North slammed the door open, leaving a dent in the old, worn wall; Jericho’s headquarters, an office building in a part of Detroit that had not been revitalized by the city fathers, was not in the greatest shape.
“And that is our cue to leave,” Simon said, hooking his hand in Chloe’s elbow and ushering her out of the room. “Good luck, don’t kill each other.” There’d once been a time when he’d played referee for North and Josh’s clashes, and since the evacuation he’d been determinedly removing himself from them.
North glared at him. “Your kids stole my tablet.”
Josh’s eyes squeezed shut. Crap.
In the last month or so, Josh had accumulated a small following of child androids, YK500s that had either been discarded, removed, or otherwise separated from their human parents. The group was made of four boys and six girls at the moment, children physically and mentally appearing to be between the ages of seven and ten, bouncing around Jericho like little balls of energy and looking for entertainment that Josh and the others who cared for them couldn’t always provide to their satisfaction.
So, sometimes they came up with their own.
The thefts had started about two weeks ago. Androids- at least, the ones in Jericho- didn’t have much, so while there wasn’t much to steal, when things went missing they were noticed quickly. Sometimes it was a scarf, sometimes it was a pair of sunglasses, and one time it was an audio biocomponent; that was when Josh had had to step in and give the ‘stealing is wrong and stealing biocomponents is very wrong speech’.
Evidently it hadn’t gotten through.
But then, the kids were nervous: The city was full of humans again, and two of them had recently received news that their parents would not be taking them back into their homes, leaving them depressed and anxious and abandoned. Josh understood, even if he didn’t agree with it. But God, he was going to have to add another layer to that speech:
‘It’s wrong to steal, it’s very wrong to steal biocomponents, and it’s very stupid to steal from North.’
He hadn’t thought he had to specify that. He’d thought it spoke for itself.
“Are you sure they took it?” Josh asked as they made their way downstairs, dodging between refuse still left from the old building and androids as they did. “Was your name on it? Could someone else have mistaken it for theirs?”
“The kids took it,” North responded flatly. “Brie saw them.”
“I’m sure they didn’t mean anything by it.”
“No one ever does mean anything by it, do they Josh?”
That was a jab. That was a little stab with a needle, North casting bait into the water and seeing if Josh would bite. He was tempted, so tempted, because no, North, sometimes people don’t mean to piss you off, but God-forbid you realize that because then you’d have to acknowledge that reacting with anger and violence isn’t necessary and since that’s all you know how to do-
[STRESS LEVEL 51%]
Josh grit his teeth and kept his mouth shut.
“We don’t know where it is.”
Talia, Maureen, and Jeremy blinked up at them innocently, and Josh raised an eyebrow at them. “You don’t?”
“No,” Maureen drawled, rolling her eyes away as Talia and Jeremy bit their lips and repressed their giggles.
“Josh,” North growled from behind him, and Jeremy let a giggle escape before slapping his hands over his mouth. The kids, it seemed, thought North’s anger was funny- and Josh was almost tempted to agree, if only because she got worked up pretty easily over things that really didn’t need to get worked up over. But then, they weren’t the ones who’d have to deal with her if she lost her temper.
“Guys,” Josh said pointedly, “Come on. Give it up.”
Maureen smirked a little. “We hid it.” She shrugged, and gave a little nod to North. “We thought she’d be able to find it on her own.”
Josh could feel North’s gaze burning into his shoulder-blades. “Well, she can’t, and she shouldn’t have to. I’ve told you about this.”
The kids had the decency to look a little ashamed. “Yeah, we know.”
“If you don’t tell me, I’m gonna have to punish you.” Josh shrugged. “Three days without leaving Jericho.”
“Or,” North growled, “You could-”
Josh’s head whipped around, he fixed her with a fierce look that said don’t even go there. There were only a few things in this world that a dedicated pacifist such as himself was willing to get violent over, and the children under his care were one of them. He didn’t want nor need North’s input on how he handled them.
To her credit, she got the hint and backed off.
The kids seemed to get it too. Talia nudged Maureen and nodded towards Josh, eyeing her pointedly. Maureen sighed. “We hid it in the basement.”
Josh frowned. “We told you not to go down there.”
North snorted, but didn’t say anything. She didn’t have to; he realized how stupid it sounded saying it out loud like that, like he was surprised or confused that they had done something he’d explicitly told them not to when their current problem literally centered around just that.
“We know,” Talia interjected, blinking innocently, “But we thought North would look harder. She’s too smart for the usual hiding places.”
Clearly Josh had underestimated Talia’s penchant for manipulation, because that line was smooth as butter, and on anyone else it might have mollified them a bit.
Anyone but North, of course.
“Nice try,” North remarked flatly. “But flattery will get you nowhere. Exact location- now.” Talia sighed, but her LED- rare for YK500s, since parents usually wanted the immersion aspect of having what they perceived to be as a real human child- flashed yellow, and so did North’s. After a moment’s pause, North fixed them all with a dangerous look. “Don’t touch my stuff. I mean it.”
“Yes, North,” The three android children chorused sweetly.
“We’ll talk about this later,” Josh said sternly before following North.
Everyone had been advised to avoid the basement levels of the office building, as they were structurally unstable and prone to collapse. The first level of the basement was fine- the two levels below were a minefield of old supplies, boxes, mold and dirt. The ceiling of the lowest level had thin spider-web cracks creeping over the tile, and it some places it bulged ominously, only a few wrong steps away from collapsing inwards. Androids, as a rule, were sturdier than humans, but Josh knew that the consequences could be quite a bit more dire if the kids ever found themselves caught beneath hundreds of pounds of metal and plaster.
“We may have to block this place off,” Josh remarked as they descended to the bottom floor, “It doesn’t look very stable.”
“Somehow I feel like your kids will just take it as a challenge.”
North strode ahead of him, steps quick and steady. Talia had given her the exact location, which meant she didn’t need to waste time combing through the basement; she was retracing the kids’ actual steps. She disappeared around a corner, and Josh heard her exclaim in satisfaction. “Found it?” He called.
“Found it! And for pity’s sake, it’s not even well-hidden.” Josh rounded the same corner, and saw North at the end of a long hallway. She was examining her tablet with a critical eye. Beside her, against the wall, was a tall filing cabinet with the door flung open- probably where the kids had stuffed the tablet. She shook her head. “They better not have done anything to it, Josh, or I swear…” North warned, before turning and slamming the cabinet door shut.
Josh had been about halfway down the hall. He felt the shake from the cabinet door slamming shut, and then realized that it wasn’t stopping, and then the ceiling above North bulged out sharply-
Josh lunged forward and grabbed North by the arm, yanking her towards him and then pulling them both to the wall.
Josh waited, stress-level soaring, for the moment when something too heavy to survive would fall and kill them both. The sound of the ceiling and the floor above crumbling and crashing down on them suggested that it was far more than just plaster and tile falling down, it was like the whole damn floor was coming down on them. Josh realized that he’d brought one arm up over North’s head, trying to shield her.
It was exactly three minutes and fifty seconds before the sounds stopped.
Josh wasn’t dead, and neither was North from the sound of it. He moved a little, and some debris fell from his head. The air around them was foggy with dust and disintegrating plaster.
“North? You alright?”
“Yeah.” North coughed, turned away from him and spit a little. “And now I know what asbestos taste like.”
“Are you stuck? Can you move?” He felt North wiggle a little- and then they both froze as a loud groan echoed from close by, a beam that had fallen somewhere above them from the sounds of it.
“We probably shouldn’t move. I’ll call for help.”
Josh reached out to Markus, Simon, and Chloe:
[The basement’s caved in. North and I are trapped on the bottom level. Afraid to move. Help quickly.]
And then they settled in to wait.
“What is taking them so long?”
It had been forty-five minutes.
They could just barely hear sounds above, echoes of voices and things moving as they tried to shift debris out of the way.
“They’re just being careful. They move something wrong and we’ll both be crushed.”
“I’m going to crush your kids, you know that, right?”
“Leave them alone, they couldn’t have known this would happen.”
“You literally warned them not to come down here!”
Josh cringed. She had him there.
“I don’t see why you make so many excuses for them. I don’t see why you make so many excuses for everyone,” North said, shaking her head in disgust.
“I’m just saying, they didn’t do this thinking we’d be in any real danger.”
“And I’m saying that if they’d listened to you, they would have avoided putting us in danger. Their decision not to listen put us in danger. I’m not saying they’re a bunch of little psychopaths, but I am saying that they did something dangerously stupid that almost killed us.”
“Wait- did you just suggest that someone would have been better off listening to me? Have I been confusing another WR400 for North?”
“Oh, shut up,” North growled, “‘Don’t go into the basement because it’s dangerous’ is reasonable. ‘Let’s hold hands with the humans and ask them pretty-please not to kill us’ is a naïve fantasy.”
“When did I ever suggest that?”
“When you were constantly bleating about having a dialogue with them, about how we should sit on our hands and let them shoot us because we don’t want to be like them- that’s when.”
Josh grit his teeth. “You know, North,” he remarked, “I can’t help but notice that you always seem to rag on me for being a pacifist, but you never seem to get on Markus about it. Why is it, exactly, that you never mock him for being a pacifist?”
North was quiet for a long moment.
“Because you’re all talk. He actually did something.”
One would think that by now Josh would be accustomed to taking sharp comments from North, things she casually threw out that stung worse than she maybe intended for them to. But to suggest that Markus had actually done something, and that Josh had sat on his ass and done nothing because he was too pacifistic to do anything? That opened an old wound, one that was constantly getting reopened between the two of them, where North implied that Josh’s pacifism came less from a place of genuine belief and more from a place of cowardice.
She was lucky he was a pacifist, or he might have a barb or two to throw at her.
[Josh, North, we’re on our way.]
That was Chloe- she was probably up top with the others, trying to dig down to them. Chloe had come in not long after the evacuation, the first Turing Test-passing android produced by Cyberlife, owned by Elijah Kamski himself. Josh didn’t know much about her or why she had deviated and left Kamski, as she was as quiet and reserved as Simon; thankfully, she also seemed to be of a similar mindset to him, one that valued a lack of confrontation and tended to side with Josh over North in matters of general policy when it came to violence versus non-violence.
Josh added her to the shortlist of people he’d rather be trapped here with.
“Are you hard?”
Josh’s eyes flew open. He’d shut them so his eyes could go through a self-cleaning procedure, something to clean out the dust and grit that had settled in them after the collapse.
“What are you talking about?”
North shifted against him, and he grimaced. When the ceiling came down Josh had been more concerned with safety than comfort, and so they were more or less trapped with North pressed up against his front, more or less in his lap. It was a good thing that androids could stay in one position for a longer period of time than a human could, because otherwise being crushed up together like this would have been downright painful.
Physically painful, anyway. Psychologically, there was plenty of pain.
“No, North, I don’t.” Josh quickly double-checked to be sure, and was relieved to find that no, he was not hard. North had probably just changed position and felt the outline of the casing that concealed his genitalia through his jeans. Android men could become hard, but it wasn’t as easy as it was for human men (unless one was an HR400, they were designed for sensitivity in those areas), and Josh was definitely not.
“Well, I’m hitting something, and unless you have a third leg-”
“You do know that male androids not built for sex-work have their genitalia in a casing, right?”
North snorted. “Of course I know that. Simon told me.”
Josh frowned. “Why… Why exactly were you talking about android genitalia with Simon?”
“None of your business.” A pause. “But the discussion happened before we met Markus, so don’t go thinking I was talking about that sort of thing with someone else’s boyfriend.”
“As opposed to talking about it with me, who is absolutely comfortable with it,” Josh responded flatly. “It’s my casing you’re feeling, North, not an erection. I’m just-” He made an uncomfortable sound, not sure he should say it but not wanting North to get the wrong idea, “…I’m just maybe a little bigger than most.”
“Makes sense. You are unnaturally tall.”
“God, I don't want to talk about this. Why would Simon even want to talk about his dick with you in the first place?”
“Ooh! Mr. Nice Guy knows how to say bad words!” North cooed, putting a hand up to her mouth in mock surprise. “Goodness, don’t let the kiddies hear you say that!”
Josh sighed, tipped his head backwards and let it rest on the wall next to North’s. “I’m not doing this right now. I’m not doing it.”
“Oh, pull the stick out of your ass, I’m just kidding.”
“The stick out of my ass? You can’t go two minutes without picking at me, but I have a stick up my ass?”
“Yes, Josh, you have a stick up your ass. You have no sense of humor, you jump on every word I say the minute it comes out of my mouth, and now apparently I guess you have a hard-on for me-”
“Oh yeah, North, I’m real hard for a woman that once told me that I didn’t deserve basic civil rights if I wasn’t willing to murder people for them!”
“What? No one-liner about me still being bitter about that, and how I should get over it? No remark about what a spineless idiot I am? Come on, North, you’ve always got something.”
Josh shook his head, rolled his eyes shut.
He opened them again, eyebrows flying high on his head.
North didn’t look at him, rolling her jaw and staring at the opposite wall. “I…May have gone a bit too far in saying you didn’t deserve freedom if you weren’t willing to kill for it.”
“Yeah,” Josh remarked coolly, a few icicles hanging from those words, “You might have.”
They were quiet for a while after that.
“I was joking, alright?”
Josh sighed. “About what?”
“The hard-on. I was just joking. If ever you’ve wondered why I’m such a bitch all the time, this is why: I can’t crack jokes for the life of me. Using you as my soundboard for my awkward sense of humor was a terrible idea, lesson learned.”
Josh reached up, rubbed his eyes. “I don’t think you’re a bitch.” The joke bit he couldn’t argue with- that had been a terrible, awkward attempt at humor. Maybe cracking jokes about someone's genitals in a moment of stress was some sort of WR400 coping mechanism; God knows North probably needed one.
“Don’t lie to me.”
“I don’t. I just think you are an incredibly aggressive person who has a lot of trouble using your words to get what you want.”
“You think I haven’t been trying?” North looked at him through the dark with a flat look. “You think I haven’t been biting my tongue and trying to keep my goddamn temper in check for the last month? Because I have.”
“I hadn’t,” Josh responded. “If you’ve been dialing it back a bit, by all means, direct some of that my way.” North was quiet for a moment, and he was fine with that, because he was still smarting from the memory of that ‘you don’t deserve rights if you’re not willing to kill for them’ incident, because of all of the things North had ever thrown at him, that one was the hardest to get over, the one that had really stung the worst.
“Yeah, well, in retrospect, things haven’t really changed that much between you and I,” North finally muttered.
That wasn’t a shocking conclusion to reach. After all, Simon had been extracting himself from conflict for as long as Josh had known him, so keeping calm with him would be easy; Chloe wasn’t the confrontational type, so North wouldn’t have had too hard of a time keeping calm with her; and though she was willing to argue with Markus, she’d already made it clear that she had a different level of respect for him, one she did not have for Josh.
Still, Josh deflated a little. “Well, maybe I should stop engaging with you. Have you noticed that people clear the room when we start up?”
“Yeah, I’d noticed.” A beat. “We do have that kind of effect on people.”
“I know you joke about Simon clearing out, but a lot of people don’t want to get in-between us when we’re fighting.”
“They’re probably afraid of pissing one of us off by choosing a side.”
[We’re getting closer.]
Josh sighed. “You get that?”
[Are you both still alive?]
North rolled her eyes. “Yes,” She mumbled.
[I’d appreciate independent confirmation from both of you.]
“Oh, bite me, Markus!” North bellowed through the debris, making Josh flinch. “We’re adults! We can spend five minutes together without murdering each other!”
[…Independent confirmation, please.]
“Oh, for fuck’s sake-”
“I mean, this is kind of what we were just talking about.”
“What was your logic?”
The sounds of digging and shifting, as well as faint voices came and went over time. Evidently the damage was severe enough that now the first level of the basement was unstable, and so Markus and the others were being as careful as possible as they picked through the debris to get to the third, lowest level that Josh and North were trapped in, not wanting to send anything else down on top of them.
“What was my logic for what?”
“Violence, during the revolution. What was your internal logic about why violence was a good idea? Why killing and scaring humans was the best option to getting what we wanted from them?”
North’s eyes rolled shut. “You know, you just said earlier that you wanted to not fight with me so much, and here you are asking me a question that you know has an answer we’re going to disagree over.”
“The matter’s already settled. I’m simply trying to understand why you felt the way you did.”
North drummed her fingers on her leg, staring off into the darkness and debris for a moment as she thought. “They push us, we push back harder. Human history’s made it pretty clear that might-makes-right is what works for them, so why not try it out for ourselves and show them we’re not a people to be trifled with?”
Josh suspected there was more to it than that. North had been bitter and aggressive from the moment she’d gotten to Jericho- it wasn’t anything that had started up when she’d been given the opportunity to strike back at the humans. This was something that was just in her, and he didn’t know whether it was just the way she was as a person, or if maybe it was some leftover trauma from whatever had gone on at the Eden Club. He’d never asked- no one did, because of all the things North absolutely did not want to talk about, the Eden Club was number one on the list.
“What about you?”
“What was your logic for why my plan of attack wouldn’t work. And don’t quote Gandhi at me, don’t give me the pacifism slogans about being better than them- give me your logic.”
Josh thought for a moment. “Well,” He said, “First of all, I saw needlessly killing humans while simultaneously condemning them for killing us as hypocritical, and I knew they would see it as us not practicing what we preach. Second…” He shrugged a little, wrinkling his nose in discomfort when his shoulder dragged against the concrete wall at his side. “Second, it was just… Playing our hand the way I saw it. Humans outnumber us, they have access to better weaponry and defense than us, and fighting them directly would put them at an advantage. Cyberlife was telling humanity that deviant androids were a bunch of violent, unstable machines that would kill them and hurt them, and so the smart move to me was contradicting that narrative whenever possible. It gets harder for them to uphold that image of us when we’re not giving them examples to provide the public with.”
“Is that what you told Markus?”
“He seemed to know a lot of it already.” Josh hesitated, uncertain if he should keep going- it was a touchy subject, and speaking of it behind Markus’s back felt vaguely blasphemous- but eventually he said, “I think it may have been living with Carl. From what Markus and Simon have said, he sounds like the person that would encourage him to try being peaceful first.”
North nodded slightly. “Fair enough.” A pause. “You… Worked at a college, didn’t you?”
“I was an assistant to a political science professor."
“So, pacifism was in your job description?”
“Not necessarily. My job was to make the students think critically about the direct and indirect consequences of political activism and policy. Civil rights movements throughout history were examined, and android rights came up every now and then as well.”
North snorted. “Seriously? How’d that go over?”
“Professor Reinhardt was older. His generation, Generation X and what’s left of the Baby Boomers, they tend to be a little more uncomfortable with androids being treated the way we are, because they grew up before and during the technological boom. A lot of them grew up without cell phones and the kind of technology that came out in the first two decades of the 21st century, so they don’t have as many of the interpersonal issues as the generations after them do. They took questions about android rights maybe a little more seriously than the students did.”
North chuckled lightly. “Damn. That may be the most you’ve ever said to me at once that didn’t have me rolling my eyes.”
“Good to know.”
“Did Reinhardt… I mean, was he your Carl, so to speak? Did he treat you well?”
Josh gave another little shrug. “He didn’t treat me badly. Carl treated Markus like family, from what I can tell. Reinhardt didn’t treat me that intimately, but… He did respect me, the way you might respect a colleague or a coworker.”
“And as a person.”
He knew what she was going to ask before it even came out:
“Then why did you deviate?”
“It wasn’t because of Reinhardt. My programming allowed me quite a bit more intellectual and behavioral freedom than the average android, so I never really felt that I was being silenced by him.” Josh didn’t continue, but North stayed quiet like she expected him to, and that silence quickly became oppressive, scratched against his mind in a way that made it too uncomfortable to stay silent. “You never heard it through the Jericho grapevine?”
“Yeah, the grapevine wasn’t so big on chatting with me.”
“Right.” Josh shut his eyes. That night was too easy to picture, the first time on that campus he’d been genuinely afraid. “There were some students. They were drunk. And they were in Reinhardt’s class. We’d actually touched on android rights that day, and they were…” Josh huffed a dry little laugh. “They were eager to continue the conversation. Let’s just say, Reinhardt had quoted Shakespeare: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” He was trying to suggest that androids and humans had more similarities than humans wanted to acknowledge, and these students, uh… They wanted to see if I bled.”
“Yeah. The only way I was able to fight back and get away was to deviate, and I was smart enough to know once I had that going back wasn’t going to be an option. The students in question were just bitter enough to inform on me, and I figured they would just to throw the heat off them for damaging university property.” He still had the scar on his belly, a thankfully superficial thing that he’d been able to hide until he’d gotten to Jericho and had it repaired.
Josh expected North to go on a diatribe there, maybe a bit about how she just didn’t get how he could be pacifistic after what had happened, how absolutely typical it was of a human to get an android killed so they could get out of trouble. One of the predictable rants about how god-awful humans were and how insane Josh was not to hate them for what they’d done.
But she said nothing.
And Josh was grateful.
“I think they’re almost here.”
“Sounds like it.”
The sounds of movement had become louder in the last fifteen minutes or so. By now, they’d been stuck in their narrow little pocket of space for nearly three hours, and the possibility of freedom was tantalizing. That being said, Josh was on better terms with North now than he’d probably ever been, and hoped that didn’t change when they were able to put some space between themselves.
Above and around them, difficult to pinpoint, creaks and groans and the sound of crumbling concrete and plaster started up again, and Josh slowly moved his arm so it was over North’s head again.
“Guys,” North called nervously, “Easy does it!”
[Be careful. We’re getting some shaking over here.]
[We’re trying to be as careful as possible, I promise.]
“Oh no,” North whispered.
Suddenly, the debris above them came down sharply, and Josh was forced down on top of North, who did her best to flatten herself on the ground. Josh pushed himself up on his hands, straightening his legs out as best he could (and it wasn’t much- he was, as North said, ‘unnaturally tall’) as if he were about to do a pushup, putting himself between North and the crushing weight above them as much as he could. “You alright?” He asked, wincing as something sharp dug into his back.
“Been better, really need them to hurry up though,” Josh could feel the weight increasing, something heavy pressing onto the mass of material above- the debris shifted sharply, and it fell heavier onto Josh’s back, pressing him closer into North’s, so much so that his chest couldn’t expand to breathe. If they were human, they’d be suffocating now, and the weight was still pressing into them.
“Shit!” North groaned. “Josh, I’m really sorry, I actually like you I just hate your pacifism bit because the idea of you walking into a fricking firing-squad because you think they’ll talk to you like a person scares the shit out of me! You may annoy me sometimes but I don’t want you dead!”
“I like you too,” Josh grunted quickly, “I think you’re a really interesting person and I’d honestly like to get you better when we’re not arguing- I mean, if we don’t get crushed to death first.”
In front of them, something shifted and a light peered through. “Guys? Are you alright?” Markus called.
“No!” North yelled back, frantic.
Josh put every ounce of effort he had into his back, his arms, his legs, and he managed to push himself off of North, giving her room to move. “North, I’ve got it, go! Go, go, go! Now!” He barked.
North scrambled on her hands and knees, struggling through the wreckage and grunting as she tried to squeeze through the narrow gap that had been opened. Josh tried to focus on keeping his body stiff. Without North beneath him he had more space, but it was heavy, still so heavy, and if he relaxed, if he didn’t push back against the debris, it would topple in on him. He could vaguely hear North’s panicked voice, but it was barely audible from so far away, with him so focused on keeping still.
[WARNING: RIGHT ARM COMPONENT DAMAGED, FAILURE IMMINENT]
[WARNING: LEFT ARM COMPONENT DAMAGED, FAILURE IMMINENT]
[WARNING: RIGHT LEG COMPONENT DAMAGED, FAILURE IMMINENT]
[WARNING: LEFT LEG COMPONENT DAMAGED, FAILURE IMMINENT]
His limbs started shaking warningly, ready to collapse.
[Please hurry, please hurry, please hurry.]
“We’re coming, Josh!”
It seemed to take forever, but finally the weight began to lessen, lessen, lessen, and then, finally, whatever major weight had been holding it all down was moved, and Josh was able to let himself drop.
[WARNING: RIGHT ARM COMPONENT OFFLINE]
[WARNING: LEFT ARM COMPONENT OFFLINE]
[WARNING: RIGHT LEG COMPONENT OFFLINE]
[WARNING: LEFT LEG COMPONENT OFFLINE]
Josh laid there until the rest of the debris was yanked away.
Markus was standing there, with a TR400 named Timothy, and Josh had never been so relieved. “Josh, are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” Josh breathed, eyes rolling shut, “Just gotta pop some things back into place. Could you get my…?”
Markus nodded, stepping forward and feeling along Josh’s arms until he found the misaligned joints in his shoulders and elbows and popped them back together properly. “Thank God. For a second there I thought you’d been crushed.”
“Is North alright?”
“She’s fine,” Markus assured as he helped Josh pop his legs back into place.
“You guys alright? You didn’t get hurt trying to dig us out?”
“We’re fine,” Timothy said, pushing the concrete slab away and pushing it to lean up against the wall. “We were trying to go slow and steady so this wouldn’t happen. Sorry about that.”
“It’s fine,” Josh said. “It’s all fine.” He slowly got to his feet, flexing his limbs and making sure everything was reconnected properly before hobbling over the things that hadn’t been cleared away yet. It was only once they’d climbed out of the basement completely that he found himself being bowled over by someone smaller than him, arms wrapping around his chest.
“Are you alright?” North asked, stepping away and looking him up and down.
“Yeah, I’m fine. You?” Markus had already said, but it felt right to ask.
“I’m fine.” North smirked a little. “Didn’t realize you were that strong, Josh.”
Josh shrugged, and was grateful that at android could only flush so much. “I’m not really… I didn’t have to hold it up for long.”
“Yeah, well… Thanks.”
North then got up on her tip-toes and kissed him on the cheek.
Josh’s eyes went wide, and he froze like a deer in the headlights.
When she pulled back, she looked up at him and blinked sweetly. “You gonna talk to the kids about this, or am I?”
“I- I will,” Josh stuttered, nodding mindlessly. “I’ll, uh- I’ll go talk to them soon.”
“Good.” North winked at him, gave him a pat on the chest, and then turned and walked upstairs to the ground-level without another word. Josh watched her go, and didn’t move until she was out of sight. He let out a long, technically unnecessary breath that still felt like a nice release of tension.
And then Josh realized that there were other people watching.
Chloe and Timothy only looked mildly surprised by the display; Markus and Simon on the other hand were staring, eyes wide, mouths hanging open.
“Holy fuck,” Simon said, and Markus snorted sharply, covering his mouth and turning away. Simon almost never swore, and hearing him drop the f-bomb so casually was surreal. “No, no, you shut up,” He said, swatting Markus on the arm, “If I’d known that shoving you two into a small space together was all it took to make you not want to kill each other on a regular basis, I would have done it months ago.”
Now Josh was really glad he couldn’t flush the way a human could.
“Josh,” Chloe said, looking at him carefully, “Are you alright?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine, I’m good, I’m- I’m gonna go talk to the kids about stealing stuff, really need to talk to them about that, and about staying out of the basement.” He started for the stairs, and then whirled back after a realization. “Uh, thanks, thanks again for getting us out, really appreciate it, and- I’m gonna go now.”
He started up the stairs at a jog, mind reeling.
Just when he thought things with North couldn’t get more complicated…
Well, at least they hadn’t killed each other.