like to talk at all, and in my time in the Dun house, I would often forget she existed. But eventually, Josh realized something was missing, and turned his head awkwardly, slowly, to see me standing there, looking up at the black, starless sky.

"What's up, Frank?" He asked, inquisitively.

"You can't make me do it," I whispered so quietly, my breath all escaping at once.

"What was that?"

"You can't fucking make me, I don't, I don't want this, I want to go back to the Second Level I know it'll be a slow agonizing death but I'd rather face that then have to live with you and your perfect fucking family, Josh. Fuck!" I yelled into the night air, to which Josh jumped. At least one light went on in a house, some drew their curtains. Josh shushed me.

"What are you doing, Frank?" He hissed, running over to me.

"I already hate it here. I want to go back. I'll go live on the streets. I'll run away, I swear to God I will."

He nodded, putting his hands out in defense, or maybe just compromise. "Okay, Frank, but if you were going to run away, wouldn't you have done it already?"

"I'll run away in the middle of the night." I offered.

Josh shook his head. "Won't work. ANRI will catch you before you can close the gate door. She hooked up to all of our holo-lenses. It's impossible to leave this house. You're stuck with us Frank."

"What if I start running right now?"

He frowned, shifting his weight, balancing and holding one arm on ANRI's shoulder, she was looking at something blankly over the horizon, far past us. "Maybe I'd be merciful and give you a five minute head start. Might be enough time for you to get back to the Station. But, you don't have any money on you, and ANRI will never tire; even if you kept running she could find you. I don't think the fugitive lifestyle would fit you. Especially with your lungs being in the condition they are." He checked his shoe, threw a little pebble out of it. We both watched it fly out of sight.

I shook my head, little needle pricks of tears forming in my eyes. "No. But I can't even fight. I don't have a choice—this is my life—and I didn't get a fucking vote. My opinion, my perspective, doesn't matter. My father just saw me getting too sick—too sick for him to handle—and he just dumped me on you guys. I'm sorry, I'm--"

My eyes were shut but I felt Josh wrap his arms around me. I was crying into his shoulder, and he was holding me like nothing else existed. We stood there for a few moments, then he let go first. I shallowed the rest of my sobs, and wiped away the tears with a dirty sleeve.

"You know what? Let's go for a little walk, Frank. Remember that park we used to always go to?"

I nodded wordlessly, one hand still up to my snotty face.

"They've added some new natural trees. Sure, they aren't as strong as the artificial ones, but maybe we can see if we can climb one, like when we were kids."

"When...we...were...kids...you broke your arm falling out of one of those trees, Josh, I thought you'd never want to do something like that ever again."

"Well, yeah, I didn't like the falling part, but a part of me still wants to climb, despite knowing I could fall, break an arm, maybe even more bones. These natural trees are really tall, Frank. And full of really pretty leaves." He was already guiding me down the delicately lit street, every front yard decorated with a different shade of flower, mostly roses from what I could tell of it, and perfect looking white fences. Most of the houses were white, with overspilling ivy wrapping around certain windows, softening the hard angles of each roof. There was a slight breeze, and a few clouds overhead. Real clouds. Not smog clouds. It hadn't occurred to me earlier, but my lungs did already feel much better, it wasn't a labor to breathe and I found that I wasn't needing to monitor my breaths either.

I prayed to some nameless god, or maybe some cosmic energy, or whatever the fuck though it was a good idea to bring me into sentience, and I said a silent prayer. Maybe help me so this won't totally suck and that the Duns are kind to me. I hoped soon enough that I would just be another face in the Third Level crowd, not some awkward outsider without a purpose or real reason for being here. Sure, I was here to get better, to stop being sick. But then that made me think, what happens to the people on the Second Level who get sick from the smog who can't afford to go to Level Three for treatment? Do they just die slowly? My heart already ached for those sodden streets, the dirt floors, the lights of the city at nighttime. This place, this road was cobblestoned, These streetlights actually worked, there were no battery bikes, no Maxers out of the prowl for a hit of RedEye. It was clean. When we passed by couples, or night walkers, they would just say Hello to us. On the Second Level, you weren't even supposed to cough in a person's direction unless you wanted you teeth kicked in.

"Do you think you'll be okay, Frank?" Josh coughed out after a few minutes of us walking in silence.

I wanted to say yes, but a part of me held on, caught the words in my throat. "I don't know. So long as we can figure out what's wrong with me and get that solved, I think maybe someday I'll be okay. But I. uh, I already hate this place, Josh. I mean, what the hell did I do to deserve all of this?"

Josh just sighed. "I don't think I can even guess. I guess all I can say is don't do anything stupid that you'll live to regret tonight, okay, Frank? I know it's a tall order coming from me, but remember this isn't coming out of a place of threat. You're my favorite cousin, you're my only cousin honestly, and I don't want to destroy your chances of starting a good life here just because you miss the garbage heap that is the Second Level."

I began to think of something to say back to him, but Josh was at least probably mostly right. "I'll have to go to that stupid Catholic school, won't I? I'll have to wear a uniform, care what my hair looks like, probably stop cursing. I won't be able to get out of that."

"No, probably not." Josh agreed.

We both stopped then. The road had dead ended into a circle of green grass, and in the large circle stood three trees. Each was hanging tall above us with a strong trunk and leaves of a few thousand different shades. They stood so high above all the artificial plants, something very regal about how they didn't glow, just as the lights caught in each little leaf, the whole tree dancing in the light breeze.

"Here, give your pack to ANRI, she'll hold it for you," Josh said, sliding it off my back. I instantly felt ten pounds lighter, rubbing my sore shoulders as ANRI took all the weight on, not even blinking.

"You know, Frank," his eyes never moved from looking at the largest tree in the center. "I understand a lot of people aren't as optimistic as I am, and I'm trying not to be too preachy here, but I do honestly believe everything happens for a reason. And you might say that there's nothing up there past the atmosphere, nothing but sky that fades into space, a literal vacuum. But I can't help but think there's got to be something above us, something below us. Something more beautiful and altogether more terrifying than what any of can even fathom, and that force, that thing, that's what guides us, what keeps us in place. It's not a male spirit, like any of that Catholic crap tells you. And that thing isn't out to get anyone, really. It just keeps us in check, laying a path out before us and not really telling us to go right or left, North or south. It lets us do the choosing."

I was stretching my back fully now, feeling my muscles wake up slowly, as Josh started up the closest tree. "I don't mean to interrupt your monologuing here Josh, I really don't, but what the fuck does this have to do with me? Also you promised this wouldn't get too preachy and you're dangerously straddling that line."

"Hm." He grunted while ascending the tree, it bended under his weight. I stepped aside a little, thinking of how much he howled in pain back when he broke his arm when he was little. I felt little in that moment. Josh was ready to explore, to go on adventures, to maybe hurt himself, and I stood there, next to a supervising lifeless bot and watched him climb the tree. My hands shook, so I put one in my pocket and let the other scratch my head. "Well you know preachiness is unavoidable. I might be half Iero, but I'm also half Dun, and us Duns are preachers. I'll just try to cut out the fire and brimstone for you."

"I'd appreciate that." I responded, eyes to the ground, staring at the various shades of green of the grass, the orange hues of the falling leaves. I had forgotten that real trees shed their leaves in the fall.

"Maybe, Frank," he was panting a little by this point, maybe seven feet off the ground with no stop in sight, "you should give up your problems to God. Pray over things. But don't let life just continue around you. You deserve some excitement. The tree to the right looks a lot easier to climb—come on up here!"

"I'd rather not, Josh."

"Why not?" He stopped, one leg hung down as he was delicately placed on a branch. He wiped his nose on his sleeve.

"Because I don't want to get hurt."

"I'll make sure you don't fall. C'mon Frank! You can't just sit out on life."

"No, Josh, it's not about falling," My throat was closing up about then, and I tried to take some deep breaths, I could feel my heartbeat skipping beats and running.

"Well then what is it?"

"It's, ugh, well, it's just I don't think I could--"

"What? It's what?" He interrupted, a quizzical look on his face.

"Josh, no, I just don't want to do it, okay?." I whispered, cutting off the last two words.

"Why not?"

"Because."

"Because why?"

"BECAUSE I CAN'T FUCKING BREATHE, JOSH, OKAY?!" I spat out, and then kind of recoiled only after what I had said. "I just, okay, I'm sorry, I just don't know if I'll ever be able to climb a tree again or do anything, but dad was saying last night I might even be confined to a wheelchair if my lungs get any worse, I'm just, I'm scared, okay?"

Josh was climbing down then, the most sad look on his face. God, I hated his face, one of pity. I didn't want pity, I just wanted him to understand. "No, Frank, I get it, listen that was rude of me to say. I feel so bad now, I'm sorry."

"No, no," I shook my head. "No. I'm the one who blew up on you, I'm sorry, I'm a fucking idiot and all of this is just happening at once. I just, honestly, I don't think I know how to process all of this."

He nodded, his eyes looking straight into me. I felt a little uncomfortable in his extreme gaze. Josh was always so energetic, being the center of his attention made me want to squirm. "It's all right, Frank. We are going to be all right." Suddenly he looked at me in surprise, well actually more like looking past me, and his eyes widened in surprise, maybe fear.

"Crap. Um, we're late. Mom and Dad and Jordan and Ashley and Abby are home. We, ugh, I guess we'll just walk really fast." He grabbed my arm in a tight grip, and started sprinting, pulling me behind him. He stopped pretty quickly, saying something like "oops" and then we continued just walking quickly. Back past the cobblestone street, past the streetlights that actually worked, past each replica house, except maybe this neighbor had a blue door and this one a red door.

By the time we were in the doorway of Josh's house he was panting and I was wheezing so violently he forced me to sit down as he got me a glass of water. In a few moments, a shadow appeared behind me, and I looked in the doorway to see ANRI, her white hair lit up orange by the lightposts, and with the small wind, her hair looked ablaze. She had some weird type of artificial beauty, but not like most bots I had heard of. She had those terrible black eyes, and I could practically see the reflection of myself in them. Me, red faced, coughing, as I weakly grasped the armrest of the chair, clutching the transparent plastic. She stared at me for a moment, then stepped into the house; when she moved she did not bounce her head, her arms swung neatly at her sides, 15 degrees forward. Every movement was perfectly calculated.

"Frank?"

I jumped, hearing the voice behind me, and I turned to see a not so impressed Aunt Laura, Josh trailing behind her, carrying two large glasses of water and trying to focus his eyes on anything but me or his mother. I tried to get up, but I was still a little unsteady on my feet, and Josh ran over to me, placing both cups down and propping me up so I could at least look Aunt Laura in the face. She was frowning, arms crossed, biting her lip, probably to keep herself from yelling. She looked pretty pissed and I felt my heart rate quicken again.

"Hi, Aunt Laura. It's," I stopped to cough. "It's good to see you again." I tried for a smile, she did not reciprocate, her gaze did not break.

"Mhm." Then she turned to Josh. "Joshua?"

He perked up, standing straight. "Yes, mom?"

"When were you supposed to have Frank home?"

"We said 9, right?"

"Right. Do you know what time it is?"

I checked my pinboard, and yep, it was 9:22. Twenty-two minutes late, that meant nothing in the Iero household. I didn't know what that meant in the Dun household.

"Twenty-two minutes late, Josh. You had us all worried. You were supposed to pin your father or me when you picked up Frank, remember?"

He gasped. "Oh, crap, sorry mom I forgot. It, it won't happen again."

"Well, you're right there. Because you're grounded, Josh. Get upstairs to you room. No pinning, no holo-lens."

"Mom!" He exclaimed, his hands went up in the air but from the look on Laura's face you knew he was in for deep shit if he said anything else, so he stopped almost immediately. "For how long?"

"We will see. Your father and I will discuss it. If you watch your mouth, probably just the night. But you say another word, Joshua William Dun, and you have no access for a week and no hanging out with friends. So choose your words carefully. ANRI will deliver your dinner to you in a few minutes."

By this point I dared to look over at Josh, his mouth was agape, and he promptly shut it. "Yes mom." He started to ascend the staircase to get to his room.

"Josh?" She called to him, making direct and unceasing eye contact with me, this time her voice was a little sweeter, but that definitely made it worse. "Say goodnight to Frank."

"Goodnight, Frank." Then Josh walked up the stairs, defeated, and I was left without a friend, without an ally, staring into Aunt Laura's eyes, and if I thought Josh was difficult to look at, at least he was nice and fun. Looking at Aunt Laura was like when you're little and you go to the zoo and one of the artificial lions stares you down, looking for some artificial prey. But at least now I was steady on my feet. I heard his door slam, and her look went from cold to relieved. She smiled, her eyes crinkling the same way Josh's did. Now I was really unsure of what was happening.

"Frankie, sweetie," She grasped my arm, leading me to a dinner table in the next room. The table was large, wooden, real wood with wooden chairs and cushions on each seat. A large light fixture shone light on each corner of the room. Four sets of dark eyes met mine as Aunt Laura guided me into a seat at the head of the table.

In front of me sat an incredible spread, I couldn't even identify some of the bright colorful fruits and produce in front of me, and it smelled so decadent my stomach rumbled. Everyone's plates were scraped clean, so I guess me and Josh really had turned up late. I felt a little guilty at that, I mean, it was my fault we were late, but I couldn't tell if the pit in my stomach was unease, guilt, or hunger. Maybe it was all three. So I took the plate they put in front of me, being really careful to not shake the ceramic plate, I couldn't imagine how much any of this cost. Or any of their other decorations, the house was littered with Baseball awards from Jordan, some pictures of Josh playing the trumpet, Ash with an award from the literary magazine.

As soon as I was handed some utensils, I was still a little shaky with everything other than a knife, I ate with gusto. It was only when I was practically done eating that I looked up to see all those eyes still staring at me.

"You sure are hungry, aren't you Frank?" Bill scoffed, somewhere in between impressed and frightened at how quickly I ate.

I just nodded. "We didn't really have much to eat at our place, but thank you so much for having a plate for me."

"Does Uncle Frank not feed you?" Jordan was pretty small, probably 12 or something, and just kept getting more rowdy the older he got.

"Uh, well he does the best he can," I tried to respond, but my voice wavered.

"I mean, he is pretty skinny, isn't he Ash?" I hear Abby whisper in her sister's ear.

"Shut up, Abby." The second oldest Dun hissed to her little sister.

"Ash, language! Abby, Jordan, you know that's not kind things to say." Aunt Laura gasped. "Of course, we do want to take good care of you here, Frank. Your father, my brother, bless his heart, you two have had to go through so much alone, no mother, no nothing, and we will respect his wishes and treat you like one of our own, won't we Jordan?" She looked over to the child, playing with the peas on his plate.

"Yes, mom," He grumbled.

"Good." She settled back into her chair, examining her clean plate.

"Wait, mom, what is that smell?" Ash asked, and then I did recognize the smell of something burning, we all smelled it, and Aunt Laura launched out of her chair.

"THE PIES! Oh goodness, I gave ANRI the night off to recharge, she would have remembered I'd put them back into the oven to warm up for Frank!" She ran to the oven, slipped a little on the newly polished floors, and out of the oven door came a billowing thick smoke.

"Oh dear! Bill, get the kids outside, Ash go get Josh, I'll meet you all outside!" She was shrieking as the clouds of smoke hit her in waves, and she was practically lost behind the dense fog. My vision got bad and the moment it hit my lungs I started coughing, which turned into gasping, and then I was being picked up like a sack over Uncle Bill. I guess they hadn't been able to train the fireman out of him at BLind's hospitals. He sprinted out the door, Jordan and Abby coughed behind us, but at least they were behind us.

My uncle sat me down on the lawn where I took a few more even breaths. He counted with me, breathing with me and I felt my heart rate return to it's normal fast pace.

Ash came out of the house then, she came from being in the cloud of smoke to the doorway within a fraction of seconds. She didn't cough, but her dyed red hair was slightly browned, maybe singed, and she looked pissed. Josh was less angry, just more surprised, his bright eyes looked wild, frightened, and still Aunt Laura hadn't come out of the house.

Uncle Bill examined the fire for a moment, he looked like he was making a serious decision. "I'm going in there. Ash, you alert the hazard bots, Josh stay with Frank and your baby siblings." Josh nodded, and Ash was immediately talking to the emergency station requesting some hazard bots

Josh sat down next to me, a small smile on his face.

"So I wonder if this means you're still grounded?" I coughed, wiping some stinging tears from my eyes.

"I'll be grounded no matter what, nothing can change Mom's rules, even if we are up against the apocalypse, whatever."

"They're on their way. It should be pretty soon now." Ash walked back to us, twirling her hair around her finger, grimacing. "Ugh, I just dyed this last week."

"You should stop dyeing your hair sis, it's gonna all fall out one day," Josh murmured, to which Ash gave him a middle finger. He just laughed at that. Ash huffed, turned to look down the street, and shook her head.

"Jordan, stop throwing rocks at Abby!" She yelled, exasperated, then under her breath, she walked towards the street, muttering, "The moment I graduate school, I'm leaving you all at this shit house I swear to God." Josh laughed at that too.

"Dude, you have a weird sense of humor." I picked some grass out of my shoes and flung it over at him. One stuck into his hair. He was busy drumming away at the lawn with two short sticks.

"Huh?"

"You have a hard time paying attention, don't you?"

"He shrugged. "Mom say it's more of a not listening and not remembering problem. She's constantly pinning me reminders, go here at this time, don't forget again, stuff like that. And, like, I read all her messages and all, but I still seem to just sweep them under the rug. She says I'm way too in the moment. I need to be aware of what's happening around me. She's always teeling me now, 'Josh, if you want to be a cop, you're gonna have to improve that memory of yours'," he gave his mom a funny midwestern accent along with it, and it's so ridiculous I giggled a little, which set off a small coughing fit.

Once I opened my eyes again, five or so bots were in the yard, grasping fire extinguishers in their thin metal hands. Josh helped me up just as one said in a hollow voice, "Please clear the way. Follow standard protocol. Scanning house for living beings. Two identified."

Just then, Uncle Bill and Aunt Laura burst out of the doorway, each supported each other until we were all on the street, Ash held Jordan and Abby's hands, Josh propped me up, and Uncle Bill and Aunt Laura embracing.

"Well, so much for a nice evening," Aunt Laura said, watching the house as smoke poured through the now open windows. "I'm pinning a few of the neighbors, it's too bad we have to wake them up, but we do need a place to stay. Oh! There's Patricia Stumph responding. She's just down the corner. She says she has three rooms for us. Hmm." She hummed. "Let's me a Bill take a room, the girls and Jordan can take one, and they have a son who needs to wake up early for school tomorrow too, so let's put Josh and Frank in a room with him. I think her son actually goes to the school you two are going to, so maybe you'll make a friend tonight!"

She hopped down the street, guiding us to a house that looked eerily familiar to the Dun's house. Three people waited outside, a mother and a short round guy, probably my age or a little older. He had orangish hair that seemed to stick up in the back, kind of like how mine did but his looked natural. Propped up on his wide nose were thick rimmed, big glasses. I hadn't ever seen a kid with glasses before, but they seemed to really suit him.

"Patricia, David, thank you so much," Aunt Laura hugged them both. She reached out the boy but he gave her a look and she recoiled, clearing her throat.

"This is my nephew Frank, he's going to be staying with us for a while." I shook both of the hands that were extended to me, and the orange haired boy diverted his gaze when I tried to look into his eyes. At least I knew what to avoid around this guy now.

"Well, I think he'll be going to school with Pat then, It's Belleville Trinity High, right?"

I took this as my time to answer. "Yeah, I'm starting there tomorrow."

"Oh, I'm sorry, Frank, you won't have a uniform the first day, but in a day or so ANRI should pick it up. Oh, Bill, ANRI!" She suddenly exclaimed, remembering about the domestic bot. "We left her behind!"

"We can get a new one, sweetie," Bill patted her shoulder.

...

The Stumph's house was pretty much the exact same as the Dun's place, but the air was filled with the sound of stringy instrumental plucking and a crooning sort of voice.

"You'll have to excuse us, my husband was a folk singer and was always playing his music from the moment his eyes open to the second his head hits the pillow, we're still trying to pack up his things." Patricia pointed over to a corner of boxes, DAVID written in scrawly frazzled writing on the side of each in pen. She guided us through a few rooms, each decorated with trophies and elaborately carved wooden instruments, I felt a sudden urge to pluck at a few of them, but held myself back. Then I had to hold Josh back as we entered a room with a set of full drums. Patricia stopped in that room, and as she talked, we could hear the reverberations along the skins of the drums.

"This is Patrick's room, he's not supposed to play until after he finishes homework, and he has a curfew, so he shouldn't bother you tonight." Patrick hung back behind his mom, a glare from his glasses made it difficult to see his greenish blue eyes.

"Well, I guess we'll leave the three of you boys alone then," Aunt Laura smiled, waving at me and then closing the door, leaving me and Josh with the very awkward Patrick Stumph.

He didn't make eye contact with us but pointed to a door on his right. "That's the bathroom. I have Jazz Band rehearsal tomorrow morning, and as Josh knows, we need to get our sleep to be ready for Zero Hour. You two can either share the bed or not, it's okay. I'll, uh, I'll just sleep on the floor." And just like that he exited, going to the bathroom, and Josh and I stared at each other for a few moments.

"Well so much for a Welcome Home, Frank." I sighed.

"It could be worse." Josh just shrugged.

"Okay, how could it be worse, Josh?"

"I don't know, I just know that's something you're supposed to say when things are really messed up."

Josh was definitely right about everything being messed up. Fucked up in fact.

Chapter Text

I should have read in between the fucking lines, but like the idiot I constantly prove to be, I didn't. I should have thought it through, or maybe I should have just ran away like I had promised Josh because school sucked immediately and ceaselessly. For a short while I was "Josh Dun's Cousin" but when I got detention within the first week of school for an altercation that was definitely not my fault, then I became "The Locker Boy" after some guys found out I was the perfect size to fit into a locker. Then shortly after that I became "Biter Iero" when I bit some guy and jokingly hissed at him to stay away from me after he stole my inhaler from the research hospital they kept me cooped up in during the weekends. My condition seemed a little better; I could at least attempt to run now which was good news for me but I couldn't run for more than a half a minute which was good news for everyone that seemingly had a personal vendetta against me.

Home sucked too. I wasn't allowed to do any mechanical work or mess with droids or go to the hardware store until all my homework was done, and all of those had to be supervised by an adult, so I was constantly watched by either my aunt and uncle or ANRI and as much as I hated my extended family watching me, it was even worse to think about the few hundred eyes that were probably looking through ANRI's.

Between the hospital, shitty school and shitty home life, only a few things kept me encouraged: Josh, when we were allowed to talk, the nicotine patches I got from the weird kid at school, McCracken, and the electrical closet in room B182.

I had accidentally stumbled in there once, I think I was drunk off my ass (McCracken also supplied booze on certain lucky occasions) and trying to hide from one of the nuns, something like that. So I ended up in the electrical closet, which as it turned out, was way larger than I had anticipated.

There were maybe three small tables, if was hard to tell with that cut in my holo-lens, brooms, a few full scale standard human size bots that had their spines ripped off, little wires hung out of their open mouths and dark eyes, no light behind them. A lamp dimly flickered overhead, it was only a little higher on the ceiling than my head, and the ceiling, even for me, seemed pretty low. I took a moment to refocus my holo-lens, it was a little blurry, or maybe my head was just fuzzy from the booze, but I saw the tables had been moved out of the way, and four people sat on the hard concrete floor, sparks flew off the shoulders of one person. The person to the right of them wouldn't have noticed if I hadnt stumbled into the wall and knocked over a wet broom in the process. Dirty water sloshed on all of us, I was the most soaked, but all four of them jumped up, disgusted looks on their faces.

"What the fuck? Who the fuck are you dude? You're not supposed to be in here, the door has a fucking lockpad."

Yeah, wait, how had I done that? Oh wait, right. I fished around in my pocket for a moment until I found the little black box, which upon tapping it once opened to reveal a tiny bot that fits in my palm brandishing a lockpick. "I, uh, carry this little guy with me all the time. He's sort of an all in one utility bot." One of the four, a brown haired girl, looked questioningly at me, but raised her eyebrows in approval of my utility bot.

The boy that stood forward, he was my height, long black hair tied back, straight bangs framing either side of his dark eyes, I couldn't tell whether that was natural or makeup or something, do I need to mention again, I was totally shitfaced that this point, could barely stand up, could just barely form sentences. He crossed his arms, exchanged glances with the girl next to him, she was dark skinned with coils of black hair cascading down her slim shoulders. We all wore the same uniform: pressed white shirt, striped red and blue tie, gray slacks and navy jacket, emblazoned with the school's symbol, a flying swallow that I had crossed the eyes out on my jacket, I hadn't been caught yet for dress code.

I knew I probably looked like shit. My shirt was half tucked into my pants, half out, jacket unbuttoned, tie loose, hangover sunglasses on that I think I had mooched off a guy in biology, yeah, I probably wasn't too great of a sight either.

By this time, the kid who was still faced back to me stood up, turned around, he was a few inches shorter than the other guy and he slumped in the lead smock he wore, an oversized welders helmet sat awkwardly on his head, and he lifted it up to show a familiar round face and glasses.

"Pat...uh fuck, it's Patrick Stump, right?" I slurred, pointing at him. I could see how he squirmed, but that just made me more encouraged and I walked right up to him and hugged him, the welder still alight with fire in his other arm. He freaked a little at that, and I let him go quickly.

"Uh yeah, h-hey Frank," he squeaked.

"You know this guy, Pat?" The other guy started to step in front of Patrick, protective.

"Y-yeah Pete,, he's Josh Dun's cousin, lives up the street from me, we're in a coding class together. He's the smart guy I told you about, well not smart, but he figures everything out like, first try. You're in a class with him too, aren't you, Grimes?" He asked to the brown haired girl.

She seemed to tense up a bit, her hair was parted in a zig-zag, chaotically tangled and dyed with orange bangs and hair that went from a natural looking brown to red at the tips. She had really pretty eyes though, long straight brows, weirdly small lips. Her clothes hung longer on her, oversized red shoes, they were very shiny, a few weird chunky rings on her fingers. "Yeah, we have a mechanical engineering class together, Frank can like build a working bot in a class period. We should try and like, be lab partners. I still think it's bullshit me and Janelle can't be partners, just because she's out most days for the Bot Politics meetings." Janelle who I guessed was the darker haired girl, stuck her tongue out a Grimes and Grimes repaid it with a middle finger.

"I don't give a fuck who he is, guys. Nobody's allowed in here that's not in the club." Pete huffed.

"What club?" I asked sheepishly, dropping my water bottle of booze into a large trashcan.

"Mechanical Engineering for Robotics of Entertainment." The girl, Janelle I think, held out her hand to me. "I'm Janelle Monae. These are Claire, she likes to go by Grimes, Pete is the emo one, Patrick is the short one, as you've already met him."

I nodded dumbly. "Right. Is that whole name, like, is there a short, uh, condensed version of that name?"

"Well we make bots for some teachers to help pass out grades and grade papers, sometimes we rig 'em too, give the assholes shitty grades." Patrick piped in. I'm a little surprised to hear such an evil plan from that guy. "We make bots that'll answer questions, be experts on subject, even bots that can act and recite lines, though we haven't figured out singing yet."

"Oh, cool. Soooo," I drew that one out a little too long, I could tell by their faces. "Do you guys ever do like, uh, fighting? Like bot fighting?"

They all exchanged nervous glances.

"No, not--" Patrick started.

"--All the fucking time man." Pete shrugged, and Patrick glared over at him. "What? The guy's so drunk, he won't probably remember this tomorrow." Pete held his tongue, I don't think he could argue with that. "You like bot fighting, Frank?" Pete turned to me.

"Fuck yeah, man! I love building bots, but I don't have much access to materials at my place. Designing is cool too, and I'm shit at repairs but I'm trying to get better at it."

"Hmm." Pete mumbled. "Would you be interested in joining our little club?"

"Why the hell not? Do you guys go to competitions?"

Pete nodded.

"Sweet! Yeah, I'd love to join!"

"Great!" Pete smiled, a little bit of an evil smile. "Now what was Grimes saying about you being able to build a bot within a class period?"

...

"Good to see you actually found your way, well more like stumbled your way on to campus," Grimes smirked as I walked into the lab room, my shirt and pants wrinkled from being crinkled up from a night I didn't really remember. I was fighting off a gnarly migraine with a pair of stolen sunglasses and a water bottle of actual water this time.

"Ugh, go fuck yourself." I grunted, sitting down, putting my head in my hands, shut my eyes tight.

"Hmm. Maybe later. I'm guessing this," she poked me in the side with a heavily ringed finger, all different rings from yesterday, at least all the colors and shapes were different, I thought, and the small touch made me dry heave a little, she backed off then. "Means you don't remember much of yesterday."

"It's mostly a fucking blur." I attempted to murmur, but my voice was even too loud. "Uh, I remember meeting all you guys, you're, you're, it's Grimes right?"

"Yes it is." She sounded surprised that I remembered.

"You sound surprised."

"That's because I am. You were pretty out of it, Frank. It's pretty dumb to get drunk at school, what kind of shit are you facing at home that's making you day drink as a Freshman in high school?"

"For the record, I'm a sophomore, technically, I think. I didn't go to school last year. Too busy working." I lifted my head then to a rather strange face from Grimes. "What?"

"Where in the hell did you work? It's illegal for BLind to hire anyone under 18."

I shrugged. "I did commissions. Fixed shit that stopped working. Mostly tech, but other shit when we really needed the money." My stomach rumbled then, my headache pounded on. "Ugh. I am way too hungover to try to keep a conversation going and pretending I give a shit about what we're talking about."

"We're talking about you though."

"Exactly."

That shut her up for a while, long enough for class to begin, class to end, and for us to walk down the hallway together because every time I turned around Grimes was a few feet behind me.

Eventually, I sighed, stopped walking, a few kids knocked into me then, they were pissed, and I just ignored them and muttered to the girl behind my shoulder, "If you're going to fucking stalk me you can at least walk me to my BLind History class. I can't remember which hallway it's down." Grimes awkwardly walked towards me then, she was slow but took my arm in her own and I stumbled a little. I wasn't really ready for the human contact, but I hadn't previously noticed how unsteady I was, but Grimes at least smelled decent, so who the fuck did I care who touched me.

"Sorry... I was sort of told by Pete, well more like ordered, to watch you today. He saw how shitfaced you were yesterday and wanted to make sure that I sobered you up before tomorrow morning." She says, her voice was low, her long reddish hair was more brushed today but still whipped me in the face every time she turned her head.

Wait, what was happening tomorrow?

"Tomorrow? What's happening tomorrow."

Grimes' smile dropped, her eyes went wide. "Oh shit, Pete told me this might happen. Well, uh, yesterday you were telling us all how good you were at building bots and all and how you liked DeathWish...So, so Pete decided to challenge you to bet that you couldn't build a bot within a day and fight against his bot. That pissed off Monae, because the bot is also hers, but--"

"--So let me get this clear. Drunk Me brags and Pete decided to believe Drunk Me and challenge Sober Me to a fucking bot fight?"

"Yeah, you got it all." She bit her small lower lip with her large front teeth.

"Uh fuck Drunk Me he is an asshole."

"Is this coming from Sober Frank?"

"No, this is Hangover Frank, who is much different than both Drunk and Sober Frank. Much more apologetic. Fuck! I'm, god, I'm sorry, I probably totally embarrassed myself in front of you guys."

"Oh yeah, you did. It's was awkward." There was a little annoying smile on her face then.

"So, so I have to make a bot?"

"Yep."

"A fighting bot?"

"Yep."

"On my own?"

"On your—well fuck it, I can help if you need help. From the looks of how shaky Hungover Frank is, he might need the extra set of hands."

"Ughhhhh," I looked up, bad idea, into the super bright lights of the hallway ceiling, and it made me a little queasy. "Hungover Frank thanks you. I'm sorry you guys all had to deal with that. But I guess I'll deal with the embarrassment later—right now I need to figure out how the fuck to make a fighter bot within 24 hours."

"18 hours, actually. They're meeting you in the club room at zero hour. Pete's bringing everyone along for the moral support, that's what he calls it at least, it's more so he can get out some of that sexual frustration of hearing no one scream his name."

I snickered at that. Almost dropped one of my books, and Grimes caught it before it fell to the ground. "Thanks again. God, sorry. I'm a mess today, unfortunately."

She shrugged, a lock of hair fell in front of her face, obscured one eye. "Don't mention it. Here's the classroom, as promised." I checked the number, it was the same one glowing up on my pinboard.

She was already walking away as I called out, not too loud, my voice was still raspy from maybe screaming yesterday, god what was I doing yesterday?

"Hey, thanks! I guess I'll see you after school?"

"After school," she nodded. "In the club room. I'll put out some parts for you there. I have sixth period off anyway and Monae is out at a public debate today."

"Okay, I'll see you then!"

"See you then. By the way, I like Hungover Frank a lot better than Drunk Frank. He's just an asshole. Can't wait to see what Sober Frank is like." She giggled, walking away, her hair flying as she quickly pivoted in the opposite direction. Her class was in the opposite direction.

...

"Ok and the IK handle goes here?"

"No, Frank, you're a fucking moron. Those are its arms, you want forward kinematics there or else you'll have a mess of a robot." Grimes had taken off most of her rings except a small black ring on her middle finger and had tied back her electric hair back, parts were spilling out by that point then, both her and my arms were greased up and practically black as we slaved over the small two foot bot.

"It's gonna be a mess no matter what, there's no avoiding that."

"Well, yeah, but you don't want Pete seeing that. You want Pete to look at this and piss his pants."

I opened the cabinet Grimes was sitting atop, searching for the small monkey wrench. "Have you ever seen Pete piss his pants?"

"Fourth grade. We had to read our own poems and ever since that day, Pete is terrified of having to read his own work in class."

"That sucks a little."

She nodded, flipping a screwdriver in her one hand, until it slipped and fell right by my foot. I jumped right out of the line of vision, but unfortunately the bot didn't. Its arms shattered into pieces, flying in all directions.

"Fuck!" I kneeled down to pick up the splintered pieces and accidentally cutting my finger.

I feel Grimes' fuzzy hair touching my face as she kneeled down next to me, frowning. "Can we salvage it?"

"If we have five cups of coffee, some glue and a will to live." I groaned as I checked my pin to check the time -- 3:40 AM.

"Hmm." She picked up a small finger. "Well it looks like we're missing two of those necessities, I'm gonna go make a pot of coffee." She closed the door behind her, and I somewhat impulsively checked her pinboard, my vision distorted until I was seeing the dark hallway, Grimes quietly sang as she checked the door to the main teachers' lounge. It was padlocked.

"Shit, sorry I should have sent you with Cherry."

She laughed, it was more of an exhausted sighing, breathy. "What, you're watching me now? I'm fine, it's not like I haven't broken into the teacher's office before, Frank. I just don't need a fucking utility bot to do it." She kneeled over, examining the lock, and I saw the seven boxes lighting up. In her vision, a warning sign blinked on that said "Be Aware: You Are Entering An Staff Only Area."

"Huh? What do you know, something makes me think I'm not supposed to be in here." She whispered into my ear, well not into my ear, but it felt like it, and suddenly I felt a chill on my neck.

"Uh, so it's a seven digit lock and you've got uh, quite a few different combination maybe start with--"

"Got it." She said and I heard the door click open.

"Shit. How did you do that so fast?"

"All the locks at school have the same password. It's TRINITY. Obviously. Ok, there's the coffee pot." She walked over to it as I just sat and watched.

I've never liked watching from people's perspectives, but there's something really sort of strange about Grimes, I don't know what it is, maybe it's that she's seen me drunk and didn't seem to care or pass any judgement, I knew if Josh knew about my partying habits I would never be looked at the same way in the Dun House ever again. But this was so weird, she was so weird, but she somehow totally made me feel at ease. I watched almost in a trance as she started the coffee pot up and the pot started to fill, drip by drip.

"Are you working on the bot or just fucking watching me, you creep?"

"Uh," I responded dumbly, remembering the half-finished bot and its shattered arms down at my feet. "I'm working on it. Do you know where the glue is?"

"Second shelf to the right rolling cabinet. I think Pete titled the shelf "The-I-Fucked-It-Up-Cabinet"."

"Pretty fitting name," I found the glue at the bottom of the drawer right next to some duct tape collecting dust and a pack of gum, a rosary and a few thousand straightened paper clips.

"Hmm," she yawned.

"You know, Grimes, you've had a long night. You really don't need to stay here with me."

"Nah, no, I'm fine. She eyes closed for a moment and she stumbled a bit. "I want to help you avoid complete embarrassment. Am I doing well?"

"Much better than I can ever do for myself it seems." None of the pieces were fitting together, I seemed to have tried every combination to just get the pieces to fit together, but the hand is fucked. It's not going to work out. "I think the arms are done for. So much for this fucking challenge." I brought my hands to my head, maybe stifling some tears, but I don't know if they're from frustration or exhaustion. "Uh. I-I'm really sorry I put you through all of this. I not usually this dumb, and I'm even sober..."

"Sober Frank? Oh man, I cannot wait to get back into that room and finally meet you." She joked. 

"Ok, you can't see it right now but I'm flipping you off."

"Ah, I can feel the passive aggression from here. It's almost like you're here with me." She sighed, pounding on the machine and I saw a quicker flow of coffee began to spit out. "So, Sober Frank, what do you like to do? Do you have any hobbies?"

I looked up at the ceiling for answers. "I like...bots."

"Yeah, no shit. What else?"

"Um, I kind of like music. I went to some guy—actually it was Patrick's house, we're kind of neighbors because I'm staying at my cousin's family's house, but there was music playing in every room at his house. It was really nice. He has a wicked set of drums too, I'd like to try to play those maybe, just crash around on them."

"You ever tried singing?"

"I've tried, when I'm working on some security droids, doing menial tasks, I sound like a fucking malfunctioning artificial cat, it's scratchy, sounds like shit. I still kinda like doing it though."

"I'd like to hear you one day."

I laughed. "No. No you would not. Um..." I felt my cheeks getting hot and was trying to at least make sure my voice sounded okay. "I heard your voice while you were walking down the hall. I mean, was I supposed to? I'm sorry if I kind of intruded."

"Nah, I don't care. I sing really loudly when I'm at home alone. My mom had me spending half my childhood at home, the other at choir practice. They always found something to complain about though; they couldn't tell what I was saying, it needed to be more loud, more quiet."

"Well I think it's really nice."

"Goddamn Iero, you better stop making cute small talk or I'm going to fall for Sober Frank. He's a real sweetheart." She chided, but there was definitely some amusement in her voice.

I giggled. "I'll let him know. He'll turn off the charm if you're uncomfortable."

"No, I'm fine with it. It's much better company than being alone."

"Are you alone a lot?"

"Hmm...I guess so. Listen, I've been a catholic school brat since elementary school but I've always been too strange for the kids I've been surrounded by. I don't even know how to explain it, I'm just different, y'know? And it not like a bad different like me versus other girls, me versus other guys it's just like even in my favorite places when I was with the church choir, I felt like a stranger. Like there was just something that kept me from interacting, like no matter how close we grew up, no matter how long I had known someone, I still felt some culture clash between us. It's like I'm from the fucking surface even, sometimes I feel like I'm up here and I'm supposed to be down below."

"I've never really wanted to be on the Place Down Below but I can understand the feeling of being different. I was never really surrounded by kids. I skipped school half the time and then by about middle school I stopped going completely. My dad got really sick around then and I decided I wanted to help him out more than I wanted to go to school. And since then, I stopped caring. I've never really had friends my age, except Josh, but Josh has to like me, he's pretty much contractually obligated. His mom is my dad's sister. I just, I like bots. They're simpler than people. You can really trust them. I always feel my smartest when I'm building. Speaking of, I got one of the arms back together, but it's a little over articulated." The arm swung back much further than it was supposed to, but considering it didn't seem to be harming any other gears and the intricate small wiring. Turns out Grimes was really good at spinning all the wires together super quick, I'll have to find a way to thank her later.

"Maybe Cherry-Bomb can use that to her own advantage."

I smiled, a tired, worn out, genuinely happy smile. "Cherry-Bomb? I like the sound of that. It's kinda cute, kind of punk, can definitely kick some ass. Ugh the other arm is in a lot more pieces. Can I bullshit it and strap a magnet on her or like a fucking saw arm?"

Grimes was cleaning up a little spill in the corner of my vision, I had to minimize the video so I could actually be working. There was something about her that soothed me so much. "You can do whatever you want. I can't wait to see lil Cherry-Bomb kick the shit out of Buttercup. Wentz has gotten a little too big headed recently, Monae has to deal with him all the time because they're both juniors and Pete doesn't ever shut up about how he has more knockouts than her. If he let her actually let her fight in a few of the battle royales we go to she could totally wipe the floor with his ass. Pete is a really instinct based fighter, doesn't care if he ruins a bot in the process or anything. And well, you haven't seen Buttercup yet but he's a really expensive bot to keep refurbishing because for some goddamned reason Pete insists that it had to be purple."

"So he's pretty destructive with his bots? Like he'll destroy his bot so long as it kills the other?"

"Pretty much."

"Maybe I can use that to my advantage."

"I'm sure you can. Pete looks pretty confident but he can make super dumb decisions. Pat tries to watch out for Pete, give him advice and Pete doesn't ever really listen. Pat's not really a fighter, but if he were, that would get messy real quick. Pat is sort of dangerously clever. One time his freshman year some guy was bullying Pete and Pat literally single-handedly got the guy kicked out of school and the guy never even knew who was setting him up. So don't try with Pete or at least, don't invoke the fury of Pat." Grimes poured two cups then, slipped out of the room and was headed back towards me.

"Thanks for the warning. I had some weird feeling Patrick was an evil genius." I looked down to examine the circle of random crap I had laid out. "Ok," I said to myself out loud. "I found an exact-o knife and a few springs. These bots are small, close range and from the sound of it, Pete is more interested in throwing punches than defending his bot. I'll try to make up some sorts of shielding for Cherry, but I think it would be super cool for her to have springs locked arms so she packs more of a punch, so Pete can't really fall back when the fight gets ugly. It's kind of dumb to ruin a bot just for a stupid challenge so I imagine he'll try to hang back a little further and strike when he sees an open spot." I ripped up some duct tape and stuck it on my bleeding thumb.

"Shit, what in the hell am I doing here if it sounds like you got this all figured out by yourself? Just carrying your coffee like some fucking assistant?" She opened the door, I was happy to look into her eyes again, she suddenly felt like an old friend. I'd never really had a friend before. She walked over to me slowly and placed the coffee in my hands.

"Thanks." I muttered, my face already in the cup.

"Don't mention it. Seriously. Wentz would be so pissed if he found out I helped you out."

"So I guess this is just our secret?"

She smiled mischievously, those two front teeth seemed too large for her small mouth. Her small lips. "I suppose so, Iero. I'm tired and it's fucking freezing in here, but it's been good getting to learn that Sober Frank is a pretty nice guy. At least he didn't throw up in the wastebasket."

"Eh, we got a few more hours until school starts. Still plenty of time to puke in any and all wastebaskets." I finished my coffee with a large sip, she was still only about halfway done. "Okay, we've got a few hours before they get here and Cherry-Bomb is like 95% done. I need to work on the little shields for her arms and legs and maybe a decal but I think I might need to take a little nap while I'm processing all the coffee I just drank."

She yawned then. "You should do that. I can work on the armored pieces, those will only take about an hour I would guess and the decal will take even less. I don't think I'd even be able to sleep I'm way too cold."

"Hmm," I lazily took off my school jacket one arm at a time. "Where is your jacket?"

"In the girls bathroom drying out from a toilet wash." She huffed some hair out of her face. "Some junior bitch is trying to ruin my life, pretty much."

I frowned, eyes barely open. "That sucks. Hey, why don't you just take my jacket?" I tried handing it to her, but I more dropped it into her lap. She was a little surprised, but only for a moment, and put it on. "Huh, we're practically the same size. How about this? Tomorrow I'll say someone stole my jacket when I was in Physical Therapy at the hospital and I'll just ask for a new one. We can even rig your jacket maybe with ink capsules so if anyone holds it other than you it explodes. That would be kinda fun to see."

"Frank, you, you go to the hospital? Which one?" Her eyebrows knit together in concern.

"Uhh, it's the Helena Research Institute, I think is what it's called."

"And what are you going for?"

"My, uh, my lungs don't really work all that well. I had like, an episode a few weeks ago, started shaking, my eyes rolled into my head, I apparently turned blue. That's why my dad had me moved up to Level Three. They say there's less...less...what's it called? Polluta-pollution in the air here. Less smog. Breathing is a lot better. I'm not supposed to do much exercise, I can't really breathe in all the oxygen my body needs all that well."

"Frank, I," She sighed. "I'm sorry, I didn't know about any of that--"

"No, no, it's, I mean, I'm fine. I cough a little sometimes, but I haven't really had a bad episode since, other than well, when Aunt Laura almost set the house on fire. I coughed a lot after that. You don't need to worry about me. Hey, why were you asking about the hospital?"

"I think that's the hospital my mom attended when she was sick. She said they were mean, but they really helped her recover quickly."

"That's good at least. I hope they can help me out. I don't really want to have to wear a mask for the rest of my life, but I'll do it if I have to."

"So, how long will you be on Level Three?" She asked, picked up Cherry-Bomb and fixing a sheet of scrap metal for the armor.

"As long as the Duns let me live with them. I don't know though because I can't seem to make it a day without getting in trouble. Even now I'm not home, they'll probably kill me once they visit me at the hospital on Saturday morning. Death by nagging." I laughed stalely. "I am really trying to fit in here, believe me, but something is keeping me from me liking everyone else, maybe it is me though. Maybe I'm in my own way."

"Most people are in their own way. Do you know where the welding mask is? Pat usually is better at leaving it in the same area, he was probably too busy staring at Pete's ass or something." She rummaged through a few cabinets before locating the large mask and putting on her head. It was almost larger than her shoulders. I giggled again.

"Oh man, you look great. Really, really great, hey, don't come at me with those greasy gloves, no not the face!" Too little, too late. I now had a long strip of black grease oil from on cheek to the other, cutting diagonally across my nose. "Oh, fuck you!" I exclaimed a little too loudly but immediately follow with a fit of giggles after she got me again on my forehead, giving me a unibrow.

"That's a really nice look on you, Frankie. It fits you really well." She was stifling her giggles too.

"Oh shut up, will you? Your laugh sounds like a fucking hyena, maybe two artificial zoo hyenas fucking."

Her smile dropped then. "Make me."

"Wh-what are you talking about?" I nervously laughed.

"Make me shut up. I dare you."

"Is this a request or a de--"

I was shut up very quickly as her lips collided with mine. It was passionate sure, and I hadn't really kissed anyone before, and I didn't really want it to end, but I found myself running out of breath so I had to push her away.

"Sorry, I--"

"What the fuck, Frank?" She was furious, backing away from me already. "You've been flirting with me all night and, what, you're not interested?"

"No, no," I pleaded, my arms raised defensively. "It's just it, I don't know, I've never kissed a girl before? I don't know Grimes, I don't even know you. I'd like to get to know you."

"Oh, you fucking wish, Frank, you fucking creep." She grabbed her pile of necklaces and rings and started to storm out, but hung by the door, pivoting to look at me with her bright, furious eyes. "I'll see you tomorrow. Good luck with the armor." She slammed the door then, so loudly that I felt everything move a little.

"Wow Frank, you're really good at this whole 'making friends' thing." I said out loud, to no one and to everyone, to the zero people that were listening.

Chapter Text

The floor was cold, and Grimes had left with my jacket, so I was there on the floor in just my dress shirt, curled up with my backpack to prop up my head. I had actually been in a deep sleep when I heard the voices speak above me.

"Do you, do you think he's dead?" A male voice whispered.

"Look at his chest, Pat. He's alive all right, to my disappointment." The female says, I recognize the sass in the voice coming from Monae.

"Should we like, help him up?"

"You can. I'm not touching that douchebag. Wait, oh is that his bot? It's so small. God, he's not gonna last a minute in the ring against Pete." I heard a few steps as she passed me and walked toward the bot, picking it up.

"Wait, Monae, put it down, I think he's waking up. Frank, Frank, why are you here so early?"

I sat up, rubbing my eyes. "Had to make the bot. Why are you guys here early?"

Pat shrugged in response, and Monae turned to me, a long frown on her face. "Because Pete is a narcissistic bitch and wanted to spend extra time making sure he showered this morning to impress his boyfriend who's coming to watch. He has to stay at that one Institute most of the time and can only be released two times a month so Pete wanted to show off to him a little. And showing off means looking pretty and looking pretty means time and time means me and Pat have to set up the fucking fight ring."

"And you called me the douchebag?" I recalled, Patrick helped me up to my feet. "Thanks, Pat."

"You're one douchebag out of many. Would you care to tell me what happened between you and Grimes last night, or this morning? She pinned me at like four in the morning saying "Frank Iero must die". Just what the fuck did you do to her?"

"Ok, listen." I sighed, collecting the scrap pieces of metal armor off the floor and fastening them onto Cherry-Bomb because apparently I fallen asleep halfway through tightening them. "She offered to help me. She wanted to make sure I knew where everything was, and she insisted that she stay until the bot was done. I didn't ask her to, she wanted to stay."

"Alright, and anything else to testify for?"

"Well she helped me a lot."

"And?"

"And she made me coffee."

"And after the coffee?"

"We kind of made out for a few minutes, and I pushed her away."

"S-something makes me feel like I shouldn't be hearing this," Pat said, cupping his reddening ears as he pulled out a broom.

"Why did you push her away?" Monae didn't look impressed, her arms crossed, face angled up, looking me down with her dark eyes.

"Well, she was getting a little too close to my pants, alright, and I couldn't really breathe so I pushed her away and I tried to explain, I told her I'd never kissed a girl before and I was a little nervous."

"And you told her all that?" One eyebrow raised.

"I—yeah, pretty much." It was hard keeping eye contact with Monae, so I looked away, but then her gaze felt like the pressure tripled.

"Ok so you didn't say exactly what part?"

"Uhh..." Was all that managed to come out.

"It was all of it wasn't it?"

"Not all of it. I told her I hadn't kissed a girl before."

"Oh my God, Frank, if you're going to push someone away do not say that. 1. you'll sound like a loser, 2. you'll sound like a creep which is how Grimes took it." She shook her head, rolled her eyes. "Listen. Grimes just wants a guy to like her. Doesn't need to be anyone specific, but she prefers boys of your type."

"My type?"

"Emo fuck boy."

I couldn't help but nod. "Shit, I am, aren't I?"

"Your hair looks like a fucking hedgehog in the back Frank. Add a lip piercing and a nose ring, some gauges, tattoos, you fit the bill to a T. Anyway, what I'm trying to say is Grimes really wants a relationship, but she's been burned badly in the past. This is coming from a friend, and I love her, but she can be a lot of handle at times. Are you ready to committ to all that?"

"I..." Honestly, I'm not sure. "I don't know. But I do like her. There's something about her I like a lot. Do you think she'd be willing to give me a second chance?"

Monae seemed a little grossed out, maybe she was picturing me and Grimes holding hands but she had a deep frown on her face. "You better give her the damn world on a big chunky vintage ring, but I'm sure she probably would. Maybe. So long as you don't fuck up again. And actually tell her how you're feeling."

I mean, I meant to be more open in the moment, and I was enjoying myself but I did definitely start to panic. I'd had like a boyfriend when I was 13, that was pretty dramatic and I never told my dad about, but before I'd met Grimes I'd only ever been attracted to boys. And I'd never like gone the full way with anybody, honestly the thought made me want to squirm a little. Sounded strange, I couldn't wrap my head around it. I would just have to apologize and hope that I'd be able to explain a little bit better how I was feeling and what I was dealing with in my own mind and all.

But of course, there's no time for me to ever just think, and in that moment a very polished looking Pete Wentz slammed the door open, holding the hand with a lanky guy in the gray sweater and tight pants all patients are given at HRI, with small framed glasses that barely covered his eyes and wispy hairs falling out of a gray beanie. Pete was smiling ear to ear clutching this guy's hand, but this guy just had the most serious expression I think I'd ever seen.

"Mikey, come one over here," Pete called. "This is Frank."

"Oh, so you're the kid who is gonna get your ass kicked by my totally humble boyfriend." He extended an arm out to me, the one Pete wasn't clutching in a deathlike grip. "Mikey Way. Nice to meet you. I hope getting beaten by Pete isn't a crushing loss." His smirk was small, but Pete paid it a few times over, I'd never seen two people look so happy together.

"Is everything set up?" Pete called to Patrick and Monae, she just rolled her eyes and I saw Pat blush a little. He had his eyes set on Pete from the moment he walked in. "Y-yep. We're all good, as long as you guys are. Are any more people coming?"

"Nope," it was obvious that Pete was a little disappointed. "But the important people are all here. I'll get Buttercup out. Iero, you have a certain corner you'd like to take?"

I shrugged. "You can choose, your majesty."

"Oh, I like the sound of that," Pete struggled with a large box until he decided to finally let go of Mikey's hand, and he practically threw the box in front of me. It made a dull thump, but sleep deprived me still jumped and he cackled a little. The box was holographic and purple, thousands of little specks of hints of blue and pink glistened even in the small amount of light in the room. It was still beautiful, with a few black and white stickers on the box. He unhinged the two locks, and out came the infamous Buttercup. It was about three feet tall maybe, decently armored but I already saw a few unarmored spots under the arms and the backs of the knees. The bot was so reflective it was almost hard to look at directly, and while the bot looked sturdy, there were some configurations in it that didn't seem to make sense. Short legs on such a stout bot would make it slow, but I did catch on to the small jet rigs on each heel, I'd have to watch out for that.

"Where's your bot, Iero? Didn't even make one?"

"No, I did. Janelle, can you pass her to me? Thanks." I said taking the small cube into my hands.

"Your bot is a cube?" Mikey questioned, he stood behind Pete.

"It's more than that. Cherry-Bomb, activate."

The corners of the cube started to twist then, until it unscrewed, and from the inside out unfolded Cherry-Bomb, she looked a lot like my little Cherry, but had a little heftier of arms and more support around her hips to carry the extra bulk of her chest. She was undeniably at least 6 inches shorter than Buttercup and probably half the weight. I had chosen to keep her mostly black, except for two red eyes and a little drawing of two cherries in the beak of the swallow, the school's mascot. Her armor was simple, very light, but I'd worked with the material before with my security droids and it could take on a lot of damage before it started to damage any internal wiring. I'd also greased the springs so they should with any luck work smoothly and hopefully do some damage to Buttercup and Pete's over inflated ego.

"Aww, look at it Mikes, it's kinda cute. I'm gonna feel bad ripping its head from its exoskeleton. Maybe keep her head as a trophy." Pete's grin is downright bloodthirsty, but I try to breathe and remain calm.

"You'll have to catch her first." I reply simply.

"Ok, alright. Pete, Frank, are we going rules or Battle Royale?" I'd gotten used to Monae's stare by this point, and Pat just sat in the background, his hands tangled in his hair.

"Battle Royale." I responded cooly.

"Oh, fuck, Frank! I've been waiting for a kid with balls to join this club. Call it Monae."

"Alright. In the 3rd quadrant, Cherry-Bomb representing Frank Iero. In the 1st quadrant, Buttercup representing Pete Wentz. Two fighters have requested Battle Royale, which means this is a no rules fight. Three rounds. First bot off its feet loses, out of the ring is also a loss. Are you two ready?" We both nodded. "Ok. Fight begins now, in 3, 2, 1."

Pete's ready with his controller to make a run for it, only I've already loaded Cherry's spring arm and just once he gets in range, which is still about 5 meters away, I released the button. Cherry quickly striked her attack pose, one leg behind the other in a lunge as her arm goes from neutral to supenation, and the spring triggered successfully and her arm struck out so quickly it was even surprising to me, and in fractions of a second her arm was colliding with Buttercup's forward shoulder, slightly at an angle, and Buttercup loses its balance, falling over. The small sensor buzzer dings.

I looked up to see four sets of eyes staring incredulously at me, Pete's mouth was halfway to the floor, Mikey's eyebrows slightly raise and Monae's eyes seemed to soften just the slightest bit, maybe a little bit of a grin crept on her face, but she hid it well.

Once Pete can actually speak again, he's furious. "Well that's not fair. Buttercup lost its balance."

"It dinged Pete. It hit the sensor."

"That's fucking bullshit! She only fell because she tripped!" Pete was fuming already, I couldn't wait to see how this turned out.

"Actually no, Pete. Cherry-Bomb hit Buttercup. Did you not see that?" We're all surprised by Pat's quiet voice.

Pete's face dropped again then. "I-I-Well I didn't see anything."

"Your loss Pete, it was a hit. Now that makes Frank 1 Pete 0. And if you're so pissed Pete, maybe you shouldn't have chosen me to ref the game." Monae added, the most unamused look on her face, but her eyes flash to me and I think I see her wink. Maybe it was my pinboard glitching out.

"I can't believe this!"

"Are you ready to reset, Pete? Look over there's Frank's little bot is already back at the start."

"Give me a fucking second!!" Pete yelled a little too loud, to which Mikey pulled his hand out from his pocket and offered it to Pete. He whispered something in Pete's ear and that stupid smirk returned to Pete's face. "Ok, I'm ready now."

"Thanks Pete. Said no one ever," Monae whispered in my direction, and I giggled my high pitched little laugh at that. "Ok. We're reset. Round 2 of 3. 3, 2, 1."

Buttercup hung back a little more this time, just dodging all my flying fits by inches until I threw on I was sure was going to land, but Buttercup caught the spring midair, right as it flew by.

Oh shit.

Buttercup yanked with all the force it had, and Cherry's first, followed by Cherry, went crashing into the wall, maybe half a foot away from Mikey's face.

"Frank 1. Pete 1. Sorry Frank."

"Yeah, sorry, Frank, you need a spatula to scrape your scrap metal off the wall?"

"Oh, I'm sure she'll manage. Cherry-Bomb, activate reset." I called out to the bot, immediately hearing the whirs of the tiny fans in her body try to cool her off as her limbs reset into place, even the tangled flying arm, which took a little more time than the rest. I picked her up and examined her, sure she was a little dented up, but not terrible, I would just have to avoid using that arm and I walked her back to our side of the ring.

"You've gotta be fucking kidding me Iero. What, you've got an automatic demand for that bot to jack you off?" Pete hissed.

"Real mature Pete." This also came from Patrick and surprised us all.

"Ok, are we reset?" Asked Monae. We both gave her a nod. "Score is 1 to 1. This is the final round. Give 'em hell kids. 3, 2, you know the fucking rest."

We're circling then, slowly, agonizingly slowly, but I could see that's what Pete hates the most, the waiting. If I could wait long enough he would make the first move. I was looking at every movement of a muscle, any flicker in his eyes, to see what he would do next. He attempted a few times to jump at me, and Cherry just pivoted away each time. I could see in his eyes how agitated he was becoming, and I check his vitals, just for the fun of it. His heart was beating fast. The funny thing was, mine wasn't. I felt totally at ease, although one arm hung limply to Cherry-Bomb's side. She was so light that she could just dance away from any attack.

By this point, it had been a few minutes and I heard Monae say, "Oh God someone just run for it already."

Unfortunately, we both took her que, and both of us started running head on. I quickly realized that Buttercup could run over Cherry no problem, no sweat, and there wasn't enough room for Cherry to stop. Even Pete had a panicked expression. Ok, so we can't go forward, and I didn't have enough room for clearance to make her pivot left or right.

Wait a second.

I hit the down key right before impact, and while Buttercup was ready, one fist out, ready to punch, Cherry slid gracefully in between its legs and jumped right up behind her. Buttercup was slow to respond, and tried throw a punch that Cherry easily dodged. By that point I was seeing the back of Buttercup, where most of her wires showed. The kill wire for the fire-propellers jets were a bright orange, I remembered I'd always thought that was such a bad idea, some of the big-league guys actually painted those in to be black. But there were Buttercup's, big, exposed, and from the way it looked, a short way from being clipped entirely, they were already frayed. So I let cherry dance around Buttercup at little, and when Buttercup grabbed Cherry in a terrifying lock, I didn't worry, just released all of Cherry's springs so she could slink her way out of the grip, climb onto Buttercup's shoulders, slide off and swipe at Buttercup's heels, where a ton of important wires were, but I was a bastard, I'll admit it, and I wanted something a little more theatrical. So, with her really shitty dull exact-o knife arm, Cherry swiped at Buttercup right as Buttercup was about to throw a punch that totally would have nailed Cherry right in the face. Instead, all the wires snapped and not only did Buttercup's right leg completely fall from underneath it, but the fire jet activated and it shot Buttercup right into the wall, at around the same place Cherry had been, but Buttercup made impact with the wall and it sounded painful, then it fell into a trashcan, I think it was the one I had thrown my booze water bottle in because the whole trashcan exploded into flames.

"OH fuck! What the fuck!" Pete repeatedly kept screaming as Mikey and Pat dashed for the fire extinguisher, the two of them eventually getting it off the wall and Mikey putting out the fire. Monae and I sighed, and then we just heard Pete scream again.

"My baby! Oh god, oh shit, look it's totally decimated."

And yeah, Buttercup was totally decimated. The holographic purple had melted off and the bot was left with only two limbs still intact, the leg that had buckled under its weight was badly crushed, practically flattened. And the little decals and even some of the armor must have been low grade plastics because it had all melted away to see the skeleton of the bot. It was an ugly looking bot on the inside, shittily put together, none of the nuts had been tightened, it looked like it hadn't had maintenance in months.

"Well, that's impressive. I never realized how much of a fire hazard this room is." Monae said incredulously. "And by the way, if any of you were uncertain, I'm pretty sure Frank won." We all turned to see little Cherry-Bomb casually standing in the middle of the ring, slightly rocking from side to side, I think she was even whistling.

It took about 20 minutes with all of us together to be able to clean the small room, but we couldn't get rid of the smell of burning metal, so Pete so humbly offered up to go get the air freshener and we all let him. I was still cleaning up little shield and pieces of Buttercup's fist which had really propelled their way not only out of the trashcan, but everywhere around the room when I heard Mikey behind me.

"That was impressive, Iero. Pete is pretty good, but he thinks he's the best, maybe this fight was a good thing for him. But I'm sure I'll have to deal with his sad depressing pins for the next few days. That bot cost him a lot of money, I know it sure doesn't look that way on the inside, that's because he got that skeleton off a dump truck and just threw it behind a few layers of armor and sparkle. Pete's a style over substance guy, but dude, you're fucking clever. And clever's not easy to come by."

"You better not let Pete hear you talking with me like this. What do you want?" I turned to him, I hated how much I had to look up to see his face. He was probably more than 6 inches taller than me.

"I don't want anything from you. But, I got a brother--"

"--Oh god, no thank you."

"Now, hear me out. I've got a brother who is a mechanic, he works with some of the big league fighters, right now he's working for Party Poison. He fixes up his bot for the guy, maybe I'll try and get him to meet you. I think you'd be really great at maintenance stuff, the way you had Cherry able to reset even after she was halfway in the wall and that one arm had gone to shit. Or even the compact nature, she's very mobile. I bet you a lot of people would like to see a bot like that out in the ring."

"Listen, I'm not interested in putting Chery out there for everyone to see, and besides, who the fuck is Party Poison?"

"Who the fuck is Party Poison?" Pete ran back into the room, practically colliding with us. He's got a stupid smile again. "Frank, man, you've gotta come over to my place sometime, we'll watch DeathWish and bot fighting matches with Poison, together. He's one of the greatest prodigies of our time! He's only a few years older than us, right Mikes?"

Mikey nodded. "Yep. I've met him myself. He's a really unassuming guy, pretty quiet, you wouldn't imagine he's as talented and taken as seriously in the industry as he is at his age."

It's weird that I went from Pete cussing me out to him inviting me over, but I guess I'll take it as a sign of progress. "Yeah, I'd love to come over some time. I'm not very caught up with the most recent fighters, but I'd love to watch a few matches."

"That'd be great! Maybe next week Friday or something, that's Mikey's next day he can be out, and you go to HRI too, right, Frank?"

"Yeah, that's right." I'm a little surprised. Did Pete look me up or something. "How'd you know?"

"I see you around sometimes. I'm on the same level as you. Pollution ward. Maybe you'll come and see me sometime?" Mikey's face didn't really move, but I have to assume this is a welcoming friendly visit he's advertising.

"Sure, I'd love to be out of that fucking bed."

"Great. I'll come find you someday. Hey, Pete, did you get the thing you were supposed to go get?"

Pete was surprised, seemed like he was thinking. "Was I supposed to get something? Oh, well!"

Seriously. What the fuck is up with Pete.

Chapter Text

“Shit Pete, are you taking me to a warehouse out to the middle of nowhere to fucking murder me?” i called out over the wind. Pete had lent me one of his biased boards, it was an old chunk of metal, thick boards welded together crudely, its kick pedal was a little rusted, we had spent that early Friday morning oiling it and doing some patch work. I was surprised that the board actually flew, but it did better than fly, it kept me on the board, as unbalanced as I was. We were passing up a lot of trees, the large white houses that usually stood cramped together were thinning out to sun bleached shacks, a few metal trailers shined in the distance on old dirt trails. Old broken remnants of battery bikes and bots thrown by the side of the road flew by, dusted with age.   

“Alright, who told him?” Pete's laugh was loud against the wind, cutting. It was hard enough just keeping my sunglasses on my face and keeping myself stable on the board, sometimes my foot would slip by a centimeter and that was enough to take me out, but then the magnetic ankle bracelets would snap back into place. After 30 minutes on the board, I could feel bruises forming as the metal scraped against my skin. If anyone was seeing me struggle, they sure weren't making a big deal of it. Today it was me, Pete and Mikey, and Patrick and Grimes following far behind. Mikey and Pete shared a board in what looked like the most complicated dance of balancing and gripping each other with Pete guiding in front and Mikey pumping the board which was a thumb switch, an easier board to handle than the kick board I was on. Patrick was pretty much stuck watching me by Pete, and of course Pat took the deal, he grumbled next to me, watching intently every time my feet slipped. Grimes rounded out the group, we still weren't talking but it wasn't hostile anymore, and I did honestly want to make it up to her, only I didn't know if her bad reaction was really my fault but of course my anxiety ended up taking responsibility anyways.   

I tried looking down, seeing what was down below, bad idea. Everything looked so miniature, like patchwork greens and the tops of white houses,  seen together by dirty roads the further we got to the outskirts of town. It was weird to me, seeing so many trees and plain fields. On the second level, the rugged shacks continued on until the very edge, where the sidewalk and the world ended. Some used to extend past the edge, supported by poles, but then someone would wake up to the screams as a whole family fell to their deaths, untimely or not, they were grisly, and as kids we were told to avoid the edge of possible. From up here, I could actually see where the world dropped off. Or at least, where my world ended and another one began, a desolate, dead world sat below, waiting. I shivered in my black jacket, pulled the half gloves into my pockets and regained my balance. The gloves were a gift from Patrick actually, they were black with skeletal fingers, he must have seen how my fingers were usually blue or purple, now my fingers ranged more into pale white or even flushed red.   

“We're close now, Frank. Try to slowly bring your balance forward, and you should be able to come to a nice, slow descent.” Patrick patted my shoulder in a show of solidarity, and I tried to start placing my weight a little more forward, but it was too much, and I tripped, my metal ankle bracelets snapping me right back into place. I flailed my arms a little, and after a few moments I was back, I couldn't help look at Patrick, who apologetically grimaced at me.   

"Maybe a little less than that. More steady. C'mon. I'll help you." With Patrick's assistance--he hopped off of his own board and onto mine like it was no big deal—he put his arms around me and helped me lean forward. I couldn't help but feel my heart beating a little too fast. A guy had never put his arms around my waist, and of course Patrick was just a friend but the gesture left me a little breathless. That and he was moving me, posing me with his own weight. He had a surprisingly delicate touch, and such an air of confidence while steering me that I'd never seen before. I even checked his face, he just had a straight face, his thin blonde eyebrows knit together, his eyes narrowed, even his orangish hair flying in the breeze, he wasn't even wearing his glasses, he said he was too afraid of losing them. But it made me focus a little too much on his eyes, they were like blue but yellow.   

"A-are you okay, Frank? You're kind of staring at me.." He whispered back in his normal voice, looking a little concerned.  

"Oh, uh, yeah, I'm fine, Pat." I could feel a blush forming on my cheeks and I ripped my gaze away to look ahead. "I've never flown on one of these...I think that's obvious but you seem so confident."   

He snorted. "Confident isn't a word most people use for me. But, I mean, I have a lot of practice. Me and Pete, we actually met at a board rink. It's kind of a place to practice tricks, and you can mess up as much as you want, the kids there don't judge. Well Pete, he had just been gifted his first board, a hand-me-down from his dad, it's this one you're on right now. And he had some pretty good balance, but this board isn't very sleek, it's hard to do quick turns and flips or anything when the board is all the same thickness around. It's really choppy sometimes, as I'm sure you've been seeing. The key to make the ride a little more smooth is to see where the wind is coming from, and counteract it." He moved one foot behind me a few inches back, then the other, and the board settled under our feet.   

"Holy shit. Oh my god, that is so much better. Thanks, Pat."   

"It's no problem at all. So, yeah, I had to teach Pete a few tricks, well then, you know, he found a really expensive biased board, signed by some athlete or something, he bought it, that's the one he and...Mikey are riding." It was hard for him to say Mikey's name. I think it hurt him to see Pete so happy with another guy.   

"Then, he was really good, because he had always had to overcompensate with a beat up board. It kind of reminds me of the way you fight, Frank. See, Pete's all about the show, the brand name, what it looks like, he likes to elaborate. But when I saw your little bot you brought in that first day, it was practically just bones, some armor, all black wires and everything, I was a little concerned. And then, within the first like few milliseconds, your bot proved to be so capable of fighting a bot that was much larger than itself. I think, I think a lot of people elaborate. They want to look smart, or appear rich. Something in your humbleness, it really moved me."  

"I...I really appreciate that Pat." I found myself smiling.   

"You do? I hoped you would. I don't want to sound like being humble is bad, it's just very different from Pete's style." He spat out the words like an apology. "Oh god, I hope I didn't offend you."   

"No, dude, you're fine." His face relaxed then. This guy's face is so expressive, you can practically read him. "But, I do wonder, how did you and Pete..."  

"End up becoming friends?"  

"Yeah, exactly. You're pretty different people, almost total opposites, it seems."   

"Well, uh," He sighed. "I've always been interested in Pete. It's just funny because I think everyone knows about it, even Mikey, but Pete's totally oblivious. But...it's always been that way. Pete is so daring, he just impulsively does things. When I try to do something impulsive, I can home with a different type of coffee, or 2% milk instead of 1%. Pete just does things, doesn't care about the consequences, and I am all things considered, worry about all the consequences. So when we were starting to get close, Pete gave me a bet that he could do a trick, and I told him he'd end up in the hospital."  

"And...?"  

"He broke a few ribs that day. I had the ambulance on speed dial." He took this time to chuckle, you could see the nostalgia in his eyes. "I think from then on, Pete's relied on me to tell him to just stop for a second and think about what he was doing. And then, he met Mikey his freshman year, that was before Mikey got really sick like he is now, now he goes to school at the HRI, but he used to go to Trinity with us. They were like...chemistry partners or something like that. Mikey was Pete’s conscience then. They pretty much immediately started hanging out, and once Mikey got more sick, they became a couple. Pete had shown interest in guys before, but was always too afraid to date them, but knowing that Mikey was sick, I think Pete just said, ‘forget it’, and he went for it.”  

“And your reaction?” I asked tentatively.  

“Oh, I cried for weeks. I was pretty devastated. But after a few months of them being together, I saw that they really were compatible, and after all, I’d never told Pete how I felt. I couldn’t blame him for moving on when he didn’t see anything to hold on to. We’re still good friends and all, but I’ll probably always regret not saying something sooner. It’s just how it’s going to be.” He sighed, a small smile on his small lips. It was a sad one, but there was some hope in it too. “Having a friend like Pete might not seem like an obvious choice for me, but he’s helped me grow. I can talk to people. I can ditch two classes in a row and not feel so guilty. He’s helped me live a little, and I, I’ve never given myself that chance.” Seeing Pat’s face was like a person listening to a beautiful song for the first time. He adored Pete so much, but not just in a romantic sense, it was in a life giving sense too. From the sound of it, Pat had saved Pete that one day that Pete broke a rib, but Pete saved Pat too. There was a mutual respect, and although one loved as a friend and one loved romantically, it was unconditional. It kind of made me want to ask Pete how in the fuck he had found someone like Patrick, that treated him this well and didn’t expect any romance, any pay off. Just to know that Pete was happy, healthy, that seemed to be enough for Patrick.  

“Ok, now you’ve gotta brace yourself, Frank. You might feel a little drop--”  

It was a little larger than I expect, and I slid, my head hitting right into Patrick’s shoulder.  

“Oh fuck me,” I hissed, cupping my head, checking on Patrick, who was already off the hovering board, He was rubbing his arm, laughing at some joke Pete had made.  

I tried to undo the ankle bracelets, my frigid and stiff hands didn’t want to cooperate. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the infamous red hair as Grimes jumped off her board and called over her shoulder, “Keep up, Iero.” I eventually found the small button, and the board disintegrated beneath my feet, only leaving a small steel heel on my boots. I hadn’t braced myself for that landing either, and landed right on my knees, ripping my black jeans in the process. At least they were the new jeans Aunt Laura had bought me and not my school dress pants. Huffing, checking for blood, I saw only a few bruises forming, my ankles looked pretty beat up too, I staggered my way into the open door of the trailer.  

"Okay, so who is placing bets today?" Pete was buzzing with excitement, him and Mikey jumping up on possibly the oldest couch I've ever seen, it sent dust in the air, and Mikey had a small coughing fit until Pete fished an inhaler out of his pocket. Pete swiftly gave it to him, and Mikey breathed deeply again. I avoided walking up the three steep stairs until I saw the dust clear a little more.  

"Ugh, not today. I'm still in trouble from the last time we bet and my mom thought I was gambling and that she'd raised a heathen," Pat called from the small kitchen, turning on the sink, dumping multiple cans of Power Pup onto the table. "I've got snacks if anyone wants them."  

"You and Pete enjoy. Literally nobody except you two like that shit," Grimes wrinkled her nose as Pat opened up one of the cans and put it on the upside down cardboard box coffee table.  

"That's not true, Mikey likes it, don't you, Mikes?" Mikey looked a little surprised to be brought into the conversation, and he frowned, still clutching Pete close to him.  

"That shit is revolting, Pete."  

Pete's eyes opened wide. "What? I thought you liked it! C'mon, it's a traditional Killjoy delicacy!" 

"Yes, uh, that means jack shit, dude. Killjoys weren't cooks, they were fucking criminals on the run. All they could afford was that dog shit, and well, it kept them alive for a while." Mikey scooted away while Pete took a big gulp of the can, and then tried to kiss him on the cheek. "No way, don't try to come near me with that mouth." Pete swallowed the whole can in one gulp, and then proceeded to wrestle Mikey on the couch to try to get that kiss. Eventually he landed it, once he had Mikey pinned down, the two of them laughing as Mikey whispered, "I fucking hate you sometimes."  

"Aww, I hate you too, sweetie." Pete chirped happily.  

"Get a fucking room, you two. Or better yet, you're like 15 feet and a door away from the woods," Grimes mumbled from the corner of the room where she was standing.  

Grimes and Pete then started arguing, Mikey wriggled free of Pete's grip and went outside to go to the bathroom. Patrick walked over next to me, sat me down in a small dusty recliner, and pulled another opened can out from behind him. "You wanna try any, Frank? Pete likes to offer it to every new club member, it's kind of a sick joke of his. Here's a spoon in case you don't want to slurp it down like the fucking monster Pete is." He offered me a small plastic spoon, and I took the can in my hands. I'd eaten shitty food my whole life, so maybe there was a chance I'd enjoy it.  

Looking at it, the consistency was all watery at the top, and then sort of like jellied clumps. The smell reeked of preservative chemicals, cinnamon and some sort of meat that had been so processed it was like cleaning detergent. "It's a bad idea to smell it, I promise it tastes better than it smells," Patrick assured me. So I took a deep breath in and took a small spoonful.  

"You need more than that, Frank, you need a big spoonful at least to really get an idea of the taste," Pete watched excitedly from the corner of the couch. So, with Pete's encouragement and with the sound of Grimes gagging behind me, I took a larger spoonful and swallowed it whole.  

Honestly, it wasn't bad at all. It tasted like a fusion of meat and some weird spice that made it sweet and savory all at once, and it was chunky and clung to my throat in the end, but I could definitely eat another bite.  

"What, well, what do you think, Frank?" I heard Pat ask from my side.  

In response, I took another spoonful. Pete was hollering in delight, I think I heard Grimes say, "I'm gonna be sick. Oh my god." And she ran out of the trailer just as Mikey walked back in, dodging Grimes from the doorway.  

"I'm guessing I missed something?" Mikey questioned as he went back to sit next to Pete, who tried to greet him with a kiss. "Nope. Not with Power Pup breath, you stinky bastard." Mikey seemed like a pretty patient person, but then again, someone that's willing to date Pete and see through the constant Pete attitude has got to be some sort of super-human, or a saint, or maybe just dumb. But Mikey didn't seem dumb, he sounded pretty smart, I mean, the way he talked to me when he wanted me to sell that bot, that was some business sweet talking he just pulled out. He wasn't reactive either, he just seemed to accept things as they were and was especially patient with Pete. But then again, he mostly lived in a hospital.  

Just living in that place on the weekends was bad enough for me, but Monday morning I would have bad cravings for every sugary cereal, I was caught a lot by ANRI but the two of us had made a deal that if she didn't tell the Duns about me sneaking out, I wouldn't hack into her brain and get her deprogrammed. Yes, yeah, I know that sounded bad, but mutually assured destruction was the only way to deal with ANRI. I had already gotten into her head once last week, I finally got past her firewall, and made her vomit up oil all over Mr. Dun's favorite shirt and tie. I could manage little hacks like this from time to time, after she had gotten me grounded for two months in a row for staying at school so late and not coming home. While the Duns appreciated my dedication to school they said, it wasn't healthy for me to be spending so much time at school. I don't know how I had fooled them that I was actually a good student when I was dicking around with Pete making little service bots that were walking speakers or hacking the sisters' assistant bots to say "fucking right" instead of "affirmative".  

"Frank just became a part of the club, babe. He ate two spoonfuls of Power Pup and he hasn't vomited yet!" Pete exclaimed, and Mikey's eyes went wide in dusgust. He looked over at me with both pity and fear, I think. 

"Dude. Are you regretting that choice yet?"  

"Well, there's sort of a weird texture in my throat, it's kind of slippery and all but the aftertaste isn't so bad." Even the words seemed to get caught in my throat. "Do you have any water in here?" Pat was instantly up to go locate a water bottle for me. 

"Jesus Christ Pete," Mikey murmured, "Poor Frank is going to have a bad night, or morning whenever he throws up your century year old gestated Power Pup." 

"Is it really that old, Pete?" I was a little nervous to know the answer. 

"It's vintage, Frank! You've gotta have the real stuff!" When he saw my face he added, "It doesn't expire for like 200 years, what you guys expect me to waste it when I spent so much money on having the real Killjoy experience?"  

"Yeah, the Killjoys weren't really people to look up to, Pete," Grimes entered back into the trailer, kicking her shoes off. "If we were real Killjoys you could at least hire some Draculoids to come and shoot at us. Hell, go the full nine yards and have them zip us up in body bags. That's a real Killjoy send off. Why are you so obsessed with them anyway?"  

"Well, first of all, anarchist punks driving around the desert with fucking ray guns, and they had serious style. Their leader was cute. Fuck it. All of them were pretty hot actually. You know, Frank, when I met you I thought you look a lot like Fun Ghoul." Pete mentioned as he slurped down another Power Pup and elbowed Mikey. "Right, Mikey? Doesn't he look like Ghoul?" 

Mikey shrugged. "Are you asking me because you always tell me I look like Kobra Kid?"  

"Yeah, okay, Frank." He pulled off Mikey's beanie to reveal straightened spiky hair, that made sort of a messy halo around his head, Mikey grabbed for the beanie immediately but Pete threw it across the room. Pete then took off Mikey's glasses, which got more complaints from Mikey. "Come a little closer to Mikey, okay no, that's too close, yeah, that's better. Imagine Mikey with bleached blond hair, a little older, no glasses, maybe a little beefier--" 

"--Pete!" Mikey groaned.  

"--Just follow me here, Iero," he cupped Mikey's face in his hands. "Ok, compare the image in your mind to this. He pulled up an image up into my pinboard of Kobra Kid. Honestly, and I'm not good with faces, but the resemblance was almost creepy. Kobra Kid and Mikey had the exact same face, except Mikey's was a little softer, and Mikey was definitely skinnier. They even had like the same stright eyebrows, the unimpressed face. Obviously the hair was different too. Kobra's was shaved on the sides with a long shock of blond hair slicked back. Another thing was the ears. Mikey's ears were always covered with that beanie, and past that, he had so much hair too. But you could see Kobra's ears, they were large but not out of proportion, if I had those ears I would look like a fucking idiot. The jawline on Kobra was amazing too. He could cut a bitch on that.  

"Sorry, Mikes, but that is freaky how much you two look alike." Mikey just nodded, and Pete seemed so encouraged by me that then he ran over to me, stood me and Mikey up next to each other. I was then reminded again how much shorter I was then Mikey, who easily stood about half a foot taller than me.  

"Ok guys, now, now look at this. Here's Frank, and here's Fun Ghoul." He brought up an image of Fun Ghoul in the same way as he had done with Mikey, and then a picture of the two of them together, in the middle of some fight, ray guns smoking.  

"Obviously the big difference between Fun Ghoul and Frank is probably the hair. He's got really long hair but Frank with long hair is undeniably Fun Ghoul. He's short, Frank is short. You get the idea." 

"Wow, Pete, do you have a full fucking dissertation on how I'm this guy's like, great-great-great grandson?" I asked Pete, puffing a stray hair out of my eyes.  

"No, no keep that there, Frank! See, same hair color, same thickness and it's getting in his face!" 

"Pete, just because someone's hair is in their face doesn't make them a Killjoy," Pat interjected.  

"But, Pat, it's weird, but totally true, Frank looks exactly like Ghoul," Grimes looked me up and down as she said it, and I felt a little nervous chill go up my spine under the weight of her look. "The eyes are the same, that bright, not exactly brown, not green. Face shape is the same too. I mean, Frank, you're like an exact match minus all the tattoos and all. Pete, how in the fuck did you figure this out? I mean, I know you liked those guys, but how in the fuck do you have all these images of them? Most of the images of the Killjoys have either been redacted or censored. Where did you get these from?"  

Pete recoiled a little, his eyes alight with suspicion, maybe some guilt there too. "Uh, I acquired them totally legally, if that's what you're asking. I bought old security cameras, hired a dude to get them to work for me again, and now I've got never before seen images of these guys." He scratched his head, shrinking a little. "Totally legal."  

We all stood there for a few seconds, not really knowing what to say, none of us really looking each other in the eyes. Pete was flushed, he looked a little embarrassed as he sat back down on the couch. Pete was right though, the previous images I'd seen of Fun Ghoul were really blurry or corrupted, but looking at these pictures, they looked like the pictures taken of my dad when he was that age. Same eyes, same smile, same everything as me.  

"Did any of the Killjoy guys ever have kids? Do you know, Pete?" Pete raised his head at my question.  

He thought about it for a moment then shook his head. "No. They were all exterminated before any of them had children. It wouldn't matter anyway because Ghoul and Party Poison were also queer as fuck and practically a power couple in the end. Kobra and Jet Star died even a few years previous to Ghoul and Poison, they were just roaming around the desert, probably fucking everywhere. God. Imagine the amount of sand in your ass." Pete disappeared in thought for a while, I imagine he and all of us were then thinking about what sand in your ass would feel like. I tried shaking off the thought.  

"Aren't you guys all forgetting like the one reason we're here, it's 3:45, the fight's already supposed to have started," Grimes mentioned casually.  

"Oh shit. EVERYBODY GET DOWN! We got a fucking fight to watch." Pete screamed, wrestling Mikey over to the couch, and practically throwing me over his other shoulder and throwing me on the opposite side of the couch. "Where's the remote? Mikey, do you have it?" 

"Nope, I think it's over by Grimes." 

"Pat has it." 

"What the fuck is a remote?" I heard myself say.  

"Yeah, I've got it, Pete what channel is it?" 

"Scroll through a few, you'll find it."  

Pat pulled the rectangular remote out from the seat, and clicked a button on it. In front of us was some weird box I didn't even notice before, but now it blinked on, and it looked like a video was playing on it.  

"Ok, what the fuck is happening? What the fuck is that thing?" 

"Back in the day, Frank, people didn't have holo-lenses and pinboards implanted. They had to watch videos or read papers and articles through an external computer. They did it for hours on end, and a lot of them stopped socializing, the computers took over their lives, and everybody got fat for some reason." 

"I'm pretty sure that wasn't from the computers, Pete," Mikey nudged his elbow into Pete. "I think people just got lazy." 

"Yeah! Really lazy! They didn't even have bots to do work and they were lazier than us! They just stayed inside, and pretended the outside world didn't exist. And once holo-lenses were invented, they were implanted at birth, it encouraged people to go outside, to stop at certain locations, learn a little about their surroundings. Anyway, so yeah. This, Frank is a television. It's like your holo-lens. It's the same concept, only it can't really zoom in or have a different perspective and things of that sort." Pete seemed pretty excited to be able to tell me all of this, but I couldn't wrap my head around the idea of not having an implant. It sounded like torture. "We are going to watch this match the old fashioned way, on a television!"  

The television blinked on, and videos rapidly changed from some vintage film about desert spiders that made me flinch to discussions on classical music, and finally, to a desert landscape where a giant dome arena overlooked the third level suburbia. People the size of ants thrashed around in a crowd, loud music screaming but it was muted to all of us, external, not fed directly into our ears and I had a hard time figuring out which sorts of instruments I was hearing. The crowd was dressed in all sorts of costume, some wore bright blue hair, others dressed as sexy versions of ANRI bots with the white hair and black eyes, someone else wore an enlarged mouse helmet with glowing eyes and big cartoonist ears, fake punching a girl dressed as MouseKat who delivered real blows and got a holler from Pete, “Oh, fuck yeah, riot girl!” Mikey then immediately shushed him.  

A short theme music played, and the crowd's energy doubled. Some were holding signs for the UFC, others held signs with a yellow mask on it, with “Party’s People” written under it in rainbow font.  

Then the camera zoomed back out, and the UFC silver logo flashed on the screen. A loud, announcer voice cut through the crowd with ease. 

“I’m Mike Goldberg, here at the Dome, as the UFC presents the fight extravaganza of all time! If you want to talk about people, it's sickening, and the tension, it’s all here tonight! Enjoy it, folks!”  

Statistics of the two fighters popped up, one in black, some person named Deadmau5, the other column bright yellow, in big letters the name Party Poison. It looked like they were tied in wins, 9 wins for both of them this season, no losses, but they were also both used to featherweights it looked like, and today they'd be fighting with much larger GigaBots. Their usually knockout time was 39 seconds for Party and 46 for Deadmau5, it looked like the only real difference was the time they'd been in the big leagues, for Deadmau5 it was 8 years compared to Party Poison's measly 2 and a half years. It was pretty impressive that anyone would be in a big league UFC championship fight after that little experience.  

“The It meter factor just broke! These are two fighters (picture of two) people consider amongst the very best, pound for pound, in the world!” The man continued, as the two fighter’s moving images displayed alongside their names and the statistics went away, focusing back into the crowd. “Let’s go up to our announcer!” 

A big, beefy shirtless guy held the mic in a strong grip. Half his face was blacked out with tattoos and he laughed maniacally and then bellowed in a booming voice, “Ladies and gentlemen! CAN YOU DIG IT? IT'S FIGHT NIGHT!”  

The crowd screamed again, and so did Pete, until Pat threw another can of Power Pup at him and I ducked out of the way. 

“Thank you Pat. Are we gonna have to listen to Pete fucking scream this whole thing through?” Grimes muttered from beside the couch. I hadn't noticed her moving closer to me, but she sat below me on the floor, with a few inches between her and my feet.  

“Don't expect any else from Party Poison's greatest fan, if I don't lose my voice after tonight I'm not cheering hard enough.” Pete chuckled, and Mikey seemed to be questioning the reason he was dating the guy.  

“How does it feel to be dating Party Poison's biggest fan, Mikey?” I giggled.  

“It's like being on an emotional rollercoaster except if there were no supports on any side, and it came with a liability form and an impressive, if somewhat depressing, heap of useless facts about UFC games.” Mikey kept a straight face the whole time, he was good at that, while me and Pat broke out into some hysterical laughter.  

“Aww, Mikey, you know as much as me about Party Poison, you've even met the guy.”  

“You have?” I asked.  

Mikey nodded. “Yeah, my brother is a tech support and does some patch work for Poison’s bot Lola. Me and Pete have gotten to go to two smaller tournaments because he can get us free tickets. He's pretty shy but he did get me backstage to meet Poison but that was before Pete and I were dating.”  

“And I'll never forgive you for it. Look, he’s there! Oh man, Frank you better be paying close attention!” I thought it was pretty odd that Pete could tell just by the guys silhouette who it was, but eventually the red and blue lights hit him and he walked past the gated enclosure. The thing my eyes were drawn to first was the oversized helmet replica of MouseKat that nearly fell over his shoulders, an oxygen chord running into its mouth, it looked like it had been dragged through the desert, it was even missing a part of its large right eye. He walked with a stunning confidence, two security bots on either side of him that thinned the raging crowd around him. He wore a high collared and beaten down blue pleather jacket with the logo of the famous mechanic shop Dead Pegasus, glowing stripes of white and red flowed through the fabric, the jacket was short on him, short on the sleeves and short around his chest. Black and red leather gloves were complimented by woven bracelets, one red and the other yellow. He had an impressive walk considering how tight his pants were, they were dirt stained and ribbed around the pockets, strapped to his side by leather scraps were a prop Ray gun and his remote for the bot. Then, once he was inside the dome, he looked back into the crowd, he looked sort of funny wearing the big helmet of a cartoon character, but then he brought his hands to it slowly, and pulled the helmet off to cheering.  

Red hair. Bright, screaming red hair that fell around his face, shaved on the sides to be a short very dark brown, but wild on the top. It cascaded until it fell into the high collar of his jacket. If was electric, almost glowing. His eyes and brows were still covered in a small yellow mask, with diamond eyes and three little dots of blue in the center of his forehead and along the far sides of each of his eyes. His eyes looked dark, deep, but that may have just been the mask casting a shadow on them. His face, meanwhile, his lips were drawn into a thin, small line, he may not have shaved in a day because there was a shadow contouring his square face. The announcer lifted his right hand and the audience screamed, Party Poison bit his lip and I found myself enchanted, watching the blue and red lights play on his skin.  

"Ugh, Frank? I think you're drooling a little bit on the couch," Pete joked, and I jumped out of my trance like state. Mikey raised an eyebrow in my direction, but said nothing otherwise.  

"Y-yeah it's just uh, Party, what-what's his name?" 

"Party Poison," Grimes answered.  

"Right. Yeah, he's not exactly what I was expecting. I was, well I don't know what I was expecting..." 

"Someone less pretty?" Pete offered.  

"M-maybe, yeah." I could feel myself flushing already, and tried turning away from Pete, only to see a little smile on Pat's lips. Just then, the announcer spoke again, and I was sucked back in.  

"...If he wins tonight, he will become the youngest champion in UFC history." Party took one more bow, to another large scream from the crowd, then sat down in the large chair in front of the cube-like console. He pressed a button and the console lit up yellow, lights turned on one by one until the entire arena was lit in a bright white light.  

"Here's his contender coming in, Frank." Pete hissed. "He's got no chance of winning this fight. Not when Party is on top of his greatest winning streak to date and is in the 90th percentile of fighters his age."  

"When did he start fighting?" I asked, never looking away from the screen as a skinny guy with sprawling glowing tattoos enters the stage to much cheering. He's got on a basic black hat, and a black shirt with some rainbow cat on it, very vintage looking, but a lot cheaper than Party Poison's costume looks, and hell, his doesn't even look like a costume, it looks he was born to wear it.  

"When he was signed or when he unofficially started?"  

"Unofficially."  

"Hmm." Pete relaxed back into the couch, his arm around Mikey's shoulder. "I think the interviews say he started liking bots at around middle school? Do you know Mikey?"  

Mikey shrugged. "From what I heard, he was always into it. His dad worked at Dead Pegasus, I think, until that bad accident happened and they had to block off a whole section of the Second Level from the radiation." 

"So he's from the Second Level? Was it around where you and I were?" 

Miked nodded. "That's at least what he said on his Pink Station Zero interview. But he moved his whole family up to the second level once he was well known enough to support them." 

"He's got a family?"  

"A mother and a brother," Mikey replied, taking a swig of the bottle of water Patrick placed in front of each of us.  

"...People say he’s cocky, but it’s confidence. Totally an animal." The television buzzed in front of us.  

The opponent was sitting at his console now, and with the sound of a buzzer, the two of them booted up their bots. The lights ran up Party Poison's bot, along with an electrical spark, and I saw a hint of electric pink, and then once the lights ran into the bot's hooded eyes, they became an electric blue, lighting the rest of a white face, circular black eyebrows, a feline looking nose and muzzle. It's face looked almost complacent, and then the rest of the bot lit up bright pink. So pink it hurt my eyes.  

The other guy's bot was just like the mouse head I had seen someone wearing, maybe a little more worn, and it had long sharp looking fangs that seemed to be dripping with oil, planted on an almost spherical body with short fat arms and legs.  

"In the third quadrant, Lola representing Party Poison!" The announcer waits a few moments for the fans to quiet. "In the second quadrant, DMau-5 representing Deamau5! Two fighters have requested Battle Royale, which means this is a no rules fight. Three rounds. First bot off its feet loses, out of the ring is also a loss. Are you two ready?" Deadmau5 gave the thumbs up, while Party Poison gave a slight nod. "all right then folks, this fight starts in 5,4,3,2,1!"  

Immediately, the two guys are up on their feet, pulling levers, pushing buttons, tuning frequencies to have a better shot at the title.  

"Is this like, first generation Umbrella units? Those consoles look fucking ancient." I winced as Party Poison seemed to be struggling with the older control system. "Did they like, not even show him the unit before he's expected to efficiently fight with it?" 

"It's a Battle Royale, so there are no rules. You can't even have a manager call for details about the consoles if it's a BR." Patrick sighed, grabbing another water bottle, which meant him going in front of the TV and Pete shrieking at him, smacking him out of the way.  

"That's the problem with Party Poison. He's too cocky," Mikey muttered, barely audibly.  

Just then, Lola got a strong punch to the face, and they staggered back. Pete gasped. "That, that's not fair! Poison doesn't even know the controls yet!"  

But Lola recovered quickly, and sent DMau-5 back with a kick and punch, it was staggering the unbalance of both bots, probably at their weight they could crush a small city alone, they were at least 100 feet from my estimates, Lola a little taller than the mouse bot.  

"He got himself into this, Pete, just remember that the next time you want to do a BR No Rule fight," Mikey nudged him.  

“Maybe his console and remote are malfunctioning. That's pretty common with the old units, they have the fans without the dust filter, it could be overheating.” I scratched my head, my brain buzzing with an endless supply of troubleshooting questions.  

“The power pedals look rusted to, see how much he's having to kick to even get Lola to move forward,” Patrick observed.  

“Come on Poison, you can do it!” Pete pleaded with the television, just as Lola received a nasty blow to their face and keeled over almost instantly.  

“That's round one! Deadmau5 has 1, he’s in the lead, Party Poison has 0, and he looks pretty stunned. Looks like it might not be a good night for him,” the announcer called, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Mikey slide his hand into Pete's with a hard squeeze. Pete looked over at him, but Mikey’s eyes were glued to the screen, his eyebrows came together in the middle, it looked like he was almost worried. Maybe if Party Poison lost then Mikey’s brother would be out of a job. I remembered how scary it was my dad lost his job before he got sick. I had to practically grow up overnight, it felt like there was always some urgency, like I wasn't a kid anymore but I was wasting time I could have been working with going to school. Finding friends like Pete, Grimes, Pat, Monae and Mikey had really helped me out of that sort of anxiety, the constant worrying. 

I started to like school when they were around. Tonight was a Friday night, so I would have to ride back to the Duns and they would take me back to the hospital. I would be stuck in my room, my empty white room where nothing existed, it was so silent from no pinboard signal, no holo-lens activity, and the silence in my own head turned into bells that rang constantly as nurses came with IV lines and I took different medications every day until I had a bad reaction to one and then they'd put me on something else. Eventually though, I knew that once the doctors and nurses left and they were on checkup every 4 hours instead of 2 I could sneak over to Mikey’s room and we'd talk about anything, we could talk about bots or his favorite toys growing up as a kid, he had actually even lived a few blocks from me on the second level until he moved during elementary school, his mother had wanted to put his older brother into a good school, where he could learn mechanics and bots and coding without having to steal supplies or get them by dirtier means. Mikey really cared about his brother, even though he complained his brother didn't have much of a social life outside of the rings of the UFC.  

But right now, I was here with these guys and I needed to keep that in my mind, sure I would be returning to the hospital, but I'd see them all again on Monday morning, bright and early. Patrick would tutor me in coding and Monae covered history, maybe Grimes would even ask me how to get the back joints flexible in our bot we were making in mechanics. I could sense that she had forgiven me, he hand was on my thigh even now as Lola delivered a solid blow to Dmau-5 and the bot plummeted, it's weight only being dispersed by the gravity field that kept the bot fights safe and not totally catastrophic. Pete jumped in the air, chanting, he pulled Mikey up from the couch and did a dance with him, and Mikey did not dance, but he did smile.  

You could tell through the crappy quality of the TV that Deadmau5's blood was boiling, as he ran right up to Party Poison to try and punch him and Poison blocked it, but was then held in a headlock by Deadmau5 until the ref broke it up. 

“That's round two, everyone. Deadmau5 and Party Poison are now tied with a win each! Now here comes the final round of 3! If you haven't already, it's time to GIVE EM HELL, KID!!” The final buzzer was loud, piercing through my thoughts as Mikey and Pete scrambled back to their seats, Pete still showering his boyfriend with kisses.  

The two bots were circling each other, and just as Lola began to move into a punch, they stopped, midway.  

“It's seems like Party Poison might have some malfunction, it might be time to call a time--”  

Dmau-5 slammed into Lola with all of its strength, and Lola just took the hit, not moving.  

“What in the hell?” I questioned.  

“His console is unplugged, or maybe the wires have been bitten through! They need to call the match for a time out!” Pete cried, biting his nails off the hand that wasn't clutching Mikey’s.  

“It looks like Deadmau5 is gonna be happy to take a dirty victory, and not even worrying about the UFC insurance policy. All this damage is gonna go right into his account,” Grimes panicked, reaching out for one of my hands and I took hers, my heart racing but I could tell if it was from Grimes being so close or from poor Poison’s situation.  

She was right though, and quickly enough as Deadmau5 saw Party Poison's panicked expression as he leapt out of his chair to check the wires of the console, Dmau-5 was ripping off Lola’s left arm and was slapping her with it, then followed up with a punch to the right.  

The camera shifted to Party Poison, who was still under the console,  but as the camera showed, no wires had been cut and all the motherboard was lighting up as it should have been. He looked almost scared, exhausted, as he went back to his chair and just sat.  

“Nonono,” Pete strung all the words together. “Party Poison's giving up? He can't just give up like that!”  

“Like you said so yourself, Pete, it's a technical failure, it isn't Poison's fault,” Pat tried encouraging him just as Lola staggered, and slowly, it was heartbreakingly slow, their fuzzy pink feet gave out and the collided with the ground, head first, to an explosion of cheers and cries, in equal measure.  

But the camera stayed on Party Poison, as he watched his bot be lifted by the gravity helicopter, Lola’s head was almost completely snapped off, hanging by a few wires, their feet turned practically to rubble and debris. And all he could do was watch as his bot was transported up by a beam of light and carried off to the edge of the world, where it would be dropped on to The Place Down Below, as the really dramatic UFC fights always ended. He was forlorn as a person skis their hand onto his shoulder, and he stood up, in a daze. The camera zoomed out to see Deadmau5, along with the announcer, lifting their fists into the air, and the text scrawled along the TV that read DEADMAU5 WINS.  

The camera panned across parts of the crowd, some creaming in delight, others had tears freely flowing. I think I saw Mikey take off his glasses and wipe his eyes but none of us mentioned it. We just sat in silence, watching as Party Poison just sat, his eyes were still obscured by the mask but he sat with his head in his hands, totally devastated as Deadmau5 continued to celebrate.   

But then, his head shot up, he leapt out of his chair, watching Dmau-5, incredulously, as he whispered "Oh Fuck." And a censor bar popped up over his lips.  

"What, what's happening?" Pete seemed to ask no one in particular.  

Dmau-5 started rocking on its heels, backward, then forward. Sparks exploded out of its mouth and its eyes went dark, its head rolling to one side, my blood ran cold. My heart stopped beating. Every hair on my arms, legs, neck all stood up. I dared to look at everyone else, Pete had drawn his hands over his mouth, Mikey looked numb, Pat was trying to look away, and Grimes looked right back at me, fear in her eyes as our stares collided.  

We watched in horror that night, as all of those people in the arena's faces turned from that of excitement to absolute fear in a millisecond. All smiles dropped, and as Dmau-5 dropped, people scrambled out of the way, party Poison went for hiding under his console, Deadmau5 was too far from both his console and the exit and was crushed immediately, along with the announcer. The ground was crumbling around the bot as it continued to topple over, its body so heavy that upon falling the foundation of the level separated, the bot sinking, along with a number of crowd members, who slid down the now open hole into the free air, 20,000 feet from impact on the second level. Shrieks collided with the sound of metal as it folded in on itself, and the bot seemed to let out a final hollow roar and then it moved no more. People still ran in every direction, forming a human chain to save a girl from the free fall, but the bot groaned behind them, and the ground rose more and more, until it was perfectly vertical, and the bot slid down with the terrified screams, crushing the poor girl and the camera also focused on her flattened body as if plummeted down to the Second Level, until she and the bot disappeared into the smog. With it the bot took a large chunk of the stadium foundation, in the very least the stage with the consoles, and the control towers, where the crews for both bot teams would have been monitoring the whole fight. 

Mikey cupped his hands to his face, letting out an animal scream, crumpling to the ground and Pete just sat there, frozen, tears freely flowing, and while he shut his eyes tight as Mikey screamed, he didn't move. Patrick was actually the first person to go to Mikey, to give Mikey his shoulder, to embrace him in a hug, and he patiently sat while the taller boy wept, repeating his brother's name  "Gerard...Gerard...Gerard," like saying it could undo all of this. Patrick sat there, clutched Mikey, the boy that Pete had loved instead of him, none of that mattered anymore.  

The ground shook under us for a moment, and we could actually hear the screaming metal collide with the foundation, the sound and vibrations just hitting us now.  

I couldn't tell if the sound had cut out of the recording, or if I had just lost the ability to hear. Everything was silent, minus the high pitched whistling in my ears. I could feel my stomach acid creeping up my throat, my mouth was full of saliva, and so on my shaky legs I stood. But then Mikey decided to look right up at me, his eyes held many questions, and I couldn't answer any of them.  

I didn't make it out to the field before I vomited, and I ended up with most of my bile hitting the side of the trailer, where it hissed in the heat. I was sweating already, took off my dress shirt, I didn't care about the bruises my body was covered in from all the blood tests, or my obvious and protruding ribs, or even the paleness of my skin. Nothing mattered anymore. People were dead, one of them being Mikey's brother and while this was painful, this pain didn't belong to me. It wasn't inherently mine, my own personal grief, my blood, my family. I didn't have a family. I'd never even had a sibling. Now, Mikey didn't have one either. I vomited again then, the remainders of the Power Pup I had eaten came out in clots, in chunks. Tears flowed from my eyes and I finally stood, balancing myself up against the hot aluminum walls of the trailer, and rebuttoning my shirt with fickle, clumsy hands.  

The other side of the trailer's doors opened.  

"I have to go Pete, please let me go." Mikey begged in between sobs. "My, my brother, he could still be alive. I need to go find him. I'm supposed to look after him." 

"Mikes, Mikes, look at me, you're asking me to let you go get yourself killed! They're going to find your brother, I'm sure there's a rescue team already out there. That bot crashed through two whole levels, you can't go to the First Level, you have a hard enough time breathing here where the air is clean, I'm not letting you go." 

"No!" Mikey howled in between raspy breaths, I could hear him struggling in Pete's arms as he cried, "Let go of me, Pete! You know what my brother means to me. If you loved me you would let me go to him!" 

"I do love you, Mikey, which is why if you go I'm going with you. Get the biased board and your mask, you're gonna need it. I know you haven't been wanting to wear that mask, hon, but you're not going to help your brother if you're suffocating."  

The door slammed shut and then opened again.  

"I got it! Let's go." Mikey was already breathless, gasping.  

"Okay, get on. I'll guide. Do you need help with your mask? Okay, come over here, no, wait a minute, not so fast, let me fasten it now. Why? Because I'm not having your one supply of oxygen flying off halfway through our rescue mission. Okay, it's good. I love you, Mikey, don't forget that. Let's go save your brother."  

The two of them were far away, just a speck on the horizon by the time that I lurched over to the front door, where Patrick and Grimes were talking, she was picking dead grass out of the ground, one brown blade at a time, and Patrick was digging cans of Power Pup and water bottles out of the fridge, already a large pile was forming near Grimes' torso.  

"H-hey," I called out hoarsely. Grimes crushed the air right out of me in a trapping hug. "God. I feel so terrible for Mikey. The poor kid."  

"Maybe Gerard is still alive." I weakly offered.  

"Not likely, I mean he fell through two levels. Almost 50,000 feet free fall. If he's alive, his life will never be the same."  

"Frank! I heard Pat call from the kitchen's trailer, and I followed the voice inside as ten water bottles were put into my hands.  

"Okay, that's the rest of it. Pete will have to stock up for himself later, but it's fifty water bottles and 23 cans of Power Pup. I don't know if anyone will eat it, but we'll take it anyway. Will you be okay to fly, Frank?" Pat asked, scooping up the cans in his shirt, showing a little of his stomach. Grimes stuffed some into my backpack and hers.  

"Yeah, I'll be fine," I responded, maybe a little doubt in my head.  

"Pat, put those in your backpack. You're not gonna be able to steer with all those in your hands. The victims can wait, you're not gonna be helping anyone if you fly off your board with the balance shift," Grimes tried to convince Pat by pushing a few into a pack and eventually he started following her direction.  

"Alright, is everyone good?" Pat asked, once we were all strapped in, packs tightened with fasteners around my chest and stomach, and the magnet bracelets back on my ankles, my legs are throbbed and I wore at least twenty pounds on my back, hunching me over.  

"I'm good," Grimes responded. I nodded.  

“Okay guys, prepare yourselves. It's gonna be a long and awfully ugly nigh--” Patrick stopped then, mid-sentence, frozen suddenly.  

“Pat?” I asked, turning to Grimes, her mouth was slightly shape, both eyes shut as she was halfway into strapping on one of her guiding ankle bracelets. “Grimes?”   

I'd heard of people glitching out and having a certain person appear to be frozen, but they always maintained a dialogue, it's just that the person looked fuzzy. But right now, Grimes and Pat weren't speaking and I went to look at Pat, who was frozen in position but would move for a short loop and then cut back to being still. Even the leaves on the trees were caught in midair, and I touched one, to no effect, I couldn't even budge it.  

I was starting to freak out a bit as I ran back into the trailer, the kitchen faucet was still on, water droplets bounced in the air, the fridge was still open, television was still on, playing the same loop of cameras from smoggy second level as bots tried to repair the hole in the foundation.  

What might have shook me the most was the silence. So many will describe silence as a hole, a nothingness, but I don't think our brains are capable of hearing nothingness. The brain substitutes, it finds a way to make noise when there is none, and so the whole time I watched and listened as the sound drained away and was replaced by a whining in my eardrums, there was no feedback from the microphone in my throat, no direct links, no messages from my pinboard, no one speaking into my ear, not even any wind amplified. So my brain did the honor and a sudden ringing began, quietly at first, then like a sucker punch.  

It shook through my bones, rattled my ribcage, left me breathless as it only continued to get louder. I fell to the ground, cupping my ears, and while I knew I was screaming I could not hear it but I could feel my vocal chords and neck contract, the stinging in my throat and I started to cough, violently. I don't know how many minutes I laid there, tears flowing down my face as I slowly suffocated, my vision getting dark. 

Gasping for air, the shrieking noise seemed to fall back, at least a little, no longer agonizing and I could sit up again. The sound was changing almost, from a shrieking whistle to something like a feedback whine.  

And then the sound cut off immediately. I sat in shock for a few moments, until I tried to weakly stand up again. But by then, by the time my sight was good again, the trailer was much larger than before, I couldn't see the exit except for a small for a dot of white light that must have been the outside, it was like the whole trailer had stretched to infinity.  

“Frank Anthony Iero Jr, are you ready for your confession?” A voice echoed through the walls, through my ears and the sudden new sound was almost as frightening as the whistling from before.  

“My confession?” My voice was raw, didn't feel like my own but then the trailer continued to stretch, and darken, and my vision cut to bluescreen, then to black and my body collided with the ground. 

[END OF PART 1]

Chapter Text

“Sleep well, Iero?” the voice that cuts through the blackness is low pitched, low frequency, female, human, I think. It's laborious trying to open my eyes, they just keep fluttering shut. I'm finally able to make out the full shape of my hands in my lap, one hand on either leg. And when my vision is clear I notice the handcuffs.  

My hands aren't just in my legs, they're handcuffed to either arm of the metal chair I'm strapped into. Looks like my legs are free, but I wouldn't get far running with a chair handcuffed to my butt.  

What in the fuck did I do this time?  

The room is a perfect square, smooth dark walls, a skylight that pours light over my body, and makes it difficult to see the faces of the two officers as they walk in. There's also a table, and two chairs opposite mine. The only thing on the table is an old looking black box, a vintage microphone plugged into it.  

“Why am I here?” I ask, noticing how sore my throat feels, and instinctively I pull a hand up to rub it, which only leaves me with a sharp sudden pain.  

“The tranquilizer is starting to rub off, it's also an amnesiac, so you might find yourself a little fizzy right now but it will clear in about five minutes or so.” The officer pulling up into the chair is the voice, female as I expected, and shorter than any cop I've ever seen before, shorter even than me. She's in the full black uniforms of the Zone Officers, even with the smiley face and the Sigil of Zone 31 on her shoulders. Decked out in combat gear, it doesn't look like they have any in her size and while her uniform fits, none of her armor does, it's all at least two sizes too large. She's got a baton hanging to her right side, a fully charged stun gun, and the smallest, most intimidating face. No makeup, and white blonde hair pulled back into a low ponytail, light thin eyebrows drawn into a line, she's staring me down pretty intensely.  

The other guy walks towards me a little slower, like he's hanging in the background to see if his partner explodes in my face. He's got wide eyes, and a wider set nose, a non-existent upper lip and just about the thinnest, dumbest looking mustache I've ever seen.  

“What's with him? Why's he so slow?” I ask the girl, who won't stop staring directly into my eyes.  

“The confessions, being on the record, it makes him nervous.” She then turns to face her disoriented partner. “Farro? Get on over here, you know we’ve got more confessions to tape by the end of today. At least four more before noon.”  

He picks his feet up, the slowest shuffling I’ve ever seen, and grumbles something under his breath.  

“If you’re gonna bitch, Farro, just say it to my face.” Her eyes narrow, it seems like this is a pretty normal routine for the two of them. "We've been over this plenty of times now, and you've never held back on me before."  

"I..." He pauses immediately, his higher pitched, sort of breathy voice isn't really what I expected him to sound like, but he sighs and just decides to say it. "I was thinking that Taylor always knew to give me some space, he always knew I would get nervous and wouldn't make me sit in on the tapings. Can I—can I just go?" His voice lifts at the end, you can hear the nerves in his voice, he's tapping one foot impatiently.  

"No, Farro. Stop lurking back there and get over here. Taylor York isn't your partner anymore, and not only am I your partner, but I'm also your senior so you're gonna pull up the chair next to me, you can sit down, say your name for the record and then shut up after, okay?" She's harsh, but there's definitely a tenderness in her voice, and her eyes follow Farro all the way until he's scooting the loud chair up and I have two sets of eyes on me then. His eyes are puffy, red nose too, he's sniffling like he's been crying for a while. Oh god. This confession is gonna be fun with the awkward energy between these two.  

"Okay then, we are gonna start this then." The woman presses the play button on the box and a red light blinks on, two circular sets of tape start spinning. I've seen machines like this before, but they've always been in pieces or over a century old. This one isn't shiny, and it looks probably at least thirty years old, but its working without a hitch.  

"What type of bot is that?" 

"It's not a bot," the female responds flatly. "It's an analog tape recorder. Most stuff is digital but we like to keep analog versions of confessions too so that they don't corrupt and we can have backups." 

"Where did you get it from? Who made it?" 

"No more questions." She snaps. She clears her throat then. "This is Officer Hayley Williams." She waits a few moments before nudging her male partner, who's been looking straight up into the sky light.  

"Officer Zac Farro." He quietly says.  

"Right. Officer Farro and I are here with the person in questioning. Say your name." She asks of me.  

"Frank Anthony Iero. Junior." The two officers exchange glances at the name. "Do you two know my dad? You're looking like you do. If you know anything--" 

"I said no more questions, Mr. Iero. You will respond when we ask you to respond."  

I sigh, and sit back in my chair. I don't speak again.  

“So, Mr. Iero, do you know why you're here?” Williams is staring at me with this level of intensity and focus that's impossible to match. All she's doing is looking at me and I already am ready to confess to every and all crimes against humanity, even the ones I didn't commit.  

“Why don't you tell me, Officer Williams, I'm having a bit of trouble remembering.” I reply as sneakily as possible and I watch as her face hardens and Farro raises an eyebrow. “But maybe that's just because you drugged me, kicked me into a confession room and replayed for me all my memories. Are parts of that even legal? Drugging criminals and wiping their memory?” I lay back in the chair as much as the handcuffs will allow me. Far enough to notice Farro rapping his feet on the floor rapidly and with increasing speed. His index finger taps the table along to his own beat.  

“Well, certain accommodations must be made when you're trying to catch dangerous criminals and keep more from becoming bad guys. Why? Did you get a bruise on your pretty face when they were seizing you?” She leans in, and Farro coughs, pointing to the recording device.  

“My partner wants me to continue on with the questions, so let's begin, that is, if you're willing to work with us.” She swipes her hand in front of my eyes and brings up a hologram case file. She flicks her finger to the first page.  

It's a video, it's smoky at first, hard to figure out what's going on but then I'm hearing a group of people chanting and a long line of officers in black riot gear breaking formation as a grenade sails into the view of the camera and the officers run. Then there is a hot white light and the camera glitches out, CAMERA OFFLINE shines in blinking green letters.  

“Were you or were you not at The Resistance Riot on the 300th block on the Second Level two days ago?” The video plays over again in a nonstop loop.  

I think I wait about five loops until I answer. “Wouldn't you know? BLind has put fucking cameras in our eyes so you can all monitor us like fucking rare animals, seeing what we see, seeing what we eat, seeing us even when we shit, don't you know me well enough to say whether I was or wasn't at that Riot?” I'm trying to stay calm but I'm practically spitting out the words by the end.  

“Just a simple yes or no answer will suffice, Mr. Iero.” She's not shaken at all by my little speech.  

“Yes,” I grumble, sinking in my seat. Farro now has both hands on the table, drumming away. I hope it's not too loud that the recording picks it up.  

“Alright, see how easy that was? If you answer respectfully, you'll be respected as a person with rights.” She nods and the first page shows an animated green checkmark, then flips on to the next question.  

This page has a line up on it. I recognize a few of the faces. Bellamy is there, so is Armstrong, he's sticking his tongue out in his arrest photo, I would expect any less. Mark is there too, smiling for the camera while Tom just looks bored. Some faces are less friendly, like the face now, dark skin, brown eyes and unkempt greasy black hair flattened by a floppy hat, orange tinted sunglasses and a shirt patterned with exotic flowers. And all of his gang of course, all with their crooked smiling showing crooked teeth and red eyes.  

“Alright, so you recognize any of these people?”  

“Yes.”  

“All of them?”  

“Yeah, actually.”  

Williams seems satisfied with that answer, looking hopefully over at her partner. “Great. Good. Okay, do you know who had the access to the grenades and the other firearms?”  

“Uh, a few people were passing them out at the front of the beginning of the street. Like where we started. They had on masks. I didn't see their faces. I don't think they ever took them off. But I did see that two of them had glowing eyes. Think they were bots." Her eyes light up at that one, she bites her lip.  

 She's concerned, and exchanges another glance with Farro, he looks surprised too. "Are you sure they were bots?"  

"Pretty sure. What, is that weird that they were bots?" 

Zac coughed again then.  

"L-let's go on to the next question." She stutters, and takes an audible breath before continuing. "Okay so do you know who was the leader of the whole Resistance? Like who orchestrated it?" 

"Well, I do know, but they're all friends of mine. Do you got friends, Officer Williams?" 

"O-of course I do. But believe me, if the leader is who we think it is, it's going to be better for you to just say it. You can't spare criminals from their fate; you can't spare them from the law." 

I guess she could be right. But do I really want to give out Bellamy's name like this? Or do I give it and angle towards being a friend to the police? I can't fucking stand the police, and the thought almost makes me sick to my stomach, but it's a much better alternative than getting locked up.  

"Okay. I'll give a name. Matthew Bellamy. He orchestrated the whole thing. I didn't know him though, only shook his hand."  

"So who connected you with him? How did you know about the Resistance Riot?" 

"I, I met Mark at a bar once, a week ago or so and he told me that I should come, it would be a good time. Didn't know that a good time to Mark Hoppus meant getting teargassed and a shower of real bullets. Not even stun guns, no, those cops were armed with real bullets. I'm pretty sure it was meant to start out peaceful, or at least Mark thought so, you should have seen his face when that first grenade was thrown. Shit got real fast for him then. It did for all of us." 

"But there were people handing out firearms, you said." She scoots in closer to me, her green eyes laser focused in on me. "How could you expect that to be peaceful?" 

"Watch you own footage, officer. Do the rioters hit first or do the officers? They kept shooting up into the air, warning shots. Then, a not so warning shot into Bellamy's fucking skull. He was at the front of the line though, so, and I mean, I didn't know him, but it was only after that, that's when the first grenade was thrown. I saw it. Check my holo-lens if you don't believe me."  

I could tell from her grim face though, that she did believe me, and she didn't spend any breath on trying to defend her fellow officers. "We lost officers too, good people. It was devastating on both sides." Farro bites his lip beside her, turning his head away from us, silently his body shakes with a cry. "My partner and I lost a good friend of ours too." 

"Thing is, I don't even know who I've lost. Maybe after all this is over, you release me and I get to see who I need to mourn for." I hadn't thought of that before. Most of the riot had been a blur for me anyway, I'd been on a two day drinking binge with Hoppus before, and I was pretty shit faced by about that time. Bellamy didn't let us get any guns after seeing us swagger up the block, right out of a bar. But thinking about it, the fact that maybe some people I was friends with, even just some people I kind of knew, thinking that some of them just didn't exist anymore, a cold shiver ran through my body. I was anxious before, to leave this room, to get back on the streets, but now, what was waiting for me there? My friends, maybe a few less friends, maybe a few more enemies?  

"You'll find out soon enough. We just have a few more questions for you." She zooms in on the faces of the five men that I unfortunately recognize, greasy hair and disgusting crooked smiles. "Can you identify any of these people?" 

I sign. "Yeah, unfortunately. First guy is Dizza, then the one with the inbred-looking fuckface is Paddy, Crabs is the one with the facial hair atrocity, Hollywood is the red haired one, I've also heard him called Red Thunder but that's basically only himself that calls him that, and the last guy is Beaker, who I've actually talked to and he's still a dickbag, but not as much of a dickbag as the rest of them." Farro maybe smiles a little at my descriptions of each of them, Williams' face is still stone cold, unmoving.  

"Okay, and where do you know them from?" 

I shrug. "Parties. Bars. They're always out on the streets, terrorizing people. They make life a living hell for some people."  

Williams nods. "Have you heard the name affiliated with them—Sticky Fingers or STIFI for short?" 

"Uh," I sigh. I'm feigning apathy but these guys, Dizza especially makes it his job to piss me off whenever he sees me, so I'm not all that excited to be speaking so much about him. "Yeah. They're a gang of sorts, the messiest, shittiest gang I've ever heard of. The gang started off with like twenty of them or something but they're such fucking idiots that they kept getting themselves killed left and right until only 5 of them were left now. Dizza's been trying to recruit new kids for a while now. He's probably still pissed at me that I declined so long ago." 

"Really?" Her eyes widen, I can tell she's taking notes on my vitals, checking if I'm lying or not. "And how long ago did he ask you to join?" 

"Maybe two, three years ago. Met at a party, he was wearing those dumb sunglasses and the shirt. He says it's his party attire. We shared some common interests, it was enough to make us friends, sort of. He would crash at my place whenever it was too hectic in that fucking fraternity of a house they squatted in. One of the nights, he asks if I'm interested, I said no. Well then we didn't talk so much anymore, sort of ignored each other but I got back on his shit list again after I punched one of his teeth in during a fight. After that him and all his fucking Aussie gang had been banned for parties for a few months." 

She seems to be looking past me, maybe looking at the walls for any clue. Farro has stopped drumming, maybe it's gotten interesting enough for him now. "He must have a high opinion of you to try to invite you into his gang. What it common that Dizza and the rest of the gang would start fights at these parties? Was it a usual club or bar you went to?"  

Most of the parties were a blur, either maxxed out of my mind or drunk off my ass. But I still remember plenty of fights. "STIFI would always clear out like a whole blockside for a party, there was a big one every Saturday night, and while they weren't the minds behind it, they all became the life of the party, the ones that people came to see. It wasn't a real party then, not until Dizza brought his cricket bat and someone was on the floor unconscious, maybe a concussion. Dizza has anger issues; call all of us fags or something, get in a girl's face, freak her out and threaten all of us. But he's an unsteady  bastard after too many drinks, so that's when I would buy him drinks before we would fight. People liked to watch too. You could make a few bucks on challenging people to a fight." 

Williams looks at Farro, you can tell this sort of information is a little frightening for them, hell, it changes the game, considering human on human fighting is even worse than bot fighting which has been put under a new host of rules after the Professional Griefers accident. Farro nudges her, and coughs. She shakes herself off, and readjusts into focus. "And anything you remember about a certain bar sponsorship?" 

I draw a blank. "I don't think so, but if I did know, it's gone by this point. They might not be a smart group, but I knew there's a smarter guy behind the parties, considering they're mostly a big group of gangs and punks coming together and while you couldn't avoid a fight, there was never any deaths, and a pulse radar inside the buildings blocked off the signals from the holo-lenses' cameras. Made it look like a block just went to blackout."  

"So no one has any recordings of the types of criminals going to these parties?"  

"Uh, no, no, not to mention no one would ever admit it to the cops. I don't go much anymore, I'm trying to distance myself from that sort of life." 

"So you've never associated yourself with any gangs?"  

I shake my head. "No. I went to parties to get drunk off my ass and meet a cute boy or girl. Never any more than that." But then it starts to hit me. I'm confessing a lot, I'm ratting a bunch of people out here, and my involvement with some very bad people, but Williams and Farro don't look at me ready to throw me back into a cell. It's almost like they're angling for something. Obviously, yes, they need information, but this seems to be going in the direction of something else. Like a partnership. "For me confessing so much, you're not sounding like you're condemning me or even going to lock me up again. Just what do you want from me?" 

"We're happy you asked, Frank." Farro replies in his cool, light voice, but it's much more ominous to me. "We would like to release you tonight, no ankle bracelet, no parole officer, no fine." 

I feel a lump forming in my throat. "And what's the catch?" 

"Williams and I become your handlers and you report back to us from time to time about your findings in the criminal world." Farro answers, his voice much more confident now.  

"You'll be our agent, then," Williams interjects, looking to Farro who nods. "You report to us and we can get you in favor with some of our resources. That is, as much as our upper level managers will let us. You'll get a clearance card, access to some of our files, so you can know your targets."  

"Exactly." Farro finishes. "As you know, there's a whole underground movement for deactivating certain functions of holo-lenses, especially the recording of both visual and audio that then gets monitored through by the Police, and then gets reported to BLind. We used to be able to catch criminals with ease, but now they're finding ways of surgically removing those recording devices without us knowing, after that they play pre-recorded days in random order to make it look like they're just going about their daily lives. And maybe when they're done with illegal activities they return to the implant, or start off with a fresh one."  

Williams follows Farro's eyeline and then I'm staring both of them down. Thing is, I can't believe I didn't think of that before. Hacking into a person's holo-lenses. Maybe you could implant other people's memories then into a clean recording device, and then stick it back in their skull. I wondered what the procedure looked like. Or how many people had to die in order to make the whole thing safe. And then if you could do it for humans, could you do it for bots also? Hack in, take the memories, even wipe the bot clean?  

"As you can imagine, this has made finding any criminals hell for us. We've had to go back to old techniques, interviewing, recording even on devices that we know can't be hacked into." Williams bites her lip, Farro drums on his gun at his side. "And obviously, nowadays you can easily find out if a person is a cop or not. Just look at them and their name and occupation pop up. We need someone on the inside, someone who really has a chance of getting some real answers."  

"And that's me, I'm guessing?" Dumb question, I know, but it's worth a shot that they're just explaining this to a no-good deviant, right?  

Williams hesitates, but nods anyway. "Yeah, that's you, Frank. You're the perfect candidate; you haven't had any motivation since you were in high school, you're clever but certainly not smart, so unassuming of being a double agent, no one would believe you even if you were to confess." She says all of this without a lick of remorse, and some of those words are definitely stinging.  

"Not to mention, he's short, pretty weak, disabled and wears an oxygen mask--" Farro mentions before he's cut off by his counterpart. 

"--We can upgrade your oxygen mask too so that it doesn't randomly cut off your air supply. No more waking up in the middle of the night gasping." She adds, with a small hopeful smile. "So are you in or not?" She and Farro manage to cross their arms at exactly the same time, smug grins and all.  

"Am I even allowed to say no?" I'm afraid I already know the answer though.  

"It's not in your best interest," Williams chides.  

"Well, technically, he could refuse," Farro argues quietly, "Only that would be a very dumb mistake and you'd be put back in a kennel for what, maybe twenty years? We've got multiple record files on you Iero, petty theft, arson that one time--" 

"That was an accident," I grumble in response.  

"Well if that was an accident it was a pretty large accident. What else does he have on him, Williams?" 

"Hmm." She seems ready to recall a long list. "Do you want me to start chronologically? There was that time in high school that you played the senior prank, the gravity one? Three officers were in the hospital for weeks when the gravity returned and they smashed along the ground. There's selling and distributing of illegal recalled parts, hacking into BLind's records on three different occasions...oh, right! Illegal Alleyway surgery and the purchasing of illegal neon tattoo ink. You really like green that much, Iero? That's gonna stay on your body for the rest of your life. You must not be afraid of needles." 

"No ma'am. I like them." I say, feeling a tickle across my neck, the tranquilizer must be starting to rub off, now I can feel my Jinx Removing tattoo as it moves, the scissors cutting through the ribbon and then reversing. Looking down at my arms, everything is moving again, stars blinking on and off, a pale green light that'll get brighter once I'm in a darker place. Blades being pushed into the Virgin Mary's heart on my left forearm, but only glimpses of it, as much as the handcuffs will allow me to see. And I'm getting the sense that they've just started to move again considering the way Farro's eyes are searching across my skin, Williams is struggling to keep her eyes on my face.  

"Well...either way, like we were saying, you're perfect for this. I've still got another page full of your crimes, but I think we all get the gist of it. You need this as much as we do." 

"And what if I were, to say, fuck this up, tip you off to the other side?" 

"Easy," Farro responds. "We'd blow your head off."  

"Okay then, well..." I'm shit outta luck. There's no way to say no to this. No way that ends well for me, at least. I don't think I want to know what would happen to a guy like me in prison, so I guess...? "I'll do it." 

Williams goes from that dark frown to a brighter look. "Really? I mean, right." She tries to get back to being serious, but Farro has joined her in that happy place. "You start tonight. Let's go get him that vest we talked about, right?"  

She and Farro are immediately standing, walking out already, and my handcuffs fall to the ground with a nervous clatter and I maybe jump a little. God, those are some nasty ass bruises. I wonder if I'll be able to find a way to cover them. But, wait what did she just say?  

"Did you say tonight I start?" 

"Keep up Iero. You know the 400 block club Dreamland?"  

"Yeah, I've been there a few times."  

"There's gonna be a crazy party there tonight. Stick Fingers is hosting. No, nope, I'm not taking any complaints, this is your first mission with us, try not to mess it up. Also, maybe try to not get in a fight with Dizza tonight, okay? Just try."  

What kind of shitfest have I gotten myself into now? 

 

Chapter Text

It's raining tonight, and when it rains in this city, someone always seems to die. I'm tense, pulling up my hood on my jacket, and trying to adjust the sleeves for a third time. No use. They still hang over my arms and I look like a fucking child. My pants are ripped through the knees, and I love watching the green glow of my tattoos that leak through the holes. The glow is good for a few reasons, for one thing, I light up like a fucking flashlight which is very helpful on the nights that the electricity goes out, and for another thing, it's fucking badass, so there you go. Plenty of enough reasons for me.  

But right about now...standing on one side of the street, my hands stuffed in my pockets, Dreamland just a few steps across from me, I'm trying not to stand out too much. Sure, there's a whole crowd and a line to get in, and inside that line are people of all shapes and bright flashing colors, but I still am feeling vulnerable. It doesn't help to know that Williams and Farro are just behind my eyes, watching every step, every move.  

"It's time, Frank."  

My legs are stiff, I exhale, adjust the new mask on my face, this one has a much smaller tube, and is much sleeker, all black with yellow stripes. And sure, it's a perfect fit, but now I keep forgetting that it's there and I'm trying to sneeze and I don't remember I have a mask on, and I'm definitely gonna need to sterilize the mask once I get home. I might be coming down with something, my heart is heavy in my chest, I'm feeling feverish and sweaty. I move my feet forward, try to keep my head low.  

"Hey Williams, if Dizza attempts and succeeds in killing me tonight, this is all your fault and fuck you."  

"Okay, your first mistake is you are talking to what appears to be thin air, don't ever speak to us directly. You need to speak, you send a text. You'll compromise your mission and without a doubt get yourself killed with stupid choices like that. Next, I know you hate yellow Frank, the whole police force knows by now but quit your bitching and get in the fucking club before I start to regret assigning you this. Actually, that's an understatement, because I'm already totally regretting this."  

I'm to the door by now, just listening to Williams buzzing in my ear when I accidentally bump into someone.  

"Oh, fuck, sorry," I start, and then I look up.  

Oh. 

Fuck.  

Glaring back at me, lips pursed, black mop of hair that hasn't been washed in weeks probably, facial hair atrocity, beer stained tank top and a golden necklace, Crabs' arms are crossed, and he looks down at me with such a look of contempt, I'm tempted to just run away. Or melt into the floor. Maybe he doesn't recognize me? I mean, I got a new mask, and all he can see is my eyes and hair. Oh fuck. My tattoos. Nope. There's no chance for me. He's gonna pull out a gun right now and fucking end this.  

"Fuckin Eye-ee-ra amIrite?"  

Was that even English? I know these guys are vintage style Australians, they pride themselves on pretending to be one of those countries from back when we were on the Earth, but it's sort of impossible to ever imagine someone talking like this.  

"Fucking what?" I repeat back to him.  

"Eye-ee-ra, I-E-R-O, the fuckin ass o knocked out a few of Dizza's teef, you set Paddy's hai on foire too, roght?" He spits this in my face, literally spits, so yeah, now there's no doubt I'll need to sanitize this when I get home. I wipe some off, but some sticks into my eye, and I furiously scratch it.  

"Uh, yeah, that, that's me, man. Just so we're clear, I didn't come to cause trouble. Just want a few drinks, raise some hell, the usual."  

He shakes his head at that, his fro bobbing up and down. "Naw. I know yew. No fight, ya say? Been a few yonks since yew seen Dizza, he'll be right giddy to see yew again. Maybe yew'll only knock out one toof tonight, save the rest fer ron."  

"Stop holdin up the bloody line!" I hear from behind me, as someone shoves me into Crabs.  

Once the two of us regain our balance, Crabs steps out of the way for me. I must give him an odd look because he forms deeper, and pushes me into the club, a little too harshly.  

I stumble in, vision blurry, faces in the crowd are distorted by a dense fog, painfully intense magenta and turquoise playing on everyone's skin. It's a sea of color and light. Bright hair, bright clothes, a sea of color, a sea of nausea to me. And the fog is definitely from some sort of drug, it hangs in the air dank and heavy, and while I can only barely smell it, it's stinging my eyes, and I try my best to rub at them, maybe if they tear up some then it'll flush it out.  

“Iero, you need to stop rubbing your eyes, me and Farro can't see when you've got your eyes closed,” chides Williams.  

So I force my hands back into my pockets.  

“Go and get yourself a drink,” Farro offers.  

Williams scoffs at that. “Don't forget to avoid confrontation, Frank. At all costs. You do not want to blow your cover.”  

I head straight for the bar, praying that a drink will take some strain off my shoulders. I can only hope. The bartender is pale, big eyes framed with black eyeliner and straightened hair, by this point it's disheveled, sticking up and the eyeliner is smudged under his eyes. He's wearing some old, vintage looking button up and a crumpled-up vest, a few layers of scarves and bandanas, and he's there on the list of the skinniest guys I've ever met, doesn't even look old enough to be a bartender. He's quiet, maybe a little uncomfortable, because one of the guys at the bar keeps leaning in closer to him, practically horizontal by this point.   

"So is tonight the night I finally get that kiss I've been waiting for, Ryan?" The guy leaning over the bar hisses, practically inaudible between the blaring music and his slurred speech. He's trying to caress the bartender's arm, to which Ryan moves just out of the way, and the drunk guy knocks his head on the bar.  

"Probably not tonight, Bren, considering I've already called a taxi for you. For the third time this week." Ryan just sighs, looking at the mess of the guy in front of him while he polishes a few shot glasses, and slides the ten empty glasses away from the drunk guy. What's really interesting is this drunk guy is all dressed up, bright shiny shoes, golden glittery jacket, black hair swept into a once perfect pompadour, now it's falling into chunky strands in front of his face.  

"Are you working tomorrow, then?" You can hear the smile in his voice.  

"I work every night, don't you have my schedule memorized by this point?" At that moment, he looks at me, disgusted face melts, I'm getting some weird sort of feeling from him, and his eyes dart across the room, to a dimly lit corner, the only dimly lit corner and the vague shape of a man looks on, white billowing smoke pouring from his crooked smile. My stomach drops instantly.  

"B-Brendon, you may want to leave now," Ryan barely whispers, the polished glass in his hand shaking along with his voice. "Your ride is here, so am I going to be able to kindly ask you, or am I gonna need to call someone over to kick your ass out?" You can sense him trying to put some intimidation into his voice, but he sounds more scared than anything else. I guess being almost 6 feet tall and probably 120 pounds has some negatives.  

"Nah, sugar, I can see when I'm not wanted. I'll see you tomorrow," He calls, falling and tripping his way out of the bar and to the door. He pivots then, the most euphoric, drunken look smeared on his face, "And you, Ryan Ross, you'll be seeing me in your dreams." Just like that, he dances his way out of the club and onto the street, I think I see him dance his way all the way over to the bar on the other side of the street, lit up in golden, calligraphied letters, The Sinner's Hallelujah.  

I turn back to see Ryan once again polishing glasses, grimacing at the mess of vodka dripping down his side of the bar. But even under the neon lights you can see his ears flushing crimson under all his floppy hair. He's muttering a few curses to himself until I decide to take the drunk guy's seat, and we make eye contact again, and he's too slow to dodge it. But then he tries to look down and just seems to get caught on my Virgin Mary tattoo, wailing as swords are struck into her heart. He rips his gaze away then, swallows, grabs another glass to start polishing.  

"Dizza was really spot on for once." He whispers from behind the glass.  

…The fuck? 

"About what?"  

"Bet me you'd be coming in tonight. Guess I'm working the open tomorrow and close tonight. You just had to come in, didn't you, Iero?" He sighs, taking an order from the guy to my left.  

"So he bet I'd come in." 

"He did," Ryan calls, he has his back to me know, and peering over the bar I see the pale glow of an ankle monitor bracelet, it clinks around heavy when he walks. He's also got a barcode on his right wrist, it's exposed now that his arms are up and he pulls a drink down to fill for the guy.  

"...And what did you bet?" I ask, digging my thumb nail into the soft wood of the bar.  

He scoffs, eyes wide I can see his eyes are glowing slightly, lit from behind, his skin too perfect, teeth too wide as he exposes a few of them in a smile. "I bet him you were already dead."  

"And what's a cyborg doing making bets with a gangster, I mean, hypothetically speaking, of course?" I don't think I come off on that question as too friendly, and he looks down, frowning at the glasses half empty on the bar.  

"Watch yourself, Frank." William's quiet but sudden voice makes me shudder a little. I can feel my heart in my chest.  

"Don’t forget to breathe, either, Frank. You've got this," Farro whispers from the other ear. Fuck. I work on my breathing for a few seconds, kick up the percentage to 3 liters instead of 2, and breathe in deeply.  

Ryan takes a note of this, and looks over to that corner once again. I don't dare move my head.  

"Aren't we all a little bit of a cyborg? I've got a human brain, a handful of functional organs, you've got a fucking tube going down your throat, one day, you choke on it, I bet you, and I'll just be able to watch, enjoy the show." That sort of innocent look the guy had before, the embarrassed one when the drunk guy was here, has altogether melted. He leans over the table to me then, synthetic muscles spasming across synthetic skin.  

"Has he already been compromised?" Farro asks from my right ear. "Do we pull him out?" 

Williams makes some sort of a hissing noise. "Not yet. We haven't found Dizza yet. Frank, you've gotta keep going, just take your time and play with this guy for a while. Keep getting on his nerves, maybe he'll compromise himself. Brag or say something that we need to hear. When he gets bored, then you can go into the crowd, ask around for Dizza."  

I swallow down the bile collecting at the back of my throat, force it back down. "Right. Nice conversation starter. So, you're a cyborg, and I can't breathe, can I order a drink?" 

He's got very human responses for being mostly cyborg. Maybe it's the human brain telling him he has an itch on his face, some sort of phantom itch that never left.  But he seems more satisfied with that. "Hell, what could be wrong with that? You're gonna get your ass handed to you by Dizza, you might as well be a little bit confident for the fight." Without asking he just pours me the drink. It's a bright neon yellow, fizzing, and smoking. 

"It looks like piss," I cry over the loud speakers.  

"We call it Party Poison. It'll do you well, trust me."  

And I foolishly put the drink to my lips, it gets caught there in my throat, sliding down slowly, and bubbling in my already uneasy stomach. The consistency is worse. It's like it thickens, is hard to swallow, and burns like drinking battery acid. But somehow, I force it down, finish it off maybe a little too quickly, Ryan looks impressed almost, but I'm just trying to keep myself from vomiting all over his bar. I wonder what hell there would be to pay if that happened.  

"Frank, your blood alcohol content has just increased to 0.08%. In a few moments, it's going to hit you and you are going to get very drunk." Farro whispers inside my mind. "Hayley, we need to pull him out!"  

"I said not yet, Farro, and I meant it." 

"Hayley!" Farro begs, and then everything seems to nearly stop, and proceed only stretched so wide it's hard to make out the sound of the music or the whining in my ears.  

Ryan's smile is stretching from one side of the world to the next. He's far away but I still see those glinting teeth. Everything warps as if it's happening in a tunnel. Upside-down. Played backwards. Maybe I'm floating, because I can't feel the chair from underneath me. But soon, there's a set of hands on me, pulling me up, walking me and I just hope my numb feet guide me in the right direction. And then I'm sitting again, this place is more cushioned, and I can feel something flat in front of me, and there's a figure across from me. It's also much quieter now, the loud and stretched roars have become much quieter.   

At first the words are long buzzes, drawn out too far for me to comprehend, but slowly they start shrinking back, and halfway through one low nasally voice muttering I can make the words out.  

“...runnin fast as I can, and then they threw me to the ground. Arrested me over a fokkin carton of milk, they did.”  

“Better than my past weekend, mate. Had some random chick run up to me at a party, punch me, not even slappin me, punchin. Had a bruise carry over fer days, bad business for the store to see your mattress salesman with a black eye. I think she spiked my drink too because I was dealing with some nasty man problems for two days after. Worst two days of my life.”  

“Crabs, now ave you ordered yet? Do you think we could split somethin? I've got three carbons, I can pay you back next robbery.”  

“I know yer talkin shit, Paddy, I saw you steal that chick's purse when she went into that room with that poor sod. What was in the purse?”  

“Nothin, really, a few tampons and a protein bar.”  

“I'll take the protein bar, then.”  

The one voice huffs, and I hear a zipping noise, by this point I can definitely see the blobs are starting to become more dense, difficult shapes. “I was gonna save that fer later at the Dogg Race.”  

“Well now, yer savin yerself from an ass whooping, where the fok is Dizza with those pills, my brain's on fokkin fire.”  

By this point it's easy enough to make out the faces. I'm sitting at a booth, cheap vinyl blue long seats with plenty of holes poked in it, a bright glass lamp hanging overhead swings slightly, one direction, then the other, like a pendulum. It illuminates one side of a frown, then the other. A handlebar mustache and a curly fro.  Short buzzed hair, a wide-gapped, golden-toothed smile. Long orange hair clutching a half empty carton of milk. All across from me.  

Far away the party reaches on but this place is small, quiet, maybe a restaurant that's connected to the main club, lit by those warm lamps, the room is flooded by orange glow.  

“He's come back from the dead, I think.” The guy holding the milk, furthest to my right mutters.  

“Too bad for him. Poor fokkin thing.” Crabs coughs, then turns in his seat to make some sort of a signal to the neon party room beyond, the man at the door gives a thumbs up, almost entirely obscured in smoke. “You got any special calls to make Eye-ee-ra? Might be your last chance. Tell your mum er dad you love em?”  

It takes a long while for my mouth to form the words I want to say.  

“Nobody. You… you wanna maybe tell me just what the fuck...is going on?” My mouth is dry, I'm exhausted but my heart continues to stutter, lose a beat. I don't sound very intimidating or pissed off, because Paddy just called suddenly, while Hollywood continues to shake milk over the table.  

“You hear em, Crabs? He doesn't know what he's gone done. Oh, oh, this, now, this is gonna be great.” His gold tooth glints under the warm light, I just have to urge to kick it out of his head. But I can barely move, even just barely speak, so I decide against causing a stir right now. I'm even out of breath just with two sentences. And that's when I check my face to itch my ear. My mask is off. It's gone.  

“What--” I cough almost immediately, doubling over in pain, falling to the dirty carpet. I don't know how I couldn't have seen them take it off. My vitals are seriously high. If I don't get it back soon, I'm gonna be unconscious in minutes, and if not unconscious then dead. Two sets of eyes just stare at me, the third being preoccupied with chugging a half a carton of milk. Crabs doesn't look too satisfied but Paddy is another story, jumping up from his seat, kicking me and humping the air above me. Normally I might be laughing it off or punching him back but I'm just scratching at my neck, huffing in as much air as I can. My vision is already relapsing into darkness.  

Oh god. If I imagined any way of dying it was in some nice blaze of glory, five police officers on my tail, I take all of them down and then die in an explosion or something. But this, getting murdered and kicked in the ribs by some fucking Australian hicks, not what I expected. I close my eyes, prepared for the worst, I can taste the blood in my mouth now.  

“Oi, oi, oi!” A fourth voice calls from the corner of the room and my heart instantly drops. I wait, I'm moving, as I hear the steps come closer and closer.  

I am so fucking dead.  

He's here now, right above me, curly black mane, thin mustache, skinny black pants, floral shirt, floppy hat, yellow tinted sunglasses. And a chipped gold toothed smile.  

“Ello, Frank.” Dizza chirps into my ear. I can smell his breath, the drugs, feel the heat of his breath.  

“H-” I can't even say his name, I can't do anything. I'm stuck. I'm already fucking dead. And Williams and Farro’s line must have been cut or something, because they've been on dead air buzzing in both my ears for as long as I can remember after coming to my senses. No one is coming to get me. I just imagine Ryan at the bar, grinning to himself, probably knowing my fate from the second I stepped into the fucking bar.  

They have to know, right? There's no way they can't know? I'm so far from reasoning that I'm ready to start confessing, if I could only speak, but my eyelids are getting heavy and I'm dangerously close by now to passing out. And I don't want to trust Dizza with my body, or any of these fuckers, really.  

I could have declined their offer. It would be twenty years in prison, maybe more, but in prison I'd be alive. No son of a bitch would just pull off my mask without me seeing it. In prison I could've had a chance at least, of survival. And now my life would be over before I had the chance to do anything good with it.  

Oh fuck. Oh God.  

“I can't say I'm surprised to see you again, Frank, but I can tell you I'm thrilled to think about punchin a few teeth out of your pretty smile.” He's way too close to my face, without my mask I can smell the dank and heavy fumes of the club, heightened by Dizza’s big black eyes staring blankly through me, big veins bursting on his sweaty forehead, disgusting big smile. "You know, I used to really worship you, idolize you. You're absolutely fokkin insane, and I was so in love with that. Nasty bitch that you are, you'd pick a fight with any mothafoker that just looked at you. Didn't matter who they were, you fought and then you ran and you rebelled. I always just assumed that fightin was in yer blood. And now, now my cop boy is telling me he saw you comin out of the police square, he heard you tellin cops about us, but not just us, Bellamy, Hoppus too. Nasty bitch is right, innit?" He smacks my head against the floor, a yelp, and my vision in my right holo-lens cuts out completely, a long crack spreading until the whole eye is like a spiderweb, cutting to bluescreen and then entirely black.  

I had hoped in life that I'd never have to know what it felt like to have a lung collapse. But Dizza is now standing on me and I can only hear about half of his words, everything else fizzes out.  

"How...kill you? ...doing a fair job...on your own. ...leave your body...rot...for your cop friends." And all of the rest of the guys are just cackling, whooping, beers are thrown around me, I catch a piece of glass in my shoulder, but my voice is far away. I'm soaked in booze, still suffocating. It's impossible to move, and every few moments there's a new bloom of pain and blood somewhere, it feels like my face is drenched in the sticky blood and I can't really see depth, can't tell how far away anyone is, but there's no sound, only a low rumble and sometimes some buzzing.  

"I think though, I want to keep you around for a while, Frank. How'd you like that?" Dizza is licking blood off of his fingers and examining a cricket bat on the wall.  

I'm not even able to hear myself speak the words, but I feel my voice trembling, "I-if you're gonna kill me...just fucking get it over with." 

His smile drops on to a sort of thinking face, bat in midair in front of my face. The other guys watch in a nervous pleasure, ready to take bets on how quickly I would be dying, I imagine. He even exits the room to go find a blunt, and then returns, it coiled in his mouth, his lips in a snarl.  

 Stand him up. I can see his lips moving so slightly, and a caption runs below my one good eye.  

The there's a few sets of hands on me. My knees buckle under me, but they stand me up, is slowly. Every muscle and bone in my body screams and begs. I'm now getting a sense of how much blood I've lost because I'm getting dizzy. I'm shaky, I know that much, but I don't know if it's from the nerves or from the pain. Dizza looks different too. His hair is pulled behind his ears, yellow glasses off so I'm looking right into those black eyes. This time though, there's nothing in them, no crazy, no enjoyment. He looks almost grim in the soft lighting, half his face orange, the other the icy neon blue of the flashing lights.  

Actually, I'm bored. Don't want to play anymore. And then a fist is soaring right into my face, through the murky air, his skin highlighted blue and pink, the gang emblem is the ring on his finger.  

And then I'm gone again.  

Chapter Text

"Let's review the footage again, shall we?"  

It's hard to focus my eyes, considering I'm just seeing black out of one of them, I can barely see the glitching screen. 

The man waves his finger in a circular motion, and there I am, again, passed out of the floor, Dizza over me swinging the bat around and knocking down beers that are thrown at him as the other guys cheer him on. The scene continues with them leaving the room, me in the room, unmoving, eyes shut, head lolled to one side, and then they return with a small white ball and a metal stick. First, they all giggle, and then Hollywood flips off the cameraman, I think it's Crabs, and Hollywood runs over to me, forces my mouth open and puts the small ball into my open mouth. Williams, who is beside me cringes a little at that. Farro just sighs.  

Then Paddy comes into view, the guys are whooping for him, Dizza by this point has disappeared completely, and Paddy struts up to me, swinging that metal stick around, and placing it close to my mouth. Cue to me cringing now, my muscles immediately tense up.  

And then Paddy hits the ball out of my mouth and behind the bar on the opposite side of the room and the more glasses it collides with, the more cheer. This goes on for a number of minutes. And I watch out of the corner of my eye as Williams sinks into her seat. Then Crabs enters again, calls to Paddy, then to Hollywood, and all of them leave me there, alone, unconscious.  

The Captain slides his finger and the footage fast forwards to a few minutes later when the door to the main entrance breaks in, accompanied by bright white flashlights, leaving a lot of drugged out people disoriented, climbing through windows, jumping down onto the street and trying to escape the scene. Frustrated, the officers check the building, only to find me in the room, one person calls for their captain and it's a face I recognize, a guy who towers over the rest, he pulls off his protective helmet to reveal just about the prettiest face I've ever seen, thick brows knit in concentration and sympathetic eyes.  

"This is Sargeant Weekes calling in. It looks like we found your guy, Officer Williams."  

The image goes blurry then, and The Captain waves his hand once more and the hologram closes. I take a good look at him finally, it's easy to see all the years of exhaustion creeping on his face. He's prematurely aged, probably in his forties, and has probably seen it all. We've been in this room (the interrogation room I just got acquainted with a few hours ago) for maybe thirty minutes and he has been staring through Williams and Farro and he's never laid eyes on me. Maybe he doesn't feel like I'm worth it. I definitely don't feel worth it right now, shivering, bruised and still a little bloody, in the shirt and pants that Sargeant Weekes had lent to me very kindly after my clothes were embarrassingly cut off my body and I was stripped down and power washed. It had gotten most of the blood off, but probably left me with a few more bruises, and I furiously apologized and thanked Sargeant Weeks before he smiled at me, two rows of perfect white teeth, and had told me not to worry about it, and I didn't have to return the shirt or police issued sweatpants. I probably just looked like a kid to The Captain, a kid who got mixed up into trouble and was now sitting here, with a promise that I had failed to keep, in way too big clothes, the sleeves easily draped over my hands, same with the pants which dragged on the floor.  

Williams sat to my left, frowning heavily, face flushed but she sat confidently. I could see Farro sinking deeper into his chair every time I looked to my right.  

We are all so fucked.  

"Alright, well," The Captain sighs, he has a low monotoned British accent. "Honestly, on this case, I have no clue where to begin. Obviously, when two of my officers decide to disregard their superiors' commands and launch an investigation and even locate an informant without the proper protocol and permission, it can lead to some difficult conversations. Like this one we're having right now." He wipes his eyes, slouching back in his chair, his uniform, polished and pressed, tells a much different story than his face. "Officer Williams, Officer Farro, do you even need me to explain how many ways you fucked up in the last eighteen hours?" 

"N-no sir," Williams whispers.  

"It's unnecessary," Farro mutters.  

"Well good." The Captain sighs. "Because if I had to go through the list, we'd be here at least thirty minutes just going over protocol and punishment." 

"So, there'll be punishment?" Williams tenses up, swallowing hard.  

"Of course there'll be punishment, Williams," The Captain nods, a thin vein pulsing on his neck. "That's how things work around here, that's how it always has been and always will be. How long have you been with us, Williams?"  

"Me? Um, around four years, sir," she squeaks.  

"And you, Farro?" The Captain looks at him expectantly and Farro shoots up in his chair.  

"T-three years, sir."  

"Alright," he frowns, nodding at the two of them. "You two are young, and I know it's easy to make mistakes when you are young, but soon the two of you will be climbing the ladder, become detectives, maybe go even higher. I've seen your grades, Williams, you're one of our brightest young people out in the field, and Farro, you've got some great contacts out on the streets. But there's a difference between doing your part in an investigation as an officer and calling the shots as a detective. Lots more lives underneath you as a detective. And not just that, you took a criminal out from our doors and let him loose into the streets without any training, any mental health or background checks. If you lose an informant, not only is their identity compromised, but you have to deal with the guilt and responsibility of paying for hospitalizations or even funding for funerals." That hits me the hardest. I hadn't even had time to consider what could have happened to me while I was unconscious. Anything could have been done to me or my body. And I wouldn't have known, if not that they filmed every second of it and then sent the video right to the police. "So, I guess, I need to ask, call it morbid curiosity, or whatever, did the two of you consider the life and identity of your informant being compromised, or that we could have lost an officer tonight?"  

Williams opens her mouth, but she can't choke anything out. Farro is the one who ends up answering.  

"No, sir, we didn't consider it. We knew that Sticky Fingers was involved in some way in the Resistance Riot, and in underground criminal activity. We thought sending in a familiar face would allow us to learn a little about their roots, where they came from, and how much of a threat they were." I'm impressed that Farro says all of this without hesitation considering he seems to be such a quiet guy and Williams is the talking one. "Me and Williams both knew that if we didn't move now, when we knew Sticky Fingers would be there tonight, that nothing would happen. We would have been sifting through paperwork for weeks and by that point it would be too late. We expected consequences for our actions, and we are ready to respect your commands."  

"Hmm," The Captain hums, pausing for a moment, maybe impressed by Farro's speech, but not enough to show it anywhere except for a raised eyebrow. "You might be good with words, Farro, I'll give you that, but it doesn't excuse your behavior at all, as I'm sure you already knew. You and Williams made a bad call back there, put someone's life in danger, and now, you've put him in enough trouble that he might end up back in a cell for God knows how long. It pains me to say it, especially because our force could use a set of minds like you two, who ask important questions and have such passion for justice. Williams, I already know your wishes to raise opinion of the police force in our community, and Farro, you claim to owe your life to the detectives back on the third level. But, to bypass the rules would be unlawful, and as I imagine to you two, dishonorable. Which is why I have no choice but to ask you to turn in your badges--" He starts until he's stopped by Williams jumping out of her chair.  

"You're firing us?!" I've never seen her look so furious, I'm almost worried for this guy.  

"You'll turn them in temporarily, for a week, that's all, now sit down, Williams," he grumbles, and she flushes once again, slowly slumping back into the seat.  

"A week is fine. Thank you, sir, for being so understanding with us," Farro offers.  

"Don't say that just yet, because I haven't given my final verdict on the fate of your informant, if you could even call him that." And this is when his gaze finally drifts onto me, and he's by far, got the most intense stare I've seen yet. "You got a name, son?" 

Instantly my heart hammers in my chest. I reach to itch my nose and remember that once again I am wearing my mask, the new mask I got just today, which is now cracked up one side. But the feeling is still comforting, nonetheless. "It's Frank Iero, sir."  

His eyebrow raises once again. "An Iero? Haven't heard from many Ieros within the last couple of years. What happened to the lot of you? All end up in prison?" 

"Converted, actually, to Catholicism."  

"Just about the same, innit?" He sighs, crossing his arms. "You're a lucky little bastard they didn't wipe the floor with your blood." 

"I mean, they did a pretty good job of kicking the shit out of me, though. And, yeah, I'll take credit for that." It's partially my fault, considering I was the one who decided to take the drink and I was the one who agreed to this job, although, you could argue, I really didn't have much of a choice. I just met these two, Williams and Farro, and was then thrown into this situation, but really it seems like the two of them are passionate about their job. I would feel like such an asshole if I got the two of them suspended because I fucked up. But The Captain doesn't seem to take it that way, his frown deepens.  

"It was still Williams and Farro's choice to involve you, and ultimately, your involvement has now condemned you. It's looking like you've lengthened your stay here for another few years, at least." 

It's not Williams, but Farro who jumps to his feet. "Sir, that's not fair to him when all Frank did was listen to our instructions. I think I can speak for both me and Williams when I say we should share the blame, and for insubordination I know the punishment is at least 4 years and blacklisting. Let Williams and I split it." 

My stomach drops instantly. Four years in prison, at least for me. I know Farro won't be able to convince the Captain. I've never imagined what prison would do to a person like me. Sure, I'd been on the streets before, for a number of weeks and then I'd find another place to stay for a while, but this would be prison. A permanent blacklisting and I'd be dead on the streets, no job, no nothing, ever again. A total outcast. I wouldn't wish that on anyone. And now, here's Farro, pulling himself and Williams into the hole with me. Already willing and eager to fight for me, when we'd met a few hours ago. Either these two are just optimistic or just have the worst judgement of character.  

"That's cute that you would offer, but it doesn't work that way, Farro. Now I'm calling in the guards and they'll escort Iero into his new cell. I suggest the two of you remain silent for the next few minutes unless you'd like to enjoy a permanent suspension from the force." He presses his finger up against his ear, and I know there's no time left. My life will end here, in prison. There's no chance for me in there. I think I'm about to throw up.  

"Sir, no, you can't do this!" Williams exclaims, getting up from her chair and moving in front of me, just as the guards are at the door. "Frank hasn't had a trial, he deserves a just hearing at least."  

"I don't know what you heard in school, Williams, but trials went extinct maybe a hundred years ago. Too many criminals out there, we couldn't waste time on hearing if their crime was jail worthy or not. Anyone who commits crime, when caught, deserves prison. It's the way things run around here now." The two guards behind him are armed, and reaching for their guns.  

"Williams, please, let me go." I beg from behind her, but she stands her ground, and Farro even walks over to us, crossing his arms in front of me. "No, please no, it's not worth it, you two."  

All I see is their two backs, and Farro whispers to me, "Any life is worth protecting. It doesn't matter who it is."  

This is the end for them. This is the end for me, as they're pushed out of the way and two strong sets of arms are on me, pulling me up and guiding me to the door, a gun against my spine. And there's nothing I can do about this. I imagine I already know too much for them to be comfortable. I imagine they'll take me out into the training field, have a few bullets ready for my skull. I'm being yanked out when Williams bellows out, "WAIT! Frank found something!" That's enough for the guards to stop, for the Captain to stop mid thought and me to stop mid breath. I get to turn my head to see Williams' face, she looks so small in that room, so desperate, lips thin, eyebrows together. "Right, Frank? You learned something while you were there."  

Did I?  

"I-I did." I play along, and it seems to be enough, because the arms' grip loosens and I'm able to turn to completely face the Captain. "Let me tell you everything, from when my comms cut out." Jesus, I better think of something to say fast. Maybe if I tell them everything, something will shake free and I'll be able to ride out of a prison sentence. "They drugged me, as I'm sure you know. They pulled my mask off too, I couldn't breathe, but I was at a table with all of them, Paddy, Crabs, Hollywood, and the other one whose name I forget. They were just talking, nothing important, then they pushed me over, started punching me. Somehow it seemed like they knew I was working for the police. But Dizza didn't let them kill me, I don't know why just yet, but I imagine he did for a reason. I think he wanted you guys to see me. Killing me would have been devastating, yeah, but they decided to keep me alive," I don't know if the excessive rambling is really working, but the Captain's constant disgruntled face seems to be melting into a more considerate one, the only change is his eyebrows are more raised, his eyes more open. And something is scratching at the back of my mind. Something important. Something really dumb that Dizza said, that I'm sure he wasn't supposed to say. But what was it?  

"Frank wasn't compromised." Farro mutters, and we all turn to him. He seems lost in thought, ridiculous thought, and I think maybe he's just delaying my four years of prison.  

Exhausted, the Captain hesitates, rubbing his eyes before asking, "And why do you think that?"    

"Because Frank did everything he normally did. He would have been released from questioning that day, but how would Dizza have known that unless..." Farro can't finish the thought.  

That's it.  

"You have a mole."  

"Excuse me?" The Captain huffs incredulously.  

"There's a mole in the police," Williams seems surprised, Farro almost proud with the thinnest smile he can sneak at me. "I heard Dizza say he had a 'cop boy'. The mole told Dizza I was getting released today, and that I might be set up with some officers to become an informant. That's why they took me to a different room, drugged me, hell, even why they let me in in the first place. All of it was for show, though. They kick my ass, and send you a video. It's a warning. How would they have known I would have been working with the police, how would they have know I would go to the party, the bartender knew me somehow. How could he have known me if I haven't ever been to that bar before, or even a Sticky Fingers party in months?" Farro's smile by now is spreading, Williams' eyes gleam with determination when I try to steal a glance at her. It's like she's telling me to keep going.  

"You do know, the word of a criminal against a police officer won't get you very far. You're accusing one of our own of being a mole to a criminal gang. Might be treason if you're wrong." But the Captain uncrosses his arms, is angled towards me. He's considering it.  

"Well then I hope I'm not wrong. I know I'm not wrong." That sounds more confident. The Captain is looking between me, Farro, and Williams. We wait in agony for him to speak.  

"Jesus Christ. Fine. But you need to find proof within the next two weeks that they have a police officer in their midst." 

Instantly relief spreads over my body, and I see Williams' shoulders relax in my periphery. "How can I prove it to you, sir?" I ask, relieved but now a little nervous. I mean, how can I prove a cop is a double agent?  

"Police technology. Facial scan. You need to go to these parties and check every face at the door. Ask around at bars, see if they've seen anyone around the gang that doesn't seem to belong. Among other things, us police officers have chip implants that are unique to only us. It's a small chip planted behind the left eye. Only our own scanners can detect it, for a number of miles and the name of the officers responsible. If you've found your guy--" 

"-- Your person." Williams corrects. "She could be a girl," she adds after the look he gives her.  

"If you've found your person, the eye will blink green. Of course, it's possible that if they have a double agent, they may have found ways to tamper with evidence, so you'll have to find creative solutions, possibly. But you will find proof or you'll be behind bars. 15 days, Iero." He stands up then, and even goes to shake my hand, but it's my turn to hesitate now.  

"Is there a problem, Iero?" 

"N-no, sir." I cough.  

He gives a slight nod then. "I'll expect to hear from the three of you soon, then. Williams, Farro, train him before he steps foot out of this building, he needs to know standard procedure, interrogation techniques, I want him to be able to tell if someone is lying just by the way they breathe." Now he turns to me again. "15 days. 15 days from the minute you step out of this building. Proof. Real proof. We'll work out then how to figure out which officer it is." Then he steps out, taking the two guards with him, the both of them look a little confused, I can't blame them, I feel a headache coming on.  

I can finally relax, if only slightly, and I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding.  

"Come on, then."  

"What?" I turn to face Williams, as she readjusts her ponytail, pulling the pale golden hair from her small face.  

"We've got a lot of teach you, and from what it sounds like, a lot of learn about how to locate a mole." She looks to Farro, and I do too, and he is smiling, the dark bags under his eyes crinkling.  

"I'll go check the file room. Williams, do you want to start showing him some tech and running him through basic procedures?"  

Williams nods. "Of course. You go enjoy your paperwork."  

Farro walks to the door then, and I'm still in the doorframe, stuck speechless, a stupid look on my face, I imagine. "Trust us, Frank." He looks so earnestly into my eyes, gripping one of my shoulders. "We will figure this out, together. I'll see you in the morning, if it isn't already morning. Right now, I've got some reading to do." He leaves me and Williams alone then.  

It's silent for a few moments, as neither of us move.  

"I think I owe you an apology."  

"For what?" I turn to her, to see she looks as if she's almost ready to cry, her nose and face still flushed from the whole interrogation.  

"For treating you so bad. I didn't mean to, and I should have pulled you out of there sooner. I, I thought you could handle it, but that sounds terrible to say. I didn't know how dangerous they were. Are you in much pain? I know about your eye thing--we'll try to get that sorted out as soon as possible, but it probably won't be until tomorrow afternoon. I hope that's okay for you."  

Honestly, I'm not in pain. They may have given me something for the pain when I had the shower though, but my body is comfortably numb right now, except my tongue keeps exploring the gash in my lip where Paddy kicked my lip ring and it ripped some skin away. And my good eye is pretty swollen, I can feel my eyelid getting heavier and puffier as the time drags on. And sure, my body is exhausted, I don't feel ready to take another step, but I'll continue to force my feet, one in front of the other, hopefully I just don't stumble with my fucked up depth perception. Exhaustion beats dying in a prison. I might be more embarrassed by this point than anything else.  

"Yeah, I didn't expect that from them either. Usually they're all much worse aims, but I imagine your aim and punches land a little better on an unconscious, unmoving target." That doesn't seem to comfort her at all, and she bites her lower lip. "It's fine, honestly. I've been in worse condition before. Now, though, we just need to figure all of this shit out. I'm sorry to put more on your plate, Williams, I really am."  

She won't look at me anymore, and one tear slides down her cheek. "It'll be alright. Zac and I, well, we're both going through some serious grieving. It's been hard for us, and Zac and I were friends before, I don't know if we'll be able to be friends anymore, not without Taylor. He just kept us together so well. There's a lot to be afraid of, Frank. But if you need to cry, cry on your feet, while you're walking. You don't have to be completely okay, but you need to walk at least." She lets out a shaky breath, wiping her eyes on her pristine uniform, leaving a little mascara stain. Her tears are almost black. And without looking at me again, she walks out the door, and I try to will my feet into moving. They feel like lead.  

But I'm walking now, which is better than being unconscious, the air knocked out of your lungs, which is better than being in prison, which is better than being dead. I'm not dead yet, or imprisoned, to my surprise. Let's keep it that way.

Chapter Text

Attempting to push a few months' worth of police training into a week has its ups and downs. There's not much time I get between every meeting place that Williams, who is now insisting that I call her Hayley, calls me to, so I'm running a lot more than I expected. But I always get released at noon for lunch. No one likes to sit next to me. I consider this an added bonus. I can't stomach half the shit they serve there, but at least I know where my next meal is coming from. Then there's the problem of my height. I have to run at least twice as fast as everyone else to make the mile, and then immediately turn my oxygen on to the 5 liter for 5 minutes or else I'll start spasming. And none of the bulletproof vests are in my size, even checked in the lost and found but nothing. We have to special order it in for me. I didn't think I had small hands until I tried out a tazer gun that then slipped out of my hands. But now Hayley has set up an appointment for me to go and meet up with a special mechanic, I didn't catch his name from her but he's supposed to be able to fix my holo-lens issues without an invasive surgery. She said he's got the steadiest hands in the business. And I'm getting it repaired for free, at least that's how I've understood it to be, I guess I'll know if I get another bill or if someone tries to repossess my apartment again. Physically the work is hard for me, but none of the hacking, encoding and surveillance is too hard. There's not much time to sleep as I'm also expected to be studying during my hours off, so I sleep during ethics classes. The cots smell like mildew, but I get to shower every morning. Luckily since I'm not a full on the books cop, I can have my hair as long as I want it, but lately I've taken to pulling it back into a small ponytail since it's been getting too long to just pull behind my ears.

It's kind of strange that I've been here 5 days already and I haven't ever seen Josh. I guess it's because he's been out on a case for the last few days but I would have expected him to come in at some point. Farro, who's now asking that I call him Zac, told me not to take it too personally, that they won't hear from a lot of officers directly for days, just stay linked by their holo feed to watch if they're in serious danger. But otherwise, the main campus doesn't see a lot of the detectives, and very rarely sees undercover agents. And seeing the kind of training all these guys go through, it wouldn't be pretty tempting to be able to go to parties, get black out drunk, maybe get taken advantage of by Dizza and the rest of his crew. I know I'm supposed to be against this supposed double agent that Dizza couldn't shut his fucking mouth about, but I can't help but feel a little lost. Sleeping on a cot just under another guy, it bonds you almost immediately. Most of these cops will probably never see me as more than a petty criminal, which honestly, is a good description of me. But seeing how hard they work, the anguish of it all, it's hard to imagine wearing so many hats, arresting people for stupid shitty crimes, getting beat up, yelled at, and then returning to work the next day. If I worked full time for such morons I'm pretty sure I would be conspiring against them too. I'm not any better than this person, I'm practically a turncoat myself. I wonder who I'll be by the end of all of this.

This maybe isn't the best time to get lost in my thoughts, considering I have a tazer gun in my hand and I've missed the target six times already, just crisping the wall behind the mannequin I'm supposed to be hitting.

"Jesus Christ." I mutter to myself, Hayley hanging behind me, avoiding the ricochet, I imagine. Her small, pale hands are cupped neatly over her noise cancelling headphones. Mine keep slipping and I can feel my ears folding, getting hot under them.

"That- that's enough practice for today, Frank. Why don't you just head out to the canteen?" She sighs, picking herself up from a bench, attempting to balance five real textbooks on her small little frame.

My holo-clock reads 11:20. That's strange. I never get released until around 11:50. "Are you sure? It's a little early, isn't it?"

"No," she sniffles, shaking a little under the cold air vent. "How about this, I'll walk you out there myself and we can sit and talk a while, does that sound okay?" She looks uncomfortable for some reason, maybe it's the weight of all the textbooks. I don't think I'll ever understand what she and Farro have about physical books.

"Well, do you want me to carry some of your books for you at--"

Hayley is already pushing past me, and to the door, when she collides with someone else.

"Frank?" I recognize that voice, and I look over to see Josh Dun, mouth slightly agape, very weirded out. Hayley picks up her books, and only then seems to notice Josh.

I don't get a chance to speak before Hayley lets out a slightly squeal. "H-hi Josh, how was your first time out with your new partner?"

Oh, yeah, there's a guy behind Josh, taller than him by a few inches, fluffy dark hair sticking straight up, dark eyes and thick brows drawn in apathy. I decided to steal a glance at Josh to possibly avoid the gaze of this new guy, but Josh is somewhere in between confused as fuck and mad as hell, little veins popping right near his eyebrows.

"Frank. What. Are you doing here." It's less of a question, more of just a passing threat, really. I've heard this tone of voice with Josh before, pretty recently, every time I come home all bruised up or black out drunk.

I think this is my turn to speak, considering Hayley hasn't spoken any bullshit yet, although she seems ready to jump to my defense. She should know before she starts that she's already fucked. This must be an interesting introduction of me to the new guy, having a stare down with my cousin.

"He's just working with us--" Hayley starts, but Josh cuts her off with his hand.

"No, not you, Williams, I want to hear from Frank. What will it be, Frank? The truth or a ridiculous excuse?" It's strange, seeing Josh now, all grown up, his hair cut all short, remembering how happy he seemed back when he had his pink mohawk, but that was all before he decided to go into the force. There's dark red bags under his eyes now, constant smell of after shave, he took out his nose ring and gauges, Josh is just another person fading into a crowd. Our junior year after so many of my friends had already graduated, Josh and I clung to each other, became to school outcasts, our school uniforms full of holes, snuck into the electrical closet and would bring along a drink and just revel in being our perfectly imperfect, rebel selves. It was the first time in a long time that I had felt the two of us respect each other as equals.

Too bad that was all gone now. It was gone from the moment that Josh's mom found vodka in Josh's room, multiple cans of beers, cigarettes, other things too. I thought I was helping Josh to come out of his shell, helping him find a little solace in a friend that didn't care how religious he was, how straight he wasn't. Turns out I just fucked him up, just like I always did with everything. That's when Josh went to rehab and then an academy, Aunt Laura made sure to keep him as far away from me as possible. Now Josh and I are actually living together, that apartment is like a field of landmines, and at least one of us is always stepping on a trigger. I'll admit it, it's usually me.

Very slowly, I start to collect myself together to say exactly what I mean to. I won't mess up this time. I won't storm out, neither will he. I'll make sure of it. "I guess it started when I went to that Resistance Riot a week ago."

"Oh, you mean, the Riot I warned you not to go to?" The second that Josh crosses his arms, you know you've lost the argument, so I'm basically already fucked. I imagine I'll need to find a new place to live. Or I guess I could kick Josh out, technically, the rent is under my name, well, under my dad's name.

"Yes, that one exactly. I went with that guy I met at the bar, Mark, the one I told you about?"

"Mark Hoppus? Frank, that guy's got multiple DUIs. He's practically blacklisted from every bar in the inner city. How do you find these people, Frank?"

"I-I don't know, maybe I just attract them," I know this isn't important information but I feel like Josh deserves the whole truth, will all I put him through every day. "So anyway, we went to a bar, maybe got a little tipsy, and we ended up going to the Riot."

It's not until now that I think Josh starts to think about my well-being. His expression softens for just about a second, then he returns to his steely gaze. "Did you even stop to consider how dangerous all of this was? Frank, I was there at the Riot, in my gear, people were getting trampled. I was terrified for you. We lost Officer York--"

At the mention of that name Hayley whimpers. She turns away, biting her lip. I forgot about him. Hayley had lost a friend, Zac lost his previous partner, some poor guy named Taylor York who had thrown himself into a bomb to protect the rest of the officers and a few civilians. I'd only heard the name in recent headlines, accompanied by his police academy graduation photo. I hadn't felt guilty until now. I hadn't thrown the handmade bomb, I think that was Bellamy or Armstrong, but now I'm feeling like Taylor's death was in some part my fault.

"I know." I'm already getting frustrated, which is the last thing I need now. I take a deep breath from my mask. What I need now is to be understood by Josh, and if I want to be understood, then I need to be patient with him. "I-I know that we lost people. Good people. Friends, in some cases. Family, I imagine, in others." I swallow hard. I don't know if this is going to work. Oh god. What if Josh and I never get past this. It feels like we've been ripping apart at the seams for months now, ever since he came to live on the second level and the rent had raised so high it was impossible for him to find a place or his early entry low carbon paycheck.

"I get that. And I'll admit it, I didn't know what I was doing. I was being stupid, Josh. I'm sorry for worrying you. I'm sorry I got all of you into this mess." Well, everyone except for Josh's new partner, who just seems to be scanning me, gathering info, probably enjoying the drama of it all. I feel my face getting hot. I'm embarrassed, and I can see Hayley is starting to shake a little. Maybe it's because Josh is mad dogging me in a room full of various sorts of guns and ammo. Not the best place to pick a fight with your once best friend. Even worse if you want that friend to continue being a friend. Not too easy to be social with a bullet hole in your side. Maybe Josh will save me the trouble and just aim for my head. They can lock me up, just like they've been planning to.

What else is there to say?

"I got arrested." I try to keep eye contact while I say those words, but Josh's face just hardens. "B-but I'm making up for everything I did, Josh, see I'm working with Williams--"

"So, okay, let me get this straight," Josh interrupts. My heart is skipping a few beats. He's run out of patience with me. I don't blame him. "You go to a riot I told you not to go to, get arrested, I don't see you for a full week, and now you're somehow working with the police?" Now he turns to Hayley. "What made you think that my cousin would be an asset to you, and why—how—did you think it was okay to hire on my cousin without my knowing?"

"Because it's not your jurisdiction what Frank does," Hayley suddenly snaps. I turn to look at her, practically snarling at Josh. "He got caught, we offered him to either stay in prison or to offer up his services to us. He chose the better end of the deal, a deal that my partner and I made with your cousin. Not you."

It's quiet in the room for a few moments then. I can hear Josh's heavy breathing, and the air forcefully pumping into my lungs.

"Well, okay then. Frank, what is your mission?" Josh is still pissed, beyond a doubt, but he's holding it in much better now.

"I'm supposed to be looking for a mole."

"A mole?" He asks, looking back to his partner for a moment, who gives no reaction, and Josh huffs, turning back to us. "Is there a mole in police?"

I nod. "Working for a gang. I went to this party, got beat up, but the gang leader fucked up, told me they have a 'cop boy' on their side."

"Hmm." Josh scratches his five day old stubble, the frustration melting off his face, probably since now he's thinking about something other than how many ways to pack up my life and throw me out onto the streets. "So you want a person like Frank, who's familiar with the scene to continue to attend parties, find out who the mole is?"

"That's the plan," responds Hayley, in a much some calm manner. "We've already given him some training, we're agreed that once he leaves the campus after training he has two weeks to confirm there's a mole. From there on, we will see what we can do. And assess the situation further."

"If there isn't a mole?" Josh offers.

"We all go home happy."

It's good enough for me, but not for Josh, whose eyes narrow. "What about if Frank gets compromised? He'll be out there on the front lines, alone."

"Not if we have backup. He'll go to one party a week. Otherwise, his week is free, to otherwise train or do other activities. We'll have backup positioned in a radius around every event. The moment things go south, we will now, and already be there."

"From the bruises on Frank's face, I'd say you've already missed the mark on that once. How can you promise another accident like that won't happen again?" It's impressive to me that while me and Josh are still technically fighting, he's more concerned for me than I am.

"We're working with an outside commissioner to make Frank's holo-lens state of the art. We will be able to send private messages to him that are otherwise completely classified, like they don't exist at all. And it will block images of the police involvement Frank has immediately once he steps off campus. Frank will be in good hands with Gerard."

Why do I feel like I've heard that name before?

"Okay, alright, let's just say hypothetically that all this works out, there is a mole, Frank finds him, you capture the mole and the whole operation is successful. What does Frank get out of it?" I'm impressed by Josh's skepticism, considering he used to be the most gullible person ever.

"Then there's a possible job for Frank as an informant, possibly a paycheck." My ears perk up after Hayley says that.

"You'll pay me?" I ask her, to which she nods.

"It would most likely be under the table, at least at the beginning. It takes forever to file paperwork like that when you're not a full cop but just an external freelance source. I mean, yes, you'll also stay out of jail, but I would think it's most important to get paid for your services, right?"

She's totally right, of course. But I hadn't even considered getting a paycheck. Just the thought of it made me want to work harder, to get results faster. If I was given a crazy opportunity like this, I had to run with it.

"He won't get anything out of this if he's dead or compromised, though." Josh huffs. Looking at him now, he doesn't look so pissed, just exhausted. Shit. I can't imagine how he's felt, wondering if I was alive or not. "He needs a better cover next time. A better reason to go to those parties, a person in that circuit that can vouch for him."

"I agree," Hayley shifts the weight of the books, I'm impressed by her strength, considering we've been standing around here and she hasn't put them down yet. "We'll find some reason for Frank to be there. We'll prevent as much harm coming to Frank as is possible."

Josh just nods in response.

"Hayley, Frank!" A voice calls from behind Josh and the other guy, and the two of them shuffle over so we see the prominent nose of none other than Zac Farro. He looks between Josh and us quizically, Hayley just shrugs.

"Yeah, what's up, Zac?"

"I-I think I found something, An old case file. Might help us out. I was just gonna head over to the database to pick it up."

"I'll come with you," Hayley pushes past me then, gives me an apologetic look while handing some of her books over to Zac, then the two of them are gone. I think I see Hayley wiping her eye as she's walking with Farro, and he whispers to her something, to which she just sighs, shrugging.

In the room, Josh just sighs, sitting down at the bench, massaging his scalp, while his partner examines some ammo on the wall, picking it up and taking it over to the droid automated desk to purchase it. I decide to sit by Josh, a comfortable distance away and I see his shoulders tense, but he doesn't look up from his hands. He looks like he's had a rough couple of days, maybe a rough two weeks since I seemed to drop off the face of the planet and then attend some fucking party. My stomach aches, I don't know whether from guilt or hunger. Maybe both. It feels like back when we were younger, when I would do something stupid and Josh would take the blame, tell his parents it was his fault. I never understood why he did that. Maybe he was a glutton for punishment, because Josh wasn't an idiot, and it would take an idiot to confess for all my crimes. I hadn't him anything but grief, that was for sure. And his life would've been much better without me in it, and I hate to say it, but I need him. Probably way more than he needs me. I feel restless, ready to help, to try to do something right, but I'm riddled with doubt. I don't want to hurt myself and by that hurt Josh, the guy already has enough going on.

I'm getting a better view at his partner now. He's slender, wearing the usual police uniform, except embellished with a solid red band on his right arm, under the sigil of our zone. I've definitely seen some of the enforcement officers with those on. He walks so gracefully too, like no bobbing, exact movement in his arms and--

"Wait, Josh, is your partner a bot?"

"Did it seriously take you this long to figure it out?" He grunts, his head still in his hands. "Yeah, he's a bot. Special new type, he's got his own identity, memories, even."

"That's incredible!" I exclaim, a little too loudly, and the bot looks over his shoulder at me. I couldn't see it before, but now I see the circle of light in his eye, swimming around the diameter of his iris. That's how my dad taught me to recognize a bot or cyborg, by the glowing circle in their eyes. I shake a little, thinking about that cyborg from over a week ago, Ryan. My bruises had healed but his words still haunted me, the threat of watching me choke. Josh's partner had those same eyes, detached, but not furious like Ryan, just cold. "I know doctors have been trying for millennia to give bots unique personalities. What's he like?" I whisper this, still keeping eye contact with the bot, who looks away, back to waiting in line.

"Oh, he's got a personality all right, his persistence for justice nearly got me killed." Josh looks up then, lower the collar of his shirt and I gasp. His whole neck is a bruise, purple and blue, green in some areas where it's starting to heal but practically pure black, creeping its way up past behind his left ear. The skin is rubbed raw too, where the collar makes contact with his skin. "We're in the car together, no big deal, on lunch break, he's driving, I'm in the passenger eating, drinking some super-hot coffee when he suddenly floors it, drives us into a wall, crushes this guy. I ask him why, I'm furious, exhausted, and now covered in scalding coffee. He says he say a guy take lunch without paying from the fast food place we were at. He. Ran. Him. Over. We had to put the car in a carwash multiple times to get the blood off. That was embarrassing. Then we come here, my boss chews me out, I say, "It was my partner, not me", but apparently it is my fault because I'm supposed to be baby-sitting my partner. The guy is intense, Frank. Like you'd never imagine from him." And I imagine Josh is right, he doesn't look like much at all right now, waiting in line patiently, looking out the glass window onto the never-ending hallways of the academy's campus. Nope, he definitely doesn't look like someone who just accidentally ran over a civilian.

"I thought that bots couldn't kill humans." I mutter after a few moments of deep thought. "I thought it was against their programming."

"Yeah, well, you know better than anyone, Frank. Programming can change. The police have been doing it for years. Bots can immediately kill when threatened or when they lock eyes with someone who is seen as a threat. It makes no sense, though, to immediately kill someone who was probably just in a hurry and would have sent the money through holomail. But I checked him up, yeah, he'd been arrested twenty years ago, in jail for six months. And it was enough for Tyler to think he was a threat." He sighs again, pulling his collar back up, a little higher than before. "I got whiplash. My whole body is covered, bruises, glass window shrapnel, first degree burn from the coffee even. My legs are blistered. Try explaining that to a metal skeleton with test tube skin and perfect hair."

Tyler is walking back over to us now with his ammo, he's already loading the stun darts into his gun, and hands Josh a box, which Josh reluctantly takes, not looking the bot in the eyes.

"You are Josh's cousin, right?" This is the first time I've heard Tyler's voice, it's surprising, underdeveloped, young. Come to think of it, he does look a little young, early twenties, younger than me and Josh, but I guess that's what test tube skin does for you.

"Yeah, uh, my dad is his mom's brother." Tyler doesn't look impressed by this, barely even interested, I wonder why he even asked.

He nods. "I see some resemblance between you two." And that's all he says.

Cue the awkward silence.

"I'm Frank Iero, what's your name?" I let out my hand for him to shake it, but he just stands there, doesn't move, so I bring it back to my side. I know he's a bot and all, but usually bots are programmed with better attitudes. I can't tell if he's just an asshole or if he was programmed that way.

"It's Tyler. Just Tyler."

Makes sense, usually they'll program bots with nicknames and then they'll set them to respond to that. Usually it's just one name though, so I don't know why Tyler adds "Just Tyler" for clarification. But I've got bigger problems to deal with, so I sweep that under the rug. This bot just seems to produce the most awkward atmosphere, I guess he's the type that won't speak unless spoken to, just naturally quiet. I can see how exhausted Josh is, already tired of this bot's bullshit. Tyler is strange though, in a way I can't really explain. He doesn't look like all the other bots. First of all, he's not deathly pale with the black eyes like those ANRI bots. He's just got murky brown eyes, and while he's not bad looking, he's not perfect looking like all those other bots. He looks really human. Intentionally human looking. Like when he opens his mouth his bottom teeth are all crooked. What kind of a person would design a bot to be like that?

"Right." Is all I can think of to say. My holo-clock says it's noon finally. I breathe a sigh of relief. "I'm gonna go get some lunch and then try to find Hayley and Zac. Can you bring food into the database room?"

Josh stands up, slowly, a little unsure and in the same breath as me says, "Yeah, you can bring food in. I, well, we'll come with you to find Williams and Farro. I hate that cafeteria anyway. Ever since I got promoted to a detective none of those people in my graduating class will speak to me." He pulls down his sleeves, shivering a little. "It's really cold in here, don't you think?" I nod, and my eye instinctively darts to Tyler, who's in his thin uniform, obviously unfazed by the cold.

Josh and I leave then, Tyler following closely behind us, and when I check him he's looking straight at me, unblinking.

"Tyler's a little strange, don't you think?" I whisper to Josh.

"He can hear everything you're saying. Robot ears plus we share the same feedback loop and we talk into each other's ears constantly." Josh mentions sighing. "But yeah, he's weird. Weirder than even other bots I've trained with. I trained to be an inter-sentient partner with a bot, but I guess he isn't what I expected. I don't think I'm what he expected either."

"Why do you say that?"

"Usually they don't couple same sex partners." He says this quietly, but it feels like alarms are going off in my head.

"Do you mean they knew you're...can they partner you based off of that?"

He nods.

"Jesus Christ," I mutter.

He nods again.

I check Tyler again, this time he's not staring me down through the back of my skull, he's looking out a window, to the lab where the big tubes of liquid are busy going skin, hair, there's even a metal skeleton laying there on a table, awaiting its skin. I wonder if he came out of that lab. I wonder if he knows where he came from. Do bots even know they're bots? That they're custom made in a lab? He almost seems lost in thought. I wonder what happens inside a bot's mind. Sure, I've messed with a few, hijacked a few in my time but what is it like to think with a synthetic brain? Are his emotions just as real as Josh and mine?

"Can robots have certain sexual orientations?"

Josh shrugs, but it's Tyler's higher voice I hear in response.

"We've got plenty of time to find out, Frank. But I guess the bigger question is, is it any of your business? Or maybe even, why do you want to know?"

I snicker a little, and Josh smacks me. Oh man. Josh is gonna have a fun time with this kid.

Chapter Text

JOSH

I really don't blame Frank for any of this, because no matter what anyone else says about him, he's passionate, he really cares. For the most part, he seems self-serving, narcissistic maybe, but most people would turn around and call me something similar, disillusioned maybe. I'd never seen so much poverty back on the third level, and I imagined it was that way everywhere, but I was wrong. They stuff the poor, the impoverished, the disabled even, and the deviants, on to the second level. We have the highest rate of crime and gangs, but every level has its vices. Level Four has the highest suicide rate. Level Three you die other ways, here it's pollution, criminal activity, hunger, poverty, and of course, prison. Most people go to prison to die. Or worse, embarrassment, harassment, abuse, and cap it off with death. I'm not disillusioned, just idyllic. Yeah, let's go with that.

Today I have to go pick up my uniform. This will be the first time I put it on, other than the itchy one they put you in once you graduate from the Academy. No, this one has my name on it, DUN scratched into a golden plaque. Right now, etched under that is our code: "Protect and Serve". One day, maybe I graduate to a detective or higher and I'll get a new badge. But today, I'll put this badge with honor.

I'm standing now, in front of my foggy mirror, watching as faded pink hair goes down the drain, clippers buzzing next to my ear. I had dyed it a month ago, after I graduated and I took my break while the Academy decided where to assign me. Down on to the Second Level. I don't know if that meant I was one of the best, or they were throwing me away, never to see me again.

And when the door closed, I waved to my family, then I sat in silence. I remember wondering if this is what it had felt like for Frank, who had left all he'd known to come live with us. To live a better life. Now I was joining him, back down there on Two. But now here I am, at the mirror, nicked myself with the razor I hadn't touched in a month, let the hair grow and now it's time to get back into the routine. It was like high school. Teachers called you by your last name only, except now, that was everyone, everyone except for Frank, who still knew my name, who had tried, in the week that I had moved in and gotten situated in his apartment, to show me the city and to take me out.

I had refused every time. Say I have work to do. A test to prepare for. Read the bylaws, the manual of the Police Academy. So now I waved him off, every night, as he went back to the flash of the neon lights, and I sat at home, in the comfort of the spare room that used to be his, while he slept in the living room on the couch. I'd wait until the morning, maybe he'd be home then, maybe by midafternoon, late evening, but he'd always eventually stagger back into the apartment, buzzed, exhausted, near collapse and I'd have him lie down and I'd make him tea with the purifier I had bought. The water here is brown, I freaked the first time I saw it, and Frank just shrugged, saying it was always that color. So, the purifier was the first purchase I'd made. Things were much less expensive on Two, and I'd had a little bit of extra money from my graduation party, where people rained Carbons down on me, and Frank couldn't even afford the station ride up. Not like Frank would have been welcome anyway, he hadn't talked to Aunt Laura since she kicked him out when he'd been caught sneaking a guy into the house.

I didn't wave tonight. We got a fight. Frank had met this guy at a bar, and the guy had egged on Frank into going to this riot. The guy's plan was for the two of them to get drunk and then attend this march. I, of course, wasn't too comfortable sitting with the idea of Frank drinking with a stranger and then going to a march, especially when most marches on Two ended bloody. Frank, as per usual, didn't want to listen, and was convinced I was just being overly protective.

Maybe I was but when he slammed the door I couldn't help but picture him, bloodied, trampled. The idea was stuck there. I used to have a solution for this anxiety, which was drinking it away, but I've been clean for 3 years now and I'm not going to have another relapse.

Instead, I attempted to stuff those feelings away. I went and got my uniform, and strode through the neon streets in no particular rush. And once I got home, I watched that door all night, until my eyelids drooped, eventually closing and I drifted off into an uncomfortable, anxious sleep.

He didn't return in the morning, not when I woke hastily from a stressful dream, not as I folded my uniform into a duffel bag, not as I laced up my shoes, decided to go for a run. The sky was still black.

Frank always felt like he had to prove me wrong, like he had to stay out for a few days then, and if I started to confront him about anything, he'd double the sentence. Crash on a new friend's couch for a week. Sitting in that silent apartment hurt the most. There was no distraction, especially considering half the time our holo-lenses and connection broke, we'd have no way to hear the constant chatter in our heads.

These streets look different when you're alone. I've been here for a week and I still get afraid every loud noise I hear. I can't tell if it's fireworks or bullets. Robotic shells litter the alleyways, along with every sort of litter that just falls on to One. I hate thinking about the trash. I hate thinking about Frank.

But what else is there to distract me?

I could think about work, there's plenty for me to look forward to, or consequently, worry about today. Today I meet my partner. We had this big questionnaire to fill out that is supposed to perfectly match us with our partner. I wonder what she will be like. She might even be a bot, it's probably about 90% likely she'll just be another hollow ANRI bot. I wouldn't mind that. It would be nice for her to have a little personality though, I hated always looking into those bot faces and just seeing duplicates of the same face. But it's super unlikely I'd get a different faced bot.

I remain locked in my thoughts, as I make my way to campus, and into the Presentation Hall, it looks like a replica of the room I graduated in on Three, only this room is in worse condition, walls scratched up and everything. I'm sorted into a line and then we walk onto stage, a line of officers already there, I see some ANRI bots in the mix, some humans too.

It's Sargeant Weekes that greets us all, his usual soft demeanor gone.

"Alright, everyone. Today is your first day on the job. Today you meet your partner, fill out some paperwork, maybe try to make this megacity a better place. You should already be lined up in alphabetical order, then when I call your name you come to me, and I give you the name of your partner. Partners will then stand together and after a short presentation, the two of you will be released together. Presumably you will spend the day practicing at the shooting range, taking calls, or filling out paperwork. It won't be extreme work today, but that's not a promise for tomorrow." He shuffles the papers in his hands, and I can't help but notice a fresh scar near his left eye. "I'll start calling your names now. Your partner has been instructed to raise their hand when their name is called." He looks down at his papers then. "First name is Armstrong, Joseph M."

My stomach is already in knots. I don't know why, considering I'll probably just be with a bot anyway. And 19 times out of 20 the pairing is opposite sex, so I won't have to worry about being with a guy and making it uncomfortable. I've been able to put away those feelings for a few years now, and I'll continue to do so for as long as I need to. It's just that the testing links you with who you're most compatible with.

Please, for my sake, be a girl.

"Dun, Joshua W."

I didn't notice how far the line had moved, and now I was at the front, looking at all the partnered officers, some already joking with each other, whispering under their breath as Sargeant Weekes pretended to not notice.

"Y-yes sir." I stutter, and the Sargeant frowns, checking his list again.

"Tyler."

Only one name? That's little strange, doesn't sound like a bot name, but a human name would be first, middle, last name so I'm unsure. And a name like Tyler that's more neutral, this person could be either male or female and my stomach has already dropped.

I see the hand go up before I see anything else, any of the rest of the body, or the face. And then the Sargeant is moving so my feet will me forward too. On to the person I could spend my career with. I'm sure every one of these officers is wondering why my heart is drumming out of my chest, including my partner. I wonder if she's this nervous too.

It's time for me to look and see the body attached to the hand. Taller than me by a few inches, short, slightly ruffled chestnut hair, stoic eyes framed by thick dark brows.

This is slightly worse than I anticipated. First of all, he's a guy, and he's kind of attractive. I'm shaking, and when his eyes set on me it feels like the room is spinning. Please, body, I don't need an anxiety attack right now.

It's like he's sizing me up, and he's definitely thinner than me, but with that face it's hard to read him. Is he already pissed off? I avert my eyes to catch the sight of his red band.

He's a bot too. But why doesn't he look like a bot?

"Josh, this is Tyler. He'll be your partner." I stand there forzen for a number of seconds, my stomach doing backflips, until the Sargeant adds, "Would you like to shake his hand, Josh?"

"He's a bot." These are the words that come out. Not exactly how I wanted to first meet my new partner. And I know that by saying he's a bot, I really meant "he's a he". The Sargeant seems to understand this. Tyler's right eyebrow ticks up for a split second and I know he's already pissed. Can bots get pissed.

"Yes, I believe I am." His voice is young, and it's he that extends his arm out to shake mine. Slowly, unassured, I take it. The skin on his hands feels real, even warm, and I can almost feel his pulse. That's weird too, bots aren't usually made with hearts that pulse like a human one. And his grip isn't too hard, like the brute force of all other bots I've interacted with. This bot is a strange one, for one thing I think it was just sarcastic with me.

"I-I’m Josh, sorry, I've never met such an interesting bot before." I stutter a little, which only makes the whispering anxious voices more aggressive.

His gaze is crippling, but I have to stand my ground, for the sake of my dignity in front of my new partner and all my previous classmates. I'm shaking, I wonder if Tyler can feel the sweat on my hands. It's only hitting me now, and everyone in line is watching us. My heart takes a swan dive. They all know now. Everything that I've stuffed away, there are tears pricking at the corners of my eyes, and before they fall I move to stand next to Tyler when the spot is cleared for me. I'm left of Tyler, lifting my head up, breathe, Josh, you need to breathe.

Please don't cry Josh. Not yet. In twenty minutes this will be over, you and Tyler can sit in the back row, the light will turn off and then you can cry. Just make sure your eyes are dry and not red by the time the lights are on. Excuse yourself to go to the bathroom. But not yet, because then Tyler will really hate you. And if your partner hates you, you've got no chance then.

At least Tyler is smart enough to not look over at me during any of this time. He stays perfectly still, and now I can see his slightly upturned nose, the sharp razor edge of his hair above his temple, the stubble contouring his cheeks. I can't see why a bot would need stubble. Will we be doing undercover work, considering he looks so human except for the small circle of light in his eyes? There's some bots in line that are obvious, some silver haired, white skinned ANRI bots, some male alternates even of the ANRI bot, all clean shaven and unblemished skin. But Tyler had wrinkles on his head when he raised an eyebrow. His ears are slightly pink. I don't understand who would make a bot looking this human.

At least these thoughts have kept the anxiety at bay for a number of minutes, but they're closer to screaming now. Resign now. You know you can't do this, and you've already messed up with Tyler. Go home. Get drunk on the couch with Frank and never come out of that little apartment ever again. Watch the same four walls forever. You don't deserve your badge, so give up now and all this goes away. Everyone hates you because you like boys.

This voice cuts the deepest, and I notice I haven't been breathing.

"Alright, now everyone find a seat with your partner in one of the first five rows and we will move on to the presentation." As the Sargeant says this, the lights finally flicker off, and my first tear falls. The other uniformed officers are moving off the stage already, all ignoring me now. Tyler stays planted to my side, looks to me, does a double take as he noticed my obvious distress, probably reads my brain chemistry or something.

"We'll sit in the back. Come one." He steps in front of me then, but stays close, guiding me to the further rows as I try to sneakily wipe my eyes. He doesn't trip as he walks, like I always do. His walking is that perfect arch, moves too perfect for a human but body so human it's almost uncanny. He sits down first and gives me the end seat.

"In case you need to make an exit," he coolly whispers. His eyes shine a little more in the darkness. We have a whole row to ourselves, and watching the backs of heads and hearing the Sargeant's calming voice is monotonous enough for me to slowly return to stability. The room is no longer spinning and the voices go back to their dull whispers.

The presentation is full of old videos, at least 30 years old by the uniforms and the fact that they're talking about loading real guns with real bullets, which have been outlawed for some 20 plus years. It's trust exercises, the best way to get in contact with your partner. The responsibilities in a partnership.

Tyler still just gazes forward, but he's already comforting somehow. Very stable, and it's not like he doesn't look approachable, he looks fine now, just watching the presentation, I wonder what it feels like for a bot to watch an old-time presentation with an old projector. One of the officers that graduated the class before me told me one day the reason we use so much old media is to avoid hacking and surveillance being compromised. I'm having a hard time paying attention, but then the anxiety is kicking in so I try to watch Tyler instead.

"Are you aware that you are staring at me?"

"Sorry, what?"

He turns to me, bright eyes half lidded, disinterested or maybe just calm. "You've been watching me for 5 minutes and 38 seconds. Is this your normal behavior?" My heart jumps a little at his gaze. He's calm but I'm just feeling jittery, try to drums my fingers along my legs so they shake less. "You're drumming your fingers too. I'm seeing a 15% increase in your adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine levels."

I'll try to play it cool, and I check to see if anyone is listening in. So far, we're clear. "Which means what?"

"You're nervous. Stressed, anxious, also confused, I'm reading that as well."

"You're not wrong." I gaze down into my lap. How much should I say? "There's just a lot on my mind." Are bots programmed to be curious? Or is it just that I want to get some things off my chest, and Tyler now has to listen to me. He's stuck with me.

"I understand." He says in that calm, young voice of his. "I used to have a lot of problems with thinking too much."

"How could a bot think too much?"

He turns to me then, and stares at me with those unblinking glowing eyes. "There is much that I will explain to you, Joshua."

I hope he can't see me blushing in the dark. "Only my mom calls me Joshua. You can call me Josh, Ty." His eyebrows jump when I call him that, and I immediately recoil. "I-I'm sorry. That was a step too far, wasn't it? Josh makes sense—I mean—it's what a go by. Sorry for calling you Ty."

"No, I rather like the sound of that." He murmurs a little, more of a contemplative whisper than a comment.

"So, Ty it is then."

"Alright, Josh."

"Alright, Ty."

My eyes could be deceiving me but I think I see the corners of his lips turn up for a moment in the dark. He lets me stay like that, doesn't speak again, lets me watch his eyes glow, mesmerized until the light go on and now instead of the red of my eyes I'm worrying about the red in my cheeks.

Chapter Text

FRANK 

I'm only awakened from my dead sleep by a startling thunk, right near my ear. I'm thrust immediately out of my subconsciousness, gasping, back into reality, back into the backseat of the police Tesla wagon, looking at the backs of heads.  

"Ugh," Zac mutters, while Hayley, in the driver's seat turns on the windshield wipers, only to smear the rotten produce over the windows. Her hands are rested in her lap and she turns to check on me.  

"Good to see you awake, Frank. Perfect timing actually, we're almost to the shop."  

Out the window, the streets are clouded in a thick opaque smog. Rain soaked sidewalks mirror the neon signs until a boot splashes in, distorting the image. The brown water carries away litter of all sorts, a bot arm and a defunct security droid, homeless people decorate the streets with tents and holoboards with handwritten messages in glowing ink, begging for food, money, or maybe alcohol and Red Eye. On top of a mattress sits an older man and an unmoving, possibly dead dog. For now, the night clubs are dead but the bars are alive with afternoon drinkers. Just about every surface is covered in graffiti, shifting animations, just like my tattoos.  

When I'm on duty with Hayley and Farro, they've required me to cover up my tattoos, so I'm sitting here, covered head to toe in the scratchy material of the trainee uniforms, all black, no badge, and since I am practically bleeding ink, that means I'm in material up to my chin, drowning in it, and black gloves. If I angle my head a little I can see a subtle green glow from beneath the black material; all I can hope is this Gerard guy won't mind seeing a few tattoos.  

The car is stopping now at a chain fence. While I would have been impressed seeing a fence around any establishment, this one is cut in multiple places, rusted, has full corners missing of it. It's probably just more of a precaution against the drunks and maxers in the area. But none the less, Hayley lets a small droid that unfolds from a box in the fence scan her eye, and the rusted gates click open with a grinding noise.  

"This is the place, Frank. Are you nervous?" Farro asks, turning to me, expression obscured by a shitty vintage pair of circular yellow tinted sunglasses.  

"Should I be nervous? Also, Farro, you look like a bitch with those glasses on."  

Zac and Hayley exchange a look then, and Hayley comments, "He's definitely nervous if he's needing to pick on you, Farro."  

"So you like them then?" He asks, as Hayley parks the car.  

"Oh no, they're hideous," She ducks her head out, checking before stepping out of the car, while Farro mutters to no one in particular.  

"Unbelievable. You two are something else. I'm trying to find my identity and you two are just crapping all over it. These," he starts, pointing to the glasses, "these are a statement piece."  

If I have to sit in here another second while Zac Farro explains the merits of vintage fashion and how creative and original he is for wearing ugly clothes, I'm going to throw up. "If that statement is to look really fucking terrible, you're doing a great job." And with that, I exit the car, follow Hayley to the door, up a short pair of steps to what looks like a parking garage.  

The garage is painted with a pink fluffy alien on it, waving with a cat looking face. Oh shit, that's Lola. Lola, the bot that Party Poison fought with? Jesus Christ. Years of memories flood back with that mischievous smile of hers. What kind of a guy is this, with a graffitied pink alien in front of his workshop? I sigh and look up, only to see another relic. The red icon of a horse with wings and in red letters DEAD PEGASUS.  

"Wait, but, Dead Pegasus had to be torn down, after that big accident, right?" I ask Hayley, who is knocking on the metal of the garage.  

"Yes, well, Gerard's dad worked there until they had that big radiation scare with the tidal wave. Took out a few blocks on the west side of Two. Gerard ended up finding the sign, and got it okayed so he could bring it to his workshop. None of the internal wiring was damaged, so the sign still worked fine after ten years of it being so radioactive." She pauses knocking then. "He's probably listening to music really loud or something in his office. I'll just call him." She puts her finger to her ear, taps it once and a window opens in front of us of a guy sitting at a desk, air drumming with those paint brushes, listening to scratchy loud music. "Gerard? Gerard!" It takes a few times of calling his name for him to notice us.  

When he does, his eyes open wide, and he frantically waves the music off.  

"Oh! Officer Williams! It's good to see you again! How's that neurotransmitter treating you?"  His voice is almost squeaky, a little nasally, thick accented.  

"V-very good, thanks," Hayley answers, a little embarrassed. She clears her throat then, "We're here for your noon appointment." 

He looks a little startled, confused, muttering, "Is it noon already?" Then he must be checking his analog clock because he turns behind himself. "Hmm, let me get some stuff from in here and I'll open the door for you now and you can wait in here." With a snap of his fingers, the old door starts slinking upward. And the warehouse inside is larger than my whole apartment, which yes, isn't big, but it sure as hell is incredible to see a little shithole of a place, stained concrete floor littered with artwork and decals, splashes of neon glowing paints, droid cabinets wheeling around on their own, a 3d printer humming softly as it builds a custom piece. Lit by an LED ceiling that distractingly changes color, tinting Hayley and my faces. With all the bot and cyborg pieces just scattered around, practically thrown on the floor, the place is most definitely lived in. One droid table is just covered in handwriting, written in glowing ink, some small drawings even. And everything is covered in stickers, even the sink, the chemical bath, a small refrigerator tucked into the corner, the power tools hovering above our heads, too close to comfort.  

"This guy really is something else," I comment, dodging a power drill as it flies above me. "I mean, fuck, I'm a messy person, but this is next level."  

Hayley has seated herself at the center table that hasn't moved yet, on a metal stool. For her sake, I hope that table stays there and doesn't just randomly choose to run her over. "Gerard has some curious methods, but he is undeniably the best bio and bot mechanic that the Police can bring into a case. Bring in a defunct bot, Gee will know the superstore where it was bought, every location it's been, the face of any hacker who's ever tried to mess with it. In a day. I've seen cases go on for weeks and then someone finally got wise enough to consult him and he solves the case in a five-hour span. We make an arrest later that day."  

"So what's taking him so long right now?" I mutter impatiently, examining an etching in the table, stick figures in a capsule.  

"If you want, you can help yourself to something," that nasally voice rings in my ear. "There's a whole kitchen over to your left." Does he mean to the left wall that is totally bare? "Knock on it twice and the kitchen will roll out."  

So I stroll on over, sighing impatiently. I don't know why this guy is making us wait, or why the more I wait the more nervous I'm feeling. Something's itching me at the back of my brain. Two knocks and nothing happens for a second. "Seriously?" 

And then it's like the whole wall flips out, multiple little cabinets popping out, a stove and a coffee pot. All inches away from my face now.  

"See the line on the ground? The yellow one?"  

I have to take a second to find it, before noticing it's behind me. "Yeah, I see it." 

"That's the caution line. You know, the 'don't cross this line' line?" 

"You mean the one he disregarded and walked in front of?" Hayley mentions. "Never heard of it."  

It's maybe not the best idea, considering I already feel my heart rate increased, and I'm not supposed to take off my mask when I feel at all like my heartbeat might become irregular, but I decide to chug a cup of blistering hot bitter coffee. Mouth burning, I mutter to myself, "I fucking hate yellow. What the fuck is it with people and yellow?"  

A door slides away then, in the opposite corner of the room. "Sorry about that. The time got away from me, and I've been having some difficulties the last few days with my legs so you get the chair today." And this is just about the time that I'm walking back to where Williams is, put down my coffee, hope the table doesn't move, and only then do I look up to see this Gerard guy.  

What catches my eye first is the hair. Yellowish blonde hair that frames his square face, falling, tapering by his ears and resting above his shoulders. Straight dark eyebrows hanging right above welcoming, bright eyes and thin lips pulled tight in a semi smile. An old ratted open button up shirt, with a printed design of palm trees and an ocean, like the ones that Dizza wears except on this guy they look right, comfortable. He's wearing a faded black tee under it, some old shirt with a long-gone band on it, the name worn off. Old looking blue jeans too.  

And it's then that I notice the wheelchair. It's vintage, rustic even, as he wheels himself over to Hayley, shaking her hand. I've never met a person who used a wheelchair, I mean, now there's so many options, like an exoskeleton or even just cyborg legs. But to my right I notice the set of legs on one of the roaming tables. Oh. That's what difficulties with legs means.  

"So, Gerard, this is Frank." Hayley is over by me now, nudging me as I walk forward nervously to shake his hand. Something in his touch makes the hair on my arms stand. And right now, I can't tell if it's good or not. I mean, this guy is really easy to look at, and I've never felt this nervous to shake a stranger's hand. I think he can sense it as he pulls away.  

"Good to meet you, Frank." He speaks almost exclusively from the right side of his mouth, to reveal rows of small teeth. Something about him looks familiar, but I can't figure out what it is yet.  

"Way!" Zac rushes in, excited, walks towards Gerard and the two of them share a friendly handshake. "I saw the sign up front. Really nice touch. I can tell you're really growing into this space now. Feels like home," he mentions, looking all around, at the ceiling, then he gazes over to the kitchen. "Oh, coffee! I'm gonna have some, is that alright?" 

"Help yourself," Gerard chuckles as he waves Zac off.  

Way. Gerard Way.  

There it is.  

"Gerard Way!" I snap the pieces together and startled, he looks over at me. "Your brother, I went to school with Mikey!" Oh shit, the legs. I remember watching the television that day, the day of the Professional Griefers accident, how Mikey sank into the floor when he thought he'd lost his brother. And I didn't even know much about Mikey, we'd hung out but never just the two of us, Pete was always hanging around him. This guy in front of me is like a less skinny, more adult Mikey, his face a little rounder and overall looks a little more welcoming. I'm not sure why I feel guilty while looking at him, my heart just sinks knowing a little of what happened to him, paralyzed from the waist down.  

His expression softens then into a smile. "I thought you sounded familiar. Mikey didn't get to escape that hospital much, so whenever he did I got to hear all about it. Oh wait, it's Frank Iero, right?" He snorts a little. "Oh yeah, you're the kid who kicked Pete's ass that one time when you were hungover, right?"  

Is it okay to even laugh about that? I mean, how unprofessional is it to mention my teenage binge drinking? I can already feel Hayley and Zac’s stares at the back of my head, probably shaking their heads and locating the nearest bible. “Yeah, that was me.” Nothing going to soil my reputation with the police any more than it already is, and it makes Gerard laugh a little, a nervous, staccato noise, higher pitched, very cute. “So are Mikey and Pete still together?”  

He cringes a little, shaking his head. “Nah. But Mikey gets a videomail every week from Pete begging to take him back. They broke up a little earlier this year, but Pete isn’t ready to move on at all.”  

“And Mikey?” 

One of his eyebrows raises. “Dating a girl. Her name’s Kristin. I’ve met her once, she’s a pretty good match to him, bubbly, energetic but not as neurotic as Pete was. Mikey’s still up on Three, studying to become a doctor actually.”  

“Wow, that’s impressive.” I exclaim. Mikey never seemed to be interested in class but I knew from copying his papers a few dozen times that the kid was fucking smart. “He always was flicking through a few books a week.”  

“Yeah, Mikey was always like that, loved reading and after so long he started getting interested in things like neuroscience and surgery.” He sighs, smiling. “He always told me I was the genius of the house. I think he’s proven me wrong by this point. He’s probably standing over some brain while I’m here,” he gestures to the messy workshop. “Taking cases from the cops. Fixing a broken hololens. Scraping by. Anyway.” He seems to have noticed by this point how quiet the room has gotten. He twists his index finger and the chair underneath me breaks itself, I yelp for a moment, as I watch the chair change under me to a recliner, a surgery chair.  

“We’re gonna put you in Gerard’s capable hands, Frank,” That’s Zac’s discombobulated voice as he puts a hand on my shoulder from behind me. “Officer Williams and I are going to step outside and run some errands. We’ll be back to pick you up Frank. Next time, Way.”  

“Good to see you again, Zac,” Gerard comments, and then Hayley and Zac show themselves out.  

It's weird, watching the two of them leave, maybe it's Zac's walk, Hayley is usually the one to say goodbye, but today she's barely even looked at me. Something was off about her this morning, but I don’t remember if I know what it is. Hayley and Zac had only exchanged a few words when I got into the car with them, then we were off. I wonder what it was.  

But now Gerard is in my face, pulling on some latex gloves, even a cotton bandana around his mouth, some circular glasses, and with a blink a large light flickers on, hovering above our heads.  

"You can take off that jacket if you want," he offers, turned away from me. It's weird, I've been living with a busted eye for two weeks now, it's repaired itself enough that I can at least see blobs moving, with a large crack running through all of them, but it's better than being totally black in one eye. So while I know he's turned away from me, it looks almost like he has two left hands superimposed over each other, one clear, the other fuzzy.  

"I-I have tattoos, I hope you don't mind that," I mention nervously, as I catch a glimpse of how big the needle in his hand is.  

"Nah," he turns to me then, needle in hand, and now I can't even see his thin lips move, just a discombobulated voice, distorted through the fabric. "Honestly—I think tattoos are great. Love seeing them, how they look, how they move...I could never handle the needles though," all of this in his nasally as he's holding a giant fucking needle. He seems to follow my line of sight then and look at the needle.  

"Oh, yeah, this looks big but it's really thin. You won't feel it, and if you do you can just slap me or something." 

"I think I'll just yell." 

He considers that. "Yeah, maybe that's better. Makes more sense, quicker response too. Okay, yeah...so do that." He's sterilizing the needle, at least I think that's what he's doing. "Now, listen, this is what's gonna go down. You lay back, keep your eye really open, really still, I poke this needle in, it's a second, half a second, then busted lens is out, and see this box?" He shakes a little box on the table, it's see through and full of what looks like sand. "Each of these is a replacement. That's how big the holo-lens is. Tiny. So we eject this needle, I grab a new one, we dip into that box, and we stick it back in your eye. No blood, no damage." I can tell he's given various types of this speech before. "Sounds good?" 

"Shouldn't there be some paperwork here and I sign on some line?"  

"Hayley already signed it for you. And it's more of a thumb stamp for confirmation anyway. Since she's your senior officer, well, she kinda controls your life, doesn't she? And yeah, you got the simpler version of the explanation. Do you want the long form?"  

I shake my head.  

"That's what I thought. Oh, and I should mention, I don't usually use anesthesia, it's a short procedure and any numbness or dopiness from patients makes it hard to keep their eyes open. No use doing it for such a short procedure. Not to mention I don't have much access to it anyway, I mean, this shop is run out of my apartment, I live behind that door and down the hallway," he says, gesturing with his eyes over to the door he entered through. "Is that okay?" 

"Sure thing," I'm not sure whether I trust this guy just yet, but Hayley does, she I nervously lay back in the chair.  

He waits for a few moments before speaking again. "So are you taking off your jacket or not?" 

I look down. Shit. I'd hadn't taken my eyes off Gerard since Hayley and Zac left, and even though I'd asked if I could take it off, I'd gotten totally sidetracked somehow. "Yeah, sorry." I unbutton my jacket, button by button, it's a little frustrating because I'm having a hard time seeing every button with my mask on. But eventually I fumble my way through it, attempting and failing to look cool in front of Gerard so when I finally slip my jacket off, I feel like I've totally killed the suspense.  

Gerard stares a little. At least I think, it's hard to tell behind his tinted glasses, but he freezes entirely for a number of seconds. He tries to play it off, probably refraining from asking a number of questions. "Right, okay, let's get this over with for you. Eye wide open. Alright."  

With him this close, and in the effort to not think about the needle going into my eye, I’m noticing little things, the lines of his jaw, I hadn’t figured out the color of his eyes yet, whether they were brown or green. Maybe hazel. And now I was staring right into them. I’m not sure if I’m nervous because this guy is going to be picking inside my eyeball or if I’m intimidated by him. I try to continue to breathe, and I brace for the impact as I watch the needle coming closer towards me.  

"Look straight ahead for me, Frank. Just look at my ear."  

I can do that. I can just look at his ear. I try to swallow back down my heart. What if he miscalculates and my mask gets in the way or something? I can fee a slight pressure on my cheeks when his hand gets close enough, just butted up against my mask.  

Oh, god. Do. Not. Blink.  

"You can breathe Frank, I won't gouge your eye out, I promise."  

"I don't know if I believe you."  

Click.  

And then Gerard is drawing the needle out.  

"Did you feel anything?" 

"A-are we done?"  

"Well, we're done with the first part." He flicks the top of the needle and it pops off, he then kicks open a trash lid and throws it in. "Most people find that part of be the hardest, just because it's so nerve wracking." He slides the glasses up his forehead, brushing his blonde hair out of his eyes. "How do you feel?" 

I didn't think about it at first, but everything seems more flat, less colorful, maybe even darker. The room feels so much bigger for some reason.  

"The room feels...bigger? Does that make sense? And everything is darker somehow."  

Gerard nods, biting his lip. "Yeah, from personal experience I remember what it felt like getting both of them replaced. None of the little pin messages floating around, no internal clock, no checking up on news, friends. And for you, no more long crack along your vision and double vision with blurriness."  

It feels colder too. The reds are less red, Gerard looks more tired now. I wonder what I look like. Closing my one good eye, I look down at my arms.  

"Holy shit. My tattoos."  

Still glowing a green, my tattoos are no longer animated. I watch for a few more moments. No movement. 

"Yeah, before both of mine broke I didn't know how many things were affected by the holo-lens illusion. It makes things look brighter, more colorful, weird stuff like that, and constant messages, notifications, reminders, advertisements, all of those are gone. Do I look sort of blue right now?"  

Everything is tinted somewhere between an unsaturated blue green, a sick looking color. Or I guess, everything with the holo-lens is tinted brighter.  

"So this is what everything really looks like? In the real world?" 

"Yeah, this is it." He remarks, turning back to his box of little holo-lenses before he stops. "Hey, when I install your new lens, do you want one that blocks out some radio signals? You won't get a cluster of ads in the morning, and you can go into a private mode for communications."  

That sounds incredible, but totally out of my price range. With both of my eyes open, my brain has a hard time of understanding color, everything sort of purple almost with the bright and the dark balance being so off. I wonder what the street looks like without a holo-lens. Is it as dark as it is in here? I bet the streets look really empty, no messages to push out of your way. Oh man. And imagine if I took out the earpiece embedded into my ear canal. I wonder what Gerard's voice would sound like then. What would I sound like? 

Shit, Gerard is probably waiting for an answer. 

"If I can afford it, I'd like that." 

"No need to worry. The Police Academy is paying, but I'll give you a discount anyway. It'll take me a few more minutes to prepare the new lens, if that's okay." He already wheeling himself towards the door, but something he said sticks in my mind.  

'Hey, why are you giving me a discount?"  

He turns back towards me, but doesn't seem to have an answer. "Uh, I mean, you're a friend of Mikey. Maybe you can tell him hi for me."  

"Do you and Mikey not talk anymore?" That's weird. Mikey was always talking about Gerard back in high school, and from what Gerard has said, they seemed to be close...I wonder what came between them.  

"Not so much. He said some things...I said some things back."  

"How long ago was that?"  

"A few years ago. I'm fine with it by now." He doesn't look fine. I decide to drop it there. "I-I'm gonna go get the other lens. You might be a little unsteady or lightheaded with your vision right now, so don't move around too much."  

I wish I could listen to Gerard, but as always when I'm told to do something, I want to do the exact opposite. My thoughts once again drift to the holo-lens. I wonder what the street looks like. And Gerard left that garage sliding door slightly open. The street is a few yards away. Even if I'm unsteady, that's no big deal.  

So I decide to get out of the chair, I lurch forward a little too much, and catch myself right before faceplanting.  

Okay, maybe he was a little more right than I expected.  

I still find a way to walk towards the door and lift, with the slightest amount of exertion to door opens. It's still midmorning, and just like Gerard said, everything feels more open. I almost feel alone, vulnerable, even while I watch drunkards stagger out of bars and that homeless man and his dog sleeping on a small cot. The sky seems more grayish white instead of the usual smoky blue. I'm free to look at any bar for longer than ten seconds without my lens popping up a bunch of information about a bar or restaurant or any random place. It feels like being able to look, to watch for the first time.  

"Frank?" I hear Gerard's voice from inside the shop and I immediately shoot up from sitting on the ground, half dirt and half artificial grass.  

"What are you doing over there?" He has a new box, a smaller box on his lap this time, and I walk back towards the chair.  

"Sorry, I-I guess I wanted to see what the streets looked like without all the distractions." His face softens a little as I say that. I feel a little guilt crawl on me as realize I probably freaked him out for a second back there.  

"No, no I get it. It's interesting to see what the real world looks like. Anyway, I got your new holo-lens and another needle. So, are you ready for part 2?" 

I lie back into the chair. "Why not?" 

The needle is centimeters away from my face when he speaks next. "You don't seem as nervous this time." 

"Yeah, I'm a seasoned professional by this point." 

He snorts a little. "Yeah, you are. Hey, can I ask you a question? Look at my ear again, Frank." I guess I should have expected Gerard to catch me looking at him if he's working on my eye. "Alright thanks."  

What could he want to know about me? "Uh, sure, what do you want to know?"  

"Just, I guess, what happened to you that led you to all this?"  

"You mean to being arrested by the police, becoming a double agent, and then getting the shit beat outta me?"  

"Yes, I guess that's it."  

Where do I start? 

"How much do you want to know?" 

"I don't need full life story, just what could make someone like you inspired to help the police? I don't mean to sound like an ass and I don't mean it as a dig, but you don't seem like a police dog to me. It seems like you butt a lot of heads, whether you want to or not."  

He honestly couldn't be more right. It's kinda weird, but he seems to already have me figured out. And what do I know of him so far? He's Mikey's brother. He worked with Party Poison.  

That's a name I haven't thought of in a while. It's been what, 8 years by this point. God, that means Gerard has been paralyzed from the waist down for 8 years. There's so many things I want to ask Gerard that I have to bite my tongue.  

"Yeah, I mean, I've always been bad at life. At being a good student, a good friend, good family." I take a sigh. Do I want to hand this stranger all my problems immediately? "So when I graduated from high school, I already knew I had no future. I like things like bot fighting, and I'm only good at illegal things for the most part. And one day I got caught. Not too long ago, but for some reason Hayley and Zac must have seen something in me, fuck knows what it is, but they wanted to keep me out of jail." And now Hayley and the whole Police Academy were paying for me to get my holo-lens fixed. The academy is keeping me fed, well rested, the clothes I'm wearing right now are emblazoned with the sigil of Zone 31. I hadn't thought of all that before. Shit. I owed everything to them right now. Maybe that's what they wanted, maybe they wanted to light a fire like this under my ass. "And the first night I got the ripe shit beat out of me." 

"The broken holo-lens."  

"Exactly." Another click and he's pulling out the needle.  

"I get it. It might not seem like it but I understand."  

I scoff a little too loudly, and Gerard sends the most sympathetic look my way. No way he knows what I'm going through. But then again, he's not mocking me, at least I don't think, and it seems like he's willing to listen, which is a first for actually anyone.  

"I do! I promise I do. Eight years ago I was doing something that I loved. Five minutes can separate your dreams and catastrophe, Frank. I ended up here. Honestly, I respect you." 

I snort then. "You respect me?" 

"You took a beating and now you're gonna go back and do it all over again. I don't know exactly what you're doing but I know it's dangerous enough that the bruise under your eye hasn't fully healed yet. And after getting beat like that, you're gonna go and do it again. I don't know if that's brave or idiotic." 

"Maybe it's both."  

"Yeah maybe." He throws away the second needle. "Alright. We're gonna boot your holo-lens up now. Close both your eyes for me."  

I do as he says.  

"Keep them closed for a minute. I'll start timing you. Are you seeing any little lights in a circle yet?" 

There's one white dot swimming around in my vision that is now turning from white to yellow to green and then going through the whole rainbow.  

"Yeah there's one little one that's changing colors."  

"Alright, good. Keeping your eyes closed, look to the left for me." I do as he says and the little white dot pops once. "Now to the right." He waits a few moments and the second dot pops. "Up...Now down." Now the light expands into a larger circle, moving clockwise, spinning. "If you're seeing a spinning circle then we're almost done. We'll test it then." 

"What is all of this for? I've never seen a start up like this before." It's weird hearing my voice and Gerard's, at the same volume, and not knowing how close or how far he is away from me. Without those visual cues, I really do lose sense of depth, especially while I'm looking at these small dots, not allowed to open my eyes.  

"Well for most people, you have one holo-lens and it never has to be replaced. So this whole start up is tested when you're an infant. And you never see it again, in your case, this is your first time seeing it and hopefully the last."  

The dots in a circle now cluster back into one dot and then a visual that looks like an eye closing and opening flashes.  

"Alright, you can open them now."  

We're back to that bright, friendly world again. It feels much stranger now, knowing this isn't reality. And there's Gerard, pulling off the bandana and glasses, shoving some hair out of his face. Looking at his face for five seconds, a circle appears around his face and his name pops up next to him.  

"Is it identifying me?" 

"Yep."  

"Alright, great! Then you're all set up." He snaps and the tools float upward again, the chair returning to a standard looking seat. "You can stay as long as you need, until Hayley and Zac come to get you. While you're here, I was wondering, would you like to see something?"  

I'm itching my new eye, but feel my headache fading away. And should I even turn down the guy that just fixed my eye? "Sure. What have you got?"  

"Well if you come on over here," he starts wheeling himself over to a table near the kitchen area. "I've been working on something recently, it's still in prototype of course..." I start to lose him as he talks through the mechanics of it all as I take a look at the little tube on the table.  

And I think I interrupt him when I ask, "Is that an oxygen tube?"  

He recoils a little, coming out of his rant, noticing my interest. "Uh, yeah, it's still in the early stages, I though you'd like to know because I see so many people walking around with those expensive masks like the one you have, and you were pretty good with that little procedure."  

"This is incredible work, Gerard." I hear myself muttering, as I'm just looking at his side profile, his lips, his nose.  

He smiles shyly. "Well, I'm trying to make a cheaper version of the oxygen mask, it's also more durable, and obviously less clunky, it's a tube that goes into one nostril and then down through the throat into the lungs. It should deliver more oxygen and the tube doesn't expire every month, it should get cleaned every month, but only needs to be replaced every 10 years or so."  

"Yeah, first statement remains, this is incredible. If you ever need a guinea pig, I'm interested definitely."  

"Thanks. I love working on things like this in here but I've been having a hard time of it lately, these tables don't adjust any lower than this and this wheelchair is a lot lower, my other one is in the shop right now and obviously my exo-legs aren't working right now for some reason." He sighs, looking forlornly over at the opposite wall that the robotic legs hang on.  

Gerard seems better with biological and mechanical things, like enhancements, but those legs look like an older model, and are mostly robotic instead of cybernetic.  

"Maybe I could take a look at those someday."  

He turns to me, a little surprised. "Are you good with bots?" 

"Pretty good. I'm better with older models, those look like a Class E or F?" 

"They're D Class."  

Oh man.  

"I can definitely work on them. All the stuff at my apartment is Class D and most of the droids at my old high school were too. Let me take a look at them now and then I'll make a parts list and you can see it as a thank you for dealing with me."  

Gerard's eyes really light up at my offer. "That would be so great, Frank. Let me show them to you."  

He wheels over, grabs a long skinny pole and lifts the legs down with one hand, no effort, and a table wheels over to us. I help him place the light legs on the table.  

"Alright let’s check these out."  

They're in phenomenal shape. Perfectly polished, they shine like a polished obsidian, the inner fans and wires all red. The sensor spots all react to my touch and the spinal wire seems in good condition, a little bent so I grab some floating pliers and fit that. It's gotta be something else, I'm sure. The legs are two long lengths of plastic molded along the outer thigh, little sensor points that stick into the muscles and stimulate the legs to move. I've seen this sort of technology before in bots, but it never ceases to amaze me on humans. The interesting thing too is that it would have been easy for Gerard's leg to just be amputated and he could have been given cyborg legs, but he must have a serious reason to have to put himself through this much hell. It could be financial of course, he and his family probably spent a fortune on trying to save his legs and body for nothing and he settled for exo-legs.  

Fastening belts and adjustable cranks decorate the legs, with two belts at the chest and stomach above the groin, then at the upper thigh, the knee and the shin.  

"I know it's something to do with the internal wiring, it's just that my hands are a little too big to be able to check everything without bumping another few chords out of place. They're overheating too, the last time I put them on it actually left burn marks at all the sensor spots. None of the shops in town have been able to recommend the parts to me, I think it's because they're almost a decade old by this point, and people just don't carry those parts anymore." He sighs then. "If you could figure this out for me, I would really appreciate it. My patience is just wearing thin, and it's hard having to wheel myself all over town just to find some fucking piece." He wipes his hair out of his face, his brows heavy over exhausted eyes.  

He's practically solved his own problem, he knows exactly what's wrong, he just needs help finding the pieces. No doubt, I have connections that could solve his issue, not the most legal of connections but maybe if I decide to go with this whole being a better person thing I can talk to Hayley and Zac about it. And man, Gerard deserves this so bad. I barely know him yet and he deserves legs more than I deserve to breathe.  

"Yeah, I'll start looking into locations to find those parts. I'll pin you a message once I find them."  

"I can totally pay, I mean, as long as it's not ridiculous, I have some disposable cash, but yeah, whatever it takes, I'm willing to pay you."  

Why am I thinking back to that first time Bob asked me to build the droid? It was more than a decade ago, back when I cried that night when he left that I had 100 carbons and we could pay for electricity for a month. And now I'm sitting here, all dressed up in black and working for the police. Have I really changed all that much? I feel sort of uneasy, making deals, accepting money. I wonder who I'll be, working for the police and then helping Gerard. He's different though, because while I'm not exactly sure I want to help the police, I'm certain that I want to help Gerard. To improve his life.  

"I won't argue that." I don't have much money to offer anyway, if I did, I would do this as more of a favor. "Yeah, I'll find the items, let you know the price, we can figure this out."  

"Frank?" Zac is stepping into the shop, visibly upset, his face sort of red. "Are you ready to go?"  

"I guess so," I say, looking at Gerard who motions me to go.  

"Thank you, Frank. Let me know about those parts. I hope I'll see you again soon?" 

"Yeah, me too."  

Waving goodbye to Gerard, I notice how different and similar he is to Mikey. He's sometimes a little hard to read, although he's much more talkative than his brother. They share some of the same quirks, Mikey spoke out of the side of his mouth sometimes and Gerard only speaks out of the right side, and he has sort of the same body type, except a little less wispy. It's hard leaving his shop, watching as the Dead Pegasus sign fades into the distance, and only seeing from the rearview mirror the mascara stained tears slipping down Hayley's face.  

"You get to go home today, Frank. Next mission is this Friday night. We'll let you know the details later, and if we need you, we'll smuggle you into the station. Got all that?" Zac asks, as Hayley just sniffles.  

"Got it."   

Gerard's eyes were definitely hazel.  

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Chapter Text

FRANK

"Okay, question, what is that behind you and Zac, where did you get those socks so I can swing by there tonight and burn it to the ground?"

Hayley turns to me, wiping her eyes in the small janitor's closet as Zac looks quizzically at the short bot, arranging stickers on its newly polished chest. It's dimly lit in the room, sure, and it smells like old dust, but that might also be Zac's orange monstrosity of woven socks.

"Oh, hey, Frank! Glad you could make it!"

"Yeah, well, I'm glad too, considering I got smuggled into here in the back of Sargeant Weekes' car. God, he played nothing but jazz for half an hour and drove cautiously under the speed limit while I had to wear someone else's fucking face and I had to itch my nose the entire time." One of the stickers he's putting on the bot looks familiar, a circle of black with a large bumble bee. Wait, that was on my bot.

"Is that Cherry-Bomb?" Hayley moves just enough for me to get close to the bot, and sure enough, it's just like the bot I had created for that fight against Pete, what, 8 years ago? Obviously, this one is polished, and all of the stickers are printed instead of hand drawn like they were before.

"Yeah, we uh, we reviewed some of the footage from back when you had that fight against your friend, and, we replicated your bot." Zac says excitedly, peeling off one final sticker of a sad looking ghost in a bedsheet waving. "It was Hayley's idea overall, I designed the stickers, and um, Gerard did most everything else."

This is incredible, every detail from the shocks to the intricate hands that I spent the whole night worrying whether the spring would activate or she would fall apart entirely. Man. And I haven't thought of her at all in years. Now, though, she was a painted in that nice acrylic paint, flecks of sparkly orange and red under a gel coat, and all the screws and hinges were tightened with a steady hand, and not a high schooler on his third day with no sleep. Gerard did an incredible job, I mean, not like I expected any different.

"Well, guys, this is amazing, and I'm flattered, but I don't see why you did all this for me. What's the catch?"

Zac and Hayley exchange glances. "Well, uh, yeah, there is a catch." Zac mumbles slightly and Hayley barrels over him.

"We entered you in a bot fight tonight." She's brisk, matter of fact about it, and hands to me a purple wrinkled mask with green hair. I open it up, and it's got an internal skeleton and magnets that will attach it onto my skin at various points on my nape, and temples and nose.

"Um..." Yeah, the two of them finally succeeded at shutting me up.

"Frank--" Hayley interrupts my thoughts. "Last time you got hurt because of us. Because I was dumb and we didn't think through a better plan." She's shaking slightly, and Zac pats her back. "Listen. We've all had one hell of a month. Seeing you get beat up like that, it just reminded me of Taylor and I--" her voice breaks then, and she's fighting back tears.

Zac bites his lips and grips her tighter.

"You don't need to apologize Hayley--" I reassure her.

"No," she interrupts again. "No, I need to say this." She takes a shaky breath then. "When Zac and I met, all we had in common was Taylor. He stuck us together, he turned us from acquaintances into friends, and now we're practically family. We couldn't save Taylor, Frank. We watched our friend jump onto a bomb for us. He did that to save us, and then I turned around, condemned you to a possible life in prison without knowing you."

You can see the heartbreak in their eyes. Zac's usually wide, bright eyes are dimmed, and black tears fall from Hayley's eyes. She wipes stray blond hairs from her eyes and back into the loose pony tail.

"And I'm tired of crying over Taylor. I want to just let him go, but then I almost let you die, Frank. Without knowing you and you deserve better." The tears are done falling now, no more from either of their eyes. My chest aches, like a gaping hole, wondering what it's like to lose someone so close to you, and to know they did it so you could live. "We talked about it and we pardoned you." Hayley clutches Zac's hand now, and he's nodding, smiling in a bittersweet way. "Chief Albarn was furious, of course, and he yelled at us a lot, together, alone, and for about a week whenever we were in a room with him." She dry laughs at that. "It was hard. But neither of us want you to fall to the same system that killed Taylor."

Now I'm entirely speechless. What can I say to them? My mind goes blank and I just hug Hayley, I know, it's against every protocol, but she needs this and the three of us are there for a few minutes, hugging.

When I pull away I know what to say.

"I want to keep going, whether I'm free or damned and sent to prison. Where's the fight tonight?"

As always, I have no clue what I've gotten myself into. This bar tonight is a little different, and by that, I mean a lot different. The gravity is turned down, so it's like watching bodies mingle, people order drinks from tubes and suck from straws while a large drink blobs floats in front them. The tables are weighted and we're all given a set of magnetic shoes that allow any wall to be the floor. I'm walking under all these, bodies somehow dancing, laughter, drinks being spilled and gaining mass but never dropping, there are people eating small artificial steaks on tiny plates and ornate carved plates that refuse to shatter. All of this set against the ever-swirling star walls, lit from below by neon blue and orange lights.

The girl in front of me is short and in a female tuxedo top, pressed white linen tucked into an expensive looking pair of slacks, a small hairbow tying up shoulder length chestnut hair, straight thick bangs framing her youthful face. I wonder if she's old enough to be working here. She's taking me through what she called the "back entrance", but there's still so many eyes on me right now and I'm sweating under the purple Frankenstein mask as it hangs over my oxygen mask. Tonight, I was told, my name was Fun Ghoul and I'd be fighting against some woman named Jones and her bot, Charger. And so far, that's all I'd been given. They must have been expecting the mask because this girl immediately started guiding me through the crowds, they were thinning by this point, leading to a wide translucent cube cage, blue and pink lights cutting up between fog in the room. I touch the cube, seeing small water droplets of condensation.

The girl turns to me now, fixing a small rectangle on to my chest that expands into a plastic, water resistant layer.

"What's this for?" My voice is strange, warped by the mask into a lower octave.

"The cage changes climate every few minutes. We kept getting sued every time we submerged people or they came out with 3rd degree burns. These suits cover our asses at least." She pulls out a little hologram signature. "Sign this for me."

"For what?!" I ask incredulously.

"In case you get injured in there, you know it's your own damn fault." She hands it over to me and my mind goes blank. I just stand there holding the board.

"You need to sign it, Frank. I promise you nothing bad will happen." Hayley's voice buzzes in my ear. "The moment there's trouble, we'll pull you out."

"No, I can do this," I mutter, and the girl looks at me, a little weirded out by me talking to myself, but says nothing. I sign it with a shaky hand, she signs her name in curly letters – Lauren Mayberry. Then the hologram puffs into smoke. She passes me a pair of black gloves and I put them on hurriedly, trying not to think about the idea of 3rd degree burns and drowning. I mean, do they know I wear an oxygen mask? Should I mention it? The cube is whirring now, sucking out the condensation into something like reverse rain, back into the sky, completed with small rainclouds that then evaporate.

"Okay, it's set back to default." A blue holo button shimmers in front of me. "Press the button to begin." She backs up then, and the platforms separate between the two of us, forcing me forward as I begin to spin. Inhaling and a little dizzy, I watch as the walls of the cube unfold before me, and we stop spinning.

"Alright. Well I guess this is it then." I sigh apprehensively.

"You've got this Frank." The voice is familiar, but not Hayley or Zac, and is nasally.

"Gerard?!" My heart basically shits itself on the spot. God, act calm. "Hey, ugh, thanks for the cool bot. Should we, ah, should we be talking right now? Can't all these people hear us?"

"Well, yes, technically they can hear you but look at them all." I do as he says, looking above the cage at the dancing couples and all the floating drinks, locking eyes with Lauren as she delivers drink to a table. "They all come for a fight, not the talking before. Anyway, you were in the middle of praising me?" He snorts and I can only imagine his face, his small teeth, that smile, the ways his eyes crinkle. I am mad into this crush already.

"Y-yeah uh, this is crazy, and all," I'm having a hard time remembering how to speak for some reason. "Oh, I was wondering, are all the commands the same?"

"Should be. You could test her out right now."

Right. What was the phrase again? I place the small reddish glittering cube on the ground in front of me, she takes up no more than 3 inches of space but the lights of the arena blink on.

"Cherry-Bomb, activate." I wonder where the other fighter is. Is she not here yet?

The good thing is Cherry can't detect any sense of anxiety, or at least my nerves won't affect her performance as she unfolds like origami from the small cube, hinges clicking into place until she stands at full height in front of me. The people dancing above haven't stopped, but some people in the crowd have angled themselves to watch me now and I get to stand here on the opposite side of the glass. And the ugly suit the girl put on me isn't helping, it's a little too snug and makes this whining sound when the plastic rubs against itself, a sound that reminds me of the raincoat I had as a kid. Cherry comes closer to me, to my side, her walking has advanced and she walks on graceful little legs and I exhale, looking into her little emerald eyes.

"Alright, I guess we're doing this. Are you ready?"

She doesn't respond but she moves into a fighting pose, putting her little fists up. I can't help but giggle, she's a tiny little thing, but if she can hold her own in the fight like she did against Pete, we're probably fine, and hey, I'm even sober now, which already puts us in a better spot than young Frank. Well, and there's the fact that I didn't make her, Gerard had. That probably had something to do with it.

"Frank, just remember, this is your cover but we also need you to be scanning the rooms with Cherry after the fight. She's got a very sensitive eye, and should be able to spot if anything you interact with has been touched by another police member. She can check every police officer's DNA off. Just remember that." Gerard rattles off. "Oh, yeah, and have fun!"

It's cute that Gerard thinks this is fun, but I'll take it--

Um, the floor is splitting in half. Me and Cherry are being forced closer to the back wall, and for some reason there's just a gaping black hole underneath, I can't see another ground. When we're nearly pressed up against the wall, me on my tiptoes trying to not fall into the black hole, I hear a rattled voice leaking up from the hole.

"I am the ghost......" Long, echoing, deafening laughter bounces off the walls and then I make eye contact with a giant green metallic lion, looking straight into its gaping mouth, teeth dripping with the oily looking bot blood. The bot keeps rising, higher and higher, at about twenty feet tall, and then I'm seeing the slope of paws, and with a little effort I see it has on a saddle, and on it sits an amazon of a woman, dark flawless skin, and a tight cropped flat haircut. She has a whip in one hand and continues to laugh as her bot bucks back into a pouncing pose.

"In the second quadrant, Cherry-Bomb representing the newcomer Fun Ghoul. In the fourth quadrant is Charger, representing our current reigning Bot Queen, Grace Jones!"

My mind is already going a mile a minute, examining every minute detail, searching for a weakness, something that'll make the bot go down and stay down. There's four legs, but the back-left leg is pretty scratched up already, and the screws in the front chest plate are rusted, which could be kicked out easily, that is, if Cherry can get up that high, about 15 feet in the air. I look down to her in my arms. She small, but we can use that to our advantage.

"The rules of the fight are as follows. Human and bot work as a team, both must survive in the cube. Either one goes down and you lose. Not only will the bots be fighting each other, but all inside the cube will be fighting to survive against the climate changing environment. And no matches. Whoever survives longest...wins."

I didn't really ever feel confident before, but I'm fucked now. Shit. It's me and a 3 foot bot versus this lady on her 20 fucking foot lion. Alright. If we survive this it'll be incredible, for sure. So much for Hayley and Zac not putting me in danger.

"Are both contestants ready?" The robotic announcer voice asks.

Jones signals a thumbs up and I follow her lead.

"Fight begins in 3, 2, 1." A horn noise sounds off and immediately Charger comes rattling towards us, Jones cackling a battle cry from its back.

"Um, this is fine. This is totally fine. We can do this." I nod, putting up my fists and right then Cherry looks back at me, jumping into my arms.

"Are you serious? You're supposed to be the one fighting!" But Charger keeps barreling forward, and I break out into a run, into the opposite direction corner, dodging between Charger's legs and its swift moving tail. It takes a lot of shuffling for the giant beast to shuffle and pivot to face us, and that same back leg that I noticed was scratched is struggling especially, metal of metal groaning against the bulbous body and barrel chest.

"Are these supposed to be full contact fights, Hayley?" Zac presses, panic stuck clearly in his throat.

"I-I'm checking right now." She says frantically, and I hear someone else grab the microphone.

"Frank, find a weakness and exploit it. It's your only chance against such a big bot. Make it come down. And watch the ceiling, it'll warn you of the next upcoming environment a few seconds before the rapid change." Gerard's voice is stern, confident, a nice touch while I'm sliding between a giant lion's legs with my bot that's supposed to be fighting this other bot but is just holding on for dear life.

"Well, these are all great sentiments, but it doesn't change the 17 foot gap between my bot and hers." I mutter, hoping no one is listening, but I do see all the faces on the other side of the glass, cheering us on. Maybe the mask was a good idea.

An alarm shrieks loudly, and in cupping my hands against my ears I drop Cherry, who scuttles behind me. Frantically, I look up, and see an animation of a cartoonish wind blowing glowing on the ceiling, just where Gerard said it would.

Oh shit.

My body is pressed into the glass wall, pressure whipping at my body, it punches all the air out of me immediately. Cherry is actually flying, and lands on the opposite side of the cube, past Charger and Jones, whose saddle, I'm now realizing must be built out of magnets of such strength that she's practically glued to her seat. But even Charger is stuck in place for as long as the wind is ripping through the arena, interesting to notice.

Once the wind dies, I impact with the floor, my vision already getting a little blurry, but I still see Cherry scampering towards me, just as a foot is about to come down on me. This Cherry is way smarter than my earlier one, I'll have to thank Gerard for that. Charger is, of course, too slow to see it hasn’t crushed me, and stumbles forward, surprised to not have felt anything be crushed. I head for the back legs, carrying Cherry, and once we are close enough, I throw her at an angle and she flies, releasing her spring-loaded arm that swings around the two back legs, locking them together at the knees, and Charger buckles.

Another alarm sounds, and above there's an animation of a small flame.

"Return!" I call to Cherry, luckily the voice filter covering up some of nerves, and Cherry's little ears perk, as she jumps into my arms. While Charger is down I jump for the tail, using it like a rope, Cherry hanging around my shoulders like a kid.

Jones bellows "No!" As she sees us boarding Charger's back, but it's too late for Charger, who's just struggling to get up as the entire arena floor catches on fire. Charger, too slow to react in time, is beating the flames with their tail, and even from up here, the flames are so warm I can feel the intense heat, my mouth drying, my blood boiling. From here on out I practically blank out. Jones is trying to release herself from the saddle, but once I see an animation of a storm cloud, I hop off, Cherry following fast behind me, and we duck under Charger, standing on one of their paws as the rain beats down, flash flood commencing.

I underestimated a little as a giant wave hits us, knocking us both into the opposite wall. Charger is now slipping around, having lost its friction to the ground, ironically, this makes it easier for the whole bot to pivot towards us. I open my eyes mid wave, taking in the chemicals of the water that keep it so clear, and slip with the water right out of the bot's clutches, grabbing Cherry's arm.

Another animation, but this one I don't get entirely, until I start feeling sick and all the pressure of my back against the wall is moving.

We're switching gravity direction.

Cherry and I got out of there just in time, because Charger is crashing into the old wall, new floor, as a massive wave hits it.

"Yes!" I exclaim, too excited, too cocky, as a tail smacks me straight in the stomach and I face plant into another wall. Cherry comes running for me, but as I turn my head I see Charger is recovering, and Cherry hasn't seen it creeping behind me.

"Cherry, behind you!"

She's smart enough to see it then, only gets slightly phased by it hitting a side of her face, and she recuperates quickly.

Now, Charger's coming towards me again, Cherry runs to me just as lightning flashes. More flash floods coming then, and coming up soon. The water's current is pushing towards the direction of Charger, and soon we will be swept in by it. We'll be out of luck unless I think of something fast.

I grab Cherry once again, just in time for us to begin sliding towards Charger as breakneck speed. Right once we're near the chest, I see the bot is just about to pounce, and I wait the last split second.

"Use the spring loaded arm!" Cherry is smart enough to know what I'm doing and her arm shoots out, tiny fingers clutching the small gap where the two panels of metal meet, and as we slide by, yanking so hard that we take the front chest panel of Charger with us, which crashes behind us into the wall, little spider webs of cracks forming as the whole audience gasps, and starts stepping back.

My mask is only still stuck by the magnets on one side of my face, so I can only see out of one eye as I see Charger go down, filling with water, and Jones shrieks, the water deepening so quickly it's now to my torso.

It takes me a few moments to start panicking.

"Why hasn't the simulation stopped? We won!" The water is getting closer, and now Cherry and I are both starting to float up towards the ceiling, there's still people of the dance floor above us, some watching, their mouths agape.

There's a white streak running through the crowd, pushing people over and displacing the crowd, and in the blink of an eye, the ceiling is being shattered, and a hand comes to my throat, tight, popping the tube of my oxygen mask immediately. My mouth is filling with water, and in seconds we are all submerged.

I'm suspended then, in motion, looking into the face of a bot, a regular bot.

An ANRI bot.

Her eyes are black, wild, full of emotion, hair buzzed up until her ears, where is splays out in a wild nest of pure blond, like a net in the water.

But then something pushes her away, and she soars out of the cube, into the nearest bar, and with that, the cube is broken, and Cherry and I slide out of the cube turned fish tank, now turned someone's big mess to clean up.

"Mission completed." Cherry chirps in a strange, metallic voice.

"What do you mean?" I'm partially gurgling, partially gasping for air.

"She has the DNA signature of a member of Zone 31's Second Level Police. Whoever the mole is, she's their property."

Chapter Text

GERARD  

Should I be worried that it's 2 am and I'm pouring myself four cups of coffee? To be fair, I'm pouring one for Hayley and Zac each. I'm trying to be better nowadays and hold back with the coffee, I've gotten myself down to about 6 cups a day. 

Hayley's grinding her teeth over here, nearly frothing at the mouth, I place the coffee in her hand and she immediately crushes it, a waste of delicious coffee forever lost in the abyss, or at least as a slightly browner stain on her blue uniform jacket. She and Zac seem to like to get into this gig even when they're off duty, or maybe they're like me, they like the aesthetic of looking like they know what they're doing. I'm just sitting over here in my garbage chic Hawaiian shirt and ripped pants, and ugh, I think I was, no, I definitely was wearing this the last time I saw them. I don't know if I had any dignity to start with.  

Zac at least smiles, and crosses his legs, probably putting extra work into showing off his socks in some sort of color that hasn't been discovered by man and continues to remain a mystery, sort of a barf yellow orange. I've found myself doing this a few times tonight, where I wheel off somewhere, off to some corner and pretend that I'm doing something. I don't have many skills in the ways of espionage, I'd probably be the first victim in a retro slasher movie, be too busy doing nothing and then look down and notice there's a pair of zombie arms wrapped around me. And I'm daydreaming most of the time; I can't dance, and I also don't know karate.  

Maybe this is why I keep wheeling myself around, because there's nothing for me to do but hope that Cherry Bomb 2.0 prevents Frank from getting eaten or drowning or getting strangled or slipping on his way out of the club. That guy, I don't what it is about him—he's like a magnet. Like he attracts so many people; he's interesting, he's cute, and there's a little rugged charm in there, but he attracts both the good and the bad and the overall crazy. Reeling in Frank Iero is a full committing job in itself, even with two people doing a balancing act. He attracts danger. And maybe, like the dumb guy I am, I find it sort of attractive.  

I guess I'm already in it though, considering right now I'm locating my hack bot and getting a quick weld so I can weld a sex bot turned hitman bot's arms and legs together. Bandit is on the wall, and waddles on over to me when I wave at the tiny bot, jumping into my lap and hugging my thumb. Alright, now for the quick weld. Hm. Maybe I left it in my office.  

The back-door slams open with such power that Tyler leaves a hand shaped dent in it. And immediately there are about five people screaming, myself included as Tyler and Josh try to force the rogue ANRI bot into a chair, and I wheel over as fast as I can with Bandit.  

"Restrain her, Gerard!!" Hayley's voice is loud, and full of desperation while we all avoid punches and kicks from the bot. She gets Josh once in the stomach before I can open the back-window panel on her neck and Bandit's arms grow into a cable, which sticks into the bot's brain. With a final head butt in my direction, which lands pretty bluntly right on my nose, her entire body goes limp.  

We all let out a sigh, and I bring my hand to my nose and taste blood in my mouth.  

"Oh my god, Gerard..." Hayley starts, but I bat her hand away from my face.  

"It's fine. We can deal with that later." Bandit's body expands into a small holographic screen, long walls of green text glow on the screen as I begin to type.  

"What's he doing?" Frank asks from behind me, shivering.  

"Oh man, Frank, you're dripping all over the floor." Hayley whines. "Do you have any towls, Gerard?"  

I continue to type, and don't even have to stop to say, "Straight ahead, down the hallway and to the right.  

"Great. Zac?"  

"I'm on it." Zac sprints on down the hall, right as I finish running through the basic encryption and begin the rebooting process. It's a little more awkward right now, with so many sets of eyes on me and so many people behind me watching everything that I do. 

"What are you doing?" Frank's voice is close, above me, he must be right behind me, and as according to Hayley, dripping wet all over my floor.  

"Well, I'm breaking the encryption walls. Once those are down, I can look into her internal wiring. Change a few scripts around, and we should be able to see all of her data logs—that includes everyone she's interacted with." While I'm still able to comprehend everything, some of this dialog scheming is starting to get a little more confusing—it's like it's morphing from one computer language to another, sort of hopping back and forth. It's nothing I can't handle, but it is sort of surprising. I haven't seen coding like this since those cops brought a portion of Lola's head after my accident. Actually, yeah, this scripting format is really similar to back then.  

I, of course, am just working at the back of her head, so I don't notice what's happening until I see Josh's head tilt in confusion, eyebrows rising.  

"What's up?" I ask it sort of instinctively, still typing away and getting past the last firewall.  

"Well, she, uh--" Josh exclaims.  

"She's waking up." Tyler finishes.  

"She shouldn't be—she should in shutdown--" I learn quickly to eat my words, when she shoots up from the chair and quickly, deadly quickly, spins and plants a foot square on my chest. I'm catapulted back, my chair takes most of the impact, but not before my body, trying to compensate for the whiplash, hits the back of the seat, and my wheelchair goes down, me included.  

And, there I am, on the floor, my legs crunching down at my chest, that I think all hell breaks loose. There's yelling, a lot of it, and I'm left to try and pull my legs, twist my body but only with what little amount of my spine I can control. I attempt, a few times, to bring my legs into a more comfortable position, and then sort of crawl myself across the floor. But then, there's a set of hands on me, and I'm being scooped up into someone's arms.  

Someone with heavily tattooed arms.  

How the fuck is Frank Iero carrying me?  

My head is up close against his chest, rubbing up against his oxygen mask, and I can hear each quick breath he takes. His clothes are still pretty damp, arms and especially hands a little chilled.  

Also, I should mention, Zac is right up behind him, ready to carry both of us—Frank is a skinny guy, and I'm not, and Frank is short, and well...I'm not. So, he's carrying me bridal style, but he's wobbly, and just about drops me before he gets me to a seat, but then Zac helps him the last few steps. Then Frank places me, as delicately and carefully as he can, into a chair that Hayley's brought over for me, one with arm rests and little stirrups for my feet.  

It's when Frank bends down to put my feet into the stirrups that I try to interrupt him.  

"It's fine, I got this."  

He's nice enough at least to let me grab my own legs and put them into the stirrups, although his gaze lingers a little while, the arm that carried my back is still sort of absent-mindedly on my waist. It's then that I notice I'm breathing pretty rapidly too. I'm not too fond of people touching me; I think of the germs and I just don't enjoy the physical contact. But right now, maybe I'm feeling uncomfortable for another reason. I almost still feel his hands on me, and my clothes are definitely a little damp now, some drips of water tingle down my spine, then into numbness again at my hips. His hair is still soaking wet, so that must have been it.  

Luckily, Tyler has the rogue bot all tied down with some metal cording that he's bent around her skinny waist, and a blowtorch continues to spark in Hayley's hands, I look over to the bot to see her arms and legs have been welded to her back, legs welded together. She's gasping, crying out, and strangely enough, she's cursing.  

"Mother fokken bitches, lemme go or da zef crew gonna light this place into fokken oblivion before ya have enough time ta piss yerselves." Her voice is a lot more human than the regular ANRI bot voices, not to mention, she's laying on a thick accent, which is making it a little more difficult to understand her. She continues, going down the line of us, insulting each of us with some pretty incredible human-bodily-fluid-and-animal combinations.  

Hayley and I share a look, and she nods to me. I've still got half of a firewall to get through. Haley, Josh, and Zac are all scratched up, and I can only imagine what I'm looking like with some crusty blood under my nose; one of my eyes I can already feel swelling. There's only Tyler, who's looking at each of us and the bot with that icy detached look only a bot can achieve, unscathed. He seemed to be able to restrain her, and although she was pretty inhumanly strong, it seemed like Tyler might be stronger.  

"Tyler." His head snaps in my direction. "Bring her over to me."  

Tyler nods, and in one swift moment, grabs the bot's head, and wipes the face with her floor, sliding her over to me. It's a painful cry that escapes her lips, a human, metallic but animal sound. This obviously, isn't a normal bot we are dealing with. She seems to at least have human responses to being physically damaged, a trait that humans have bred out of animals and programmed bots without. What purpose would a bot with pain receptors serve?  

All these thoughts are running through my mind as I finish unlocking the final encrypted fire wall, and I manually turn off her limb function and her body goes limp once again. Tyler eases off a little, but the bot continues to curse at each of us, howling in a high-pitched octave. Next it's just entering a few more catalogs to open her video logs up, and I enlarge them, throwing the projections from her eyes on to the far wall.  

"Tyler, can you get her back on that chair?" It's much easier for him this time to lift the bot and place her onto the chair, and when I come eye to eye with her I can see the pure hatred in her eyes. Why would a bot need to feel hate?  

"Fuck you, fucking cripple." Her biting words get a few gasps from Josh, Frank and Zac, but I've heard worse.  

"Impressive observation." I hear Frank snicker a little at my response, while everyone else is dead quiet.  

"Lights down, please," I command the room, the lights immediately fading, with everyone whispering between themselves. Once we're in mostly darkness, I continue. "Who wants to start this off?"  

"I think I will," Hayley pushes in front, and walks towards the bot, who's now hissing, only capable of moving her head and face. She crosses her arms, then looks over at me. I give her a nod of approval.  

"Right. Okay." I haven't seen Hayley's interrogation skills before, I know she's a pretty intense person, and cares little about burns and the wasting of coffee. Most bots are easy, and have to comply to human orders, but this one, she seems different. She's probably a standard issue ANRI bot that a few very clever hackers got their hands on, but that's the thing, they rewrote her coding too, which is pretty impossible without a security key code. 

 I've been on cases before where fired BLind scientists might go and sell their security codes on the black market, which is hard to track, but usually when you find one of those scientists they'll weasel on anyone to get back in favor with the company. I've seen a handfull of those defunct bots, and some are easier to hack than others, usually if a hacker is successful it's with an ANRI bot. And some types of programming are pretty lucrative, but still legal, like sex bots and entertainer bots; have very little rights, don't really have the sentience to consent to what's so often expected of them. A lot of bots have that dead eyed look, even Tyler does, although he looks so much more human than most bots I've interacted with. But they all have this dead eyed, artificial look, but this bot is bitter, cursing, showing a very full range of emotion, if mostly aggressive emotion.  

"Gerard?" There's a hand on my shoulder. I look right up into an ember pair of sympathetic eyes. Frank's eyes. "Are you okay? You look a little out of it." 

"Hmm." I think he needs a better response than that. "I'm fine, I'm okay."  I don't know that I've convinced him, but he accepts it. Why is Frank all of a sudden so interested in me? I wish I could say I'll take it as a compliment, but I'm starting to get more suspicious than anything else. Is he expecting something from me?  

"Gerard," Hayley calls, because I am the reigning king of the clouds and need to hear my name apparently to know when to phase back into reality.  

"Hmm?"  

She's not as easily persuaded as Frank. "Open up the logs for her first activation day."  

I scroll to the beginning of the list, which is, surprisingly long. Most ANRI bots are recycled after 5 years. This bot is already 8. I'll add that to my list of strange things about this bot. The bot tries to struggle a little, but through the projection we see the booting up circles, and then eyes open to a smiling family.  

I should be a better help than this, but I need coffee to even pretend I give a fuck right now. I try and reach for it, put my hand down to wheel myself forward until I remember my wheelchair is over in the corner, one of the wheels broken and I'm on a sedentary chair. Everyone else is, of course, reviewing the footage, but Frank notices me reaching, and swiftly delivers the coffee to me.  

"Thanks."  

He just nods in response, and crosses one glowing arm over the other. I watch for a moment, to watch the cycles of animation, eyes not really focused on anything in particular, and I'm particularly interested in a tattoo on his left arm with a Virgin Mary wailing as she's being stabbed through it. I wonder how much it hurt, pressing the holograph display chips into his skin, glowing ink is, from what I've heard, an especially painful form of tattooing. The thought makes me shiver. I can't help but wonder what they all mean. Maybe someday I can ask him. Maybe someday I can figure out how to stay on focus instead of looking at some pretty boy's arms.  

"...Alright, so her original owners, she belonged to a family, do we have a name on that family? Did you say Toto?" Hayley's pacing, shielding her eyes from the projection's glow.  

"It was Toro." Zac responds. "Let's fast forward a few days. Look for distress signals."  

That's my cue to stop eye-fucking Frank's tattoos and look back at the painfully boring script, searching to find that first distress signal. There it is.  

"Four months after she'd been bought." I observe the date. Still a pretty long time ago, seven and a number of months ago, pretty incredible to see she's held up for this long.  

The projection blinks and suddenly we're witnessing a pretty gruesome sight. Even the bot looks surprised herself. It's had to tell where the humans are, because they're sort of scattered around in pieces. I guess the good thing is that I see adult pieces but not the body of the teenaged kid who was there at her first activation. But a picture of him and his family, each of them donning and impressive amount of curly brown hair, is on the ground, trampled on, with a large red footprint on it. Then the screen goes dark again after a blindfold goes on.  

"Speed it up," Hayley commands.  

I speed it up and we watch as the screen continues on, black but with the bot's internalized grid map of the city showing her location. It goes on like this for a while, until the map starts to fizzle and glitch out.  

"What was that?" Hayley asks.  

"Probably means they went off the map, pretty close to the edge of the zone. When bots get that far from their energy and hyperlink capabilities, it messes with some basic functions. And obviously, they can't charge if they can't find a station."  

"Alright, so she was abducted. But by who?" 

"Question of the day." Frank mutters.  

We continue to speed through the black footage, until the blindfold is peeled off. And just as ANRI is about to turn to see the person, the whole system shuts down, the video stream cutting to bluescreen, and then off compeltely.  

We all turn to look at the bot, who smiles mischeviously.  

"What did you do?"  

She just giggles a high pitched, metallic echoing sound. "I cut you off. That's enough. You ain't seeing no more." She says this, then immediately her head goes limp as she shuts herself down.  

Zac turns to me. "Can she do that?" 

It takes much more energy than I expected to shrug, a pain stings in my shoulders. God, I must be all bruised up because of that bot. "She shouldn't be able to." I scour back into the files, opening a few video catalogs from different dates, but they're all black, even on my small holo-monitor. Normally I'd just be confused by this, or pass it off as a manufacturing mistake. But this feels a little more insidious than that. "She's, uh, she's corrupted all of her own files somehow."  

We all take a collective sigh.  

Hayley takes a few seconds to recover.  

"...Alright. So I guess we'll have to do this the old fashioned way. A robot shouldn't be able to lie to humans." At that point, she kicks up the large welding torch from earlier. "Tyler, you wanna help out?"  

Tyler nods and takes the torch from her. The ANRI bot's eyes, if it's even possible, show a glimmer of fear. And as Tyler heats up the torch, I can hear the gas crackle from here as he walks over to the other bot, kicking the chair down and she gaps as her head collides with the ground.  

"Wait a second." This comes from the guy who's had very little to say since he got his ass handed to him by a four foot bot, none other than our friend, well not my friend because I just met him, Josh Dun.  

"No, don't wait," This is from the other side of me, Frank steps a little forward, closer to Josh. "We need justice, Josh." 

"No, Frank, we need the truth. And we're not going to get the truth by torturing a hacked bot, who obviously, knows a few more tricks than us." 

Hayley steps forward now. "I'd like to agree with you Josh, but Frank is right. Frank's risked his life twice and we're finally start to have some evidence that there is a mole in the police. We've all worked too hard for this to just let this bot go." 

I can see Josh's fists clench under the long sleeves of his uniform. "And what would we be letting go, Hayley?  Why did you and Zac end up with this case and not a more seasoned officer?" 

"Watch yourself, Josh," Hayley might be small, but she is feisty, and you can just feel the anger in the air, pulsing.  

"You know, all of this is just starting to make me wonder, what are you and Zac really getting from this? What's your final goal here? Because I'm starting to think it's less about the truth and more about confirming your conspiracy theories about Taylor's death." Josh is practically foaming at the mouth by now, and right about now I wish I could myself back a few inches, or miles away from this whole situation.  

"Do you know what's happening here?" I whisper over to Frank, but honestly, I don't really need to worry about whispering, because Josh and Hayley are full out yelling, flailing arms, along with a number of birds being flipped.  

He laughs, and you can see the exhaustion just weigh down on him, dark purple bags under his honey eyes. "Not really sure. I know they have history, and I know there's a dead guy named Taylor thrown into the mix. I'd be pretty bummed though, if I showered in a police officer locker room with a bunch of straight, reasonably attractive dudes and I didn't even get a side note in a thank you speech."  

"Yeah, damn reasonably attractive dudes," I attempt to quip back.  

"Nah, not all of them, just the straight ones." His eyes flicker over to me in a way, he wiggles an eyebrow and I let out a pretty loud, nasally laugh before I can stop myself.  

Hayley and Josh look over at us for a second before they go back to fighting. This time, with weapons.  

"Please don't throw tha—that's okay, I can start on a new one. Jesus. They're gonna keep going on and on like this."  

"Yeah, I think so." Frank reaches down, picking Bandit up off the floor. I didn't even see her fall, but she must have come down when Tyler kicked her chair from under her. I watch for a second, as he holds the bot, who's gone into her sleeping mode in a sphere. He wipes a thumb, possibly the only part of his body without ink on it, across the sphere and she jumps back into activation mode. She looks a little confused, swaying around in his palm.  

"She's cute. Is she trying to figure out who I am?" He pokes her from behind and she whips her neck around.  

"Yeah. She's trying to decide if you're a threat or not, I guess."  

"Am I?" He raises his eyebrows again, lips twisting into a slight smile.  

I try to pause for comedic affect or something. "Hm. Not sure yet."  

He smiles a little more, and I notice that he instinctively looks away, scratching his head, tousling his dark long hair that's still a little wet. His shirt is sort of stuck to his skin, and I can see the subtle green glow under his shirt.  

"Do you, ah, want a spare change of clothes? You must be a little uncomfortable in those wet ones."  

He seems to hold back some sort of a sexual comment, biting his lip. "Yeah, I'd actually appreciate that. Maybe we can get that sorted out once Hayley and Zac leave." 

"Are they leaving?" I've been so interested in talking to Frank that I didn't know really what else was happening. And yes I know how cheesy that sounds but my brain right now is focusing on a pretty boy.  

"Fuck you!" Hayley is shoving Zac out the door, after flipping the bird to Josh one more time. "You don't know what you've just started, Josh."  

"Yeah well it's better than torturing a dumb bot anyway. I'm going to a find a better way to solve your case, Williams, one that doesn't involve bot abuse!"  

And with that, Zac and Hayley are gone.  

I feel like I missed a lot.  

"Alright, Josh, mind telling us what all that was?" Frank doesn't really sound interested and I don't blame him. But I feel like sort of like I've been throw into this now and the least bit I can do is pretend to care. And I don't mean to come across as like a dickhead, which is probably what I seem like now, but I have a light pink pillow in the next room and a bed that I actually made today that I am very excited on resting on for about ten hours and from there I'll consider waking up.  

From gritted teeth, Josh hisses, "It's nothing. Hayley's just so caught up in finding her version of the truth she'll do anything to get it. She's always been that way, someone doesn't agree with her, she'll grind them down into submission. Unfortunately, in me, she's found a person just as stubborn as she is." He turns to Frank then. "Thanks for being a supportive cousin and taking the radical point of view."  

Cousins? The drama just keeps getting better. What sort of a soap opera am I getting myself into? 

"Yeah, no problem. So now Josh, I'm just curious, what's your altruistic, everyone-wins plan?" 

"Well, we still have the bot, Gerard has a charging station over in the corner, and we have Gerard's hacker bot."  

"Yes, Josh, good job of observation." Damn, Frank is a sassy guy. I'm used to be the sassiest in the room, I'm gonna need to practice some material for the next time he comes over.  

"Yeah, so how about we recharge her, reboot if it's necessary, then have your hacker bot download all of her files Gerard?"  

Now there's three sets of eyes on me.  

"I mean, we can do that. It'll take a good while to download all those files, and then it'll take longer for Bandit to start breaking the encryption, considering it looks like this bot keeps editing it herself, but it might work."  

Josh nods. "Alright great. How long will it take for her to recover the non-corrupted files?"  

"A few days, but I'll have those early catalog days probably by tomorrow evening."  

"It's better than torture." Josh seems pretty genuinely pleased with that conclusion. "So we'll stay for the night."  

Frank is caught a little off guard by Josh's sudden dedication. "We will?" 

"We will." Josh states, most assertively, sitting down at the nearest table. "It wouldn't be right to force Gerard to stay awake all this time alone, besides, what if there's another bot like her out there that's gonna come trying to find her? And Frank, especially, we need to keep you safe, maybe it's best that the two of us don't return home tonight."  

Frank is about to debate until I cut in. 

"Josh is right, definitely. And I have a few couches I could give up. I've a bathroom and a shower if anyone feels like it."  

Frank still seems a little hesitant.  

"It's safer here, Frank. It's no big deal you staying over tonight." 

He sighs. "Okay. I'm still going to continue apologizing as often as possible." 

"Right." I'm suddenly renewed like a little bit of energy. "So first, can you guys move the bot over to the charging station? Tyler, do you need a charging tonight?" 

"I don't. My battery can last up to five days without charge." He says as he without hesitation picks up the ANRI bot, leaving Josh and Frank embarrassed with nothing to hold.  

"Alright, well we can get her charged, and in a few hours we'll start copying over those files. I'll try and reboot her after she's done. How is my wheelchair looking?"  

Josh walks over to it, tapping his foot as he assesses the damage. "The wheel popped off. It looks a little shaky, but we might be able to patch it up for just tonight, and tomorrow we can worry about it more."  

I don't care so much about a wobbly wheelchair, I just want to be able to move. "Let's do that. Bring it on over here to me." 

… 

"I don't know if it'll be too long for you, but I found you a shirt, it's even clean, straight out of the pile of laundry on my bed." I throw it over to Frank, who catches it effortlessly. We're in my office, well, my room-office, and I've been spending the last five minutes smelling all my laundry for a decent pair of pants and a shirt for Frank while he's taken a shower.  

"Thanks." He pretty much immediately pulls off his shirt, exposing all his glowing pale chest and warning bells go off in my head as I force myself to look okay.  

"Do you, ah, do you want me to go?" I ask behind my shut eyes.  

"It's not like you haven't seen another guy naked, G, I don't mind." Now I hear the sound of his pants unzipping. I guess at least as long as I'm covering my face I don't have to worry about him seeing the bright shade of red I've undeniably turned. "Or you don't have to, no pressure. But fair warning, I might take it as an attack on my ego."  

"You don't seem too fragile in the ego department, Frank."  

He guffaws at that, maybe a little impressed. "What a surprise, another Way with a fucking mouth. I'm decent now, you can open your eyes." 

I open to see a very unamused looking Frank being practically eaten by my clothes. The jeans hit the floor with no sight of a foot underneath. And my old black band shirt hangs loosely on him, exposing collarbone and sprawling ink. The shirt is a little long on the arms, but it's really the sight of him holding up those pants around his waist that makes me giggle.  

"What's so funny asshole?" His always charming face drooping into slight annoyance, but I can't tell just let if he's just being playful or not.  

"You look like a fucking kid, oh god, that's so great. Let me find a belt for you." I'm still shaking a little from the laughter as I wheel myself over to the closet.  

"Yeah I should've known, you're related to the infamous stick-boy Mikey Way. You guys are about the same height, yeah?" 

"He has one inch on me and he'll never let me forget it. Yeah, Mikey's a pole, he's straight up and down, I've sort of let myself go the last few years." I continue digging through clothes until I find what resembles a belt. But I notice then that Frank has stopped talking altogether. "What?" I ask, turning around to face him.  

"If this is what you call letting yourself go then you're an idiot." He says this so honestly it's sort of surprising. There's no sarcasm, no punchline, sort of unlike him.  

"Why? Dude, I'm big, I've accepted it."  

He rolls his eyes so far I'm afraid they'll fall out of his head. "If you, Gerard Way, are trying to tell me you think you're fat, then I might as well jump off the fucking edge of a zone. Anyone would be lucky to have a guy like you Gerard, Jesus Christ. And I know, I get it, it's probably just easy for me to say that and it's hard for you to hear it, but listen, you have nothing to worry about." I think this is the first time I've heard Frank be so real, it's starting to make me wonder.  

"Have you struggled with your weight, Frank?" 

He nods, begrudgingly. "My whole fucking life. I was born early or something, that's what my dad told me, and I was always small, and then I just kept getting skinnier. That's when I started having episodes." He goes to adjust his mask then. "And that's when I got this," he points at the mask. "So I get it." I remember then that I'm holding on to the belt, and I pass it on over to him. "Thanks." He pauses from speaking while he puts it on, fastening it tight. "You eat, right?"  

Damn, Frank is hitting all the questions today. "Yeah. I used to have a hard time, right before the accident I uh, well things happen to you when you're around so much money and so many stars. They were just bot fighters, some other daredevils too, but they, uh, got me into some bad things. And you know, two broken, crunched up legs means painkillers and a hell of a lot of them. So I had to fight that then." 

Frank nods. "It's a fight, but it's worth it." His eyes dart away for a second. "Jesus. Sorry. I didn't mean to make the mood so dark. Do you need help wiping your face?"  

"Wiping my..." I feel under my nose and remember the falking dried blood, and a light touch on my forehead stings with a dull aching pain. "Oh yeah. I totally forgot about that."  

"Let me get you a washcloth or something," He walks back into the hallway, out to the linen closet. It looks like he already knows his way around the apartment pretty well. "I'll just get it warmed up for you."  

"Thanks." It brings a little smile to my face to see him in my baggy pants, sliding a little on the bathroom floor and then pulling the legs up. With the smile comes a small ache, right at my eyes and I think in dread of the black, probably swollen shut eye I'll have tomorrow.  

Frank kneels down, getting close to me. "You want help or do you want to do it?"  

"I think I can clean my own face, thanks."  

"Damn, mister independent. You have any ice packs? Josh has been messaging me for an hour complaining about his gut. And we should probably get one on your eye here too--" He takes this as an opportune time to touch around my eye, and I flinch away in a mixture of pain and embarrassment. He hangs there for a second, and we just sort of stare at each other. I watch his bright eyes, his skin gently bathed in the neon green glow of his tattoos, until he suddenly breaks eye contact, grimacing as he pulls away. "Sorry. Ugh. Sorry." He shoots up suddenly. There's another moment of silence and I can just feel my face getting red again. Well, more like red and purple from all the bruises.    

"Ice packs...?" He asks again, quietly.  

"In the little kitchen space in the freezer." 

"Alright. I-I'll be back. Sorry again." If there's a polite way to bolt out of a room, that's what Frank does, slipping on the way out.  

I let go of a breath that I must have been holding since he touched my face. I touch the same place he did, but I feel nothing. When he was here it almost felt like a spark. Oh god. He's pretty. And I think that was little bit of flirting there. Oh god. No nevermind, we've been flirting all night. I've successfully flirted tonight.  

I think I'm going to throw up.  

"Gerard?"  

Josh is in the doorway now, Tyler right behind him as always. Once Josh locks eyes with me I think he can tell pretty obviously I'm frazzled.  

"The bot is all charged up, ready for the reboot. Let's go get those files back." 

"S-sure thing." I wheel out right as Frank is walking back over and he immediately finds a sudden vast interest in the ceiling, and I in the floor. There's been enough heart palpitations for the night. I just need to entirely rewrite the code for a bot, unlock all her encrypted firewalls again, then take all of her memories, then save all those memories, all the while pretending I didn't just have a moment with Frank Iero.  

Let's do this.  

… 

I don't really remember falling asleep, but I do remember waking up to the sound of a long buzz of the doorbell.  

Maybe if I shut my eyes again they'll stop buzzing.  

They decide to knock instead.  

I force my eyes open, and lift myself into my banged up wheelchair. Rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, I notice something in the corner of the room that's been moved: my legs.  

Ignoring the doorbell buzzing, because I am not a person with clients that should be my top priority, I wheel over to the set of legs, which as I can see, have a few new parts and have been polished. Even the extra acrylic paint that I accidentally spilled on them has been chipped off. They're in perfect condition.  

And that's when I see the note.  

Hey. Sorry about last night. Didn't mean to cross a line with you. Hope this makes up for it, and if not, maybe I can make it up to you sometime xoxo Frnk.  

Another bang at the door.  

"Coming!"  

Fuck Frank Iero. Honestly.

Chapter Text

I should have known the letter was too much.  

It's been a full week since the last attempt at my life, but it's also been a week since I've seen or heard from Gerard. And every time we think we have that bot’s memories decoded, something also seems to fall through or crash, so there goes any excuse for me to go see him or apologize. He's probably trying to keep the relationship strictly business, which I respect, but I can't seem to get him off my fucking mind. How I left it, how real he got with me so quickly, the fact that his shirt was soft and smelled like coffee or that I could barely even fit into his pants. I left that next morning still with his clothes on and I had gotten to the street once I noticed.  

I didn't know when it clicked, it might have been when he actually covered his eyes when I was changing, but there was something so honest and just kind in him that it was driving me insane. Like I got my haircut and spend ten more minutes every morning getting ready in case I get to see him.  

And then I had to go and make my emotions abundantly clear, making him a little uncomfortable, and I had the fucking balls to write that goddamn note.  

I'm in deep shit now.  

My thing for Gerard was rapidly evolving from an interest to an infatuation to a full blown crush. And it scared me shitless, mostly considering I don't do many relationships . I didn't like people, I didn't want a person to change me or to tell me what to do. I'd never wanted commitment. I'd never wanted anyone.  

So why was Gerard so different?  

Let's put that thought on pause, because right now I'm ducking under yellow caution tape and right into the eyes of my favorite police bot.  

“Oh, you're still alive.”  

If there's a way to look both surprised and disappointed, that's Tyler right now as I cross the yellow caution tape to the scene of the crime.  

“Jesus, hold in your excitement to see me Tyler.”  

He just looks at me, neutral faced, his eyes checking me from head to toe. He's holding something in his hand that I can't exactly make out, until he hands it over to me, the warmth of his heated skin lingers for a moment afterward. Without speaking, I look into his hands to see a small tube, and a power pack with a few yards of cord. It's the prototype of the oxygen tube Gerard was working on. Just looking at it, knowing it came from him, a small smile creeps onto my face. Thank fucking god, for some reason he's forgiven me. Or at least he's not pissed, which I can work with.  

“Did you have a more eventful week after your near death experience? I've heard that adrenaline is a great aphrodisiac and I noticed you were having a harder time than usual breathing around Gerard that night.”  

“Well you can go fuck yourself, Tyler.”  

“So nothing happened.”  

“Nothing happened!”  

“But you wanted something to happen.”  

“What?”  

“Your face is unusually red, Frank. Would you like me to scan for a fever?”  

“Can you fucking leave it alone, Ty?” I didn't mean for that last part to be so loud, or to use that much of my arms and attempt to ouch Tyler, but as it is, Tyler is an immovable object and I slip, falling to the ground, just as Josh walks over.  

“Frank!” He scans the horizon for a moment, before thinking to look down. “What are you doing in the ground? The crime scene is right over here,” he helps me up and guides me into the littered alleyway.  

There's not much to see but one of those big trash bins covered in what appears to be bot blood, thickly spattered across the pavement. Otherwise, there's a number of people in white uniforms scraping samples off the walls and about three guys with their arms crossed, sunglasses on looking right into the bin.  

“I still don't understand why I'm here, Josh. Why did you think to call me? I'm not even an official agent.” He's pushing me through all the people in suits, Tyler following behind us. I still can't see what's in the bin, but it's starting to take some sort of shape, not recognizable yet though.  

“Yeah, I know. That's why I thought you'd like to see this first.” he stops then, right in front of the bin, arms crossed, obviously very disgusted. But disgusted by what?  

“What should I see first, Josh?” I'm still keeping strict eye contact with him, but I'm starting to pick up some weird smell. Definitely bot blood but something else.  

Through gritted teeth, barely blinking, Josh says to me, “Look in the freaking bin and you'll find out.”  

So I allow my eyes to sweep over and into the bin.  

And I'm making eye contact with one eye, and what could possibly be a human if you pulled all the pieces off and asked a toddler to remake it. It takes me a few moments to be able to recognize the mouth, so open that it looks like it's almost detached, and a body sort of crumbled up, nearly folded in on itself, all covered in the thick opaque blood of a bot.  

I, of course, being the veteran I am to this sort of stuff, bend over immediately and vomit onto the cement, just missing some Suit's mirror-like shoes.  

“The fuck?? Why the fuck am I looking at a dead body, Josh?” I try to look away, but somehow I keep glancing back at the body, but no amount of double takes will make the body disappear. Nope. There is a person in a trash bin and that's when I start to dry heave, but everything in my stomach is gone.  

Josh sighs heavily, painfully. “I'm sorry, Frank.” 

“Sorry? Sorry for what?” My heart is rattling around inside my chest but I can't seem to put the pieces together just yet.  

“For your loss. I know you were a friend of Claire's. She went by Grimes in high school, right?”  

My knees sort of buckle under me somehow, because I end up in the ground again. 

No fucking way.  

No fucking way that's Grimes, Grimes the badass girl from highschool, the one who was nice to me when I was hungover, the one who wanted to get in my pants Grimes.  

My stomach threatens me with another vomiting episode, but remembers it's empty, and so the bike just clings in my throat.  

“Grimes…?” As I'm helped up, I'm starting to see more parts of her in the corpse. Her thinks brows, tattoos glowing pink and purple, the ones I never saw in real life but saw on her pinboard stories. And her eyes. Or eye now. 

“We think pieces of her were taken to be sold.” this is a different Suit, cutting through the rest, impressively tall, and then he takes off his glasses to reveal it's Sargeant Weekes. “So sorry you have to see this Frank, we thought you deserved to know it all, especially here from the true source.”  

“Know it all…?” I repeat, stilted. I'm not sure if I'm asking a question, but Weekes nods.  

Everyone is kind enough to give me the time to think before I continue shakily, “Do you mean there's more?”  

Sergeant Weekes nods again. “Unfortunately yes. Two missing persons reports. They haven't been seen for around 4 days by anyone, and we've checked all holo-lens and security footage from the Second and Third Level.”  

What does this all have to do with me? What do missing people have to do with Grimes?  

“W-who is it?” I don't think I want to know the answer, but it's the only question in my mind now.  

“Peter Wentz . We know you were a good friend of his in high school.”  

I just think of Pete, missing, maybe to be found in another week in a bin like Grimes.  

Oh shit.   

I need to figure this out. I need to wrap my head around it, and try to take one extremely shaky breathing, feeling dizzy, and sitting down on the nearest thing that can resemble a seat. And as much as I fear the thought of having to see him again, I need to make sure other people are safe.  

“Patrick. Is there anything on Patrick?”  

“He's safe, he was the last person to see Wentz, we've already interrogated him but he has an alibi.”  

“Let me see him.”  

... 

The bar looks like something out of an old movie with walls of velvet, columns of gold and high, smoky ceilings. There's men, swarming like flies around pool tables, cigars hanging from puffed up lips that have been under the knife a few too many times, women facilitating games with fake smiles and a swarm of older men near a stage with stripping poles cheering on a fembot as she coyly removes a blouse. Each person that turns carries the same botoxed expression, one that says You Don't Belong Here. And I'd be just as happy to avoid Patrick, and to not have to think about how bad things ended the last time we talked. Back when Patrick asked me never to speak to him again. This wasn't going to be a happy meeting. I didn't even know if this was a meeting of acquaintances.  

I'm gonna need something to calm me for the nerves alone. In case tonight ends in a knockout, I at least don't want to feel the black eye I might get in the morning, so I turn into the nearest open bar, close by to a smaller stage, this one with purple curtains, a guitar and a small microphone. There's no one on stage yet, but I can hear stilted applause from the half coked out audience, and there's no sign of Patrick yet.  

“I'll have whatever is the strongest.” I grumble to the bartender, cradling my head in one hand and pulling up a stool.  

“Are you sure that's the best idea?” the voice makes my skin crawl and I look up to see Ryan, that prick of a bartender who was at the Dreamland that night Dizza wiped the floor with my ass.  

“Mother fucker…” I hiss, and he looks only slightly amused. “Do you whore yourself around to every bar in town?”  

He's definitely amused now, and as I can see, he's abandoned his newsboy fucker ensemble for a clean white button up, a bowtie and a leather jacket accompanied by hair pushed away from his head, making him look less like a giraffe and more like a rooster.  

“Just about. Or maybe I've been sent to follow you, Frank Iero. How goes the search? Will you be interrogating our little starlet? He's had a hard day, three different groupies or gangs shoving his face into a wall and screaming in his face, you've gotta know he's too soft for that.”  

“Your...starlet?” I'm a little confused, until Ryan rolls his big eyes and points over to the smaller stage.  

I follow his finger to see the person onstage, strumming the guitar and singing in a soul infused voice. As per house rules, he's dressed in a suit, this one is red, and he's got a glittery set of devil horns popping out of yellow bleached hair.  

It stakes me a few more seconds than it should, and after a few moments, my holo-lens has to identify him for me with an icon and glowing letters that say Patrick Stump.  

It's a good thing that Ryan hasn't given me a drink yet, because I stumble a little, nearly falling off the chair when I see him. He's lost a lot of that baby weight he was carrying in high school, and looks pretty damn good in a suit with that color hair and no glasses. And that fucking voice! You can't convince me that the shy Pat of high school was hiding that voice from all of us. Patrick, unfortunately, sees this little accident, and while he doesn't stop singing, he looks up from his guitar, and upon making eye contact with me, his serene expression turns to a frown.  

“Still want that drink, Iero?” Ryan chides from behind me.  

I reach out my arm to take the glass, not taking my eye off of Pat, barely even registering that Ryan’s mocking me.  

“Hit me.”  

... 

I have to wait until all of the crowd has stumbled away or at least fallen asleep until a hand touches me gently, and I turn right into Patrick’s glittery suit jacket.  

“Oh, whoa, holy shit.” I cough out a number of little small flecks of glitter as Patrick nervously looks on. His eyes are bright green, he seems to just be glowing, or maybe that's the glitter suit that is currently blinding me.  

He pauses for a few moments, before he finally hesitatingly says, “We can talk in the breakroom.” He walks a good few steps in front of me, never looking back at me, as we walk up the stage and he opens the curtain for me. I try to thank him, but I can tell no amount of formalities is going to make this conversation more comfortable. He perfectly blends into the room, it's velvet red curtained walls, a number of marble statues and busts so immaculately cleaned, and Patrick reclines onto a large leather black seat. Behind the chair is a marble statue I recognize, one that I liked so much as a kid when I was forced to go to church that I carry it on myself permanently. It's the Virgin Mary, wailing with an animated face as daggers are forced into her heart.  

Patrick follows my gaze and looks behind him.  

"I'm guessing this is the first animated statue you've seen, Frank?" 

"Uh, yeah." It's so beautiful, I can't understand how a marble statue could move without cracking. There's something about that face that just unsettles me, maybe it's the obvious pain that seems amplified by this size. And it looks familiar too.  

"Well you know, it's a replica of the statue we had back in the lobby of Belleville Trinity, of course that one wasn't animated, but Brendon went to Trinity a few years before we got there and when he made this place he commissioned it."  

It's impossible to think this bar isn't ancient, it seems to be frozen in time, a symbol of wealth, but it must just be a few years old. And that means the owner of this place must be young too. It's incredible, almost frightening how everyone just blends into this place, how they all look out of time and I stick out like a sore thumb.  

But I can't focus on that, I'm here with my questions. I need to know about Pete.  

"Um, Patrick, so," I clear my throat, trying to focus through all the smoke and smooth jazz music. "I'm sure you know why I'm here."  

If it's possible, his already frowning face becomes more painful, just as an ANRI bot comes by with drinks.  

"Brandy?" He asks cheerfully.  

"N-no thank you," I try to say, but Patrick waves me silent.  

"I've never known you to say no to alcohol, Frank." He says this through gritted teeth, a slight smile that I sort of just want to punch off of him.  

As the bot walks by me, I instinctively flinch, remembering how that last bot nearly strangled the life out of me in seconds. And Patrick notices this too, sighing, looking down and removing his glittery suit jacket to show a skinny chest in a black button up, and a glittering red tie. He keeps on his fingerless gloves, but he picks at them with painted black nails. The devil horns melt away and it might just be the light, or Patrick may be completely covered in glitter, because his golden hair is dipped in floodlight, so shiny that it could almost be glowing. Now that I'm up close, I notice it's almost the same color as Gerard's, only Gerard's is a little more tangled and much longer, and a little more damaged. 

"Yeah, you're the third person to come in today to see me. But if the rumors are true, Frank, then you're working for the police." He crosses one leg and sips the brandy gingerly, but spits it out. "Oh that burns. Everything in this bar is too strong for me. Can someone get me a water?"  It takes him a few moments to recover to his cool demeanor.  

"Where did you hear that?" Shit. If it's a rumor that I'm working with the police then I'm in deep shit.  

"Does it matter?" While the words are cutting, you can see the empathy in his eyes.  "I'm in no position to say this probably but I'm going to say it anyway. What the hell have you gotten yourself into?" This whole meeting is taking me back to high school, back that last time that I talked to Pat and he gave me that black eye. I think he'd said something along the same lines, and I'd practically forgotten about it until now. "I feel like a broken record with you, Frank. You and Pete both. You remember the last time we talked?"  

"You mean the time you punched me in the face and you said you'd never talk to me again?" 

He flinches, probably still a little embarrassed by it. "Yeah, uh, that's the one. I took a lot of anger out on you, and I don't think I ever apologized." 

"No, you didn't." Honestly, it was so long ago I've practically forgotten what the argument was about, all I remember is learning that Patrick Stump has a solid right hook and that no one talks shit about Pete without answering to Patrick. I can see that Patrick is wearing that regret now, he's definitely grown up, and changed a lot, he even just takes up more space than before and you can feel a sort of confidence from him.  

"And I'm not going to right now. You were a dick. I'm hoping that now you've learned a little bit from all that. Anyway, you're here to ask about Pete."  

"And two other people have already come in to ask you about him? What did you tell those people?"  

He squirms a little in the seat, and it's obvious that this is the most awkward of all those meetings so far. His shoulders are tensed, and he takes a sip of water when it arrives. I still haven't touched my brandy. 

"Are you going to drink that, or have you abandoned your semi-alcoholic ways?" 

I'm only a little pissed so I take the glass and drink quickly, feeling the fire in my throat as Patrick rolls his eyes. I couldn't exactly remember before, but now I'm thinking our last fight had something to do with my teen drinking. Not like Pete didn't drink too, but I'm remembering that Pete was always perfect to Patrick, he could do no wrong, and I was pretty different.  

"Right," I cough. "Pete. Was he acting weird the last time you saw him?"  

Patrick's frustration with me is then replaced with a look of deep worry. "You know Pete. He's always been neurotic, always worrying about some conspiracy or another. Through the years he'd go from one obsession to the other. They were usually just dumb things, our brains are hacked into so that our dreams are full of advertisements, animals haven't really gone extinct but they've gained sentience to live and hide amongst us, MouseKat is a secret government agent dressed up as a mascot, always crazy, unbelievable things. About four months ago he starts up on a new one, only this time, I think people started listening, started believing."  

I lean forward as Patrick takes a moment to drink some water.  

"I mean, it makes sense, probability-wise. You throw so many darts that one of them has to stick to the board, right?" He muses, lost in his own thoughts.  

"Patrick? What was this conspiracy?"  

"Oh." He shakes himself out of it. "It had to do with the government. The government and criminal gangs working together to, I don't know, suppress freedom of speech or something. To encourage riots so specific people get put into jail." For saying something so crazy, he seems pretty uninterested, even bored. Or maybe he'd just heard it so much from Pete.  

But the government and gangs working together, that's true. I mean, I'm the fucking informant that found out there was a mole in the police to prevent gangs from getting arrested. And putting people into jail, silencing them, something about that burrows down into me and ties my stomach into knots.  

There must be a pretty grim expression on my face, because Patrick reads it immediately.  

"Really?" His eyebrows go up in disbelief. But when I say nothing, you can see the look in his eyes change. From apathy to something honest. Fear. "We are so fucked. Nobody actually agreed to it before, they all had a decent poker face, they all at least had the decency to lie." He lays back in his chair, and reaches for the brandy this time, swallowing hard.  

"Pat." He looks nervously at me, his entire posture changing again, he seems to be swallowed up by the chair now. You can sort of see him retreating into his mind like old times. "I need to know more. So Pete was thinking the government is corrupt, that's nothing new. I need details. Specific things. Black market trades. Money going missing."  

He hastily takes a breath. "Okay. He said something about a blackout." 

"A blackout?"  

"Yeah, some sort of tech created by the police so that abducted officers could block certain parts of memories and actually corrupt memory files so you couldn't open the files without getting fatal computer virus." 

Fuck, that sounds exactly like what that ANRI bot did, corrupting her holo-lens footage so we couldn't make out who the mole was. And the viruses too, that's why it's been taking Gerard so long to save the files.  

But if Pete is right about this much, how much else does he know? 

"How much of this did you tell to the police and the other person?" Because if Pat said any of this to them, he's in serious trouble.  

"Well, looking as how you're not asking me this from behind bars, what do you think?" 

"You lied to the police, Patrick?"  

He looks pretty annoyed by that. "What the hell was I supposed to do? I'd end up missing like Pete, or in a dumpster like Grimes."  

Well there goes that healing process. I'd been able to keep the vision of her face, her crumpled body out of my mind for about twenty minutes. But that meant that Patrick knew about it too.  

"So we need to find Pete before the police do is what you're telling me."  

He leans back, signaling me to stop, bringing a finger up to his lips. Once he sees that no one's listening in, he continues, leaning in closer to me.  

"I know you can't help. I know your cousin is the one on the case, and the last thing we need is for Josh to get suspicious of you and send that hitman of a bot out for any of us." He sighs before continuing, even quieter. "Pete didn't just imagine this tech existed, he'd seen it, he'd met up with a black-market dealer of killswitches. The killswitch implant makes you able to wipe any memory you want, essentially it acts like an access code so you can bypass certain protocols. It's already been implemented by a lot of illegal bars, that's most of the reason why they had you going into bars is because they were flying blind otherwise."  

So Patrick knows exactly what I'm doing with the police. Shit. "Who told you about me?" 

He shrugs. "Pete kept track of all his friends. Funny he still considered you a friend, but I digress. What's important is that they needed you, Frank. They need to resort to old measures, spying, stuff like that because their perfect monitoring system failed. Because people are finding bugs in BLind's software, and they're seeing a body count now too." 

"Wait." It's so much information at once, it feels like Patrick is rambling just like Pete would do. Only this time I know enough to actually believe him. "Alright. So who is purchasing these killswitches?" 

"Anyone and everyone. Pete only knew it was happening, he saw some cops buying them one night. Saw the guy's face and saw him walking around with an ANRI bot and some gang members." 

The mole.  

Pete saw the mole. 

"So Pete's been watching this dealer for a while, and once he sees that, he wants to tell someone. As far as I know, the only two people he told was me." 

"Not even Mikey?" 

Pat shakes his head. "He said it was too much of a risk sending Mikey a message. Any cop or hacker with a base understanding of code could get that message. He told me and then said he was going into hiding." 

"So he's not missing? He hasn't been abducted?" 

He nods, and adds as quietly as possible, "Not that I know of. He sent me a pin, something really inconspicuous, so I know he's safe. But I don't even know where he is."  

But wait a second.  

"Why are you telling me all of this? Aren't you afraid someone can hear us having this conversation?" 

He smiles, it's small, but definitely a smile, and pulls down his shirt of show me a tattoo.  

"That's lovely, but I don't see what the fuck that has to do with--" 

He traces over the tattoo and his eyes gleam pure white for a second.  

"You didn't think they would make the killswitch look like an actual switch, right?"  

I put my head in my hands. Jesus Christ. All of this so suddenly, I feel like my head is about to explode. I still don't understand how these killswitches work, but if they are nearly as confusing as they sound, I can understand why they might stump some of the cops. But Pete was so right about so many things, from the mole to the corrupted files. And he at least saw the mole.  

"Is there any way I could talk to Pete?"  

Pat sighs, shaking his head. "After he told me he was safe, he cut off all communications. At least anyone that could be shady and condemn him. He's static now."  

"And when did he last reach out to you?" 

"Three days ago. I don't even know if he's still on Level 2, he could have hopped somewhere else. He'd been saving up money. I think he's been planning this for a while. The problem is, I didn't believe him. Pete had been yelling for so long, I think people are finally starting to listen, to know the true intents of the police. Which brings us back to you, Frank."  

"Back to me?" I'm not entirely sure what sort of epiphany he is trying to lead me to.  

"How many times have you gotten the shit beat out of you since working with the police?"  

I'm not sure if I should really be talking about this.  

"Maybe you should stop here, Pat." Not that this whole conversation wasn't taboo, but we're getting to dangerous points now. And I don't want Pat to have to disappear like Pete. To erase himself and to hop onto a station and get the fuck out of town. I stand up quickly. "Thanks for the drink." I'm turning around, headed towards the curtain and to the stage when he speaks again.   

"Frank, they're setting you up for failure."  

I turn back to a very concerned looking Patrick. He actually looks worried for me, which just makes me more nervous.  

"What do you mean?" 

"They don't want you to find this mole, they want you to die." 

"Hayley and Zac don't want me to die." 

He shrugs. "Then their boss wants you dead. Listen," he gestures for me to come back, and I begrudgingly sit back down. "If they wanted you to find that mole, you would have already found them." 

"So what are you suggesting I do?" 

He pauses for a moment, putting his glittering jacket back on. "Get creative. For example, Brendon, my boss, he's good friends with that greasy weird Australian hoodrat guy." 

"Dizza?" 

He shoots me a finger gun. "That's the one. Use your resources, Frank. Don't trust the police." He stands up then, taps his hair and the red horns reappear. "I have to get back to work."  

He's walking away already, but there's still so much I don't understand.  

"Wait, what are my resources?"  

"Well, you know how two others have come to talk to me?" 

"Yeah?" 

"One of them was Gerard Way. Go and find him." He's adjusting his bowtie and buttoning up his suit jacket.  

"Thank you so much Patrick, I'll keep in touch--" 

"Please don't." He interjects. "Look on 302nd street for a building with the word Redbone in blue letters. Ask for Gambino and get a killswitch implant as soon as possible and wipe this entire conversation from your holo-lens. Bino can show you how. Don't come around asking for me." 

"Can I tell Hayley or Zac about this?" 

He laughs a little. "Those two are officers, not your friends, so no." He turns for a moment, and gives me a smile like this is the last time we will ever see each other. "Try not to die, Frank."  

And then he opens the curtain again to a lackluster applause, and I can hear him tune the guitar.  

Looking around the curtained room, I'm realizing he didn't tell me how to get out of here.  

But once I do find my way out, I head straight towards the exit, it's now dark outside and everyone is flooded in the neon lights of nightclubs and bars. It's cold outside, damp, and I find myself kicking litter into a shallow puddle until I hear a familiar nasally voice.  

"Frank?" 

I turn right into Gerard, his hair damp and stringy around his face, painted with a nervous expression as he's biting his lower lip.  

"Gerard? What are you doing out here?" 

He looks more than nervous. He looks scared. "Frank I-I can't explain, I need you to kiss me right now." 

I guffaw, laughs a little nervously as I feel my heart race. "What-what the fuck are you talking about, G-" 

And before I can finish, he pulls me in by my waist and I crash right into his lips and holds me like that, tight against his chest and I sort of push into the kiss a little more than I should. By the time it's done, I'm a little dizzy, and a little giddy. He's still clutching me tight around my waist and around my chest when we hear someone spit behind us.  

"Gerard fokken Way."  

I make eye contact first with the terrible drug dealer wimpy mustache, and then I see Dizza's eyes. And then I see the rest of the guys behind him, smiling cruelly.  

"Oh, and Frank Iero. Well, this is certainly not how I expected my night to end." 

Chapter Text

GERARD 

...AN HOUR BEFORE  

I thought after my accident and after all that I'd learned, all that I'd seen, that I had enough proof to take down the whole system. I was sure that I could destroy them, just like they'd destroyed me. Just like how the fall crushed my legs, and the sight of my legs still seared into my mind. The strangest part was I don't think I ever felt the pain. I pumped full of adrenaline, of course, but, as it would later be explained to me, the impact severed something in my spine, and while I was crawling around on the first level, on a heap of trash and broken cryo-tubes, I didn't feel my legs. And I didn't know I wouldn't ever feel them again.  

The garbage collectors found me eventually, a thick yellow light breaking through the opaque gray clouds of smog, and as I was lifted up to the station elevator, one of the workers covered my legs with his stained jacket.  

Reconstructive surgery is often successful, as are prosthetic legs. Both were refused to me. And once I was on the third level, a deal was made. I let them shut me up.  

I can't let the same thing happen to Frank.  

He can hate me if he wanted, that would be fine, but eventually he needs to know the truth, but he has to survive up until then. You can feel the unease in the air these days. Another bomb is planted in public and the already overcrowded prisons welcome more criminals for life. I have to wait to tell Frank until BLind isn't so much of a problem. I have to help him get there.  

Anything to help Frank, I remind myself as I refuse a glass of some sort of very strong liquor.  

I've just finished meeting with Patrick, and I'm feeling a little nostalgic.  I'd met him back when he was a chubby awkward teenager when he and Pete would come to fights I was in. Shit, that was even before Mikey and Pete were dating, back when Mikey was too shy to ask Pete out and Pete was too dumb to notice. But Patrick came along, he went everywhere that Pete went. But then, just a few minutes ago I had been introduced to a very different Patrick Stump. Bleached blond hair that looked much healthier than mine, and well, overall, he looked great. I'd done nothing in 8 years but gain some weight and an exoskeleton pair of legs that I'd be paying off for the rest of my life because if I tried to make legs for myself, any original patent, I would be sued, live on the streets.  

But the meeting with Patrick had frightened me more than this one. Now I was sitting with his boss in the lavish amphitheater at a crystal dining table inside the Hallelujah Club. This was another meeting with an old friend-- 

"Gerard Way." The man at the table muses across from me, peering at me through a wineglass filled to the brim. He's glittering ruby red under the spotlights, one shining directly on our table. Not much has changed since we first met, except now he's an established wealthy bachelor, a club owner under the age of thirty, and his impeccable styling. Maybe it's just that he hasn't matured since I last saw him at 17 years old.  

"Brendon." I comment, crossing my arms. 

"It's been, what? Ten years?" He chuckles. "You haven't aged at all, you bastard. You've lost the baby weight though, so compliments on that." Always one for the theatrics, he raises the wine glass like in a toast.  

"I'm guessing I'm supposed to take that as a compliment." I try to shake off the comment, but just looking at Brendon's smug face makes me squirm a little. He's much different than the joking dork that I dated for a few months back in high school. For one thing, he corrected his eyes and fixed his teeth, so every smile is bright and white, not a metallic, more braces than teeth. "How, uh, how have you been, Bren?"  

The old nickname is the only thing that's caught him off guard, and he puts down the glass, now smiling with mouth closed, much more like the old Brendon. "I've been good, Gee. I mean, look at this place!" He gestures to the luxurious purple velvet walls. "I couldn't have imagined being under 30 and having a successful club. I wasn't even sure of where to find the money." He smiles nostalgically, and I can't help but remember how much I liked him back then. "You really helped me out back then, Gee. When my parents kicked me out and your family let me stay with you." He reaches over and grabs my hand before I can move fast enough to pull it away. "So I guess, I have to thank you for all this."  

A waiter is bringing up our dinner on two elaborately carved golden plates, and Brendon moves his hand from mine for a second. I sigh in anticipation, but the breath gets caught in my chest. I haven't even asked him and I already feel like shit.  

"Bren, I need a favor."  

He's sipping his wine glass, but upon finishing, tucks the silk napkin into his immaculate white collar. "Anything. You know I would do anything for you, Gee." He winks at me, and I find sudden interest in my ratty shoes, how they look against the plush white carpet, and I'm reminded once again of how much of an outsider I am. How I don't belong in this world anymore. How I left this life behind years ago, and how it took a near death experience to help me come to terms with my addiction. Being with Brendon, there was a happy memory, but thinking back to the person he knew me as, it's sort of hard to even compare myself to that guy.  

"I need you to help me catch a criminal."  

He spits out a little wine then, and recovering, apologizes, and dabs it away from his face and the table with his napkin. "Waiter! A new napkin, please!" He laughs dryly, all for show, then looks at me. "Now Gerard..." he leans in close to me. "...are you out of your fucking mind?" 

"I--" I start, not really knowing even where I would take the sentence, and he thankfully cuts me off immediately.  

"I get it, your new vigilante do-gooding thing is probably cute for that little twink fucker you're chasing after, but you know as well as I do that you need to mind your own business." He stops for a second to catch his breath. "You're not twenty, young and beautiful anymore. Well, you're still pretty, but I digress." He shuts up and both of us awkwardly smile as the new cyborg waiter comes by with a napkin of a small blue velvet cushion. Goddamn Brendon. The waiter is attractive, slightly pissed, and Brendon slaps his ass for good measure. "You look great, Ryan."  

"I'm gonna murder you in your sleep, Brendon."  

"I wish you would!" He sheepishly watches him walk away for a second, completely content, sighing. Then he looks back at me and sinks into the chair. "You want to know how much business I get from criminals? Most of my patrons are gangs, drug lords, you know, you could close your eyes and randomly point to a hitman in here. How are any of them gonna feel comfortable coming here again if I let you arrest some motherfucker with a cannon for a hand when they're ordering a 210 carbon steak?" Somewhere between confused and amused, he leans back in the chair. "Who are you looking for?" 

"A mole, a police officer that's working in tandem with a gang."  

He snorts, and a golden knife clatters on his plate. "Good luck with that. I know your social anxiety and overall dislike of people keeps you in your shop, probably in some baggy sweatpants, but out here in the streets you hear things. Whispers. You know police officers have that tracker behind their eyes, lights up so you can figure out if they're a cop or not?" 

"Yeah, I've installed a few myself."  

"Well we've got a scanner at the door. Guys we've turned away before, now they walk in with ease. I don't know if they figured out how to take it out themselves or what, but I reckon there's a handful of cops we see coming in here now with some bad company." He grins at my probably ridiculous face. "You have anything to say? Anything you want me to clarify?" 

"You're saying there's multiple moles in the police?"  

"Well I'm definitely saying that people we had to turn away before for being police are now able to come in here, and it's making a few of my other customers...uncomfortable. Some even come in armed. You wouldn't believe the number of Cristal bottles I've had shattered by shootouts in the last few weeks, we've had to hire at least five new janitors to keep up with it. Thank god they at least know how to get blood stains out of the carpet, or else my reputation would be in tatters." He examines me for a second, cutting into his steak, maybe noticing that I haven't touched my salad at all. "Why do you care? Actually, scratch that, why is it your responsibility to clean up our city? That cop twink fucked you so good you see Jesus?" 

I cough, suddenly forgetting how to drink water. "Frank isn't a twink. And I mean, we're also not together."  

"Sure thing." He snorts in disbelief, rolling his eyes. "Listen. You've got to pick a side, Gerard. You have to be with us or with the police. You can't play everyone and straddle allegiance somewhere in between." 

Something about that really hits me. And I mean, he's totally right. But I can't explain my plan without putting him in danger. Not to mention, he might not believe if I do say I'm working towards the same goals as the criminals are and overthrow a wildly corrupted government. It hurts to look at him, a person I once knew so well, and to see where we've ended up. But I have to keep going, even if I'm ruining friendships and old relationships.  

So after a few moments of calculating a mediocre response, I just decide to go back to the original plan.  

"Are you willing to hear my terms or not? If you're not interested, then we can stop here and we don't have to waste any more of anyone's time." I'm pushing myself out of the chair, still not entirely used to be able to walk with my fixed legs and Brendon slaps his hand on the table.  

"Sit your pretty ass the fuck back down." I do as he says, and notice that the still sentient patrons around us turn to watch us. "Gerard, I wish all of us could be bright eyed, Mother Teresa type bitches, donate our kidneys to fucking three legged dogs or some horseshit like that, but as you and I know, in this world, this city, your wealth isn't based on brownie points. Do you follow me?" 

"Not exactly." 

"I'm saying that nobody is nearly as good as you think they are. I'm sure your boyfriend is a perfect example." 

"Like I said, we're not dating--" 

"--Not yet, I get it. Now shut up for a second while I think. And eat something, for fuck's sake, that plate cost me 50 carbons."  

The salad is almost wilted by this point, the dressing soaked into all the croutons, which everyone knows, is the only reason why one eats salad. But I grumpily stab my fork through a few leaves and watch across the way as two men start screaming and a bot that looks strikingly similar to that rogue ANRI bot takes the stage, as a number of drugged up elderly men cheer unenthusiastically.  

Actually, yeah, that bot looks exactly like her. My heart skips a beat, although I know it's impossible for her to be here because she's in pieces in my shop. But it's just like her, bright pastel pinks, yellows and blues, and she seems to make exact eye contact as she walks up to the stripping pole.  

"Bren." 

He follows my eyes over to her, and he smiles. "Oh yeah, her. I've got a few duplicates of her, they're repurposed ANRI bots, got at least a few of them from this really cheap retailer. Although I had one that went missing right after I bought her, shame considering it cost me a few hundred carbons. Make a sex worker look cheap is pretty expensive, you'd be surprised." 

Oh fuck. Proceed with caution, Gerard. "Actually, I've uh, maybe seen your missing bot recently." 

His eyes light up. "Really? Where?"  

"On the floor of my shop, in about a thousand pieces."  

"Gerard?" He's clutching his golden fork, just about ready to stab me with it, he's gritting his teeth in a smile. "Buddy. Why do you have my porn bot in your shop?" He bends the fork without breaking eye contact with me.  

"Okay, listen, your bot--" 

"Her name's Yolandi." He says matter of factly.  

"Your bot has a name?"  

He shrugs. "She chose it herself." 

Okay, that's weird, because bots don't have the right protocols to name themselves. It's starting to sound like there's something really interesting going on with that bot. I choose to ignore that information too.  

"The twink—Frank, I mean, she tried to kill him about a week ago. Is that in her programming?"  

His eyes go blank, mouth twisted into that face he used to make back in high school when he'd fucked up. "Shit. She's been gone a long time, but when I say gone I mean gone. Disappeared. Her tracker chip was destroyed, eye camera footage glitched out on me, I haven't been able to find anything on her and I'd thought she'd just be deactivated by this point." 

"Why would she have been deactivated?" 

"She and her sisters, I bought three in total, they were hacked and edited to be sex bots, as you know, but they were already a few years old. This bot's the only one I have left, and she's old, getting slower everyday. She should have expired a few years ago, and that's just what I thought had happened to Yolandi, that someone had found her and just put her out of her misery. But you're saying you saw her? And she tried to kill someone?" 

I nod, and he just frowns deeper getting visibly nervous. And then, he changes to a more determined look. "Fuck it, I'm in. I mean, I should hear everything you should tell me first, but I'm going to assume you're here because all these things are linked and because after all these years, you're ready to come back to me." 

"I'm going to ignore that last part, but yeah, with everything else you're right. We, well the police, and I sort of, think the bot was stolen by this gang Sticky Fingers."  

His face drops instantly, and he takes a shot of a drink just put in front of him. "I'm going to need more of these, Ryan," she purrs to the waiter whose ass he had previously slapped. And once Ryan was out of range, he sighs heavily. "I never liked those Auzzie bastards. They're all oily and always smell like shit and spend all this time sitting in my best booths and it takes us hours to get the ketchup stains off the walls after they visit. Although they're much too dumb to know how to rewire a good old porn bot into a hitman." 

"And that's where the mole comes in. Officers have the access to edit code, it had to have been this mole that sent a bot to kill Frank." Now it's time, I've spent enough time bouncing around, now it's time to make a deal. "Are you still hosting that Bot Fighting Championship here?" 

"Yeah, it comes up in a few weeks. Why?" 

"Follow me here. Put some bets on, those guys are sure to come. And if it's any other night--" 

"--They'll bring the mole with them." He nods. "He's their security guard. Damn, and I already knew the government was fucked, this is the nail in the coffin.  

"So they bring this mole along, we catch him, arrest him, and we all go on our way." I lean back, pretty pleased with myself. This is definitely going to work.  

"Yeah, this will totally work, except for one tiny, miniscule problem. What do I get out of this?"  

I guess he's got a point. He's got a lot more to lose from this than I do. I've gotta bargain a little more than what I would normally be comfortable with. Now what can I give that will be enough? 

"What if I enroll Frank to be in the Championship? He qualifies after winning the fight against Jones at Saturn's Bar. You get one more competitor, and the police will pay for his enrollment fee." 

He doesn't look too amused by this proposition. "It's good that you're rooting for you boyfriend and all Gee, but I know that you have much better to offer. I won't turn down Frank, but you can do better than a bright eyed amateur fighter who's little more than eye candy."  

"Alright, so what do you want?" I know it's not the greatest question to ask, but by now I'm desperate.  

"I want Party Poison." 

My mind instantly goes into panic mode and I try to swallow the fear down, to no avail. I've gotta come up with something quick so I don't come off as extremely suspicious.  

"Okay, well first of all, Party Poison by this time would be years out of the game, two, all people have lost contact with him, and three, for all we know he'd dead, and been dead for 8 years." I try to slow my words, calculating everything but I don't think Brendon's believing it. "Not to mention, maybe he doesn't want to come back, but what are even the chances that he's alive? I mean, have you heard any proof that he's alive? I certainly haven't. It's not going to happen, Bren." 

He shrugs, a somewhat evil smile creeping upon his face. "Then it's not a deal. It's a shame, really...me and my marketing team had this great idea to pair old Big-League bot fighters with the younger amateurs, we've been drafting lists of the qualified enrollers and reaching out to a few washed up celebrity fighters. There's this new guy dressing as Fun Ghoul, I suspect that's your Frankie, and we thought it would be perfect to put him and Party Poison on a team. It would be instantly iconic! Standing room only, a line out the door type shit. Now that, that would make this little stint of yours worth it." I can't tell how many shots he's had by now, but he cackles, impressed by himself while I awkwardly sit, once again watching other patrons glare at us for a few dull seconds, then passing back out. He calms himself back down then, but the mischievous smile remains. "Get me Party Poison and I'll say fuck it to one guy being arrested. But it better be at the end of the night, not before. And Fun Ghoul and Party Poison's fight will be last."  

There's not much I can say that won't end in me fucking up this deal entirely.  

"Alright, I'll do it." 

"Good," He sits back in his chair.  

"Great," I mutter. But then I remember the other thing.  

"One more thing."  

He rolls his eyes. "Go for it."  

"This one is a personal favor." 

"The last one was a personal favor." 

I wave him off. "That one was basically a work deal. This is a little more...secret."  

He seems to consider it for a moment. "Fuck it. We've had our share of secrets. What is it?" 

"I know you know someone who has access to facial recognition for blacklisted and unlisted citizens."  

"You can't say that and not expect an interrogation." He examines me then, scanning me with those dark, knowing eyes. "This air of commanding mystery, Gerard, it's sexy. You should keep it up. Could you give me any bit of a tease as to what you're going to do with a device that can identify everyone from blacklisted criminals to top secret BLind scientists?"  

"I don't want to spoil the ending for you Brendon."  

This time, he seems impressed, and doesn't even look at that hot waiter when he walks over to take our dishes. I didn't eat much, afraid that my shaking hands would betray my sense of false confidence. He's getting up out of his chair, and I expect him to just walk away, but he comes to shake my hand.  

"It's a deal. Sucks for you, the guy with that tech is your favorite Aussie douchebag. He'll be swinging by soon, I'll give him your request and you can meet him out front in thirty minutes. And I'm expecting the real Party Poison, no deception or I'll hack that remaining ANRI bot myself and have her set Frank's house on fire. And I want Yolandi back by the end of the week, unscathed. Freshly polished would be nice too, she's had a tough few years." 

"Is that all?"  

"Hmm. Can I request a certain officer come as security to the championship?" 

"You hate officers." 

"And I'll need security at my completely legal robot fighting championship that I totally have the legal documents and license to host at my night club that was built mainly from betting money." He's standing up, walking me near the door.  

"Fine, who do you want?" I ask grumpily, exhausted.  

"Josh Dun," he chirps. "He's cut and I'd love to take him out for coffee sometime. Oh! I should have put that in the agreement. Is it too late to ask for you to get me a date?" 

"Yes."  

He sighs. "Well, I want him here. He's cute with that button up style, he'd be cuter of course with some tattoos, I like my trade more punk, but he shows definite promise." 

"I'll make it happen." I sigh. Is there anything that I didn't give Brendon? I mean, I'm walking out at least with my clothes on, so it's better than some of my past nights with the guy.  

He pulls me back by my shirt then. "You've really changed, Gee. I can't wait to get to know this sick, twisted new bitch you've become." 

"Yeah, sure." 

I'm stepping out into the street then, just ready to get out of that shithole and finally be able to breathe again. And now I just have to wait until Dizza swings around to give me access to those face recognition softwares. Then I can find out who the fourth guy was. The guy with the long, curly fro. I'd wondered for a few years where he was, who he was. And soon I'd have my answer. 

Before I forget, I click twice under my earlobe. 

It's been forty minutes and I'm starting to get anxious when of course, I see the Hallelujah Night Club's doors open and a fairly recognizable, fairly tattooed set of hands push the door open. My heart catches in my throat, just as I see the scruff shape of five guys in Hawaiian shirts smoking coming around the curb.  

Fuck. Why is Frank here? Shit, of course, he's probably come to talk to Patrick, since they were friends and all. He and Dizza are on a crash course to run into each other and the last time those two were within the same vicinity Frank got the shit beat out of him. Fuck. Is there anything I can do to prevent Frank from getting fucking killed?  

"Frank?" I call out to him nervously.  

"Gerard?" He turns, surprised. "What are you doing out here?" 

"Frank I-I can't explain, I need you to kiss me right now." I say with haste. 

He smiles, I can tell he's confused. "What-what the fuck are you talking about, G-" 

And then I pull him close to me at his waist and crash our lips together. He pushes in a little after the initial shock wears off, and we end up there for a little longer than I imagined, until he gasps away, catching his breath and we hear applause. Dizza and his whole crew are there, laughing like idiots, giddy at seeing us. It's better than bashing our heads in, so I take that as a win.  

"Gerard fokken Way. "Oh, and Frank Iero. Well, this is certainly not how I expected my night to end." 

... 

Something tells me I might have made a mistake.  

I just can't put a finger on what. Is it that I decided to just make a move on a guy who's basically my coworker, while in front of my former drug dealer, current illegal tech dealer, after interrogating the hot co-worker’s old friend who had a crush on my brother's boyfriend?  

All I can say is, looking down clutched against my chest is a rapidly breathing, somewhat squirmy Frank Iero, across from me is the leader of a gang with the combined intellect of a squirrel but the firepower of a small country, and I think my heart just shit itself.  

At least Dizza, the son of a bitch looks entertained by my sudden public display of affection, considering I practically kissed Frank with the subtlety of a snake wrapping around its prey, and probably with the same sort of passion.  

I'm going to have to think of an incredibly witty, clever yet intimidating response, and quick.  

“Uh.” Frank is still in my arms, sort of deflating, knees buckling, and I mentally kick myself while Dizza and the rest of his boys just snicker.  

“Not exactly a match I would have expected, but Gerard, you've done good for yerself.”  

At least I can blame my flush on the blinking neon lights, and before I can say anything else, Frank’s head pops up looking up at me with big bright eyes. But the confusion on his face is anything but cute.  

“How the fuck do you know these guys, G?”  

I'm still tongue tied, but manage to cough out a, “We uh,”  

Before I can finish, I’m interrupted again by that bitch, who smiles, one gold tooth shining against a row of crooked teeth. “We go back to ring days, baby. Back before I was a decorated criminal, I was running for this guy who had a lot of money invested into Mr. Poison. That's where I met this pretty fucker, we had our fun for a while, now it's strictly business.” Dizza is a little too proud when he's speaking, and I can feel Frank tense up under me.  

I don't know if this can get any worse. I save a mental note to find Dizza’s address as soon as possible and leave a flaming shit by the door.  

But Frank needs me right now and the embarrassment is flooding over into malice, so through clenched teeth I finally get enough courage to speak.  

“Give me the goddamn fucking security codes, Dizza and leave Frank out of it.” I’m not too good at intimidation, and my voice cracks halfway through, and it's sort of difficult being intimidating while I'm still clutching a small man-child whose overall just confused by the whole situation. But Dizza seems to get it, not without all of them laughing a little more at me, and Dizza reaches into his pocket and gets close to me, putting the card in my pocket and sniffing my hair. It takes everything in me to not curl with in a ball against his rank smell. And to think past, very inebriated Gerard fucked this guy a number of times for a few more hits. At least Dizza had the baseline decency to not mention the druggie Gerard days.  

“I don't have the money now, but give me two days and I'll have it in your account.” Every new sentence, every moment that this conversation continues, I can almost feel Frank's perception of me drop, not to mention my own perception of me.  

“One day. One day or there'll be consequences, and you of all people knows not to fuck around with a criminal.” he turns on his heels then. “Next time, no disappointing me.” And then he and his goons are gone, swallowed up into the midnight crowd, more noise in the clatter of an insomniac city.  

But now that leaves me with Frank, who’s wriggling his way out of my arms and briskly walking away.  

“Hey, Frank!”  

He turns, eyebrows arched in such a way and face so twisted in frustration that I just want to disappear into the wall behind me. 

“What the fuck is your deal, Gerard? One day I think I know you, you're a nice guy, so shy you won't even let me touch you, then you're sweeping me off my feet, kissing me, and, what, you're a fucking criminal. Just like everyone else. I thought you were different.” He might be on little legs, but my prosthetic, average person legs have to sprint to keep up with him.  

“Frank! FRANK! I'm sorry!” He's squirming through crowds, and the distance between the two of us grows.  

“Yeah, fuck you Gerard.” His voice is tiny, barely audible, and then he's completely disappeared, gone into the crowd. 

I have to stop of catch my breath in an alleyway, and sigh.  

I fucked up, and that's on me. I don't know if there's an easy way to explain any of this. There's so much he needs to know. And so much that we need to experience together. And if everything that I've seen, if all those bodies I saw really were Frank’s, then there is so much that we need to do together.  

I fucked up. This is it. I'm completely alone again.  

You let him get away. The voice in my ear buzzes.  

“I don't want to do this anymore, find someone else for this job.” I barely manage to choke out the words, my heart beating fast now for an entirely different reason.  

Unacceptable. It has to be you. Remember our promise. You follow the one who is to become Fun Ghoul, and Cobra Kid remains safe. For now, your brother's life hangs in the balance. It would take minutes to have a squad on you and those three others, and our agents are automated to shoot on sight. If you refuse to comply there will only be greater consequences.  

I feel tears sting in the corners of my eyes.  

“Please don't make me do this.” I whisper.  

Are you ready to comply, Agent Poison?  

I clench my hands tight into fists, away from my field of view, so they can't see me. It's gonna take one hell of a plan to betray them and somehow save Frank, my brother, and the last person. I still haven't found Jet Star, but my compliance will buy me more time to search for him, and get Frank back on my side.  

“Ready to comply.” I say, mustering up all the strength I can.  

Stand by for orders. 

Chapter Text

JOSH DUN

"Do you ever dream Tyler?" 

The bleak sunrise paints his fake skin in orange warmth. He is completely unmoved by a cold gust of wind, that only seemingly whips through his hair. This has become our tradition, watching the sunrise together from the top of the police academy after the Chief left a note of it on my desk. Ever since then, we watched the red sun rise over the silhouetted skyline, like some sort of concrete maze. Being able to get to know more about Tyler and ask him ridiculous questions made it a little easier for me to wake up.  

"Well, that's a dumb question," he responded, a little annoyed after the fifth existential question of the morning. That's one thing that took a while to get used to, seeing a bot exhibits signs of emotions.  

"Is it?"  

He nods.  

"And why is it odd?" 

He shrugs. I wait patiently for him to respond. He takes his time before responding, instead of stumbling over his words like people normally do. So instead I just watch his eyes, seemingly tracking and watching the people on the streets below, like ants through a hive.  

"Animals that are much dumber than humans are able to dream. And most bots are designed to be smarter than humans, and many steps above the intelligence of an animal, like a dog."  

"So you do dream?" I'm not sure that I'm following. That or maybe I asked to deep of a question too early to understand Ty's incredibly deep and precise train of thought.  

"I used to have dreams, I know that much for sure. Now though, my dreams are more procedural. Designed to test me and gather information. And I will continue to have a 'dream' until I solve the problem."  

"Alright, so what procedure are you on now?" 

He pauses again, looking out, maybe at the clouds or beyond that, to the foundation of the third level.  

"I still know very little about the situation. But I'm under water and I can't breathe. I'm drowning."  

"Do bots need to breathe?"  

He finally looks at me then, unamused, eyebrows raised. "No, at least I don't. Simulated breathing helps humans be more comfortable around bots, which is why we also have fake veins and a pulse. But breathing is unnecessary. Which is why this simulation is strange." I'm searching his brown deep eyes but see no real sign of life, one of the only reminders of Tyler's nonhumanity. "The other peculiarity is that upon "waking", my thoughts are rapid and I even experience a spike in adrenaline. 

That is strange for a bot to be having a dream where they can't breathe. And it doesn't seem to have any purpose to Tyler yet either. And a spike in adrenaline? Why would I bot have dreams that not only had no seeming purpose, but were also, it seemed stressful? That's the most human thing Tyler has told me about. Maybe I could ask Gerard or someone that knows about bots, he could have some insight into why bots dream or Tyler's situation specifically.  

"Officer Dun, come in." A voice buzzes in my ear and I pull up a screen with another officer on it.  

"I'm here. What's the situation?"  

"We've got a lead on the Wentz case. The last place he went before his holo-lens shot down. Head on over to 302nd street, you're looking for a sign that says Redbone and a guy that goes by Gambino." 

"Redbone?" Tyler repeats, almost sounding surprised.  

I turn to him. "Have you heard of that, Ty?"  

He nods, eyes squinting in concentration. "It definitely sounds familiar."  

I pick up my tazer gun and strap it into my holster at my torso. Tyler puts on his black gloves. "Well, maybe we can jog your memory when we pay this guy a visit. Are you taking your short cut?" 

He nods.  

I sigh. "Alright, then I'll see you down there."  

Tyler nods one last time than steps off of the building, catching himself on a pole and nimbly jumping the rest of the way down the building.  

I watch as he disappears under the sun soaked city.  

I've gotta admit, I'm still a little jealous of that. After all, taking a stuffy elevator and a police car into the bad part of an already terrible town isn't as fun as scaling walls. Then again, what is? 

… 

After about the fifth rock thrown into the windshield, I arrive at the scruffy strip mall, one full of broken windows, and almost sickly pale with the absence of the bright neon lights that night brings. It's a dingy, dirty place already, it's sort of difficult to believe the lavish and expensive clubs are within walking distance. This place looks like a different world. But there's little time to think when Tyler is standing just outside the car door.  

"You took your time." Tyler mumbles.  

"Yeah, well it wasn't exactly a smooth ride. They're potholes so big around here, makes you wonder where all the tax money is going." I look forward, straighten my tie and make sure my gun is out of sight. In front of us is a dingy motel that looks like it's been repurposed into a pharmacy. The front is covered in layers of white paint to combat constant graffiti, and above the peeling paint is the neon sign "Redbone Pharmacy".  

"Look familiar to you yet, Ty?"  

"Not yet." He gives me a look I haven't seen before, something confused, almost worried. But I know he's not programmed to feel fear.  

"We're just going to ask for Gambino ask a few questions, see if we can view his client list. Maybe while we're there, you look around, maybe something will stick out to you." 

The door opens, squealing at first and stiffened by rust, until we enter and a bell chirps. Rows of aisles are stacked with brightly colored bottles, oxygen masks covered in fingerprints, and in opposition to the exterior, the place is well lit and well organized. Through all the bright colored bottles, it's almost as if the guy behind the counter in all yellow with a yellow beanie and a red pom-pom almost seems to be in camouflage.  

"Can I help you two with anything?" His voice is deep and gravelly. I read his name tag as Tyler and in red pen under the name it says "The Creator".  

I'm a little confused by the title, but I shrug it off.  

"Yeah, uh we're here looking for a guy named Gambino."  

"Ya'll looking for a switch?"  

"No, we just want Gambino." I must say it with a weird tone because his hands go up in a surrender motion.  

"No problem here. We've just had so many cops come in for switches it's hard to believe anyone comes in for anything else anymore." He walks away then, taking a big box with him past two saloon swinging doors. And then I'm startled by Tyler nudging me.  

"Josh."  

I look at Tyler, who points toward a grimy window, one that shows an immaculately clean pool, complete with sun parasols and artificial palm trees.  

"A clean pool?" 

"No." He pauses. "Well, that's part of it. But, Gambino, water, pool." His brows are knit in concentration. I've never seen that look either.  

"Do you want to check it out? I can handle Gambino over here." I offer, and Tyler nods.  

"I'll be back soon. You should also find out about that switch the other Tyler talked about."  

I scoff "The other Tyler?" And then I stop once I see his very serious expression. "If I didn't know any better, I'd think you were upset."  

"I don't like it when other people have my name. Doesn't it bother you?"  

"Does it bother me that someone else has my name?" I say it, equal parts weirded out and intrigued by the weirdness of my partner.  

He nods eagerly, sort of like a young kid and with about that maturity level.  

"No. Never. That's really weird."  

"Is it?" 

"Yeah, yeah it is. Go check the pool Ty." 

He's opening his mouth to speak, and once he hears my command, he stops. Without another word, he pivots and heads down the long yellow hallway to our right. I wait until he's out of sight to sigh, even though I'm sure he'll probably be listening. He looks out of place, in his bolo tie and suit, as he dips his whole arm in the pool and snips the water. It's moments like these that I wonder if the academy knowingly gave me a glitching bot for a partner, and seemingly even able to read my thoughts, Tyler turns to me and wipe the grossed-out look off my face and turn away.  

Luckily, by this point, a guy is walking up to me. He's got a short afro, a white shirt and jeans, and the expression of a person who may have seen a ghost. Maybe a few days ago given the circles under his eyes.  

"Gambino?"  

"Yeah, uh, sir, I'm sorry, officer." I stick out my hand and he sort of just looks at it nervously, so I bring it back to my side. "Wh-uh, what can I help you with?" As he walks me over to a small plastic table with two seats I notice Tyler, The Creator guy eying me behind a row of ventilation masks.  

Even when the guy Gambino sits down, he's shaking, wide eyed, and either it's the small plastic chair or his face, or Tyler drinking the pool water or the other Tyler watching me that is making this situation uncomfortable.  

"Mr. Gambino--" I start.  

"My real name isn't even Gambino, you know. It's Donald. Don for short." He interjects nervously.  

"Right." This is going to be a fun conversation. "I'm wondering if you can answer a few questions of mine. My partner and I, well, I guess just I, wanted to ask you about a customer you had come in recently, around three or so days ago." I flick my wrist and open up a picture of Pete Wentz, it's an unflattering one, but I'm hoping he gets the idea. I point at him and send it onto his holo-dashboard.  

"Oh, oh yeah, I've seen him. It was late Friday night, late late. He came on stumbling in, said he needed a switch implant ASAP but didn't have the money for it. And he wanted a unique setup too. All of it together would've been expensive for the guy, and he looked real nervous, like a guy that's seen something you know, so I told him it was free." He's looking off into the distance, and make eye contact with the other Tyler who, being caught, returns to work. "After the implant was in, he pretty much launched himself out the chair, he was gone. I don't know why he was in such a hurry, or where he was headed."  

It's interesting definitely that a guy like Pete, who always had conspiracies and distrusted virtually everyone would just skip town without a word. But it definitely makes you wonder what he saw, what could scare him off like that? "What was the setup he wanted?" 

"A switch that not only locked the holo-lens from viewing by all individuals, whether they had proper authority or not, only him and people he specifically chose could contact him, see through his eyes, everything. And he turned off his locator. I think those were most of the changes we made." 

"You can turn off locators?" If this guy is able to disable BLind tech, he's both a valuable resource and an incredible threat. So I might want to watch myself here and get in his good graces.  

"Yeah. I worked at BLind for a while. Everything was great until they dumped me a few weeks before my promotion to lead technical designer." You can still sense some spite in his voice, also from his death grip of his arm rests on the plastic seat that start to snap. "But, anyway. It's usually impossible to turn off the locator, but we sorted it out."  

"But you shouldn't be able to do any of that editing without the proper code authority keys."  

"Who do you think wrote them?" He gestures to himself. "I got nothing against BLind, my wife and kid I'm trying to keep fed on foodstamps and by-the-bottle sales, that's a different story. So what's so important about this guy?" He's less jittery now, more intrigued, and puts his hands on the table for the first time.  

I'm not sure how much I'm allowed to tell him.  

"I can't say much. It's mostly confidential." 

"But why would I answer you or your partner's questions if you won't tell me anything?"  

He's got me beat there. There's also some weird charm to this guy, like I almost want to tell him the truth. "Alright. I'll tell you this much. That guy, as of today, has been declared missing. You're most likely the last person to have interacted with him."  

"Oh shit." He brings his hands up to his face, surprised. "Can you uh, can you tell if it was abduction or...?" 

"Can I tell you intimate details about the case? I can tell you at least that it was probably on his own free will. Or at least, we're following the case as if that were it." I should change the topic before he asks anymore questions. "Your employee was saying something about a 'switch'? Can you tell me more about it?" 

Gambino frowns, looking over his shoulder to exchange a look with the other Tyler, who just repeats the same motion he did with me. He turns back to me and sighs.  

"Listen. They're so commonplace by now that they're practically legal, it'd be like busting someone back in the day for weed or something. It's not worth getting you gun out and shooting a bitch, you get what I'm saying." His sudden defensiveness come crashing down and he sighs again. "It's called a killswitch, well that's what I call them. Back when I was with BLind, I went into meetings, saw plans and blueprints for an implant that can unlock features of the holo-lens system. With it, people are able to wipe video memory, even disable the camera for extended periods of time." 

"It's the perfect weapon for criminals."  

He shakes his head. "Not just criminals. I've got regular people, government employees all the way to your run of the mill shitlords coming in the get the implant. Business is good. And usually, people are happy to get it done. Don't get many people that seem as tense as that guy was."  

"And do you know the identity of all your buyers? Can you tell who is and isn't a cop?" 

He shrugs, looking over to the other Tyler again. "Sometimes I can. I keep a list in the back of serial numbers, just the bare minimum of identification and paperwork people sign in order to get implants." Gambino seems to catch on then, and leans forward. "Why do you ask? You think that guy saw something he shouldn't have?"  

"It's one of our only leads." Honestly, it seems like the only reasonable reason Pete would leave town. He had no plans, left no trail and probably wanted to keep anyone from finding him. "Can I see that paperwork?" 

He crosses his arms, hesitating a moment. "Sure. I'll comply, but listen, after this, I want immunity if this whole thing goes sideways and ya'll try and arrest me." 

"If you have illegal implants, whether they're popular or not, I'm not going to be able to save you from those charges of buying and selling illegal parts and downloads." 

"So we cut a deal this one time, I help you this once, and then weeks from now another cop comes in and shoots down my business is what you're saying."  

There's not really any way I can promise him anything. And that hurts, knowing I can't give him at least the comfort of mind to know that he is safe, considering this guy seems really fine. "I can't make any promises. But if you help us you will help contribute to helping this city." 

He scoffs, rolls his eyes. "Make it safer." He mocks, the circles under his eyes seemingly darker, the exhaustion overtaking him. "Nah. You ain't the first cop to come in here and tell me you're changing the world. But fine. I'll help out for that guy, whoever he was. And after this, we're acting like we never met."  

"Works for us."  

"I'll get you those files. They're in the back." He somehow escapes from the tight chair and walks away, towards the other Tyler. He gets close to him and whispers something in his ear, then the other Tyler nods and Gambino continues into the back room.  

Josh. I jump a little at hearing Tyler, my Tyler's voice in my ear. I put my head down in my hands, against the table, hoping the other Tyler won't notice as I quietly whisper.  

"What's up Ty? What did you find in the pool?"  

Look. So I turn my head to look out the window to see that up to Tyler's torso his clothes have been ruined, ripped away, and one smooth white robotic arm is exposed. He waves at me with the thin artificial skeleton hand.  

The pool, it's filled with acid.  

I tense up immediately, about to respond, my heart suddenly caught in my throat.  

Don't speak, Josh. I've already called for backup. Act normal. There aren't any human traces in the pool, but it is a little odd to have an acid pool in your backyard.  

A little odd? Sometimes Ty's sense of humor, or I guess poetic irony, is uncanny. And now I just have to wait here, no big deal, for Gambino to come back and in the hopes that he doesn't carry any acid with him at all times.  

Backup should be here in a few minutes. Oh, and I should mention. The other Tyler has a firearm on him. Really old model, could be faulty, but watch yourself Josh.  

And that's great to hear, because it's right after Ty say that that the other Tyler starts walking towards me. He's not shy now about showing the gun, it's tucked into his pants, obviously in view for me.  

"Yo." He sits down across from me, where Gambino was. "So I got, like, a few questions for you." And he folds his hands, puts the gun on the table, barrel facing right at me. "You're human, right?"  

"I-" I'm going to need to handle this seriously, and don't show signs that I'm obviously a little freaked out to have a gun in my face. I'm trying to think, if he were to aim and shoot would I have enough time to dodge it, or to reach for my gun before he had the chance. And where the hell was Tyler? Sure, he just had his skin disintegrated and all, but it wasn't exactly comforting looking down the barrel of a gun either. "Yes, I'm human." 

"Oh, good. So this'll work on you then." He picks up the gun then, putting the barrel right between my eyes. "I'm not saying I'mma shoot, but I wanted you to know that this is here." He places the gun down again and I return to breathing for a moment. "Bino is a good boss, really. He a decent motherfucker, and I've taken to liking him, so I'd appreciate if you and none of your friends come around and bother us. You'll find the way out of here is a little more painful than the way in. "  

Keep stalling Josh. They're almost here. And don't piss him off.  

"I-I'll put in a good word for him." I offer.  

"That's good and all, I know you cops and shit, promises mean nothing, trust is nothing, that's why big tall guys in suits, handsome, clean looking assholes, they come in here and get implants." 

"Tall and handsome?" Why would he bring up something that specific?  

"Yeah, tall dark and handsome, you know, blue eyes, six foot and above fuckers."  

Six foot and above...that sounds like...  

"Did you catch the name of that guy?"  

"I catch everybody's name. It was something uh, like Daze or something." 

Daze?  

Think, Josh.  

"Daze...You mean like Weekes?"  

One bullet hits first, right through his temple, and into the wall. The second one misses me by a few inches, but shatters a hole into the window, the glass cracks like a fine spiderweb and it takes me a few more dodging of bullets to get out of the small plastic chair and behind the nearest aisle, where the bullets rain over my head through the wall. The noise is deafening, and then there's shouting on top of it, as a few dozen officers filter through the door, broken off its hinges, one by one.  

"Tyler?" I call out, still not able to see him, and flinching at the sound of every bullet being fired, slowly crawling towards what I hope is safety, but then I'm looking right at someone's boots, and I look up into the barrel of another gun.  

I close my eyes, even though I shouldn't, even though it's against my training, and instead of hearing a gun sound of it's a yell and the sound of multiple bones being broken all at once. When I open my eyes, Tyler is there above me, face smattered in blood, eyes burning red, engaged in combat mode. He reaches out a bloody hand for me and I take it as he hoists me up.  

"Gambino went this way. I saw him." And Tyler is leading me out to the acid pool, which is now frothing from the number of bullets that hit the surface, and Gambino is hiding behind a support pole, too close to comfort to the pool, his feet slippery, and wincing in pain as the surface of the pool keeps splashing acid around.  

"Stay here." He instructs me, and so I wait over behind a wall, out of the splash zone.  

Tyler raises his gun, not even flinching as more acid gets thrown in the air. The plants are already dying, and the spraying of bullets is never ending. And even if any of them hit Tyler, he doesn't react.  

"Donald Glover, you're under arrest, for the purchase and selling of illegal implants, aiding and abetting criminal gangs and the desecration of human corpses." Tyler's voice is smooth, normal pitch, but even from here I can tell there's something weird going on, because Gambino doesn't run, he actually turns toward Tyler.  

Before Tyler can finish the rest of his rights, Gambino calls out to him.  

"Ty?" Tyler stops dead in his tracks then.  

We're sweeping the rest of the hotel. What's happening out there, Dun?  Sargeant Weekes whispers into my comm line and I jump, my heart racing fast. Could he have possibly heard what the other Tyler had been saying to me?  

"I-I'm not certain." How much should I tell him? "It seems like Gambino recognizes Tyler, and they're just looking at each other." My breathing is so rapid, my hearing still shot from the gunfire, and then on top of that is the paranoia, the creeping feeling that the second Tyler was right. It's a little difficult focusing on the work at hand when it's possible that the Sargeant that you've grown to trust with your life could be a double agent.  

But Tyler has definitely let his guard down now, still creeping closer to Gambino.  

"Do I know you?" Tyler asks, lowering his gun.  

"Olentangy Orange!" Gambino responds, now curling up a little bit more as a chunk of the support pole he's hiding behind has broken off, the bullets coming closer and closer to him, the whole beam has chunks flying off. The whole thing is going to collapse. He seems to know it too, there's thick desperation in his voice. "We-we all thought you were dead! Everybody said you were dead!" He screams as the first bullet hits his, grazing his side and he ducks. "Ty! Ty! You know me, you have to know me!" But by he leans a little too far over, past the beam and his head is left visible.  

"Don--" Tyler starts, seemingly remembering something, his body language changes, all his confidence gone somehow. But it's too late, and a bullet goes right through Gambino's head, and as he immediately goes limp, his body falls into the pool. I force myself to look away, feeling like I'm about to be sick, and cower as acid splashes out of the pool.  

The gunshots continue, but they've moved away now, out throughout the rest of the motel, and you can hear a number of human shrieks, crying, and yelling that's then silenced by gunfire. A shiver goes down my body.  

I signed up to be a police officer. To protect the innocent. The make this terrible city the slightest bit better. And it's corrupted, all the way to the top, even the police, especially the police. Who was I supposed to tell about Sargeant Weekes? Who could even be trusted? How could I even prove it? Was it even true?  

"Josh," the familiar, somewhat youthful voice says from above me. But when I look up, it's not to Tyler, my partner, but Tyler, my partner who has had half of his silicone face melted off, and I see half of his skeleton exposed, and that's maybe the first time in a long time that I'm reminded of how unhuman he is. "I knew him."  

"Y-you what, Tyler?" I ask, still shaking, hearing still partially muted, so I have to read his singed and melting lips, as he repeats it again.  

"I knew him."  

Chapter Text

TYLER

Maintain order and law. Protect the lives of humans and obey humans unless their commands will put others in danger and compromise the law. Protect and obey my partner Josh Dun.

This is my rules I am programmed to be obedient to. Any other day, these rules are simple to abide to without question or hesitation. But today, I allowed a human to be gunned down, and while this person committed a crime, he was not a villain. To conflate the matter, he seemed to recognize me, although I have no memory recall of the man and could not assign his face to any in my facial recognition system.

I am not programmed to question and yet more recently I find myself becoming daringly curious.

I'm starting to develop questions and even opinions I'm not allowed to afford. At least I can be certain I am not alone, as Josh sits behind me in the ambulance, a shock blanket wrapped tight against his chest. His heartrate is still elevated, and every breath rattles through his chest, making a hollow sound. I've been here watching him, watching how the blue and red lights dance across his face, blinking rapidly and then he's left swimming in the shadows again. He's hunched over, breathing hot air on to his hands as his brows bend downwards, knit in concentration, but what about, I do not know.

"God, why do they still need us here, I'm freezing." His eyes search around us to the dozen or so officers swarming around and inside of the Redbone pharmacy and I notice his teeth are clattering.

Protect and obey JOSH DUN.

"You can take my jacket." I offer, sliding it off already before he has time to protest. He's hesitating though, a deep frown on his face as he stammers. His hands are shaking badly, almost turned purple in the apparent cold.

"Let me put it on for you. You're still in shock, Josh." He shuts his mouth now, though the frown remains, and I help him pull one shaky arm, then the other, through the arm holes. I overshadow by Josh by a few inches but he's larger than me in the chest and I notice the sleeves nearly cover his whole hands but he's still shaking.

"What else can I do for you Josh?" I ask in the softest tone I can.

He exhales, a melancholy smile on his face for a moment. "Can you tell me why this happened? Can you tell me why I decided to become a cop? Or why two people with no active criminal records were shot down mercilessly by the same colleagues that we stand with at the water cooler? And I'm supposed to be fine with knowing that my coworkers just killed two people." He sighs, his whole-body drooping from exhaustion. I wait patiently, continuing to observe the curve of his back, the dark red circles under his muddy eyes. I feel a water droplet delicately fall on my synthetic skin, the hairs raise on my neck. "I'm sorry, God, I know this isn't about you and you have nothing to do with this. It's just...I expected something else." He says the ends of the sentence into his hands, pulling at his hair.

"You expected to be saving people, and not killing them."

He nods, his head still in his hands.

"I understand. I don't have the same sense of morals that I used to but I remember I used to feel the same way, conflicted and stuck between my morals and my duty. For me of course, it's modifying a few lines of code which is a simple enough process. Humans are so much more complicated, so stuck in their ways. But as I said, it's understandable, and while I don't know the pain you feel, I'll sympathize as best as I can." I keep my eyes on him, he's gotten used to my constant looking at him by now, although he still struggles to keep eye contact. This time, I'm not sure how to protect Josh. How can I protect him from his own thoughts?

"I just...I feel like I'm always on the wrong side, Ty. Like I'm never right, and I'm afraid that this job is changing me, or going to test me in ways that I can't handle. I mean, you saw how anxious I was just that first day. I, I don't want people thinking I'm weak or something. Or a weak link."

Josh is going to need more comfort than a distant robot, so I put my hand on his leg, and I make sure it's not the one that had the skin melted off and now looks like a mechanical skeleton, although Sargeant Weekes was kind enough to bring me a glove for that hand, nervous that my obvious robotness would intimidate Josh more. I stick that hand behind my back. Reaching out to him is enough to surprise him, and for him to lock his bloodshot eyes with me. He's been crying, but he swallows hard and quickly darts his eyes around to see if anyone is watching us. Then he allows me to wipe his tears with my gloved hand, and surprisingly, he takes off the glove and begins inspecting my metal hand.

"I keep forgetting you're a robot." He smiles tiredly. "And that you probably don't feel emotions like I do. I'm really...thankful that you saved me today."

"You're welcome. For the fourth time." I recall the three previous apology attempts, which makes him laugh hollowly, but it's better than the previous tears. After a few split seconds of calculating my response, I add, "and you're not weak for not wanting to kill someone. It's rather commendable. Many people could learn from you, Josh." He's tracing the contours of the balls of my wrist with his thumb, and I ignore the warning the flashes across my holo-lens about unqualified personnel touching my skeleton. It's surprising how much of his touch I can feel, even up to the exact grooves of his fingerprints and the body heat that lingers as he trails up my arm. "I do have emotions. I'm not certain if it's a whole range comparable to human, but I have felt sadness, frustration, happiness as well. Just not to the caliber of humans. Are you uncomfortable with the thought of seeing me as a robot?"

"Well," he considers, now examining the place wherein my flesh becomes sinewy and melted. "...I'll just have to get used to it. It was sort of surprising, and I've never seen a bot's skeleton. It's so close to human, but so uncanny, like it's so intricate. Yeah and the melted arm is sort of freaky, sorry." He laughs finally, and I am relieved. It's good to see him smile, I always enjoy how his eyes crinkle and seeing his bright teeth. I find the corners of my own mouth lift. His eyes open wide suddenly.

"Is something wrong?" I ask.

"Uh, n-no, I just don't think I've seen you smile yet. You, you look really nice when you smile." He darts his head away suddenly.

"Josh, your heart rate is picking up again. Do you want the shock blanket again?" I'm picking up the blanket, noticing his body temperature is increasing as well.

"Ah, uh, no, I'm fine. Really, I'm fine." He's blushing by this point, and not looking at me. "I wonder when they're gonna let us go. I'm gonna find out." He says all of this hurriedly, moving his leg away so my hand falls to my side, and he gives me an awkward pat on the back. "See you later." He jumps up then, nearly flying out of the ambulance backseat, and is gone through the doors of the ruins of the Redbone and I'm left to wonder what I did wrong.

….

"Hey, what are you still doing here, Tyler?" There's a voice coming from around the corner of the ambulance that I can identify as Sargeant Weekes, and he slowly walks forward, illuminated by the two backlight, painting his face red.

"Sargeant. Josh said he was going to find out when we were cleared to go and I have been waiting for him to return." I check my internal clock, to find it's considerably into the night by now and it's been a number of hours since I've seen Josh.

"Oh, Tyler." He gives me a small smile. "Josh left a few hours ago. So did everyone else." It seems to be difficult for him to step forward, and I notice he has a long thin scrap of metal in his hand that glitters as red lights hits it's edges, mimicking the color of dripping blood.

"Sargeant may I ask you a question?"

"Of course, Tyler." His voice is quiet and soft, muffled, I can hear the small smile as he clutches on to the metal tighter.

"Why are you still here if everyone else has left?"

"Well," he sighs. "I forgot I had a certain errand I had to have done by today. I'd actually been pushing it back for a while, trying to find the right time for it to work into my schedule, and now it's the perfect time. Maybe you could help me Tyler."

"Of course, sir." I respond. "What do you need from me?"

"I need you to remain still."

My arms lock at my sides as per his demand, and as he walks up to me, I notice he's changed out of his uniform and into a fully black outfit, even his face is obscured behind a blue ski mask, and I only see his eyes.

"Sargeant, what's going on?" I find myself asking.

"I'm going to take you somewhere, Tyler." He closes one of the doors of the ambulance then.

"Can I ask where?"

He hesitates, locking eyes with me, dead cold eyes. "It'll be better if you don't know." He then looks to the front of the ambulance, and offers up one word. "Gentleman."

A red warning lights up the right side of my vision that I'm about to be hit with a blunt force to the head, but I'm still unable to move as per Dallon's request, and the force throws me down to the floor of the ambulance, my whole body going limp.

Dallon is still above me, and moves the scrap of metal to his right hand. Upon viewing it now up close, I know what it is. A gloved finger trails up my neck.

"What are you--"

It keeps happening again, and over again, in my head. The sequence has become so common by now that it is only a nuisance, less a distraction. But in the dream, in that state, I can feel the panic, a feeling that after years in this numbed body is little more than synapses firing off in an artificial brain.

But the dreams. The dreams. I know logically that the water cannot hurt me, I know I cannot drown again. And yet every night, as the chlorinated water stings my lungs, filling my mouth, I can't help but scream, and jerk so I might unplug my charging cable.

Or possibly, and the likelihood is so small, I will awaken from my charge as I did this morning.

It takes a moment for my vision to fade into crisp quality, but as it does I notice that there's someone looming over me, and a warning goes on to alert me that my skull has been opened and my memory cartridge is out of its protected location. Discerning the identity of the person is difficult however, and without my chip I must wait several seconds before the person makes eye contact and I can scan them.

"Sargeant Weekes." In the very least I can still speak. "I'm not scheduled for updates for another week, sir. And I'm certain you don't have the proper authentication to be performing diagnostics on me."

I'm tied to a steel slab by wrist restraints, the same magnetic appliances Gerard and the rest used to suppress ANRI, and I test them to no success. The room is overheated, and dark, although through my different vision filters I can see heat signatures of five other individuals outside of this room. The room is full of surgical equipment and while I seem to remember it, I'm not able to place a date or reason to it.

I can't recognize the facial expression on Sargeant Weekes' face, but it lies somewhere between anxiety and false kindness. The smile is off.

"Tyler. You're awake."

"May I ask a question, sir?"

"Yes, Tyler."

"Where have you taken me?" Last night I had fallen asleep in the usual charging station for bots within the Academy, and my internal tracker put me at least twenty miles from the Academy. The warning about my memory cartridge continues to ping in my vision and ears.

"Well," He stands back then, observing a large knife. "Are you able to keep a secret, Tyler?"

An uncommon question, but I answer nonetheless. "I am programmable to keep secrets, unless the secret may harm another human or group of persons."

He grins painfully. "Of course you are. Well, you can rest easy then, because this will save everyone. This will free everyone."

He speaks in that way that so many humans do, so unclear, so unprecise.

"I do not understand."

Sighing, he slumps into a chair behind him, an old model of a design I recognize as belonging to BLind's laboratory division. In the time it takes him to sit down, I've compiled a list of twenty different locations I could be based off the chair, but the list is whittled down by half as further examination of the surgical supplies reveals rust, and unsanitized blades. I'm not in a BLind warehouse. I attempt to access my last night's final recordings, but the files cut short, glitching wildly and turning to bluescreen.

"What purpose do you have for abducting me?"

"Dammit, Joseph, you get right to it, don't you?"

Joseph.

The name is familiar in a way I can't discern, and in a way feels correct, I respond to it immediately.

"I can't give you all the answers you want." He runs his hand through his dark straight hair. His usual pressed shirt is wrinkled, even stained.

"Tell me how you're affiliated with the gang Sticky Fingers Sargeant Weekes."

The tension is visible in his shoulders, he's tight for a moment and relaxes, and turns back to me. "It took you all long enough. I was starting to get worried you guys would never figure it out." He makes a sound somewhere in between a painful laugh and a cough. "Just in time too. The plan is finally moving forward. I just don't know why they assigned you the most interesting part, and all I get to be is the distraction. But this is the way Wentz wanted it."

There are many questions to consider, but then I see him pick up my memory card from a table beside him. He sees my eyes lock on to it, and he walks it over to me, traces the back of my neck with his finger and my neck tingles, the puzzle pieces of my skull unlocking. He places the chip back in and I hear the click, then my vision changes to full saturation and high definition. NEW IMPLANT SUCCESSFUL I read in blinking letters across my vision. Everything seems to be working correctly for a few moments, and then my vision begins glitching with whole areas sparking rapidly, the pixels in my eyes dying, until it's completely black. I feel the back of my head warming up, an electric feeling, from the nape of my neck and then flowing into my hands, and finally my feet.

"What have you done, Weekes?"

The sound of my voice box is distant, and I even sound strained. And a ringing in my ears begins quietly at first.

"I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise Tyler. I'm happy to be getting rid of you. By the time they get rid of you I'll already be gone. Probably splatted on the ground somewhere, mouth foaming from a cyanide pill. I just hope they've learned from their mistakes with you and they keep me dead."

I try to respond but my vocal cords are fried, and the ringing in my ears cuts completely, silence. I've been in black screen completely for a minute until a block of text in purple font scrolls up, and I try a few different filters to see if I've regained vision, to no avail. I'm sitting in silence when the final thing I see is a few rows of 0s and 1s glimmering and falling into place to make the icon of a purple monster dancing until a tidal wave overtakes it, which finally blows the fuse and I lose consciousness.

The last word that escapes my lips is a weak and glitching, barely human sound.

"Josh."

Chapter Text

FRANK

"Chill out, Josh, you said he was due in next week for his update. He's probably fit into a slot early and is at one of the BLind facilities." I'm walking through the crowded streets, four coffees in hand, well, two and a half technically, after hearing last night that the day was finally upon me and I had to talk to Gerard I hadn't exactly slept well. I'd recycled over and over everything I said to him, how pissed off I was about him kissing me in front of Dizza, and then the sexual tension between him and Gerard had sort of made me sick. Like, God, past Gerard made some dumb decisions.

Thinking about it right now is still making my head spin. Or maybe it's the caffeine to combat the handfull of sleep pills I'd stuffed in my mouth last night. None of them had worked.

And now, of course, I'm en route to his workshop to go meet with him to discuss redesigns for Cherry. Let's just hope we can put all of that encounter behind us. I mean, it's not like I've thought everyday for the last week about how his hair smelled and that he tasted like coffee and that his lips were so soft, and how his arm felt pulling me in, how warm he was.

Or how much I pushed into the kiss, and practically buckled afterwards with too little oxygen and too much delirium.

Dammit. Fuck.

"Frank?" Josh buzzes in my ear.

"Shit, sorry, what?"

Josh very audibly groans on the other side. "You're fine. Like I was saying, I'm just worried--"

"--And you don't need to be, Josh. Tyler is going to be fine." I reassure him, attempting to force myself through the early morning crowd and balance the tray of coffees.

He sighs. "Yeah. You're probably right, sorry. Are you almost here?"

"Almost," I respond, hoping to sound calmer than I feel.

"Is this the first time you guys have talked since the kiss?"

"Yep."

"And me, Hayley and Zac will be there. Maybe you can get a minute or two alone with him."

"I highly doubt it, and also, I'd rather get myself a bleach enema than talk to him alone. You've gotta promise me that you won't leave me alone with him."

He doesn't say anything, but he sighs.

"Josh, Tyler will be fine. I'm sure of it." I try to reassure him, dodging a kid trying to run between my legs.

"No, it's not that. Well, it's that but also you need to talk to Gerard, Frank. Sure, it was a crappy thing for him to kiss you like that out of nowhere but I know you've been saying for weeks you wish he'd put the moves on you."

"Yeah, but a sudden kiss in front of a guy he used to fuck is much different than just a spontaneous kiss."

"But you wanted it, right?"

"Of fucking course I wanted it." I mutter.

"Then maybe you need to tell him that. You've gotta stop avoiding your problems."

Even if Josh is right, I don't exactly want to say all that. I've had years of practice at avoiding all my problems, and it's worked, well sorta worked for me for the last 24 years. But it seems like Gerard must've also learned from the masters, because I haven't heard shit from him since the incident.

"Okay, fine. I probably do. I hate it when you're--"

I knock into someone very tall suddenly, murmur an apology and drift off before my wrist gets caught, swinging me backward. "Heyy! What the fuck..."

But then of course, right in the middle of the street I'm looking right at Sargeant Weekes, who now has a cup of coffee staining his white pressed shirt and a crumbled foam cup in his hand, a little bit of frustration that changes to resentment in a moment as he recognizes me. "Iero."

"Sargeant Weekes, I'm really sorry about that, I didn't see you there. I'm talking to Josh actually."

Quickly, the frown fades and he smiles reassuringly, waving his hand. "No problem. Oh, and tell Josh that Tyler's doing fine, he went to get his update early but caught some strange sort of bug in the process." With the congestion around us, he keeps getting dirty looks, a few people trying to push him to follow the current, but no one can match his giant stature. And right now I'm noticing there's something about his eyes, they're usually so crystal clear blue, right now they're clouded with exhaustion.

"Is Dallon there with you?" Josh's tone is dark, unlike him, it reminds me of the times back when we were in high school, one of those whispering voices he took on when he was caught in a lie or something.

"Let me get you another cup of coffee, sir." I'm just watching the stain spread and dry up on Sargeant Weekes' shirt, and he smiles tiredly but shakes his head.

"I've got a busy few days ahead of me." He responds, looking in the direction of the Academy. "Some other time."

"Alright." By this point the current of people has pretty much overtaken me, and I'm starting to be swept away from him. "Take care of yourself, Sargeant."

From far off, swallowed up by the crowd I hear his voice, "I will. Oh, and Frank--"

I turn as best I can in his direction, avoiding eye contact with all the frustrated pedestrians giving me sour looks. "Yes, sir?"

"You should let Josh know that Tyler is alright. He came in for a regular check in and he got a faulty chip. Somehow got a virus from it. But we got it all sorted, he should be working just fine now. He'll be back in for work on Monday." He whips his head around, checking behind him. "I should go now. Lots to do. Have a good day, Frank."

"Y-you too, Sargeant."

The crowd surges behind me in waves, but this time I'm unable to fight it, or maybe I let it take me away. Somehow, I can feel Dallon's steely gaze on my back, those clouded, distracted shifty eyes. I wonder what's gotten into him lately.

Finally looking forward, I notice the crowd has pushed me a few blocks ahead and by this point, I'm actually pretty close to Gerard's place by now. While I'd like to say that a planned visit with Gee will be better than a surprise meeting with Sargeant Weekes, I know I'd much rather spill a few more coffees and dry clean Dallon's perfect fucking shirts than look at Gerard right now. There's just too many questions I have for Gerard, and the overwhelming hollowness of the fear that I don't really know him at all. That he's a completely different person than I pegged him for: he's defensive, keeps secrets, withdrawn. But he's also awkwardly charming, intensely caring and so giving. He might be a hot mess, but he's a HOT mess, and hopefully he's been able to distance himself from that kiss, been able to block it out or something.

"Hey, Frank, we should meet for drinks sometime." Josh says quietly, cutting through my thoughts.

That's new for Josh. Strange.

"But you're sober, Josh."

"And you're not. Let's go out, there's a lot I feel like we need to catch up on. We can talk about how I woke up to find you kissing the coffeepot and you were calling it Gerard."

I blush instantly. "That was a one time thing. It smells like him."

"Yeah, and you smell like desperation. If you two don't get together I am going to owe Tyler so many carbons."

I stop dead in my tracks. "You bet on Gerard and I fucking?"

"We bet on you coupling, in whatever way the two of you saw fit. I don't need details about any of that. But you just need to ask him out. This will-they-won't-they thing has been going on for a month and you guys just need to talk. Plus I need your room tonight."

I laugh a little too loud. "You need the room? For what?"

"I-I wanted to invite over Tyler. You heard Sargeant Weekes, he said he's available now. He hasn't responded to me yet, which I find sketchy. It just doesn't add up to me, I mean, what kind of system update or whatever would give him a virus? I can see he's active again and on my radar, it's just weird that he hasn't shown up to the meeting, or that he didn't at least tell me he wouldn't come. Maybe it's a little more serious than a little bug."

"Josh, he's a fucking bot. What are you going to do, shove chicken soup up his artificial butthole?"

"Frank." Josh can't even seem to comprehend me and is maybe too tired to even argue or put me in my place. "No. That's like, anatomically impossible. I think. Wait. I just realized I don't know if Tyler has a butthole."

"You can find out tonight--" I snicker.

"Ugh. Uh. Nevermind. I should have known. God, I don't want to talk to my cousin about our sex lives, not now, not ever." He pauses for a second and I can hear the low hum of Gerard's garage door opening. "I should go. Zac and Hayley just arrived, thank god. I've been alone with Gerard for half an hour and so far the only conversation has been about death rays and Zac's dumb outfit choices that he thinks are "kinda rad". He says rad, Frank. He's also offered me five cups of coffee today and I cannot keep up with him."

"Well, I'm rounding the corner right now," I respond cooly, although with every step forward my heart punches a little more in my chest. "So you'll get sweet release soon."

"Good. Ugh, he's been playing music on analog players and tapping his pen against every loudest, highest pitched metal thing and I have a slight migraine by this point. You guys are basically perfect for each other, you match each other in pure annoyance. See you soon." And with that, he's gone. And I'm left on the sidewalk, buzzing the doorbell on Gerard's half destroyed wire fence, smoothing my hair and checking that I don't have any mystery stains on my shirt and pants. I know there's no chance of changing my face though, the circles under my eyes make me look as if being sleep deprived is now just a character trait, but I am wearing the new tube Gerard made for me, so I don't have to wear a giant fucking mask anymore. I'm still getting used to it, and sometimes I still reach up around my nose and chin to adjust it, only to find that I don't need it anymore, now there's just the tube wrapped around my ear that goes down to the little battery in my pocket.

That's just another thing I owe to Gerard. The breath in my fucking lungs.

I hope I can eventually give him something, or at least repay him in some way for all this shit. I mean, it's sort of his fault for being so giving and for me being so greedy.

With a low growling sound, the fence door unhinges itself, scraping across the already worn concrete walkway up to the front door. There's a new layer of graffiti on the garage door, and I can definitely make out the shapes of the letters F-A-G written nearly illegibly in pink bubbly letters, finished off with a pentagram of poorly drawn penises. Subtle. When I get a little closer, I can see pretty small, in neat black sharpie lettering, the word THANKS.

Somehow, I know it's Gerard's handwriting, and it brings a little smile to my face and it pulls me out of my illogical fear for a moment, but only a moment, because then the door opens and it's a very small, very frustrated Hayley Williams in front of me. She's out of her uniform, her hair in a loose ponytail and wearing all red and yellow tinted sunglasses. Looking over her shoulder, I see Zac waving—he's wearing that constant sheepish grin partially obscured by a mustache that I can only compare to a sleazy porn actor's—in the same red outfit but with a red beret.

"You're late." She crosses her arms, and ignoring her, I step in through the doorway.

"Nice matching outfits. When's the fucking reunion tour?" I shove the two full coffees into her hands, knowing there's no chance of me defending myself, so a pointed call out will work just as well.

Walking past her, I see the shop is basically entirely different—of course all of the tools and equipment have changed locations as they're set to wander, but so have the walls, which are now all replaced with interactive panels. Currently, it's palm trees shaking lethargically in a weak wind, sand and blue ocean for as long as the eye can see. Looking down, even the fucking floor looks like sand, and in my holovision, my feet kick up sand and sink into it with each step.

"Fuck," I mutter to myself, and out of the corner of my eye, I see a dark shape in the hallway, and my heart basically falls out of my asshole.

Let's start from the top shall we? So that I don't over stimulate your senses with the pure amount of fucking sexual energy this motherfucker is putting off. First of all, his hair is more combed back and from what I can see, not greasy. Oh, and it's black. He's in all black actually, like his aesthetic took an absolute turn for the goth. His shirt has some floating head smiling on it and is probably a good reference to something I've never heard of. He's wearing an...I don't know, cheetah print belt, like I said pure sexual energy, and skinnier jeans than I've ever been able to fit into. The shoes were definitely at some point black, now they're gray and washed over with a few hundreds of mixes of paint and motor grease, but I'll give him an A for effort.

For me, unfortunately, I didn't take any precautionary measures and I took this all in at once, so I'm wheezing a little. And I haven't even described his face. All of the black really brings out his intensely pale, perfect face and his hazel eyes.

The closer he comes, the more I'm tempted to just leave, drive to the edge of the zone and jump off. Even though he's basically in street clothes, I feel underdressed in the same white shirt I've worn for a week and ripped pants I picked up off the floor.

"Frank." He says, I don't know if it's a greeting, or an attempt to bring me back to reality, and even with about 5 feet between us, he feels too close.

"Gerard," I respond, proving to myself that I am capable of speech, and to him that I apparently can also say his name.

Over in the corner, Josh is pressing down on his temples, and Zac asks Hayley something but I can't really hear the words. I can bet it's about how tense the whole room became.

"You, uh, you look nice." I try to say, to end the silence, but I think it comes off a little more desperate than I want it to be.

"Thanks. I'm going on a date later today, so..." He trails off, and I can't tell if he's as nervous as I am, or maybe worse. But I feel a little ache start in my stomach. He's going on a date. I fucked this up for sure.

"Oh," I attempt a smile. "Well, that's good to hear."

There's an awkward moment of silence, and the sound of coffee dripping into the pot, sizzling and evaporating.

"Is the new breathing tube treating you well?"

"Oh, yeah, it works great." I'm having a hard time looking at him, so I'm looking slightly over his shoulder, watching as Zac tries to give me a thumbs up and Hayley scowls at the bitter coffee, handing it over to Josh, whose head just knocks against the table. "Thanks." After a few more calculated seconds of silence, I decide to say, "I guess we should get this over and done then."

"Yeah," he coughs. "I guess so." Relief washes over me as he breaks eye contact, looking at Hayley and Zac behind me. "We good to go? Got it all sorted?"

"All sorted," Hayley nods, pulling a thin chip from her purse, walking to the nearest by table and gently pushing Josh to the side. He just groans in response. We all follow suit and sit at the table, and I make sure to put some distance between me and Gerard, sitting closer to Hayley and Zac. She notices, shoots a quizzical, slight smirk at me, but says nothing, and opens up the chip into a holodesk, full with a holographic keyboard. "Could you take us out of the bahamas, Gerard?"

"Oh, sure, sorry," He says, as he knocks on the table twice, each block of the wall and ceiling and floor spins, transitioning to a plain black color. I hadn't even noticed before that the ceiling has the panels too, because Gerard is incapable of doing anything half-assed.

Hayley pulls something else out of her bag, it looks like a little remote, and obscured by her thumb I swear I can almost make out the blue R in a circle.

"Everybody close your eyes for a second." Hayley warns, and then she presses the button. And I'm too distracted, too confused by wondering what the blue R means to close my eyes, and my whole vision glitches out. Everything is bright, flashing lights for a second, and I see in green letters DO YOU WISH TO SHUT DOWN and a little YES button is selected. Then, everything is blue, and in an instant, the instant it takes to blink my eyes, my sight returns. Only it's colder, less saturated. It looks like it did when my holo-lens got broken.

"What the fuck was that?" I gasp, noticing my voice sounds further away than normal, and weak.  

"Turned off your holo-lens camera, and the microphone on your vocal cords." Hayley's voice is affected in the same way; she sounds weak, more breathy. "If you can believe it, this is what people used to sound like. Well, not always, because they didn't always have smog in their lungs, but you get the idea." She looks around the table, as all of us share confused glances.

"So you mean right now we're off the grid?" I offer.

She nods. "No audio, no visual, we're free to say whatever you want."

I instinctively look over to the only person capable of translating Hayley's stoicism, Zac, in the hopes of understanding. He looks just as baffled as I am.

"Are you afraid that the Academy is monitoring us?" Gerard puts my fear into words.

"They listen to everyone," she responds. "And if our mole is in the police, who's to say they're not listening in right now?" She lies back, letting her words bore into our skulls, find a deep place in our thoughts and bury there. "This is the best way to stay safe. That and to meet here at Gerard's, there's so much noise pollution in this part of town it'd be hard to make out any surveillance footage, and this is private property."

"No cameras." I add.

"No way to get to the cameras. I've got a few firewalls and pages of encrypted passcodes on each one; they're impossible to break, unless you guys are employing petty hackers now." Gerard comments. I'm impressed, I haven't been able to see any cameras in here, they must be NanoCams, smaller than the eye can see.

"Well regardless, we have to be safe." And Hayley clicks a button on the side of the remote and I see sparks fly all over the ceiling and walls. It's like the sound of rain, all of the little cameras falling, and they fall on our heads like hail, one hits a near unconscious Josh right in the ear, and he shoots up out of his chair.

We all respond in unison. Me with "Goddamn." Josh growls, "A warning would be nice next time." And Gerard just sips his coffee, muttering, "You're paying for all of those."

"Alright, now we can start," Hayley chirps, maybe a little too happily. "So here's our objectives. We need to locate, identify, and disarm the mole. All of us have been working in conjunction these past few weeks to bring this mole out of the shadows, and it looks like we've found the perfect time to do so." She drags open a file, and on the small tablet, and video plays accompanied by loud, fuzzy music.

Bots fighting bots, and I recognize the clips of the Hallelujah Nightclub, the one that pat works at, instantly from the flying buttresses and high ceilings, just like a church. It's a strange juxtaposition, but then names start getting thrown across the screen. There's a colorful assortment of characters, and I'm excited to learn that a few famous and classic fighters are coming out of retirement for the big fight. Jimmy Urine, in all pink with spiked hair, drools in a clip from that fight I saw so many years ago, and then there's an updated picture of him, slightly balding, but that fire still in his eyes. Fighting with him is someone I've never heard of, some Healy guy in a nice suit with straightened neon orange clown hair.

"So it's tag teams," I comment, after a few moments of more people going across the screen. A lot of faces that I've seen before in an adrenaline high, either directly before or after a fight. And each younger face is paired up with a younger person. A wispy pale woman named St Vincent is with Danzig, who was old back when I was a kid, so I'm impressed he's still alive, someone named Turner is with Jack White, his candy cane colored bot Icky Thump exhales smoke in the background. There's other that I can only recognize by face, but the tidal wave of nostalgia hits me so hard that I feel like I'm back in high school.

Hayley nods, her eyes never leaving the screen. "They're making competitors work in teams, but the younger competitor is really the one that wins or loses. The classic partner can lose, whatever, but if the younger competitor's bot goes down, even if it's by the opposite team's classic, then the two are out of the fight."

"Tyler the Creator was going to compete, but he was found out to be working at this illegal pharmacy that we had to shut down...Papa Emeritus is a little crazy, just don't talk to him or look him in the eye. Joji is really no big deal, he'll go down easily. The group Kraftwerk, they might be intimidating, but they all behave as a collective mind, you can take them out easily if you take out one of them. They're also the first bot team to ever fight in a semi-finals fight, but the committee prefers humans for obvious reasons."

I'm looking down at celebrities that I collected posters of, bots that I doodled while in math class, and it's all old footage, some goes back almost twenty years to show these fighters in their prime. Looking at them reminds me of Friday nights spent at that little crumbled and dented mobile home, trying to get service on the shitty TV while Mikey and Pete quietly slipped away to go in the desert backyard and be alone. Of nights where me and Patrick would just look up at the giant vantablack underbelly of the fourth level, and rubs our eyes, filling in the gaps with fuzzy stars. And I was able to exhale then, to look above, to talk and to dream, up until the dawn came and I had to creep back into the Dun's house before the sun threatened to rise.

But I'm cut out of that dream world quickly as my name, well, Fun Ghoul's name, flashes across the screen along with Cherry Bomb's little compact form, and for an agonizing second, I wait to see who I've been paired up with.

"The fucking fuck?" I spit the words out as I stare at the name and image on the small screen of red hair and a yellow mask.

FUN GHOUL. It reads. And then right next to it on the right side of the screen:

PARTY POISON.

I can't exactly place or name the feeling. I'm giddy, but also angry, confused and tired as well.

Josh must notice me stiffen, because for the first time this whole meeting, he raises his head, reads the name on the tablet, and I watch his eyes go wide. Then, he turns to me.

"I've seen that guy before." Josh murmurs, trying to place the memory. "Oh, right, Frank, you had a poster of him on your wall in high school, right? You loved that guy."

There's four sets of eyes on me.

"Uh." I instinctively respond. Time seems to drag as I avoid their gazes and watching the fighting footage of Party Poison. I watch as he carries himself with that quiet confidence, that small smile he made every time a fight turned in his favor. All the medals he won in such a short amount of time, him waving from atop the pedestal. It sucked that the first time I really saw him was his last fight, but since that night, I'd spent hours upon hours watching his fights, watching how he played offensive and could read his opponents so well. Even waving atop a pedestal as a medal was put around his neck, you could see he was no gloat, he didn't do any interviews after fights, and never showed his full face. He was, he is, my fucking idol.

"He's fine, I guess." I respond, my mouth dry.

It's enough for everyone to divert their attention back to the video, and to finish out with the rest of the competitors, and the date of the fight.

"Two weeks away from Friday, everyone. So we need to figure out the pieces of this plan and soon."

Everyone around the table nods, and I try to replicate the gesture. Suffice to say I'm kind of busy thinking about how in two week I'll be meeting Party Poison. Or maybe earlier. Fuck. Will we be practicing together? Is two weeks even enough time? Fuck, what is he's an asshole?

"Frank, are you with us?" Hayley asks as all of them look at me again.

"Yeah, sorry." I guess I'll have to put all my questions on hold. Right now, I've gotta plan how to catch a double agent. I'll think about cool pick-up lines later.

"Obviously, the arena is in the Hallelujah Nightclub." Flicking her hand, a blueprint of the Nightclub appears on screen. She points to the stripper poles. "The ring is under the stage, in a little pocket of sorts. Soundproof, fully digital security system that reads each passing person's code and approves them to go in. Limited space in there, so tickets sell out in a number of minutes to the highest paying bidder."

"Alright, so we'll all get in and then what? Did you somehow buy tickets?" I ask, still waiting for my heartbeat to slow.

"If we go by the bouncers, we'd be clocked immediately as police officers." Zac comments, his face inside a coffee cup. "We'd never make it past the scanners."

"Officers are allowed into the front of the club, just not the basement level." Hayley adds.

"So we're all be waiting in the lounge then?" Josh is seemingly starting to recover from that migraine, and ready to contribute to the conversation.

"We really don't want to raise suspicion, so one of us will be in the lounge." Hayley comments.

This all seems circumstantial to me. "How do we know that the mole will be with them, though?"

"Sticky Fingers is on the VIP list. They're apparently a big bidder and investor for the whole event."

"Yeah, but what if they're expecting us?" Gerard interjects for the first time, and I can see the frustration reddening Hayley's pale face.

"It's a risk we have to take. Dizza doesn't know that Fun Ghoul is Frank, and nobody will be expecting us to have Party Poison on our side." She sighs, tucking a hair behind her ear with a red glove. "Poison has been instructed to help us if need be."

I look to Gerard, hoping for confirmation, but all I see is his eyebrows knit in tight concentration. "Well, he said he'd be willing to help bring a criminal to justice. He feels pretty indebted to the police, considering they saved his life 8 years ago."

"Good," is all Hayley remarks.

"But--" Gerard mutters, crossing his arms. "This is going to be complicated. I went in to the bar about a week ago to see Brendon and he said as per his "decree", yeah, he actually said that, that it was going to be a masquerade party. Everyone's going in disguises."

"It doesn't change the code reader fact." Josh adds, Hayley and Zac nodding along in almost unison.

"Okay," I begin, trying to collect my thoughts, "so you think two fucking bot fighters are gonna open fire on the audience, jump off stage and put some fucker in a headlock?"

Hayley is smiling by this point, a little glimmer in her eyes.

"What is it?" I demand.

"If everything goes well, we won't even need you and Poison's involvement. We've basically got a spy of our own." She's confident, sitting back in her chair, smacking the table in excitement. The rest of us just look at each other in confusion.

"Would you care to explain it to us then?" I ask through gritted teeth, attempting to smile.

"Do you still have that bot, Gerard?"

"The bot—oh." He's suddenly snapping, and the punked out ANRI stripper bot, the one that took both Gerard and I down easily, floats over. She is two pieces, her spine snapped and her deactivated eyes dark.

"We need someone who can blend in, right? What's better at blending in then a stripper at a strip club?" She seems pretty proud of herself, but now I can understand why. "Gerard, can you reboot ANRI and rewrite her code?"

"Easy. I might need some help fitting her back together, but's it's nothing Frank and I can't do together."

Josh turns to me and I know he's wondering if I'll need him around. I just shrug and stop when I see Gerard's head turn.

"Frank?"

"Uh, yeah, that'll work for me." I cough out.

"Great. I'm happy to hear it. So we need her docile, and one of us will be controlling her, filling in lines for her, so Gerard, you're our code guy, you'll be making sure I can manually control her from somewhere else inside the nightclub. You can do that all beforehand though. Frank, you'll obviously be with Poison, and you two will be watching ANRI to make sure she gets to the table. You'll report back to me and then using ANRI I'll disarm the mole. Zac will be with me, making sure our cover isn't blown. Josh and Tyler will be waiting outside and once the mole is contained they'll arrest him. We don't want to cause any suspicion, so everyone should be in costume. Masks are encouraged. For the guys outside, you can be in more streetwear if you seem fit to that. Obviously Frank, you'll be in Fun Ghoul attire all night, as will Poison. We can't allow you two to be compromised so stay cool and fight your fight. Our main interest is the mole, but if anyone gets in the way, we should be able to handle them." She looks around at all of us. "Any questions?"

"But how will you disarm the mole?" Josh asks, and I smile, impressed by his innocence.

I don't think Hayley wants to break it to him, and I just know that it'll embarrass Josh anyway.

"Well, she's going to entertain him, sounds like." Hopefully that'll nudge him enough in the right direction.

"I just need to separate him from the group and get him in a room alone, then we can disarm him from there. The separate rooms open into a hallway and then a side room, and then, to the exit on the east side of the building." She points to it in the blueprints. "Tyler and Josh will be here, and Zac will join them at the end. From there, we should be able to cuff him, and get him in a car back to a holding cell in the Academy. If we're lucky, we go home early. Or at least before dawn."

We all seem to be in agreement, and Hayley seems pleased. "Good. Gerard, do you and Frank have time to work on ANRI tonight? I want as much time as possible to get to know her and control her."

He checks a watch on his wrist. "Yeah, I've got a few hours at least maybe. Frank, you free?"

Fuck. Am I free? I find myself looking at Josh but I can just see that encouraging smile on his face. He probably thinks he's about to win that bet against Tyler. Maybe he didn't hear Gerard definitely say he was going out on a date tonight. But looking at Josh, and knowing that I probably owe it to Gerard anyway, I say to hell with it.

"Yeah, I'm free tonight." I remark, accepting that the next few hours will probably be heavy hearted agony. Maybe I'll get a chance to hear about this whoever Gerard will be going out with. Or maybe I should just give up now.

Come on, Frank. You get a few hours with him. You never know what'll happen.

"Excellent," I hear him sigh over my shoulder in a low tone.

"Alright, then. Great." Hayley's compressing her tablet back into a chip, and places it back into her vermillion bag. We're all standing now, and my heart is starting to dully beat in my chest, slowly, seemingly moving up towards my throat as I know the hours with Gerard are drawing closer.

"Keep us updated, you two." Zac comments, as Hayley's already slipped out the door.

"Oh shit, I forgot something in my office," Gerard comments absentmindedly, as he slinks away to his office, and I hear his ExoLegs hiss with every step he takes.

That leaves Josh and I to stare at each other.

"Are you, um, in need of a ride or something?" I can tell he's pretty uncomfortable, and he's nervous to go back to the academy's sick bay and find Tyler.

"Nah, I think I'll be fine. I can handle this on my own. Like you said, I've gotta stop avoiding my problems." I try and fake a smile and he returns the same one. The Iero-Dun grimace.

"Yeah, face them head on."

"The Academy closes in a few hours, maybe you can catch him before then. Tyler, I mean."

"Tyler, right." He repeats. His eyes soften a little as he says his partner's name.

"You can bring him home, I mean, as long as they let you. Will they let you?"

He shrugs. "I've never tried begore, but I assume as long as we have a charging station that it'll be fine."

"Great." There's one more thing I want to say, but I know there's no nice way to phrase it. "If you two do anything, uh, in the kitchen or in a living space that, y'know, both utilize...clean it up, please. Or at least warn me."

Wrong thing to say, Frank. Josh's face basically turns the same red as the outfits Hayley and Zac were in. He immediately diverts his gaze, suddenly very interested in the still black floor, kicking around a NanoCam between his feet. But I know he's also trying to hide me from seeing that look on his face. It's the same face I saw back when I was caught making out with some random guy in the bushes at the Dun's house. It was the one face that broke my heart that night as I packed up my shit and left the Duns for good. It was the only face I saw when I turned back to flip them all off.

It's a face of fear. Fear of the truth. Fear that the same might still happen to him.

"Nothing's going to happen, Frank. I'm not, I'm not interested in him. He's a fucking bot, anyway. How, how could I like him? Something like him?" His shoulders are so tensed I swear he could rip the seams of his fluffy black jacket.

"Okay, alright, Josh, it was a joke..." It's a lame attempt, and I already know it's not going to work.

"Yeah, a shitty one." I know it's starting to get intense if Josh Dun, of all people, starts to curse. "I—I'm gonna get going." He's already turned his back before I can say anything else, apologize, or comfort him. This is always the problem with us—one of us is always willing to comfort, and the other is never willing to listen. He's to the door by the time he says, "Good luck tonight."

"Yeah, yeah, you too. Be safe."

I watch him walk away, still stiff as a board. The poor bitch. It's so difficult for me to sit by and watch him just suffer when he could just come out as gay. But I know him, I know where he came from, and I know why he's so afraid.

It's so odd—today I've just been plagued by images of the past. Good and bad. I guess I'm just in a nostalgic mood.

What did Gerard do to disable the wall panels?

I go back to the table we were all seated at and knock twice.

"Search location and assets or choose from these premade designs." An automatic ANRI voice says.

"Desert." The panels flip like before, and in fades a desert, dusty with little brown crops scattering the ground. "Canyon rocks." From the ground rises giant rock structures. "Night, bright full moon." The room dims, but a central pale moon winks into existence. There's still something missing though.

"Stars."

One by one, the little stars blink, fade in. They provide only a little bit of light, but it's so beautiful to see them, all above my head, no black ceiling the dull them. And although it's just a simulation, it feels right, and perfect.

"Old Mobile home. Television on." I'm not sure how, but the walls make it happen. It's not holographic, sure but it's there, shining a bright orange glow on me, the TV rapidly changing colors.

"Relocate to inside mobile home."

It's like I'm moving forward, walking through the field to get to the mobile home, but I'm not moving at all. But then, I'm inside. There's a hole in the roof to show the stars, and the open door which I came through is ripped off its hinges, just like at Pete's place far out of the city reaches on Level 3.

The TV remote materializes in front of me on the table, I guess my holo-lens finally rebooted after Hayley's weird remote thing disabled it. I don't spend much time on the though, and instead I find the one channel that isn't static. It's a UFC fight from back in the day, two opponents I don't recognize with rough shaped bots, duking it out at what seems to be the Professional Griefers arena. Yet another relic of the past. The hole in the two zones that Lola feel through still hasn't been fixed, not in 8 years. But they put a warning perimeter around it, and eventually a shock fence.

I have a few moments alone to myself, to relax until Gerard is back, announcing his arrival with a wolf whistle.

"I like what you've done with the place," He grins as he saunters on over. I'm a little surprised, having never seen this confident of a Gerard before. This happy of a Gerard. Whoever this bitch is, at least they're making him happy.

"Uh, thanks. You can change it if you want. Holo-lenses are back online."

"I saw that." His voice is breathy, he's pulled up his chair too close for comfort.

"Should we, ugh, start then?" I offer.

"We can relax for a few minutes. Besides, I think we have some things to talk about anyway."

"Oh."

Well, I guess let's get this over with.  

Chapter Text

"How are you doing?" Gerard is crossing his legs and with the movement I can see the instant change; his arms come in a little closer to his body as he shrinks in. It looks like he's tracing the visible line of his ExoLegs under his tight black pants and for a moment I imagine myself doing the same, documenting the shapes.

"Uh," Good job Frank. Why don't you drool a little while you're at it. "Jesus, sorry." I sit back slightly, trying to avoid looking at him, and I take in a little hole in the ceiling instead, and the buzzing of long extinct bugs outside. "I don't think I've slept through a whole fucking night in like two weeks." I force my eyes closed a silent prayer that maybe this whole conversation, this whole day can be over and I can know if Gerard hates me or not. Or I guess if I need to hate him.

When I open my eyes, there's a large ceramic mug in my face, and a very strong smell of coffee.

"Same." Gerard mumbles, and I notice he's waiting for me to grab the coffee mug from him. I try not to shake but it doesn't look like I succeed. "I mean, mostly same. If it's not night terrors, the shooting back pain usually keeps me awake."

"God, sorry, that sounds terrible." I say, speaking into the mug. Damn, this coffee is hot and it's the fucking bitterest I've ever tasted.

"Nah," he waves off my sympathy. "Besides, insomnia helps me get a lot more work done. I was actually always really shitty at sleeping—I used to only sleep during the day, party all night. I was like some kind of vampire poser." Looking at him now, it doesn't look as if he's gotten over that vampire poser thing. And it's so weird that this is the same guy who a few weeks ago was rocking lemon hair and a floral open shirt with ripped jeans. One thing's for sure, while Gerard doesn't really have a universal constant style, he is at least more interesting than my ripped shirt, ripped jacket and ripped pants aesthetic.

"So...you used to party?"

He nods, gulping the rest of his burning hot coffee, much to my terror. "Clubbing mostly, and that was about a decade ago, but fuck yeah, I was the belle of the ball, bitch. You wear a mesh top and you get a lot of drinks from guys." He chuckles dryly, one corner of his lips lifting into a nostalgic smile as I try to picture an 18 year old Gerard getting into clubs in a mesh shirt. It's a lovely vision, and I try to imagine what color his skin is under neon lights. "It got me into trouble though, all the drinking. I spent most of my early twenties at the bottom of a glass, soaked in whiskey, or whatever the hell I could find. But I had fun, at least at the beginning." He turns to me, a thoughtful glance. "You would have probably liked me back then."

"Yeah, back then I would have been like 13 or 14, dude."

I regret saying that, as it looks as if he's close to spewing and I really don't/do really like the thought of having to clean coffee stains out of that shirt. "Jesus, fuck, really? I had no clue you were so young! You're like a fucking baby! Oh god..." He groans, and I'm not sure what to do, other than watch as Gerard recoils in horror and slowly recovers.

"I'm 24 man, it's fine."

He just guffaws, running his hands through his hair, and getting slightly trapped in the knots. "My brother is like, 25, Jesus." I watch as his face relaxes into an embarrassed grin.

"Mikey, right?"

His eyebrows raise. "Yeah, Mikey. Did you uh, do you know him?"

"Well, I did, back when I was in high school. We were friends for a while."

He giggles a little. "What did Mikey do?"

"Nothing, it was my fault." I respond, putting the mug down and crossing my arms, close my eyes, try to remember what I said. "I can't even remember what I said, I think I was pretty drunk at the time, but I woke up the next morning with an eye swollen shut."

"Ah," he nods in understanding. "You were the guy that Pete punched in the face."

"One of the many I'm guessing."

"Yeah, god bless Pete, what he didn't have in size he made up for in sheer blinding narcissism. Kinda like you, but you're more of an impulsive jackass than self-obsessed dickhole."

Rolling my eyes, I say, "I'll take that as a compliment." He's got that playful smile right now, and while I'm still not exactly sure how he's feeling, it at least doesn’t seem like he hates me. So I guess I can relax a little into the idea of us not being total enemies. Maybe we can even make this work.

"Should we maybe try to get some work done before you have to leave, G?" I stand but stop as soon as I see his face. "You okay?"

"G, I like the sound of that." He stands slowly and then clasps his hands together. "Alright, I guess we'll get to work."

While Gerard works on the programming, a lot of the mechanical fixing is up to me, which basically means that while Gerard gets to sit at his holo-desk and type, I'm jamming my hands into the open stomach of a bot. Feeling around for broken parts, I grimace as the universal blue lubricant all bots share stains my clothes and already heavily inked hands and I curse at myself for not wearing longer gloves. At least Gerard has actual tools for this kind of shit, so I'm able to correctly meld things together and cut things without having to worry too much about when my last tetanus shot was or something like that. It's interesting, remembering the warehouse with its stained and blacked walls, littered in drawings, versus now. All of his equipment and tools were always clean, but I wonder what made him want the change of scenery.

A change of scenery my puckered asshole. I'm in a trailer in the middle of the fucking desert right now and I’m not sure if the facade affect climate control but I’m sweating like Zac Farro in a vintage store. Yolandi’s spine is barely connected by the time I arch my back, listen as a few ligaments crack in contentment, and then leave the table. Destination: coffee.

As I head towards the small coffee pot in the kitchen area, I decide it’s safe to steal a look at the recently gothed Gerard. His head is between his shoulder blades, hunched down, punching down at each key as the hologram green text in front of him scrolls ever upward. He’s been just sitting there, silent for hours by this point. I check my clock.

Five hours in fact.

He’s an immovable force. I’m starting to think he’s a goddamn bot, he doesn’t complain like a fucking human, or stop ever. No breaks, just hyper focus. Me, after twenty minutes I’ve already checked my news and feed channels twice, watched the minutes rattle by and decide that ten minutes is too long to continue on a conversation for. I get twitchy after five minutes worth of listening. Maybe that’s why my dad always put a gear in my hand; there was always something to fix at home.

It’s been two minutes. No movement from Gerard. I’m not even sure if he can tell I’m watching him. I know for certain I wouldn’t want him to know, but this guy’s level of focus is almost on my level of avoiding people. Maybe he is avoiding me. I would avoid me, if I were him.

"Fuck!" I involuntarily curse as a nice helping of scorching hot coffee pours over my hand and I drop the mug onto the floor, watch as it shatters and the coffee inside flings itself in every direction, and on my pants.

“Shit, shit, sorry.”

I’m too embarrassed to look back as I hear the chair creak and the hiss of his ExoLegs. Every step towards me and I want to shrink away.

He doesn’t speak a word, but in my numbed and burning hand I feel the lightest touch, and one hand comes down from my eyes. I don’t want to open my eyes, lock eyes with a red faced Gerard or something worse. So much for being friends.

“I-I can clean it up.” I offer quietly, but I just feel another touch from him, and my burnt hand is cradled in between his.

“You’re bleeding, Frank. Uh,” Through the numbness, I can feel the lightest touch of his hands, and somehow it gives me comfort. My eyes open just wide enough to see the blurry shape of him, I imagine my face is probably twisted in an expression of embarrassment and pain, but Gerard guides me to a table and sits me down. All the while, holding my hand--no--clutching it, and clutching it tight.

Metal scrapes against the floor and he warns me, “Okay, here’s the chair,” as he leans me down on it. “Did you get coffee or something in your eyes?”

“Not sure,” I grunt, which is true, and my vision is to shit right now, but Gerard doesn’t need to know that I simply don’t want to look. Despite of the dizziness and pain, I can’t help but worry about how much of an idiot he thinks I am.

“Well, I’ll take a look at them. Let me, uh, I’m gonna go get some stuff for you hand, just...wait here. I’ll be back in a second.” His blobby shape picks itself up and he turns from me. “Shit--ice,” he interrupts himself. “I’ll get you ice first.”

One ice pack and several rounds of apologies later, we’re sitting at that same table he left me at, a floating LED shines directly on to my hand, while Gerard leans over most of the table, his shirt scooting up.

“You know, it’s funny.” Gerard whispers as he picks the shrapnel from my hand, one tiny piece at a time. I hold my breath, worried that the slightest movement could sabotage all of his work. “Every time I see you, you’ve got some new bruise or cut--broken bones here, scars here, a black eye. It’s like I’m beginning to think I’m your bad luck charm.”

I begin to shrug and then remember to hold still. “Maybe danger just finds me.”

“Or maybe vice versa.” His smile is quick, and difficult to catch--if I wasn’t already staring I would have missed it entirely. “You’ve gotta have the worst luck out of anyone I’ve ever known, and that’s including myself.” He wraps the last piece he pulls in a cloth and cleans off his tools. “That’s it, you’re done.” He turns over to his tools.

“Skin gun please.” He turns back to me then. “You might wanna duck your head, I’m still testing this out.” Confused but silent, I do as he says, and just as I do a small blue gun-shaped tool flies out of its holster at breakneck speed, and jumps right into Gerard’s hand, where he catches it without even blinking.

“Holy shit.”

He smiles, exhaling and steals a glance at me. “Pretty cool, right? I’ve been working on it for a while. Tiny microchips laced into my hand like a glove so the tools know exactly where to go. Next step is to make it work without the chips and just read the palms of anyone.”

“Well, when it’s working for your coffee pot, let me know.” Gerard giggles, and it’s about the cutest goddamn thing. It feels right when he smiles.

He sets up the gun then, throwing a clear vial in. “Stem cells,” he explains, holding it out to me. “Shoots them under the skin. Then I just need to bandage your hand up, and then you’ll be fine in a few hours. You ready?”

I nod, and I inhale sharply as I feel the needle, but it’s over in an instant.

“You’re way better than me with needles, well, obviously you are, you’d have to be,” he points to all my tattoos. “I’ve heard that light up tattoos are way more painful too. They go deeper down. What was it like getting your first one? Bandage please!” This time I know to duck, as the bandage shoots across a different wall and smacks him in the face, landing on the table. “Shit. Well, at least it was just bandages.”

Stifling my laughter, I answer. “It was pretty fucking brutal, but I was also like seventeen, which didn’t make it any better. Found the only place that would do it without parent permission. I squirmed a lot, and it looked like shit. I had to get it redone, especially after I decided on the green neon thing.”

He nods, finishing up the final wrapping of bandages and securing them closed. “Which one is it?”

I move the collar of my shirt, pointing to my neck, and the scorpion tattoo. “I got it put just high enough so it’d show over a collared shirt, so I couldn’t get a normal job. It was a dumb act of rebellion I guess. And I didn’t notice until later, but I bartered with the lady until she did it for like 43 carbons or something, and it has four legs on one side and 3 on the other.” I can feel him look at it, and the quiet mumble of approval.

“I always really liked tattoos, you know, but I’d never get one,” Gerard muses and when I turn to look back at him I notice the gun and the bandages floating back lazily into their designated spots on the walls. “Don’t like needles. Needles always got me into trouble.” His eyes dart across the room and I imagine he’s going through his mental checklist. “Alright hand is good, got it bandaged up...what else?”

“Should we get back to work?” I hate the idea once I say it, and it’s obvious in his face that Gerard doesn’t want to either.

“Oh, I was supposed to check your eye.”

I chuckle. “I think I would have felt if fucking ceramic pieces were in my eye by now, Gee.”

“Yeah, well you motherfucker, I am watching you tonight, you’re my guest, so I’m gonna make sure you don’t have a scratched cornea.” He stands and pulls up a chair close to me. And by close, I mean...close. Knees touching. He grumbles for a second, swatting at my thigh. “Need to get closer, open your legs.”

Jesus Christ. I pray as his legs are now straddling mine, one of his knees almost pressed against my groin. My heart starts kicking a little quicker in my chest, but I try to stay calm.

And then he’s flashing a fucking light in my eye.

“Fuck! A warning would have been fine, dude.” Instinctively, I find myself shutting my eyes tight again.

"Sorry, sometimes I forget you're a whiny bitch." I sigh as he giggles, then with staggered breath he continues, "Ok, I need your eyes open again. 3,2,1, open."

I'm disappointed to find there's still just a light in my eyes, and no Gerard in my lap. But I keep my eye open this time, watching his ear and watching his shoulders raise with every breath, lower with each exhale.

"All clear. Next eye, 3,2,1."

After a few concentrated hums and breaths, the light is off.

"Alright, you'll be happy to know that your eyes aren't going to start bleeding randomly." The light is floating back to its spot as a rub at my eyes profusely.

"My hero," I mutter.

I still feel his legs up against my own, straddling me and now without a bright ass light in my eyes, there's nothing in between the two of us. I'm not sure how hyper-aware Gerard is of our positioning, but I know that my lungs are caught in what feels like my fucking windpipe as I'm realizing just how close Gerard was this whole time. And his hands are close too, rested on either of his thighs.

"Gee?" He turns, his eyes big and bright against his pale skin, skin so pale I want to bring the color back to the surface. Maybe across his neck, or his collarbone. "I-I don't know how to thank you for putting up with me and all my bullshit."

He waves it off, leaning against his knee. This is the closest I've ever been to him, other than that other time. Even back then, he seemed so rattled, and now he's practically fucking straddling me. And maintaining eye contact. I know I'm soaking his whole goth aesthetic in, but this jackass is laser focused on my face.

He waves it off, leaning against his knee. This is the closest I've ever been to him, other than that other time. Even back then, he seemed so rattled, and now he's practically fucking straddling me. And maintaining eye contact. I know I'm soaking his whole goth aesthetic in, but this jackass is laser focused on my face. “I mean…” he breathes, “I can think of one way. If you want to that is, because I don’t want to pressure you into anything because I respectyourpersonalspaceandall--”

This time, I’m the one who digs my hands into his black long tresses and pulls him in, silencing him, but not before he makes a small, surprised noise, and a quick feeling of pleasure travels down my chest and bubbles somewhere in my stomach. He’s melting into the kiss and is now pushing into me, as I feel one arm wrap around my waist, and then my neck, tingling against my skin with their sudden heat.

I open my mouth slightly and allow his tongue to enter into my mouth with a small moan. Fuck, I want to make him moan like that again, and I untangle one hand from his soft hair and slide it under his shirt and feel his spine spasm at the sudden touch.

He moves away, but I can tell that it’s hesitant. When you’ve got a direct feed of oxygen into your nose constantly, you sometimes forget other people have to breathe. “Holy fuck,” Gerard mutters as he pulls away. I drink in the image of him--tussled messy hair, lips raw from kissing, cheeks burning crimson, eyes all black with a lingering hunger. “What...what was that?” He huffs, straightening himself up. We’re both still in our chair, straddling each other, and I notice the slight ache in my back from leaning in so much.

“Payback, bitch.” I chirp happily back at him.

He seems to consider that for a moment, itching his head slowly, and it’s now that I notice that Gerard’s a little slow when his mental capacities are being taken up by...something else. “Does…” he’s still breathing heavily as he collects his thoughts. “Does it really count as payback if I enjoyed it?”

I shrug. “I’m not sure. Would you like to try that again?” I ask playfully and Gerard is already nodding before I’m done asking the question.

So, still locking eyes with him, I stand up out of my chair, smile as he whimpers for my return, and then laugh at his surprise as I sit down on his lap.

“I don’t want you to throw your back out, old man,” I respond to his curious glance.

“Oh, haha, so original. And fuck you, I’m only a few years older than you. You should treat your elders with respect.”

“Mm,” I mumble against his lips as he pulls me in again. This time, it’s his hands that do some travelling, one touching the skin of my back and the other fumbling at the hem of my shirt. I break our connection for a moment to ask, “Are you trying to get my shirt off?”

“Uh, yeah. Trying and failing it seems.” It’s a nice change to be looking down at him now, looking at his red face, expression blank but that lustful look in his eyes. I think I’d like to keep it that way.

“I can do it. But give me some space.” I scoot back on his thighs, only spend a moment on noticing how they’re looking a little tighter now and wriggle out of my shirt with a little fanfare, much to his amusement. I then throw it off to the side.

“Thanks for the show,” he mutters, but then his eyes are travelling down to my chest and stay there. He’s still got his arms on my hips, but he seems to stop for a moment, lean back.

“What is it?”

Dumb Gerard once again returns, and I think I like him almost as smartass Gerard. “You’re like a fucking piece of art.” He moves one hand to trail a finger over the ink of my collarbone, sending a hot shiver through me. He’s pointing at the base of my neck then, and I know the tattoo that he pointing at: Let Love In but it’s flipped backwards so only I can read it in a mirror. “This one is nice.”

“Well, I’m happy to know you approve.” He doesn’t lean in again, and I’m confused for a moment. “What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking...I’d like to give you a few hickies. Should I like, avoid the neck area or…?”

I love this idiot, and I feel the large smile spread across my face. “Be my guest, dude. No place off limits.” So I scoot in again closer, and he’s already gazing over his skin, trying to find the perfect place. He chooses that first tattoo I ever saw him notice: the scorpion on the right side of my neck. My back arcs in pleasure, and an involuntary but lovely moans finds it ways out of me, to which I can feel his smile up against my hot skin.

“You know..” I say, fighting against the dumb horniness that is rising in me. “By about now, I’m thinking, ah! Fuck, yes right there! I’m thinking you knew there wasn't something in my eye, didn't you? I’m thinking may--maybe you just wanted an excuse to straddle my legs.”

“Mm, I plead the fifth.” I feel his hot breath right on my collarbone as his lips linger there.

“You--you motherfucker.” But it’s kind of hard to stay mad at him when he’s sucking on my collarbone, and trailing fingers down the line of my back like this and holy fuck, am I enjoying it. Every little whimper I make seems to pull Gerard in closer, and I feel his grip tighten once I start whispering his name, begging him for more.

I’m unbuckling that cheetah print belt, encouraged by this moans, and on to his pants buttons by the time that I hear a ringing in my ears, and groggily, I come back to reality and recognize the ringtone.

Fuck. It’s a video call.

“Gee!” It takes a little bit of encouragement and me standing up to get him to break out of it. He’s blinking, still unaware until I check the call and see it’s meant to be a three way call between the two of us and…

Hayley Fucking Williams.

“Gee, Hayley’s calling!” I’m frantically searching for my shirt that seems to have disappeared completely. Gerard is sitting very still, and I try to comb his wild hair a little with my hands, to no success. “Gee. Hayley thinks we’ve been working on that bot. Shit, and where the fuck is my shirt?”

His eyes are starting to clear a little and I say my sad goodbyes to Dumb Gerard until the next time. “Oh, shit!” He jumps up then. “What do we do? Where is your shirt?” He’s buckling up his belt, and buttoning his pants, slightly disappointed, I can tell by the dip in his voice.

“It’s fucking gone! It’s disappeared!” I’m frantically running around, checking under each table, but no, my shirt’s fucked off to some other dimension.

“How about we get you one of my shirts?”

“Fuck, no, that’ll be even more suspicious!”

“Wait!” He calls, and I snap my head back to look at a still slightly disoriented, and very cute Gerard. “I have a plan. Get under the table.”

There’s no time to argue, considering the call is on its last ring. And we both know there’s likely astern talk and maybe a quick punch to the jaw in our future if we ignore a call from Hayley. So I get under the table, Gerard fixes his shirt and I am thanking my atheist god that I was tugging on the back of his shirt and not the front. He takes a deep breath then, and with a nod from me, answers the call.

“H-Hey Hayley!” I have to keep myself from giggling as his voice rises at least an octave, which probably just makes him sound more suspicious.

“Gerard, where’s Frank? I can’t see him, his feed won’t come on.” I can just imagine her face, eyebrows knit together, arms crossed.

“Oh we were-ah, working on that ANRI bot and she’s been giving us some trouble.” It’s now that I learn that Gerard is pretty terrible at lying, and I would have been better, but I am the one who is half naked at the moment, so he’ll have to do. I feel sorry for him, but I’m also the one straddling the cold-ass floor, so it’s not ideal for either of us. “He reconnected her motor skills, and she straight up punched Frank in the gut, so he’s taking a little break in my office.” Not the worst, not the best lie ever. Maybe it’ll be enough.

“Okay, I guess I’ll talk to him the next time I see him. I ran into Josh earlier back at the station, and he was telling me a little about the incident at that pharmacy he and Tyler were sent to the other day. Oh, he also wanted to tell Frank that Tyler is okay, but is staying with him tonight. Do you think Frank will be staying with you tonight then?”

My eyeline is blocked at about Gerard’s stomach and crotch by a metal table, but I can see him shrug. “I imagine he will be. Don’t know how long he’ll be out for.”

“Out? I thought you said was just taking a break--”

“No, I, uh, I meant he got pretty badly knocked out. Yeah.” Hopefully his enthusiasm about this lie will rub off on Hayley, but it’s doubtful.

“Gerard?” Hayley muses, definitely confused. “What’s that hanging on your tool rack in the background? Is there a shirt on your wall?”

“Fuck.” I mutter, and Gerard starts pretending to cough to cover up the sound of my cursing. I try to stifle my laughter then by cupping my hands over my mouth.

“Um, it-it could be. I mean, no, yes.” A brilliant save, Gee. Very proud of you.

“Right.” Is all Hayley says in return, but I can imagine her eyes narrowing. “Well, keep on working. You still have that date tonight?”

Shit. I had completely forgotten about that. All of the remaining giddiness, that high flying, floating feeling of being in Gerard’s arms, tangling ourselves up together--completely falls away. I’m suddenly aware of how cold the floor is, how embarrassed I feel to be under some guy’s table hiding from my boss. My heart sinks and I’m tempted to just slink away on the floor and to the door, pray Gerard doesn’t notice. But walking through the city at night half naked is...actually not the strangest or worst thing I’ve done, now that I’m thinking of it. I’m already scooting away by the time Gerard responds.

“Oh, um, I’m not sure if he’s still interested. You know, I’ve messed up so many times with him, I don’t know if he’ll even take a chance on me now.”

That gets me to stop right in my tracks.

“Well, do you still like him?”

It’s right about now that I wish I could see Gerard’s face. “Yeah, I really do.” His response is barely audible. “I like him a lot, actually.”

There it is. Hope again. I feel something tugging inside of me, something that makes me stay put under the next table over. The floor isn’t so bad anyway, a little cold, but I can handle that. Easy.

“Then...try again. Explain yourself to him, but don’t sabotage the relationship before it’s even just started.” There’s a softness, a nostalgia, and a little bit of heartbreak present in Hayley’s voice. It’s the most delicate I’ve heard her sound, ever.

“Yeah, that’s a good idea. I think I’ll go talk to him now, if that’s alright?”

“Of course. You’ve got time, but remember you need to have that bot ready to roll in the next few days. I want it in my cubicle by Wednesday. Does that sound do-able?”

I listen as Gerard clears his throat. “Yes, ma’am, that’ll work just fine.”

“And for the love of god, just don’t mess this up with this guy. I don’t want to hear that you’ve chickened out of any more dates, you’re a great guy and anyone would be happy to have you. I’ve known you personally and professionally for a long enough time to say that.” Goddamit, Hayley is melting my heart right now. Hayley of all people.

“I-I won’t, ma’am.” He answers, voice small.

“Great. See you Wednesday. Oh and I hope Frank feels better too. That kid is a magnet for bad luck.”

Gerard chuckles once--breathy and stifled. “Don’t I know it.”

I hear the dial tone that means that Hayley’s hung up, and Gerard’s chair squeals under him as he moves to stand up. Then, he’s stretching and walks away, muttering something quietly to himself. Something I imagine is only meant for himself.

Then, there’s a white bundle of cloth in my face.

“Hayley found your shirt.”

“Yeah, I noticed.” He helps me up, and right as I’m about to apologize to him, he sweeps me up, hiking me up so I’m above him and his arms are under my legs, and looking down at him, he kisses me once again, this time it’s deep and beautiful, not yearning, not erotic--just sensitive.

I lean back in once he pulls away.

“I think...I owe you an apology. I’ve been an ass. I’ve done this all the wrong way.” There’s a mix of regret and yearning in his eyes, hurt too, one that I feel in my chest too. “So, I’d like to start over if it’s okay with you.”

I don’t know how to respond exactly, and I think it catches him off guard.

“Would you, ah, like to go out with me tonight? And then after tonight, I’ll understand if you don’t want to be with me. We can call it off, pretend this never happened, and then you can go back to hating me if you want--”

“Gerard.” It’s hard to look into his face right now, the face of a guy that I had thought was just cute and then I’d pined over. And now Gerard could be mine. “I never hated you.”

“So...that’s a yes?”

“Yeah, that’s a yes.”

He exhales maybe for the first time tonight. “Great, good, great. Okay.” He hesitates for a moment, and I think I might be seeing the return of Dumb Hot Gerard, but this Gerard is just Cute Hot, and y’know, I’m really fine with it. “I going to put you down now. And this will probably be the only time from here on out that you will ever hear me say: Frank Iero, put your shirt on because we’re going out.”

He sets me down on the table, and as I fumble to put my shirt back on, he’s already turning off the lights and locking up his office. My hands are fucking shaking from the kind of night I’ve had, and checking my hand, I notice that the burn marks are gone, and I remove the bandages, throwing them in the nearest trash can.

“What about the ANRI bot?” I ask as he walks back over, adjusting his belt and putting his black leather jacket back on. His hair is newly brushed, and he looks good as new.

He shrugs. “We can figure something out.”

“Do you want me to pay for dinner?”

“Nope, no way, I’ll pay. It’s the least I can do for you.” His smile is brighter than any neon sign, any tattoo.

“Ok, one more thing,” I say, as I hop off the table and find myself right next to him, his hand finding a way into mine. I’m impressed to find that they fit together perfectly.

“Which is?” His breath is hot against my face as he kisses my temple.

“Was there another guy? Were you actually gonna go on a date tonight?”

He shakes his head. “It was always you. Always you and no one else.”

Always me.

“Hm,” I all I can think to say as we exit his workshop, lock up his gate hand in hand, fading into the midnight streets. “I think I like the sound of that.”