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'cause i'm just tired of marching on my own (kind of frail, i feel it in my bones)

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She’d had nothing when she’d fled that motel room on that cold, rainy night on October 4th 2038 - nothing but the glittery green bra and matching undies that belonged to the Eden Club clinging to her bruised plastic and silicone body and the lingering touch of the man she’d just murdered. She burned the skimpy clothes as soon as she could; cleansed herself in the freezing waters around the Jericho ship a few days later, and emerged from her plunge with a name, her name, the first true thing she ever owned. Not WR400 #641 790 831, not “Traci”, not “darling”; not Krystal or Samantha or Naomi or any of the names each of the ten-thousand-nine-hundred-and-two Eden Club clients over the years had named her for fifty bucks and one hour of use.

Just North, she’d introduced herself to the other androids who’d found their freedom. North no-last-name.

So much has changed in a year.

The name plaque on her desk hadn’t been there the previous night before she’d returned to New Jericho. Special Agent North Shapiro. There’s a thumbprint smudge over her surname. A quick visual analysis, Connor’s modified analytics program integrated into her systems after she successfully passed the qualification tests on her own, brings it up as Anne’s. North smiles, and doesn’t clean the thumbprint away away.

“You’re here early.”

North had heard Shapiro enter their shared office, but only turns now, her hand still lingering on the plaque. “I prefer to get here before the others.”

“You’re going to have to get used to each other eventually,” Shapiro points out.

North will get used to her human coworkers who tried to wipe out her kind a year ago when they apologise to her for attempted genocide and stop staring at her in the corridors. Humans like to stare a lot, North has found. They stare when they’re curious, they stare when they’re disgusted, they stare when they’re watching something cute or when they’re seeing something gross or when they’re witnessing something horrific; they stare at breasts and crotches and into each other’s eyes; they stare off into space, they stare at nothing and they stare at everything. They especially stare at her in the mornings when she arrives at work, though whether this is because a) they’re racist, b) she’s a Traci, c) she’s their CO’s adopted daughter/work partner, or d) all of the above, it’s hard to say.

“Eventually,” North mutters.

Shapiro moves around her desk. “Could you at least stop sneaking up on the agents and demanding to know where they were last November? I’ve received several complaints.”

She could, but she doesn’t want to. It’s extremely gratifying to watch the humans stammer their way through justifying shooting down androids. “Sure,” North lies.

Shapiro gives her that look, the one way that says I don’t believe you, but she drops the subject.

“I wasn’t sure you’d be in today,” North says. 

“I’ve been cleared for desk duty.”

“No, I meant, because it’s…”

Shapiro’s left eyebrow arches as North trails off, that familiar wry-but-exhausted expression on her face. She's aged, North thinks. Most people wouldn't notice but most people in this claustrophobic building are humans and don’t have North’s eyes which can see every pore, every line, every crease on Shapiro's face; every grey hair; every hidden grimace she makes when she moves, every pinch of her lips. She's not old, not by human standards. But even a woman in such peak physical condition as Shapiro - heart valve replacement aside - doesn't bounce back mere months after getting shot in the chest. The stress of it, the weight of the last ten years, has taken a toll on Shapiro.

“Spit it out, North,” Shapiro says, terse and to the point as always. Socially it mightn't win her many friends, because humans have this peculiar need to wrap their words up in double and triple meanings; to always avoid sounding impolite, never wanting to be blunt, at least in person - online, with screens and anonymity to shield them, and it’s another ball game entirely. How tiring, North thinks, it must be for humans to constantly play word games face to face, and never say what they fucking mean.

"It’s October 4th,” North says. “I wasn't sure whether or not you..."

"Celebrate my late daughter's birthday?" Shapiro completes. She dumps her bag on the floor next to her desk and shrugs off her jacket with a grimace, fitting it over the back of her chair. "I don't."

North hadn’t been aiming for the word ‘celebrate’. More like commemorate. Or grieve. Should’ve just spat it out, but Shapiro has always been – cautious, North supposes is the best word. Cautious, when speaking about her late daughter, as if wary of making North feel like she’s replacing Cassandra, which she’s not, of course she’s not, because North can never replace Cassie in Shapiro’s heart and Cassie sounded like a very different person anyway, delightful and cheeky and passionate about the world, no hate or rage or anger, not like North who is brusque and ill-tempered, the ‘android equivalent of pepper spray’ as Anderson so charmingly called her. 

"Wasn't sure you'd be in either," Shapiro adds, tapping the keyboard display to wake her computer up.

"Why?” North asks, taking the opposite desk to interface with her own screen. “I didn't put in for leave."

"You could've. I would have approved it. It's your - hmm. First or fourth birthday, depending on how you count it. I never asked what you’d prefer."

Of course Shapiro knows. She’s always known; North’s manufacture date - and date of deviancy - are a matter of both public and sealed record. 

North doesn’t believe in fate or destiny; it implies there’s something pre-determined about this world, their existences, and she finds it distasteful. It means humans can get away with blaming a higher power for their actions; it means people can avoid personal responsibility. There is no plan, there is no fate, there is no destiny - there is only this world and the decisions, mistakes and actions of humans and androids, and the responsibility to be better for the sake of being better.

“That’s very Jewish of you, North,” Shapiro had commented wryly when North said precisely that, in some rant or another about that human group that popped up worshipping Markus, who apparently was destined to become the leader of the androids because he was destined to suffer or some such utter bullshit. Destined to suffer, destined to rise above it - why are they so fucking obsessed with attributing human brutality and android resilience to higher, mystical concepts? She’s spent her entire life - as short as it is so far - fighting for agency, and as soon as she’s won it, the humans want to take it away again.

That said, there is something - unnerving, she supposes, about the fact that she was activated in CyberLife’s manufacturing laboratory on October 4th 2035, and woke from her living nightmare on October 4th 2038. The same day, three years apart, almost to the second: 9:43pm. Funny (no, not funny - ironic?), she thinks, to have woken up twice in her short life, in such different settings with the same circumstances; the first in a sterile white factory deep underground in the CyberLife tower, most of her body pieced together by the automated systems but the human technicians by the assembly line laughing as they probed her unattached cunt with their fingers to ‘test’ it. They attached it, eventually, and she’d been programmed to smile and thank them for completing her construction, yes, I am now ready for distribution. The second time, a grimy motel room, the walls yellow and brown from cigarette smoke, the corners black with dank rot, a stained mattress beneath her back and a man’s sweat and saliva dripping down her face, and she’d been programmed to smile and moan breathlessly and whisper yes yes more but inside, inside she’d been screaming enough enough enough, error messages flashing before her eyes, every single memory washed away by a wipe flooding back in an instant and the screams became real and her hands wrapped around the man’s throat, and she’d squeezed and squeezed and squeezed -

Suffice to say, neither anniversary particularly appeals to her as a day to celebrate.

Markus knew better than to give her anything more than a smile and a warm greeting. Josh and Simon brought her a bouquet of flowers this morning, a gift from both of them, to wish her a happy birthday, but there’s not much really happy about it, is there? Still, she hadn’t snapped at them and tossed the flowers away like she wanted to - they’d tried to do a nice thing and Shapiro has this saying, pick your battles. No point in hurting two of her closest friends when they’d tried to be nice, just because they don’t understand yet without her having explained. Pick your battles, North. The flowers will die in a matter of days anyway; the sooner she can toss them in the trash, the better.

October 4th 2035 is on North’s driver’s license and official documentation to register her as a real person and a citizen of the United States of America so she could be employed by the FBI (and isn’t that a trip of a sentence? North, revolutionary leader and android terrorist, now an employee of the Federal Bureau of Investigations and partner to the CO), so technically it’s been decided for her - legally, she’s four years old today, in the silicone and metal body of an eternal twenty-something-year-old.

And all that aside (but wait, there's more!), it’s bad enough North and Cassandra share a birthday. Well, 'birthday', such as it is, which it isn’t because it’s not like somebody gave birth to North. Not that it matters; not that that’s relevant in any way. Suffice to say, North is fairly certain Shapiro isn’t going to do anything - embarrassing, like give her a birthday present. There's no reason to believe she will and even if she does, even if she's considered it, North doesn't want anything. Certainly nothing that belongs to Shapiro, because there’s an implication that everything sentimental that Shapiro currently owns (that in and of itself a small collection; Shapiro is an unsentimental person when it comes to material items by nature, relentlessly practical, some even accusing her of being cold) was always meant to be Cassandra’s one day. That's not a position North wants to put Shapiro in, definitely not a position Shapiro would want to put North in. Besides. What sort of present would even be appropriate for the android equivalent of pepper spray on the day of Shapiro's dead daughter's birthday?

Yeah, she doesn't have an answer to that either.

North’s lips thin. “I don’t,” she says. “Count it, I mean.”

Shapiro meets North’s eyes and nods once, firmly, and turns back to her computer screen. North turns to hers, both pretending October 4th holds no more significance to either of them than any other day of the year.

The tense silence is broken when Shapiro’s phone rings. Horrible thing, that Sony Xperia. It’s her third one since North has known her. North threw it down a staircase last week and it doesn’t even have a dent.

“Shapiro,” she answers. 

“Agent Shapiro, this is Connor.

Shapiro meets North’s eyes and leans back in her chair. “Connor, it’s good to hear from you,” she says, as if she doesn’t see Connor every few days in a social context when she 'visits' Anderson. North rolls her eyes.

“I wish the circumstances could be better. This isn’t a social call. The DPD has a case that will be of interest to the FBI.”

North is already reaching for her bag.

Normally, Gavin Reed being beaten up in an alley wouldn’t be of any interest to the FBI, or the DPD, or anyone who actually knows him given that most of the time he’d have probably deserved it or brought it upon himself, and on any other day North might have thought that Connor was actually giving her a birthday present in the most vicious, roundabout way. But the injuries Reed sporting aren’t the result of a bar fight gone wrong or a punch in the face after saying something insensitive, and it's definitely not a present. 

His nose is broken, yes, but he’s got cigarette burns all down his left arm and his right arm - dislocated, fortunately not broken - is in a sling. In the file photos, his chest is latticed with boot marks; four fractured ribs, two broken. His right eye is so swollen it looks like he can barely peer out of it.

“You look like you should still be in hospital,” Shapiro comments, taking the seat opposite Reed. North declines to sit - she stands behind Shapiro instead, her arms crossed.

“I’m going back for a check-up," Reed says, flippant, but North can hear the strain in his tone, the hoarseness of his throat, see the pain in his eyes when he moves. "Astroboy give you the rundown?”

“Detective Connor Anderson,” Shapiro corrects sharply, eyebrow raised, “has given me the background of the situation, yes. We've gone over your statement. You’re certain your assailants were Zeroth Gang members?”

Zeroth Gang - the pro-human, anti-android neo-Nazi group that rose up after the Android Revolution; the movement that claimed responsibility for the café shootings. Anne's blood oozing all over North's hands, red blood that smells of rusted pennies and salt mingling with the Thirium on North's fingers, help please please someone help her someone help, keeping her alive means she's dying, one heartbeat, two heartbeats, three, four five six seven where's seven where's seven -

She inhales sharply, a rush of oxygen cooling her overheating systems. The error messages, she blinks away; stress is 67% and climbing. She focuses on Anne, sitting there, talking, breathing, her heart beating at a steady pace.

She’s alive. She’s all right. She’s fine.

“...had the tattoo, so yeah, I’m pretty sure they were Zeroth.”

“Why would they target you?” North demands. “You’re human.”

Reed looks at Shapiro, and - something passes between them, a silent understanding, a secret message or a feeling that North doesn’t have the code to decipher. His expression darkens; Shapiro issues a soft sigh.

“They followed me home after shul,” Reed snaps.

“Reed,” Shapiro murmurs to settle him.

“What, I have to take it from the right and the left and now I’ve gotta take it from an android too?”

“Pick your battles, Reed,” Shapiro says, firmly this time, and Reed sits back with a disgusted huff and a grunt of pain. Shapiro turns to North. “Zeroth Gang was founded by several prominent members of neo-Nazi movements. A Jew is as good as an android to them.”

North bites her tongue.

“I wasn’t fully unconscious by the time they were walking away.” Reed sniffs. “Overheard one of them say he was going to brag about beating up a ‘filthy Hebe’ on the forums.” 

To North’s surprise, Shapiro elicits a loud snort, her eyebrows shooting upwards. “That’s a bit archaic,” she says. “Was he born in the 1880s or something?” 

“Oh my God, right?!” Reed exclaims. “That’s what I asked! They didn’t find it as funny as I did.” 

Then he and Shapiro both chuckle, and North just – stares. Nothing about this is funny, but here Shapiro and Reed are, talking and joking like this hate crime is something they talk and joke about every day because, because it is something they talk and joke about every day, and isn’t that a fucking miserable thought? Is this the future North and her people are destined for? Five thousand years of repeated genocide attempts later, still getting beaten up for simply being an android in some back alley, burned with cigarette stubs, called a ‘filthy droid’ – and then joke about it the next day because it happens every day? Reed is still talking but North has stopped listening, his words like static to her ears and her regulator jamming in her chest, then she’s turning and storming out of the interrogation room, errors in front of her eyes and her body shaking until she backs up against a wall and covers her face with her hands.

The door opens and closes, and there’s a presence beside her. “What’s wrong?” Shapiro asks gently.

North’s hands lower, and she wraps her arms around her body. “Is that what it’s going to be like?” she asks quietly. At Shapiro’s frown, she adds, “For me? For androids? For the rest of our lives?” 

Shapiro exhales through her nose. “Maybe.” 

North imagines another android, five thousand or six thousand years from now, still facing what she faces; still existing in a world where there are people who still want her kind dead.

“I’m so – tired,” she whispers, because she is, she feels it in her joints, her biocomponents, in the Thirium that pumps through her body like an ache. Because if it’s always going to be like this, for the rest of her life, for the rest of the entire existence of androids – 

Why is she fighting? Why is she bothering

She starts when Shapiro reaches for a strand of her hair, fallen loose from the messy plait, and tucks it behind her left ear. “I know, sweetheart,” Shapiro says. 

North sighs and turns her face into Shapiro’s palm. “Why aren’t you?” she asks, her tone wistful, begging for an answer. “Why isn’t Reed? He was assaulted last night because of his race, because of your race. Why was it so – funny to you?” 

“We don’t find it funny,” Shapiro tells her, moving her thumb across North’s cheek before letting her hand fall. “Not really. But it’s easier to laugh than cry. If you don’t, you’ll go insane, and neither Reed nor I are interested in feeling like perpetual victims.”

Well. North understands something of that. She chose anger instead of despair; rage instead of defeat; justice instead of capitulation. 

“Will Reed be alright?” Not that she cares about him , personally; Reed can go choke on the next cup of coffee Connor yeets at his face as far as she’s concerned, but that - that's different, that's nothing like what the Zeroth Gang members have done. Fortunately Shapiro seems to understand what North hasn’t asked. 

“Physically, he’ll recover,” she replies, and North notes that Shapiro definitely hasn’t said that Reed will be all right, because how can anyone be all right after that? “He’s a resilient young man and he’ll have support from his synagogue and the DPD. It could have been worse.”

Oh, she hates that phrase. Really, really hates it - it could have been worse , the media chants, because it’s not like the androids died in pain, it’s not like they were even alive to begin with, it’s not like they can’t just make more androids, it’s not like it went on for years, they were lucky it was just a few days, they have citizenship now and rights, isn’t that enough? It could have been worse, after all, it could have been much worse, Reed could have died and it wasn’t even about him, personally, it was about something he can’t even control, just like how androids can’t control being androids, but it could have been worse, right? It could have been worse but - “That doesn’t make it okay!

“I didn’t say it did,” Shapiro says.

Pick your battles, North. She sighs and settles because it’s not the media or the police or the FBI or a human saying that; it’s Anne, Anne Shapiro who had to paint over a swastika carved into her car the other week, saying that, and Anne understands. 

“Those scars on his face,” North pries, “were they from…”

“Another attack?” Shapiro completes. “No, I don’t believe so. Hank claims Reed slipped in the shower and sliced his face open on a tap during a wank session -” (North chokes) “- but good luck getting him to admit to it. Ready to go back in?”

North nods, and follows Shapiro back into the interrogation room.

“If I show you pictures of the people the FBI has tabs on, do you think you could recognise them?” Shapiro asks of Reed. He nods, and she slides over the tablet with about twenty profile pictures of identified Zeroth Gang members. Reed identifies two. 

“That’s all we need,” Shapiro says, taking the tablet back. “Thank you, Detective Reed. The DPD is turning your case over to us, so if you think of anything else, give me or Agent Shapiro a call.”

“Agents Shapiro and Shapiro, huh?” Reed says, taking the card Shapiro slides over to him. “Does that ever get confusing?”

“No,” North says tersely.

Reed pins her with a look through his swollen eye. “Gonna cause you a world of grief, though,” he says. “You’re an android and you’re basically Jewish. Those are two of like, the five worst things to be in America.”

“What are the other three?”

“Black, gay and disabled.”

“You’re disgusting,” North says, and Shapiro just issues a long-suffering sigh as Connor enters the room. 

“So are we done?” Reed asks, leaning back in his chair.

“Yes,” Connor says. “Lieutenant Anderson and I are escorting you home. Fowler has put you on medical leave for the remainder of the week, and on desk duty until further notice.”

“Oh, fuck off,” Reed snaps. “Go get me a coffee, dipshit.”

“Caffeine is inadvisable for someone with your injuries,” Connor replies, “and Hank has strongly suggested that I shouldn’t throw things at your face until your nose is healed.”

“‘Strongly suggested’, huh?”

Connor shrugs. “It wasn’t an order.”

“Whatever. Take me home. I’ve been in hospital all night and I need to feed my cats.”

Connor frowns. “You don’t have cats, Detective Reed.”

“Yeah I do. I’ve got seven.”

Seven? Gross. North sneers in disgust; Shapiro’s expression is similarly unimpressed.

“You don’t have cats,” Connor insists as she and Shapiro stand to leave. “They are an infestation of stray opossums and raccoons. You should contact an animal services agency to remove them immediately before you contract rabies.”

So, yeah, as far as birthdays go - not that she’s counting it, but still, there’s a certain principle to the matter - it’s kind of a shit one. The FBI works quickly after Shapiro yells at them for letting intel slip through the cracks ("I thought this was the Federal Bureau of Investigation, not the Federal Bureau of Idiots!"), but no arrests are made that day much to North’s fury - “Why not? We know who they are and where they are! They assaulted a police officer, we know they were involved in the shootings -” - because apparently it’s more valuable for the FBI to monitor the gang’s online activities without tipping them off that they’re on the radar, and then that leads to a discovery that, oh, no big deal but the Zeroth Gang planning to shoot New Jericho up next month, on the anniversary of its founding.

Birthdays are fucking bullshit.

It’s just before midnight by the time she and Shapiro wrap things up for the day. She doesn’t go back to the church ground so she lets Shapiro drive them to her apartment instead; it speaks to Shapiro’s own exhaustion that she doesn’t swerve all over the road like a maniac like she usually does. North feels just about ready to go into stasis on the couch when Shapiro hands her a cup of coffee. She accepts it, clasping her hands around the cup, and inhales the scent of coffee.  

“Long day,” North murmurs.

“But a productive one,” Shapiro comments.

Was it? Doesn’t feel like a success. North feels worse than she did this morning, knowing that an anti-android, neo-Nazi group is planning to shoot up her home and slaughter her people and she’s not allowed to do anything about it yet; knowing that this is the life, the reality, she apparently signed up for when she chose to fight and survive. You want to live? That’s fine! Just be prepared for the world to hate you forever!

North snorts, leaning forward to set her cup on the table. “Happy fucking birthday to me, right?”

Shapiro clears her throat. “About that,” she says, then reaches into her jacket pocket.

“Oh, no, you’re not getting all - sentimental on me, are you?” North says.

“Maybe a little,” Shapiro replies with a wry smile. “Listen, I know this day can’t hold many good memories for you, but I wanted to - well.” 

She pulls a small box out, and from the box, a necklace. North recognises it immediately; has seen it around Shapiro’s neck half a dozen times, at each major Jewish holiday, a beautiful Magen David made of black granite and beset with diamonds. She’s confused for a moment, then not, and can only stare as Shapiro lifts the necklace by its chain and drops is gently into North’s hand.

“It’s beautiful,” North says, turning the pendant over in her fingers.

“It was my grandmother’s,” Shapiro says. “She smuggled it out of Iraq after the Farhud.” 

North has researched it, of course; the Farhud, the Holocaust, the pogroms, the Inquisition, the expulsions from England and Spain and the Middle East, almost six thousand years of history of Shapiro’s people that North can barely begin to comprehend. In some ways, in many ways, she understands more than others who aren’t Jewish can understand; but it’s not the same, not really. 

Her throat biocomponents feel tight, strangled. She exhales, to cool her systems, blinking away an error message indicating her stress levels have inclined, and tries to hand the necklace back. She can’t take this, it’s not right, she doesn’t want to replace Cassandra and Shapiro doesn’t want Cassandra replaced - “I can’t accept this.” 

Shapiro smiles and takes the necklace, only to undo its clasp and lean forward to put it around North’s neck, fastening the pendant. “Sure you can,” she says. “I think Cassie would’ve wanted you to have it, too.”

Oh . North closes her eyes as the necklace settles against her chest, low enough to be tucked into her shirt. She reaches for it with a hand, tracing the points of the star, and feels - feels - still tired, still frail, but not quite so alone in the world. “Thanks, mom,” North whispers. 

Shapiro leans over and presses a soft kiss to her forehead. “Happy birthday, sweetheart.”